“Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, even if you say to this mountain, “Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,” it will be done. Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.” Matthew 21: 21-22
I was blessed to have grown up in Charlotte, NC, which was located almost directly between the beaches of South Carolina and the mountains of North Carolina. In our North Carolina churches, there has been a running joke for many years in response to the typical church question, “How is attendance?” The answer: “It’s up and down – up at the mountains and down at the beaches!” Either way you travel from Charlotte – up or down – the traveler eventually meets one of two awesome vistas – the ocean, with its awesome power and seemingly limitless horizon, or the mountains, with their towering strength, painted with the brightest sunlight on the mountaintops and contrasting with the deepest shadows in the valleys.
In the gospels we see Jesus preaching, teaching, and healing in both venues – by the sea of Galilee, or in the mountains of the Judean hill country. So much of Jesus’ teaching reflects the scene of where the teaching takes place, and in the verses above from the gospel of Matthew, Jesus has a mountain in view – probably the temple mount – as He teaches this lesson on faith. Verses 21-22 are two of the most misunderstood and abused passages in all of Christianity, used by unscrupulous preachers and religious charlatans to pile guilt on believers who earnestly seek an answer to prayer. We have seen and heard these false prophets say to their suffering congregations, “You did not have enough faith – that is why your prayers were not answered.” But is that the point of Christ’s lesson?
First, let’s remember that Christ taught us how to pray, and that prayer is very simple: “Our Father, who art in heaven….”. Every aspect of the Lord’s prayer, every petition, can be prayed fervently, with faith, and with a full expectation of an answer: “Thy kingdom come…Thy will be done…forgive us our sins…deliver us from evil…”. Second, and even more importantly, Christ is not telling us that the purpose of prayer is to move mountains in a literal sense. Why would we even pray for such a thing? There is no reason in heaven or on earth to pray that a mountain jump into the sea. Faith is not a characteristic in which the sole purpose is to demonstrate supernatural power. However, faith is the only characteristic in life that can connect us to the spiritual power and presence of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Jesus never once made a mountain jump into a sea, but He did still the storm so that His followers would not be afraid; He did love, teach, forgive, and heal those who came to the seashores and the mountains to hear Him. Our faith in Jesus Christ can do the same things in our lives and in the lives of others – it can heal broken hearts, forgive long-held grievances, set aside old wounds and regrets, teach those around us about the love of God, and teach us how to love each other unconditionally. Those are the mountains in our own lives that only Jesus can move. In regard to answering all of our prayers, Jesus never presents prayer as a shopping list of personal desires. Prayer is not meant to give us a check-off list of the things God has given us as opposed to the things God has denied us. Rather, prayer is like holding hands with God – the feeling and the Presence of the Holy Spirit are far more important than the words.
Prayer is not about moving dirt – it is about the love between ourselves and our Creator, Who knows what we need. That love moves our hearts everyday into undiscovered places of hope and comfort, places where we need not fear anything that life throws at us. Prayer is not a demand – it is an act of faith. Christ prays with us and for us to the Father, and the Father, Who loves us, moves the mountains that keep us from seeing Him. Have you let God move the mountains from in front of you so that you can see God’s love? That is the true prayer that Jesus taught us to pray.
I noticed last night at the end of the championship game between Clemson and Alabama that most, if not all, the Clemson players in the post-game interviews (including Coach Swinney himself) invoked God or Christ as the source for their victory. Later, while I was reading responses to the game on one of the sports forums, a participant asked this question: “I wonder how anyone on the team who is not a Christian or a believer feels about that?”
As a pastor, I am often asked my opinion on whether God “plays favorites” in sports or in any other aspect of life. It certainly does not bother me for anyone to give thanks to God for any achievement, but to me the essence of faith, reflected in the teaching of Christ, is the ability to glorify God in the best AND the worst of times. God does not pick winners and losers in sports or in anything else, and my proof for this in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Christ died for everyone, and in that act of unconditional love gave the gift of grace to all who accept it.
In pagan religions, the gods were always choosing winners and losers. Even in Christianity, there is still a view in the fundamentalist/evangelical streams that if bad things happen to us, God is either punishing us or God is showing us that we lack faith. While it is true that God “knows the number of the hairs on our heads,” Christ makes it clear that such deep knowledge of our lives is for the sake of love, not of judgment: “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (Luke 12: 1-7)
In the reformed view of Christianity, glorifying God is sourced in what God has already done for us in Christ – not for what is happening to us while living our lives every day. Winning and losing is a matter of perspective, defined by the values of the world or our personal values. Of course, if I played football at the college or pro level, I would be thanking God after every game for simply surviving, but God did not choose Clemson to win this year no more than God chose Alabama to lose this year.
The message of Christ is simple – no matter our triumphs or tragedies, our successes or failures, our good days or bad days, God love us, and this is not just a cause for thanksgiving, but a call to share that love with those around us – no matter who wins.
“No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, so both are preserved.” (Luke 9: 14-17)
When Jesus speaks the words that are quoted above, he is responding to a challenge set before him by the disciples of John the Baptist in regards to fasting: “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus responds by describing his followers using two unusual images – “unshrunk cloth” and “new wineskins.” In both cases, Jesus is comparing the new life that he has come to offer to the old life represented by the “old time religion” of his day. The Pharisees totally centered their lives on obedience to the law; the followers of John the Baptist totally centered their lives on John’s baptism of repentance. The problem with both the Pharisees and followers of John is that they saw the law or baptism as the complete embodiment of all God was, is, or will be in the world. The God of the Pharisees and the God of the followers of John was not a living God, a God who could do new and surprising things – a God with whom believers could have a relationship.
Jesus speaks of a new life in regards to those who follow him, a new life that he described as “new wine” in the gospel of Luke. In the John’s gospel, Jesus changes the ritual water of Jewish purification into wine at the wedding of Cana, which illustrates once again the new life that the Messiah brings into the world. God’s law and John’s baptism were stepping stones into the new life of Jesus, but life in Christ could not be categorized, summarized, or organized into something under the total manipulation of the sinful human heart. In Jesus, we are dealing with a living other, one with whom we relate in the same way we relate to the others we encounter in our lives each day. We never wake up each day saying. “I know exactly how my day will go… I know exactly who I will encounter.” Yet, we often view our Christianity as a static rather than a dynamic part of our lives. Yes, the church does run on a schedule, but we cannot schedule our encounters with Jesus Christ or the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives. To say that we worship this hour on this day or we celebrate this season or we practice this sacrament does not mean we confine our Christianity to just those days, seasons, and sacraments.
Authentic Christianity is about one’s heart-to-heart encounter with the living God – a relationship more real, more profound, and more effective than the closest relationships we experience in this world, including husband/wife or parent/child. The “new wine” of which Christ speaks is the new life of living with Christ in the same way that the first disciples lived with their Lord – they spoke to him as he spoke to them; they learned from him every day; they observed the miracle of Christ’s love working in the lives of others, then they shared that miracle by living out Christ’s love in their lives.
As we enter the New Year, Christ invites us to become new wineskins, filled with the Holy Spirit and its meaningful life. Repentance is part of this, as is obedience to the law of Christ’s love and the practices of our worship, but both must only serve to lead us to the center of our faith – our living relationship with the Son of God. With Christ we cannot possibly know what to expect, but we can live in expectation, because every day, every moment, is new and different; every moment we are called to be more like our Lord than the moment before. This is a radical change in our way of thinking and our way of living. It means that we live to change the lives of others. Are we ready for the radical life of being a Christian in 2017? This community is going to need us more than ever – all of us, in all the ways that Christ calls us to serve. If we make this commitment, it will be so much more than a happy New Year – it will provide a joyous new wine for all the lives we touch.
“The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them”
― Thomas Merton from “No Man Is An Island”
May God bless and keep you in your time of overwhelming grief. I wanted to let you know that, whatever you may hear from elsewhere or think within your own heart, your loved one is not condemned or judged because of his/her actions. If you believe the Bible, I can assure that there is absolutely nowhere in the text where suicide is condemned as some kind of unforgiveable sin, or as a sin at all.
Judas was strongly condemned by the various writers of the New Testament, but his condemnation was for his betrayal of Christ – not his response to that betrayal. In fact, in the Middle Eastern culture of the 1st century, suicide was an honorable act of self-punishment by one who had committed a crime or brought dishonor to one’s self or family. In the Roman Empire, Roman citizens were granted the opportunity to commit suicide in place of execution, whereas crucifixion was reserved only for traitors against the state.
What I have learned over the years in working with families and with those who have attempted suicide is that those who consider it have reached a state of deep depression, despair, disconnection, trauma, or hysteria. Many who commit suicide do so from a self-conviction that the world will truly be a better place without them, although we know that is not true. Just as the risen Christ reached out in love to Peter, who denied him three times, I have no doubt that Christ would have embraced Judas and welcomed him. So does Christ embrace your loved one now, even as Christ embraces you in your sorrow.
Of course, you are asking questions like, “Why?” and “What could I or anyone else have done to prevent this?” The fact is that every day we decide whether to live or die. We take the choice of life for granted if we are blessed with mental health, but our barricades of emotional self-protection can be breached from without and within. I believe that ultimately, when all the safety nets have failed, God is the one safety net that never fails us. Suicide is an act of pain, not of evil, and Christ understands pain to a depth that we will never understand.
Whatever your belief may be, allow me to say a prayer for you, and may it comfort you this day and in the time to come:
Great and Infinite God, Source of Life both now and eternal, you have plumbed the depths of despair so deep that we cannot even imagine it. We raise up to you the spirit of this loved one, lost in the anguish of this world, but restored by an unconditional love beyond our understanding. Help us not to hear the judgments of others, but to remember, and embrace, the words of Jesus: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” Amen.
As we stand before the gateway to a new year, we humbly pray for your mercy and eternal love. We cannot know what may lie ahead, but whatever may come, help us to be thankful in our blessings and faithful in our trials. In every moment of 2017, grant us the presence of your Holy Spirit, that we may practice compassion, fairness, understanding, and patience in the face of suffering and injustice.
Lord, lift our hearts in times of despair, and keep us ever mindful that we are called to live boldly as children of your wise purpose. In the name of your Son and our Savior, Jesus Christ, we pray,