This is the message that I gave at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church (Putnam Valley, NY) for the 6th Sunday of Easter, 1 May 2005. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Acts 17: 22 – 31, 1 Peter 3: 13 – 22, and John 14: 15 – 21.
It is interesting that the first lesson for today is Paul’s speaking to the people of Athens about their “unknown god.” I find this interesting because the God that is so prominent in the various forms of media today is one that I do not know. The Jesus of the Gospels is nothing like the Jesus that appears on television and radio and in the printed media. The Jesus that I grew up learning about and accepting as my Savior understood that ambiguity and doubt should not be feared but are simply facts of life that a great teacher uses to guide his followers on their own paths toward conviction and belief.
But this is not the Jesus that so pervades the mass marketing that churches engage in today. The Jesus of the mass market is the dead Jesus, the one found in movies like Mel Gibson’s “Passion of Christ”. In that movie, the Sermon on the Mount is just a few seconds. More time is spent on his death than on his resurrection and his living amongst us today.
But it makes sense to present Jesus in this manner. If Jesus is dead and not a part of our life, then we do not have to deal with the questions that He asks. We do not have to appreciate or ponder his ideas. Why in the debate over posting the Ten Commandments in public places do we not include a discussion of the Beatitudes? The Beatitudes are a natural extension of the Ten Commandments but no fundamentalist or politician is willing to put those words, the core of the Sermon on the Mount, alongside the Ten Commandments. Why, you might ask?
Because, we can understand the meaning and the context of the Ten Commandments; we struggle with the meaning and context of the Beatitudes. The Ten Commandments are very authoritarian; the last seven all start with “Thou shall not.” The Beatitudes require that we think and ponder their meaning. What did Jesus mean when He said, “Blessed are the peacemakers; blessed are the poor in spirit.”?
What’s even worse is that Jesus did not leave us with the answers. He made us answer the questions when we look to Him to do that for us. Jesus presented religion in a new way; he challenged his followers to think for themselves. Why, when we hear modern day fundamentalists preaching, do we not hear them say what Jesus said? Why do we not hear them ask, as Jesus did when he taught, “what do you think?” (Adapted from “Jesus was no GOP Lobbyist” by Jack Hitt, The Los Angeles Times, 26 April 2005)
People are searching for an experience of the divine. It may be in reaching for the highest high, the biggest vehicle, the most extreme sport, the sordid confession on a reality show. Others search for the experience by looking to other religions and denominations.
This “experience” has even become a part of our worship experience. The importance of a “personal experience” often takes on religious overtones. Christians grope for God by cultivating mountaintop emotions, not unlike Peter’s decision to make an altar on the mountaintop when Christ was transfigured, in worship and prayer time. Preachers have reported that members of their congregation will remark that they feel they have worshipped that Sunday if the sermon made them laugh or cry. Shouldn’t it have made them think?
Others are like the Athenian philosophers that Paul was preaching to; they seek God as a concept. They are quite willing to learn about God as if He were lines in a textbook. They are like students who feel that answering the questions on a test will give them sufficient knowledge for understanding God. But this doesn’t make God a part of their lives and it does not yield action.
The problem today is that we cannot sense God as an emotion nor can we simply categorize God as something we have learned. Those who seek God as an emotion or an experience distrust those who find God through learning and those who seek God through learning distrust those who seek God through emotions. Yet, people of both types are apt to be sitting together in a sanctuary on a Sunday morning. So what are we to do?
First, we need to heed Paul’s call to repent, realizing that none of us has a corner on understanding God or living as Christ’s disciple. And since repentance involves concrete acts of turning away from the old and toward the new, we are to behave like a family, the family that God created through baptism. We are made in the image and likeness of God, not in the image of the other gods that so pervade our lives. We are obligated to listen to one another, and to discuss our differences across denominational lines, theological persuasions, and even across the center aisle of the sanctuary (where one side prefers Paul Tillich and the other the novels of Tim LeHaye). (Adapted from “Idol Behavior” by Jenny Williams in “Living by the word”, Christian Century, April 19, 2005)
Those who seek a church of absolutes do so because they fear the unknown. They want a god that is easily defined and easy to understand. They want a church where safety is measured in terms of the here and now, not in terms of tomorrow or later. But Peter writes that there is nothing to fear in the future, for the future has been secured. And in the Gospel reading for today, Jesus tells us that we will not be left behind, that our lives will not end if we believe in Him.
And those who seek a god through abstract learning find the concept too great to understand, unless something is done to make it a part of one’s life. Again, the call for repentance changes the nature of God from just words in a book to actions within one’s soul.
Whatever the basis for our searching, we are not always willing to pay the price that must be paid. We see Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and fear that we must make such sacrifices. But we are reminded that we do not have to pay the price the Christ paid so that we can come here today. Our searching for Christ should not be in terms of finding God. After all, God is not far from each one of us. It should be in terms of bringing people to God, not the God of some book or some emotion, but the God who cared enough that He sent His Son to die on the cross and be resurrected so that we could live free from sin and death.
Just as Christ redefined what God meant, not the arbitrator and developer of rules, but rather the source of hope and understanding, we have to understand what we are asked to do in a world where fear and doubt are so prevalent. Oscar Romero, the Salvadoran archbishop who was murdered for standing up and facing oppression and evil, wrote,
This is what we are about: We plant seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are the workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own. (From the May, 2005 issue of Context)
We need not worry about the price that we must pay for what price did Christ pay so that we might live? We need not worry about the price that we must pay if we know that Christ’s death and resurrection pay countless times. Be not worried nor afraid, Christ tells us. What price can we pay for the peace and salvation that comes from knowing Christ as our Savior?