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, not spirit paradise. 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 God’s commandments ever since his youth. Jesus must have raised an eyebrow at the claim, but instead of disputing the young man’s self-assessment, he lets the law itself do the work. The first commandment states: “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.”
Had the young man kept all the commandments since his youth, casting away the false gods of money and prestige, giving it all to his poor neighbors so that he might serve Jesus whom the young man plainly believes to be 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 today 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 registered 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, by themselves, heaven is unattainable. Salvation must come from God alone and by his power and work 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 to please God. He loved his neighbor. In fact, his obedience to the law was for you, on your behalf, in your place. Then he finished the work, stretching out his arms to die on his cross to take away the sins of the world, bearing in his body and soul the torment which should be ours. On the third day, he rose again destroying death and giving all who turn to him new life here, now, and the Resurrection to Life when he returns.
What must you do to receive the benefits of Jesus’ work? Try your best? Love as he loved? Not at all. Turn from all of that. Forsake yourself and all reliance on your own efforts to please God or earn a place in his kingdom. Instead, 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. The bishop was not happy. I don’t know what God has done since then with his Gospel in the hearts and minds of those who heard it.
I could have said more. It so happens that even turning to Christ and resting in him, isn’t 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 everything.
And so because we do nothing and receive everything as a gift, the Christian life is shaped from beginning to end by gratitude. Gratitude is a fundamentally Christian way of life. Of course, all humans experience feelings of gratitude. But gratitude in its fullness flows directly from the Christian Gospel because only in the Gospel do we learn that all good things come from above and that they are given freely apart from any work or effort on your part.
I pray that you will truly celebrate and enjoy yourselves this Thanksgiving. Eat good food, drink nice things, enjoy your family and friends and remember that God has given you all good things, even eternal life, in Jesus Christ.