When tragedies of significant proportion occur, I usually respond with a sermon about “Theodicy.” Theodicy is simply the study of why, in a world governed by a good God, bad things take place. In those sermons I almost always say: “The question is not Why?’ “Why did this bad thing happen?” “Why did good people suffer?” I always remind you that even if we could answer the question “Why?,” it wouldn’t change a thing. The bad event still occurred, and the good people still were burdened and battered by it. The question, I always contend, is What? “What is our response to this event?” “What actions can we take to help those who suffer?” “What can we learn from it?” “What do we believe about a God who comes to us in our suffering, giving us comfort and courage?”
All that is, I think, a legitimate and reasonable response to theodicy. But, there are other times when “Why?” is a rational and, perhaps, foundation question.
This week I was involved in deep conversation with representatives from a sister church with which we at Marble have had a three-year partnership. The three-year contract is about to conclude, and we gathered to ponder whether or not to extend the partnership into the future. We talk about “what” things we might be able to do together and “how” those things could benefit both congregations. We discussed everything from youth/young adult initiatives to Habitat to anti-trafficking to community anti-poverty work to shared biblical studies to broadening the partnership to include another congregation with whom Marble is partnering to several other ideas, as well. Finally the young minister of the sister church said, “I guess the first thing we need to do is to determine Why we want to be in partnership, and then the What will become clear.” That observation revealed that he is wise beyond his years or his level of experience. Once we determine the Why, the What becomes clear.
Then later in the week, I used an episode of Chuck Knows Church for my morning devotional exercise. His topic was “What is Church?” He referenced the Greek word for “church” (the word that appears in the book of Acts) and explained that it means “called out for a purpose.” He noted that too often we use the word “church” simply to mean a particular building or even a certain denomination. It is a place or an organization, we think. But biblically that was not the case. The Greek word indicates that “church” meant “people called out for a purpose.” And the purpose specifically was to “make disciples” (see Matthew chapter 28). “Why do we exist? Why are we in fellowship and mission together?” Those were the questions that turned that 1st-century movement into a Church.
Often you hear us preachers talking about “What it means to be a Christian in today’s world,” and that is a valid and urgent topic. But all too rarely do we linger with the fundamental question, “Why are we Christians in today’s world?” Why would you take seriously the teachings and ethics of an itinerant Carpenter who lived twenty centuries ago? Why would you decide to stake (a) your understanding of God on his understanding of God, and (b) your spiritual future on his life, death, and resurrection? Those are the deeper questions. Once we have determined Why we are Christians – and once we determine Why we are called out and gathered together as churches – then we will clearly know What our lives are meant to be and accomplish.