Saying and Doing
© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines
Scott Boulevard Baptist Church, Decatur, Georgia
June 1, 2008 (9th Sunday in Ordinary Time)
Today’s gospel reading comes from the closing words of the Sermon on the Mount. In it, Jesus answers the question, “Who gets to enter into the eternal life of the kingdom of heaven?” This isn’t the only place in Matthew or in the other gospels where Jesus answers this question, but I think many of us might be surprised by how unfamiliar some of those answers can be.
That’s because, as Protestants, we usually turn to the words of the Apostle Paul when we want to hear about salvation and eternal life. Here are some examples. Paul is the one who says that “a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law” [Rom 3:28] and that we have been saved “by grace…[as] the gift of God…not [as] the result of works, so that no one may boast” [Ephesians 2:8-9]. Similarly, in Galatians Paul writes, “yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” [Galatians 2:16]; and in his letter to Titus Paul asserts that we are not saved because of what we have done, but because of the mercy of the Son of God [Titus 3:5].
Paul is very concerned with issues of faith and belief. In today’s epistle lesson, for instance, Paul talks about justification through the gift of grace “for all who believe” [Romans 3:22-24]. Perhaps his strongest statement, though, comes a few chapters later where Paul writes, “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” [Romans 10:9].
I think that’s the answer that most of us who are Protestants turn to first when discussing the question “Who will be saved?” “Easy,” we say, looking at Romans, “anyone who believes that Jesus is the son of God, died for their sins, and was raised from the dead – anyone who believes that will be saved.”
That statement would stand without question if the only New Testament writings we had were the work of the Apostle Paul. Things aren’t quite that simple, however, since we also have the gospels – and they provide the best record we have of the actual teachings of Jesus.
So let us look there as well, before we return to today’s text. In the gospel of Mark, someone comes up to Jesus and asks him explicitly, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ answer? “Keep the commandments, sell everything you own, give it to the poor, and follow me.” Notice that he makes no mention of faith or belief. He just tells the person what to do [Mark 10:17-23].
That story goes the exact same way in Matthew and Luke [Matt 19:16-30; Luke 18:18-30]. Also in Matthew, Jesus speaks of the end of time when, seated upon a throne, he will separate the sheep from the goats. The righteous sheep, who enter into “eternal life,” are the ones who did things – who fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, and visited the sick. Those who did not do those things, according to Jesus, go away into “eternal punishment” [Matt 25:31-46]. Again, Jesus makes no mention of belief – just action.
Which brings us to our gospel reading for today. Remember our classic quote from the Apostle Paul about salvation: “confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord…and you will be saved?” Let’s contrast that with the first verse from today’s lesson: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven…” That’s not exactly a promising start, and it gets more discouraging when we read the second part of the verse, “…but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”
Here Jesus explicitly compares the value of belief with the value of action, and action wins hands down. Keep in mind that this passage comes at the end of nearly three chapters of explicit teachings by Jesus regarding how we are to live our lives. We call those chapters the “Sermon on the Mount,” but they might more accurately be called the “Sermon on the Impossibility of Christianity.” It is in the Sermon on the Mount that we are told to share everything we have, to return peace for violence, to avoid worldly possessions, and to love our enemies.
So, over the past two thousand years, Christians have tried to find every possible way to teach that, even though Jesus said those things, he didn’t really mean them. After all, no one can live up to the standard set by the Sermon on the Mount. If the depth of our faithfulness is measured by Matthew 5-7, then we all have to accept that we fall far short of the mark.
But the last part of Matthew 7 makes the Sermon on the Mount even scarier. What if it’s not just Jesus’ ideal but impossible expectations for us. What if our place in eternity really hinges on how successfully we have followed Jesus’ teachings? What if our very salvation hinges not on what we believe but instead on our willingness to do the absurdly generous, impossibly sacrificial, and astoundingly merciful things that Jesus says he expects us to do?
I don’t know about the rest of you, but my first response to that line of thinking is, “No way!” I’m a Christian, saved by the grace of God. I may not be perfect, but at least I know I’ve got my faith, my “spiritual house” so-to-speak, in order.
There’s only one problem with that line of thinking. One tiny, little problem. The actual teachings of Jesus. Don’t you hate it when something minor like that gets in the way of perfectly reasonable theology?
Perhaps more accurately, Jesus’ words in our gospel reading today get in the way of the revival movement that swept through this country in the 1800’s, and which still impacts how many of us think about Christianity. In fact, I remember being told as a child that I should be comfortable asking strangers, “Do you know, with absolute certainty, that if you were to die today you would go to heaven?” If they said “No,” I was expected to explain to them that Jesus was the son of God who died for their sins, and that accepting his sacrifice would allow the person I had just met to spend eternity in heaven.
Those kinds of numbers are great for evangelism statistics. They allow for easy head counts of how many new Christians a church or a revival or a denomination has gained over the course of a year. Belief, or at least a claim of belief, is easy to measure. Simply ask people yes or no questions. If they say “yes” to the right questions, they are believers, and – therefore – Christians.
Again, the only problem with that is the words of Jesus. Not only does he say in this passage that believing in him is not enough, he goes on from there. Speaking of the end of time and, most likely, that judgment moment where he will separate the sheep from the goats, Jesus says that “many” people will stand before him talking about all of the good stuff they did in his name, and he will say, “You are an evildoer. Get away from me. I never knew you.”
How disheartening that is to so many of us. “Lord,” we want to say, “don’t you know all the things we did for you. Why, we put your Ten Commandments signs in our yard. We elected political candidates who claimed to share our beliefs. We got up early on a Saturday to carry signs with Bible verses on them and a protest against people who didn’t believe what you told us to believe. We put stickers on textbooks and on the bumpers of our cars. We wore t-shirts, and put Bible verses on our bulletin board. We preached inspiring sermons. We were 100% pro-Jesus, all the way.”
Matthew’s gospel causes us to fear that, when we run down a list like that one, Jesus will just look at us sadly and say, “I wasn’t there for any of that. I was with the ones who took up their crosses and set their feet on the path that I walked. I was with the ones who did the will of the One who sent me. I don’t even know who you are. Go away.”
How terrifying! And this is not a liberal or a conservative issue. All of us, no matter which side of the aisle or which end of the pew we sit on, have allowed ourselves to buy into the notion that Christianity is simply about what we believe or what we confess. We can’t just blame revivalism for that. It seems as if every generation pushes religious identity farther away from everyday life. Religion has become a personal decision, a private belief that no one really expects to have an impact on the things we do outside of church.
Religion has become a kind of affiliation, like an allegiance to a particular sports team or an affinity for a certain kind of music. You might expect a Braves fan to wear the occasional jersey or attend certain events, but you wouldn’t expect every aspect of their lives to change because of which team they cheer for or which stadium they can be found in on a Friday night.
We’ve started to think of religious belief the same way. Religion has become a choice about whom to root for, another label that we can slap on the side of our car to distinguish ourselves from the people around us. Sometimes it works the opposite way, and Christianity becomes a label that we use to blend in – a kind of fashion choice that makes us look a little more like our neighbors.
In some ways, this shift toward seeing Christianity as nothing more than a set of personal beliefs is not completely a bad thing. When Christianity was viewed as an all-pervasive lifestyle, governments and churches perverted their power to persecute and exile minorities of different groups who acted differently from the established “Christian” norm. Scientists were persecuted for their research, emancipationists were persecuted for preaching freedom, and women were persecuted for stepping into the workforce – all in the name of Christianity.
Somewhere, however, there has to be a balance. Part of the answer to finding it is in the Sermon on the Mount itself, where in the midst of all of his high expectations, Jesus reminds us to not go looking for splinters in each others’ eyes when there are logs in our own. We can recover a sense of Christian obligation, or the work of Christianity, without recovering the heritage of Christian bigotry and oppression, of we hold ourselves to the standard first. Then, on that impossible day when we fully meet Jesus’ standard, then alone can we start trying to hold other Christians to that same standard.
Starting with the Sermon on the Mount is as good a place as any for setting a Christian standard for our behavior. Those of you who have read it, however, almost certainly understand why the word “impossible” keeps coming up in this sermon. Humans simply are not capable of living up to the ideals of the Sermon on the Mount. I don’t think we have the luxury, however, of ignoring the commands of Jesus just because there is no way we could keep them.
That creates something of a theological quandary. If you remember, Jesus comments aren’t just about what we should do, they are about what we should do if we want to enter the kingdom of heaven – eternal life in the presence of God. So, just to review, I started off by pointing out that Jesus’ own words contradict the biblical passages that most of us use to feel confident of our salvation. Now I’m pointing out that the very things Jesus asks us to do are impossible. I suspect that I have now made certain that you never, ever ask another religion professor to come preach at your church.
Like the crowd gathered around Jesus when he told the rich man to give away all his possessions we are compelled to ask, “Then who can be saved?” The only possible answer is the one Jesus gave, “For mortals, it is impossible, but for God all things are possible” [Matt 19:25-26].
With God, all things are possible. I think that’s the best answer to that rather pretentious question I was taught to ask people as a child. “Do you know if you will spend eternity in heaven?” With God, all things are possible.”
It doesn’t sound nearly as smug or as satisfying as a simple “yes,” but I don’t get the impression that Jesus wanted us to be smug or satisfied with our salvation. For those times when we need comfort, we have the words of Paul to remind us of God’s gracious mercy. When we get a little too comfortable, however, we have the words of Jesus calling us to study our actions and priorities to see if they meet the expectations of Almighty God.
What would Christianity look like if we tried that? What would being a “Christian” mean if we, as Christians, used the words of Jesus to judge ourselves, rather than others? How many people would come to our churches if they knew membership meant commitment, work, effort, change, and even sacrifice? Since it’s never been tried on a significant scale, I’m not sure we know.
Ultimately, our salvation is wholly dependent on the grace of God. Nevertheless, Jesus’ own teachings repeatedly caution us to take seriously our obligations as his followers. As churches continue to find “new” ways to fill their pews, perhaps the time has come for Christians to instead simply take the words of Jesus seriously.