Easter 4, Year C, May 12, 2019
Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
It was there every year at the county fair: the little trailer with the big sign blaring out ‘ARE YOU SAVED? TWO QUESTION TEST REVEALS THE ANSWER!’ Even as a kid I thought it was funny. I knew I was saved because I was a Christian and Jesus loved me, and I figured that everybody either was already a Christian and knew they were saved, or weren’t Christians and didn’t care about salvation one way or the other. Having grown up in a Lutheran church that put a lot of emphasis on the grace of God, it hadn’t occurred to me that it was possible to believe in Jesus and at the same time wonder if you were saved or not. I had not realized just how much time and effort Christians have spent over the years worrying about who is saved and who isn’t, and how one tells the difference, and how one separates out the sheep from the not-sheep.
That little trailer is just the tip of the iceberg. Despite the fact that the Bible talks far more about heaven than about hell, we humans are obsessed with you-know-where. In one of the more popular interpretations of Christianity over the ages, God the Father is a vengeful, angry, destructive tyrant just waiting for an excuse to throw people into hell and torture them mercilessly for all of eternity. Jesus, in contrast, is a nice kind loving friend who is trying to save us from God’s wrath, but only if we’re good enough. Therefore, humans better shape up and be good enough people to buy God’s favor. After the Reformation, people added the idea that it wasn’t enough to believe, you also had to believe the ‘right’ way. You could tell who was saved and who was going to Hell by whether or not they believed the doctrines your church taught. If you believe the “right” way, you don’t have to worry. But all those other people who disagree with you better watch out, because they’re gonna be in trouble when Judgment Day comes!
We examine every Bible passage that has any reference to judgment or hell, and build elaborate interpretations that we then tell each other over and over and over until we have a much clearer picture of hell than of heaven, despite the fact that the Bible spends a lot more time talking about heaven than hell. We use our interpretations of hell to try and motivate people, to terrify them into behaving the way we think they should or believing the way we think they should. We terrify people with stories of what the Father will do if you’re not good enough, and then say you should love Jesus because he saves you from the wrath of God.
There are several fairly major problems with that basic understanding, though. One of them is that you can’t scare people into loving anything. No, really, you can’t. You can scare people into complying with actions they’re supposed to take or words they’re supposed to say, but you can’t scare people into opening up their hearts. Fear makes our hearts close in on themselves, whether that is fear of hell or fear of God or fear of the world or fear of anything else. And even though you can scare people into doing what you want them to, that different behavior only lasts as long as the fear does. And people can’t stay afraid forever. It just turns into exhaustion and anxiety and numbness. So by trying to use the threat of Hell to make people be faithful good Christians, we aren’t actually reaching hearts and minds, just the shallow surface behaviors. Under the surface, all those threats and fear only separate us from God, they don’t bring us closer.
And then there’s the other major problem with the idea of believing that the Father is angry and wants to punish us, and Jesus is gentle and loving and wants to save us from the Father’s wrath. Jesus states it flat-out in our Gospel reading for today. Jesus and the Father are one. They’re not separate. It’s not a case of the Father being angry and Jesus being loving, it’s not a case of the Father wanting to punish people and Jesus wanting to save people. No. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit one God, now and forever. They’re different people, but you can’t separate them out because they are unified. They have the same goals and desires. They are acting together, and always have, and always will. That belief that the core of God’s nature is anger and a desire to punish, it’s simply not true.
Yes, sometimes God gets angry at the way we treat one another and the world that God graciously gives us. But it’s not a case of Jesus having to save us from the Father’s wrath. God—all of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit—desires that the world should be saved. God loves the world. God doesn’t want us to be tortured for all eternity because of the evil we have done; God wants us to stop doing evil and return to the Lord and be saved. God loves us, like a shepherd loves the flock. God gave us into the hands of Jesus specifically so that we might be saved. Yes, we can turn away. Yes, we can ignore God’s call. Yes, we can choose Hell if we want to. But God is willing to do everything up to and including the death and resurrection of God’s only Son to save us and all of creation. God is putting all God’s power and might into the salvation and re-creation of the universe, us included.
God’s goal is that we might have life—abundant, eternal life. God’s goal is that we might have that life now and for all to come. And that eternal, abundant life isn’t just about getting into heaven, either. God wants us to have life now, too. We are in God’s hands—we are in Jesus’ hands—to protect us and guide us and give us life here, now, in the midst of all the troubles of this world. And there is nothing, neither life nor death nor powers nor politics, nothing can separate us from the love of God. No matter what happens to us, no matter what we do, God will be working to keep us safe.
And when I say “no matter what,” I really mean it. Consider the multitudes in our reading from Revelation. They are safe and protected in God’s care. You know what’s going on around them? The opening of the seals. Death on a pale horse is riding, along with famine and plague and conquest. And yet, God’s people are safe under God’s protection. It’s not necessarily a physical safety, because some of them have been killed; but they are not alone and they are not forsaken and they are shielded by God even in the midst of some pretty terrifying things.
And it’s not that they’re all perfect saints, either. They have been made holy by God. That’s what happened when they washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb. All the sin and evil that they had done or said, or allowed to happen through their own inactivity, all of it was washed away by the blood of the Lamb. All of it was redeemed through the free gift of grace in Christ Jesus our savior. They have listened to the voice of the shepherd, and even in the middle of all this death and destruction, Christ will lead them and guide them and wash them clean with his blood and protect them and wipe away every tear from their eyes.
And that blood that redeems? It’s not rationed out by the teaspoon for those who have earned it or deserve it or can prove they understand the correct theological interpretation of it. The blood is shed for everyone, for all of creation, by a God who loves us and claims us and is always reaching out to call us and claim us and save us and wipe the tears from our eyes. We don’t have to earn it. We don’t have to be “good enough” or have all the right answers memorized. We just have to listen to our shepherd’s voice, and follow.