A sermon by John A. Bolt
First Presbyterian Church; Morgantown, WV
July 31, 2011
It’s a hard time to be a Christian. Not that it ever was supposed to be easy, but there was a time not all that long ago that in many places around the world – especially the Western world – “Christian” was – if you will – the default setting.
We call it the “good old days.” You know when everybody went to church on Sunday, and the church was the only thing open. You didn’t plan events on Wednesday nights because so many folks would be at prayer meeting. At least that was the case in the intensely Southern Baptist area where I grew up.
It wasn’t questioned at all; that’s just the way it was.
It was that way because society was following the law, and that meant we were being Christian, didn’t it? You had to follow the rules to be a good Christian, right? If you didn’t, well, everyone knows what happens to those who don’t follow the rules.
Well, let’s hear what Paul has to say about that.
Paul’s Letter to the Romans is without question one of the most important books of the Bible. It was written in the mid-First Century, sometime around 55 and 58,[i] ahead of his trip to Rome. Commentator David Hay writes that Romans “is the New Testament’s most systematic and comprehensive interpretation of the Christian message. It emphasizes the universal effects of God’s work in Christ, interpreting the gospel as a message addressed to all peoples and offering hope to all of God’s creation.”[ii]
So listen to what Paul says in verses 5-15 of the 10th chapter, and by listen, I mean “listen.” Remember these were written as letters and the expectation was that they would be read out loud to the receiving community. So put down that pew Bible, and “hear” God’s word for us today.
Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that ‘the person who does these things will live by them.’ But the righteousness that comes from faith says, ‘Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?” ’ (that is, to bring Christ down) ‘or “Who will descend into the abyss?” ’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? ‘The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because 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. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’
Please join me in prayer: O Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of each and every one of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Paul asks, “How are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have not heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?”
You know what that sounds like? That sounds like evangelism, doesn’t it? And we Presbyterians aren’t real comfortable with that word, it seems.
And you know why? At least in my opinion it is because we have no real understanding of what evangelism is or, frankly, what we even believe. And a large part of the reason for that is because of those good old days when it was easy to be Christian. You see, we didn’t have to think then. We didn’t have to make a real decision then. We just floated along with the crowd.
We went to church because everyone else did. It was expected.
That’s just the way it was
But then something happened. Folks who said they were Christian started getting louder, started trying to define what someone had to believe to be a real Christian. They were loud. They claimed to be moral and they claimed to be a majority.
And little by little, then faster and faster, society began to equate Christianity with a judgmental, narrow vision that just didn’t seem to fit their understanding. So, Christianity – at least as defined by those who loudly proclaim themselves evangelicals – has fallen out of favor.
It doesn’t matter that the word “evangelical” comes from the Greek word “evangelion” which means good news. Christianity became equated with something many folks didn’t want to be.
And many folks, many like you and me, have run away from the word evangelism. And we may not even really understand why.
Part of the reason is covered in a great little book that I highly recommend, even though its intended audience is mostly teens. The title is Being Presbyterian in the Bible Belt. The subtitle is “A theological survival guide for youth, parents and other confused Presbyterians.” It was written by two pastors in Oklahoma, Ted Foote and Alex Thornburg.
They say by way of explanation: “We are writing out of the conviction that much of what is communicated to our culture as the Christian message is distorted and misleading.”
We here in Morgantown might not fully grasp the impact of that statement because, to be honest, those “good-old-days” attitudes are still fairly prominent and visible.
So let me give you an example of what it’s like in some other parts of our country. As many of you know, both my son and his wife are Presbyterian pastors out in central Oregon. Greg serves as pastor for youth and their families at First Presbyterian Church in Bend, Oregon. Heidi is associate pastor for adult ministry of Community Presbyterian in Redmond, Oregon.
Greg, who is a fairly gregarious, not-too-bashful – OK, not-at-all bashful – sort, has become involved in an organization called Ignite Bend. There are several of these Ignite groups around the world; the idea is that you get five minutes on a stage in front of a bunch of folks to talk about whatever you want. While you’re talking, you can have 20 slides showing behind you that change every 15 seconds.
People apply to be a presenter, a board goes through the applications and selects about 10 folks for each session. They are currently getting ready for Ignite Bend 7.
Greg has been involved since the start, and both he and Heidi have made presentations. But only recently did he learn that he almost was, in effect, blackballed at the very beginning.
And you know why? For one reason: he was a Christian minister.
Here’s another fact about that part of the world: Deschutes County, where Bend is located, is known as the least churched county in the least churched state. The assumption is if you’re Christian, you must be a right-wing nut job. You see in Bend, a town of more than 80,000 people, there is one Presbyterian Church USA church, one Episcopal church, one Methodist and two Lutheran churches. That is the entire sum of mainline representation out there. By comparison, in Charleston – a town of barely 50,000 people, there are at least seven PC(USA) churches alone – and I’m not counting those in places like South Charleston, Dunbar, St. Albans.
So the assumption, and the fear, was that since Greg was a minister, he of course would spend his five minutes trying to convert the crowd. So they almost didn’t let him participate.
But they did, and while he did talk about the church, but he addressed some of those local stereotypes – the talk was entitled “You may have heard it said…” in which he disputed those local stereotypes, and instead discussed what First Bend “can provide for the community of Bend, OR, but also what the community can teach us and what God is saying to us all.”[iii]
Then he had a beer with the rest of the crowd. A later presentation talked about being a Type 1 diabetic since the age of 12.
Now he is on the Ignite Bend board, and guess what? His Ignite friends now talk to him about their faith, and wonder about this thing called Christianity. Some of them even came to their daughter’s, make that our granddaughter Sophia’s, baptism.
That, my friends, is evangelism.
You see, for too long, we have sat back and let others define what it means to be Christian, and the time has come for us to reclaim the word – indeed reclaim the word “evangelical” – and not to be shy about our faith.
Before we can really do that, we have to know what that faith is. And that, I submit, is in many ways the real problem. I think too many of us have heard too much the position of a particular kind of Christianity to the point that – while we really don’t believe it, it sounds right because we’ve heard it so much.
We’ve heard so much about the law that we can’t hear the real word, the real good news, of the Bible.
It’s not about law. It’s about grace.
Listen again to Paul, only this time hear it as translated by Eugene Peterson in The Message:
The earlier revelation [that is the law of Moses] was intended simply to get us ready for the Messiah, who then puts everything right for those who trust him to do it. Moses wrote that anyone who insists on using the law code to live right before God soon discovers it’s not so easy – every detail of life regulated by fine print! But trusting God to shape the right living in us is a different story – no precarious climb up to heaven to recruit the Messiah, no dangerous descent into hell to rescue the Messiah. … You’re not “doing” anything; you’re simply calling out to God, trusting [God] to do it for you. That’s salvation.”[iv]
Put another way – in my own bumper sticker explanation of why and how we do what we do: The 10 Commandments are not a roadmap to heaven, but a response to grace. How can I say that? I don’t the Bible does: the Commandments are prefaced with this: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and out of the house of slavery (Exodus 20:1).” In other words, I have saved you, therefore: “you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol” and so forth.
We don’t behave a certain way so that we’ll get to heaven. We behave a certain way because we’re going to heaven because we have been saved already. The answer to the question, “When were you saved?” is not some date when you “accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.”
No, the answer to the question is, “I was saved 2000 years ago.”
This is the Good News, the evangelion, the evangelical message, that we need to be sharing.
Does that sound heretical? Does that sound too “liberal?”
Well, not to John Calvin. And not to the authors of one of the early Reformation confessions.
In The Heidelberg Catechism, written in 1562 and one of the 11 confessions in our Book of Confessions, the first two questions and answers are:
1. What is your only comfort, in life and in death?
A. That I belong – body and soul, in life and in death – not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the do- minion of the devil; that he protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that every- thing must fit his purpose for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
Q. 2. How many things must you know that you may live and die in the blessedness of this comfort?
A. Three. First, the greatness of my sin and wretchedness. Second, how I am freed from all my sins and their wretched consequences. Third, what gratitude I owe to God for such redemption.[v]
It’s a hard concept for us to grasp. We’ve been brought up to believe that you have to work hard for what you get. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, et cetera. And while all that may be true in our work-a-day world, when it comes to God’s love, it’s not.
The operative word is “grace” and it’s at the “heart of Presbyterian understanding of God.”[vi]
Foote and Thornburg put it this way:
Grace is God’s love and acceptance freely given and not earned. Grace is a gift not to people who deserve it or to people because they are particularly special. It is a gift given out of the generosity of God’s love for all creation. Grace is boundless and expansive, and, many believe, in the end, irresistible. Grace affirms that it is not humanity that saves itself but God, who has acted in the past, still acts today, and will act tomorrow. Grace is God’s gift to undeserving children (regardless of each one’s age!).[vii]
If we will but understand that, and help others understand the good news of grace, perhaps we can turn the tide – at least a little bit – of what I believe is rampant misconception of what it really means to be a Christian. (And, of course, the fact is that in many ways we here at First Morgantown are doing just that, and I submit it is why we’re seeing more folks in the pews here each Sunday.)
“How are they to call on one in whom they have not believed?” Paul asks. “And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’”
How beautiful are your feet? How beautiful are my feet? Let’s you and me promise here and now that, however beautiful they may be, we’ll work to tone ’em up. We’ll work to be true evangelists.
To God alone be the glory.
Please join me in prayer: Good and gracious God, your grace is amazing, and too many of us just can’t quite fathom how it could be so sweet. We’d much rather believe that we have to work for that love, that grace, and so we set up rules and regulations so we can then check them off the list to show that we are one of yours. The fact is, that we are all “one of yours.” Help us understand that in our hearts so that we can be sent to spread the good news to others who struggle just as we have. We ask in the name of your Son, Jesus the Christ. Amen.