Ministerial Musings: "Out of This World"
Sermon: “Out of This World”
Gospel Lesson: John 17:6-19
Many moons ago, when I worked at Salem State University, I had a colleague named Steve who was a Born Again Christian. Steve took every opportunity to tell others about his faith, how he was saved by Jesus, and if others (namely his colleagues) wanted to be saved, then they needed to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior as well. What he really meant was that we had to believe exactly the things that he believed in order to be part of the club.
It is probably safe to say that we all know or have met a Steve before: those who have cornered the market on salvation and will let you in as long as you believe and say the right things.
The problem with Steve, though, is that he did not exactly live like a Christian. Steve was married, but it was well known that he cheated on his wife with lots of different women. Without getting into too much detail, Steve used to boast about other unethical things that he did. One day I challenged him on this. I am not a judgmental person, but it felt hypocritical that this pious Christian who insisted that everyone else needed to believe what he believed didn’t exactly live the Christian life. His words and the actions clearly didn’t match. It was if Steve lived by the mantra do as I say not as I do. And so I challenged him. I asked him how he could say that he was a Christian and was saved when he really didn’t live a model, pious life?
Steve’s answer floored me. Basically, he said that he was saved because of his faith. Therefore, he didn’t have to worry about anything else. It didn’t matter what he did in this life. He was all set. Many argue that John 18:36 defends this attitude. When Jesus was asked what kind of king he was by Pontius Pilate, Jesus responded saying, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Therefore, as followers of Jesus, we are not of this world either. Our true home is the kingdom of heaven, not earth. So what we do doesn’t matter. What matters is that we are saved.
This is part of the reason why Christians (in some quarters) have turned their backs on social justice issues for so long — and some still do. This world doesn’t matter. We’re not even really part of it, so it doesn’t matter what we do. All that matters is what we believe so that we can we can go to heaven when we die.
The Revised Common Lectionary Gospel Lesson from a couple weeks ago (John 17:6-19) seems to suggest the same thing. In it, Jesus says, “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.” Jesus is praying to God on behalf of the disciples and seems to be saying that it is us versus them. It is God’s world versus this other world.
But is that exactly what Jesus is saying?
Look at the rest of the Gospel narrative. Why would Jesus spend so much time trying to make people’s lives better on earth if this life didn’t matter? Why would he heal the sick, and feed multitudes, and exorcise demons if this life meant nothing and had nothing to do with the life that is to come?
That is not the message of the Gospel. Jesus told us to love one another as he loves us. Jesus said that the kingdom of God is “at hand,” which is an ancient Greek expression that means “here in our midst,” not just right around the corner.
Unfortunately, too many people (like my old friend Steve) felt differently. That is why the Christian church has exploited the environment for centuries. It doesn’t matter. That is why the church often refuses to get its hands dirty when genocides and holocausts unfold halfway around the world. It doesn’t matter. That is why the church still insists on treating certain people like second class citizens in our own country: LGBT folk, racial minorities, the poor, the disabled, those who cannot afford health insurance, undocumented workers. The list goes on, but the point is the same: it doesn’t matter. Look upward, not next to you. That is what matters, not this.
Such thinking is not only theologically irresponsible; it also contradicts the Christian message.
I believe that there is a heaven and there is an earth — two separate spheres of existence. However, I also believe that the two intersect. Heaven is both the now and the not yet. It is here and it is there. It is in our midst and it is just around the corner. To paraphrase Paul, what we see now we see only in part, but one day we will see it all completely.
If this is true, then how we behave here does matter. How we treat others counts for something. Jesus really does want us to love others the way he loves us. Jesus really does want us to treat others the way we want to be treated. Jesus wants us to live here as if we are there. In the eyes of Christ, there really is no difference between heaven and earth.
It is no wonder why there are so many people who are turned off by Christianity claiming that we are nothing but a bunch of hypocrites. We say one thing, but we do something else. We profess a faith in the living Christ, but we behave differently. We act so pious for an hour on Sunday morning, but the other 167 hours of the week we lie, we cheat, we slander, we gossip, we spread rumors, we talk behind people’s backs…not exactly being Christian if you ask me. We may not believe what my friend Steve believes, but our actions suggest something different, do they not?
But Jesus shows us another way. By showing us that heaven and earth intersect, there is little room for bargaining. We have to behave now they way we would behave in heaven, because we are already there. We have to respond to the cries of the world rather than turning a deaf ear to them, because those cries are heard in heaven as well as on earth.
In his book entitled, Why Faith Matters, Rabbi David Wolpe writes, “I’ve often told children the story of a man who stood before God, his heart breaking from the pain and injustice in the world. ‘Dear God,’ he cried out, ‘Look at all the suffering, the anguish and distress in Your world. Why don’t you send help?’ God responded: ‘I did send help. I sent you.’”
God also sent you. God sent you into the world knowing that he (or she) was sending you into heaven as well. We are to live on earth as if we are already in heaven, because (in a sense) we are. We are to recreate the realm we expect to one day inherit fully. We are to believe that the fate of the world lies in God’s hands, but we are to act as if it lies in ours. One theologian put it best: “Without God you cannot, but without you, God will not.”