There’s a Minister who tells this story. He’d be on an airplane. Back sore, squished between two other passengers. Brushing shoulders, polite smiles, and nod, but awkwardly avoiding eye contact for most of the flight. The whole time he’d be afraid that somebody would start a conversation. Yes, because he was an introvert, and wanted some rest. But the main reason is out of fear that he would be asked *that* question: “what do you do for a living?”[i]
As a minister, I get exactly what he means. Because when you share with a stranger the fact that you’re a minister, you don’t know what kind of reaction you’re going to get. More often than not, things get even more awkward, or tense. Or even hostile. Makes you want to pretend you didn’t hear the question in the first place.
Because one of the reactions we Ministers tend to get from strangers when they learn what we do for a living is for the stranger to tell us that they don’t believe in God. That religion is dangerous, it obviously leads to hate, bigotry, superstition and violence. Or worse.
My tendency in those situations is to nod my head in agreement, and just hope the conversation to blow over, for it to somehow magically comes to an end. But this minister was obviously far wiser and more experienced than I am. Because he responded like this: “tell me about the God you don’t believe in,” he would say. “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.”
Once he asked this question, pretty soon he discovered that those who react negatively to his churchy job do so for a couple reasons.
The first thing he’d find out is that they had a negative experience with people of faith. Through their family, through a church, or simply through media sources reporting on things Christians were saying or doing.
Their experience of Christians was judgment, control, condemnation, and a sense of superiority over others. Either they themselves had been burned by the church, or they knew and loved people who were the object of attacks. Gays and lesbians, people of other religions, people who’ve fallen short of high expectations. Or broke rule x y or z.
It was the attitude and actions of Christians themselves that caused them to leave the church, or never consider faith in the first place. And reject God altogether. Because who wants to be around people like that? Who wants to be a person like that?
The second reason is related to the first. It was the nature of God. God as communicated to them by these same people of faith.
The God they talked about was always judgmental, controlling, condemning, quick to anger, violent and jealous. Showing favoritism and showering one group with affection while damning the rest of humanity for eternity. Unconcerned with the plight of the poor, the oppressed, or the welfare of the planet. More concerned with punishing sinners than extending grace. A God whose concerns, nature, and commands not only shared the negative convictions of his followers, but one who inspired their zealousness.
They rejected God because of who this God seemed to be. Cruel, arbitrary, unjust, and self-centered. Because who wants to believe in a God who is like that? Who wants to believe in a God who inspires people to be like that, either?
More often than not, this is the God people rejected when this wise old minister told them to tell them about the God they didn’t believe in.
And you know, it rings true for me, too. This is usually what people tell me in conversation. They’ve had a negative experience with Christians. And they believe it’s a reflection of a cruel and capricious God. And so usually they walk away entirely.
It also rings true, because it’s the reason why I personally refused to step in to a church for the first twenty years of my life. I’d met some Christians, been friends with some growing up who had consigned me straight to hell within throwing distance of our first conversation. And when they did, it didn’t make me wanna be friends with them. And it certainly did nothing to draw me nearer to God. In fact, it just pushed me further away, because this God didn’t seem like someone I wanted to spend time with. And it closed me to the idea of God altogether.
But obviously things are different now. Obviously something’s changed for me to be standing in front of you today.
I left out an important part of the story about the Minister. After he would say, “tell me about the God you don’t believe in.” After he let people cathartically share their horror stories, he would follow up like this: “So that’s the God you don’t believe in?” he’d say. “Funny enough, I don’t believe in that God, either.”
“I don’t believe in that God, either,” he would say. And then he would offer a testimony to the God he did believe in. And his experience with his faith community. And these were completely different than the God who they’d rejected. And the people doing the rejecting.
And this is what has ultimately changed for me, too. What finally got my defenses down. Why I stand before you today. Different people. Different God. Simple as that.
Today’s scripture passage, I think, is one of those passages that presents this so clearly.
It starts with two of Jesus’ lieutenants approaching Jesus with a request.
“Grant us,” they say, “to sit, one at your right hand, and one at your left in your glory.” They expect when they get to Jerusalem that Jesus is going to be made King. That he’s going to be handed royal power, and prestige. Basically, they’ve been loyal, trusted lieutenants and they should be rewarded. Like “when you’re president, make sure he’s Minister of Finance and I’m Secretary of State.” They think that following Jesus is a way to power. Their way to get a piece of the action. They should get rewarded.
And I love here his other disciples, the ten, overhear James and John trying to cut a deal with Jesus, and they get mad. They could be mad because they think the request is wrong, or its crass. After all, in the couple verses before this chapter Jesus says that he’s going to be hung up in weakness on a cross, not raised up in power on a throne. But it’s more likely that they’re mad that James and John got there first. Because they, too, want a piece of the pie.
This shows the temptation for people of faith, one we fall to again, and again and again. The great Russian theologian and writer Nicholas Berdyaev gives a horrible account of saints who are ready to trample over each other getting through the narrow gate of heaven.[ii] Basically, we, like the disciples are constantly falling under the temptation to believe that that following Jesus is all about us climbing the ladder. About us winning power and privilege, pride of place and a leg over others. In order to get in with God, we are willing to condemn and hurt our fellow human beings to make sure we win the prize in the end. Trampling over each other to squeeze in to the narrow gate of heaven. All to win the prize for ourselves, we end up pushing others away from God in the process.
This is the temptation for people of faith from day one. But here Jesus reminds us, saying that it isn’t his way. Like straight from the beginning, the Bible says this.
Jesus steps in to their little scrimmage, and he speaks. “You know how the gentiles, how the Greeks, the Romans, non-Jews control each other? How their leaders are tyrants who dominate each other?” Jesus is saying. “You’re acting just like them now.” This is like someone telling someone in occupied France during World War 2 that he’s acting like a Fascist. Jesus tells them that they are acting just like everybody else. Those who oppress, and do violence. They are thinking just like their enemies. And in doing so, they are contributing to the problems at the root of human existence.
But Jesus says that if they want to be his followers, they have to give up this way of thinking and acting behind. Where others strive for power and control, “it is not so among you,” he says. “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant. And whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” Their faithfulness as his followers is to be measured not by how much power they can accrue, or how privileged they can become. But by how they humble themselves.
Where we are tempted to see faith as something that brings us greatness and power over others, Jesus says it’s how we serve, how we sacrifice ourselves and our own lives for the good of others. Not our own glory. In Jesus’ eyes, that’s true greatness. That’s how we’re supposed to be. And to be anything otherwise is a distortion. Or a lie.
It’s how we’re supposed to be, because it’s the way God is. “For the Son of Man,” Jesus says. “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve. And give his life for the ransom of many.” Here Jesus refers to himself as the “Son of Man,” a divine figure sent to manifest the will of God to the world. He says that his followers are to serve, because that’s what he himself came to do. To give their lives in sacrificial service, because that’s what he himself comes to do, too. This is who God is, what God’s up to in the world. And how they are to pattern their lives in response. To become more like him.
This God, is nothing like the God of popular imagination. It’s a different God entirely.
The Minister said “I don’t believe in that God either,” because that God’s not the only option. It’s not the only sane option. And it’s not the true option. The God we meet in this scripture passage is nothing like the God that so many of us have been presented with, and have simple said “no thanks.”
The reason I’m here with you today, is because I don’t believe in that God either.
The God I have come to believe in, gradually, and in many ways against my best instincts is the God we meet in this text. In the Christian tradition, we believe that God is most fully revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. That in Jesus we are somehow getting a glimpse beyond the mystery. We’re coming in to contact with the love, the truth, and the beauty at the heart of the universe. That somehow Jesus is what God is like. And here we see God as the One who comes to serve, not to be served. The One who does not demand the sacrifice or destruction of others, but gives of himself entirely in ransom for the restoration, the recreation of all things, and the freedom of all. The one who refuses to turn his face away, loving his enemies to the point of pronouncing forgiveness on the ones who kill him. The One who meets our selfishness, our brokenness, our sin… with nothing but the grace of unconditional love. And the One who calls, inspires, and empowers his followers to do the same.
This is the God we meet in this scripture passage. And the one I continue to meet over and over again in this church. This God is the reason why I’m here, why we as a church are here. This is the God we come to love, be loved by, and serve week after week after week. A God who is good. And whose goodness, mercy, love and forgiveness rubs off on everybody who draws near. That’s good news. That’s the good news. And any other God is nothing but a knockoff. A cheap imitation.
So friends, brothers and sisters. Strangers, seekers, guests. If you’ve been hurt by a believer. If you’ve been burned by your experience with church. If you’ve seen Christians behaving badly, who say they’re simply following divine orders from a God who seems to behaving just as badly—if not worse. If this is your experience, like it was mine. Today, I pray that you come to know that there’s a better way. That there’s a better way, a more beautiful Gospel. Because there is a kinder, more loving God beyond all imagining.
Tell us about the God you don’t believe in. We probably don’t believe in that God, either. And thank God for that.
[i] I’ve heard this story at least a dozen times from a dozen different sources. This version is something of a synthesis of multiple accounts.
[ii] John Leith, The Reformed Imperative: What the Church Has to Say That No One Else Can Say (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1988), 98.