Paid in Full
St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for Septuagesima, February 13, 2022
“I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: but I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection; lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.”
In any exchange of goods or services we hope to come out ahead, to strike a good bargain and have in the end more than we gave up. Some folks look at us Christians with pity, thinking our pie in the sky religion has caused us to lose more than we gain: limited by an arbitrary moral code and religious strictures with the promise of a future utopia that everybody knows to be a fantasy. Richard Dawkins scoffs at you and me in his book, The God Delusion. Are we deluded? Have we sunk all this money and time and energy believing a lie, just to die and rot and get nothing but darkness and oblivion? Have you been duped by religious charlatans like me?
There is a wide variety of religions to choose from, and Chico has outlets of them all. Beside the many churches—Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Evangelical, Charismatic, and Pentecostal—is offered Christian Scientist, Mormon, JWs, Religious Science, Buddhist, Moslem, Jewish, and a host of other churches, ashrams, synagogues, and mosques. Have you done a thorough study of all these to see if you could be missing your best bet by coming here each Sunday? Rather than fear other religious circles, we should be sure of our own. What makes us so secure in what we follow that we’re standing pat with our hand?
What is offered with any religion? Most of them make a promise of life unending after death, don’t they? Sure, the eastern philosophies may get you in the spin cycle of reincarnation, and end all existence in a blissful oblivion, but the rest tell you you’re getting into heaven. What’s heaven? And what’s the key that lets you in there, if being human and dead are not sufficient for admission? Usually, heaven is regarded as God’s home, where all things are in His will, unlike this earth where God is not fully followed. Heaven must be lovely. If God is good, and all His commands are joy, then heaven must be worth it. Let’s go there. Now.
Not so fast. Might there be another place to consider? Could there be an alternative? For instance, would you prefer a place where you can do anything you like, have any pleasure, get anything your mind imagines, call the shots, be your own god and command your own heaven? I think there is such an option, or at least I hear folks talk that way at funerals — your own eternal golf course? (The way I play golf, that would be hell.) Islam promises a paradise with a lot of wives and girlfriends for its holy men. I’m not sure what their holy women are promised. The Latter-Day Saints are going to be the gods of their own planets. Could we be settling for less by following Jesus to His Father’s House of many mansions?
Don’t get nervous when I talk like this. We’re not going to change our faith, but determine that we have the real deal here. In fact, we ought to be certain that there is no other deal—that nirvana or the Witnesses’ new earth or a Wiccan’s spirit world is really just the hell feared by Jews and Christians alike. It’s up or down, like elevator buttons. Decide which way you’re going and press. When the doors open and the bell dings, get in.
One thing about most religions is that they were founded a long time ago and by people on the other side of the world. If that makes you suspicious, try a religion thought up in Phoenix 70 years ago by a science fiction writer. Or make up your own. The antiquity of faith is often its calling card because it either lends authenticity to its claims, or clouds its sources with obscurity. Anyway, Christianity is 2000 years old. Its founder is alive, so we claim, after dying a terrible death, then rising again. Let’s say we’re right. Billions have staked their lives on it. Now, how does it work and what do you get from your pains in becoming a Christian?
Our founder told a story about a man who owned a vineyard and hired day-laborers to harvest his grapes. Several times on that day he went to the marketplace to find more hands, hiring the earliest at minimum wage per day, let’s call it $100 for 12 hours’ work. By 5 p.m. the work was nearing completion and he found a few more workers to add to his crew. At dusk, he paid his farmhands and gave the latecomers $100. When he got to the ones who had been working since dawn, he paid them $100 too. Everybody got the same. The all-day men began to gripe. They resented the newcomers for getting a day’s wage for only an hour’s work, and their union demanded more. We might feel the same. The owner’s words are wonderful: “Didn’t you agree to work for $100? I haven’t cheated you. Take your pay and go home. I’m giving the same wage to these new fellas. It’s my money. Am I breaking the law? Are you mad because I’m generous?” Jesus concludes by saying “So the last shall be first, and the first last: many be called, but few chosen.” What is this parable teaching us?
Heaven, eternal life, redemption from sin, and reborn spirits are not something you go out and buy like a new suit or a car. You can’t strike a bargain for these things. You can’t earn them, not by working all day or all your life. Your best efforts are flawed, your life wasted, if you think you can get to heaven by standing on your own shoulders. That’s only a pathetic – and very short – Tower of Babel. First of all: we’re not capable of earning eternal bliss. We can’t even conceive of it rightly, and our best ideas of God that we cook up ourselves are rubbish. The first thing to know is that we don’t make deals, and we don’t make the rules. This is His world, and it’s His heaven, His creation, His deal.
The time spent in the parable laboring didn’t seem to govern the reward, so what was the key to getting the $100? Coming at His call. Showing faith in the master. Beginning the task. And, being there at sundown. But be careful now. Some early Christians thought that being baptized on your death bed was clever because all your life’s sins were washed away and you began over, claiming the new life, right as you died. Getting inside right before dark was better than slicing onions in the kitchen for an entire life. This ploy seldom works, because the people who hold out until they’re on their last legs are already set in their ways, unable to humble themselves, unwilling to give up their self-led lives. When you first hear the call is when you answer it. Then the life of a Christian begins, at 8 days or 80 years, and from the first day things are better. One secret we seem to keep is that being a Christian is a far better life. It is its own reward. Then heaven is thrown in for free.
Well, not for free. You can’t pay for it, but this ticket is already punched. Who did it? It has my name on it, but how was it purchased? There is a dark stain on this 2000-year-old ticket. It might be blood. St. Paul wrote, “your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own. For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God's.” 1 Cor 6:19-20 If I was bought, then I am not the master of my life anymore. I was once sold to sin and death, which is the old wage I had earned. I now see it was a bad deal I’d struck. But I had no way out of it. Like some old guitar hanging in a pawn shop window, I couldn’t buy myself. Then a man redeemed me. “I know that my Redeemer lives!” cried Job. 19:23-27 St. Paul wrote, “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace.” Eph 1:7 “He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins.” Col 1:13-14“Christ Jesus… gave Himself a ransom for all.” 1 Tim 2:6
But if we’re powerless, is this all something done to us, without our consent, by a God who chooses this one and not that one, like some daisy petal game? What is our part in this, if any, and can we say we are rewarded for something we’ve accomplished, or just take the free gift and be thankful? This is the debate of ages. You can’t earn it, for you haven’t such a price you can pay, neither is something just dropped on you.
Commandments make no sense if your obedience or disobedience changes nothing. Our eternal state is more seriously determined than a roll of the dice and a series of chutes and ladders. St. Paul speaks of a foot race or a boxing match. You train, you eat right, you get into the ring or on the track, and you go at it. In a race, only one runner breaks the tape. In a fight, one boxer is down, the other still standing. Unlike these sporting competitions, we’re not vying with others. That isn’t his point. God, Paul says, “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” 1 Tim 2:4 But as in sports, we have to be disciplined, we have to get in there and rise to the occasion, we have to go at it like an Olympian, with all we have. What is loving God with all your strength, if not a test of your devotion?
St. Paul wrote that Christ’s love and His sacrifice were sufficient, and that the free gift of faith was our key to open that relationship. However, this is not a train, but training. Not a plane, but plain old hard work. We run with certainty, throw punches that connect, work hard to keep ourselves in shape. And why? So that when we have gone the distance, we’re not left behind, found faithless. Faith and work—they come from the same saved people, and are both the gifts of God. All the vineyard workers labored until sundown.
All you’ll ever do is not enough to earn it, and the price was paid a long time ago anyway. Your way to heaven is a man on a cross, God’s Son Jesus Christ, who has left those dark stains on your ticket, indelible because these marks are in His Blood. Your name is there, and the words inscribed in deep red letters read, “Paid in Full.”