160612 – Good or God’s

Yr C ~ Pentecost 4 ~ Galatians 2:16-21, 3:2 MSG

Galatians 2 is a very dense and confusing scripture passage. That’s why I’ve used Eugene Peterson’s translation from The Message bible, but even it’s a bit much. So I’d like to start today by paraphrasing this paraphrase.

[Galatians 2:16-21, 3:2]good-god's-title

We know very well that we are not put in-tune with God by rule-keeping but only through an ongoing personal experience of the Presence of God, such as revealed in and by Jesus. Rule-keeping or behaving seems like the right thing to focus on, but it isn’t.

Have outsiders noticed that we’re not yet perfect? Absolutely! Some people actually think that because Christians are flawed or inconsistent therefore Christianity is bad. What a ridiculous argument!

But they’re right about one thing: Christians have been focussing on morality and behaviour way too much. That’s why they think we’re hypocrites – because we’ve trumpeted behaviour and then, being human, we misbehave.

Look, we’ve all tried keeping rules and working our heads off to please God and it didn’t help. So we Christians need to quit being about “the law” and start being more about God.

Jesus’ life shows us how, and enables us to do it. We need to identify ourselves completely with him. Indeed, we need to be crucified with Christ – which means dying to our old ways and being “reborn” and embodying God’s ways. Our ego can’t be central. It doesn’t matter if we look good in other’s eyes and it’s certainly ridiculous to try to impress God.

We need to be able to say this: Christ lives in me. The life you see me living is not “mine,” but it is lived by faith. How does our new life begin? Is it by working our heads off to please God? Or is it by responding to God’s nudge?

What is church about? What is faith about?

We’ve inherited a faith that was mostly about believing and behaving.
Agree with this set of orthodox propositions or you’re not “in”.
Do this, don’t do that. Be a good citizen. Be a do-gooder. Fit in the box.

Faith is not about behaviours, it’s about a relationship – a deep knowing, an open-hearted vulnerability that allows God’s Spirit to flow like the blood through your veins, like the air through your respiratory system. We’ve inherited an idea- and behaviour-based religion, yet Jesus taught a relationship-based faith. We’ve mistakenly thought church was all about doing, but faith is actually all about being.

If you ever listen to TV or radio preachers you’re going to get an earful of behaving and believing. It boggles my mind that all the prominent features of North American Christianity are external things, meaning they tend to be so arm’s length as to be about someone else. In our time it was interracial marriage, then homosexuality, then equal marriage, now it’s transgender issues.

These are the things that too many straight, white checklist-Christians seem to get their nickers in a twist about but don’t actually apply to their own lives. They might not even know such a person but “those people” are still somehow the problem. And even if the people they’re flummoxed about would “change” I’m not sure how that would make these so-called moralizers be better off.

I don’t remember Jesus talking about “others” except to say we’re supposed to love them.
I do remember Jesus talking a lot about removing the log from our own eye before we worry about what we perceive to be a speck in someone else’s.

Richard Rohr says, “When you lose the great mystical level of religion, you always become moralistic about this or that as a cheap substitute. It gives you a false sense of being on higher spiritual ground than others.”
That’s what we’re up against.

If I asked you to talk about what you “believed” what would you say?  Or more broadly, if I asked, “what do Christians believe?” Doesn’t your mind instantly go to doctrine? You know, all the endless debates about the virgin birth, and the veracity of the miracles, your position on the resurrection, and whether or not the bible is literally true. [sarcastically] Because our answers to those questions say what we believe, right?

Marcus Borg says “For many people, believing “iffy” claims to be true became the central meaning of Christian faith.” Some call this “salvation by getting the right formulations”.
It’s a “checklist Christianity” that says you say or do the right combinations of things and you punch your ticket to heaven.

Borg says, “Believe did not originally mean believing a set of doctrines or teachings; in both Greek and Latin its roots mean ‘to give one’s heart to.’  The ‘heart’ is the self at its deepest level.  Believing, therefore, does not consist of giving one’s mental assent to something, but involves a much deeper level of one’s self….Believing in Jesus in the sense of giving one’s heart to Jesus is the movement from secondhand religion to firsthand religion, from having heard about Jesus with the hearing of the ear to being in relationship with the Spirit of Christ.”      [Marcus Borg: Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time]

It’s the difference between the phrases “I believe in this or that” and “I believe IN you!” If you look at your child or partner as they’re preparing to do something important or challenging and you say to them “I believe in you” it’s an act of love. You have to be open and give of yourself in order to make that affirmation.
This is the kind of believing that the Bible knows.
Not less than intellectual, but more than intellectual.
Not in spite of your reason but beyond it.
Not irrational but trans-rational – beyond and above rationality.

So faith isn’t about believing stuff but giving your heart to something – and giving your heart is not about behaviour. What did Paul say in the scripture reading? “Be good and you’ll know God?” Nope!

He said, “We need to be crucified with Christ – which means dying to our old ways and being “reborn” and embodying God’s ways. Our ego can’t be central. It doesn’t matter if we look good in other’s eyes and it’s certainly ridiculous to try to impress God. We need to be able to say this: Christ lives in me. The life you see me living is not ‘mine,’ but it is lived by faith.”

Crucified with Christ. What a great phrase! Obviously it’s not literal. So what does it mean?
It means dying and rising.
It means the end of what was and the beginning of what will be.
It means transformation.
It means letting go of a religion that hinged on laws and propositions and behaviour and embracing an ever-deepening journey into the heart of God.

Christianity is not primarily about behaving, and it’s not even about believing (at least not in the usual sense of the word), it’s about belonging.
I don’t mean belonging as in membership in a community of faith necessarily. It isn’t belonging to a club, or belonging to a group. For Jesus, and for us, it’s about belonging to God.

be-god'sOne of my musical heroes, the late Rich Mullins, disliked signing autographs but when he did he always wrote just two words:
“Be God’s!” Every week you hear me say: “Go forth knowing who you are and… whose you are!”

God is not saying “Be good!” – God’s saying “Be mine!” Belonging to God means to be loved.

Henri Nouwen writes about this with words that can only be written by someone who knows this kind of love personally.  Close your eyes, and listen to these words as if God was speaking them directly to you:

“I have called you by name, from the very beginning. You are mine and I am yours. You are my Beloved, on you my favour rests. I have molded you in the depths of the earth and knitted you together in your mother’s womb. I have carved you in the palms of my hands and hidden you in the shadow of my embrace.

“I look at you with infinite tenderness and care for you with a care more intimate than that of a mother for her child. I have counted every hair on your head and guided you at every step. Wherever you go, I go with you, and wherever you rest, I keep watch.

“I will give you food that will satisfy all your hunger and drink that will quench all your thirst. I will not hide my face from you. You know me as your own as I know you as my own. You belong to me. I am your father, your mother, your brother, your sister, your lover and your spouse…yes, even your child…wherever you are I will be. Nothing will ever separate us. We are one.”   [Henri Nouwen: Life of the Beloved]

(you can open your eyes)

God says, “I’m yours!”
That’s what lovers say. I’m yours.

Well, you are God’s beloved. Are you in love with God?
Are you in love with Jesus?
Does that sound really weird to you?
We’re pretty quick to sing “Jesus loves me” or say to someone that “God loves you” – but how about the other side of the relationship? Relationships are a two-way street. Yes Jesus loves you. Do you love Jesus?

Remember, faith isn’t about ideas or behaviours; it’s about giving your heart to Jesus – belonging to God. Can you love God with the same abandon that God loves you? Yes you can – but not if you keep God at arm’s length – not if you make your journey about rules and ideas. Belonging to God means giving your heart, which means giving up some control of your life and putting something other than your own ego at the centre. [sarcastically] And we all just love doing that!

But it’s not a bad thing. If you’ve ever really loved someone you know exactly what I mean.
You cannot love and be in complete control.
You cannot love and fence off your tender bits.
You cannot love and not give yourself away.

I remember the chorus of a Peter Frampton song that said over and over again “I’m in you, you’re in me.” Well, that’s what Paul said about his relationship with Jesus – a person he had actually never physically met. Paul says, “Christ lives in me. The life you see me living is not “mine,” but it is lived by faith.”

The “mine” is in air quotes. Of course it’s still your life and it’s still you living it. Being in love doesn’t turn you into a puppet. It’s just a way to say that you’re allowing the love to lead you.

The funny thing is that if you can learn to let down your guard, open your heart, and really belong to God – to let God love you and to love God in return – to allow that love to guide your life so that it feels like you’ve died to how you used to be and are reborn with this Sacred love and Presence at the centre of your being – if you can do that then don’t you think your behaviour will pretty much take care of itself?
And your ideas about God and Jesus and faith will be shaped by a deep loving experience rather than just a cool, intellectual analysis.

What I wouldn’t give to hear a TV preacher talk about that!
Imagine if evangelism had nothing to do with convincing someone about a set of propositions.
Imagine if evangelism had nothing to do with haranguing someone into a set of behaviours.
Imagine if instead evangelism was all about enticing someone into an all-encompassing love.

This scripture passage started with the idea of being set right with God. In classic theological language that’s called justification. I like to call it being in-tune. Justification sounds like an all or nothing, one-time thing. Learn the right theology, do the right behaviours, and God will reward you with heaven. Everything about that feels wrong to me.

Instead, what I hear Paul saying – what I discern in Jesus’ life and teaching – is that it’s all about opening yourself to God’s love and once you’ve felt it constantly trying to stay in-tune with that love through an ongoing personal experience of God’s Presence. The trying, the effort, is all about acts of love – worship, prayer, serving, sharing, caring. That’s love!

If you absolutely cannot let go of the idea of following rules in your faith life at least make these your rules: love God, love people, and love one another.

The choice is ours. We get to decide what kind of faith journey we’re on.
Paul asks the perfect question: Is it about working your head off to please God, or is it about responding to the Presence that Jesus’ life and teaching revealed to us?

I think the answer is obvious, but it’s actually a harder path – because what we’re on about, what Jesus gave his life to, is not an arm’s-length religion that doesn’t change you, it’s an inner transformation that utterly reorients and renews you.

Anybody can be good. We are called to something way, way more than that.
We are called to drink in God’s overflowing, transforming love.
We are God’s beloved!

Let Christ live in and through you – and Be God’s!

Be God’s!
Be God’s!

Amen.