It happens more than you’d think. And every time it does, it takes me by surprise. It happened again this past week.
I was talking with a man I have known for years. He has been a member of a church for decades. But as we talked that day, I began to realize something. This man, despite his dedication to his church, may not be a Christian. He may never have gotten the gospel. Now, let me make it clear. This man outshines me in his righteousness. In his medical practice, he was extraordinarily generous and compassionate. He’s gone above and beyond for his family. He’s done amazing things to support the community. Yet, I sensed that he might never have grasped what the Christian message actually means for him, for everyone. Now, I could be wrong. We had never talked this deeply. But I will keep talking with him, so that if I am right I can share with this remarkably good and faithful man the full measure of what God has given him.
But, I don’t know why I’m surprised. As simple as the Christian message is, lots of people still miss it. I have known people who didn’t get it until they went to seminary! Heck, my own father may not have really gotten it until after years as a pastor himself.
Now how is it possible to serve in a church, even be a pastor of one, and still not be a Christian? More crucially, how do you know that you that you have grasped the gospel, that you have become a Christian? In these words from I John, God shows you the way. Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.
How can you be involved in a church for years, decades even, and still not get it? How can you even be a pastor, and miss it? How can you be sure that’s not you? You can be sure, when you realize that the truth doesn’t matter unless you’ve experienced the love. If the truth has not led you to the love, then you haven’t yet experienced the gospel.
This past week, I read this description of what it felt like to experience the gospel. This young woman from Cambodia said this. “I didn’t know what I was missing. I was like the frog in the well.” What was she talking about? You see.
Cambodian culture has this parable of a frog, who, living in a well, can look up and see the sky. The frog knows that a world exists beyond the well, but the frog has no idea how big or amazing that world is unless it gets out of that well.
And if you know the truth of the gospel, but haven’t experienced the love, you are a bit like that frog.
Or think about it the way the preacher Tim Keller does. Let’s say you go to your doctor for this illness you have, and she gives you these pills to take. Well, you take the pills home. You even do research on how effective the pills are. When others have the same problem, you tell them. “You should really get this pill.” But when it comes to you actually taking the pill that never happens.
In the same way, you can know the message of the gospel, yet never experience it. That’s what John means when he says, “Whoever says “I am in the light,” while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness.”
When the person John is talking about says that they are in the light, they truly believe they are in the light. After all, they know what the light is. They can see it clearly even. But just because you know the light, doesn’t mean you are living in it. And what is the key test of that living? It’s whether you’ve experienced the love, the love that takes away your hate, the love that fills you with love for others.
Now, how can that be? How can you know the truth, and yet not be actually living in it?
Sometimes, it happens because you fell in love with the comfort. You grew up learning all the stories. You adopted all the beliefs. But the church doesn’t bring you change as much as it brings you comfort. You like the familiarity of it all. When so much is changing, you like coming each week to a place that reminds you of home. Now, of course, you can feel those things, and still be a Christian. But if that’s all you feel, then you haven’t gotten it.
Or maybe you fell in love with the answers. Christianity gives a lot of answers. And maybe you fell in love with all that, how Christian answers gave you structure to a chaotic world. But if that’s all you have, you don’t have the gospel. And if all you have are the answers, and not Jesus, then you are in trouble.
This past week, I was listening to an interview with the journalist, Bill Moyers. At one point, he mentioned that he had no idea where he had come from or where he was going. And the interviewer, who knew Moyers had gone to seminary, had even been ordained a Baptist minister, probed further. Moyers said this. “I went to seminary and got answers to all my questions, and then I want out in life and got all my answers questioned.” The answers won’t sustain you. Only the love will.
Or you can fall in love with a leader. You encounter a great teacher, not even necessarily a famous one. But he or she speaks with such certainty about faith. And that attracts you. You want what they have. So you join up. Christianity becomes your team. And you really love being part of that team, that team that has this teacher you’ve come to love.
Now, if you love the comfort of Christianity, see it as part of your family heritage, your culture, then you won’t like anyone to question it. Oh no, you’ll resist that, maybe even be offended. It’s like someone is attacking your family.
On the other hand, if you fell in love with the answers, you crave the questions. You want someone to question you. That way you can drub them into submission with your answers. And you may win some arguments, even as you lose a lot of relationships.
And if you fell in love with the person, with their team, then God forbid that person fail you or the team fall short. And if they do, you will either become bitter and angry or you will scramble to do whatever you can to rationalize the failure, so that you don’t lose that leader or your team.
But in every case, you have fallen in love with the light around Jesus, but you haven’t actually fallen in love with Jesus. You’ve put your trust in the truth about Jesus, but you haven’t experienced the love of Jesus.
Oscar Romero, the Catholic bishop, put it well. Christianity is not a collection of truths to be believed, of laws to be obeyed, of prohibitions. That makes it very distasteful. Christianity is a person, one who loved us so much, one who calls for our love. Christianity is Christ.”
So how do you get Christ? How do you get Jesus?
First, you face up to your own darkness. Folks, who have seen the light but not experienced it have not actually done that. Yes, you see the world around you as dark. You see the darkness in others. But you haven’t really faced up to your darkness. You’ve let the light shine on others. But you haven’t allowed that light to shine into you.
When I first came here, a leader called me for help with a particular issue. And at one point, he said, “You know, Kennedy, I’m pretty f----ed up.” And I said, “Of course you are. So am I. That’s why we’re here.”
When you really see your darkness, your pettiness, your anxieties, your self-centeredness, all the stuff you hide, even from yourself, then you are getting close to Jesus. As the preacher, Bill Coffin said, “Jesus said, the truth shall set you free.” But first it makes you miserable.” If you haven’t felt that misery, then you’re missing Jesus. Why do you need to feel the misery? Only then, will you realize how much you need Jesus, how lost you actually are.
But when you realize it, it does free you. Why? You realize. Jesus sees you just as you are, with all that ugliness you work so hard to hide. And Jesus loves you. I mean, he really, really loves you. And that frees you. A Benedictine nun put it well, “There is no freedom like seeing myself as I am and not losing hope.” And that’s what the gospel brings. That’s why it’s good news.
But that good news may be so good, you find it hard to believe, that Jesus loves you like that. Heck, you may not even love yourself that much after seeing all your ugliness. But Jesus does love you, and has given up everything to take your ugliness away. And you don’t need to do anything for Jesus to get that. You simply need to believe Jesus has. All you need is need. That’s the beauty of it. And in the beauty of that truth, you experience the love.
And in that love, things change in you. You start to look at everyone, I mean everyone with a sense of hope for what God can do. You can look at a terrorist and see that, a murderer, a war criminal, anyone. Why? You are thinking. If God can save me, God can save anybody. Why not him? Why not her? You start seeing all the beauty in them that God sees. And they sense that from you. They sense that you see in them even more than they can see in themselves.
And when you encounter people who aren’t Christians, but who are way morally better than you, you aren’t surprised or bothered by it. After all, you’re not a Christian, because you’re better than others. Heck, becoming a Christian means admitting that you are a moral failure. That’s what makes you a Christian. You know it’s not about your goodness. It’s all about God’s grace.
So, when people meet you, they don’t see you trying to put on a pose or hold up a mask. No, they see a person who lives with no reason to hide at all. They see someone who sees the very best in them, and who accepts them utterly and without condition. They see you loving even the most unlovable, but not making a big deal out of it.
And when you’re not living like that, then you are forgetting the gospel. You are forgetting who you are by God’s grace, and who they are. You have forgotten the beauty and wonder of God’s love and grace. So, if you’ve been forgetting the love or maybe never even experienced it, then open yourself to the bounty of God’s love for you, a God who has given everything for you. All you need to bring is nothing. All you need is need.