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"Functional Atheist No More!"

Presented on The Lutheran Hour on May 20, 2018
By Rev. Dr. Dale A. Meyer, Guest Speaker
(Q&A Topic:Functional Atheist No More!)
Copyright 2019 Lutheran Hour Ministries

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Text: Acts 2:1-21; John 15:26-27

O Spirit of God, come to us. Help us put aside our mundane thoughts so that You can transform us with the Word of Christ. Come and convict us for relying too often upon ourselves rather than upon Your power at work in us. Come and give to each of us and to Your church an increase in humility so that we do not boast of ourselves or become smug in our faithfulness. Rather, lead us through the holy Word to see our entire being as Your gift, and to know deeply that the blessings of our lives come from our God and Savior alone. As You came upon the disciples that day of Pentecost so long ago, come now in the Word centered on Jesus Christ, that we see our daily lives only in Him. Wrapped up in Christ, may we be witnesses to others of the love He wants all the world to know. O Spirit of God, come and create in us clean hearts, and restore to us the joy of our salvation. Amen.

Church people have a ritual that comes up every spring. The minister or priest says, "Christ is risen," and the congregation responds, "He is risen indeed, alleluia!" Is that true in your life? Is Christ risen a reality in your day-to-day life? Some years ago, a man named Parker Palmer put out a little book. It's titled, Let Your Life Speak. In it, Palmer shares thoughts about Christian leadership. Even though his audience is leaders, what he says applies to us all. Remember my question, is Christ risen a reality in your life? Parker Palmer writes, "A third shadow common among leaders is 'functional atheism,' the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us. This is the unconscious, unexamined conviction that if anything decent is going to happen here, we are the ones who must make it happen-a conviction held even by people who talk a good game about God."

Let me give you two personal examples of functional atheism. Being the president of a seminary, my daily life is filled with plenty of problems, all kinds of problems, to which I have to respond sooner or later. This past Thursday and Friday, our seminary's Board of Regents met. I presented to the Board a balanced budget for the next year, but it wasn't balanced until we made cuts. What shall we cut out of the budget? How shall we be stewards of our resources? "What shall we...", "How shall we..." Is God in the mix? Also, on the Board's agenda these last days was a personnel recommendation. How have you come up with this recommendation? What was your process? And we answer, "We did this," and "We did that." It all becomes "we centered." Like Parker Palmer says, we imagine "we are the ones who must make it happen-a conviction held even by people who talk a good game about God." How about your life? You go to the doctor and she runs tests, gives you the prognosis, and says "Here's what we need to do." Or you look at your bills and wonder, What in the world am I going to do? Have you noticed how many commercials play on your fears that you're not doing enough to prepare for retirement? Or consider relationships. You have a broken relationship and wonder, What can I do to fix this? Maybe you visit a counselor and she tells you to do this or do that. I trust you get my point. You often show yourself a functional atheist. In the last church I served as a pastor, we had an evangelism director, Mr. Ted Preus. Ted liked to say, "God will guide." You and I don't instinctively rely on God to guide us through the challenges and problems of life. There's a basic reason for our functional atheism. It's the fact that you and I don't fear, love, and trust God above all things. Trusting God above all things includes trusting Him more than we trust ourselves. The popular Christian hymn says, "Because He lives, I can face tomorrow." But no, too often you and I try to face the day on our own. We are all functional atheists.

I think the early disciples were functional atheists. Take Peter, for example. Peter could say the right things about Jesus. "You are the Christ," he said, but then Peter immediately fell to relying upon his own will. "Peter took Him (Jesus) aside and began to rebuke Him" (Mark 8:29, 32). Peter talked a good game about Jesus but didn't deeply believe it. Another time was when Jesus was teaching the disciples how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God. Peter bragged on what he had done. "We have left everything to follow You!" (Mark 10:28). Peter relied on his own works rather than on the One who called him. And when Jesus predicted that the disciples would forsake Him, Peter boasted, "Even if all fall away, I will not" (Mark 14:29). But what did Peter do? Before the rooster crowed two times, Peter denied Jesus three times. It wasn't just Peter who turned out to rely upon himself. Jesus predicted, "You will all fall away" and they all did (Mark 14:27). Today, we Christians like to think of ourselves as following those first disciples. That's uncomfortably true. Those first disciples had trouble letting Jesus be the dominating presence and guide in their lives. "God is my co-pilot," but I'm still in charge. That's functional atheism.

Several months ago, the Wall Street Journal carried an article by George Weigel. It's titled "The Easter Effect." Mr. Weigel writes,

There is no accounting for the rise of Christianity without weighing the revolutionary effect on those nobodies of what they called "the Resurrection": their encounter with the one whom they embraced as the Risen Lord, whom they first knew as the itinerant Jewish rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, and who died an agonizing and shameful death on a Roman cross outside Jerusalem. ... that first generation answered the question of why they were Christians with a straightforward answer: because Jesus was raised from the dead.

Jesus Christ rose from the dead, gave His Spirit to those first disciples, and they were functional atheists no more. Let's trace the transformation in the life of Peter. When the women went to the tomb Easter morning, the angel told them, "Go, tell His disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see Him, just as He told you" (Mark 16:7). Later that day, Easter evening, Peter was there when Jesus appeared to the disciples huddled together. "Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your mind? Look at My hands and My feet. It is I Myself!" (Luke 24:38-39). Sometime later, the disciples were back in Galilee and went fishing early in the morning. The Bible says, "Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not recognize that it was Jesus. He called out to them, 'Friends, haven't you any fish?'" No, they said, haven't caught anything.' The stranger on the shore told them to cast their nets on the right side of the boat. A swarm of fish! Then, the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, 'It is the Lord!' As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, 'It is the Lord,' he wrapped his outer garment around him ... and jumped into the water" (John 21). These appearances transformed Peter. Later he wrote, "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In His great mercy He has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead" (1 Peter 1:3). Mr. Weigel asked, "How did a ragtag band of nobodies from the far edges of the Mediterranean world become such a dominant force in just two and a half centuries?" The answer is that the disciples encountered their risen Lord ... and something else.

Today, Christians observe Pentecost. Before He died, Jesus promised that He would send His Spirit upon the disciples. "The Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My Name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you" (John 14:26). After He was raised from the dead, Jesus repeated the promise of the Spirit. "I am going to send you what My Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high" (Luke 24:49). On this Day of Pentecost, the church remembers that Jesus' kept His promise and gave the Holy Spirit to focus His disciples on Him and His Word. Here's how the story starts, from Acts chapter two.

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly, a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: "Aren't all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our own native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs - we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!" Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, "What does this mean?"

I interrupt the reading. Some cynics said the disciples were drunk, but no, it was only 9 a.m. Peter explained these strange goings-on were the fulfillment of a prophecy by the Old Testament prophet Joel. But all this is only the start of the story. Now listen to Peter's main message that first Pentecost.

"Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through Him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God's deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put Him to death by nailing Him to the cross. But God raised Him from the dead, freeing Him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on Him.

Therefore, let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah."

Did you hear it? Peter is a functional atheist no more! He shows a functioning faith, faith that is living, confident and bursting with witness to the Lord Jesus Christ. That was exactly what Jesus had promised about the coming of His Spirit. "When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father-the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father-He will testify about Me. And you also must testify, for you have been with Me from the beginning" (John 15:26-27). Dead men can't keep promises, but our living Lord can and does. Last March I was speaking in Wake Forest, North Carolina, and a man asked me, "What is the role of the Holy Spirit in our faith life, in our daily life?" Here's the answer. God sends the Holy Spirit to focus us on Jesus and His Word. "He will testify about Me." We don't hear as much about the Holy Spirit as we hear about the Father and Jesus because the role of the Holy Spirit is to testify to Jesus. That truth was expressed by Martin Luther this way. "I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, and sanctified and kept me in the true faith"

"He will testify about Me," Jesus promised, and then added, "And you also must testify, for you have been with Me from the beginning." Peter and the other disciples did just that: "When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, 'Brothers, what shall we do?' Peter replied, 'Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the Name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off-for all whom the Lord our God will call.'"

Today, right now, God is calling you. We all naturally think we can make it on our own. Problems at work, troubled relationships, trying to cope with health or finances ... How am I going to deal with this? That's functional atheism, also in us "who talk a good game about God." Would you like to see where this lack of trust leads? Read the newspapers. Watch the news. Listen to all the people arguing about what they imagine is best. Vanity of vanities! In that cacophony of human opinions, you see the failure of functional atheism. You do not have to let all that wear you down! Jesus promises, "The Holy Spirit will teach you all things, and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; My peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid" (John 14:26-27). Turn, turn from yourself, turn from your sin, turn from your griefs, turn from your own vanities, and look to Jesus Christ.

Pray God that His Holy Spirit will plant the Word of Christ deep in your heart, the Word not of earthly vanity but of eternal truth, the Word not of guilt and condemnation, but of forgiveness and freedom, the Word not of despair but of hope, the good Word from God that comes to bless you and your children. That's the Pentecost purpose, that the Spirit of the living Lord Jesus Christ gives us relevant and confident faith. Functional atheists no more! "Because He lives, I can face tomorrow." Amen.

Reflections for May 20, 2018

Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. That was Dr. Dale Meyer. Now, Pastor Ken Klaus joins us from his home in Texas. Hello, Pastor.
Ken Klaus: Hello, Mark. Good to be with you today.

Mark Eischer: Well, we heard Dr. Meyer talk about "functional atheism." Your reactions?

Ken Klaus: That's a sermon I wished I preached myself. Actually, Mark, a number of thoughts occurred to me as I listened to the message. First, I wondered how many Christians might object to being called "atheists."

Mark Eischer: I thought that, too.

Ken Klaus: After all, an atheist is someone who says there is no god. Most Christians would say, "I believe in Jesus and the Trinity, so this message can't possibly apply to me." However, Dr. Meyer in this message isn't questioning people's faith in the Lord. He's talking about the way they actually live.

Mark Eischer: Living day to day as if the Lord wasn't there.

Ken Klaus: Exactly. It reminds me of that little illustration I used in last week's sermon.

Mark Eischer: I remember, you said you lived your life as if you really didn't expect anything from God. And you compared that to you and Jesus were riding on a tandem bicycle.

Ken Klaus: That's right. I was in the front; Jesus was in the back. I got to steer where we were going, and most of the time I felt perfectly able to power the bike all by my lonesome.
Mark Eischer: And I suppose that would be, as Dr. Meyer said, kind of an example of functional atheism. You were acting, you were living, as if Jesus wasn't there.

Ken Klaus: Exactly. All I wanted from Jesus was a little bit of extra power, now and again. If the pedaling got difficult, or when I had a problem, I called out for an assist. Then when the problem was over, I could get back to running things on my own-with me in the front and Jesus in the back.

Mark Eischer: And you concluded by saying things really changed when you took the second seat and let the Lord do the driving.

Ken Klaus: Yeah. When the Lord drives, you just never know where you are going to end up.

Mark Eischer: What else would you like to say on this topic?

Ken Klaus: As Dr. Meyer spoke, I got to feeling sort of sorry for all those functional atheists.

Mark Eischer: Really? Why?

Ken Klaus: I felt sorry because Dr. Meyer was asking them to reverse just about everything they have ever been taught ... everything for which they've been striving. Mark, when you were young, what did you want to do most?

Mark Eischer: I suppose I wanted to be older and have things more under control. I can remember sitting on the school bus and I looked at those big science books the sixth-graders had. I wondered how I'd ever be able to learn all that stuff, how I'd pass the tests, and I wished I were older, like maybe 16, and then I would know everything.

Ken Klaus: And what would all happen when you reached that ripe old age?

Mark Eischer: I thought I would be more independent and able to stand more on my own. I could drive a car.

Ken Klaus: Parents say, "No, you can't use the power tools; you can't run the lawnmower or snow-blower until you're older and more mature."

Mark Eischer: It strikes me that many of our popular heroes are that sort of fiercely independent person who does things and believes things that might be unpopular at the time. And the history books all suggest that they do these great things entirely without help from God or His hand in their lives.

Ken Klaus: We can go even further. On TV there is a channel called DIY. What does DIY stand for?

Mark Eischer: Do it yourself.

Ken Klaus: That's the whole idea. Most of the programs teach you how to do something yourself. Let me ask, how many of those programs ever show someone in prayer, asking the Lord to bless their future home, or their children, or their craft project, or whatever?

Mark Eischer: That never really happens on television.

Ken Klaus: You see, once again, people are being taught to run their lives as if the Lord is an unnecessary, unneeded, and unwanted element. Real men and women stand on their own two feet.

Mark Eischer: And today, Dr. Meyer tells us, on the other hand, to let go and let God-something incredibly hard to do, given our culture and our natural inclination.

Ken Klaus: I agree. To find the ultimate read on why we would let the Lord do the direction setting, we need to turn to Proverbs 19:21. There it says, "Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand." In the 15th century, Thomas a' Kempis shortened it when he wrote, "Homo proponit, sed Deus disponit." Or, in English: "Man proposes, but God disposes."

Mark Eischer: In other words, the Lord is in control, even when it doesn't seem immediately apparent to us. Take Jesus' death on the cross, for example. Because of the cross, we know God is in control for our ultimate good.

Ken Klaus: He is.

Mark Eischer: Thank you, Pastor Klaus. And now looking ahead to next week, what can we expect to hear?

Ken Klaus: Next week, Mark, we're going to hear about some spectacular rescues, including ours, which takes place through the Savior.

Music Selections for this program:

"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

"Come, Holy Ghost, God and Lord" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)

Change Their World. Change Yours. This changes everything.

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