August 7, 2016 – The 12th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 14C
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here.
A ticket to heaven won’t cost you anything but faith. The only challenge is that faith will cost you everything.
Sometimes language fails us, and, when it comes to talking about faith, the English language comes up short. That’s because we use the word “faith” to mean two different things that are closely related but actually distinct in important ways. On the one hand, faith means believing in something, putting your trust in something, relying or depending on something. But it also works as a substitute for “religion” or the doctrinal content of a particular religion like the Christian faith or the Jewish faith. But putting your whole life into the hands of someone is a very different thing than reciting a creed or claiming a particular religion. And the worst part of it all is that most of us have forgotten that being a follower of Jesus has a lot less to do with showing up in church, saying the right words, and wearing a cross around our neck and a lot more to do with giving all our hopes and dreams and expectations for this life and the next to God and God’s plan for us and for the world. So, like I said, getting to heaven won’t cost you anything but faith, but faith will cost you everything.
So, when you think about whether you are a Christian—when you ask yourself, “Do I really believe?”—don’t think about the Nicene Creed or the Thirty-Nine Articles or the Virgin Birth or the Walking on the Water or the Stilling of the Storm or the Raising of Lazarus or the Empty Tomb. Don’t ask yourself what you believe. Ask yourself in whom you believe. In whom have you put your faith, your trust, your hope? Is it God, or is it something else? And, if you’re still not sure, think about Abraham.
In the whole bible—Old and New Testaments—no one showed greater faith than Abraham. Out of nowhere, the Lord appeared to him and said, “Abram, pack up your things. Leave your home and your kinsfolk and set out for a new land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and, through you and your descendants, the whole world will be blessed.” So Abram went. He set out for a place he had never seen and a life he could not know and a future he could not imagine, and he did it simply because the Lord told him to. Later, when the Lord appeared to him again and promised to give him descendants as numerous as the stars in heaven, the seventy-five-year-old man whose wife was barren took the Lord at his word. It did not matter to him that having a child was physically impossible. If God promised it, Abram believed it. And, when the Lord appeared to Abraham a third time and asked him to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac—a command that would seem to undo the promise that God had already made—Abraham trusted God and did what he asked because he believed that God was in control of his life. At the last second, the Lord stopped Abraham before the knife harmed his son and declared, “Now I know that you have faith because you didn’t even withhold your son.” Abraham didn’t just accept that God was God, he risked everything he had because he believed that God was the only one who could give him a life worth living.
What does it take to be a Christian? All you have to do is have faith—faith like Abraham—that the one who sent his son Jesus is the only one who will bring you from death into a life worth living. But who could ever have faith like that? Well, no one actually—at least not by him or herself. The ability to put one’s complete trust in God isn’t a product of our own doing or a choice we make on our own. Faith itself is a gift that comes from God—a gift we receive and then nurture until, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we are ready to give our whole hearts and minds and lives to God.
Hear what Jesus said to his disciples in today’s gospel lesson: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Stop right there for a second. It is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom. He’s not holding it back from us, waiting to see whether we’ve earned it. The kingdom doesn’t work like that because God doesn’t work like that. God starts by giving us everything we could ever hope for—his kingdom, his mercy, his love. Everything else is us trying to figure it out—trying to make that gift something we can believe in with every fiber of our being. And the rest of this gospel lesson, which has a tendency to overshadow that first important proclamation, is about taking steps to grow our faith until we believe that, indeed, God has already given us his kingdom.
Jesus says that it is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom, but how do we know that when we can’t see it? How can we believe in that? How can we put our trust in a promise that doesn’t come due in this life? Practice. We practice the kingdom life until we discover that the kingdom has already been given to us. That’s why Jesus tells us to sell all of our possessions and give it all away—not because we have to be poor to enter the kingdom but because, until we learn to trust in God’s provision, we can’t know what it means to be a recipient of God’s good gifts. That’s why Jesus tells us to be dressed for action and have our lamps lit—not because we should worry that the master will come and find us unprepared but because, until we learn to keep watch for the coming of Christ, we can’t know what it means to believe that our greatest hope lies in God’s future for us. That’s why we say our prayers and go to church and recite the Creed and read the Bible and turn the other cheek and love our enemies and do the hard work of discipleship. We do all of these things—we shape our life until it conforms to the principles of God’s kingdom—not because we need to earn that kingdom but because we cannot put our faith into a kingdom that is not real to us. And the only way that kingdom can be real is if we practice it.
Stop going through the motions of a religion and, instead, invest your heart in something that matters. Get off the hamster wheel of doing all of the things a “good Christian” is supposed to do because you think that they will get you into heaven. They won’t. You’re already there. It is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. All you have to do is believe it. And, if you want that to be real to you—if you want to know what it means to believe with every ounce of your heart and soul and mind that God’s love will never leave you—step out on faith. Practice the kingdom. Set out for a new territory like Abraham did. Risk everything you’ve got. Put all of your eggs in one basket—God’s basket. Sell all of your possessions and give it all away to the poor. Learn what it means to depend on God alone. And discover the most important truth of all: God loves you and will always provide for you and there’s no other future as bright as the one that God has in store for you. Practice the kingdom until you believe that it’s already yours.