St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for Septuagesima, February 8, 2020
“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.”
ARE YOU satisfied with the kind of deal you are getting from God? In any exchange of goods or services we hope to come out ahead, to strike a good bargain and receive in the end more than we gave up. Some would look at us Christians with pity, thinking our pie in the sky religion has caused us to lose more than we could ever gain: limiting ourselves with an arbitrary moral code and numerous religious strictures weighed against the promise of a future utopia that everybody knows is a fantasy. Richard Dawkins scoffs at us. He’s an atheist with a book entitled, The God Delusion. Are we deluded? Have we sunk all this money and time and energy believing a lie, only just to die and rot and get nothing in the end but darkness and oblivion? Have you been duped by religious charlatans: like me?
There are a wide variety of religions to choose from and Chico has representative outlets of them all. Beside the many Christian denominations—Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Evangelical, Charismatic, and Pentecostal—there are the Christian Scientists, Mormons, JWs, Religious Science, Buddhists, Moslems, Jewish, and a host of other churches, ashrams, synagogues, and mosques. Have you thoroughly studied all these to see if you’re missing your best bet by coming here on Sundays? Rather than fear the other religious circles, we ought to be sure of our own. What makes us so secure in what we follow that we’re standing pat?
What is offered in a religion? Most of them make a promise of life unending after death, don’t they? The eastern philosophies may get you lost in the spin cycle of reincarnation, and end your existence in a blissful merging with oblivion, but the rest pretty well tell you you’re getting into one form or another of what we call heaven. What is heaven? And what’s the key that lets you in there, if just being human and dead are not sufficient for admission? Usually, heaven is regarded as God’s home, where all things are by His perfect order, unlike this earth where God is not completely and obediently followed.
Heaven must be lovely, then. If God is good, and all He does and commands us leads to joy, then His home must be worth going to for all eternity. Let’s go there. But, how?
Not so fast. Might there be any other place to consider? Could there be alternatives, options we’re passing up? For instance, would you prefer a place where you can do anything you like, have eternal pleasure your way, get anything your mind imagines, call the shots yourself, be god and command your own heaven? I hear folks talk that way at funerals—your own eternal golf course, for instance. The way I play golf, that would be hell. Islam promises a paradise with a lot of wives and girlfriends to each of its holy men. 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?
Don’t get nervous when I talk like this. We’re not going to change this faith, but be sure we have the best 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 Hades or hell feared by Jews and Christians alike. It’s only up or down, like elevator buttons. Decide which way and press.
One of the quaint things about religions is that they were all 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. But antiquity in faith is usually a bonus because it either lends authenticity to the weight of its claims, or clouds its sources with obscurity. Anyway, Christianity is 2,000 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 that day he went out to find more hands, hiring the first at minimum wage per day, let’s call it $100 for 12 hours’ work. The “pennies” mentioned are roughly a day-laborer’s wage. By 5 p.m. the work was nearing completion and he found a few more workers to add to his crew. At sundown, he began paying his farmhands and gave the latecomers $100. When he got to the ones who had been working since dawn he paid them $100 as well. Everyone got the same. The all-day men began to gripe. They now resented the newcomers for getting a day’s wage for only an hour’s work, and they wanted more. The owner’s words are wonderful: “Didn’t you agree to work for this wage? I haven’t cheated you. Take your payment home. I’m giving the same wage to these new guys. Is that against the law? Are you envious 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 whole 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 or even imagining eternal bliss. We can’t even conceive of it, and our best ideas of God that are cooked up by ourselves are just 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 creation, His heaven, His deal.
The time spent in the parable laboring didn’t govern the men’s reward, so what was the key to getting the $100? Coming at His call. Showing faith in the master. Beginning the task. But be careful here. 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 just as you died—holy at last. In other words: getting in right before dark was better than slogging along through an entire life avoiding sin. This ploy seldom works because the people who hold out against salvation until they’re on their last legs get pretty set in their ways, unable to humble themselves, unwilling to give up their selfish lives in the end. When you first hear the call is when you answer it. Then Christian life begins, at 8 days or 80 years, and from that first day things are better. One secret we’ve seemed to keep is that being a Christian is a far better life. It is its own reward. Heaven is thrown in for free.
But not really for free. Youcan’t pay for it, but this ticket is already punched and paid for. Who did it? It has my name on it, but how was it purchased? There is a dark stain on this 2,000-year-old ticket. It might be blood. St. Paul wrote “…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’m not the master of my life. I was once sold to sin and death, which is the old wage I’d earned. I see that was a bad deal I’d struck. But I had no way out of it. Like my old guitar hanging in a pawn shop window, I don’t have the money to buy myself back. Then He redeemed me. “I know that my Redeemer lives!” cried Job. 19:23-27 St. Paul wrote, “In Him we have redemption through His blood.” Eph 1:7 “He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love.” Col 1:13-14 “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 is choosing 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 a debate for the ages. You can’t earn it, you don’t have the price to pay, but nothing is simply dropped on you, either. Commandments make no sense if your obedience changes nothing. God, St. Paul writes, “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” 1 Tim 2:4 But we have to be obedient. 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 for this great transaction. His free gift of faith was given to us as our key to open this relationship we so badly need in order to make the journey. It’s the penny. The next part of this path is not a train, but rather training. It’s not a plane, but plain old hard work. And why? So that when we have gone the distance, we’re not left behind, found faithless. Faith and work—they are character marks of all saved people, and both are the gifts of God.
All you can ever do is not enough to earn it, and the price was paid a long time ago anyway. Your way to God is God. Your way to heaven is a man on a cross, God’s Son Jesus Christ, who left those dark stains on your ticket, indelible because these dark drops are His Blood. Red pennies could not be so deeply red. Your name is printed there on the ticket, and words inscribed in deep red letters that read, “Paid in Full.”