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Carolyn’s Sermon for 10/23/11

Sermon – Lectionary 30

What is the central goal of the Christian life?

When some researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill took a close look at the religious beliefs held by American teenagers back a few years ago, they found that the faith described by most adolescents came down to something the researchers identified as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”.  Moralistic means they want to do the right thing. Therapeutic because it is a self help kind of religion that is there when you need it to make you feel better.  And deism just means a generic belief in a god.

As a matter of fact, many researchers believe that moralistic therapeutic deism isn’t just the religion of teenagers, but of their parents as well, and most of our American society.  Theologians are concerned that these beliefs have infected many of our Christian churches making them Christian in name only.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism consists of five core beliefs or main ideas.  See if you recognize them in what you hear people around you say.

  1. “A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.” OK so far.  We believe in God the Father Almighty creator of heaven and earth.
  2. “God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.”  True enough, all major religions teach us to be good and fair.
  3. “God does not need to be particularly involved in your life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.”  This is how many people behave, using the church as one of many organizations they affiliate with.  We are there when you need us for baptisms, weddings, and funerals and those feel good services on Christmas and Easter. Despite the fact that many people behave that way, God loves us and wants to be the focus of our lives.  God is not far off.  God is always near to us.
  4. “Good people go to heaven when they die.”.  Sounds just like works righteousness. Lutherans see a big red flag here.  This is not good news.
  5. “The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about ones self.”  Wait a minute!  That’s not what the Bible teaches.  God isn’t against high self-esteem, but loving yourself is only part of that commandment. Loving God and neighbor is the central goal of life for Christians.

It sounds like we Christians need to be a lot clearer about what we believe and teach.  Our children and our neighbors aren’t getting the message.  And that’s a shame, because Moralistic therapeutic deism is not good news.  The message of the Christian faith is good news.

Today’s gospel lesson teaches us the central goal of the Christian life.  It isn’t being happy and feeling good about yourself either.

A lawyer asks Jesus what the greatest commandment is.  Unlike the gospel lesson last week, this isn’t a trick question.  It’s more like a question for a confirmation student.  Can you recite the 10 commandments, the Lords Prayer and the Creed?  Jesus is like a confirmand who says I not only know them, I know the explanations too.

Jesus gives the typical answer that any good Jew who has studied the scriptures would give.  The greatest commandment is that you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.  And a second is like it.  You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  The second commandment explains the first.

It is important here to know what Jesus means by love.  Love in our culture is a warm, fuzzy emotion.  I can say I love my cat. He is warm and fuzzy. I say I love my iPhone even though it’s not.

This is not what biblical love is at all.  In the New Testament, the principle word used for love is agape. Agape is an action word, not just a feeling.  Biblical love is not passive and not strictly emotional.  The love of God is far from passive.  The biblical love Jesus is talking about here is our active faithful response to the love of God.

God’s love is very active. God came to earth personally to be with us and teach us and even to die for our sins.  To love God with all one’s heart, and soul, and mind, is to choose to respond to God even as God chooses to love us.

Jesus explains the first and greatest commandment with the second.  How do you love God with all your heart, soul, and mind?  You show it by loving your neighbor as yourself.

Biblical love is not passive. It is not something that happens to us.  It is not a love we fall into. Biblical love is something we do. It is loving-kindness, merciful action that is both generous and continuous.

I see this all the time here at St. Marks.  When I saw all the food piled up at the altar last month I saw that you love your neighbors who are hungry.  I see how you love your neighbors when you regularly send the deacons to visit the sick and homebound.  I see how you love your neighbors when I see you bring food to a sick person or a grieving family.

We can also show we love our neighbors when we invite and welcome new members to church.  We can show love for our neighbors when we reach out to members who have become inactive and invite them back.  We can show love for our neighbors when we give generously to the church and it’s missions.


We won’t always be successful and make the loving choice.  But God who chose us loves us and forgives us, just as God chose our neighbors and loves and forgives them.

We can reach the central goal of the Christian life.  We can love with our heart: through generosity to God’s people. We can love with our soul: by worshiping God and praying for our neighbors and ourselves. And we can love with our minds: studying God’s Word and letting it teach us, enlighten us, and send us out in loving action to the world.

We can do these things because God chose us, sent Jesus to die for us, and gives us new life, not because we deserve it, but because God loves us and sends the Holy Spirit to empower us.  Amen.

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