Mission Impossible

Ephesians 1.3-14

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory. 

In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit.

I have always been a “front row” kind of person. I wish it was because I am so dedicated to the things that I learn, but most of it is because I know that if I sit in the back, I’ll get distracted and stop paying attention. So when I was in college, I sat in the front row of all my Religious Studies classes, dutifully taking notes, and tucking it all away for the future.

In one such class titled “Hindu Traditions,” I was sitting in the front row listening to my practicing Hindu professor talk about how important his faith was to himself and to his family. And he was in the middle of a lecture when the girl sitting directly behind me raised her hand. When she coughed for our professors attention I turned over my shoulder and saw that she was proudly and prominently wearing a “Campus Crusade for Christ” teeshirt, and kept stretching her hand higher and higher as if that would get our professor’s attention. Reluctantly, he stopped lecturing and motioned for her to speak.

She said, “Dr. Mittal – If you know you’re going to hell for being a Hindu, why wouldn’t you believe in Jesus to save yourself?”

The room was silent.

Dr. Mittal, having been calm and collected all semester, began to clench his fists together and his nostrils flared before he blurted out, “How dare you speak to me that way! I am so tired of you foolish young Christians trying to tell me what to believe in. Get out of my class right now!”

The disciple Thomas, every worried about what Jesus was really saying, once questioned his Lord about the truth of where they were all going. Jesus’ response? “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” 

Jesus does not know the way, the truth, and life, rather, he is all of these things. And he is not merely a way, but THE way. Jesus is the unique and visible manifestation of God.

From the beginning of the church, this statement, this claim, has been axiomatic for Christianity. If you desire to know God, to find salvation, and to experience grace, you can only find it through Jesus Christ – hence the strong and persistent push for evangelism over the last 2,000 years. Which makes sense considering the fact that one of the last things Jesus ever said to his disciples was, “Go into the world baptizing all people in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

The tradition of the church is one that staunchly affirms that salvation can only come through Jesus Christ.

Or, to put it another way, outside the church, there is no salvation. To experience the forgiving pardon of the Lord, to be taught the ways of the faith, to engage in acts of kindness and mercy, is entirely dependent of the existence and proclamation of the church. 

I can remember feeling so uncomfortable in the front row as my professor attempted to clam his demeanor. In the moment I thought she just wanted to frustrate him, or draw out the exact type of reaction that took place. But what if she was being genuine? What if she really was concerned about his salvation?

After all, no one can come to the Father except through Jesus Christ. Amen.

With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

Prayer

There are anecdotes about famous people that are just so good that sometimes it doesn’t matter whether they are true or not. Think of George Washington and the cherry tree. Did he really chop down the cherry tree as a child? Does that matter more than the lesson of telling the truth?

There are a lot of stories about Karl Barth, the dialectical theological of the 20th century who greatly upended, in the best ways, my theological understanding, many of which probably aren’t true. Like the time a student pridefully declared he had read everything Barth wrote to which Barth replied, “Son, not even I have read everything I’ve written.”

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So, whether its true or not, people used to push Barth about his universalist tendencies – the idea that, in the end, God saves all regardless. In his work he dances around the claim that all have been, and will be, saved through Christ’s work, death, and resurrection, but Barth never outright claims whether or not he believes it.

And, the story goes that a young student pushed and pushed Barth to respond to the claim of his universalism, to which Barth replied, “Let me put it this way: I will not be disappointed if heaven is crowded.”

The question of universalism is remarkably relevant considering the great range of thought regarding faith and discipleship. This year alone has seen publications in the arena of theology both in support of universalism and against it. With the world becoming more diverse with every passing day, with different understanding of Christianity cropping up all over the world, the church is left with a question: “How big is the all of Christ died for all?”

We might think of the passage read today, and in particular Christ gathering up all things in him both in heaven and on earth. 

We might think of the fact that humankind was created in the image of God – every single individual having been molded from God’s divinity and given life through the Spirit regardless of later religious affiliations.

We might even think of the myriad examples from Christ’s ministry where he came for the last, least, lost, little, and dead. How he regularly shared meals with the sinners, the vagrants, and the marginalized. How Jesus cared not one bit about their own morality or motivations, but simply declared, “I have come to set you free.”

If we believe that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus then God’s mercy and love and grace truly knows no bounds. God’s power is therefore so magnificent and unconditional that it extends not only to all of us gathered here, but to the entirety of creation!

The work of Christ then becomes the lens through which we see the beginning and end of all things, the One whose arms were still outstretched even on the cross, and how all are caught up in the cosmic victory over sin and death.

When Barth responded to the young man with his quip about a crowded heaven, he did so by avoiding the real question but still addressing the kind of hope made manifest in Christ – a hope that all Christians should have. Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. All of us.

With all wisdom and insight Jesus has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. Amen. 

In Jesus we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.

Prayer

During my final year of seminary I served as one of the on-call chaplains at Duke University hospital. We were required to stay at the hospital for 24 hour periods attending to the numerous pages, calls, and deaths that would inevitably occur during our shifts. 

One night, after sitting with yet another family reeling in the wake of a loved one’s death, after holding hands with a woman who was just handed her final diagnosis, after pacing outside a room working up the courage to say the right words in a prayer, I found myself in the chapel. 

It was a tiny room, barely labeled, off one of the main hallways. It contained numerous religious pamphlets, an assortments of hymns and sacred texts, and toward the back there was a makeshift altar with a lined notebook that anyone could write a prayer in. Whenever I had a free moment during my shift, I would head to that space, flip through the notebook, and lift up the prayers that I found. 

But I mostly went to the chapel to get away from the rest of the hospital.

Every once in a while I would enter the chapel, expecting to find it empty as it often was, but instead I would find a Muslim doctor praying on the ground in the corner. We would always politely nod to one another but then continue on in our respective religious duties. But that night, the night where I felt completely overwhelmed and exhausted, everything changed.

I was standing up at the altar, praying over the notebook, while he prayed in the corner. We both were speaking at a tone barely above a whisper so as to not disturb the other, when all the sudden he stopped, stood up, and walked to my side. 

I felt him wrap his arm around my shoulder and he said, “Lets do it together this time.”

Without discussing the details, without making a plan, without debating our theological differences, we both began to pray, arm in arm, for the people we were serving.

I don’t know how long we prayed, I don’t even remember what we said, but when it was all over we hugged and then we went our separate ways.

Without a doubt, the existence of, and interaction with, other religious groups is perhaps the most significant challenge and opportunity for the church today. Moreover, with the rise of so-called the New Atheists and the Nones (those with no religious affiliation), we have entered to a confounding mosaic in which we are challenged to address those who do not believe and those who do believe and those who believe differently than us.

So, what happens to people of other faiths when they die? How can we relate to people of different religious persuasions? I’m not sure.

We can pick up the Bible and finds all sorts of answers – answers that include all or close out some or leave us with something in between. One of the great paradoxes of the church is that we affirm how there is no salvation outside the church and that through Christ all have been saved. 

Only God knows what will happen in the end, but until we meet our end, perhaps it is best for us to live by some of Jesus’ most challenging words: Love one another. Not love other Christians or love the people in the pews, but love one another. 

In my own life, God has used a great number of people from outside the church to help teach me about what it means to follow Jesus. But at the same time, what we do in this place, what we do as a church, has saved me time and time again.

What has been revealed for us through Jesus, is that God desires us to be in relationship with others. This implies a willingness to be vulnerable with people different from us, people whose beliefs contradict our own, people with no beliefs at all, and the people who are sitting right next to us in church. 

We are called to love one another.

Though we may not think alike, though our differences of opinion and religious understanding may vary considerably, though we may not agree on the scope of salvation, may we not love alike?

Without all doubt we may. Amen. 

Questions: I Believe; Help My Unbelief! – Sermon on Mark 9.14-24 & Ephesians 2.8-9

Mark 9.14-24

When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. When the whole crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. He asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.” He answered them, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus said to him, “If you are able! — All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

Ephesians 2.8-9

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.

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Today we begin the first part of our sermon series on “Questions.” After requesting responses from all of you regarding your questions about God, Faith, and the Church, we have come to the time where I attempt to faithfully respond to those questions. Today we are talking about faith, being saved, and doubt. So, here we go…

In 1962 one of the greatest theological minds of the 20th century visited the United States on a lecture tour. Karl Barth was a product of Western Theology who actively spoke against the Nazi regime rejecting their un-Christian allegiance to Adolf Hitler. His writing and influence spread throughout the world to a degree beyond his expectation.

So during the early 1960’s Barth found himself in his later years, touring around the American landscape lecturing to young, and old, Christians about the importance of God being God.

Karl Barth is my theological hero – his books line my shelves and I believe he put forth a remarkable understanding of scripture.

Karl Barth

Karl Barth

However, Barth is remarkably difficult to understand and was very longwinded in his writing. He was once approached by a young theologian declaring, “Professor Barth, you’re my hero! I’ve read everything you’ve ever written!” To which Barth replied, “Son, I haven’t even read everything I’ve written.”

Karl Barth, intellectual and as difficult to understand as any theologian I’ve ever read, lectured at Princeton, the University of Chicago, and Union Theological Seminary. After one such lecture, no doubt filled with theologisms beyond the capacity of comprehension, a young man bravely decided to ask a question.

Now, at the time, evangelical theology was beginning to take off in the United States. Churches pushed for “personal relationships with Jesus Christ.” Altar calls were all the rage. And everyone wanted to know when you got saved.

The young man, with his hand shaking in the air, waited to ask his question. I imagine that Barth was getting tired of answering the foolish questions from the audience but decided to offer one final answer. “Son, what is your question?”

“Well professor Barth, I was wondering, when were you saved?”

The young man, obviously caught up with the personal stories of individuals who accepted Jesus Christ in their hearts, moments where folk learned that they were saved, wanted to know when Barth had discovered this momentous occasion in his own life.

After responding to questions about the ineffability of God, the diminishing role of the third member of the Trinity, and the self unveiling to humanity of the God who cannot be discovered by humanity simply through its own intuition, Barth was finally asked a question with a simple answer.

“Hmm, when was I saved? Oh yes, thats easy, it was… 2,000 years ago on the cross.”

“How will I know when I’m saved?” A question I have heard time and time again. When will I know, with assurance, that heaven is my everlasting reward? How will I be able to tell that I have been saved and what happens if I ever have doubts later on, will I still go to heaven?

In many churches, being “saved” is equated with a moment when an individual accepts Jesus Christ as their “personal Lord and Savior.” We look at it as a check-off list, an accomplishment to be met in order to go to heaven. A time when they let their old self die, in order to be clothed in Christ forevermore. This often takes form in an altar call, that moment after the sermon when a preacher stands right where I am, calling out to the congregation, calling out for those who feel the call of God on their lives to come forward during the final hymn to give their lives to Jesus Christ. Sometimes it takes place in baptism, when water is used to cleanse a child or an adult from their broken ways and save them. Sometimes it takes place in the bread and wine of communion, nourishing someone’s faith in a way previously unexperienced.

In many places, being “saved” like this is worth celebrating as a rebirth, a reawakening of the soul, a definitive shift in the life of a Christian. Some of my friends celebrate their “saved” birthday every year with a cake and presents. And even though some of those people are dear to me, and even though I can trace back to a moment in my life where I committed my life to Christ, I still wonder about what it really means to be saved.

This is what I do know: The saving of anyone is something which is not within our power, but only of God. No one can be saved – by virtue of what he/she can do. Everyone can be saved — by virtue of what God can do.

After coming down from the transfiguration on the mountaintop, Jesus met back up with the disciples only to be surprised to see them arguing with scribes. Upon arrival the crowd surrounded him overcome with awe. Someone from the group stepped forward, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak, it makes him seize up and crash to the ground. I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they were unable.” Jesus then responded to everyone present, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.”

So the crowd brought the boy forward but he immediately began to convulse when in the presence of the Lord and he rolled on the floor foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” “Its been happening since childhood,” the father responded, “but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.”

Jesus then responded, “If you are able! — All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

unbelief

I believe; help my unbelief! The father’s reply demonstrates for us the nature of faith. It seems so paradoxical and contradictory, yet, how often has that father’s cry been the prayer on our lips? The father has shown a bit of faith by approaching Jesus in the first place, yet the move stemmed from desperation rather than confidence; “if you can do anything” shows his doubt and his faith at the same moment. The father holds his disbelief and faith in tandem with one another.

Haven’t we all had moments where, like the father, we can hold both our faith and disbelief at the same time? Periods in our life where we know that God loves us, yet our doubts begin to percolate at the same time. Perhaps confronted with a disappointment we call out to God  begging to know his ways, wondering if he’s even listening at all, yet we still call out to God. Like the father we take our burdens to God, we have enough faith to go that far, faith the size of a mustard seed, but then we struggle and limp along unsure of what God can do.

Prayer does not work like magic. Prayer is not a manipulation of God to get what we want. God does not simply grant all of our requests when we kneel and bow before him. That puts far too much power on our side of the equation. Like “knowing” we are saved because “we” have accepted Christ, it puts the burden on us to accomplish something that we cannot do on our own. If salvation can be decided on our acceptance of Christ as Lord, then God would never have had to come in the form of flesh, die on the cross, and then be raised from the dead. Prayer is more like wrestling alone in the middle of the night with a God who refuses to let go.

God is the one who saves us through Jesus Christ, God is the one who healed that father’s son through Jesus Christ. Prayer and accepting Christ is not magic, yet we are always called to pray, like that father, for more faith. We pray for more faith as trust in God’s love, grace, and power so that God in Christ can work his healing power and presence through Christ in our lives.

The story of the man bringing his son to Christ is powerful for all of us gathered here, because like that father we are fallen people incapable to saving ourselves and our loved ones. This story offers us a great glimpse of God’s glory: All things are possible to those who believe. But even greater than that is the fact that beyond our faith or prayers, God is the source of healing and salvation in our lives. Jesus is the one who calls us to brings our burdens to him, we are not left alone to try and save ourselves.

So, how do we know when we are saved? What does it mean to be saved? Are we allowed to doubt?

I like Barth’s answer to that young man, “I was saved 2,000 years ago on the cross.” I like his answer because its true and it puts the power of salvation back on God’s side of the equation. We cannot save ourselves by virtue of our own devices, but it is only God who can save us. Yet, there is something remarkably powerful about accepting Christ at the same time. Barth’s response is appropriate, but it still misses a fundamental element of what it means to follow Christ.

If being “saved” can be compartmentalized to that moment on a cross 2,000 years ago, then there is little need for us to follow Jesus in the present. Without a commitment to change our lives in accordance with the kingdom, discipleship falls to pieces. When we come to know Jesus Christ in our hearts, when we have that moment, whether its at the altar during one of our favorite hymns, or in the water of baptism, perhaps in the wine and bread of communion, its not so much they we are accepting God, but more the fact that for the first time we are realizing that God has had us the whole time. 

Faith, at its purest and deepest form, is not about “letting God into your heart” but discovering that God has been there the whole time. Being saved is not about making a choice to become a Christian, but a willingness to let God be the Lord of our lives, and not the other way around. Doubts are not something to be feared and dismissed, but to be embraced and wrestled with. Even after John Wesley felt the assurance of God’s love in his life when his heart was strangely warmed, his doubts crept back in within days.

Faith is that great dance between us and God, faith is knowing and unknowing, faith is being able to cry out “I believe; help my unbelief!”

Thats exactly why we need elements of worship such as baptism and communion. We need patterns and practices that remind us of that great event where Christ died and was risen, that incredible moment where we were saved, but we also need food and habits for our faith journeys. We need to know that we have been saved by grace through faith, not by our own doing, but by the gift of God. Yet at the same time we have to hold the mystery of salvation like the father did, we have to recognize that we continually need Christ to be the one from whom all blessings flow, we need Christ to hear our prayers and grow our faith, we need Christ to be our Lord, not just in the past but in every moment of our lives. You have been saved, and are continuing to be saved everyday.

I believe; help my unbelief!” is our confession of faith in the God who continues to breathe new life and new faith into all of us.

In a few moments we will celebrate the two great sacraments of our church. Hattie Myles Markham will be brought forth to the water to be baptized in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. She will be incorporated into God’s kingdom through the redemptive power of the trinity. And likewise all of us will then be invited to feast at Christ’s table letting the bread and the wine nourish our souls.

Here we find the gospel, in baptism and communion we find the good news of God in the world. No matter what you do, God will never love you any more, and no matter what you do God will never love you any less. God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have eternal life. Nothing can ever separate you from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ mounted the hard wood of the cross to save you and me from having to try and save ourselves. Salvation is here. Thanks be to God.

Amen.