Rev. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
August 25, 2002
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
The other day I was out walking my dog Jake. Some of you have met Jake. Heís cool. Any way, as we walked along I saw two men apparently loitering by a parked car. As I passed by, one of them struck up a conversation with me by commenting, in a friendly way, that I was taking my life in my hands by wearing a University of Oregon baseball cap here in Huskyland. It turned out that these two men were in the neighborhood proselytizing for Seattle Baptist church, which, oddly, isnít in Seattle. Itís in Edmonds. In any event, they asked me if I was interested in attending their church. I told them that I was otherwise occupied on Sunday mornings. I also told them how I was occupied on Sunday morning; but even though I had told them that I am a Christian pastor with my own church, one of these gentlemen clearly had his evangelism routine down; and he was going to use it on me whether I needed it or not. (Actually, if he knew what use I was going to make of his comments he surely would have been convinced that I need his evangelism more than most.) His evangelism pitch was centered on one specific question: Do you know with certainty that when you die you will go to heaven? I assured him that I certainly believe that I will, although I suspect that his understanding of what that means is rather different from mine. He asked me if I knew how important it was to have Jesus in my life. I told him of my wifeís recent death and how my faith was the only thing that is getting me through it. He promptly returned to talking about faith being necessary because it is how we get to heaven when we die. We parted with him promising to have Seattle Baptist Church pray for me, for which I sincerely thanked him.
My conversation with this very pleasant, engaging man from Seattle Baptist church illustrates, I think, a very important issue within the Christian tradition. Christianity has a reputation of being quite otherworldly. To most people, both in the church and outside it, the major function and intent of the faith in the lives of the people is to help them go to heaven when they die. This is the view that led Karl Marx to call religion "the opiate of the people." It has again and again led to the church ignoring or even justifying oppressive, dehumanizing living conditions, and to the church convincing oppressed people to accept their oppression, by diverting the attention of the faithful from their lives in this world to their future in the next, telling them to accept deprivation in this world because a blessed future awaits them in heaven with Jesus after they die.
This view of Christianity finds support in numerous Scripture passages. We heard one that can be understood that way this morning, Paulís statement in Romans 12:2 that we should not be "conformed to this world...." Statements like that have long been taken as commandments not to be concerned with this world, or with life in this world. Paulís call to us not to be "conformed" to this world, and many other passages, have often been heard as calls to reject the world and to focus exclusively on salvation as going to heaven when we die.
Now, you have probably heard in my tone and the way I have expressed things so far that I have some problems with this view of Christianity. I do, and Iím going to talk about some of them in a minute. First, however, let me clarify something. I firmly believe that our faith is in significant part about what becomes of us when we die. The folks who focus on this aspect of the faith are not simply wrong. The Gospel of Jesus Christ contains in it the blessed, amazing promise that Godís love for us does not end when we die. Our life in this world will end, but our life with God never ends. We can and should take great comfort in that promise. It makes a powerful difference in our lives to know that our life with God may change its form when we die but that our life with God will not end then or any other time. It is a tremendous comfort to those of us who have lost loved ones to know that those we loved so much may have departed this world but have not departed and never will depart from the love of God.
That being said, I still believe that it is a profound misunderstanding of Christianity to say that it deals only, or even primarily, with life after death. In addition to being about eternal life in that sense, it is very much about life here and now. We can actually see this aspect of the faith in many of the passages that appear to reject the world when we take a closer look at what they actually mean. Paulís statement that we are considering this morning is a good example. What Paul actually said was: Do not be conformed to [or formed by] the aion. Aion is a Greek word that, as I understand it, is very hard to translate. It is the root of our word eon, meaning a very, very long time, or ages on end. It is often translated as "the world," although the NRSV gives "age" as an alternative reading. Yet it appears that neither world nor age is really an adequate translation of aion. My understanding of the wordís true meaning comes from the theologian Walter Wink, whom I have mentioned here so often before. I wonít bore you with the details of his analysis of the word. What he says, in short, is that the word means something like "the world as it is in the present age." We are not to be conformed to the world as it is in the present age.
OK, but just how is the world in the present age? Paulís understanding was that in this age this world is under the domination of sin. [Wink says this means the world is under the domination of domination, but we wonít go there this morning.] It is a world that is not as it should be, not as God intends it to be. With this understanding, we can see that Paul is not so much telling us to reject the world as he is telling us to reject the ways in which the world has gone wrong. The other side of that coin is actually a profound commitment to the world--to the world as it can be, as it should be, as God intends it to be. Paulís statement here is not a call to otherworldliness. It is rather a call to reject the domination of sin in the world, to reject violence, hatred, injustice, oppression, and all the other ways the world and all of us in it fall short of the glory of God.
This reading, I think, is perfectly consistent with what follows Paulís exhortation not to be conformed to the aion. He does not say that we are not to be conformed to the world as it presently is so that we may go to heaven when we die, or so that we can concentrate on what it takes so that we may go to heaven. Rather, he says that we are not to be conformed to this world so that we may renew our minds, be transformed thereby, and thus discern what is truly the will of God, whatever that will may be. It is very clear from Scripture that God has a distinct and distinctly revealed will for this world. What Paul is saying here, I think, is: Donít let this world, which is in the grasp of sin, distract you from discerning Godís true will for that world.
Which brings us to our Gospel reading for this morning--Peterís confession that Jesus is the Messiah. We need to consider just what it is that Peter is confessing here. As you may know, Messiah and Christ mean the same thing. Messiah is Hebrew, and Christ is its Greek equivalent. They both mean "anointed." Jesus as the Messiah (or the Christ) is Godís Anointed One. What does that mean? Well, it can mean a lot of things. I has meant a lot of things over the course of Christian history. I think that when we take all of the Gospels together we see that it means at least this: Jesus is the Son of God. God says at Jesusí baptism that God is well pleased with him. God is pleased with him, I think, because he is the one who more than any other shows us what that will of God is that Paul wants us to discern. He is the way that we can, once we have freed ourselves from conformity to the present age, discern the will of God.
And what is that will as we see it revealed in Jesus Christ? It is, I think, not an otherworldly concentration on our fate after death but rather a radical commitment to the world and its welfare. It is a commitment to making the world be the way God wants it to be. It is a commitment not to the world as it is but to the transformation of the world into the Realm of God, that Kingdom of God that Jesus preached and the preaching of which got him crucified. We see this commitment throughout Jesusí ministry. What does he do? He doesnít primarily promise people that they will go to heaven. Rather, he cures the sick, restores sight to the blind, includes in his ministry all of the people whom the religious establishment of his day excluded and despised. He tells people of Godís unfailing love for them--all of them--in his parables and sayings. He calls on all people to do justice to the poor. He rejects the claims of the secular order, the secular powers, to peopleís primary allegiance. In short, he conducts a ministry of peace, compassion, justice, and inclusiveness for all people. That is a profound, and profoundly dangerous, commitment to the world the way it should be. It has very little to do with people going to heaven after death. For Jesus, the Kingdom that he preaches is not, or at least not primarily, the city in the clouds with pearly gates and streets paved with gold of Christian legend. Rather, it is the world the way God intends it to be.
Like I said, the Gospel also includes the promise of life after death with God. Yet the church has badly distorted that Gospel with its one-sided emphasis on that aspect of it. Without losing the hope and consolation that come from Godís promise of eternal life in Christ, we need to recapture our faithís commitment to the world, to the transformation of the world, to the world the way God wants it to be. Thatís what Paul calls us to do. Thatís what it means to confess that Jesus is Christ. Itís not easy. Itís a tremendous challenge. Itís not easy to hold in balance the Gospelís promise of eternal life and its call to transform the world in this life. Itís not easy to maintain a commitment to this world the source of which is not of this world. Itís not easy to be in this world but not of it, not conformed to it. but thatís what we are called to do as Christians. The good news is that Godís grace is always available to help us, to sustain us, and to hold us in never failing love even when we fail. That is very good news indeed. Thanks be to God. Amen.