Did you know that there is a guaranteed way to get to heaven? It’s called the “Sinner’s Prayer,” and if you say the words and mean them, you will receive a one-way ticket to Paradise. I was raised on this prayer and the theology behind it.
The Sinner’s Prayer is all about the words you say. In order for it to be effective, you must say that Jesus died for your sins on the cross. You must say that you accept him as your personal Lord and Savior. You must say that you believe that he rose from the dead. You must say that you believe you have been born again. And if you will only say all of these things, then heaven is yours.
This “Sinner’s Prayer” approach to religion has done a great deal to make the American expression of Christianity as selfish as it is. It’s all about “me and Jesus.” I become the object of my own faith. It has little to do with your neighbor. But if you happen to ignore or hurt or offend your neighbor, well, it’s OK because all you have to do is ask for forgiveness and your own personal Jesus will deliver it.
This approach to Christianity is foreign to most mainline Protestants. Some even find it vulgar to speak of salvation in such highly personalized terms. OK. But if that’s not our view of salvation, then what is? How would you answer that question on this the occasion of the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation – a movement that had its genesis in what people believed about salvation? And so I asked again: what is our theology of salvation? What does Jesus mean to you?
The United Church of Christ has published a marvelous little book called The Jesus Diaries: Who Jesus Is to Me. It’s a collection of essays by the UCC Writer’s Group. In the introduction, Martin Copenhaver, former president of the Andover Newton Theological School, writes: “A leader in the UCC, who led workshops across the country, observed that people who attended those gatherings responded readily to the question, “When have you recently experienced the presence of God in your life?” That question always prompted animated conversation. But then, when the participants were asked “How would you describe your relationship with Jesus?” the reaction was altogether different. Most often that question was met with heavy silence, as well as some groans and protests.”
Sometimes we justify this lack of serious Christology and say that, well, the Gospel is more about actions than beliefs. And that’s true. But actions and beliefs are not two entirely different things. They are, instead, two sides of the same coin. And I have always believed that a healthy church is one in which our social justice is the most natural extension of what we believe about Jesus Christ.
In today’s Gospel lesson, we hear again that our faith is about how we treat others, about actions. The Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced their enemies the Sadducees. And so they decided to score some points with the crowd and try to silence Jesus. They asked their star litigator to pose a difficult question to the Lord in order to discredit him. “Teacher,” the litigator asked, “what is the greatest commandment?” And you know what Jesus replied, right? “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. … and love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Then Jesus said that if you do these two things, you have fulfilled the Law and the Prophets. --And we know that you cannot love God without loving your neighbor. And we know that to love your neighbor as you do yourself is really pretty simple: you make sure that they have what you insist to have: food and shelter, water and touch. But there are two details in this reading that seem to suggest that in addition to how we treat others, it is also important what we think and what we believe.
The first of those details is Jesus’ answer about which commandment is the greatest. He quotes from Deuteronomy 6:5: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is One and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” But Jesus misquotes just a bit. Jesus changes the phrase “with all you might” to “with all you mind.” Love the Lord your God with your mind. Jesus seems to imply that to study, to ponder, to question, to debate is an exercise of faith. And that is absolutely consistent with the Jewishness of Jesus. Religious Jews study the Torah and debate its meaning and memorize its verses. They literally love the Lord their God with their minds. And if Jesus calls us to do the same, then what we think about God and Jesus and the church and salvation matters. Theology matters.
The second of those details is this: after Jesus answers their question, he then asks one of his own. And it’s a question about himself – what they believe about him. “What do you think about the Messiah; whose son is he?” Jesus asked. “The son of David,” the Pharisees answer correctly. “Then how is it,” Jesus asked, “that David by the Spirit calls him Lord? How can his Lord be his Son?” Jesus took an established theological idea and challenged the Pharisees to think about it again; to consider that maybe there was another way to think about it; to ponder that maybe Jesus was more than just a prophet or a sage or a teacher. Maybe Jesus Christ was the Messiah. And this implies that Christology (theology about Jesus) matters.
So Jesus said that we should love God with our minds. And then Jesus demonstrated what that means by entering into a theological discussion about salvation. In these very short verses we have a cogent argument for a vigorous pursuit of theology – far more vigorous than what is currently being practiced in many of our churches. And this lack of serious theological discourse is a turning away of our Reformation heritage.
Now lest you be nervous that I am going to tell you what you ought to believe, let me also tell you what this story does not mean. It is not a story about conformity. It does not mean that we need to accept a certain creed in order to be a Christian. Remember that Jesus posed a question, not an answer. Worshipping God with your mind is about pondering, not about memorization. Reformation theology is not about indoctrinating us, but instead about making us think.
So what do you think about Jesus? What do I think about Jesus? Let me begin by telling you what I don’t know: I don’t understand all the miracles or parables or even the sayings of Jesus. I cannot explain how it is, exactly, that all the fullness of God could dwell in a human person – and not just any human person, but a peasant from a dusty, unimportant Palestinian town, whose mother was an unmarried teenager. I don’t know exactly what that first Easter morning looked like. I still have lots of questions. I suspect I always will.
But here is what I do know about Jesus. All these years after I first decided to follow him, I still find in him a way of living that saves me from my worst inclinations. His words can break apart my stony heart and remake it, again and again. He is the light that illumines my path in a world that is sometimes very dark. –And I want to know him better. I want to follow him more faithfully. I want to love him with my mind. And when it’s time to die, it is his face I want to see. Give me Jesus.