The Christianity I don’t believe in

John 1:35-51

35 The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. 36 When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!”

37 When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. 38 Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?”

They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?”

39 “Come,” he replied, “and you will see.”

So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon.

40 Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. 41 The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). 42 And he brought him to Jesus.

Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter).

43 The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”

44 Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. 45 Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

46 “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.

“Come and see,” said Philip.

47 When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”

48 “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.

Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”

49 Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”

50 Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” 51 He then added, “Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.”

There was a barber in a small, Virginia town that had operated the only place to get a haircut in a fifteen-mile radius for the last 10 years. He was good, but he knew he had a monopoly on the business, so he charged a bit of a steep price for his services.

One day a large, corporate hair-cuttery came to that small town and set up a shop right across from the established barber. And to make things worse, they put out a sign that read, “We offer $6.00 haircuts.”

Not to be outdone, the established barber put out a sign of his own, which read, “We fix $6.00 haircuts.”

The moral of the story is that cheaper is not always better.

You have made it! We are in the final Sunday of our four-week sermon series on apophatic theology. This has been a stretch for me because I am usually such a positive guy!

Apophatic theology is theology in the negative. We have been trying to understand God by looking at what God is not. We have looked at “The God I don’t believe in,” and “The Bible I don’t believe in.” And today we will wrap things up with “The Christianity I don’t believe in.” And, as has been our practice, we will also do a little kataphatic theology; I will explain a little bit more about what I think it means to be a Christian.

So, without any more delay, I give you our fourth and final apophatic statement:

     Christianity is not about going to heaven when you die.

What I want to do today is to distinguish between grace and discipleship. We know from reading the Apostle Paul that grace is a gift from God. You cannot work to earn grace; you cannot be good enough to be forgiven. There is no law that you can keep and there are no rules that you must follow. Grace is a gift. And through the atoning work of Jesus’s life, death and resurrection, that free gift is available to anyone who wants it.

The problem with this understanding of grace, according to some theologians, is that it makes grace too easy to obtain. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in his wonderful book, Discipleship, that what I have just described is “cheap grace.” He writes, “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”

I love Bonhoeffer and recommend that you read Discipleship if you get a chance. He gives a much-needed corrective to the abuse of grace that he was seeing in his context. But I disagree with how he frames grace in this quotation (which is taken out of context, I know).

In Galatians 1:21, the Apostle Paul writes these words, “I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”

Obviously, Paul is talking about the Torah, or the first five books of the Old Testament, when he says that righteousness cannot be obtained through the law. What he says is that if grace could be acquired by doing the things that they had been doing for over 1,000 years, why was Jesus’s death necessary.

What I am afraid of is that some have simply substituted an Old Testament Law that people couldn’t keep, which couldn’t bring righteousness, for a New Testament law that people can’t keep, which also can’t bring righteousness. It isn’t through the Law, our morality, piety, or good works that we obtain righteousness or forgiveness. It is through the love of God poured out for us on the cross.

My friends, grace is not cheap. Grace is free.

Mark 2:5 is one of a number of biblical examples that I could lift out. This is the story of a paralytic man who, with the help of some friends, was seeking Jesus for healing. When they couldn’t get their friend to Jesus, they opened a hole in the roof of the house where Jesus was and lowered the paralytic down in front of Jesus. “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’”

We have no account of the man participating in baptism, repentance, joining a church, or participating in a Communion service. This man and his friends realized that there was something special about Jesus, that he had some special connection with God, and they had faith that he was the one that they needed to be with. Before he heals the man, Jesus recognizes that the deepest need this man has it for forgiveness. And Jesus gave it to him, no strings attached.

Grace is free. But how does that relate to today’s apophatic statement that Christianity is not about going to heaven when you die? What I want to do today is to differentiate between forgiveness and Christianity, between grace and discipleship. Because grace is free, but discipleship is costly. In fact, I think that would make a great kataphatic statement that Bonhoeffer could endorse:

     Discipleship is costly.

Our scripture for today is filled with deep theological and practical implications that we can easily miss if we read over this story too quickly. With little to no previous connection to these men, Jesus invites Andrew, Philip, Nathaniel, and Peter to be his disciples. Oh, hi. We’ve never met. Do you want to leave everything behind and become my student for an undisclosed period of time?

Notice that Jesus never invites the disciples to believe in him, he never tells them to invite him into their hearts, and he isn’t even offering them forgiveness or grace here. What Jesus says is, “Come and follow me.” Obviously, this requires believing. But Jesus doesn’t want us to stop with a simple mental assent. Jesus is looking for followers. Jesus is looking for disciples.

Jesus never claims that this is going to be easy. These men had jobs, some of them had families. We know from the children’s song that Peter, James and John had a little sail boat. They were fishermen and this is how they made a living. We know from other parts of the New Testament that Peter was married. Jesus called these men to drop their nets and follow him.

There are also stories of “would-be” disciples of Jesus that found the cost of discipleship to be too great. The rich young ruler was not willing to sell all of his possessions, give the money to the poor and follow Jesus. Others have what I would say are pretty good reasons for not following Jesus. One guy just got married and wants to spend some time with his wife. Another just purchased some land and needs to work it. One person even says that his father just died. That seems like a really good reason for not following Jesus to me. But the point is clear: following Jesus is costly. It might even be painful at times.

The money quote is found in Mark 8:34: “Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Last week millions of people around the globe gathered in front of flickering pixels, energized in such a way so as to display the biggest sporting event of the year: the Super Bowl. Over 100 million people are said to have “watched” the Baltimore Ravens defeat the San Francisco 49ers by a score of 34-31. At the end of the game, Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco was named the Most Valuable Player for the game, and received a new Corvette as a result of having won the award.

In the part of the world where I reside, the name Tyrod Taylor is well known. Tyrod is the former quarterback for the Virginia Tech Hokies and he is the current backup quarterback for the Baltimore Ravens.

As the backup quarterback for the Super Bowl champions, Tyrod Taylor gets a Super Bowl ring. He is a member of the best team in the NFL. But Tyrod Taylor never took a single snap in the Super Bowl. He didn’t even make it on the field.

Now who would you rather be, Joe Flacco or Tyrod Taylor? Both men were on the team that won the Super Bowl. Both men will receive a Super Bowl ring. One played every offensive series. The other had a really good view from the sideline.

I’ll be honest with you; both men are probably feeling pretty good about last Sunday right about now. And I would have been pretty happy to be in either man’s cleats when the final whistle was blown. But Joe Flacco worked hard for that Super Bowl victory last Sunday while Tyrod watched, watched like the rest of us. I would assume that Joe Flacco feels a greater sense of satisfaction today than Tyrod. And I bet that Joe Flacco feels more a part of that victory than Tyrod Taylor does. (I know that Tyrod worked hard to get into the NFL, stay on the team and make others better during practice. Again, it is an illustration. Grace, please!)

My point is that you can get by on grace alone. You can be on the team, never take a snap and still get a ring. Surely the grace of God is sufficient and it is there for the taking. But I don’t just want a ring after the game is over. I want to be a participant. I want to play every down. I want to contribute. I want to be a disciple of Jesus.

So I come back again to my apophatic statement that Christianity isn’t about going to heaven when you die. It was mentioned last week that the word Christian literally means “a little Christ.” To be a Christian means that you live like Jesus. Jesus doesn’t simply want us to believe in him. He wants us to follow him. Like the original calling of the disciples, Jesus invites us to come and follow him.

I know a number of people who have heard the call of Jesus to follow him and have responded, even though doing so has been costly.

There was an older man who shared a story with me a few years ago about his life as a young, married man. He got married in the early 1940’s and was looking to start a family. The USA was just coming out of the Great Depression and jobs were hard to come by. Thankfully, he was young and healthy, and he was able to find a job running a lathe at a local factory. The hours were long, the pay was bad, but it was a job.

One day he noticed a sizeable jump in his paycheck and it seemed like he was not the only one. Now he could buy a house; now he could start having children. The factory had a new contract with the US government and they were paying well.

Life was good until word got out that what they were making for the US government was a part that was being used to make bombs. Something that friend made with his own hands was used to kill other people. And not just soldiers, but indiscriminately kill men, women, and children.

As a follower of the Prince of Peace, my friend knew that he could not gain financially by developing a device intended to take a person’s life. Even though the money was good and the job market was tough, he left that job.

I know another man who excelled academically and went through college and medical school before becoming a doctor. He had a wonderful career ahead of him, and let’s be honest, a lucrative career. Dude was gonna get paid.

As he did his medical training he participated in some research projects on Hansen’s Disease, which is a modern-day form of leprosy. Really, where would you find people with leprosy in the second half of the 20th century? Well it turns out that there is leper colony on the small island of Trinidad.

This young doctor put his career on hold to go provide medical care for the leper colony in Trinidad through a local missions organization. He had some children; he raised them there. What was going to be a mission trip turned into a life-long endeavor. He recently retired from the medical profession and he continues to live on the island of Trinidad where he serves as a pastor.

Those are pretty extreme examples and most of us don’t even have lucrative careers to give up to follow Jesus. But we are all called to be his disciples and that will mean giving up something.

I have a Facebook friend who is anticipating the birth of his first child, a baby girl, in the next couple of months. He is a recent seminary graduate and is planning to start a church in the Pacific Northwest. Recently he and his wife went out for a lovely meal at the Olive Garden. When he got the check, the price had a big X over it. On the back, the waitress had written, “Babies are so much fun (and expensive!) Congratulations and enjoy your baby girl! :)”

A young man puts living the “American Dream” on hold in the years following the Great Depression because his new job is causing him to produce something that he believes stands in opposition to what it means to be a follower of Jesus. A doctor choses to spend the majority of his career living and working among society’s rejects, making a fraction of what he would have in the USA. And a waitress making a living off tips, the gratuity of others, pays the bill for growing family that she has never met that is likely struggling to make ends meet.

My friends, we can get by on grace alone. Everyone on the team gets a Super Bowl ring when it is all said and done. But we were made and we were called by Jesus for more.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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