I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please. Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine. I don’t want enough of him to make me love a black man or pick beets with a migrant worker. I want ecstasy, not transformation; I want the warmth of the womb, not a new birth. I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack. I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please. No, no, not the flesh and blood one … He will keep me from my appointment with the hair dresser and make me late for the cocktail party. He will soil my linen and break my strand of matched pearls. I can’t put up with pundits from Persia or sweaty shepherds trampling over my nylon carpet with their muddy feet. My name isn’t Mary, you know! I want no living, breathing Christ – but one I can keep in its crib with a rubber band. That plastic one will do just fine. Those words were penned by Wilbur Rees.
As we come to the second half of Romans 2, St. Paul turns his attention from judgmental, hypocritical Christians to shallow Christians who have convinced themselves that they are living these great lives for Christ but the quality of their lives is really no different than that of anyone else. Christians who think they’re swimming in the deep and are playing in the shallows the whole time. Christian author Madeleine L’Engle once said, “We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.” The problem is that we’ve gotten really good at the whole loudly discrediting others thing, but are our lives really any different than anyone else’s? How are we doing at the whole showing the lovely light of Christ that draws people to him like moths to a flame thing? What Paul wants us to do is take a serious, deep, and honest look inside. Turn to Romans 2:17-24.
There are two characteristics of this kind of shallow faith that Paul warns us against. The first is valuing profession over performance. Now wait a minute pastor! That sounds like salvation by works, that we can earn our way to heaven. We’ve been taught since birth that salvation is a free gift from God, that we can’t earn it with our good works. Oh, you’re very right. Salvation IS a free gift from God, and you CAN’T earn it, now matter how good you think you are, or really are, in this life. Now matter how much the good outweighs the bad in your life, you can’t earn it. BUT that certainly doesn’t mean Christ won’t have any impact on the way we live, OR that there aren’t things that we as followers of Jesus are supposed to do. The problem is that we have turned faith into a passive knowing of certain facts about God instead of an active placing our trust in God. In James 2, St. James says “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” What’s James saying here? Simply this: when you place your faith in Jesus and become a follower of Jesus, and the Spirit of God comes into your life, something is going to change, and it isn’t God. It’s you. You will change. Your life will change. At times that change will be dramatic and radical, most times it will be persistent and slow, but you will change. The impact of you following Jesus will be visible in the way you live.
Paul said the very same thing in Galatians 5 when he said, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” Aren’t those all things people can see in our lives from the outside looking in? Of course they are! God’s grace, the good news of Jesus Christ, isn’t just an insurance policy against hell when you die. It’s an invitation from God to live as citizens of his eternal kingdom, with all of the rights AND THE RESPONSIBILITIES thereof, right here, right now, in this world. “Showing the world a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”
But instead of doing that, look at what so many of us are doing instead. Look at Vv. 23-24. The Jews lived in a world dominated by Greek and Roman culture. The Greeks may have been overcome by the Roman armies on the battlefield, but it has been said that “captive Greece captured her conquerors.” It was Roman might and industriousness coupled with Greek thought and culture that dominated the world. And because of the many tragedies that had befallen their own nation, the Jewish people had been dispersed from their homeland in every direction. So Jews could be found wherever Greco-Roman culture was found. They were a proud people, and different. They refused to be assimilated into the culture of the superpowers who ruled over them. They were respected, but not appreciated, because they were so different. The dressed differently. They ate differently. Their demeanor was different. They worshipped differently. And yet, for all of their external differences from their culture, beneath the surface they were just the same. They may have had the law of God to light their way, but it had done little to influence the way they lived. “You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law.” And because of that, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” Because of you, the people of God, others don’t want anything to do with God. The ones who are supposed to be guiding others, drawing others into the light of Christ are actually blind guides themselves.
Imagine eating at a restaurant that has no light. Hard as it is to believe, some people are choosing to dine that way. Following a growing trend, sightless restaurants are opening up across Europe. What is a sightless restaurant? John Bohannon experienced it firsthand. Bohannon plunged into the “inky blackness of Unsicht-Bar, a restaurant named for the German word for invisible.” To get to his table, it was necessary to place his hand on the shoulder of Magid the waiter, then allow his dining partner to put her hand on his shoulder. In single file, they carefully maneuvered to their chairs, with the waiter as their guide. Magid needed no light. Like most waiters in these restaurants, he is blind. Bohannon felt panicked by the utter darkness and the inability to see his own hand while waving it in front of his face. He heard a glass crash to the floor from a nearby table. The reaction was “more desperate than the situation would merit under normal (well-lit) circumstances.”
Since no lights of any kind are allowed in the dining room, a staff member must lead patrons to a candlelit bathroom when the need arises. Bohannon’s unease over the situation began to build to the point where he wanted someone to lead him to the bathroom, just so he could see something again. He pushed aside the nervousness when Magid arrived with the food and Bohannon soon discovered the difficulties of using a fork you can’t see. At the end of this unique dining experience, the waiter arrived to lead Bohannon and his guest back out of the restaurant and into the light. Whatever the pluses or minuses of sightless dining, one thing is clear. When choosing darkness over light, your best guide is blind.[i] When we profess our faith in Christ, but our lives don’t bear the mark of Christ, when our lives are no different than anyone else’s, we are blind guides leading the blind in the dark.
Does that mean that we don’t ever sin. Of course not. It means that when we become aware of the truth that we have sinned, we repent of it. We seek to stamp it out of our lives. We wrestle with it, sometimes desperately. Every one of us is some kind of mess. The difference in the Christ follower is that the Christ follower has placed her trust in Christ, knows the forgiveness and grace of Christ, is willing to repent when consciously aware of sin in her life, and actively seeks to follow Jesus.
Now, look at Vv. 25-29. Circumcision was a mark, in males, of being a Jew, a member of the people of God. And in the earliest days of the church, when many who followed Christ were also Jews, they often argued about whether one could be a Christian, could follow Christ, without being circumcised. Many said, “No, they must be circumcised. They must become like us.” But Paul, himself a Jew, said “Not so fast. You’re circumcised, and it hasn’t made a lick of difference for you. Apart from Christ you were as dead in sin as the rest of the world IN SPITE OF your being among the chosen people of God, with the law to serve as your guide in following him. You have the ritual, but it isn’t a reality for you. And ritual without reality is empty, dead, meaningless. Your body bears the mark of the people of God, but your heart is far from him. Oh, you go to church, maybe more than most. And you give to support the church. Maybe you have even served on the board. But inside, your heart is far from him.
To the people of Israel the prophet Jeremiah said, “Circumcise yourselves to the Lord; remove the foreskin of your hearts, O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem …” (4:4). It isn’t just about a mark on a part of your body. “Remove the foreskin of your hearts.” Following Jesus, living in the kingdom of God, living in the grace of God is something that starts deep inside us. In the ancient world the heart was considered more than the seat of emotion. It was the seat of the mind and will as well. It was where your deepest identity was carried. That’s why there is so much talk in the Bible about the transformation not just of behavior, but of the heart. We focus on the behavior, and ignore the heart. We want rules … you can do this, but you can’t do that. You can drink this, but you can’t drink that. All the while, our hearts are shriveled up and dying.
Christian leader Richard Foster said, “Nothing can choke the heart and soul out of walking with God like legalism. Rigidity is the most certain sign that the Disciplines have spoiled. The disciplined person is the person who can live appropriately in life. Consider the story of Hans the tailor. Because of his reputation, an influential entrepreneur visiting the city ordered a tailor-made suit. But when he came to pick up his suit, the customer found that one sleeve twisted that way and the other this way; one shoulder bulged out and the other caved in. He pulled and struggled and finally, wrenched and contorted, he managed to make his body fit. As he returned home on the bus, another passenger noticed his odd appearance and asked if Hans the tailor had made the suit. Receiving an affirmative reply, the man remarked, “Amazing! I knew that Hans was a good tailor, but I had no idea he could make a suit fit so perfectly someone as deformed as you.” Often that is just what we do in the church. We get some idea of what the Christian faith should look like: then we push and shove people into the most grotesque configurations until they fit wonderfully! That is death. It is a wooden legalism which destroys the soul.”[ii]
You know, if there’s one thing we as American’s are REALLY good at, it’s spending money. We spend it on food and drinks. We spend it on entertainment. We spend it on clothes and cars and toys (for our kids and for us adults). We spend it on our homes and our pets, and over the past couple of decades, we’re increasingly spending it on our back yards, which, of course, we also now pay someone else to mow. Not a neighborhood kid either. An adult with expensive equipment. Gone are the days of a simple grill on a back porch or patio with a picnic table and a few lawn chairs. Our backyards are becoming “outdoor living spaces” complete with outdoor kitchens, special lighting, sound equipment made to look like landscape features, and even televisions.
People say they want “a luxurious outdoor world” right in their backyard so they can escape their everyday lives, hang out as a family, and spend time outside while staying at home. At least that’s what people say they want – places for adults to relax and kids to play. But there’s a problem: Evidence shows that for all of their good intentions, most families don’t actually spend time in their backyard retreats. A 2012 book titled Life at Home in the Twenty-first Century revealed the results of an in-depth study of middle-class Los Angeles families. Researchers from UCLA recorded hours of footage while carefully documenting how families actually spent their time.
According to their research, children averaged fewer than 40 minutes per week in their yards. Adults logged less than 15 minutes per week. All of these families benefitted from sunny Southern California weather. They had nice porch furniture, trampolines, even pools. They just didn’t use them. But the researchers also noted a profound disconnect between belief and action: Most families TOLD the researchers that they were using their backyards often, but the researchers’ observations proved otherwise. One of the researchers noted, “Rather than use their outdoor retreats, people would retreat by turning on a [TV, computer, or video game] screen. People don’t like this image of their lives. So they don’t acknowledge it.” Instead, families “perpetuate the illusion” of spending time outside because that’s clearly the ideal. We perpetuate the illusion of spending time outside. We just don’t actually spend any time outside. The sad thing is, we really think that we do. We aren’t intentionally lying about it. We’ve convinced ourselves that we spend far more time in our very expensive backyard outdoor living spaces than we actually do.
Have we convinced ourselves that we are diving into the depths of God’s love and grace, allowing his Spirit to move within us, all the while still playing in the shallows? God does not seek to force others to come to him. Oh, there is a price to pay for not, but he will never force someone else. God doesn’t seek to force anyone to bow their knee through shows of overwhelming power. He will not override our free will. He seeks to invite, to attract, but never to force. And he does that by causing the lives of his people to serve as lights in the darkness, calling out, inviting, attracting others to the warmth, peace, and forgiveness of his glow. But that cannot happen if our faith is so shallow that it doesn’t penetrate to the core of our being, what the Bible calls our hearts.
[i] “The Best Food I’ve Tasted but Never Seen,” The Christian Science Monitor (10-13-04)
[ii] Richard J. Foster in “TSF Bulletin,” Nov.-Dec. 1982. Leadership, Vol. 4, no. 2.