The month of July in 2007 was crazy for me and Chris. We decided to move to our new home in Texas before our wedding and honeymoon. We were going to move most of our things into our new apartment and then travel back to Kansas City for our wedding. For future reference, don’t get married, honeymoon, and move all in one month. We had just pulled up the door of our U-Haul and were maybe 20 minutes into unloading our stuff when there was a knock at the door. “Oh good,” we thought “more help.” It was our neighbors and they were introducing themselves. And after about 2 minutes of conversation with these (basically) strangers, they said something that people in Texas say a lot “have you dedicated your life to Jesus, our Lord and Savior? Are you saved?” Now, believe it or not, there are a lot of Lutherans in Texas, just not in our part where we were living. They continued “we’d love to have you come along with us to First Baptist.” And my husband, being more quick than I was at the time said “that’s okay, we have a church. We’re part of the 10% of Lutherans that live in this town.” And after that, our neighbors left without even lifting a box.
The wording with questions like the one we were asked by our neighbors isn’t foreign. Most of us know or have encountered someone that has asked us about our faith or our assuredness of our afterlife. These are often well meaning people but really, they are just working super hard to push camels through needles. We all like black and white questions and answers. The problem with that is that as Lutherans we deal with the gray and that can be messy and confusing for some people, especially those who believe that we can do anything to insure our afterlife. We live in a society filled with laws afterall. We stop on red and go on green. There are directions on how to cook your favorite recipe or put together a bookshelf from Wal-Mart. And so can we blame the rich man for wanting to know what he must do in order to “inherit eternal life”? It’s as if he’s checking off his list. He states he’s kept all of the commandments of “‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’”
As if he’s some kind of super-human, he responds to Jesus by telling him that not only has he kept these commandments, he’s kept them since his youth. What kind of human was this that he was perfect for that long? But if you look at the man’s initial question, you might realize that what he asks is part of the problem. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” My brothers and sisters, the problem isn’t his ego necessarily, it’s the fact that we cannot do anything to inherit eternal life. We live by grace through faith and not by works. (By the way, if someone asks you what it means to be a Lutheran, you can tell them that). This is where being comfortable living in the gray areas comes in handy. We live in a society and in a time that believes greatly in the law. We believe in this for that. After all, we also believe that if you work hard enough in your job you will be rewarded either with a paycheck, a bonus, or a good harvest.
In fact, if you think about it, a good majority of our life’s work is just that: works. We work at our job, you may work at parenting (I know I do), you may work in your relationships, you work to keep your house clean, the laundry done, meals made. You may even have to work to figure out how to get your electronics to work. So it seems all too logical for our faith to be based on works as well. But again, this is that gray area. And it can be uncomfortable for some people. To know our afterlife is completely out of hands can be frightening. But it can also be super comforting. No matter how much we mess up, our eternity is not in our hands. Thanks be to God. But, that doesn’t stop us from trying. We just can’t help ourselves.
As you can see, I’ve got a ladder set up here today. I will admit that I’ve seen another Pastor do this before, but it has stayed with me for over 10 years, so that tells me something. At the very top, I’ve labeled that step “God.” So that can be God, heaven, or eternal life. Because we’re used to working for pretty much everything, we start to think about our faith and eternal life the same way. We may start asking ourselves or God what we must do to inherit eternal life. Remember, we can’t do anything. It’s only because of God’s love, mercy, and grace that we even live day to day, let alone eternally. But, it’s as if we can’t help ourselves. Maybe we get ideas from people around us. We start to “study” people who we think are “holy” and we think “if I can do more of the stuff that person does, I’ll certainly ensure eternal life.”
So, we set out on a journey of failure (we don’t know that it’s going to fail, but it will). And we start treating our faith life as if it’s this ladder. We need to take certain steps in order to work our way up to God. Which, again, is not how any of this works. We start to do things that we think will set us on the right trajectory. We read our Bible every day (step up). We start volunteering at the food pantry (step up). We serve on church council (step up). It’s about right now that we start to feel pretty good about ourselves and our work. And then, wouldn’t you know it, someone cuts us off in traffic and we say some things about that person that more than break the 8th commandment (back down 3 steps). We’ll just start the journey again. But, I’m going to do it right this time and not screw up. I start by dedicating an hour a day to prayer and silence (step up). I write my congress people about issues that Jesus would care about: hungry people, refugees, affordable health care (step up). I even sign up to teach classes at the local prison (step up). And then wouldn’t you know it, the opportunity came to help do crafts with a group of awesome people who are differently abled and instead I chose to stand in line for the new iPhone (that is, after all, my god). And I fall again.
This cycle continues until we get frustrated and we blame God (because we certainly aren’t to blame). “God just seems distant” we tell people. Or perhaps we blame the people around us. Maybe we even blame the pastor. We certainly never place the blame on ourselves because it can’t possibly be us. But the thing is brothers and sisters we can’t do anything to save ourselves. We need a savior and God sent us Jesus. We will always fall to sin. Always. It doesn’t matter if we start out with the best of intentions or even if it’s not a “major” sin, we will always fall to sin. Our eternal life is not up to us. Maybe we should act as if it is but believe that it’s not. Either way, there is nothing we can do to inherit eternal life. Nothing. This is why we have Jesus. This is why we have the cross. This is why we have grace.
Now this doesn’t mean we just get off easy. Please don’t think “there’s nothing I can do, so I might as well sin boldly!” Bring it on, sin! No. Remember that God’s grace is a gift. And our response to that gift is service to one another. We are freed from sin and freed for service. It’s as if it feels so good to be forgiven, loved, and set free that we can’t even help ourselves! We don’t help one another in order to be saved; we help one another because we are already saved. So if someone ever asks you if you have proclaimed Jesus as your Lord and Savior, the best response is “no. But, he already claimed me as his own sinner in need of redeeming through the cross.” Then stand back and watch them try and figure out what step of the ladder that is. And rest assured knowing that your eternity isn’t in your hands. And that, brothers and sisters, is most certainly good news.