Byron C. Bangert

July 19, 1998

Psalm 103:1-18; Romans 8:1-4

Raymond Hedin, professor at Indiana University and a former Roman Catholic seminarian during the 1960s, writes near the conclusion of his book, MARRIED TO THE CHURCH:

Over the last few years . . . as I walk our family dog on his route of neighborhood lawns, I often find myself reactivating an old fantasy: I imagine that I have died and am facing St. Peter, gowned and bearded, holding a staff--the iconography of this scenario is as outdated as the theology behind it. He tells me that I cannot enter heaven until I count every blade of grass on earth, accurately. If I get it wrong--by one or one billion, it doesn't matter--I will have to begin all over. The world of lawns, golf courses, jungles, prairies, tundras, mountainsides, isolated patches in the midst of deserts, solitary blades poking through God knows where (that's the whole point), opens up its terrifying scope in front of me. I stoop over to begin: one, two, three . . .

I don't remember when I first began entertaining this grim vision, but I know that it was after I entered the seminary and had become exposed to a God who was interested in very fine distinctions, a God who expected His creatures to get things right. To satisfy this God, purgatory could not be something I would passively endure, roasting like a chestnut on an open fire for a few thousand years, but something which I would have to work my way out of. I would have to get something "right"--something very difficult--in order to be worthy to stare for eternity into the face of God, the perfect lover who was also, the fine print insisted, an assiduous accountant, the ultimate IRS man.

I know this scenario is absurd, a parody of judgment which enlightened levels of the church itself--my classmates, for instance--moved beyond long ago. . . Yet, while walking my dog, I do not merely remember it; I enter it--not as a full-fledged believer, to be sure, but with enough energy that it frightens me in a way I have not felt in years. It gets me wondering, "What if . . .?" How far have I come if I can still feel the force of such a medieval theology? I canceled my subscription years ago, but the issues have started to arrive again. [(Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1995), 244-45]

Think with me about the picture of God that is implicit in Hedin's vision--a God who expects His creatures to get things right. It comes from his Roman Catholic upbringing, but it is shared by many Protestants. It is a picture of God that is very hard to let go, or shake off--we may have canceled the subscription years ago, but the issues keep coming. It is picture of a God before whom we stand unworthy, because we do not measure up. Here is a God who asks of us the impossible. A God whom we cannot possibly please.

In Hedin's vision, the emphasis is upon a certain notion of divine perfection--God, the ultimate IRS man. The accounts have to be settled, everything has to be just right, before we become worthy. Purgatory is the opportunity to achieve such worthiness, yet it presents him with an overwhelming task. Protestants have abandoned the idea of purgatory. We tend to have an even more negative view of human nature. There is simply no chance, and no hope, that we can ever measure up to what God demands. There is no way that we can attain perfection by our own efforts--nor even by a lucky guess! Our only hope lies in God, who either will or will not save us in spite of our sin. God, and God alone, can make things right between us.

Last Sunday I spoke on "What's Wrong with You?" in order to suggest that one way that Christians have traditionally understood the human condition is really not adequate or accurate as an account of what is wrong with us. The whole trouble with us is not just that we are sinners. The whole trouble with us--if we want to put it that way--is that we are finite, mortal human beings, and that gets us into all kinds of trouble! The Gospel speaks to us not simply as sinners who are guilty, but as people who find ourselves inadequate, rejected, excluded, neglected, deficient, defective, isolated, estranged, unloved, unaccepted and unacceptable is so many different ways. For many things about us we do experience the need for forgiveness. But for many other things about us, what we need is not forgiveness but acceptance, the assurance that we are cared for, and cherished, and loved as we are.

If we can see this, then it should also be clear that the answer to our human condition, while it needs to include forgiveness, must be something much bigger and more encompassing than that. The view that God sent Jesus Christ to save us from our sins, so that we might be forgiven, is true--but only partially true. If we do not say much more than this, then it is actually false. What's right with God is not just that our sins are forgiven, but that the whole of our existence is transfused and transformed by the awareness of a Goodness that sustains, upholds, and empowers us to live the gift of life that has been bestowed by God upon us. In this awareness, God ceases to be the ultimate IRS man and instead is experienced as the ultimate parent, teacher, coach, guide, and friend.

A good bit of Protestant theology has been devoted to the question of how to get right with God. Basically, it has come down to accepting the fact that we are sinners, repenting, receiving forgiveness, and letting God set things right with us. Protestants have spoken of this in terms of "justification by faith". If you have faith in God, which is itself a gift of grace from God, then God will no longer regard you as a sinner. You will stand before God as if justified, as if you stood in the right. God will overlook your sin, and treat you as righteous. And God will do this because Jesus has already paid the price for our sins by dying on the cross. So one answer to the question, What's right with God?, is that you are right with God if you have been justified by faith.

What I hope to convey this morning is that there is a whole lot more than this that is "right" with God!

First of all, and contrary to Hedin's medieval vision, you do not have to get things exactly right in order to be acceptable to God. God is not like that! The Old Testament psalmist sings the praises of a God "who forgives all your iniquity." God, in the psalmist's view, "does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities." Indeed, God "is merciful and gracious. . . As a father has compassion for his children, so the LORD has compassion for those who fear [that is, those who reverence and honor] him. For [God] knows how we are made [and] remembers that we are dust."

As I said last Sunday, I am not trying to let anyone off the hook here. We are all sinners. But far too often we have made God out to be The Great Enforcer, The Unyielding Judge, The Assiduous Accountant. And there is a stream of Christian theology that insists that the only way God could have been induced to forgive us our sins was for Jesus to die on the cross. If you think about it very long, that is a monstrous way to think about God--and it makes God out to be a monster! A number of theologians today have pointed out that this makes God into the ultimate child abuser. If the Son, Jesus, was required by God the Father to die, in order to satisfy God's own sense of justice and payment for sin, then it hardly makes sense to speak of God as love. There are a lot of intellectual acrobatics by which theology has tried to avoid this conclusion. The problem cannot be avoided, however, so long as we continue to think of God as one who requires that justice be satisfied as a condition of acceptance, forgiveness, or love.

What's right with God is that God does not deal with us "according to our sins." Rather, God deals with us in light of our finitude, our mortality, the fact that "we are dust." God loved us before that love was made manifest in Jesus Christ. The psalmist is proof of that. Therefore, God must love us whether or not we know this love in Christ. Surely and simply, God must love every human being in creation, whether or not that human being knows anything about Jesus Christ or anything about justification by faith.

Consider what Paul wrote to the church at Rome, as we find it in our New Testament text. These verses are a continuation of last Sunday's text about the conflict within us between good and evil, and the reality of sin. Paul says, "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death." According to Paul, without Christ Jesus we experience life, including our own lives, as under judgment. We know that we do not measure up to the demands of what Paul calls the law, and so we are guilty, so guilty that we stand condemned. I am not sure of all that Paul means when he speaks of "the law of sin and death," but he is talking about the human experience of life under the conditions of our existence. To be human is to experience guilt, but not only guilt; also finitude, mortality, the sense of falling short, missing the mark, being inadequate, not measuring up.

This experience can be described without reference to any religious ideas. It is the human experience of not being all that we believe ourselves capable of being, or of not being able to attain all that we desire to attain. It is the human experience of life and the world bearing down upon us, or placing expectations upon us, or exacting demands from us, that find us weak and wanting. It is the experience of life as a burden, life as "too much for me". And for Paul, being a Jew, this experience of being found wanting is an experience of judgment, of failure to fulfill the demands of the law. It is an experience of a kind of death.

The good news, according to Paul, is that in Christ Jesus our experience of life is transformed. We need no longer experience ourselves as standing condemned. We are liberated, set free, by the law of the Spirit of life. Many Christians have read these verses and concluded that those who are not Christian stand condemned by God. That could hardly be farther from the truth. It is not God who condemns us in these verses. It is "the law of sin and death"--our experience of life under the conditions of existence. God is not in the condemnation business, God is in the business of giving life. God is in the business of setting us free from the experience of life as awesome burden. God is in the business of empowering us for a death-defying existence! Those who are in Christ Jesus know this. Those who are not in Christ Jesus may not know it, may not have experienced it, but that hardly means that God does not desire their liberation as well. It hardly means that they stand condemned by God! Surely the gift of the Spirit of life is one that the Creator intends for all of the creation, including all of God's children.

Jesus' parable that we know as the Prodigal Son is an eloquent statement of the Divine love for all of God's children. The father in the parable at no point stops loving his prodigal son, the one who pulls up stakes and leaves his father's household, takes up a wasteful and dissolute existence, and makes himself totally unworthy of his father's affections. When the son returns to his father, he comes with a pervasive sense of unworthiness. He knows that he has no claim upon his father's goodness. All he can offer is the labor of a servant. But the father sees him coming, and runs out to embrace him, and receives him back without hesitation. This is what's right with God. It takes no persuasion, no restitution, no payment, to restore God's love. God's love does not need to be restored. It has never been withheld. It never ends. What is required is that sometimes we--like the prodigal--need to come to our senses, recognize our need of God, be willing to place ourselves again in God's hands. The good news, for Christians, is that in Jesus Christ we have been given the assurance that God will not turn us away. We have been granted a vision of God's unbounded love.

One of the themes or threads that runs through the teaching of Jesus is that God is at least as good, at least as loving, as a loving parent. Often in my counseling with people who are wrestling with questions about God, and with questions about their own status with God, I point out to them that any idea of God that makes God out to be less loving, less generous, less forgiving, less accepting, than a human parent is surely a false idea of God. Jesus said, What father, if his child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or what father, if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? No good father, of course. Whatever a good parent does, God does even better.

Oftentimes loving parents have to discipline their children, of course. Discipline that is rendered in anger, however, or that is given in order to hurt or embarrass or diminish--or simply to punish--is not good discipline. Good discipline is discipline that is rendered in love. When discipline is rendered in love it cannot be to satisfy the parent's ego or need for control or sense of justice; it must be out of genuine desire for the good of the child.

Recently the following story was told by a mother about one of her children:

Last week I took my children to a restaurant. My six-year-old son asked if he could say grace. As we bowed our heads he said, "God is good. God is great. Thank you for the food, and I would even thank you more if mom gets us ice cream for dessert. And liberty and justice for all! Amen!"

Along with the laughter from the other customers nearby I heard a woman remark, "That's what's wrong with this country. Kids today don't even know how to pray. Asking God for ice-cream! Why, I never!" Hearing this, my son burst into tears and asked me, "Did I do wrong? Is God mad at me?"

As I held him and assured him that he had done a terrific job and God was certainly not mad at him, an elderly gentleman approached the table. He winked at my son and said, "I happen to know that God thought that was a great prayer." "Really?" my son asked. "Cross my heart." Then in theatrical whisper he added (indicating the woman whose remark had started this whole thing), "Too bad she never asks God for ice cream. A little ice cream is good for the soul sometimes."

Naturally, I bought my kids ice cream at the end of the meal. My son stared at his for a moment and then did something I will remember the rest of my life. He picked up his sundae and without a word walked over and placed it in front of the woman. With a big smile he told her, "Here, this is for you. Ice cream is good for the soul sometimes and my soul is good already." [related by Jim Kirkpatrick on 11-18-97 in note 5247 of "Eculaugh" from the "Presbyterian Youth Connection" meeting, both on PresbyNet]

There are ways that we sometimes think about God that are really bad for the soul. There are ways in which we sometimes regard ourselves and other human beings--as wrong, inadequate, unacceptable, unworthy--that do a profound injustice to God's good creation. It is central to Christian theology that we human beings have been created in the image of God. I believe that God finds something worth loving in us despite all our weakness and failure and error and sin. That is to say, God does not need to be induced to love us. And God does not love us willy-nilly, for no apparent reason at all. There is enough good in our souls that God would no more turn us away than a loving parent would turn away an errant child.

What's right with God is, first of all, the assurance that we are accepted. But then the capacity to evoke in us aspirations for a higher level of existence, the capacity to inspire us with ideas and visions of a world more just and kind and compassionate and good, the capacity to liberate us from the burden of ourselves and our own very real limitations, the capacity to transform us by the gift of the Spirit of life. AMEN.