Sunday, February 10, 2008

Sermon -- 10 February 2008 (Evensong)

1ST IN LENT — 10 February 2008
Trinity, Iowa City — 5:00 pm (Jazz Evensong)

Psalm 103 John 12:44-50

“I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.” [John 12:47]

Last fall a study was published that indicated that among 16- to 29-year-olds a very large percentage (in the 80’s) perceived that Christianity was, among other things, judgmental and hypocritical. We might immediately get all defensive, and say, “But no! Christianity isn’t like that at all! These respondents obviously don’t understand what Christianity really is!” But these numbers did not reflect only non-Christians; a full half of churchgoing young people reported they had the very same perception. [1]

Interestingly, on the whole these respondents reported a much more positive attitude toward Jesus himself than to the present Church, which they often perceived as being “unChristian.”

Well, obviously we aren’t doing our job very well. Or perhaps we don’t really understand what our job is as Christians. People don’t just make up these perceptions of judgmentalism and hypocrisy. And although it would be easy — cheaply easy — to point the finger at various other communities of Christians (“Well, maybe they are judgmental and hypocritical!”), I think we need to recognize that we as Episcopalians bear our own share of responsibility for the flaws in Christian witness as it is widely perceived today. And our own witness is the only one we can control.

This evening we hear Jesus say, “Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness. I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.”

Some things to notice here in what Jesus says. Jesus makes clear here, as indeed he often does, that his ministry is not about himself, it is about God, and about the Reign of God. Over the centuries, an awful lot of folks seem to have gotten the idea that Christianity is a religion about Jesus. (Sometimes that gets blamed on St. Paul. I think that’s a bum rap. But that’s another sermon for another time.) Jesus certainly doesn’t seem to think that he is founding a religion about himself. Jesus seems to think he is proclaiming and enacting the Kingdom of God. Jesus is always pointing beyond himself to the Father, the God who sent him.

Further, when Jesus talks about “believing in him” he doesn’t mean “assenting to a set of theological propositions about Jesus.” Theological propositions about Jesus may have their importance in due course, but they are not in themselves what Jesus was up to. In fact, using theological propositions about Jesus as a gatekeeper into “believing in Jesus” is a good way of condemning many to remain in the darkness. What Jesus means by “believing in him” is believing in the coming Reign of God, trusting in the Good News that Jesus is proclaiming, repenting — that is, allowing God’s grace to turn our lives from our own self-centeredness, our drive for our own power and control, and turning and giving ourselves into the love and the justice of God and thus being opened to the fullness of human life — now, and forever. This has to do with human wholeness. I don’t know how much it has to do with “religion.”

Today is the First Sunday in Lent — a season in which we prepare for the Easter celebration through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving to turn our hearts more fully to God’s love manifested in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. But our Lenten observances are not religious exercises in themselves — although prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are always good things and if we think we never need to bother with them then we do need to take a much closer look at ourselves — but ways of enacting our repentance, turning from our devotion to ourselves to an openness to the life and love of God.

As we commit ourselves more fully and deeply to the Reign of God, and not to our own judgmental religious constructs, perhaps the world will be able to see more clearly not only Jesus in us, but through Jesus the love and justice and eternal life of God into which God calls us all.

[1] The Barna Group, September 27, 2007. (Accessed 2/8/2008). The Barna Group is a research organization that appears to have an evangelical Christian orientation, The studies which they post on their website are very interesting, and a bit troubling. While I am inclined to question aspects of their statistical surveying, I suspect that the numbers they report are not too far off. If this is the case, some of their studies indicate that very many Americans are, at least religiously, dumber than a box of rocks.

© 2008 William Moorhead

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