Towards a Whole-Hearted Faith, Part 2

*Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God? * Do you take this man to be your husband, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, in joy and in sorrow, for as long as you both shall live? *Will you be a faithful member of Christ’s Church, supporting it with your presence and prayers, time and financial resources? *By checking this box, you affirm you have read and agree to the terms and conditions, outlined in the following eight pages in the tiniest, indecipherable type.

Commitments. They’re part of our lives and when we make them, reflect our intentions, desires, and values. They demand something of us (though many demand far more than product disclaimers). We don’t always keep our commitments, either through outright renunciation or the slow erosion of their impact on our lives. When kept, commitments provide an anchor amid the roiling waters of our busy schedules, and priority among a host of competitors.

Commitment requires time and energy. Commitment takes us to the next level in relationships. Managing the many commitments we make can be difficult (maintaining work-life balance, for example). That’s one more reason I am always moved when we ordain and install elders and deacons: the commitment of these women and men is awe-inspiring, as they make promises before God and the congregation.

Our morning text reveals the cost of commitment. It narrates an incident with Jesus and his disciples near the end of his ministry when he tells them quite plainly that he is going to be killed (I thought I heard echoes of Jesus’ words in prescient recordings of Alexei Navalny about the possibility of his own death at the hands of the Russian State).

When Peter tries to soften the reference, Jesus reacts angrily, breaks away from their private conversation and issues an invitation to the crowd to follow him. To make a commitment. It’s striking and utterly clear. And frankly, impossible. Jesus doesn’t ask for a lot; he asks for everything. A reading from the gospel according to Mark, in the eighth chapter, verses 31 through 37. Listen for God’s Word to us. [Mark 8:31-37]

What’s the least I can believe and still be Christian? That question has been put to me by individuals many times over the years, from a confirmand struggling with his faith statement, to an elder candidate blown away by the constitutional questions required for ordination. It’s almost always asked sincerely, not flippantly, and out of a desire to get it right.

It’s a question that prompted Rachel Held Evans, the author of Wholehearted Faith (our study book this Lenten season), to consider her own commitment complicated by uncertainty, skepticism, and often times half-hearted attention. She cringed at the idea of total devotion: heart and mind, body and soul, love that envelops the entire self. No holding back. No fear. [p. 19] ….because she could not do it.

And I find my own soul resonating with that hesitation. If I give myself entirely to God, who am I? If I surrender control, what power am I ceding, and to whom or what? Is self-denial some form of self-hating? Can I no longer express doubts and questions? Does wholehearted faith have room to admit vulnerability, even failure, without judgment?

Central has long affirmed the tension between reason and faith. We encourage questions, we speak of being at different places on a faith journey which means we regularly grapple with essential beliefs and how to apply them in everyday life. Does this text suggest a “bait and switch?” Oh yeah, go ahead and struggle, but you’re not a real Christian until you’re “all in.” Until you can stand up and recite the Creed by heart without reservation.

For author Evans, the logjam broke when she encountered the vulnerability of God revealed in Jesus and how he went “all in” (and if the gospels are to be believed, his own commitment was characterized by anguished tears and prayers to have the cup of death by crucifixion pass from him). She puts it this way: On our best days, Christians believe God’s most significant act of love put God right in the middle of our messy, dangerous world—as a tiny embryo implanted in the uterus of a teenage girl, as a hungry newborn rooting for his mother’s breast, as a man who drank at weddings and cried at funerals, as a human being whose heart broke and soared and skipped beats, and one day stopped.

And then this stirring conclusion: Because true love can never be coerced or controlled, God does all of this without the guarantee of reciprocation. Divine love, like all love, is freely given and freely received. . . . God promises never to walk away, [but] we can, and we have, over and over. [p. 23]

Friends, a wholehearted faith—like a wholehearted life—cannot be lived without commitment. But that commitment is possible only when we understand it through the stunning truth that Jesus went to his death to show us that nothing is stronger than love. Nothing can cancel it; nothing supersedes it; nor can our faith, partial and half-hearted though it be bar us from experiencing it because we are God’s beloved. Period. Bottom line. No exceptions ever.

But I confess I still struggle with accepting this truth. I know my heart and intentions and my gut reactions too well to easily don my spiritual work gloves and reach for my cross. The group who discussed this at Theology on Tap this week deserve a lot of credit for this sermon (though I alone bear responsibility for any…heresies). They acknowledged that in relationships it is tough to be vulnerable—to show areas of need, or pain, or fear. Like every one of us, they are familiar with heartbreak. And yet, to a person, they agreed you can only go so far if you don’t commit.

The struggle toward love (and a wholehearted faith) is worth it. These wise men and women (one of whom is being ordained today) offered some suggestions about how to move from “playing the field,” staying on the safe fringes into actual commitment. A few folks may experience an epiphany as they take a daring leap of faith. For others it’s “one step at a time.” Keep going; resolve to take another step even when you don’t see the path ahead very far.

One quoted that wonderful expression by the poet Rilke about “living the questions”—don’t wait until you have all the answers (or any answers!), but engage them. Show up. Learn and practice. Allow others to hold you accountable. . . and encourage you when you forget. The truth of this text only gradually dawned on me.

Take up your cross and follow me. Jesus’ invitation shakes us from drowsy comfort, constant distraction, denial, or numbing and calls us to serve a larger purpose, a risky and worthwhile enterprise that may involve suffering, with authentic relationships united –not in perfect agreement—but in love. Following Jesus is not a death sentence, but a path that makes death radically insecure. There is more to life than simply preserving it.

We commit to faith, friends, not to silence our questions or reinforce our righteous opinions, but to declare our membership in this beloved, flawed community. I invite you to take up a nail from the bowl in the narthex lobby to carry with you this season. May it be a sign of your commitment made possible by God’s eternal commitment to you. Thanks be to Theology on Tap for helping put flesh on Jesus’ invitation to commitment. And thanks be to God for the grace to say yes!

Read last week’s sermon here.