April 02, 2018
The Easter 2B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for John 20:19-31 from the Lectionary Gospel; Acts 4:32-35 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 133 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 1 John1:1-2:2 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Gospel: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 84 (Lord’s Day 31)
Author: Scott Hoezee
Don’t you hate it when you make one mistake and it defines you from then on out?! One little mistake and Thomas becomes a morality lesson, a byword, a counter-example of anything we’d ever want to be. In truth, however, there is more than a little of Thomas in all of us.
When Thomas was first told about the meeting with Jesus that he had missed, he was understandably guarded. The notion that a dead man was back alive again was not exactly something you grabbed hold of and easily believed in a minute or two, not today and not 2,000 years ago, either. Modern scholars sometimes peg the disciples as such naïve bumpkins that they’d believe anything.
They knew the dead stayed dead and this was not a fact you revised on a whim. So Thomas plays it safe but also then speculates aloud as to what it might take for him to believe this after all. As he talks, his rhetoric gets more and more exaggerated. “My friends, I’d have to see with my own eyes the nail holes in his hands. No, tell you what, I’d need to touch those holes with my own finger. Better yet, I’d want to stick my whole hand right into his side where the sword pierced him!” Thomas kept mounting up an ever-larger heap of evidence that he thought he’d need to believe. His words seemed calculated to induce some eye-rolling.
Of course, once he does meet Jesus, all that evaporates. Kind of quickly!
It reminds me of when I met Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign. In our house we always referred to him as “Barack” and I was sure that if I met him, I’d want to call him by name. Well, when I did meet him, that went away in an instant and I fumbled even to get out the words “Senator” and “Sir” every time I addressed him in my fairly brief encounter. When you’re face to face with the real deal, things feel different.
Things felt different for Thomas, too. No way was he going to do—or even ask to do—what he said he was going to do. But he did believe. The evidence was right in front of him in ways the rest of us now don’t have. But it’s still faith that leads the way to the truth of it all.
To paraphrase a traditional aphorism, if you don’t have faith, then there will never be evidence enough to convince you, and if you do have faith, no evidence is needed.
Without faith, no evidence is sufficient; with faith, no evidence is necessary.
And although most of us probably agree with that in principle, we can perhaps admit that sometimes we are still hungry for a little evidence, or a little more evidence than we usually have.
Jesus himself knows that faith is both a blessing and a miracle. That’s why he says in verse 29 that while it was one thing for Thomas to believe with Jesus standing right in front of him, it would one day be quite another thing to believe without such undeniable physical proof standing in the same room.
But John at least seems confident that he has given us enough for just such faith to be born. And just to be sure we get it, John breaks down what in theater and movies is called “the fourth wall.” One of the most difficult disciplines that film actors need to learn is to resist the temptation to look directly at the camera (or in a play to cut their eyes in the direction of the audience, which they are supposed to pretend is not there). If they do this, the gig is up. They break the magic spell of this being “real” in some sense—they remove the fourth wall by acknowledging there are only three actual walls and the other one is missing so viewers can peer in. If you’ve ever watched amateur video productions, then you know that one of the main things that distinguishes amateur work from professional films is that you can often spy one of the people in the scene cutting their eyes in the direction of the camera. It’s hard to resist!
Occasionally, of course, having an actor intentionally look at the camera is done for humorous effect. It becomes like an inside joke between the actor and the audience. (Here is a classic example from the movie Trading Places where Eddie Murphy looks at the camera to indicate his incredulity at being condescended to by another character in the film: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=emvySA1-3t8 ).
But at the end of John 20 (and he will reprise it at the end of John 21) John steps out of the drama he is narrating to look his readers straight in the eye. “Now listen, friends: I have left out a ton. Jesus said and did lots of other really amazing things that I just have not gotten around to even mentioning. But what I have given you is enough. Read it and believe!”
Sometimes we may find ourselves wanting more, but by faith we need to be satisfied with enough, which is exactly what our God in Christ gives us. Thanks be to God for enough.
There is a curious textual dispute concerning the tense of the verb “to believe” in John 20:31. Textual critics seem to be divided between those who think this is an aorist subjective (which would mean “so that you may believe”) or a present subjunctive (which would have the sense of “so that you may keep on believing”). Obviously the choice one makes has something to say about the audience one envisions here. If John is writing to a missionary context in which the potential readers of this gospel are not yet believers, then the aorist would make sense: John is trying to generate faith.
But if John is writing to an established Christian community, then the present tense makes sense in that he is furthering and bolstering a faith already present. If you consult the critical apparatus of the text, you see that the present subjunctive may well be the better attested in early manuscripts, including Codex Vaticanus and Parchment 66 but the aorist version can call some heavy early manuscript hitters to its side, too, including Alexandrinus and certain versions of Sinaiticus. Most translations skirt the issue by translating it “that you may believe” which could go either way. This may be similar to how in an Assurance of Pardon we pastors may say to the congregation, “Believe the Gospel—your sins are forgiven!” knowing that some who hear those words have believed that for a long time already and are now re-celebrating that belief even as some who maybe have not believed before could be called to faith via that same expression. Maybe that ambiguity works in also John 20:31. Those who believe find their faith deepened each time they read this gospel but those who have not known Jesus as Messiah before may well come to belief via that same gospel witness.
When I was a kid, my father read the end of John 20 at the dinner table one night for our family devotions. After he read the part about Jesus’ telling Thomas that there would be lots of people who would not see him but who would still believe in him anyway, my mother commented, “Jesus means us. He’s talking about us. We’ve never seen him the way the disciples did, but he is our Savior and we believe in him. Jesus is talking about us.”
All these years later, I can still remember marveling a bit over a thought that tantalized my young heart: I am in the Bible! Little Scott Hoezee of Ada, Michigan, is in the Bible!
A few years later when I ran across that same passage in high school, I realized that my mom might have been guilty of a little rhetorical excess. No, I am not in the Bible. Not specifically, not personally, not really. That’s the kind of thing a naïve kid thinks. And when I was a child, I thought like a child and reasoned like a child but now . . .
Then a few more years passed. I entered Seminary and began to understand a few things about the divine inspiration of Scripture, about how the Word of God is alive, living, vibrant, sharper than a two-edged sword and cutting clean to the bone of those who read that Word. I began to understand that the living God really can and does encounter his people through his Word and that he’d been doing just that to countless millions of people across the millennia. And so when the evangelist John turns to the reader to say, “These are written that you may believe,” by the Holy Spirit, that is a direct and living address to me as the reader. Maybe all of us are, maybe each of us is, really in the Bible after all. I am in the Bible. This is my story.
And all God’s people said, “Cool.”
Author: Scott Hoezee
Acts 4 is enough to break your heart.
Was it really true at the earliest stage of the Christian community that the believers were completely one in heart and mind? Did they really share absolutely everything even as they fell adoringly and reverently at the feet of the apostles, hanging on their every word (and with nary a criticism of any sermon they preached)?
The truth is that even the Book of Acts itself testifies to the fact that from the earliest days of the Christian church forward, a measure of disagreement and strife and conflict was present. Acts is remarkable for many reasons, not the least of which is its bracing honesty in admitting that sometimes the apostles disagreed and had to call special councils to hammer out their understanding of grace. Sometimes some of the apostles disagreed so sharply with one another that they had to continue their work for the Lord down separate paths.
And that’s just the Book of Acts. If you read between the lines—and sometimes you can read the lines themselves—in epistles like I Corinthians, Galatians, and Thessalonians, you can see how often Paul had to mediate disagreements among believers and correct (sometimes sharply and harshly) false ideas and practices the earliest Christians had adopted within their church communities. Even the friendliest letter in the New Testament, the Letter to the Philippians, has to pause near the end to tell two women to stop their public squabble and get along for Jesus’ sake.
It is good and pleasant when brothers and sisters in the Lord get along. It is good and pleasant when Christian believers can share things in common and cling to the one Word of Life that just is the apostolic witness of the gospel. But it is also sadly true that complete unity and utter harmony across all boundaries, times, and places are rare and unusual.
As William Willimon has noted, there may even be something curious about the fact that this snippet of Acts 4 get assigned for the Sunday after Easter in the Year B Common Lectionary. After all, this is known as “Low Sunday” in a lot of places, not least because whereas the church had probably been full to capacity the Sunday prior, the Sunday after Easter often features a whole lot of empty pews.
A couple of years ago I attended one of three Easter Sunday morning services at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago. It was the first time in my life I had to stand in line for church! The young people of the congregation were carrying around trays of hot cider to warm us as we waited in an April chill in lines that snaked all the way around several city blocks just off Michigan Avenue. But I know that had I attended this same church the following Sunday, I could have arrived 5 minutes late and still had no problem in finding a seat—indeed, I would likely have my pick of lots of places to sit.
So how curious to assign a reading about the people of God being all together in one place on a Sunday when, if anything, we note how many people are missing! (And then aren’t we also tempted to grumble about those fellow church members who show up just on Christmas and Easter and oh my goodness what kind of a faith is that . . .!?)
But, of course, the key is not really the size of the crowd at any given church on any given Sunday. And to be honest, the real deep spiritual key to Acts 4 is not the presence of air-tight Christian unity, either. The key is the fact that we still have a Christian community in the first place all these centuries after the resurrection. Despite all that has changed in the church, despite all the fractures and schisms and splits and theological hair-splitting that along the ages have resulted in the kaleidoscope of denominations that we have across the world today, there remains a common article of faith that all Christian people are still able to say in complete unity each time they recite the great creed:
“The third day he rose again from the dead.”
“With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and there was much grace on them all.” That’s what we read in Acts 4:33 and as William Willimon notes, that was the core to it all. The resurrection made all the difference. The resurrection created a community of faith among disparate people who had never before been part of such a community. And despite all the tug-o-wars in Acts and throughout the rest of the New Testament, that core conviction that Jesus lives and that he is the resurrected Lord of Life persisted then and persists all the way down to this present day.
Our unity is never perfect. We have a hard time sharing all things in common. And yet . . . the Church is still here. In a million places and ways every single day believers continue to witness to the power of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. And even though we cannot agree on what happens to the bread at the Lord’s Supper or whether it’s OK to ask the Virgin Mary to pray for us or whether babies should be baptized or whether the Bible says the earth is 10,000 years old or allows for it being millions of years old: despite it all, the Christian community continues to exist as a living testament to the truth of the line “Jesus lives and so do we.”
Even on the Sunday after Easter—or maybe it’s really especially on the Sunday after Easter—when the lilies are gone, the brass is packed away, and the crowds are a little thin, it is still true that when the people of God gather as they have gathered for twenty centuries now, they bear witness to the resurrection and to that common Christian conviction that “on the third day he rose again from the dead.” In John 20 Jesus told Thomas that lots of people would come who had not been an eyewitness to the resurrected Christ the way Thomas was but they would be blessed for their faith anyway. Today we are here as living proof that Jesus was right. And just maybe that is proof enough.
No, none of this is an excuse for the arguments we too often have in our congregations or for the other signs of disunity that mar and mark the church today. But it is testament to the grace-filled fact that just beneath the surface of all that divides people is the living presence of the resurrected Savior and that it is finally his holy voice that makes our every gathering a good and pleasant thing after all.
A pastor friend of mine has long had a great affinity for the Orthodox part of the larger Christian Body on earth and in particular he has been a student of Russian Orthodoxy for a long time. He speaks fluent Russian and has led many tour groups to Russia across the years.
Quite a few years ago, when the Soviet Union was still in full command of its large communist empire, my friend was in Moscow over Easter. And he participated in a large Easter Vigil in front of one of the biggest Russian Orthodox churches. As part of the vigil, large crowds gathered in the square in front of the cathedral. At midnight as Holy Saturday gave way to Easter Sunday, someone knocked on the large doors leading into the church. At that moment the priest on the inside flung open the doors and said (in Russian, of course) in a loud voice to the waiting crowd, “He is risen!”
And with one voice the crowd thundered back, “Risen indeed!”
My friend will testify that he is a life-long Christian believer. But he will also tell you that at that moment—when in the heart of communist darkness he heard that throng of people roar forth its unison “Risen indeed”—he just knew the whole thing was true. The gospel, the resurrection, the abiding presence of Jesus among his people to this day: it’s all true. He just knew it in a way he had seldom known it before.
One of the earliest evidences of the truth of the resurrection was the fact that the disciples—who had so teetered on the brink of just scattering into the wind after the death of Jesus—not only reassembled themselves but managed to create a whole new community that grew beyond all telling. The community of the resurrected One bore witness to the truth of the whole gospel enterprise.
As my friend will tell you, to this day when God’s people testify together in harmony and unity to the fact that he is “Risen indeed,” that apostolic witness is confirmed in a most dramatic way indeed.
Author: Stan Mast
As is so often the case with the RCL, Psalm 133 seems an odd choice for this second Sunday of the Easter season– until we read it in conjunction with the other readings for today. Read in the context of Acts 4:32-35 in particular, it is very clear why we should focus on Psalm 133. The resurrection of Jesus created a new community of brothers and sisters who dwelled in perfect unity, even sharing their goods so freely that people saw their private property as belonging to the community. Further, the reading from John 20 shows the earliest Easter community, gathered in the upper room for mutual support as they awaited the dreaded knock of the Jewish authorities, only to encounter the risen Christ who has passed right through the locked door. 1 John 1 calls the Johannine community to fellowship with each other and with God in Christ. So, the theme of unity runs through all of the readings, making Psalm 133 the perfect choice for today.
Not only does Psalm 133 resonate with the other readings, but it is also deeply relevant to our fragmented world, our divided country, and our splintered church. It didn’t take long for the pristine unity of the early church to break apart, as we see from letters like 1 Corinthians. That tendency to divide has characterized the Body of Christ throughout its long history, right up to this day when there are literally thousands of denominations in the world. Even tiny local churches wage internecine wars that would make the Hatfields and the McCoys run for cover.
So Psalm 133 provides us a perfect opportunity to call the church back to the unity that it had for a brief time and that Jesus intends for all eternity. It seems to be such a simple little Psalm, but there is a complexity here that should make for an interesting sermon with a surprise Gospel ending.
The structure is simple. The opening line and the last line are directly connected, the last line elaborating the first. In between we have these two metaphors that illustrate how “good and pleasant” it is when brothers live together in unity. It’s like precious oil running down the beard of Aaron and it’s like dew falling on Mount Hermon. Those similes made abundant sense to the first readers, but we will need to explain a bit to help folks appreciate them. And we’ll have to spend considerable time explaining the surprise, Gospel ending. Not only is it good and pleasant when brothers dwell in unity, as illustrated by the metaphors, but it is also the case that Yahweh commands his blessings wherever such unity is found. That blessing is a most unusual Old Testament blessing, namely, “life forevermore.” Can that be right? Unity brings the divine blessing of eternal life? Let’s dig a bit.
The first issue we must deal with is the identity of these brothers. Is the Psalm talking about a biological family here? Given the way brothers fight in nuclear families (my brother and I were exhibit number one in our early years), this Psalm would be a plausible basis for a sermon directed at blood siblings. But given the fact that Psalm 133 is a Psalm of Ascent, presumably sung as the people of God were on pilgrimage up to Jerusalem, there is good reason to think that it is talking about the larger family, the family of God on pilgrimage or in worship. James Luther Mays says, “The Psalm is an exclamation of delight at the goodness the pilgrims’ experience in assembling as one family in Zion.”
This reading gains credibility when we analyze the metaphors describing just how good and pleasant such unity is. The custom of anointing with oil was not only widespread in the ancient Near East, it was also central to ordination rites in Israel. When a king or, particularly, a priest was consecrated to sacred service, he was anointed with fragrant oil. As the first priest, Aaron is the point of this metaphor. The oil used at his ordination was so abundant that it not only made his head wet, but also his beard and even the collar of his robe. The man was totally consecrated to God’s service and, thus, perfectly suited to be the intermediary between the holy God and his sinful people. To say that was a “good and pleasant” thing was an understatement. It was a part of Israel’s redemption.
Patrick Henry Reardon, Antiochian Orthodox priest, takes this line of interpretation a step further. He recalls that around the priest’s neck was “a pectoral of stones on which were engraved the names of Israel’s twelve tribes… Aaron thus bears all Israel upon his breast, directly in the path of the descending ointment of sacerdotal consecration. The whole people of God is rendered holy in his priesthood. The oneness celebrated in this Psalm is the unity of God’s people gathered in worship with their priest.” The connections to Christ as he is presented in Hebrews should be obvious.
The second metaphor is not first of all redemptive; it is a creation simile. Mount Hermon was the gigantic snow covered mountain looming to the north of Israel. Its height made it a magnet for moisture of all kinds, from rain to snow to “dew.” It provided water to the surrounding region for miles around; indeed, from it flow the headwaters of the Jordan. Mount Zion was located in a much more arid area. Water was always an issue there, where God’s temple was located.
What a wonderful thing it would be if the water of Mount Hermon would fall upon Mount Zion! How blessed and fruitful life would be! That’s how life is when brothers live in unity. It’s as though all creation becomes more fruitful. Not only does the church flourish, but so does nature. If that seems a bit of a reach, think of how the sin of Adam and Eve affected not only their relationships with God and each other, but also the world of nature. And think of how Paul pictures the effects of our redemption on nature in Romans 8:18-25.
But here’s an even greater reach. The unity praised in verses 1-3a even brings God’s blessing upon brothers (and obviously sisters) in verse 3b. That blessing is not only a flourishing church and a fruitful creation, but also “life forevermore.” Verse 3b presents us with a couple of knotty points.
First, it says that God commands his blessings “there,” which is the Hebrew word sham. Does that refer to any place where brothers dwell in unity, as verse 1 seems to indicate? Or does it refer to Zion, which has just been mentioned in verse 3a? In other words, does God bestow his blessing indiscriminately on all unified people or is this a blessing for God’s special people as they are gathered for worship in that God-appointed place, namely, the temple on Mount Zion?
Given the rest of Scripture, it seems unlikely that God gives eternal life wherever people dwell in unity. Do we read elsewhere in Scripture that unity the requisite condition for salvation? It is more likely that the Psalm is referring to a localized blessing, on Mount Zion where the priest/high priest Aaron mediates between God and his people. Or, as Hebrews 12:22-24 says, God’s blessing comes upon God’s people at the Mount Zion above through the mediatorial work of our great High Priest, Jesus Christ.
But that raises the second knotty point. What does Psalm 133 mean by “life forevermore?” One scholar is sure that this is not a reference to individual eternal life, as such a thing seems foreign to Jewish hopes. Rather, Psalm 133 is promising that unity will bring the “ever continuing vitality of the community.” Unity brings the blessing of communal longevity to the people of Israel. That makes sense, and we can make a nice application to the church without too much of a stretch.
But let’s not give up too quickly on the other, individual interpretation of “life forevermore.” If it means eternal life, how can it be that unity brings that blessing? What about John 3:16 and so many other passages that link everlasting life to faith in Jesus? When we think of God’s plan of salvation, we don’t usually think of unity as being central to that plan. In church circles, we talk about God blessing churches that have great biblical preaching; I recently read an online piece about America’s mega-churches; all of them are led by a scintillating preacher. God commands his blessing where folks hear the Word preached in the power of Spirit. Or we focus on fervency of prayer, or a passion for outreach, or a commitment to social justice. Rarely do we talk about the importance of unity in the church.
But what about the prayer of Jesus in John 17:23? “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” Unity is central to God’s plan, because his plan, according to Ephesians 1:10 is “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.” Unity brings God’s blessing because it anticipates and participates in God’s great plan to re-unite a creation fragmented by sin. The church is the beginning of what God is doing in the world; it is the first fruit of Easter. Unity does not save us; only Jesus and faith in him can do that. But unity is a crucial part of God’s saving plan. So of course he commands his blessing on a unified church where brother and sisters walk and worship and work together. Such a church brings the blessing of life forevermore to the world.
Psalm 133 doesn’t tell us how such unity can be achieved. That’s where the other readings for this second Sunday of Easter are helpful. John 20 shows us that it is an encounter with the risen Christ that brings fearful, doubting disciples together. Acts 4 displays the importance of meeting together for worship and fellowship, but not just happy worship and comfortable fellowship. The worship must be focused on the preaching of the Risen Christ (verse 33) and the fellowship must be characterized by sacrificial involvement in other people’s lives (verses 32 and 34-35). I John 1 and 2 continue the emphasis on the Gospel of the Incarnation and Atonement in an atmosphere of honesty about our flaws. We can’t be in unity if we’re always covering up, the way Adam and Eve did. Confession of sin and absolution through Christ are central to unity. “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin (I John 1:7).”
If Psalm 133 sings the blessings of familial, ecclesiastical, and national unity, the current divisions in the leadership of the United States show the curse of disunity. I’m writing this as the whole U.S. government has shut down because brothers and sisters can’t/won’t live together. This great country is under more danger from disunity than it is from North Korea and Russia and China put together. They might bluster and plot, but if we don’t come together, we’ll destroy ourselves. As Lincoln so trenchantly put it, “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” He was, of course, quoting Jesus in Mark 3:25. How can God bless American or your church when we don’t live in unity?
1 John 1:1-2:2
Author: Scott Hoezee
John wants us to be serious about sin. Of course, some Christian traditions—my own Reformed Calvinism perhaps leading the pack—have perennially been pretty good about having such seriousness. As the late Lewis Smedes once wrote (tongue firmly embedded in cheek), “Anyone who knows he’s totally depraved can’t be all bad.”
In a more serious vein, however, years ago Smedes commented on what great spiritual catastrophizers we can be. We’re not content to say merely that we made a mistake. Instead we take any single failure and hang it like a millstone around our necks. As Smedes wrote, “When I get into this joyless abyss, my demon speaks to me in King James English: ‘Oh thou feckless fop of a man, surely there is no spark of spiritual strength in thee. Fie on thee, fatuous wretch! For such a worm as thou there is no hope.’”
Well, OK, we don’t want to go that far. But here we are one week after the joyous celebration of Easter and 1 John 1-2 bring us swiftly face-to-face with the reality of sin. John’s point seems to be that if you really believe Jesus rose again from the dead, then you must likewise believe that the punishment on the cross that made Jesus a candidate for resurrection in the first place was the only way to bring about a life that now cannot die. It was the only way to forgive sin.
So people who are serious about the cross and the resurrection cannot be unserious about sin. That would make no sense. It would be like being so very happy about having gotten married and indeed now being married and yet having little desire actually to spend time with your spouse or even being pretty casual about flirting with (or worse) people not your spouse. You cannot be excited about marriage and be sangfroid about extra-marital sexual contact.
But John sees all of this two ways. First there is the idea of consistently walking in the darkness of sin. For anyone who claims to be a believer in Jesus, that is impossible. It is an inconsistency so grave as to count as not really an inconsistency at all but rather an outright disqualification. This is the serial adulterer who still claims to love the idea of marriage to his spouse. Nope, doesn’t work that way, pal. The light and the dark cannot coexist. You cannot try to walk in the light and have a heart of darkness on the inside. Or if you do attempt that, sooner or later you will get revealed to be exactly what you are: a fraud.
But in the two verses of 1 John 2 included in this Lectionary text, John countenances something that can happen and does happen without necessarily threatening one’s entire identity as a disciple: one will now and then commit a sin. Such a person is not wallowing in sin. Such a person is not willfully harboring darkness or walking in darkness or having no true joy over new life in Jesus. And yet mistakes are made. Slip-ups happen. In a moment of weakness you lose your temper and yell at somebody. An attractive person catches your eye and suddenly images flash in your mind that should really only and ever be about your spouse. You eat a little more than you should, drink a little more than you should, tell a white lie (or a not-so-white lie) to make yourself look better.
These things happen, John writes. Maybe they shouldn’t and maybe we all wish they didn’t but there it is: we sin. So in addition to warning against big-time wallowing in sin—children of darkness masquerading as children of the light—John also wants to give a pastoral word for more commonplace sins that come our way: we still have an Advocate, we still have a Savior, we still can and will be forgiven.
But all of that with one proviso: you have to own it. You have to confess it. Otherwise you deceive yourself (but you do not deceive God). Perhaps that seems obvious enough and if you do come from a tradition that has long emphasized sin and the need to confess, John’s admonition here may seem superfluous.
Yet I wonder . . . I serve as a guest preacher in a variety of congregations more weeks than not on Sunday. More and more it seems that those congregations that have a regular, set time in the worship service to acknowledge sinfulness are in the minority. Songs may celebrate Jesus as Savior and many certainly premise that praise on the fact that we need to be washed from our sins. But actually having a time to do that individually and collectively happens a lot less than it once did in some churches.
The sociologist Christian Smith has also lately been describing what he calls “moral therapeutic Deism” as a regnant form of spiritual thought among many especially younger people today. God, in this belief system, is pretty remote from our daily lives. He’s not peering in on our morality or behavior much and insofar as he takes note of us at all from afar, he’s mostly interested that we be “pretty good” people who maybe keep our plusses running just ahead of our minuses. Be nice, live a little better than the next guy and all will be well. God will surely reward you if you can just be “good enough” and so let’s not get hung up too much on issues of sexuality or substance abuse or bad language and the like.
There are lots of ways by which to “deceive ourselves” and not really have God’s truth in us. And, of course, one of the “charms” of self-deception is that we usually do the double-bind maneuver of first deceiving ourselves that we do not deceive ourselves as precursor to then deceiving ourselves about this or that (most addicts know this pattern well but it applies to most all of us if we can muster some honesty about it all). No one hops out of bed in the morning and says “Today I will lie to myself about various facets to my character.” No, that’s not the drill at all. Yet do lie to ourselves pretty often but it helps if first you have convinced yourself you never do that. These are the psychological gymnastics we perform to keep us from the truth, which is pretty much John’s point, too.
We will appreciate the Good News of Easter a whole lot more if we acknowledge the oft-sad truth about our sinfulness. It’s a logical part of celebrating Easter (and its necessary forerunner of the crucifixion) in the first place. But beyond logic, honesty about our need for forgiveness is finally also an engine for joy.
In his novel Continental Drift Russell Banks captures nicely the moral malaise of a lot of people. The novel’s main character is a man named Bob, and Banks describes Bob this way. “Bob finds it difficult to know right from wrong. He relies on taboos and circumstances to make him a ‘good man,’ but he doesn’t know if he has been a good man or merely a stupid or scared man. Most people like Bob, unchurched since childhood, now and then reach that point of not knowing whether they’ve been good, bad, stupid, or scared, and the anxiety this provokes obliges them to cease wondering as soon as possible. They bury the question the way a dog buries a bone, marking the spot and promising to themselves that they will return to the bone later when they have time and energy to gnaw on it. This is a promise that is never kept, of course, and rarely was is it ever meant to be kept.”