Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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Pharisee to sinner

Saul of Tarsus was a devout man, zealous in the service of God. He was a pharisee, taught by Rabban Gamaliel, grandson of Hillel the Elder and the most renowned Jewish teacher of his day. Saul scrupulously obeyed the teaching that he received and counted himself to be faultless in keeping the Jewish laws.

His desire to serve God filled him with zeal to eradicate all aberrant forms of the Jewish religion, especially the one that was based on the life and teachings of a certain Jesus of Nazareth. He was still a young man when he witnessed with approval the stoning of Stephen, but soon made a name for himself as the most ferocious enemy and persecutor of the followers of Jesus. His fame extended far beyond Jerusalem, even to Damascus in Syria.

As Saul saw firsthand how threats and persecutions could not make the followers of Jesus deny their loyalty to Him, his conscience must have begun to question whether his zeal was truly from God. When he met Jesus in a supernatural encounter on the road to Damascus, Jesus told him “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.” In that moment Saul knew that his zeal had been misguided, that he had been fighting against God, not for Him. Addressing Jesus as Lord, he asked “What wilt thou have me to do?”

The answer to that question transformed Saul, the self-righteous Pharisee into Paul, the sinner and apostle of Jesus Christ. Later, he would say that all the things that he had counted on as righteousness while a pharisee were nothing but dung.

Now he saw himself in the light of day: “ For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing” (Romans 7:18). “ This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief” (1 Timothy 1:15).

Paul the apostle carried this awareness of his sinfulness the rest of his life. He had nothing more to boast of but the grace of God. And that was enough.

Is it enough for Christians today? We have been given much, but let us remember who gave it and why we needed to have it given. We cannot claim any credit for our heritage, the things we have been taught, the way we live. It is all a gift from God. As soon as we think we have some merit of our own, an odour of dung clings to us and people try to keep a certain distance upwind.

Silence like cancer

The fire, the wind, the earthquake beat upon the mountain like hammer blows. Elijah knew God did not speak like that. After all was silent, he heard a gentle voice. It was so soft that he could not discern the words; he went to the mouth of the cave to hear better. God spoke to him in a gentle tone, but did not beat around the bush. His first words were: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Jesus often wrapped the truth in a story. His purpose was not to conceal the truth, but to prompt the listeners to search for the meaning, and to make it stick. We should not take the example of Jesus as an excuse to wrap the truth in obscure words which conceal rather than reveal. No one should not have to guess what we are trying to say.

When a Pharisee asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbour?”, Jesus responded with the story we call “the good Samaritan.” The Pharisee nodded as Jesus told of the priests who had passed by without helping. That was how he saw the priests. He no doubt expected Jesus to tell how a Pharisee came along and saved the day.

Jesus shocked him to the depths of his being by making a Samaritan the hero of the story. Jews saw Samaritans as unclean people and avoided them. After telling the story, Jesus asked who had been a neighbour to the man in distress. The Pharisee could not even bring himself to pronounce the word Samaritan, but allowed that the one who helped had been the true neighbour.

Jesus’ final word, “go and do thou likewise,” was telling the Pharisee he needed to be more like the Samaritan in the story. The Pharisee got the parable’s message. We don’t know what he did with that understanding. The gospels say that most Pharisees hated Jesus, but some believed.

Our lives should be a witness of the hope that lies within us. But we cannot just be silent witnesses. If someone asks us a reason of that hope and all we can come up with is “That’s the way our church teaches,” or “That’s what it says somewhere in the Bible,” people are apt to conclude that we don’t know why we do things like we do. Could they be right?

We should be able to offer a clear testimony of the grounds of our faith. Important-sounding words are unnecessary, as is a round-about way of speaking. Simple words from the heart are more apt to touch the hearts of others.

Psalm 15:1-2 —LORD, who shall abide in thy tabernacle? who shall dwell in thy holy hill? He that walketh uprightly, and worketh righteousness, and speaketh the truth [as it is] in his heart.

The words I have inserted in italics appear in the most reliable French translations and I believe are the true meaning. It is not enough to hide the truth in our heart. We need to learn how to express it in words others can understand.

If we think it’s enough to have the truth hidden in our hearts, yet remain silent about it, that silence becomes like a cancer eating away at the truth within us. The world hears the blows of the hammers wielded by multitudes who claim to be proclaiming truth, so many kinds of supposed truth. We can’t compete with the noise, we don’t need a bigger hammer to ensure people hear our message. The truth is best told in a warm, gentle way.

Do we need to learn how to speak the truth? Truth-speaking does not need heavy words or “Christian” fairy tales to support it. If we can wrap it in a story from our own life, or one we have observed, so much the better. Let’s start now, in our homes, with fellow believers, and with those who do not believe.

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