Saint John the Baptist: The Patron Saint of Agnostics

 Inspired by Luke 7:18–23 as found in The Women's Lectionary For The Whole Church, Year W

One thing that drives me up the wall is indecisiveness. I don’t have much patience for it, and the older I get the worse it gets. I bet we all have someone in our group of friends or family though that is indecisive. You know, the one who can never decide on where to go to eat, or what movie to watch, or which TV show to binge next. Raise your hand if you have someone in your group of friends or family that is like that. Those of you who are not raising your hand, that probably means that you are that indecisive one in the group. I mean look, you couldn’t even decide to raise your hand or not! I’m just teasing. To be fair, my aversion to indecisiveness probably comes from my upbringing. One of my mom’s favorite sayings was one that I cannot repeat here, but it’s a phrase that included a certain four-letter word and the word pot.  

It’s a humorous, albeit crass phrase that gets at the heart of making a decision. If you don’t know it, ask someone later, but not right now. To be fair, if we’re honest, we all have indecisive moments in our lives. I sometimes don’t like to decide because I want to make sure my decision is acceptable to everyone. The joke there of course is that no decision is acceptable to everyone. So, just make a decision already, I tell myself. Other times there are just too many choices to choose from! And other times we genuinely don’t care which choice is made so we just step back and let others decide, which is fine unless everyone else in the group also feels that way. Decision-making is an important part of our lives, in our work lives, our personal lives, and even in our spiritual lives. But maybe not as much as we’ve been taught. 

A nasty habit developed in the Christian church, particularly in America, that began all the way back in colonial America. And that was this idea that one had to make a decision to follow Christ or not, to believe in Christ or not, to have faith or not. It’s a very black or white kind of theology, right or wrong, left or right, yes or no. You’d think I’d like it. But I’m Lutheran, so I don’t. Nothing in life is that simple, including our spiritual lives. And our Gospel reading is a perfect example of this, and it’s also why I think that John the Baptist should be the patron saint of agnostics. Just so we’re on the same page, an atheist is someone who has decided that God doesn’t exist, which I can respect, for the mere decision alone. They have made a choice and have moved on.  

Side note, some of the most profound and respectful religious conversations I’ve had have been with atheists. As long as they know you’re not going to try and change their mind, they are some of the deepest thinkers out there. They are the ones that have not decided. The simplest definition of an agnostic is someone who believes that if there is a divine being, it is unknown and unknowable to humans, so for that group, God remains a big question mark. Another way to describe agnosticism is to say that since humans can’t prove the existence of God, then one cannot believe or disbelieve in a God. Well, if we use that definition then we’re all quite close to being agnostics! They taught me a lot of things in seminary but proving that God exists was not one of them! 

"St. John the Baptist in Prison, Visited by Salomé"
Guercino, 1591–1666
So, let’s turn our attention to our Gospel reading. Here we get this little scene between John and two of his disciples. Now, already, your Spidey senses should have gone off, because yes, it says two of John’s disciples. Not disciples of Jesus, disciples of John. John still had disciples. Now, why would that be? Well, many scholars have concluded that it was because he was still on the fence about Jesus. I mean, think about it, if he completely, 100% bought into what Jesus was selling, why would he need or even have disciples of his own still? Followers don’t have followers. Think of it this way, you would never hear a pastor say that they have followers. Can you imagine if someone asked me how big our church was and my answer was, “Oh I have about a hundred followers.” 

If you ever hear a pastor say that, run! Cuz that ain’t no church, that’s a cult! To be clear, I’m not accusing John of being a cult leader. His following started before Jesus began his ministry, before there was someone for John to follow. But what about after? Why didn’t he and his followers all go and start following Jesus after his baptism? Well, because they’re human. It’s not very realistic to think that 100% of everyone that encountered Jesus, even John’s very own followers, just dropped everything, including everything they believed prior, and started following and believing Jesus wholeheartedly! That’s just not how we humans work. And not just as a group, but also as individuals. I’d be lying to you if I stood up here and told you that God expects 100% of your heart and mind, 100% of the time!  

No human can do that, and God knows that. Which is why you don’t hear any judgment when John the Baptist, sends a few questions to Jesus, from his lonely prison cell. And they were not easy questions, to say the least. John asks his cousin Jesus, “Are you really the one we’ve been waiting for? Or should we keep looking?” Yikes. I don’t know if that was harder to ask or harder to hear. But in typical Jesus fashion, he doesn’t give him a direct answer. Like, how hard would it have been for Jesus just to say, “Yes. Yes, John, I am the one.” Would that have been so hard? Instead he said, “those who were blind receive sight, those who were lame walk, those who were diseased-in-skin are cleansed, those who were deaf hear, those who were dead are raised, those who are poor have good news proclaimed to them.” 

Which was just Jesus’ way of saying, “Consider the evidence.” Consider the source, sure, but first, consider the evidence. Another way to ask this would be, are people being healed or hurt? Likewise, are the vulnerable given hope or judgment? Those are good questions to ask if you’re ever wondering if something or someone is of divine origin or not. Not that following Jesus means perfection, far from! We’ve all hurt people but on the whole, when taking a look at the big picture of our lives, have we hurt or healed? Have we given hope or judged the vulnerable? We have this tremendous opportunity right now in our world, yes, even in little ol’ Auburn, to bring hope and healing. And one of those many groups, I would like add to Jesus’ little list.  

Jesus mentions the blind, lame, diseased, deaf, I would add the questioning, the doubting, the unknowing, the skeptics, the proof-seekers, the fence-sitters. We have this amazing opportunity, the same one that Jesus gave his cousin John when he was in the throws of questioning from his dark, lonely prison cell, to comfort the questioners, to ease the minds of doubters, to sit on the fence with fence-sitters; because, as we know all too well, comfort doesn’t always come with answers, but sometimes it comes with sitting alongside others, and maybe even admitting that we too have got a lot of questions. Because faith isn’t about having all the answers, or being 100% committed, or making this big one-time all-encompassing decision for Christ! Sometimes it’s just taking a step. Sometimes it’s just taking a seat. Sometimes it’s just asking a question. Whatever it is for you, I pray that it is met with comfort, openness, and love. And it it’s not, you just send them to ol’ Saint John the Baptist, the patron saint of agnostics, of the questioning, of us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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