This is a sermon I delivered at Sugar Land First UMC on Trinity Sunday, June 16, 2019. Many thanks to Rev. Martin Nicholas for the invitation.
A long time ago I taught in a community college. One of the courses I taught was Major World Religions. One day I was giving a final exam–back in days when we used blue books–and as we were beginning one of the students asked me, “You’re professor….”
“Watson,” I said.
“And this class is….”
Now, in my career as a student, there were tests that I was more prepared for and tests that I was less prepared for. But I was never so unprepared that I didn’t know the name of the class in which I was taking a test.
Not surprisingly, the student didn’t do very well. Major World Religions isn’t a class that you can bluff your way through because the different religious have such specific teachings and come at life’s problems in such different ways.
Have you ever heard someone say something like, “All religions teach basically the same thing?”
Were that the case, my student might have been able to pass the test. But they don’t. They teach very different things. They look at the world differently. They approach life’s problems differently. They worship different gods from one another, or perhaps they believe there is no god at all.
Oh, sure, you can eventually boil things down to something like “love one another,” but what does love entail? Is what Hindus mean by love the same as what Muslims mean by love? And are these the same as what Christians mean by love?
1 John 4:10 teaches us, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
Love is, first and foremost, expressed in the action of God to send Christ to die for our sins. There is no other faith that teaches this.
What about this one from 1 John 5:3-4: “For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments.”
What commandments are we talking about? These are the commandments handed on to us through Scripture and the teaching of the Apostles.
Religions are peculiar and particular things. They make sense of the world for us. They shape the way in which we understand ourselves and others. They teach us right and wrong.
And one of the most basic questions that some faiths try to answer is, “Is there a God,” and, “If there is a God, what is that God like?”
The ancient world in which Christianity emerged might be called a “world full of gods.” (H/T to the late classicist Keith Hopkins.) There were gods everywhere. There were places for household gods. There were places where you could make sacrifice on the street. There were statues of gods in the garden and in the bedroom, gods in the market, and one might even find a painting of a god in the public toilet.
The world that the New Testament comes out of was incredibly religious. There was no such thing as secularism, as we think of it today. There was no separation of religion from political life. They were one and the same. You worshipped the Greco-Roman gods because they were thought to uphold the wellbeing of the Roman Empire. Pretty much everyone worshipped them, then, but you didn’t have to limit yourself to them. There were also Egyptian gods, Babylonian gods, gods associated with secret cults… many people considered Roman emperors to be divine, and even the empire itself was deified as the goddess Roma. There was the God of the Jews, and there was a strange subset of the Jews that worshipped a crucified man.
In the midst of this world, you couldn’t just say you worshipped “God,” because there were so many gods. “Which god are you talking about?” The Christian God wasn’t Zeus or Isis or Mithras. The Christian God was the God of the Jews, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But they understood this God in a different way than the Jews did. They understood their God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, a holy Trinity.
It took us a few centuries, major church councils, and fist fights to figure out exactly what it meant to call God Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But the basic framework was there from early on. From the time of the apostles the followers of Jesus understood God had come to them as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And the worship of any other god was not going to do.
If the Christians had worshipped their God alongside the other gods of the Roman Empire, everything probably would have been okay. The Romans didn’t actually care which gods you worshipped, as long as you were seen as loyal to the empire, and worshipping the Greco-Roman gods was a sign of loyalty. But once you stopped worshipping them… that’s when you got in trouble. In fact, the early Christians were sometimes called “atheists,” not because they didn’t believe in any gods, but because they didn’t worship the right gods.
And why not? Why not worship the other gods? Why insist so strongly on the worship of this one God? Well, for one thing, this God has commanded it. God forbids the worship of idols. God demands exclusive allegiance. But apart from that, only one God had saved them out of sin. The Father sent the Son to teach us how to live and to save us from sin. The Son had died on the cross and taken our sin upon himself. But after three days God raised him from the dead, breaking the power of sin and death. The Father and the Son sent the Holy Spirit to strengthen us, comfort us, and teach us about how to live as saved people. Only one God has done this. So only one God was worthy of worship.
The Jews only worshipped one God, too, but they had an exemption from worshipping the gods of the empire. They were an ancient faith that most other people in the Greco-Roman world thought strange because of their monotheism and unique way of life, but in general they were left to practice their religion as they wished.
Once the Christians began to be seen as separate from Jews, suspicion about them became more intense.
Why do they worship a man who was crucified?
Why don’t they worship the gods who keep us safe?
Why won’t they make sacrifice to the emperor?
What in the world are they doing when they get together?
Why do they say that they eat a man’s body and drink his blood?
Being a Christian wasn’t easy.
There were times of outright persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, but most of the time, what Christians had to deal with was a sense of being outsiders. If people found out you were Christian, they didn’t trust you. They didn’t like you. They might not want to do business with you. They didn’t want their kids to marry your kids. After all, there were all these rumors about Christians, and you didn’t worship the gods of the Empire, so you couldn’t really be trusted…. Being a Christian came with a price.
Even in the midst of this, they continued to say that their God was Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and no other god would do. In John 16 Jesus teaches, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” The Father has taught us the truth through the Son, and the Son will continue to teach through the Holy Spirit.
The early Christians had a choice to make: follow this God, or follow another. Allow this God to be their teacher, or follow the teachings of another. Love this God with all their heart, mind, and strength, or love another. They had to choose, and choosing had consequences.
The question, for Christians, was not simply, “Whom will you worship,” but more importantly, as the old rock and roll song goes, “Who do you love?” Jesus told his followers in John 14:15, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” In other words, if you love Jesus, if you love the one who sent him and the one he will send, then you will obey what he has taught. You won’t live like everyone else. You won’t just go with the flow.
As Flannery O’Connor put it, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.”
One of the perks of my job is that I’ve been able to fellowship with Christians in different parts of the world. I’ve worshipped with Christians in places like Vietnam, Cuba, and Egypt. To follow Jesus in those contexts–to worship the Christian God, and that God alone–is a choice they make, and not always an easy one. They may face government oppression, threats from radicalized Muslims, or simply pressure from their families not to do something strange like becoming a Christian. That question, “Who do you love?” is always before them. Will you love the Christian God even if it costs you? Will you love the Christian God even when it’s dangerous?
That’s the case for Christians all over the world today. Christians in Nigeria are facing terrible persecution. In China we’re seeing a strong reaction against the spread of Christianity. Churches are being closed. Congregations are being spied on. House churches are being raided. And yet it’s projected that China will soon have more Christians than any country in the world, as many as 245 million by the year 2030. Compare that to 173 million in the U.S. today.
If you’re going to hold to the faith even when it’s most difficult, even when it’s dangerous, even when it may cost you everything, you have to know who you love.
The Greco-Roman world was a world full of gods. But is it so different today? Even in the United States things are changing. More people today identify as “nones” than as Mainline Protestant, and there are almost as many nones are they are Evangelical Christians. Among the 18-29 age group, “nones” outnumber Protestants. Their numbers in Western Europe are far more concerning.
But these “nones” aren’t necessarily atheists. They just don’t have a particular religious affiliation. They may practice new age religion or dabble in eastern religions. They may meditate using a hodgepodge of religious practices they’ve picked up here and there. Like the people among whom the ancient Christians lived, they see no need to confine themselves to just one system of belief, when there are so many that might be beneficial. Some have called this the “re-paganization” of Western culture, but I would simply say that today, as in the first century world, we increasingly live in a world full of gods.
Even a casual observer will notice that the perception of Christians has changed in the wider culture. Being a Christian used to be seen in a very positive light, but it seems that is less and less so all the time.
So, I fly a lot… And I’m an introvert. I like people, but after I’ve been at a large conference or a speaking engagement, I’m usually tired and just want some quiet time. But estimates suggest that 50-74 percent of the world consists of extroverts, and they fly too. And they want to talk. So if the person next to me on the plane asks me what I do, I just say, “I’m the academic dean and professor of New Testament at a United Methodist seminary.” And they respond, “Oh.” And that pretty much ends the conversation.
It’s not as comfortable to be a Christian as it once was, and maybe that’s a good thing because it makes us ask the question of whom we really love. What is most important to you? What is your ultimate concern? Is it finding peace? Is it financial security? Is it power or reputation? Respectability? There are practices today, religious and otherwise, that can help you achieve these goals.
But for Christians, there is only one who is worthy of our highest love: God the Father, who sent God the Son to save us from sin, and abides with us until Christ returns in God the Holy Spirit. One God. Three persons.
In the 24th chapter of Joshua, Joshua assembles all the Israelites at Shechem, and he gives them an ultimatum: “Choose this day whom you will serve.” Which god will you serve? Who do you love? Who will be your god? Sure, if you want to you can choose the Canaanite or Amorite gods your ancestors worshiped. That’s your decision. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.
And that question is before us again today. Choose this day whom you will serve. Will you give your life entirely over to the Christian God, or will you serve some other? “Who do you love?” Whom will you serve? Will you go after the false gods our culture, or will you say, like Joshua, as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord?