Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.
Over the last week you may have heard about the Johnson Amendment. It has been on my mind. It seems politics is seeking a more prominent place in our nations pulpits. And here is why: because how we think about God and our relationship with God directly informs how we act in the world. If we believe God lives over there, we act one way, and if we believe God lives right here, we act another.
The Johnson Amendment, for those not familiar with it, was written 1954, and named after President Lyndon B. Johnson. “It produced a change in the US tax code to prohibit tax-exempt organizations (including churches) from endorsing or opposing political candidates.” When this Amendment was passed, some said it was to mute the voices of Black preachers, and that may well have been true.
Today, some are claiming that this amendment keeps Christianity weak, and unable to defend itself against the onslaught of secularism. They claim Jesus, in other words, needs help from politicians. The Jesus I worship is way more powerful than that. Even in my lifetime we’ve seen the power of Jesus prevail over political systems.
We have seen the power of Jesus in the Polish people as they threw off the yoke of Communism. We have seen the power of Jesus in Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela as they brought down the walls of Apartheid. We have seen the power of Jesus carried on the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, as they weakened the thin wall of segregation n in this nation. We have seen the power of Jesus at work, when the work of Jesus takes fire in the lives of regular people like you and me. And we know this power when we know Jesus and understand from his life how the binding agents of inclusion, relationship, equality, and justice work. These are Jesus things.
To revoke the Johnson Amendment, I suspect, will only create more division in our nation. It is a seed of dissention that will further divide churches from each other, and in this way further degrade the body of Christ. That said, to me, it matters not
whether or not the Johnson Amendment is repealed. Because from this pulpit, power doesn’t come from spouting the names of politicians or policies or political parties, it comes from proclaiming the power of Jesus. But if we are going to proclaim this power we need to understand it; and that understanding starts with knowing the difference between God living over there and God living right here.
Let me explain this way: Have you ever told someone you know moderately well that you’re a Christian and they’re surprised? They sort of recoil, and step back, and begin to contort a little bit? And you can see them thinking… what have you done with my friend Doyt? I thought he was so normal!
Here is why they get all nervous: They think Christians are just out there trying to “win souls” for heaven. They think that we are motivated by this idea that when we die we go stand near the pearly gates, and there is an angel with a big book, and names are written in it, and if our name is written in it we get in, and if our name isn’t written we’re going down to the hot place. And all we need to do to get that angel to write our name in the book is say: “Jesus is my Lord and Savior who died for your sins.” And if we say that then we get in! And if we get someone else to say these words then we get a little sparkly star in our glory crown.
Generally, I have found that people, at least in this part of the world find that metal construct not only weird, but irrelevant. And I agree. I don’t know if there are pearly gates or an angel with a big book. Maybe. But I do know that in the Kingdom of God the power of Jesus isn’t unleashed by intellectual agreement with an idea. The power Jesus is unleashed by how we live, right here, right now. And that is a choice, and that choice has real impact.
If we think that life is about saying some words so we can go to heaven when we die, then we act one way. If we think that life is about how we live right here, right now, and that this way of life reveals heaven, then we live another way.
What we believe about heaven has consequences. Let me give you two examples. The first has to do with immigration. If we believe that heaven is for later and only for people who say particular words, then it doesn’t much matter what happens to people in boats or camps or prisons on the other side of the world. The angel at the pearly gates will work that out when they die. If we believe, however, that heaven is here, then we believe that it is here for everybody, and so the pain and suffering and evil inflicted upon others have consequences for us because we all live in the same house.
Here is another example, the environment. If we believe that heaven is for later, then the environment now doesn’t really matter; because it is all about getting there, not what we do here. But if we believe heaven is here, then we believe that this environment matters; not only now, but for our children, and our children’s children.
You can see how people get freaked out about Christianity if they think Christians are only about getting into heaven when they die. Sure I want to be with God when I die. And if there are pearly gates I hope to walk through them. And if there is a book I hope my name is in it, but I don’t know about any of that stuff. What I do know is what Jesus said: “The Kingdom of God, which is the kingdom of heaven, which is where God lives, is here, very near, this close to us, and how we live in it matters… so choose life.
This life. This journey. This power. It is the power of Jesus. It is this power that brought the Roman Empire to its knees. N.T. Wright, in his book The Day The Revolution Began, tells the story. In the 3rd century under the emperor Diocletian
Rome sought to stomp out Christianity by stomping and stomping and stomping on Christians. But the more they stomped the more Christian’s appeared. Finally, in exhaustion, Rome admitted defeat.
As NT Wright noted: “Nobody had known that people could live like Christians lived, even in the face of death. This was something new. Rome recognized the Jesus followers as a strange new presence in their midst, neither a ‘religion’ nor a ‘political power,’ but a whole new kind of life, a new way of being a human being” (p. 376). This had nothing to do with where one went when they died, and everything to do with how they lived. They were imbued with life, the life of Jesus, and it was the most powerful thing the Romans had ever seen.
Jesus himself summed it up this way: “I came that you shall have life and have it abundantly.” My hope for Epiphany is not to be a protected enclave for Christians; my hope for Epiphany to be a place where Jesus followers gather; where we gather to worship and pray and study, but also to encourage one another, and to hold one another accountable, and to ask each other: “How is your immortality reflected in your morality?”
How near is heaven, in your mind, and mouth, and heart? How is the pattern of forgiveness that Jesus teaches continually refreshing and renewing your relationships? How is the power of love in your life changing the world?
Those are the questions that Jesus followers wrestle with. So, when you tell someone you’re a Christian, I hope that is what you tell them about; because that is what it means to be a follower of Jesus… and when the power of Jesus is shared, things change!
Let that reality resonate in your minds this evening at the Have a Heart party. Tonight we will raise money to support the many charities we participate in here at Epiphany. And that has real impact today and tomorrow. But in addition to generously supporting our Service and Outreach, I’d like you to look around the room tonight because what you will see is the Jesus power ready to be unleashed. Imagine how we could go beyond the walls of this wonderful parish, to meet the world’s most desperate needs to the indigent, and orphan; by holding the hands of the sick and suffering; in visiting the elderly and shut-ins; maybe even by befriending Muslims, or people who believe that life is about getting into heaven when they die.
Those are our people as well. We share a house with them. It is called the Kingdom of heaven. It is where we live right here, right now.