24“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. 26And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”
28Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, 29for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.
My friend Bill Flug sent me a story from The Times-Picayune about a former pastor telling the convention of the American Humanist Association how he became a nonbeliever.
Jerry DeWitt, the former pastor, said that his doubts grew gradually. First, he had trouble reconciling the concept of hell with the idea of a loving God. Then he began to doubt the reality of miracle healings, and eventually he doubted the literal understanding of the scriptures. The final break came when a friend called and asked him to pray for a family member. DeWitt said that he just couldn’t do it. And he knew that it was over.
Within the Pentecostal fellowship in which he served, those were critical failings. But in the larger context of Christian faith, there are plenty of Christians who do not believe in hell, believe that the truth of the Bible transcends a superficial literalism, and never did believe in a supernatural theism. The prayer piece might seem more problematic, but even there, the Apostle Paul said, “We do not even know how to pray . . . but the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs to deep for words.”
What struck me was the emphasis on Christians as “believers.”
In the closing verses of the Sermon on the Mount quoted above, Jesus tells his disciples about building their houses on rock. A common interpretation is that he is telling them to build their lives on the rock of faith, which is believing in Jesus. But that is not at all what he says. For Jesus, the rock that can withstand the storm is acting on Jesus’ words. The important thing is not believing, but doing. In the context of his teaching, the “storms” represent the difficulty of living in a way that is contrary to the violence and oppression of the Roman Empire.
The transition from “doers” to “believers” begins in the New Testament itself.
In the Gospels, the followers of Jesus are known as disciples, a term that extends beyond the twelve who are named. And they are also known simply as followers. After his crucifixion and resurrection, they are sometimes known as “Followers of the Way” (the “Way” is Torah) and they are eventually called “Christians,” but the most common designation in the Book of Acts is “believers.”
They were called believers because they believed his teachings and were living them out. We can see this in the descriptions of how they lived together and how others reacted to them. In one way or another, they had encountered the Risen Christ, and that encounter convinced them that his teachings were the way of truth. In a way that they could not explain, he had triumphed over the powers of darkness and injustice. This meant that they were called to live as he lived. The significance of their belief was that it called them to action.
Over the intervening centuries the existential commitment to follow Jesus has devolved into an abstract belief about him. Abstract belief was not what the Book of Acts described as “turning the world upside down.” The emphasis on believing allows us to make peace with almost anything.
A closing footnote: I could not read the article about that Louisiana pastor addressing the convention of the American Humanist Association without reflecting on the name of the group and its description. In the newspaper article the convention is described as a gathering of “atheists, agnostics, humanists and other nonbelievers.” I remember my friend Kent Moorehead saying on multiple occasions, “Isn’t every Christian necessarily a humanist?” You can be a humanist without being a Christian, but you cannot be a Christian without being a humanist.