Galatians 5: 1, 13, 14 (The text is at the end of this sermon manuscript)
A sermon by Dr. Richard A. Wing, Co-Pastor, September 8, 2019
Jesus changed everything when he said: “Turn around and believe the good news.” Mark 1:15. What is the good news? The good news is the end of bookkeeping religion. My friend Robert Capon said: “Jesus established once and for all a right relationship between us and God and there is nothing you can do to earn it, deserve it, or revoke that which has been given.” That’s the good news. That is the main message that I take in my visits with prisoners.
The vast majority of churches today have replaced the good news with quality control; bookkeeping; and judgment instead of grace. God is not amused by this. and is deeply sad. Much of church life in America is dying because we are identified with bad news, not good news.
Philip Yancey said that if I were to go down the aisle on a plane flight, and if I were to say: “I’m a Christian.” And then asked what that means to each individual, the response, said Yancey, would be, “Oh, you hate gays and lesbians and you are going to tell me I am going to hell if I don’t believe like you.” I find that a modern tragedy.
I can’t say I’m a Christian any longer without a person giving me another 3 minutes to let you know being Christian to me has not one ounce of judgment; but only grace. People are leaving church in the droves because the church has preached the opposite of what Jesus taught. In large part, the church universal has deserved to be abandoned. The only way to resurrection is through death. So much of church teaching has needed to die before we can hear again the crystal-clear voice of good news that came in Jesus.
Again, my friend Robert Capon said: “Your life begins when you receive the gospel and give up on the idea that someone, somewhere is keeping score on your life.” Thankfully this church is not one of those churches that has abandoned grace and turned to judgment. Two great things about this congregation are:
1. You are a journey church; not an answer church and are clear about that.
2. You are a grace church, not a judgment church and have equal clarity about that.
You are and will be a bright and welcome light in a world that is desperate for what you have to offer. I believe two things need to happen in the church today: some things need to go; some things need to grow, and you can see where I am going.
I WHAT MUST GO
#1 SCAPEGOATING must go. Scapegoating is the idea that God had to kill his son Jesus in order to feel good about you. God did not send Jesus to be killed but to be followed. He was executed by RELIGIOUS PEOPLE AND THE GOVERNMENT, BOTH WHICH HE CRITICIZED. Make no mistake: Jesus would gladly die for you for you if need be. But God did NOT need to kill Jesus to feel good about you.
I called on men on Death Row in Ohio. We execute people in our society who murder, but still we have sought to sell people on praising God who we say murdered his son. This does not hold water in the time in which we live, nor has it ever made sense to any good thinking person. It has to go. God did not need to kill Jesus to feel good about you.
#2 HELL has to go. To be brief, hell does not exist. Hell is not mentioned in the Old Testament at all. Jesus was mistranslated. We have a translation that the “gates of hell will not prevail.” The accurate translation would be that the gates of “death” will not prevail against the Kingdom of God. The Apostle Paul never mentions the word or concept of hell. In the first three centuries after Jesus left, hell is never talked about. If you do a word search in the New Testament, “hell” is a short list. The hell the church has described in much of its history doesn’t exist. So where did all of the hell talk come from? Hell was invented in the Church of the 4th century to control people. Also, Dante’s Divine Comedy, a novel depicting the levels of hell, was taken as real. It’s a novel folks!
Today, I will be glad to talk with you about HELL, but you have to limit yourself to this world; I’ve been to very hellish places in this world including the slums of Tijuana and India and Africa. I have witnessed the outstretched hands of people living in hell in all those places and more. So, if you want to talk with me about hell, restrict the conversation to this earth.
#3 HEAVEN AS REWARD has got to go. Robert Farrar Capon was preaching grace and God’s acceptance of all people on a Sunday morning. Afterward was talk back time in fellowship hall. A woman made this objection. She said God’s unconditional love will give people “permission to do whatever they want.” Robert responded by saying, “I never asked permission before committing the sins of my life; I just did them and found myself with the natural consequences of “missing the mark” in life, which is the true definition of sin.
Robert further responded: “While you and I may be worried about seeming to give permission, Jesus apparently wasn’t. He wasn’t afraid of giving the prodigal son a kiss instead of a lecture, a party instead of probation, and He proved that by bringing in the older brother at the end of the story and having him raise the same objections that you do. The older brother is angry about the party. He complains that his father is lowering standards, is ignoring virtue; that music, dancing and a fatted calf are in effect just so many permissions to break the law. To all of that the father says, “Cut that out. Just cut it out. We’re not playing good boys and bad boys anymore. Your brother was dead and is alive again. The name of the game from now on is resurrection, not bookkeeping.”
In church, we do NOT seek to con God into being nice to us. We celebrate GOD’S ACCEPTANCE THAT HAS ALREADY BEEN GIVEN.
In the 19th century, in a General Store, a couple came to shop. While looking around, their little daughter stood longingly in front of the candy jars. The kind shop keeper told her to reach in a take some candy. She did not move. He told her again. And again. Finally, the man behind the counter reached in and took a big handful of candy and put it in a bag for her. Her parents asked why she was so shy and didn’t answer. “Why didn’t you grab the candy yourself?” they asked. “Because his hands are bigger than mine.” The all-inclusive hands of God are bigger than the bookkeeping walls that have been created by those who profess to follow the way of Jesus. I declare to you: Christianity has not been tried and failed; for the most part it has never been tried! (G. K. Chesterton)
II WHAT MUST GROW
As Christians, we must meet God where humans suffer. Albert Schweitzer said: “I don’t know what your destiny will be, but I do know this; only those among you will be happy, who have sought and found how to serve.” It should be obvious that we Christians understand these words to be trustworthy and true.
Someone asked me once, “why is it that I can’t find God.” I said, “Mainly because we are not willing to look low enough.” I have found God meeting me most clearly among the poor and prisoners. As Kathleen Norris said “Not money, or success, or position or travel makes happiness—-service is the secret.”
Next, the thing that needs to grow among Christians is the reality that faith/belief is a gift, not an achievement. The Apostle Paul said that. Often, we are embarrassed by our lack of faith thinking we need to “try harder.” In fact, faith itself is a gift that cannot be earned, but only received. What a person believes at fifty years of age, that they could not at twenty years of age is largely unexplainable. Faith is an unexplainable gift that comes when we dare to keep showing up for life.
Another important thing about belief: God doesn’t give a rip about what you believe. God cares where your feet take you in service to the spirit and way of Jesus. God does not care about creeds, but deeds.
I remember a priest approaching the deathbed of a lifelong friend. The man dying told his priest friend, “Funny, here I am dying and I still don’t believe in God.” The priest rightly said, “That does not matter. God still believes in you.” Too often we come at faith and belief from the wrong end. We worry about our lack of faith while all along God persistently believes in us.
A man in a new member class asked me to define my own faith in one sentence. I said, “Jesus is the face of God which means that the universe is benevolent and God has always been for us, never against us.” (Richard Rohr has this as one of the fundamental convictions of the School for Action and Contemplation).
Here is the very good news for the church today: the church today is not dying; it is being reborn. Birth is messy and painful. That is where we are. And something new is coming. The pain now is of not knowing what it will look like. Stay tuned; something new is being born. It’s going to be a long period of labor. And you are a part of it. Keep showing up! You are on the front line of the action.
In San Francisco, in an area with much homelessness, I went into a public restroom and watched a homeless man write something on the mirror. When he left, I approached to see what he wrote. In very legible handwriting he wrote: “Come home Judas; all is forgiven”
When that word of grace is the first and last word proclaimed in the church today as it was in the first three centuries, you will need to come early to church in order to get a seat.
Gal. 5:1 Christ has set us free to live a free life. So, take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you.
Gal. 5:13 It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows. 14 For everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That’s an act of true freedom.