You might have heard the story of the mother trying to get her surly son out of bed on a Sunday morning to go to church. She bangs at his locked bedroom door as he is in bed with the covers over his head. They trade all the classic lines.
“Son, get out of that bed and get ready for church!” “Church is stupid and you can’t make me go.” “As long as you are under my roof, you will go to church.” “Church is full of hypocrites and I don’t have any friends there.” They go on like this for a while. “Why do I have to go?” the son complains. Finally, the mother, totally exasperated yells, “Because you are the rector of that church and the early service starts in 20 minutes!”
Well, this is my first Sunday since April 15 and I couldn’t be any happier to be back. First, I’d like to say “thank you” for the opportunity to take such a wonderful sabbatical. It was a true gift and I’m deeply grateful. I’d also like to say that the sabbatical only deepened and confirmed my belief that Christ Church is a very special place.
Many rectors come back from sabbaticals either depressed to be back or looking around for a better deal. I feel that there is nowhere in the world I’d rather be and nothing in the world that I’d rather be doing. The only downside to being away for 3 ½ months was that I missed people. So all of this is to say it is really good to be back. Not to say that I don’t have some of those first day of school butterflies. I really hope I can keep up with the level of preaching, which I hear has been excellent in my absence!
I’ve also come away from this time of renewal and study more firmly convinced in the core message of the gospel, a message that would pop up in unusual places. We walked into the Hard Rock Café in Hollywood to be greeted by a bright neon sign that said, “Love All, Serve All.” I thought – there’s a distillation of the church’s mission in the world. Love All, Serve All. Then I got a picture of Jim Morrison’s famous leather pants and paid $25 for a hamburger.
I also noticed a variant of the message during the over the top opening ceremonies for the Olympics. It was during the children having nightmares segment, when the villains of English literature haunted the poor little ones trying to get to sleep. Then a squadron of Mary Poppins floated in to the rescue.
But did you hear what was playing as the Mary Poppins alighted? Good Christian Men Rejoice. “With heart and soul and voice. Now you need not fear the grave, for Jesus Christ was born to save. Calls you one and calls you all, to gain his everlasting hall. Christ was born to save. Christ was born to save.”
In our gospel from John this morning, Jesus gives his own distillation of his own gospel. He gives it in response to some people who ask, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God. That you believe in him whom he has sent.” Performing the works of God – that is, doing what is required of us by a holy and just God – could not be any simpler or more universally accessible. Just believe in him whom he has sent!
And that is the core message of the gospel, which I feel more than ever the world needs. And not just the world – it is the message that I need. To believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the one who was sent to die for the forgiveness of our sins and who was raised for our justification. Now we need not fear the grave, Jesus Christ was born to save.
I realize that belief, though simple, is sometimes the most difficult thing of all, especially when you are waiting and waiting and waiting for some kind of answer, or healing or resolution. Believing in him whom God has sent can seem like a cruel joke when your life is falling apart. Some days belief seems like a fairy tale, or the opiate of the masses, or just too good or easy to be true in a world of hard realities.
In many ways it is much more appealing to be given a list of thing to do to do the works of God. Then we can work on doing them and check them off our list. Pray, read the bible, tithe, donate time to charity, go to church. If your really want to get an A plus on God’s report card, then you might go into the so called full time ministry or be a missionary.
Then there is the list of don’ts that always crop up. Don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t have sex outside of marriage (and make sure if you are married not to have too much fun while you’re doing it), don’t cuss, don’t drink, don’t smoke. But, if you’re going to smoke, make sure it’s a pipe so you can pretend you’re an English aristocrat.
Well, I do believe in the 10 commandments. Life in general would be so much happier if everyone followed the 10 commandments. But even doing what we are supposed to do is no guarantee of feeling God’s presence or life full of blessings. And according to Jesus, who in this passage clearly says that He is here to give us something better than Moses, performing the works of God can’t be judged by what we do or what we don’t do. But although we may judge others and even ourselves by these standards, God, (who is the only One whose judgment we should be concerned about) does not.
I’ve been studying the life and work of William Faulkner on my sabbatical. While here was at UVA in the late 50’s as the Writer in Residence, he was asked the following question by a student.
Q. Mr. Faulkner, you have been called, among other things, Christian humanist. I was wondering if you could tell me what you consider your relationship to the Christian religion?
In his high pitched, southern drawl, the Pulitzer prize winning author responded,
- Why, the Christian religion has never harmed me. I hope I have never harmed it. I have the sort of provincial Christian background which one takes for granted without thinking too much about it, probably. That I’m probably – within my own rights I feel I’m a good Christian – whether it please anybody else’s standard or not I don’t know.
I’m pretty sure he answered this question while smoking his pipe, and I’m entirely sure he answered with his whiskey close at hand.
God’s standard is not what you do or don’t don. God’s standard is not about you at all. God’s standard is about Him. It’s about Christ, not the Christian. It’s about belief in Him. Belief that you are loved. Belief that you are forgiven. Belief that you are not alone. Belief that nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Belief is both ridiculously simple and yet terrible elusive. The most realistic response to belief is described in the bible by the father, at his wit’s end, pleads for Jesus to heal his sick son. Jesus asks him if he believes. The father cries out, “I believe, help my unbelief!” Jesus, we should note, doesn’t judge the father’s belief vs. unbelief, his green vs. brown. He just heals his son.
Most of us are an ever-vacillating mixture of belief and unbelief. Most of us are like John Newton, author of Amazing Grace, who in another hymn says, “I would but cannot rest, in God’s most holy will. I know what He appoints is best and I murmur at it still. Help my unbelief. Help my unbelief.”
A friend recently shared an arresting visual image of our mixture of belief and unbelief. Oak trees keep their brown leaves through winter. In March, the new green buds begin to shoot out. For a little while you can see the bright green leaf growing on one half of the leaf and the dead, withered brown part on the other half. Isn’t that us – a mixture of green and brown? As Luther said we are “simil justis et peccator”: simultaneously justified and sinners. Some days we can say “Amazing Grace!” and other days we cry out “help my unbelief, help my unbelief. My help must come from Thee.”
Ultimately, the good news of the gospel is not that you believe in God, but that God believes in you!