A few Sundays ago I began my sermon by posing a question: Suppose you found yourself somewhere, under such circumstances, that it was illegal to be a Christian. Would there be enough evidence to convict you? One of my points in that sermon is that, although it may be hard to define what is Christian, there is a way of being Christian in the world. I proposed that the terms toughminded and tenderhearted help to express that way.
This morning I want to come back to this matter of there being a way of being Christian in the world. This is not an easy matter to decide. Over 50 years ago the German pastor, theologian, and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his book, THE COST OF DISCIPLESHIP, "the most urgent problem besetting our Church is this: How can we live the Christian life in the modern world?" Bonhoeffer wrote during the extraordinary time when National Socialism held Germany in its grip, and the ultimate loyalty of the churches in Germany was being put to the test, but the question he raised has reverberated throughout the Christian world throughout most of this century. It is not just the question of how to live the Christian life under Nazism, or how to live the Christian life under Communism, or how to live the Christian life under Capitalism or any other form of "ism". It is the question of how to live the Christian life in the modern world.
Many theologians and students of culture might say today that the question is out of date. The question today is how to live the Christian life in the post-modern world. But whether you think of this period in our cultural history as modern or post-modern, the point of the question remains the same. The point is that it seems less clear now than perhaps it ever has been what it means to be a Christian or to live a Christian life.
According to Presbyterian theologian Edward Farley, one of my teachers at Vanderbilt Divinity School, there was a time not so long ago when Protestant Christians thought they had a pretty clear idea of what it meant to be Christian. Christians, he notes, were expected to life a "righteous, godly, and sober life." Moreover, it was once fairly clear what these words meant. Now the words themselves have become virtually meaningless and hollow. Says Farley, "Terms such as 'godliness,' 'sobriety,' 'a holy life,' 'Christian character,' 'Christian principles,' 'family altar,' 'following Jesus,' 'spiritual,' 'witnessing for Christ,' 'taking up the cross,' 'setting an example,' 'developing Christian virtues'--all these words and phrases are now, for the most part, empty cliches" [REQUIEM FOR A LOST PIETY (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1966), 23-24]. These words were actually written by Farley over 30 years ago, and they are more true today than ever.
It was almost 30 years ago, as a divinity student, that I read a book on pastoral theology and pastoral care entitled THE CHRISTIAN PASTOR. It was a book describing, and prescribing, the work that a Pastor is called to do. I remember clearly my own reaction to the book. It was too narrow, too emphatic, too dogmatic in its assumption that there was a particular way to be a Christian Pastor. The very title of the book, THE CHRISTIAN PASTOR, suggested a singular approach to the work I was preparing myself to do at a time when it was obvious to me that there had to be a multiplicity of ways. The book and its title simply reflected an earlier period of time, an earlier frame of mind, when it was still possible to think in terms of a particular, standard, normative way of filling the pastoral role. Now there are all kinds of ways of being a Pastor. In fact, I often find myself having more in common with people who are engaged in secular work than I have in common with many who hold a position that is also called Pastor. Just as many of you find yourselves having more in common with some persons who are not Christians than with some other persons who say that they are.
Christians in times past have certainly found more than one way of being Christian. But they have certainly also regarded whatever way they found as one that was incumbent upon them as Christians. They have "fought with kings, marched on crusades, meditated in lonely caves, lived in monasteries, prayed at mealtimes, and joined in racial demonstrations" [Farley, 14]. As Ed Farley has written:
The Christian faith is itself a "life" phenomenon. . . . Thus it would be accurate to say that to the degree to which a person's concrete life is ordered, effected, oriented by the faith, to that degree he is called religious, devout, spiritual, pious, "Christian." Faith is expressed in voting, relaxing, being married, eating and drinking, attending or not attending committee meetings. Faith tends to put forth patterns of action that affect all levels of the human being: innermost attitudes; external actions, including both creative and novel actions as well as regular habitual actions; response to things, including critical responses, joyous responses, and angry responses [ibid., 15].
In other words, the Christian faith has always been the basis for a way of being and doing in the world. It may still be so today. But what seems different today is the degree to which there is no consensus about this way. Can you tell me, what is the Christian view regarding how to deal with Iraq and Saddam Hussein? Or what is the Christian way to respond to the allegations and actions regarding what President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky did or did not do? Or what is the Christian approach to balancing governmental budgets and reforming taxes? Can you even tell me what is the Christian stance on gambling, or lotteries? How about tithing? What about sabbath-keeping, consumption of alcoholic beverages, abortion, divorce and re-marriage, pre-and non-marital sexual relations?
As I was writing these words, my latest copy of THE CHRISTIAN CENTURY magazine arrived in the mail with the cover article, "Campaign Finance Reform: Franklin I. Gamwell offers a religious perspective". Notice that the article is not subtitled "a Christian perspective," or "the religious perspective," or "the Christian perspective". Gamwell is a Christian theologian who teaches at the University of Chicago, but he does not purport to provide the Christian view about his subject. And if he did, most of his readers would probably take exception. As Christians we have perspectives on many if not most of the important matters of our day, but we seldom seem able to claim the Christian view or the Christian way.
Is this anything to be concerned about? It certainly is a matter most Christians I know find frustrating, at times disconcerting, at times deeply troubling. We live in a pluralistic world, but we want something other than a pluralistic set of answers to the important issues of our life and faith. For many Christians, the realities of our pluralistic world are so troubling, so problematic, that they become intolerable. And so today the enormous struggle within most church denominations, and perhaps most congregations, to try to be more specific, more definitive, more insistent and emphatic, about what it means to be a Christian. So today we find theologians like Thomas Oden, a Methodist, writing articles with titles like "Why We Believe in Heresy." So today we find within our own denomination numerous voices calling for clearer definition of the essential tenets of our faith and new catechisms for the instruction of that faith, as well as determined efforts to rule certain perspectives and practices of fellow church members out-of-bounds, not truthful, not moral, not Christian, not allowable within the household of the faith.
Most of today's efforts to try to identify who and what are not Christian and then impose these judgments upon our standards of church order seem to me to be rude and uncharitable, and even un-Christian, which goes to show how hard it is to avoid this critical question of what it means to be Christian. Our energies are much better spent, I think, when our efforts are engaged in proclaiming and living out the heart of our faith, rather than in trying to weed out what we think does not belong. Jesus had a parable about letting the weeds and the wheat grow together that is probably applicable at this point. On the other hand, sometimes negations are important as means by which to see more clearly what needs to be affirmed. And so, in what remains of this sermon for the first Sunday in Lent, I want to invite your consideration again of the report in the Gospel regarding Jesus' trial in the wilderness before he began his public ministry.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke each report that after Jesus was baptized, and before he began his ministry, he underwent a time of testing in the wilderness. Both Matthew and Luke report three specific forms in which this testing took place. The three specific forms of temptation that Jesus must overcome define the path that he must take in order to be faithful to his calling, in order to be faithful before God. These temptations have to do with how Jesus will exercise his power and authority, how he will seek to gain the allegiance of others, and how he will bear witness to God as the source of his life and being. They are temptations that also face today's Christian Church as it seeks to answer the question of how to be Christian in the world.
The temptations of our text occur after Jesus has fasted for forty days and forty nights. The time is reminiscent of the forty years that the Hebrew people spent wandering in the wilderness after escaping Egypt by passing through the Red Sea and before their entry into the Promised Land. Luke says of Jesus that after this period he was famished. The devil says to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." Why not? What would be the harm? Why should Jesus not use his own power to meet his own need?
But could that be just the point of the temptation? "Jesus is challenged to use his power as Son in his own interest" without regard for what he has been called by God to do [Joseph Fitzmyer, THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO LUKE I-IX, Anchor Bible Volume 28, 511]. Some interpreters see in this temptation the temptation Jesus must have felt on various occasions to direct his energies toward the meeting of material human need. His people were hungry, deprived, oppressed, and they would have gladly followed him for no other reason than that he provided for their needs. Perhaps the temptation has that meaning. But it seems to have primarily to do with Jesus' own personal physical need. Perhaps the question is whether God can be trusted to meet that need, or whether Jesus--and, therefore, we his followers--need first to look after ourselves.
When the people of Israel were wandering in the wilderness they too became very hungry. They began to question and complain against Moses and Aaron for leading them out into the wilderness, away from the plentiful food supplies of Egypt [cf. Exodus 16]. They did not trust God to provide. Jesus, however, responds to the devil by reciting the teaching of Moses in the book of Deuteronomy: "One does not live by bread alone." Jesus refuses the first temptation, the temptation to provide for his own physical needs, by asserting that life is more than food. As God provided more than food for the Israelites in their wilderness wanderings, so also God will now provide.
One of the greatest temptations facing the Church today is to be preoccupied with its own physical survival. What does it mean that we do not live by bread alone? Surely it means, at the very least, that this must not become our chief concern. The life to which we have been called is much more than mere survival! How easy it would be to save ourselves, and yet to lose our souls. We must continually learn to place our trust in God and not in ourselves.
The second temptation of Jesus, according to Luke, occurs from the vantage point of seeing the whole world with all its kingdoms laid out before him. The devil says to him, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours." What a temptation this is! To be able to command, and have the world obey. To be able to impose one's own will upon the world. To set things right, to make people over, to exercise judgment and control! However, let us not take the devil at his word when he says that the world's glory and authority has all been given over to him, and it is his to dispose of at will. Indeed, the devil would surely have us suppose this to be true, and thus to persuade us that the only way God's will can be done in the world is for us to do it, to take charge, to gain control, to exercise our own dominion and power. If we can be led to believe the world is going to hell in a hand-basket if we do not intervene and seize control, how much more susceptible we will be to the devil's enticements! How much more ready we will be to worship at the devil's feet.
Notice, that is the price to be paid for the pretext of world dominion and power. The temptation that faces Jesus in this encounter with the devil is the temptation to idolatry, to the worship of that which is not God. Jesus answers, quoting again from Deuteronomy, "Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him." In our Old Testament text Moses cautions the ancient Israelites not to suppose that they have gained the Promised Land and all its benefits by their own power and might. They must not forget that whatever they have has been given by the hand of God. Whatever standing they have in the world is a gift, not a claim. So they are to worship God only, and serve God only, and not exalt themselves in their own power. Jesus answers in this same vein, thereby acknowledging that he has no power or authority to command except as it might be given by God. There is ultimately nothing to be gained by giving allegiance to anything or anyone else but God.
This, too, is instruction for the Christian Church. There is no Holy Roman Empire. Christendom has vanished. How we may yearn for greater influence over world affairs. How we would like to have a greater say in the course of events. How we would like for political leaders to take us more seriously. How we would like our values and our judgments to be embodied in law. But the price of such worldly power and authority is too high to pay. It is idolatry to substitute our worldly ambitions for the service of God. The life and resources of the Church must not be prostituted in the service of political ends.
The third temptation, according to Luke, takes place on the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem. The temple mount is the heart of Jewish religious and political life. This is where, in some interpretations, the Messiah will first appear. The devil says to Jesus, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'" The devil surely knows how to quote scripture! So do many of those voices in the Church these days that seem to want to seize control! Here the temptation is not to govern and rule over the whole of the secular world, but it is to become the leader of this particular people, and to do so without sacrifice, with cost, without paying any price.
This temptation may be the hardest for us to see in a proper perspective. Jesus answers, quoting Deuteronomy again, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test." When the wandering Israelites grew thirsty in the wilderness, they demanded water as proof that God was still looking after them. They were after a sign, an evidence, a concrete demonstration that God was still on their side. The temptation here is the temptation to regard "success" in some form or other as proof that God is with us. For Jesus it must have been the temptation to ask God to demonstrate the truth of his preaching and teaching without having to go all the way to the cross. Rather, let Jerusalem be the place of smashing success, the awesome climax to his emerging popularity, the convincing sign and wonder that would prove his faithfulness and his mission. What a difference it would have made to Christianity if Jesus' ministry had culminated in a miraculously safe free fall from the pinnacle of the temple at the heart of the city rather than on a cross planted on the garbage heap outside the city gates!
Christians still seek signs and wonders, signs of success, wonders and demonstrations of divine presence and power, evidence that God is on our side. But we are not to ask for or expect such signs and wonders. We are not to put God to the test, and not demand that God provide us proof of our faithfulness, and not ask God to provide the world a demonstration that we are in the right. The final verdict upon our lives and our faithfulness will not be rendered by society, neither by religious or political authorities, nor by the world at large, but only by God. As theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote, "The cross is . . . not triumphant in the world and society. Society, in fact, conspired the cross. Both the state and the church were involved in it, and probably will be so to the end" [MORAL MAN AND IMMORAL SOCIETY, 82].
There is more to be said, but from the Gospel account of Jesus' trial in the wilderness we may discern at least this much regarding the crux of being Christian: Our calling is not to meet our own needs, but to learn to trust in God's providence and care. The world is hardly ours to govern and control; rather, whatever authority and power we have to command must be in the worship and service of God who is, after all, the source of all our resources and powers. The confirmation that we are faithful or in the right, and that God is on our side, is not ours to demand or display. The final verdict upon our lives and our efforts rest in the hands of God. AMEN.