The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
First Sunday in Advent
November 29, 2015
As many of you know, one of my hobbies is playing golf. I love being outside. I love the challenge of golf. I love the mental aspects of the game. And when I can’t make it out for a full round of golf, I’ll just spend some time at the driving range, practicing my swing. And when I’m out there with the trees, the sky, the clouds, the sun, the birds singing, the grass, it’s like all the stress of my life goes away. It’s idyllic. And when I get to that mental spot, where I’m just at peace, that’s when I hit the ball really, really well. I’m not nervous, I’m not anxious, I’m truly enjoying myself.
The only problem is, that sometimes the club golf professional comes down to the range to teach a lesson. And that’s when it all goes to pieces. Because I’m nervous in front of him. I want him to think that I’m a decent golfer, so I put this pressure on myself. And once you put pressure on yourself in golf, you might as well give it up. My arms start to stiffen. My heart begins to race. My mind that was once free and clear is now muddled up with all sorts of thinking. And then I start to think about my thinking. And under the sky and the clouds and birds chirping, and with the club pro watching, my swing falls apart. I slice it, hook it, shank it, pull it. I hit it fat, I hit it thin, I chunk it, I top it. It’s comical. When it’s just me and there’s no pressure, I hit the ball beautifully. When there’s the pressure of wanting to impress the pro, I lose it all.
You’ve done it, too. You have a big presentation to make, and you stutter the whole time in front of your boss. You have a big sales pitch to make, and forget what you intended to say. You tell yourself, “I’m going to be a better Christian,” but when it comes down to making that sacrificial step for Jesus and doing what you’ve always done, you do what you’ve always done. We hear Jesus say, “love your enemies,” but we still want them to die. Jesus says, “turn the other cheek,” but we hit back. When the pressure is on us to live like Christians, when things like Paris happen, or when refugees are desperately seeking help, the question is there: under pressure, how will we live?
Even on the more mundane level: You promise to go to church every Sunday, but then it rains and the comfort of your bed is awfully tempting. When faced with making a sacrificial gift of money or buying that new car, we pick the new car.
This is what Jesus is talking about this morning. He speaks of a coming crisis, of a coming time of pressure and it will be up to Christians to decide how they respond. Will we be weighed down under the dissipation and drunkenness and worries of this life? Will we be caught unexpected and fail to live out our discipleship? Under pressure, when our faith is put to the test, we fail. Don’t worry, you’re the not first.
In the fourth century, the Roman Emperor Diocletian started a mass persecution of Christians. It was bad stuff: he ordered that all places of Christian worship be destroyed and forbade Christians to gather for worship. In other words, the pressure was on. Now, some held true to their faith in spite of persecution. When asked to turn over the holy scriptures to be burned or forsake their faith, they refused and suffered the consequences, usually death. As Jesus says, they had been on guard, they had not been weighed down by the worries of this life. And when pressure came, it did not catch them unexpectedly. They had strength.
But other Christians caved in under the pressure. They handed over the scriptures, they denounced their faith in Jesus. Even many clergy abandoned their faith in order to save their life. When the day came, when the worries of this life were too great, they did not have the strength. They were not alert. They gave up and failed. If you want to look this up, it was called the Donatist Controversy.
And here’s why it was a controversy. When the persecution stopped, those Christians who had abandoned their faith wanted back in the Church. Imagine the scene: say you were a Christian who had been tortured for your faith because you remained true to Jesus. Then your priest, who had betrayed you, wanted back in to the Church. How would you feel? That was the controversy – could those who abandoned their faith during times of persecution be allowed back in the Church? And if they were clergy, would the baptisms and communions they celebrated count? The Church had a decision to make – let them back in? Or keep them out? So, let’s take a straw poll. You know I like doing this. How many of you think that the Christians who had abandoned their faith during the persecutions were allowed back into the Church? How many of you think that they were not allowed back in?
It just so happens that they were allowed back into the Church. Grace had the last word in the Donatist Controversy.And so far the last one thousand seven hundred years, this has been the Church’s official position. If you sin against the Church, if you deny your Christianity, if you hand over the holy scriptures to be burned, you can still be allowed back in. You must repent. But you will be forgiven. You will receive grace. No matter how badly you caved under the pressure, God’s love working through the Church will always let you back in. And the same understanding was applied to the clergy. No matter how much I sin, even if I hand over the holy scriptures to be burned, if I am repentant and return to the church, the baptisms and communions I perform “work.” There is grace for everybody at all times.
And that, to me, is the good news of Jesus Christ. When the pressure is on, when the day is coming upon us, when we are weighed down and forget our promises, grace will be given to us. Our God is not a God of simple retribution. There is no more “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth.” In Jesus Christ, there is only grace, thanks be to God. No matter where you go, no matter how bad you are, no matter how much you have sinned, you are always welcome back to the church with a repentant heart. There is an unimaginable wideness in God’s mercy.
Now, here’s the hard news. We have to extend that grace to others. That grace that God so freely gives to us, we must give grace to others, whether we like it or not. It’s like what Jesus says, “the measure you give is the measure you get back.”
We are living under a time of immense pressure. You know this. The description of the coming day that Jesus describes looks like our day, because that is what pressure always looks like. Refugees are crying out for help. Children are starving in our streets. Terrorists strike without hesitation. We are living under a day of great pressure, and like me on that driving range, we can start thinking too much. We start overanalyzing, we become wrapped up in ourselves and what we’re doing. In times of pressure, we must always go back to grace. Just like our Christian ancestors. We must cling to that grace that we are given through Jesus Christ. When refugees are knocking on our door, our first response must be grace. When very few have so much and so many have very little, our first response must be grace. And not count the cost. Because Jesus did not count the cost. In fact, he was willing to pay the ultimate cost so that all people – all people – might receive his grace.
Grace cuts both ways. To receive grace, we have to be willing to give it away. We are to live gracious lives – in our politics, in our families, in our finances, and most importantly in our religion. You might call me an idealist. If the ideal that I live by is the grace of God working through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, then sure, I’m an idealist. And that sounds like the ideal that we, as Christians, are supposed to live by. And if need be, to die by. Without grace, this whole thing wouldn’t be worth it. But grace is the good news of Jesus Christ, it’s hard news, but it’s good news.
And now may God, whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine, give you power to follow the Lord Jesus, and to share his grace.