S. Easter 6.17 “Too Superstitious” Acts 17, John 14:15-21
So what are these commandments that Jesus has given us, that if we love Him, we will keep? An excellent question, but one that seldom gets asked directly and answered clearly—because most people assume they know, without having to bother with anything so involved as, oh say, actually searching the Scriptures for the answer. I think most people assume it’s the same old 10 commandments, love God, love others, etc. But is it? Are those the commandments Jesus has in mind here? Maybe not. Just turn back 8 chapters, and you get a different answer from Jesus.
It’s right after He fed the 5,000 at the beginning of John chapter 6. They only gradually, after Jesus and the disciples have left the scene, figure out that Jesus turned a few loaves and a couple fish into a Feast for Thousands. And they pursue Him for more free food. When they finally catch up to Him, on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus calls them out and says they’re only there for the Bud Light (as uh, the NIV translates). He says do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life—which the Son of Man will give you(!). And the crowd goes: “what must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answers them, “This is the work of God: that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (John 6:29)
A wonderful double entendre (pardon my French) as Jesus is known for. You don’t have to do anything to be doing the works of God. The work of God (the work that God does in you!) is to believe in Jesus. You are justified, as Luther rightly taught from Scriptures, by faith alone; and this justifying faith gives forgiveness and life eternal in Christ Jesus. And it comes without your works, as a totally free gift(!), given by Jesus through His Gospel Word and Sacraments. St. John sums it up beautifully in his first (and only canonical) epistle when he writes: “This is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ…” (1 John 3:23) And John adds a corollary that follows from this faith, that we will love one another too…
So this is great—all we have to do is believe in Jesus and through faith in Him, all the other commandments, those 10 from Moses and all the others, are fulfilled by faith in Jesus alone. Because Jesus has kept all God’s commands perfectly. To believe in Him is to have His life and death on your permanent record as your own. But we have to believe right? And that can be hard! But again, Jesus says He will send the Helper the Holy Spirit and by the Word and Sacraments the Spirit works faith in us where and when He pleases. I can’t by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ or come to Him, so the Holy Spirit does what I cannot and grants faith as a mystical gift.
But Jesus does say I have to love Him right? “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” How can I do that? Well, John comes to the rescue again in his epistle telling us that in this is love: not that we love God but that He first loved us and sent Jesus to be the propitiation for our sin. As my old teacher Norman Nagel likes to say: if it depended on me, this faith or love, that could wobble. But Jesus does not wobble. Because it depends on Him, it is sure and certain for me!
But the world hears this and goes: “Oh, I don’t know about that! Surely, IT can’t be this simple. It can’t be this gracious. It can’t be this free. It can’t be this magical, this divine, this heavenly.
But it is. Which is why Christianity is so great. This is the true magical realism that we have been secretly searching for all our lives. And faith really changes us! But we talk ourselves out of it. It is too divine, too free, too mysterious, to grand for us. We want something smaller, something more rational, something with more strings attached. Christendom ever slips back into a religion of the law, as Luther winsomely warned. Most think we get to heaven the old-fashioned way: we earn it.
But the best things in life really are free! You didn’t earn the date with that beautiful girl from Prof. Hall’s sophomore English class. That was a gracious gift that came as if by magic. You didn’t earn that perfect day under the Carolina blue sky with the trees swaying in the breeze and all is right in the world. God made that. He made that little orange tabby cat you stumbled on in the shelter that day who became such a good friend. You didn’t even earn that paycheck you like so much: it came to you because of gifts freely given by God that, somehow, found a place in this world. All the best things in life are free gifts of a gracious God…
But the best of them all is the little baby born in a stable in Bethlehem, who grew to be the Man who at the same time is God Himself, who died on a cross for your sins, to make everything that has gone wrong in the world right. All those other gifts that give such joy really are hints and reminders and pointers to Him, if the truth be told. And it was only when we ran and hid from Him that evening in the garden, after we ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil that He’d warned against eating, it was only then that all our troubles started; and it is only by His gift of Himself, His body and blood given and shed on the cross and shared with us by Word and Sacrament, freely, really, truly that all is well and all manner of thing shall be well.
But we struggle to believe it, because it just seems too good to be true. It is the heart of our darkness, the heart of our sin that we think we have to do something to make the world and life good, that we have to work it, earn it, that the best things in life really aren’t free…(!)
When Paul is going through Athens, in our First Reading, his spirit was “provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.” And St. Paul’s opening words are not well translated by moderns, unless you put some big sneer quotes around the word “religious”. The King James got it right, translating Paul’s opening: “Men of Athens! I perceive that in all things, you are too superstitious…” Or, “you are [heavy sarcasm!] very religious. What you worship as unknown, I proclaim to you!”
We are too superstitious. We bow to gods of Money, Power, Health, just like the ancient Epicureans and Stoics! We think heaven is something we help to build, so we can say “We built that!”. Well, we can’t. And we didn’t. Our times of ignorance though, God has overlooked, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent (to believe Jesus!) because He has fixed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man He has raised from the dead.
It is the height of irony that this Gospel of Jesus, crucified for our sins, raised for our justification should be seen today as superstition, while our bizarre faith in markets, capital, human labor should be thought sane and sober religion! But here we are. Yet, then as now, the Way of Escape opens with Jesus. If you love Him, you will keep His commandments; that is, you will hear and believe (as His free gift!); and Peace, surpassing all understanding, will guard your heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.