What makes for a good Christian?
It’s sort of a trick question. You’re either a Christian or you’re not—there’s no such thing as a ‘good’ one. A Christian is someone who intends to follow Jesus. Do you want to follow Jesus—to partner with God in God’s work in the world? If so, then you’re a Christian. And I guarantee that every one of us will have our moments when we do pretty good at that and our moments when we don’t.
So, what do you need to do to go to heaven?
Another trick question. Because you don’t have to do anything to experience God’s love and salvation. Everything you may have listed—like live a good life, go to worship, give faithfully, serve the poor, believe in Jesus—those are all how we might respond when we hear just how much God loves us.
I heard someone once say—and I don’t remember who or where—that God loves all of us, no matter what. Heaven is simply believing that we’re actually loved that much in spite of all the ways in which we misuse that love.
Thank you God for loving us, even and especially when we are not our best selves. Help us to believe it. Help us to live with joy knowing that we are always yours. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
You may have heard that this year marks the 500th anniversary of the year Martin Luther posted his 95 statements of protest against practices of the Roman Catholic Church. Thanks to the newly minted printing press, those 95 statements, along with many other writings of Luther, made their way to the pope, to the leaders of the Holy Roman Empire, and to the people. He started a firestorm that could not be extinguished.
Along the way, the Church in its many forms have taken a variety of directions—some horrible missteps and some incredibly courageous and faithful leaps. And we continue moving forward, doing our best to follow the Christ of the Cross.
One of the most powerful experiences Luther had as he read Scripture was the discovery of grace. While the Church of his day preached confession for salvation, penance, fear, and hell…the Scripture told of love and life and grace and forgiveness. It opened a whole new world for him—and for us. And yet, we still struggle with what those words mean. We struggle to believe in the God revealed in Scripture—a God who does not require payment, a God who is not keeping a tally of our faults and failings, a God who loves without measure, gives without reciprocation, and welcomes without exception.
The Scriptures that are assigned to Reformation weekend every year are ones that lift up the revelations Luther had as his heart was opened to the true nature of God. We hear about God’s covenant written on the hearts of God’s people; we hear about God’s grace as a gift and humanity’s unfailing need for that gift; we hear about our complete inability to earn that gift; and we hear about the freedom from sin we receive through Christ. At every point, there is a focus on humanity’s frailty and God’s abiding grace. We cannot do anything to make God love us more—or less. We cannot do anything to get closer to God or make our way to heaven. We cannot do anything to earn Christ’s favor. In fact, we cannot even do anything to get ahead of or fall behind anyone else who might be different from us.
Now, on the surface, that sounds pretty good. But in reality, it goes against every grain of our very being. Because that’s just not how the world works. Even our constitution has to define freedom through things like the Bill of Rights—and that gets abused and misused regularly. As Christians, we balk at the thought that God might love and save people who have done horrible things just as readily as God loves and saves the people who do all the right things. And, quite frankly, the Church has depended upon guilt and fear in order to maintain itself for centuries.
At the time of Luther, the Church was telling people that if they said the right prayers and gave enough money, they could decrease time in purgatory for themselves and their loved ones. Who wouldn’t give up everything in this world to make sure the next wasn’t just as bad—or worse? And there are still those in the Church who approach membership and attendance and giving as an obligation—something you’re supposed to do in order to gain favor with God and with the community. Guilt and fear has contributed both to the building up of and the recent demise of congregations.
Guilt and fear has created whole new generations of people who see the Church as a big lie—inconsistent and oppressive. And they aren’t wrong. No matter how hard we try, we can’t understand a God who would operate without limitations and restrictions, expectations and demands. Because that’s how we operate. That’s how we survive. That’s how we maintain civil society. We pay taxes. We obey laws. We have rights that come with responsibilities. Without those parameters, we would have complete anarchy. We’re more comfortable with a dictator God than one who lets it all go.
But we misunderstand the freedom and grace and truth that Jesus reveals. In today’s gospel passage, he tells those who believe in him that abiding in his word and knowing the truth will set them free. And that just gets their hackles up. They’ve never been slaves. Despite their history of slavery in Egypt and Assyria and Babylon and Persia and under Rome, they still see their identity as God’s chosen people. God’s on their side—against the world. All they need is a Messiah to get rid of the current Roman problem, and they’ll be just fine.
Of course, Jesus wasn’t talking about slavery between people but slavery within people—within individuals as well as a community. We are, indeed, slaves—slaves to our political systems and our wallets, to our bill of rights and our national identity, slaves to our religious denominations and our theological dogmas. We are slaves to our human way of viewing God. And the Word—the Truth—the Son makes us free.
The Son makes us free by showing the natural consequences of our slavery—especially the slavery of religion. I’m making a distinction between religion and faith, here. Religion naturally sets up rules. It relies on obedience. It thrives on guilt and fear. It finds a scapegoat—a guilty party—and kills it in order to show God just how far it will go to earn God’s allegiance—to keep God on its side.
Jesus’ death is what happens when religion is in charge. And religion can take the form of politics and family systems and budget decisions and gangs and rioting groups—some of them often well-intentioned but nevertheless misguided. The truth of Jesus confronts all of those systems and tells us again and again—this is NOT how God operates. And that is NOT freedom.
Freedom isn’t a release from rules and expectations. Freedom isn’t an opportunity to do whatever you want to do. The freedom God offers through Jesus is life without worrying about death; worship without worrying about numbers; love without worrying about vulnerability; giving without worrying about what to keep. Luther said, “Sin boldly; yet believe in Christ even more boldly.” Freedom is following Jesus without fear.
Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton quotes “Robert Capon in his book, Between Noon and Three. He writes, ‘If we are ever to enter fully into the glorious liberty of the children of God, we are going to have to spend more time thinking about freedom than we do. The church, by and large, has a poor record of encouraging freedom. She has spent so much time inculcating in us the fear of making mistakes that she has made us like ill-taught piano students: we play our songs, but we never really hear them, because our main concern is not to make music, but to avoid some flub that will get us in dutch.’”
She goes on to say, “Think of the systems we have erected, promoted and been trapped in to keep us all in line. We can’t hear the music. And what heavenly music do we miss because we cannot hear? The promise of freedom. The reality that our freedom has been realized through the death and resurrection of Jesus. In our bondage, it has become all about us. Luther’s definition of sin, ‘the soul curved in on itself’ traps us in our own echo chamber.”
The beauty of being a Church founded on Reformation is that we are always being prepared to challenge, adjust, and reform our approach to the world as we grow deeper in faith. We are not a people of maintaining what has always been. We are a people who have precedence to live boldly in the world, trusting in the love of God through Jesus Christ.
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church