June 1, 2008
All Saints Episcopal Church
Valley City, ND
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the Kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father, who is in heaven.”
Most of us, when we hear this, have a pretty clear understanding of what Jesus is getting at, because, let’s face it—we’ve all done it. We have all talked Christianity with our lips and yet haven’t lived it out in our lives. We’ve talked the talk, so to speak, but haven’t walked the walk.
What Jesus is talking about today is that we can go through the motions all we want when it comes to our religion, but if we have no faith—and if we don’t actually go out and live our faith—then we have failed. We have failed God, we have failed each other as Christians and we have failed ourselves.
Faith is essential to being a Christian. Faith is more than just going through the motions. Faith is something that transforms us and makes us better. It motivates us and changes us. It makes us live out that faith.
As we are no doubt aware of, one can be religious without having any real faith. We can say “Lord, Lord” all we want, yet we don’t feel anything in our heart. There was has been a theological movement over the last couple hundred years called “religious atheism” or “Christian atheism.” The belief was that one could be a Christian without believing anything. One didn’t have to believe in the miracles stories of Jesus or the Old Testament. One didn’t have to believe in the fact that Jesus was the Son of God or God in the flesh. One didn’t have to believe in the Resurrection. One didn’t even have to believe in God. But as long as one believed in the moral teaching of Jesus—as long as one believed in what Jesus said, rather than what Jesus did—one could still be a Christian. That movement hasn’t gained a whole lot of momentum and it has flamed and fizzled quite often over the years. But these days we do still have some very popular theologians who like to push the edge on thinking like this.
It really does make one think about what he is hoping in and believing in when he prays, Lord, Lord. To me, this kind of atheistic Christianity seems empty. It seems like a pitcher without water. It seems to me to be a perfect example of people making religion an idol in their lives. And we can, in a sense, truly make religion an idol in our lives.
Last Sunday, in our Gospel reading, we heard Jesus saying: One cannot serve two masters. One cannot serve God and wealth—wealth here really in a sense being a symbol for ourselves. We cannot serve both God and ourselves. Religion without faith becomes a very demanding master in our lives. It becomes an idol.
I preached last week at the Cathedral about idols and I asked then: what do you think of when you think of an idol? No doubt, we think of those stone statues pagans worship. But for us, idols mean more than just statues. Idols for us are anything that come between us and God.
The fact is: religion really can become an idol for us as well. What Jesus is referring to in today’s Gospel reading is truly an instance of making religion an idol. If we go through all the motions of religion—of going to church, of praying prayers without believing, of keeping our Christian faith insular, private, if we keep it to ourselves, then it has become an empty, lifeless idol in our lives. It has become the water pitcher without water.
Christianity isn’t about us as individuals. It can never be just about us. The Church is not just about me. It is always about us—as a whole.
Every so often, I find someone coming up to me and saying, Father, I have a real problem the Creed. I don’t believe in the Resurrection of the Body. Or I don’t believe that Jesus was resurrected. Is it all right for me to keep quiet during those parts of the Creed I don’t believe?
My answer to that question is a simple one: No. It isn’t all right. Kathleen Norris, when this same question was posed to her, was clear: The creed isn’t about me as an individual. It’s about us as a whole.
When we profess the words of the Creed, we do it as a whole, not as individuals. This is what we believe, not what I believe. If I have trouble with aspects of the Creed, and sometimes I do, I need to work that out on my own. I need to work that out with God. But I have no right coming to Church and selectively keeping quiet on certain tenets of the Creed with which I’m struggling, because, when I am in Church, I am a part of something bigger than me.
The Church is about us, as a Whole. And more than that, Church is about taking what we share here—the Word, the Sacrament of the Altar, the love and the faith we learn and live out here—and taking that faith out into the world. It means living out our Christian faith in every part of our lives.
The fact is: we are Christians at all times. We are Christians when are awake and when we are asleep. We are Christians when we are in church and when we are not. We are Christians when we are driving, when we are at home, when we are at work. And because we are, we need to live out that faith. I don’t mean proselytizing necessarily. I’m not a real defender of people who constantly spout off about Jesus to the chagrin and frustration of others. People who do that are similar in many ways to what Jesus is talking about today in the Gospel reading, with their empty “Lord-this” and “Lord-that.”
I knew a priest who loved to quote that familiar dictum of St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel, use words if necessary.” I would say, rather, “Preach the Gospel, use actions if necessary.” Because, let’s face it, our actions more often than not, speak much louder than words. Living out our faith as Christians means more than just preaching. It means being an example to others. It means being unashamed of letting others know that we are Christians. It means letting our faith in Christ shine through us.
There is a wonderful image in the poem "The Windows" by the Anglican priest and poet George Herbert that I have always loved. Herbert writes of God would shine through the preacher like a light through a window pane. I love that image. It works so well in all of our lives. The window pane doesn’t have to be perfect to let God’s Light shine through. It can be dirty or it can be cracked, but still God’s Light will shine through.
That’s what it means to be a Christian. We need to be the window pane through which the Light of God shines. It means being an example to others. It means being a Christian in every aspect of our lives. It means not letting the idols of our lives get in the way of our relationship with God.
Religion is what bridges the gap between ourselves and God. Religion is what opens the way to God. It should never be a barrier in the openness to God. And whenever we use religion for anything other than a means of bringing God to us and to each other and vice versa, it becomes an idol—a barrier in our relationship with God. That also means that whenever we use religion to bash or put others down, then we are using our religion as an idol as well.
With religion, all we need to do to not make it an idol is to infuse it with faith. We need to let God’s life-giving presence come into our lives. In doing so, God will destroy those dead and lifeless idols of our lives, and give us life. We need to fill our pitcher with pure, clean, life-giving water. And we need to share that water with others. When we do so, we will find ourselves doing the will of our Father who is in heaven.
So, live out your faith. Preach the Gospel; use actions if necessary. Be the window pane through which God’s light shines onto others. Be the conduit through which God can work wonders in your life and other’s lives as well. And. if you do, you will find the kingdom of God in your midst.