Sunday, August 13, 2006

Sermon -- 13 August 2006

PROPER 14 / 10th after Pentecost—13 August 2006
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls — 9:00
Deut 8:1-10 Ps 34:1-8 Eph 4:25-5:2 John 6:37-51

This is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.

There’s a song of John Lennon’s — the chief wordsmith of the Beatles (back lo these many years ago now) that has always kind of hooked me, despite my distinctly ambivalent feelings about what it says. Part of the lyric goes:

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky.…
Nothing to kill or die for
and no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

Now it’s very easy for religious folk — especially the conventionally religious — to get all tied up in knots about this. And, frankly, there’s a good bit of simplistic sentimental superficiality in this lyric. But let’s not write it off too easily. As a critique of much of Christian religiosity, it’s a damning enough indictment, and not altogether off-target. It expresses a widespread perception in the world, unfortunately one that is all too often in fact the case, that religion serves to divide people one from another, to exclude Them from Us, to exalt to arrogant heights Us who are In and to cast down to contempt and condemnation Them who are Out. I drop a couple of words into the pot: “Crusade.” “Jihad.” And if the pot looks like it is full of blood, that’s not wrong. “We have the light of truth, you are stumbling in the darkness of error. We are saved, you are damned. We’re OK, you’re pond scum.” Imagine no religion — all the people living life in peace! (Yeah, right.)

The Gospel today, from the 6th chapter of St. John, is very familiar to the clergy and perhaps to many of you; perhaps not quite as familiar to others of you. The reason it’s so familiar to the clergy is that it’s one of the Gospel readings appointed by the Prayer Book for funerals, as it has been since 1549: “Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away. . . . This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.” A fairly obvious text for a funeral service, full of consolation, assuring all the family that probably Grandpa isn’t going to hell after all.

(I suspect that going to hell is harder than we usually assume. And easier. It is possible to go to hell; and if anyone actually does it, there are probably more than a few very religious folks among them. Hell is what we get when we persist to the end in choosing ourselves instead of God. This is probably good news for a lot of people who may not have been too “religious” but who cared a lot about truth and justice and other people. It may not be such good news for a lot of us who are real pious and respectable and put our trust in our own piety and respectability. But I digress.)

The larger context of the Gospel reading today, I hope you still recall, is the Feeding of the Five Thousand. In Year B of the Lectionary cycle, we spend six weeks on this: two weeks (three Sundays ago and two Sundays ago) reading the story of the Feeding and its follow-up (Jesus walking on the water), from St Mark’s Gospel (where we’ve been spending most of this year). Then follow four weeks of readings from the Discourse on the Bread of Life, which follows the feeding of the multitude in the sixth chapter of John. We would have started this last week, except it was the Feast of the Transfiguration, which took precedence over the usual Sunday readings. Today we’re back to it, and have a couple more weeks to go with the Bread of Life theme.

And all of this should inform our understanding of God’s purpose for the creation. It has to do with God’s fundamental attitude toward God’s people.

A colleague many years ago once gave me a little card which read, “The Lord is coming soon—and he’s really ticked off!” (Actually, that’s not exactly what the card said!) There are people, including Christians, who seem to have the notion that God is real real mad and is just looking for some excuse, any excuse, to cast us all into the flames. Very few folks will be saved, according to this scenario, so if you want to be one of them you’d better get your ducks in a row. “Oh, well, yes, God loves everybody—but…!”

This plays out in a couple of ways. One has to do with righteousness. “Have I done enough good? I’ve tried the best I could all my life, I haven’t really done too many bad things...” This is the notion that we overcome God’s fundamental dislike of us and earn God’s favor by our good works. St. Paul tried to drum this notion out of our heads; the Reformation tried to drum this notion out of our heads. It didn’t work; it still hasn’t worked. We still can’t let go of it. And it’s still false. First, none of us has done enough good. And second, that doesn’t matter.

The other way this plays out has to do with faith. We aren’t saved by our works, it goes, we’re saved by our faith. So I’ve got to have enough faith (as if “faith” were some sort of supercharged emotional experience that I’ve got to conjure up “enough” of). Or I’ve got to be sufficiently religious. (This is not what St. Paul, or Martin Luther, meant by “justification by faith.”) Or, I’ve got to have the right kind of faith. This fairly easily translates into: I have to believe the right things, my theology has to be orthodox. (And thereupon often morphs into “You have to believe the right things; your theology has to be orthodox, that is, just like mine.”) Christological error eventuates in eschatological catastrophe! (“If you say the creed wrong you’ll go to hell.”) None of this has anything really to do with faith—it’s all still works righteousness in sheep’s clothing. “Am I saved?” is just a way of contemplating my own navel. It’s the wrong question.

“This is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.” God’s will is that we, and all humankind, should have life, and have it to the full, eternally. It is God’s will that we be saved, now, and forever. We need to accept that and get on with it—to trust God and live in the power of God’s love, come what may (that’s what faith is really about). That doesn’t mean we can be smug—it is possible to choose damnation—to choose our own self-sufficiency over God’s love—but that’s not God’s problem, that’s ours. God doesn’t have to be wheedled into accepting us. Our concern should not be with getting “saved” (that’s God’s doing; let God do it!) but with responding to God’s love and carrying out the mission and ministry which God gives us through Christ for the reconciling and healing of the world.

"This is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day."

© 2006 William S. J. Moorhead

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