Belly god or Very God?

Belly god

Lessons:  Luke 13:22-35, Phil 3:17-4:1

One of the ways that a magician fools his audience is through distraction. While the beautiful assistant walks on stage and opens the front of the box to show that it is empty, the magician moves around back to release a trap door.

I believe that the enemy of our soul has used this trick of distraction to fool the culture and even much of the Church. While he had everyone debating and focusing on sexuality for the last few years, behind the scenes he opened the trap door of universalism and many, many have fallen through.

Universalism is the belief that all roads lead to God and as long as you are sincere in your belief then that is all that really matters. Universalism is an easy trap door to fall though because it seems to be a more loving and enlightened belief. It certainly is the dominate perspective of our culture and you can hear it everywhere from Oprah Winfrey to discussions at Starbucks. But if you take Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel seriously, then you will conclude that universalism is indeed a trap. It is a lie. The words of today’s Gospel are very sobering words and because of the seriousness of their implications we would be foolish to rush past them.

“Someone asked him, ‘Lord will only a few be saved?’ He said to them, ‘Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you will try to enter and will not be able.’”

The first thing that I want to point out is how Jesus turned the question around on the inquisitor. The person asking the question wanted to know about “them.” Are “they” going to be saved? When Jesus told him to strive to enter the narrow door, He was in essence turning the question around and telling the inquisitor that rather than worrying about “them” he had better be worried about himself. I like how Peterson paraphrased this section in The Message. “A bystander said, ‘Master will only a few be saved?’ He said, ‘Whether a few or many is none of your business. Put your mind on your life with God. The way to…God is vigorous and requires your total attention.’” (The Message, p.184).

This passage makes it clear that universalism is wrong. Jesus says. “Many, I tell you will try to enter and will not be able.” But saying that not everyone is going to make it is not the same as saying that you or I know who is and who is not. That, as Jesus told the bystander, is none of our business. Why is it none of our business? It is none of our business because we will not be the one judging between the living and the dead. That is Jesus’ job and His alone.

What I need to be focused upon therefore is where I am with God now. There is a great line in an old prayer book that I use before preaching. It captures so well this idea. It says, “And lest when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway, make me first to have pity on my own soul and to render it fit for thy service for what will it profit me to have gained the whole world and lost my soul?” (The Priest’s Book of Private Devotion, p.387).

We know from Jesus’ teaching in Matthew that while the door to salvation is narrow, the door to destruction is broad. St. Paul tells us why that door leads to destruction. It leads to destruction because it involves worshipping a different. St. Paul calls it the god of the belly.

This powerful image took me back to last week’s lessons on the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. The first temptation was, after fasting for 40 days, to turn stones into bread. Obviously there is nothing innately sinful about eating after a fast and unless you are on the Atkins diet there is nothing wrong with eating bread.

The real issue was rather Jesus was going to be led by His appetites or by the Word of God. Would His god be His belly or the One True God? And that same temptation faces us every day. Will we be led by our appetites or will we be led by the Word of God? Who will be in charge of my life today? Will it be the belly god or the Very God?

I have mentioned before that a Roman philosopher critiqued his society shortly after the time of Christ. As a society they had gone from caring about philosophy and culture and and arts and politics to only caring that the Senate continued to give them free food and keeep the games going in the arenas. He said that all the populous cared about was “bread and circus” and because of this they so deteriorated from within that the Empire became easy prey for their enemies without.

I mention this example again because if anything this mentality of bread and circus has grown worse. It seems to be a greater temptation today than it has ever been in our nation. The god of the belly promises to keep us full and to keep us entertained and with this so many are content. Some in our society only care about food stamps and football, while another part only wants to amass a nest egg large enough that their chief concern is how much food and how much play. The god of the belly makes the poor passive in their poverty and makes the rich oblivious in their contentment.

But Jesus does not call us to be passive or obliviously content. He does not call us to bread and circus, rather He calls us to seek first His kingdom. He calls us to a holy unrest when He calls on us to strive to enter the narrow door. Did you catch that word? Strive! Strive! Strive! That hardly paints a picture of resting on our laurels.

Influenced by the Protestant Reformation, we are clear that salvation is not by works but by grace through faith. That said, it is a foolish gamble to think that having expressed faith once, then we have arrived. I have a friend who travels all over the country and he regularly expresses concern to me that everywhere he goes he hears a cheap grace, easy-believism kind of Gospel, which is really no Gospel at all.

Just because you were baptized at two weeks old and are a cradle Anglican does not mean that you have arrived. I could have been confirmed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and served ten times as Senior Warden, but that does not necessarily tell where I am with my relationship with God today. Past familiarity is not equal to a present relationship. Let me say that again. Past familiarity is not equal to a present relationship. They is why when they objected,“But we ate and drank with you and you taught in our streets,” Jesus’ answer was “I don’t know where you come from.” His command to strive in the present and ongoing.

Our New Testament lesson is St. Paul to the Philippians. He definitely had an experience with Jesus that led to his conversion and calling to be an apostle to the Gentiles. No one can doubt that. But he did not rest on those past experience. Just a few verses before today’s lesson he says, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

If the Apostle Paul was not resting on his past experiences and accomplishments, then who are we to think that we may? Jesus said “Strive” and so strive we must. As Peterson put it, “‘The way to…God is vigorous and requires your total attention.’” (The Message, p.184) There should be evidence in our lives today, now, that the kingdom of God is our priority. This of course does not mean that we work our way to heaven but it does mean that if we really have a living faith then someone should better be able to find a pulse somewhere.

One last point about this text and about this we must be abundantly clear. We must be clear about this narrow door through which we are to strive to enter. Is the narrow door correct theology? No. Correct theology points us to the right door but it is not the door. Is it the Bible? No. The Bible paints for us a perfect picture of the door but it is not the door. Is it the right denomination? No. Last week I invited a minister from another denomination to join me in officiating an upcoming wedding and I go the “our-denomination-is-the-only-true-church” speech. He thinks his denomination is the door but he is wrong. There were no denominations when Jesus gave this command to enter through the narrow door, so He wasn’t pointing us to that guy’s church.

So what is the narrow door? Jesus tells us in John’s Gospel. He says, I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.” Jn 10:9. Jesus is the door to salvation and there is no other door. This truth is what theologians call “the scandal of particularity” and what the Apostles called “the foolishness of the Gospel.” But unlike most theologians the Apostles bet their lives that Jesus was the narrow door and took that message to the ends of the earth. As you know most paid for this belief with their lives. It would have been a foolish thing to do if Jesus was but one of many doors.

Let’s ask one last question if we dare. Why is it that Jesus alone is the door to salvation? We answer that question in the comfortable words given after the confession and absolution in the Rite One liturgy of the 1979 BCP. It is here that we quote 1 John 2:1,2. “If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, and he is the perfect offering for our sins, and not for our sins only but for the sins of the whole world.”

When I was in college I majored in psychology and minored in religion which equipped me to ask this important question. “Would you like to supersize that order?” One semester I took a fascinating class that combined both disciplines. It was a study of religion through the lens of Freudian psychology. And what made it even more fascinating was that it was taught by a Death-Of-God theologian who had lost all of his family in the Holocaust. He was one of the most brilliant and inspiring professors I had in college. He allowed us to freely express our views but he had a rule that if you attack another person’s religion that he would come to their defense.

Things went along smoothly for about half the semester until a student spoke a tirade about Christianity and crossed the line. At that point the professor, an avowed atheist, turned into the Apostle Paul and gave such a sterling defense of the Gospel that if he offered an altar call the class would have needed a mass baptism. I will never forget his defense. After stating that he was not a believer he said that he had to admit that of all the world religions, only Christianity has the answer for sin. Some religions deny sin, some try to outweigh sin with good works, others seek to move beyond sin through enlightenment. But, he said, none of them are the answer. Only Christianity admits that sin is a universal problem and only Jesus dealt with it through His death and resurrection. That is why He alone is the door. That is why the door is narrow. For a moment I thought that the professor was going to preach himself into salvation.

Back to Jesus’ words. It is not enough to know that He is the narrow door, we must strive to enter it. One of the best ways of doing this will be offered to you in a few minutes. It is one of the many reasons that I am an Anglican. If we will recognize that Jesus presents Himself to us through the consecrated bread and wine, and we receive it with the full intention of Him dwelling in us and we in Him, then surely we will enter through the door. I know that when I do I truly find pasture for my soul.

There are a lot of voices today that will tell you otherwise. But don’t be fooled by distraction. Listen rather to Jesus. Strive to enter through the narrow door. Amen.







Fishers of Men

Fishers of Men 2016

Lessons: Judges 6:11-24; I Corinthians 15:1-11; St. Luke 5:1-11

Today is the last Sunday of Epiphany but it is also the 5th Sunday of Epiphany and I have chosen to preach on the propers of the latter. As I was preparing this sermon on the gospel story there was something vaguely familiar about it but I could not put my finger on it. Of course I have read this story scores of times but I kept thinking that it was connected to something else. Then I recalled Fr. Chris’ excellent sermon on the miracle at the wedding in Cana and the light came on. In spite of the fact that one story is about turning water into wine and the other is about catching fish, there are similarities that I don’t think are accidental.

In both cases the problem is emptiness. At the wedding they ran out of wine and at the lake their nets were empty. In both cases Jesus was dealing with folks who were experts on their jobs. At the wedding Jesus spoke with the chief steward. At the lake He spoke with men who were fishermen. These were not rednecks with a cooler and a johnboat; these were men who fished for their livelihood.

There is more. In both cases Jesus told them to do something ridiculous. You don’t finish a nice bottle of wine and then go to the tap and refill it with water and hope for the best. And any fisherman knows, when they ain’t bitin, they ain’t bitin. There are days when you can throw everything that you have in your tackle box and it won’t matter. I fished a lot in Florida and I had a lure that was a little plastic kitchen sink with a couple of treble hooks on it because when I got down to throwing everything at them but the kitchen sink it was time to go home. So it would have been understandable if the boys felt more than a little insulted to have a preacher tell them how to fish after these professionals had been fishing all night to no avail. But then again I can also imagine that if Mother Mary had been there like she was at the wedding feast, she would have told those fisherman the same thing that she told the stewards. “Just do what he tells you to do.”

I also see a parallel in the results. At the wedding not only was this new wine better than the previous wine but also Jesus made 180 gallons of the stuff! How many people were at this party? And at the lake they caught so many fish that their nets were about to break and when they called for help they continued to catch so many fish that their boats almost sank. In both cases the people had to think back to Scriptures like Psalm 23 “my cup runneth over” and realize that the One who was making this happen was no mere man. He had to be at least a prophet and maybe more. The point of both of these stories Jesus was revealing Himself as Lord.

But beyond revealing Himself as Lord I see some important lessons for us that show how He ministers to His people and by extension how we can minister to one another. The first lesson is that Jesus met folks right where they were.

When he talked with Nicodemus they talked theology. When He met the woman at the well they talked about living water. When at the wedding they ran out of wine, He made more wine. When the fishermen came up empty He helped them catch fish. He met them at the point of their need.

Jesus did not have a canned gospel presentation, like the four spiritual laws, that addressed everyone in the exact same manner. I have been to a number of evangelism seminars that seemed more like a used car presentation and that can’t be right. Jesus did not treat people like statistics and He wasn’t interested in collecting spiritual scalps. This lover of souls treated each person as though they were fearfully and wonderfully made because He knew that they were.

And in meeting them where they were we note that He did not require them to change before He helped them. He didn’t say to the fishermen, “If you agree to get confirmed then I will show you where the fish are.” Jesus did not require them to change before He helped them because it would be His love and mercy that would bring about change. Otherwise it would be like a doctor requiring you to get well before he gives you an appointment.

As the Lord is towards us, so we should be towards one another. This is especially true when we are dealing with non-Christians or the unchurched. We must both be willing to meet them where they are and we must not require them to change before we show compassion. It is noteworthy that Jesus did not address the sin of the woman at the well until they are deep in discussion. He did address sin and He did call on people to repent but that was not were He typically started. It was the Pharisees that made people feel judged and condemned but from Jesus they felt mercy and compassion and that is why sinners were drawn to him. They should feel the same from us.

I will admit that this can be a bit of a challenge. While you certainly don’t want to come across like a Pharisee, on the other hand you don’t want to come across as condoning sinfulness. I believe that there are no simple guidelines about how to do this because there are no simple people. We are complex beings and our reasons for doing what we do, even when we know it is wrong, is equally complex. So we must pray and discern and be led by the Holy Spirit and He will guide us in how and when to show mercy.

Just know that the Holy Spirit can use the smallest act of kindness to make a radical difference in a person’s life. I read last week of a North Korean soldier who defected and found his freedom all because of a nail clipper. An American soldier as an act of kindness gave him the nail clipper. He marveled at its sharp edges and its mechanics. As he did so he had an epiphany that if his country could not even make such a simple tool that they did not stand a chance against the West. So he escaped the oppressive regime. Such simple acts of kindness can also be a tool of the Holy Spirit for giving someone a spiritual epiphany and lead them to spiritual freedom.

A second lesson about Jesus that we can learn from this story is the depth of His compassion. It touches me both in the story of the wedding feast and in this story of the fishermen that these were hardly life and death issues. As Fr. Chris pointed out, it would be a great source of embarrassment to run out of wine, and it would be a loss of a day’s wage to not catch any fish, but both of those problems are insignificant compared to a catastrophic illness or a natural disaster. But God’s mercies are so tender towards us that what is important to us is important to Him. Just as there is nothing too large for us to take to Him, neither is there anything too small. I hope that we can truly believe this. I hope we never take it for granted. Brennan Manning said, “We should be astonished at the goodness of God, stunned that He should bother to call us by name, open wide our mouths at His love, bewildered that at this very moment we are standing on holy ground.”

When we realize the depth of His compassion for us, it gives us grace to have a deeper compassion for others. And to be real honest there will be many times in which we will need that extra grace. I had an elderly retired priest for my pastoral theology class when I was at Sewanee. One day he said to us, “Boys the thing you need to know about pastoral theology is that people are no damn good.” I was shocked by his statement and just chalked it up to the fact that he was a burned out old priest. But the longer I was in ministry, the more I appreciated what he was trying to tell us. In an unsophisticated way he was reminding us that people are sinners and we should not be surprised or hurt when they act that way. It hurts when you try to help people and they turn on you and attack you, but if you help enough people that will surely happen. You will be tempted to become cynical when you find that people have lied to you and didn’t really need the help that you gave them. You will want to stop caring when you pour your life into someone and they disappear on you without even so much as a “goodbye.”

To keep from growing hard of heart we must recall all the ways that God has been good to us. We recall all the times that He has been faithful, even when were unfaithful. This is where we receive the grace to keep showing compassion, to keep on helping, to keep on serving….. because it is the kingdom right thing to do.

A third lesson we learn not only from this story of the fishermen, but also from many others in the Scripture, is that He is the Lord of the unexpected. In our Old Testament, when God calls Gideon, it was nothing he could have expected. As he said, his clan was the weakest clan and he was the least in his family so he hardly saw himself as a mighty warrior. St. Paul was shocked to be chosen because he was a former persecutor of the Church and so he considered himself to be the least of the apostles. The chief steward was hardly looking for great wine to come out of pots filled with water and the fishermen who had fished all night were hardly expecting such a catch that they had to call for help.

What these fishermen could have never ever expected was that they would be called to leave their boats and become fishers of men. From the Sea of Galilee they would travel all over Asia Minor, to Europe and Africa and as far away as India and Russia. The abundance of fish that they caught in their nets was a foreshadowing of the thousands of millions who would come into the kingdom through their faithful witness. How could they have ever seen that coming?

If you are a real strong type A, God doing the unexpected can be a challenge. I had to learn the hard way that there is my way and there is His way and my way doesn’t usually work out so well. But if I embrace doing it His way and expect the unexpected, it can be a joyful way to live. There is freedom in knowing that He is the Shepherd and I am just a sheep and so I don’t have to be in control of everything nor have all the answers. As Mother Mary said, I just need to do whatever He tells me to do.

It didn’t have to make sense to fill up pots with water or to go out fishing again but the miracles wouldn’t have happened if they had not obeyed. If you are not having the unexpected happen in your walk with the Lord it may be because you are still trying to do things your way. This Lent would be a great time to make a change, turn in the other direction, and start doing things His way.

Jesus called these first disciples to be fishers of men and while we do not share their apostolic callings we too are responsible for sharing the Good News. In our baptismal covenant we are asked. “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?” And we respond, “We will with God’s help.” Treating others with Christ like compassion and grace is a great way to do just that.

I think as church people we forget how many out there don’t even know the first thing about the Good News. I got a stark reminder of that last week. I was having the oil changed in my truck and a young woman who was in her late 20’s was the sales lady. As they were finishing up she said, “I see that you have a collar on, does that mean that you are a Father?” When I said yes, she got a little dumbstruck and she stepped back and said, “Wow, I’ve never met one before. I’ve seen you guys in the movies but I’ve never met one in person.” You would have thought that I was a unicorn. This started a great conversation but we ran out of time with other cars behind me. I plan on following up with her.

The point of the story is that so many in the world have no idea where to begin to connect with the Lord. Let the knowledge that there are so many “fish” out there, who need to be gathered into the net of the kingdom, make us become fishers of men. Amen.