Sermon for the 7th Sunday after Trinity, July 30, 2017
“LORD of all power and might, who art the author and giver of all good things; Graft in our hearts the love of thy Name, increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and of thy great mercy keep us in the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
RELIGION gets a bad name these days. But then the true faith has always struggled to be embraced by most people. There are many faiths, many versions of reality that set us in some greater web of higher purpose. We are—perhaps—the belly button lint of some huge ox grinding barley over a great abyss. Or we are stardust, eternal light-beings fallen out of space onto earth and trapped in clay doll-bodies until we find away to escape and get back to the spirit lands. Or we are experiencing time as an illusion, entering and leaving it at intervals, joining the greater consciousness until we must re-enter the illusion of this world again. Or we are slaves of a capricious creator and destroyer and we must make constant sacrifices to the god, lest we fall into his disfavor. Or we are a chosen few, numbered and specially created as avatars in an evil lost planet where creatures who look like us are really demons and we must find one another and escape. Or we find god on the golf course. Or fishing.
Religion may be tossing a young lady into a volcano, or spreading the entrails of a goat, or studying your horoscope, or flipping a coin, or pulling the handle on a slot machine. Baseball players wear their caps inside out to change their luck. Others cross their fingers, wear gang colors, carry a rabbit’s foot, drink ginseng tea, or do yoga. What does it all mean and how can we know the truth?
Google ‘true religion’ today and you will get a flood of ads for blue jeans. It’s a brand name and its logo is a fat little Buddha. True Religion. Is somebody making fun of us, or of eastern religion, or fat people in jeans? Every word today is back-loaded with ridicule, every truth with its opposite. Are we safe to arrive at our idea of truth and share it without fear of being shouted down?
Webster’s defines religion as “the service and worship of God or the supernatural; a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices; or a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith.” It is a human belief and response to a higher being who made us and to whom we must answer.
Where does a religion come from? Today many Christians renounce every notion of at least the word: religion, favoring only a direct experience with God, human person to Divine Person. This is, of course, ideal, but the denial of a systematic body of beliefs about God, doctrines which guide our experience of Him, and submission to the witness of centuries of faithful people leads too often only to error and darkness. We need the light of the former faithful. Without them we would have no Bible, no church, no manner of approach to our God that we know He approves and receives. But where does a religion come from?
Some say religion starts with people. It’s certain that humans need a transcendent experience and belief in a higher being to provide meaning and hope to their existence in a wild and hostile planet. Where did we come from and where are we going? asks every generation. And the purely scientific and materialist answer that we just happened and that Dirt is our mother, Water our father is just as religious a belief as any primitive hut dwellers’ fetishes and blood oaths. We need an explanation, and so we invent one. That does happen. People need to fill the gaping hole in their universe, so they invent a being—or a supposed science—that seems to answer why the wind blows so hard, the corn grows taller this year, one wife has many more children, and our wars have not vanquished our enemy. Man-made religions are obvious and weird. And they seem just to fit us. Human culture is always wound around its religions, the god they define is always defining them.
The personal house gods of idolatry make this point very well. What is a god that you carve, cover in gold, and set on a shelf to receive your devotions? Who belongs to whom? If you bought your god, then it’s yours, and you are the real god of your own religion. Way too many religions today are like that, whether the god is heroine, or sex, or money, or progress, or power. You serve your god and it serves you. Such a religion does not deserve our time.
Logic tells us that two or more conflicting versions of reality cannot both be true. Reincarnation and Christianity are not both true. You cannot have a system where you save yourself by multiple incarnations and working out your karma by suffering for past lives again and again, and at the same time and in the same universe say that God becomes man for you to dies and save you Himself. These two worlds may not touch at any point. It’s logical that perhaps neither is the truth, but it’s certain that at least one is false. So, a notion that every religion is true can’t hold water. Every religion may contain truth, and indeed most do, but where they conflict, they prove that error exists in religion.
Is the answer then to throw them all out? Many do. Because of the conflicts, and even wars between religions, many people think it superior not to believe anything. Of course, that’s impossible. You will believe something. Futility is a god. Not a very good one. Setting myself up as the judge of all truth is also setting myself up as my own god. Even worse.
So, we are in need of an explanation, and either mankind hurries the process and invents something out there, or mankind discovers the truth hidden somewhere. And there is another way still.
God shows us Himself and leads us back to Himself. God appears, speaks, inspires, leads and redeems. That last fact of redemption is a feature in almost every human-based religion, witnessing to us that we know we are a mess. We have fallen. We are not enough. There is a gap between us and our maker that must be crossed, but how?
So, we look around the world and its cultures and ask, Has God shown Himself and led people back to Himself? Most religions will claim they are that way, but isn’t the God revealed in pages of the Bible a far more tenable reality than gods of thunder or heavy metal rock and roll? If you were to invent a god all by yourself, then your god would give you away: your fingerprints would be all over it.
But the God of the Hebrews, and then of our New Testament Jesus, surprises us at every turn. This God is not contained by the logic of a human author. He makes worlds, then breathes life into a species made to resemble Himself. He turns them out when they rebel, but works with them thereafter to restore the relationship. He calls and He woos them. He shows them by degrees more and more of who He is. He hints that a better path will be forged, one that will cost Him greatly. Then comes a man, but more than a man, who lives and speaks as no one ever did. He is God and He is human, and because He is so good, we plot against Him and we kill Him. And that was God’s plan all along. He is able to be killed, but unable to be kept dead. He changes the rules, bringing the necessary penalty for sin back to Himself, paying our debt on our behalf, then making the way to God to be our faith in Him: God, and man, and Savior.
Meet every Sunday, kneel and take communion. Or sing in a Gospel Choir. Or join a medical mission to Kenya. Or enter an order that grows grapes in Vina. Or study scriptures with fellow believers. The way we serve this God who has shown Himself may vary from Christian to Christian. Our Anglican ways of following Him are very old, tried and true, and answer to the revealed path He commanded. Take, eat, this is my Body. Baptize in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Some things we all know to do. And these things unite us as followers of Christ. But call yourself Baptist, or Catholic, or Anglican and still we are Christians because what’s essential we all hold as true. We have signed our name to the true religion.
There is therefore true religion and there is untrue religion. There has always been untrue religion. Even inside the walls of the Church. St. Paul fought it. He wrote Timothy that “Whoever teaches false doctrine and doesn’t agree with the accurate words of our Lord Jesus Christ and godly teachings is a conceited person. He shows that he doesn’t understand anything. Rather, he has an unhealthy desire to argue and quarrel about words. This produces jealousy, rivalry, cursing, suspicion, and conflict between people whose corrupt minds have been robbed of the truth. They think that a godly life is a way to make a profit.” 1 Tim 6 “The Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron…” 1 Tim 4 St. Peter wrote that “False prophets were among God’s people [in the past], as false teachers will be among you. They will secretly bring in their own destructive teachings. They will deny the Lord, who has bought them, and they will bring themselves swift destruction. Many people will follow them in their illicit freedom and will cause others to dishonor the way of truth. In their greed they will use good-sounding arguments to exploit you.” 2 Peter 2
What tests for false doctrines and how can we guard against lies formed to sway us away from the truth? Christians who say merely that they rely on the Bible to show them truth may not remember that every cult began in a Bible study led by someone with a new interpretation. The Bible alone can’t eradicate falsehood, if you use the Bible itself wrongly and understand its teachings in error. The Bible was written and affirmed by the Church and is our tool for measuring truth after we have ascertained what this document shows us and what it means. A Bible without the historic context and teachings of the Church, without the Nicene Creed, can be a dangerous thing, not being wielded by a wise and trained servant of God. It is scripture, after all, that says, “there is no god.” You may be trained well enough to object and tell me the entire quote is, “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no god.” But a teacher who uses biblical language may create error and may even lie.
I have always taught, therefore, Bible study for adults in the churches I’ve led. This is for more than entertainment. I will not always be here. And were I to remain all your days, it is possible that I myself might spout a heresy, get myself tied up to some false teaching. It happens. Were that the case, I know I have taught adults the faith found in the Bible, the same that was taught to me, and I would expect you to bring me the evidence that I have erred and get me back on track. The Bible doesn’t create the Church; it is used by the faithful to maintain truth within the context of the true religion.
How do we know we have the truth and are not just as self-deceived as the sad inhabitants of Jonestown? You have to answer that yourself. Is Jesus all we claim for Him? He multiplied bread, twice, and fed thousands. All four Gospel writers agree on that. No one else has done that. He died and rose again. No one else. He said words that have changed the world. No one else. His answer for sin fixes what we could never repair. His promises all come true. His appearance fulfilled every prophecy of hundreds and thousands of years. No one else. He presents Himself and our hearts leap toward Him. No one else. We meet Him at His altar. No one else. Our hope is in Him. Can we prove it?
No. Truth doesn’t work like that. Math works like that. Chemistry can be proven. God is not math, not a chemical formula, not science. We don’t want a religion that we are in charge of and must invent. Nuts to that. We want the faith once given that we maintain and follow all our days, to the honor of His holy Name and the saving of our souls.
Graft in our hearts the love of thy Name, increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and of thy great mercy keep us in the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord.