Although humor is not my strong suit, preachers like to start off with a little humor just to break the ice a bit. As I was thinking about how I might do that today, I looked in the mirror and realized, “Fred, you don’t need to say anything. The music director asked us bell ringers to wear colorful clothing today, so here you are preaching in a bright orange shirt and looking like a Skittle. You don’t need to say anything funny; you just need to give people permission to giggle at how silly you look.”
The title of today’s sermon is “If.” I got that title by reading a few verses beyond our lectionary reading for today, which was John 14. The following is from John 15: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. IF you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, . . . “
What if the ‘if’ in this gospel passage is a warning of serious consequences? “If you don’t keep my commandments, then there will be negative consequences.” I might have titled this sermon, “Consequences.”
We know that God is a God of unconditional love, and unbounded love. We might ask, “If that is true, then how can God also be a judge who doles out consequences?” And yet as parents we know how to fashion appropriate consequences in order to help our children grow up well–to teach them the importance of fairness and justice, which will go a long way to helping them become successful in work as well as love. But we must teach as God teaches, because with God, perfect justice is always intertwined with perfect love. Therefore, we must strive to teach with patience and wisdom, with cleverness and creativity, and without even the most mild forms of violence.
Yes, good parents make judgments, but they’re not ultimate judgments about our children’s eternity. However, the Christian Church from the beginning has always believed that God would make a final judgment. One of the lectionary readings for last Sunday is the following reading from The Book of Revelation. I’ll read part of Chapter 21:
“I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem . . . where God will be with his peoples. . . . Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things will have passed away . . .”
(sounds nice. But these next few verses were left out of the lectionary reading. Here they are–verses 7 and 8:)
“Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”
that sounds scary–that sounds like a terrible consequence–but we shouldn’t
draw conclusions from one or two verses in one book of the bible. So I went through each of the four gospels,
skimming each page and looking for serious consequences, and this is what I
found. On 85% of the pages of the Gospel of Matthew,
there is at least one verse that speaks of serious consequences. 85% of the pages in Matthew’s gospel! Similarly, in the Gospel according to Luke,
86% of the pages contain at least one verse that speaks of serious consequences. Similarly, in Mark’s gospel, I found the same
on 78% of the pages. Strangely enough, I
found serious consequences on only 56% of the pages in the Gospel according to
John, but John has some of the most serious statements concerning the need for
Christ, such as John 14:6:
Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Here are some more examples of what I saw on so many pages. I’ve arbitrarily chosen to look at Chapter 7 in each of the four gospels.
Matthew 7:13-14 (Jesus said,”) “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
(Two gates–one is easy and wide, but it “leads to destruction”– a serious consequence.)
Mark 7:6-7a: “Jesus said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me. . . “‘”
Luke 7:23 (Jesus said,) “God will bless everyone who doesn’t reject me because of what I do.” (Or we might say it in reverse, for greater effect: “God will not bless anyone who rejects me because of what I do.”)
John 7:40-4 (paraphrased) When they heard Jesus’ words, some in the crowd said, “This is the Messiah.” But others said, “That can’t be true.” So there was a division because of him. Some of them wanted to arrest him….
Of all the negative consequences we see in the New Testament, this is one of the most severe–serious divisions between people. Divisions and disagreements can lead to all sorts of problems.
Consequences–all over the gospels.
Judgement after death does not sound appealing . It doesn’t sound like the love of God that we count on every day. However, we must admit there’s something in us that wants Justice when someone does us wrong. Even if we don’t believe in punishment (and personally, I do not believe in punishment), still we want Justice. We want recompense. We want repentance. We want restitution. And so we should.
“Your honor, I was in my car, obeying all the rules of the road, sitting at a red light waiting for it to turn green. Then this guy rammed into me from behind and caused a lot of damage to my car. Now, your honor, I have no desire to punish him for that, but there are consequences we sometimes must accept. Please rule in my favor. Please tell him he’s going to have to pay to have my car repaired.”
When we are treated unjustly, we want to see appropriate consequences delivered. I believe that desire comes from a deep part of us that God put there; we are made in God’s image. I believe it makes sense to believe God is a just judge on whom we can rely for justice, if not here on earth, then after death. However, with God, love and justice always go together, inseparable, and that’s why God never punishes. But God does weave consequences into the fabric of creation, and that includes humanity. What else does God do? God works, constantly–and within every person and every community–God works tirelessly to encourage us to choose love and justice. In other words, God works to strengthen and purify our free will, but we must cooperate with God’s work in ourselves and in our world. Putting it another way: God works tirelessly to encourage growth in holiness–communal holiness as well as personal holiness–but we must cooperate.
I don’t see God as a judge like some huge disembodied voice in some kind of theater with a big IMAX screen on which our lives are paraded before us from all angles, with big close-ups of my face showing every trace of shame and embarrassment. But I do see judgement by consequence. The consequence of our disobedience and selfishness is the degradation of our souls. The beautiful flip side of this is the purification and beautification of our souls, which is a consequence, also. It is the consequence of our commitment to Christian discipleship and to ever-expanding acts of selfless love.
That great church hymn–“Amazing Grace”–includes this line: “Twas Grace that taught My Heart To Fear.” That’s what I’m talking about–fearing the consequences, just as we fear gravity when we’re walking toward the edge of the roof atop a high building. Using this as a metaphor, we might say what we need is a kind of spiritual fear of heights.
But that’s not the end of that great hymn. It moves from fear to relief: “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved. It’s a nice thought, but even relieving Grace doesn’t nullify negative consequences. Our greatest loving, and even God’s love, doesn’t do away with negative consequences.
But, Mr. Fred, grace is the free gift of God’s love which forgives sins, right?
Yes, that’s true . . . but . . .
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a great Christian theologian and pastor. He founded a Protestant denomination called the Confessing Church. He was a German who stood up against the Nazis. He died in a concentration camp at the age of 39. He is well known for having written a classic Christian book entitled, “The Cost of Discipleship.” He used the phrase “cheap grace” to speak against those who would take advantage of God’s unconditional love. Here are some of Bonhoeffer’s words:
Grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance; cheap grace
is church baptism without church discipline; cheap grace is holy Communion
without holy confession; cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace
without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
You’ve heard the saying, “When the going gets tough the tough get going.” I have my own saying: When the going gets tough, Mr. Fred goes to the Golden Age of television. One evening, I went to the DVR and selected an episode of “Leave it to Beaver,” and in less that one half-hour I saw and heard yet another story about Wally, the older brother, and Theodore, the younger brother whose nickname is “The Beaver.” I watched these two boys sneak an animal into the house behind their parents’ backs. They nurture this baby alligator in secret, lying to cover up their deeds. They steal milk and eggs from the refrigerator, and even brandy from the liquor cabinet, in order to feed the growing animal. The parents think the housekeeper has been stealing the booze, so they fire her and whisk her out of the house despite her frantic denials. After some time, the baby alligator grows to about 18″ long, and the boys are finally caught. Now what do you think the parents do? What would you do if you were Ward and June Cleaver?
I was surprised at how the story ended, because the parents delivered no negative consequences to their children–not even a little lecture. Instead, the parents softly empathized with the boys’ sorrow after having to give up their illegal pet to the local zoo. Immediately afterward, June and Ward Cleaver surprise their two children with a new puppy as a reward for taking such good care of the alligator.
Now, I’m glad there were no natural consequences those boys were forced to endure, such as a harmful animal bite. However, as parents, we must sometimes create artificial consequences that are harmless but negative, in order to prepare children for an adult world where negative consequences often follow wrongdoing.
Because we are adults who have been converted to Christianity, God becomes our heavenly mother; God becomes our heavenly father. Because God loves us as a good parent, God provides consequences to help prepare us for heaven, but we must also cooperate. We will not be forced. We must choose to make it our top priority to grow in holiness.
(Romans 12:1-2a): “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God . . .”
That’s one of my favorite bible verses: Romans 12:1-2, NRSV. The Apostle Paul is talking about “transformation”–the process of becoming holy.
What consequences do we fear? Is it the consequences of failing a test, or failing to win various kinds of races (literal and/or metaphorical), or failing to land a better job, or failing to pay our bills, or failing to win the better girlfriend or boyfriend or spouse, or some other kind of failure in the context of this earthly life? In all the gospels we hear nothing about those kinds of failures.
What we do hear about are the consequences of sin, and the consequences of failing to grow in holiness. We fear many things in this life, but I’m suggesting today that we should fear one thing more than any other. We should fear the failure to become faithful partners with God in creation–the failure to grow as true disciples of Jesus Christ.
I see the consequences of that failure in myself and all around me and all around our world, and it frightens me, and I’m afraid for our children and grandchildren.
“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound . . . ’twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.”
Ah, yes, that grace is wonderful, and it is freely given, but it is not cheap.
It is freely given, but hard to absorb.
Please bow your heads with me in prayer:
Thank you, God, for teaching us to fear the consequences which you have woven into the fabric of eternity. Help us to cooperate with your work and your sacrifice, so that we might grow in holiness and move beyond fear to trust in you, through Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Amen.