Fighting Against the Theology of Niceness
The Fifth Sunday in Lent| Rev. Rolf Preus| March 29, 2009| John 8:46-59
“Amen, amen, I say to you: If anyone keeps my word he shall never see death.”
St. John 8, 52
If Jesus were to appear in person and begin to preach he would likely be driven out of most respectable churches. He breaks the rules of religious niceness. Listen to what he says. Just here in John chapter 8 Jesus tells the Jews that if they do not believe he is God they will die in their sins. He says they are slaves to sin and he is the only one who can set them free. He says they are children of the devil and do not belong to God. He calls them liars. No, Jesus would be thrown out of the ecumenical prayer group for a decided lack of niceness.
That’s because Jesus takes theology seriously. And so should we.
During these weeks of Lent we review the cosmic battle between God and the devil. The devil tempts Jesus to sin and Jesus drives him away with God’s word. Jesus drives demons out of people. He displays his power over the powers of hell. He enters into the devil’s stronghold and destroys his weapons. This is what is recorded for us in the Four Gospels.
While demon possession is not that common where we live, the power of the devil and the need to do battle against him is very real. But doing battle is against the rules.
I learned this many years ago. The rules of religious niceness require that we treat all religious claims as equally valid. You believe what you believe, I believe what I believe, he believes what he believes, and she believes what she believes. And should all of us believe different, even contradictory things, the rules of religious niceness require that all of our beliefs be regarded as equally valid and true. Who is to say whose religion is false? Who is to say whose religious is true? We are left with nothing but religious feelings and notions. We have nothing solid on which to rely. There is no truth to confess, for which to contend, upon which we can take our stand. There is nothing but fleeting feelings.
The façade of religious niceness is just that. Underneath the covering of religious niceness is the sinful nature common to all of humanity which is the source of all suffering and death. Either your religion deals with the root cause of our troubles or it papers it over. The religion of niceness has no substance. But when dealing with such things as sin and death we must be very serious. We can’t base what we believe on our own personal preferences and feelings. It was personal feelings that led Adam and Eve into sin in the first place. If our faith is to be based on a solid foundation it cannot be based on us. For if the truth of our religion is grounded in us then we become our own gods, making our own rules, setting our own standards, and defining our own truth.
Jesus Christ is the One who speaks to us from God and it is his words that determine for us what we believe, how we live, in what we hope, and on what we will rest our confidence when facing death.
Jesus speaks the truth. And he doesn’t back away from it. When he was slapped and mocked and tortured he uttered not one word of complaint. But when his teaching was assaulted he answered and he did so clearly.
And if I tell the truth, why do you not believe Me? He who is of God hears God’s words; therefore you do not hear, because you are not of God.
They insult him. They call him names. They call him a Samaritan. He ignores the insult. After all, Samaritans were despised by the Jews and the prophet Isaiah wrote of Jesus:
He is despised and rejected by men, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. (Isaiah 53, 3)
They said he had a demon. Jesus replied to that. That was no mere insult. To suggest that he had a demon was to accuse him of lying. Jesus replied,
I do not have a demon; but I honor My Father, and you dishonor Me. And I do not seek My own glory; there is One who seeks and judges. Most assuredly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he shall never see death.
Notice how Jesus constantly directs the argument back to his words. What he says is what matters. What he teaches is paramount. And why is that? Because, as Jesus says, “If anyone keeps My word he shall never see death.”
To keep Christ’s word is to believe it. It is to hold on to it. It is to guard it. It is to set it against anything and everything that might oppose it. It is to be willing to fight for it.
The church is at war and so is every Christian. We call the church in heaven the church triumphant. The church in heaven has no battles to fight. There is no sin there. There is no death. The devil cannot enter. The church in heaven has won the victory over sin, death, and hell. She can rest. As we sing, “They now enjoy their Sabbath rest, the paschal banquet of the blessed.” Heaven is called a resting place. The war is over. The battle is won.
But the church on earth is at war. She is the church militant. She is at war with the devil and she must always contend for the pure doctrine. Jesus does battle for doctrine. When it comes to our life we tolerate abuse and lies but we suffer nothing against the truth. That is all in all.
Modern theology argues against truth. Do not contend for pure doctrine. This will only lead to division and strife (as if those who are indifferent to the truth of God’s word are any less contentious than those who love God’s truth). But when we contend for the truth we are not engaging in carnal battles. This is a spiritual battle. In today’s Gospel Lesson Jesus contends for two related truths that are actually two sides of the same coin. He teaches that his word gives eternal life. And he teaches that he is God.
Jesus claims that Abraham saw his day. He did. Abraham trusted in Jesus. He saw Jesus by faith as he looked at the ram offered as a sacrifice on Mt. Moriah in place of his son, Isaac. Jesus’ claim to true deity is impossible to miss. God revealed himself to Moses at the burning bush as I am. That’s the name God gave himself when Moses asked him for his name. He said, “I am who I am.” He told Moses to tell Israel that I am sent him. Here Jesus declares, “Before Abraham was I am.” We who are familiar with the account of the Exodus can see here that Jesus is claiming to be God in the flesh.
Jesus is true God. He does his Father’s will. He speaks his Father’s words. He honors his Father. The Father and the Son work together. When Jesus speaks it is with the authority of the Father.
And his words give life. Jesus says, “If anyone keeps My word he shall never see death.” No wonder he fights for doctrine so fiercely! It’s a matter of life and death. To contend for the truth of Jesus’ words is not to do battle for our ego or pride. It is to contend for the faith by which we are rescued from eternal death.
Christ’s words are his teaching. He isn’t talking about words as mere sounds but words as they convey meaning. They are true. They provide us with instruction from God himself.
When we talk about Christian doctrine or teaching we aren’t talking about the wisdom of men. It isn’t what clever theologians have crafted. It is God’s words we are talking about. We don’t contend for, fight for, hold on to, and guard the doctrines of men. Men have opinions that may be right or wrong. We rather fight for the doctrine of God. We keep it. We don’t let it go. We don’t let anything deny it or bring it into doubt.
The gospel gives what it says. How can this be? How is it that the Christian gospel is true and all other ways to God lead only to death? How can Christ alone be the way, the truth, and the life? What is it about Jesus that makes him the only one who can actually give us life beyond the grave?
He is the almighty God. He has life to give. Only God can give life. Jesus is God and Jesus can give life. More than that, Jesus has won for us the life he gives us. This is the center of all Christian doctrine. This is the truth that shines the light on every other bit of truth God has to reveal to us. The heart and center of the true faith is that Jesus has won for us eternal life and he gives this life to us freely as a gift. We don’t deserve it. We cannot earn it. He gives it to us in our unworthiness. The only way to receive it is to believe it. That’s what it means to keep his word. We believe it, hold on to it, and refuse to let it go.
The religion of niceness claims that to condemn the false religion of the Jews, the Muslims, the Mormons, the Buddhists, the Hindus, various animists and pantheists as well as freethinkers, agnostics, atheists, and others who reject the true Christian religion is wrong. All religions are of equal value. But all religions other than the Christian religion fail in what is absolutely essential. They cannot deliver from death.
Jesus is the God become man. He is the only man who ever died for the sin of the world. He is the only man who bore in his own body the sins of all humanity. He is the only one obeyed perfectly. He is the only one who fully satisfied the demands of God’s law. And he did so by being more than nice. He loved with a pure and perfect love that was willing to bear all things for the sake of others in need. Jesus is the only one who raised himself from the grave. In short, Jesus is the only one who has eternal life to give. He alone earned it. He alone can give it. Whoever keeps his words shall never see death. This is why we hold on to his word for dear life and suffer nothing and no one to take it away from us. Amen