The last post was inspired by a not so inspiring sermon that I heard recently. It seemed I had heard it or some clone of it thousands of times before. Perhaps it is because that is what is expected and it is the safe path for a pastor to follow. Again, I emphasize that as Christians and especially as church members, don’t throw preachers, pastors, and priests under the bus. We are all responsible. We can look at the passage where some righteous men bring the woman caught in adultery to Jesus. Jesus tells them that those who are without sin can begin casting stones. I am writing this as a way to help improve the work of the church and Christians rather than just a reason to be casting stones. Rather than quitting, discuss the problem.
A good part of the last post was based upon the following points that seem to be found in the standard or orthodox sermon.
1. Your sin prevents you from being accepted by God. This usually means God will not allow you into heaven when you die or that God will not help you when you need help.
2. You cannot avoid sin. This seems to be most often attributed to the idea of original sin that has been passed down to us from the first humans. Sometimes, it is attributed to God giving each of us free will.
3. God demands payment for sin, so God sacrificed Jesus as payment for your sin.
4. You will face judgement for your sins. This may be stated as “you must face judgement for your sins”.
5. If you have declared certain beliefs, your sins will be forgiven. This usually means believing as the church says you should believe.
6. You really only need to believe a certain way or profess certain beliefs. Behavior is not so critical since it will be impossible to do much about your behavior due to your sinful nature.
7. God planned for Jesus to be slaughtered on the cross so there would be payment for your sins.
8. Jesus appeared on earth to serve as the sacrifice for your sins. This was the focus of Jesus on earth.
9. You are frequently told that you must please God in your worship, giving, and with other actions.
10. There are solutions to the human predicament described in items one through nine.
11. God’s grace is a gift that allows us to obtain salvation (enter heaven). God wants us to join God in heaven and grace is free which means you can do nothing to obtain grace or salvation.
God’s grace is free. Near the end of the preceding post, I italicized “in God’s love” since we actually live in God. We live in God whether we like it or not. God has placed grace around you where you can accept it if you choose to accept it. Accepting grace is equivalent to accepting God. The key to understanding this is in remembering that God gives us free will. In each thought and action that you experience in life, you are free to choose God’s way or your own way. Key factors in your relationship with God are your free will and God’s free grace. A gift is not a gift until it is accepted. Grace is a part of God that is received when God is accepted into your life. I do not even believe God expects us to thank God for grace. After all, if you give a gift to somebody, is it truly a gift if you expect something in return? I know the IRS does not count something as a gift if you receive something in return for it. Neither does the IRS count a gift if the gift is not accepted by the recipient.
God’s grace changes your life and the world around you when you accept God’s grace (God’s love) and work it into your life. It is the grace or love filled relationship with God that changes you and through you changes the world. If this grace does not change your life, then it is obvious that you have not accepted the grace and thus, you have rejected God. This factors into what has historically called judgement.
One way to tell whether or not you are building a grace filled relationship with God is by honestly evaluating whether or not you are living a life that glorifies God or a life that glorifies yourself. I think of glory as being a spotlight. Glory is the focus of attention. When one reads in the Bible about glory, it frequently includes light or a glowing. Maybe it always does. When Moses spoke with God at the burning bush, the bush was glowing as if it was on fire yet it was not consumed. In the Bible, delivery of messages frequently involves luminous objects or a luminous presence that would grab the attention of those present. Saul experienced the glory of God on the road to Damascus. When people speak of near death experiences, they seem to usually speak of a light of some kind. Mystics and others who experience God in some fashion may encounter some luminosity that gains their focus, even if just for a moment. Does God have your attention, or are your thoughts and actions more for the purpose of promoting yourself? If you feel you must use statements such as “Glory to God” you are probably glorifying yourself. When your life gives glory to God, everybody can see it. You will not be thinking about it so it should not be necessary to mention it. As I have searched scripture, it seems people experienced God’s glory in Jesus. Jesus did not need to tell them in order for them to know.
Where is your focus? Where is your spotlight? Where do you place the emphasis as you live? Is your emphasis on God or on self? Do your actions in your daily life promote your own self-centered desires or are you loving God by loving God’s creation? In your daily life, is the glory (the focus) on God or on yourself? Are you trying to get to heaven or save somebody or are you loving God’s creation (including people) as Jesus teaches?
My concern with many sermons is that the spotlight is focused upon the individual or the church. I feel the spotlight should be on Jesus. With God’s grace, the salvation is free. You need only to accept it. Once God’s grace is accepted, you accept Emmanuel (the name for Jesus that means God with us). Jesus or the Holy Spirit will show in your life in how you live and in what you do. It generally is not some instantaneous change so that you become just like Jesus immediately. The relationship with God through Jesus grows and changes over time, just as any other relationship grows. The growth requires work. Also, as in any relationship, if it receives little or no real attention the relationship with God through Jesus will stagnate, fade, or die.
Changing the focus of one’s life can be quite a challenge. Fortunately, Jesus left us with relatively brief and simple instructions concerning how to tend to the relationship with God through Jesus. The greatest problem with implementing the instructions is breaking your old habits and leaving your normal, comfortable way of living behind. I believe this is because it involves learning to look outward more often and inward less often. The pressure from churches and Christians who unwittingly against growing a stronger relationship with Jesus can be great. For me, it has required patience, prayer, and love of God and friends.
You may ask, “What are these brief and simple instructions?” They begin with what is known as the most important commandments (MIC) or the greatest commandments. The MIC is stated most clearly with a quote from Jesus in Matthew 22:36-40. The MIC also appears in other places in the Bible including in the Old Testament. In the MIC, Jesus simply restates sayings from Jewish scripture, but he emphasizes for us that this is where EVERYTHING begins. Read the MIC, then consider the following: Think about the MIC often enough as you deal with activities and thoughts during the day and eventually you will find that some version of the MIC is running like background music in your mind at all times.
I have a prayer running inside me that goes something like, “Love God with all that I have and use God’s love to love creation.” Creation includes all of the universe including all other people. It has made a great difference in my life and has been the major reason I have made it through very difficult times in life.
It is not that there is something automatically wrong with sermons that discuss being saved and going to heaven. I believe they are necessary and useful. My difficulty is that if such sermons are not followed with further and frequent attention to growth in relationship with God through Jesus, being saved is nothing more than buying a fire insurance policy. The one who is saved does not change much if at all and the world is not changed. We have missed an opportunity to assist Jesus in bringing the kingdom of heaven here on earth.
I have been fortunate enough to get to know several ministers who do preach with such an emphasis on Jesus. I pray that more will step out of the boat and challenge people to grow deeper in relationship to God and that their congregations will return God’s love so their light will be seen in the world..
Jesus centered sermons and Jesus centered teaching in the church can guide you into a living relationship with God. I feel standardized sermons and related teachings fail to lead you to a mature and more complete relationship with God. While there may be many people who are unwilling to take the next step in discipleship or incapable of understanding how to take the next step, those who are willing and able but are not shown the path by the church are being short changed.