ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH JULY 23, 2016
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
Ephesians 2: 1 – 10; Matthew 5: 48
A SS teacher asked her children what they needed to do to go to heaven. If I visited sick people? “No,” they yelled. If I was kind to animals? “No,” What if I gave all my money away? “No” the chorus rang. Well how can I get into heaven? There was a pause. Then Todd said, “You have to die.” Todd wasn’t wrong and because death is a pre-requisite for heaven can we really be sure about getting in? Trouble is, by then it could be too late. Imagine this: you die and find yourself before God who asks, “Why should I let you into heaven?” What would you say? “I’ve tried to be a good person.” “I always…” “I never …” “I’ve done my best.” The popular assumption is that good people go to heaven. No one assumes heaven is reserved for “bad” people. But: “How good is good enough for God?” I believe everyone here to be “good”. But the question many live and die with is: Am I good enough? Most people believe there’s a good way to live and behave; there’s right and wrong, good and bad. And good people are rewarded in the next life. So we aim to be good. At least pretty good – good enough to make the cut.
But who defines “good”? What’s “good enough”? Most people have an innate sense of good and bad which we call a conscience. Societies develop a corporate conscience and pass laws to govern their citizens’ behavior. There are also unwritten sentiments or values that some think we all do, or should, share e.g. tolerance. This gives us a start, however it’s far from fool proof. What about sociopaths who have no conscience? Why does one person’s conscience evoke great guilt over something which another person shrugs off? Some feel guilt for no reason. What about those who ignore their conscience? While our consciences point to the reality of good/bad, they don’t operate with consistent definitions. In the 17th C the scientist Giordano Bruno had the audacity to suggest our solar system was one of many. The Church tried, condemned and burned him at the stake for not believing the Earth was the centre of creation. I’m sure the Church leaders followed their consciences. Were their actions good? They thought so. Me – not so much. Suicide bombers believe they’re doing something good and necessary. To us their actions seem evil. Their view of God’s desire and ours are opposed; we can’t both be right about what’s good. Russian citizens agree that taking over the Crimea was good; the West condemned their action. Countries and cultures don’t always agree on what is right or wrong, good or bad. From politics to economics to ethics to family relations everyone’s conscience dictates something different. Opinions of “goodness” vary greatly with gender, education, ethnicity, even faith.
Our notions of good and bad change with time. In university socialism seemed good; today I worry about government debt, economic collapse and the quality of life for our grandchildren. In the 60’s the state of S Carolina decided it would be good to fly the confederate flag. In 2015 after 9 people were shot in a Church by a white supremacist, flying that flag was deemed an evil influence. 75 years ago divorce was rare, pre-marital sex was scandalous and gay relations were illegal; now they’re all “lifestyle choices”.
Furthermore, what percentage of our deeds need to be good to qualify us for heaven. Do I need a passing grade of 70% or will 50.1%. Does God use British or Canadian referendum percentages? Maybe there’s a bell curve so those on the edge can compete with Mother Teresa. Maybe God has a scale and if my good acts out-weigh the bad ones, I’m in.
But, you say, regardless of what the world or the Church says, “good” is defined by the rules in the Bible. God gave us the 10 Commandments to tell us what’s good. Well that was only for starters, the Hebrew scripture records more than 600 God given commandments (“The Law”). When was the last time you ate pork? The Jews, Muslims and Vegans say that’s evil. Or BBQ’d a bull as a sacrifice for God? I’m sure there’s bylaws against that. The truth is we don’t follow God’s Law. We pick and choose which Biblical Laws are important and we often fail at fulfilling even those. Furthermore, the Bible doesn’t say that following all or any of the commandments assures us a place in heaven. Nowhere does it indicate keeping these rules or living a good life will earn you a reward in the next life. These Laws were given to help a newly liberated people live together in health and harmony. Beyond that, God knew his commandments wouldn’t be kept, so he included sacrifices and offerings for when the people failed.
Jesus often challenged people on their perceptions of their own goodness. Do you think you’re good? You deserve to stand God’s presence? “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”. That’s the standard. How does your goodness compare to God’s holiness? The Pharisees lived to keep the Law so they could attain this level of purity. Jesus said, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5: 20) But you’ve never murdered, committed adultery or born false witness? Oh ya? Ever been angry? Lusted? Told a white lie? Jesus said it’s all the same in God’s eyes. Okay but didn’t Jesus tell us to just love? To keep the Golden Rule? Even in that we have difficulty. It isn’t always easy to discern the loving thing to do and even if we manage that – none of us loves in the way and to the degree we desire. Paul confessed, “I decide to do good, but I don’t do it; I don’t want to do evil, but then I do it anyway.” (Romans 7:19) Do you relate to that? I do. So does every person who ever lived if they were to answer honestly. The truth is “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) If we rely on our goodness to get us into heaven we’re going to fall short. We’ll never be good enough. That may be shocking to you. It may make you angry. Jesus made the people of his day so angry they murdered him. You may conclude “why bother?” It may seem that all your efforts are wasted. That’s not so, and I’ll come back to that. For now let me assure you that your goodness is still valuable. It’s just not the way into heaven. We’ll always fall short of God’s holiness and our “bad” actions offend and sadden God. So is it hopeless? Are we all going to hell? Not at all, because the thing is: Good people don’t go to heaven, forgiven people do.
So how do we get forgiven? Ironically our goodness can be a barrier to forgiveness. If we’re good why would we need forgiveness? Acknowledging we’re not is an admission of guilt. We’re saying we’ve done something wrong, something bad. Then what will God do to us? Yet we know we sin. Some arrogant (i.e. sinful) people say it’s God’s job to forgive, that’s what he does. If I’m not forgiven its God’s fault. It’s also God’s job to be just. There are consequences for our actions. Needing to make amends for a wrong deed is not a new concept. Prisons are full of people paying for their sins against society. God too requires payment for the injuries we’ve caused to him and others. Yet Jesus taught that God is intent on NOT giving people what they deserve. He wants to give us so much more. “Who among you… if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:9 – 11) (My story) Just as God’s holiness is greater than ours, so is God’s capacity for love and forgiveness. So there’s a Catch-22; out of love God wants to forgive yet sin is a capital offense – the price is death. Apparently God has only one choice – to hold us accountable and make us pay the price. However, God’s love keeps him from doing that. So God had a solution. God came as a human being. Jesus, who had done nothing deserving of death, who in fact being God was holy, threatened the religious establishment of his day. He was tried, condemned and executed on a cross by the Romans. His death became the payment for our sins once and for all. With our sentence served and justice met, God’s forgiveness is available to us – to all. Hear Paul’s words, “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our sins made us alive together with Christ. By grace you have been saved through faith and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not the result of works” (Ephesians 2: 4, 5, 8 & 9)
Let me ask you a question. If someone gave you a choice between having a million dollars, given by a donor, in your hand today or working your whole life to impress this donor any maybe getting the money; what would you say? I’d take the million dollars. Christ is our donor. Through him, God sees us as perfect. He welcomes us into his holy presence. So you can work at being good for the rest of your life or you can trust God and take the gift. What’s your choice? If a donor gave me a million dollars no strings attached, I’d trust him. I’d want to meet him to say thank you. I’d want to know him. I suspect knowing him will change me. I may sign on to his organization and join in his work. I’d introduce him to my friends. In a similar way, our good deeds matter not because they save us – Christ has done that, no strings attached – but because goodness and love are the outcome of God’s grace. They are the signs of our faith. They are our way of living thankfully for the gift of life Christ died to give us. We now live, not to earn our way to heaven, but to please God and contribute to his Kingdom on Earth. “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” (Ephesians 2: 10)