Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Easter 6A: "If... then..."

Way back in 1978 someone told me that computers were going to be important some day and I should take a computer class, and I believed them. Silly me! I was silly not because they were wrong. Obviously, they were right. In the 27 years since graduation, computers have become far more important than either my friend or I could have imagined. I was silly because what I learned in that class was probably obsolete even before the end of the semester. However, if I’d taken another class on Shakespeare or Plato, I would have benefited from that for the rest of my life. That’s the sermon I preach to my students at the University of Alabama, but it’s not the sermon I want to preach to you today.

There was one thing I learned in that computer class that has stuck with me and seems applicable to today’s gospel reading. One of the fundamentals of computer language is the “if/then” statement. In the code, that is, the language in which software is written, one of the most common commands is “if/then”/ For example, when you are using a word processing program and try to exit the program without saving the document, the program will stop you and say, “Do you want to save this document before exiting the program?” Obviously, one of Bill Gates’ employees in Redmond, WA, wrote an ‘if/then” command which goes something like this, “IF Barry Vaughn is absent-minded enough to exit Word without saving his sermon, THEN stop him before he loses everything he has typed and remind him to save it.”

If/then commands aren’t just part of computer software, they are a part of life. Sometimes life seems to be mostly about “if/then” commands. If you want a paycheck at the end of the month, then you need to get up and go to work five days a week. If you don’t want to sleep on the sofa, then you need to remember to send your wife some flowers for Mother’s Day. If you want your car to keep on running, then you have to put gas in the tank and change the oil. And on and on it goes…

Most of the “if/thens” we encounter in life are either neutral or beneficial, such as the three I mentioned. However, some “if/thens” are toxic. Sometimes families expect certain behaviors in exchange for love. “No son or daughter of mine is going to marry outside our race or religion, so If you want to continue to be a part of our family, THEN you will marry someone we approve of.” Or sometimes the conversation goes like this, “You must be crazy to want to study Shakespeare instead of computer science. If you want us to help you pay for college, THEN you better study something that we think is practical.”

Do you see what’s wrong with those “if/then” statements? Our families should be places of unconditional love, but in dysfunctional families, there are certain expectations that must be met in order to receive love. Of course, family members can and should hold each other accountable, but it’s wrong to make love conditional on a family member’s “performance” or willingness to toe the family line.

The Christian faith is about unconditional love from beginning to end, but in today’s gospel reading it sounds as though Jesus is putting conditions on his love. “If you love me,” Jesus says, “you will keep my commandments.”

Jesus seems to be saying that his love is conditional: “If you love me, then I will love you” and I believe that that is the way that most Christians understand the gospel. In spite of the great principle of the Reformation that God’s love is a free gift, the majority of us act as though we have to earn God’s love. One Sunday when the gospel reading was the parable of the prodigal son, one of my older parishioners said, “I always thought the father let that boy off way too easy!” And probably at times, most of us have felt the same way. God seems to let some people get off way too easy. However, the truth is God lets all of us off easy.

The Christian life involves discipline and is demanding, but that doesn’t mean that God’s love toward us is conditional on our ability to meet certain requirements. But the grace, mercy, and love of God are poured out on us in abundance in spite (not because) of our behavior. This was Paul’s stunning insight in Romans 5.8: “But God shows his love for us in that while we were YET sinners, Christ died for us.”

This is also what Jesus is saying in John 14.15: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” The “if” misleads us. We read this as though Jesus said, “If you keep my commandments, then I will love you.” But keeping the commandments does not persuade God to love us; rather, loving God motivates us to keep the commandments. It is the same insight that Augustine had when he said, “Love God, and do as you please.”

Jesus tells us about a God whose love contains no “if/thens.” Even as I say that I feel uneasy, and maybe some of you do, too. It sounds far too simple. What about the commandments, the rules, the obligations that go along with being a Christian? No question about it: there are plenty of “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” in the Bible. But if we believe that the Bible is one big “if/then” statement, then we’ve misunderstood it. In today’s gospel reading Jesus does NOT say, IF you keep my commandments, THEN I will love you.” Rather, he says, “If you love me, then you will keep my commandments.” Obedience is our response to God’s love; not a condition for receiving it.

It is only human to believe that God’s love is something we must earn. Observing the numerous temples and altars on Athens’ Areopagus, Paul said, “I see that you are very religious in every way.” And so they were. Greek and Roman religion (and nature religions of every kind) operate on the belief that there are powers or gods that are by their nature indifferent or hostile to us. The purpose of religion is to win their favor by performing rituals and offering sacrifices. The great insight of Judaism and Christianity is that God loves us and longs to have a relationship with us. Make no mistake: like any relationship we go through bad patches. We often make each other angry. But the Bible assures us that (like the father in the parable of the prodigal son) God’s arms are always wide-open.

The gospel is good news, not bad news. It is not about a set of conditions we have to fulfill in order to be loved. The Bible is a love story or better yet a love letter with your name and my name on the envelope. It is an invitation to fall in love with the God who loves us first, last, and in between.

Friday, April 22, 2005

The way, the truth, and the life

Today’s readings present us with an uneasy mixture of comfort and challenge. On one hand, we have the stirring words of 1 Peter 2: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” And then we have the words from John 17 that are so familiar to us from funerals and have brought hope to many at the time of death: “"Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”

On the other hand we have the terrible story of the stoning of Stephen. Even Psalm 31 begs the question, “If God ‘inclines’ his ear to us, then why did Stephen’s enemies take his life in such a barbarous way?”

But the hardest words in today’s readings are Jesus’ reply to Thomas, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” They’re hard and difficult because they offend our modern sensibilities. We want to believe that there are many paths, many ways, many truths. That what is true for you may be different from what is true for me. The essence of post-modernism is the idea that truth is a social construction; there is no absolute truth or objectivity.

To a large extent, this is correct, and we can credit the physicist Werner Heisenberg with this insight. Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle” states that one can know either the location of an electron or its speed but one cannot know both at the same time. The process of determining the speed changes the location and knowing the location changes the speed. It’s a very commonsense position to take. Observation always changes, however subtly, both the observer and the thing observed.

But that is not the same thing as saying that the electron is not there at all or that speed is not a thing that can be measured. Gertrude Stein famously remarked about her hometown of Oakland, CA, “There’s no there there.” But in the case of the electron (or anything else we observe), “There IS a there there.” What we have to keep in mind is that our knowledge is always partial, finite, and influenced by our self-interest. It’s an insight that St. Paul had long ago: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.” (1 Cor. 13.12)

But the person in the pew wants to know, “Is Jesus the only way to God? Will my Muslim or Jewish or Buddhist neighbor be ‘saved’?” The answer is both simple and complex. We have to take Jesus at his word. He claims to be THE way, and we are not authorized to proclaim any other way. Karl Rahner suggested that there may be “anonymous Christians,” i.e., those who know Christ without knowing him by name. That is a helpful idea but it simply moves the difficulty back one step. Not many Jews or Muslims would like to be told, “It’s OK. You’re really Christians without knowing it.”

I think what we can say is that Jesus is the way we know. We can and should acknowledge that goodness, wisdom, and even holiness are often found in other faiths (and often missing in the Christian faith) But we must maintain a reverent agnosticism about how God will deal with those of other faiths.

Now, here’s the hard part: We also need to maintain a degree of uncertainty about how God will deal with us. This is not to undermine Christian hope and assurance but simply to recognize the fact that not only is our knowledge of God impaired by our finitude and self-interest but even our knowledge of ourselves is impaired. But if our hope were that we are redeemed because we know and love God so well, then we would be (to quote Paul again), “of all men and women most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15.19). Our hope is that God knows and love us. We have hope for ourselves and our neighbors of other faiths because there IS a way, a truth, and a life. Our knowledge of that way is inevitably partial and biased and we often go astray but we are confident not because we know the Way but because the Way knows us.