I was once invited to speak at a Mormon church here in Binghamton. The Mormon bishop asked me to discuss our “common faith in Jesus Christ.” I told the bishop that I could not in good conscience do that since I do not believe that we share a common faith in the same Jesus. Nevertheless, thanks be to God, he did not rescind the invitation and I was able to share the Gospel with a room full of Mormons
The Mormon “gospel” briefly summarized is: The Heavenly Father sent Jesus to teach us how to be righteous and thus achieve paradise and, ultimately, godhood. If you do all that you can do, God’s ‘grace’ will help you the rest of the way and you will enter spirit paradise and one day, by walking in accordance with the Heavenly Father’s plan, attain your place among the gods, a planet of your own to populate with spiritual children.
There is quite a bit there but since I only had a short time, I decided to focus on the thick thread of human effort and achievement woven through Mormonism, binding the burden of eternity to the shoulders of all who labor under the system, “Do all that you can do.” Does anyone ever do that?
Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, similarly claims that Jesus came to start a new movement grounded in the command to love: “Love God and love your neighbor.” It is certainly true that Jesus commands us to do this. But is that really good news? Do you love God with all your heart, soul, and strength?” Do you really “Love your neighbor as yourself?” Has Michael Curry or the Mormon bishop or anyone else ever truly done everything in his or her power to love and serve God and others?
I can tell you honestly that I have never done all that I can do. I do not love God with all my strength. I love myself far more. I love myself far more than anyone else and spend an inordinate amount of time and energy doing those things I think are best for me. So, if the Mormons are correct, I’ll not be populating planets anytime soon. It will be Spirit-prison for me. If Michael Curry is correct, then I am likewise doomed. Jesus, the Supreme Judge of the cosmos, requires love from me and I don’t give it. I don’t even try very hard and, if you are honest with yourself, neither do you.
In Mark 10, a rich young ruler approaches Jesus and asks: “Good teacher, How do I attain eternal life?” Jesus says: “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” By these words, Jesus does not deny his impeccability. He corrects the young man’s anthropology. No one is good.
The young man, seeming not to notice, proceeds to tell Jesus that he has followed all of God’s commandments ever since his youth. Jesus must have raised an eyebrow, but instead of disputing the young man’s self-assessment, he let the law do its work. In the very first commandment, God requires that “you shall have no other gods before me.” Jesus tells the man, “If you would be perfect, sell all of your possessions, give the proceeds to the poor, and come, follow me.”
If the young man had truly obeyed all the commandments since his youth, casting away the idols of wealth and prestige for the sake of his poor neighbors so that he might serve Jesus, God’s appointed Servant, should not be difficult. But the young man cannot do it. Mark tells us that “he went away sorrowful because he was a man of many possessions.”
The assumption of the day was that God bestows material blessings on those he deems righteous. Paradoxically, a wealthy devout man, like the rich young ruler, would occupy a moral position in people’s minds comparable to a great philanthropist or someone who devotes his or her life to the needy. That explains why, when Jesus turned to his disciples and said: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God,” they register shock.
“Who then can be saved?” they ask. Jesus answers, and this is the point toward which he has been driving all along, “with man this is impossible. But with God all things are possible.” If anyone wishes to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, he must not think he can do so by his own efforts or on the basis of his own merit. For human beings, corrupted by iniquity and burdened by guilt, the Kingdom is unattainable. Salvation must come by the power and work of God alone.
For this purpose, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus obeyed every law. He loved his Father with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength. His every thought, word, and deed were pure offerings, pleasing to God. He loved his neighbors, taking and bearing our burdens to the gates of death and hell, stretching out his arms to die on his cross to take away the sins of the world, enduring in his body and soul the torment which should be ours. On the third day, he rose again, destroying death, plundering the grave, and giving all who turn to him new life here, now, and the promise of Resurrection to Life when he returns.
What must you do to receive the benefits of Jesus’ work? Try your best? Love as he loved? That is all vanity. Turn from it. Forsake yourself and forsake every attempt to establish your own righteousness. Turn to Jesus Christ and rest in his finished work and you will have, as a free gift, mercy, and eternal life.
That is, by the way, the thrust of the talk I gave to the Mormons. I could have said more since even turning to Christ is not something you do on your own. Paul writes: “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”(Eph 2:4-9)
That phrase “this is not of your own doing, it is the gift of God” sets Christianity apart from every human religion. Every step, every breath, every good work of the Christian life is a response to what God has already done in Jesus Christ. Everything he gives you is unmerited, unearned, undeserved. You do nothing. He does it all.
There is in the fallen human way of thinking and in fallen religion the assertion – sometimes veiled, sometimes proclaimed – that our material and spiritual condition rests ultimately upon our wisdom and the earnestness of our endeavors. So, while all human beings experience feelings of gratitude toward others and their religions teach them to give thanks to God or to their ancestors or to the universe or to their gods and goddesses, in the end, gratitude is limited. Others have helped us along the way of course, but the rewards we reap are in some large or small part, due to us.
Not so with Christians. No part of the blessings of this life, the treasures of heaven, the consolations, and the benefits of our union with God in Christ, are due to us. Everything is a gift. The Christian life, therefore – every command we receive, service to which we are called, fast we endure, and feast we enjoy – is shaped by and flows from the great wonder of what we have already been given in Christ by grace alone. Christian Gratitude, therefore, is of a unique species unknown to any other religion or philosophy because only in the Gospel do we learn that every good thing comes to us from God who has not even withheld his only Son to procure our lives and our eternal joy.
May you truly celebrate and enjoy yourself this Thanksgiving. Eat good food, drink nice things, enjoy your family and friends and remember that God has given you every good thing in Jesus Christ.