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Sermon – October 17, 2010: Inspired and Profitable

 

 

 

 

 

Sermon for Sunday, October 17, 2010 First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Inspired and Profitable

Jeremiah 31: 27-34; 2 Timothy 3: 14- 4: 5; Luke 18: 1 – 8

Before twentieth-century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer became

memorable for having been executed as one of the conspirators in the plot to assassinate

Adolph Hitler during the war, he was part of a Christian community and movement which

looked forward to what they called “religionless Christianity.” German scholarship had

arrived at the point where historical studies of the scriptures had changed the terms of

responding to Jesus. The overlays of tradition and contributions and conflicts of the early

church were discerned in the text and the older world’s instincts about unseen realities

seemed superseded by the sciences. “Religionless Christianity”, it was hoped, would find

human beings embracing the self-sacrificing, forgiving, peacemaking, needy-serving ethos

of Jesus of Nazareth without requiring the apparatus of all the antiquated rituals and

superstitious-seeming legacies of the past.

That expectation sounds funny to us Americans, where the ancestral faith still is

claimed by a majority of people, but it wasn’t altogether misguided with regard to Europe.

Indeed, in the decades after the World Wars, a smaller and smaller percentage of

Europeans took part in organized religion while at the same time many West European

nations instituted social reforms and benefits which echoed scriptural injunctions to care for

people. The Scandinavian countries are leaders in disinterested foreign aid–foreign aid not

tied to benefits for the donors. Norway is first in that category, Denmark third, and Sweden

fourth. The others in the top five are Luxembourg and Switzerland. Sweden is the society

which provides best for its poor, Norway the fourth best, and Finland the seventh. Such

generosity to those in need reflects the priorities of the gospel.

The religion of the gospel, however, has little hold on the people of those lands.

Scandinavian countries, like Bonhoeffer’s Germany, have a heritage of Lutheranism as a

state religion. But only a third of the residents of Norway believe in God, the percentage

for Denmark and Iceland is about the same, and fewer than a quarter of Swedes say they

believe in God. Only five per cent of Danes and Norwegians go to church, and only four

per cent of Swedes, Finns, and people from Iceland. Bonhoeffer’s hopeful dream of

societies committed to compassion, charity, and peaceful development without support

from traditional religion seems to have taken place in the context he knew.

“Religionless Christianity” as a possibility is considered in the apostle Paul’s letter to

Rome. In Romans 2: 13 following Paul writes, “It is not the hearers of the law who are

righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles, who

do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these though not having the

 
 

 

 

law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or

perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus

Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.” There it is in scripture, that even the person

without a religious identity may be good in God’s eyes provided he or she loves other

people. God may be able to put a right heart within them without formal religion.

That, in fact, is what God promises some day to do, in the portion of the prophet

Jeremiah which we have read today. God will change the nature of things, so that people

no longer will suffer for the mistakes of their parents, but instead everyone will bear only the

consequences of their own choices. Further, their opportunity to please God will be

reinforced by making them no longer dependent on one another’s religious teaching and

encouragement, but God will put the right kind of heart within them.

I want to return to the scriptural basis of the commonsense notion that people don’t

have to be religious to be the persons God wants them to be, but first I want to say

something about “Christianity-less religion.” If there’s an idea that can be characterized as

“religionless Christianity,” there’s certainly something which can be called “Christianity-less

religion.”

This is what the author of the letter Second Timothy addresses. “…the time is

coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will

accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from

listening to the truth and will wander away to myths,” is Second Timothy 4: 3 and 4. I’ll give

you an example. The teaching that “God helps those who help themselves” is the moral of

one of Aesop’s fables. What Jesus says, when his disciples point out that people have

come out to listen to Jesus’ preaching unprepared for a long day and should be dismissed

to go fend for themselves, is “You give them something to eat.” See, that’s a big

difference, declaring that God helps when you shift for yourself–that’s from the realm of

myth, the fable for which it is a moral features Hercules– or proclaiming that Christ bids his

disciples shift for those in need.

I’m sure “God helps those who help themselves” gets said from some pulpits, but

even if it doesn’t, that saying and that attitude have great currency with people. It’s not

because everyone is reading Aesop, either. It’s because Christianity’s commending great

compassion and effort to give to those in need is harder for people to deal with than

Aesop’s wisdom about looking out for oneself. It’s the same with Jesus’ injunction to

forgive. Jesus teaches it as a hard and challenging teaching, but how clearly does the

emphasis on forgiveness come through in the life of the church? Ask a thousand people at

random whether church makes them feel guilty about themselves or freed from guilt, and I

bet a large percentage associates religion with a lack of forgiveness.

What about the appropriateness of violence as a solution to the world’s problems?

People may not like what Jesus says about it, but Christian teaching urges nonviolence.

 
 

 

 

How few Christian groups, however, teach and preach that hard doctrine? It is possible to

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

go into thousands of churches which have all the outward elements of religion but which

don’t teach self-sacrifice on behalf of the undeserving, which equivocate on the obligation to

forgive, and which share the worldly instinct that killing people can get good results.

The problem is the one that Jeremiah acknowledges in the prophecy which says

that the world has been a place where people will suffer for other’s folly, but that’s going to

change. That’s going to change. God will keep everyone’s accounts separately, and no

one will bear the burden of another’s error or evil intent. Not only that, but God will put it

directly into people’s hearts to know God and what God requires. You won’t need anyone

on that day to remind you about God. God will be in you, to guide you.

That’s the promise. That’s the hope. That’s the solution, after a long and difficult

history of a Chosen People and a Promised Land, that things won’t always end up in

faithlessness and judgment and disaster. The way the world has worked so far will change.

Jeremiah’s vision is borne out, at least in part. People come back from captivity, the

religious life of the nation is restored, there are efforts at reform. More than that, from our

perspective, God sends Jesus, past further hard bits of history, to provide a new way.

Christ can be seen as one who disentangles the fates of individual souls from the fortunes

of the nation–he teaches an alternate kingdom, to which to be true, and from which to

expect benefits. That each is responsible before God for his or her own soul becomes an

early principle of the religion based on Christ.

In other ways, however, Jeremiah’s vision of a world in which nobody suffers for

another’s fault, and people find in their hearts sufficient guidance from God, is not yet come

to pass. It remains a prophecy and a promise. How much we are able to further its

progress by our practice of Christianity is a challenge, but we know that’s the outcome God

wants.

In the mean time, we have a tradition which always is in danger of seeming too

obscure, or too demanding, and every Christian is tempted to abandon engaging the

meaning of the scriptures in order to find simpler suggestions and easier efforts. Many of

those who boast most loudly of their belief in the inspiration of the Bible find ways to read

Christ as condemning instead of healing, and discipleship a source of pride rather than

humility. We remain in need of God’s mercies and grace.

And as for us, we must remember that our convictions themselves come from

scripture. We are not in favor of mercy for the weak and responsibility for the powerful

because of our politics, or our position in society, but because we find that prescription in

the word of God. We don’t admit the possibility of godliness without religion because we

are against religion, but because our faith gives us confidence in Christ’s emphasis on what

a person does for other people over religious claims, and confidence in Paul’s being right, in

the letter to the Romans, to suggest that God can write on the hearts of those who don’t

know our teaching, to make them persons acceptable to God. Those are our beliefs not

because we are sympathetic by nature, but because we believe the Bible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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