|Union University Church|
By Reverend Laurie DeMott
February 19, 2012
I want to tell you a story that begins on the mountaintop with dazzled disciples,
but ultimately leads us to the meaning of discipleship and the challenge
of the cross.
This past Friday, Alfred-Almond school was on winter break, so I dropped Mathew and Stacy at Eastview mall while I a church member who was in the hospital finishing up his latest chemo treatment. After my visit, I drove back to the mall where I met up with the kids at the food court. We had just settled down to a delicious meal of greasy hamburgers and limp fries when a young woman approached, clipboard in hand.
"I was wondering," she said politely, "if you would mind taking part in a survey. I am a college student doing a class assignment in which we have to ask people ten simple questions. It won't take long."
Always willing to support academic study, we agreed and so the young woman asked us the first question: "On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being no and 10 being yes," she read, "do you believe there are moral absolutes?"
This was not the kind of question I expected. Usually when people approach you with clipboards at a mall, they ask things like, "How many times a week do you go shopping?" Rarely do they invite the kind of philosophical thinking that this young woman's question posed. My mind immediately turned to late night talks in my seminary dorm room with classmates over post-modernism, empiricism, and moral relativism. I thought of today's struggle over whether women's rights, the right to free speech, and religious liberty are uniquely American or should be considered absolutes for all societies. I thought of the philosophical debates of the late 1800s in which thinkers like William James suggested that the value of a truth is dependent on the mind and experience of the individual, and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s challenge to moral relativism during the civil rights movement when he preached that some ethical values such as justice, compassion, and equality are absolutes that should be upheld for all people at all times.
This was not a question I ever expected to be entertaining in the food court at Eastview Mall.
"Umm, 10," I said, having long ago decided to side with Martin Luther King, Jr. on his insistence that some values cannot be compromised.
She made a checkmark on her clipboard and then said, "Next question. Do you believe people are born good or evil?"
If the question about moral absolutes had been unexpected, at least I had had a clear answer. This question, however, was not only thorny but its answer more elusive. A few weeks ago, in fact, our Wednesday book group had spent most of an hour debating that very issue -- wondering about the origins of evil and the contributions of genetics versus environment in the formation of character.
I smiled and said, "Boy, that's a tough one" and proceeded to lay out some of the arguments for the different positions, but the young woman waved my speculations aside and said, "I'll just put you down as an 'I don't know.' Third question, 'Do you believe that human beings are sinful?'"
It was at this point that I noticed a book tucked underneath the young woman's clipboard. She was carrying a Bible, a King James Version Bible -- the textbook of fundamentalist churches, strident evangelicals, and Bible College students. Suddenly I wondered just what college she was attending and whether the survey was even a real classroom assignment, or was it the opening shot in a drive-by testimony that was certain to end in an attempt to convert me to Jesus? I decided that it was time we put our cards on the table.
"I should tell you that I'm a minister," I said. "I've done a lot of reading and thinking on these matters and they are questions that the church has debated for centuries. Part of the problem is that the answers depend a lot on how you are defining your terms. For example, I would say that I don't think that people are born sinful per se but I do think we are born with a propensity to sin. If you define sin as that behavior which alienates us from others and from God, then yes, we will inevitably sin because we are imperfect human beings bound to fail, but if a baby tragically dies just after birth, no, they haven't had time to sin. So, I don't think we are born as sinners but I do think we are born with a propensity to sin."
"I'll just put you down as a 'yes'," she chirped cheerily, unfazed by my parsing of the issue. "OK, next question..." she continued, and the survey went on, question after difficult question.
"Do you believe in heaven?"
"Do you believe there are eternal consequences to your behavior?"
"Do you believe works can get you into heaven?"
Each time she posed a tough theological issue, I offered a nuanced response and after each nuanced response, she summarized my lengthy answer with a check mark in the yes or no box.
After eight rounds of this, I was frustrated with her insistence on true/false answers when I wanted to write essays. My interviewer, however, remained perky and unperturbed by my discomfort.
"Almost done," she said. "Question 9. Do you believe that Jesus is God?"
Now, I should have just said 'yes' and been done with it, but just this week, the Wednesday Book Group members hashed out the Trinity and the two thousand years of church debate over the relationship between Jesus and God. Orthodox Christianity would of course, say that Jesus is God but the explanation of what that means has filled whole libraries, and disagreement over what that means has led to persecutions, exiles, and schism. It is not a question that can be or should be answered lightly and I was not about to have my theology reduced to a checkmark in a box. All of my frustration of the last fifteen minutes finally spilled out and I launched into a long monologue on the history of the trinitarian controversy, the diversity of biblical views, the Nicene Council, heretical interpretations that became orthodox, orthodoxies that were later consigned as heresies, all the while peppering my speech with as many really big words as I could come up with in an attempt to put this young whipper snapper in her place! It was an admittedly childish reaction and the worst thing is that it accomplished nothing.
"I'll put you down as an 'I don't know,'" she cheeped when I was done. "Last question: on a scale of 1 to 10 with ten being very certain and 1 being not certain at all, how would your rate your chances of going to heaven?" Since she clearly had already decided that my chances of eternal reward were slim, she looked deliberately at the kids.
Stacy mumbled "5" hoping to avoid further discussion; Mathew said, "0" "just to annoy her" he later confided. I sighed, "10", tired of the whole thing. I don't know if the girl even wrote any of our answers down, because she then volunteered brightly, "Well, I know I'm going to heaven!"
I waited for the forthcoming testimony but surprisingly, it didn't come. Perhaps she had decided we were not worth saving; perhaps the whole exercise had, in fact, been an assignment that she just needed to finish and she had never really been that interested in my ideas to begin with. Or maybe, just maybe, her smile masked as much frustration with me as I was feeling with her. Whatever the reason, she put down her pen, thanked us brightly for our time, and sailed off disappearing into the stream of shoppers. I, on the other hand, was left feeling very unsettled by the whole encounter. I couldn't let it go.
I was bothered by the deception of evangelism disguised as an innocent survey.
I was bothered by the reduction of complex questions to easy black and white answers.
I was bothered by the implication that faith is a set of correct beliefs and that salvation can be determined by a multiple choice exam. I imagined St. Peter standing by the Pearly Gates handing out test booklets and number 2 pencils.
"After your tests are graded," he'd be saying, "your results will be posted and those receiving a perfect grade will be allowed to enter. All others will be sent below." Justification not by works or by faith but by test score.
But mostly, I realized after a lot of thought, mostly what bothers me is that there was no shadow of the cross there; it was all glory. There on the mountaintop in the dazzling light of Christ, a disciple kneels before Jesus and says, "I believe!" and the thing is done. Salvation is accomplished. You have said the right words, you have pledged allegiance to the right creeds, you have read the right Bible, and you have checked off all of the right boxes; all that is left for you now is to wait on the mountaintop until you, too, are taken up in glory. You might as well build a booth and enjoy the view from up there where heaven is so close you can almost touch it.
That's what Peter and James and John wanted to do. That's what any of us wants to do when we are feeling full of the joy of our faith. When the music is rolling over us and our hearts are swelling with the great hymns of the church, when the stories of healed hearts and transformed lives make us realize how wondrous it is to be loved and saved by Christ, we too want to hunker down and breathe deeply the perfume of our salvation. Faith is and should be a great and glorious thing. If you don't sometimes have mountaintop experiences -- it you aren't on occasion brought to tears by the incredible power that Christ has to bind up the broken hearted, bring release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and to set free those who are oppressed -- if you aren't sometimes just overflowing with the remarkable love that God pours upon the world, then you haven't understood that the gospel is Good News. There is power here. There is light here. There is redemption for the worst sinner and hope for those gripped by the deepest despair. And when that sinner is us, we should be even more grateful that Christ's love has the power to save us and make us into new people. Thanks be to God, because we'd be in deep trouble without Jesus.
Nevertheless, we cannot forget that there is no empty tomb without the cross. As the disciples stood on that mountain dazzled by the light, God spoke and said to them, "This is my beloved Son. Listen to him." The disciples blinked awake and they tried to remember: what was it that Jesus had been saying that they were supposed to listen to? They thought back to his words right before they trekked up the mountain path:
"Whoever would save their lives will lose them, but whoever loses their lives for my sake and for the gospel will save them."
And just in case they still didn't understand, when Jesus came down from
the mountain, he set his face toward Jerusalem, toward Golgotha, and he
said to his disciples, "Follow me."
This is the crux of the gospel: faith is not about what you say with your lips or about checking off the proper boxes on a survey. Faith is about following Christ, and following Christ is about placing your life in his hands so that everything you do, everything you think, say, and feel, reflects his love. I was upset by the young woman's survey because the questions implied that we can be good Christians without getting anywhere near the cross, but without the cross, Christianity is just a self-help therapy and Jesus is just a lifestyle coach. Real faith is not about me, and its not even about my salvation -- its about the salvation of all of us, together, as we give ourselves to others so that they may live just as Christ has given himself for you so that you may live.
So, this won't fit into a neat little checkbox but here is what I believe:
I don't think Jesus cares whether you are an evangelical Christian or a progressive Christian -- I believe Jesus cares about whether you have given up your life for him and for others.
I don't think Jesus cares whether you are a Donatist, Arianist, Modalist, Monarchist, Pelagianist, Calvinist, or dispensational pre-millennianalist -- I believe he cares about whether you have given up your life for him and for others.
I don't think Jesus cares whether you read the King James Bible, the Living Bible, the Message, the New Revised Standard Version Bible, or if you can parse scripture in the original Greek and Hebrew-- (aratoe ton storon autoo) ???t? t?? sta???? a?t?? -- take up your cross and follow him; that's what Jesus cares about.
I don't think Jesus cares whether you are gay or straight, Black or white, a teetotaller or a wine connoisseur, a Tea Partier or a Wall Street occupier, whether you are male or female, fat or skinny, introverted or extroverted, rich or poor, neat as a pin or a downright slob, have I made my point?
I believe that what Jesus really cares about is whether you have given up your life for him and for others.
After all, he gave his life for you on the cross and he said, "Follow me."
"This is my beloved Son. Listen to him."
And though it won't fit in a checkbox, that is what I believe.