“Thank God, God is God”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
Exodus 16:2-15 & Jonah 3:10-4:11
Can you by any act—worship or prayer or service or hefty financial giving or robust service to the church—change the way God thinks about you or God’s will and desires for you? A British monk by the name of Pelagius did. Pelagius was born sometime in the middle of the fourth century. Pelagius believed several things based on his reading of the Scriptures. First, he believed that the sin of Adam and Eve was an isolated incident, and that humans were essentially good and moral characters aside from a few minor mistakes here and there. Second, he believed that a person must only keep the law and commandments of God in order to be considered righteous in God’s eyes. Third, because of the second, he did not really see the need for baptism. At several of the ecumenical councils that took place between the fourth and fifth centuries, Pelagius was disciplined and corrected, but he was never told to stop preaching and teaching. However, at the council of Carthage in 418, Pelagius was declared a heretic, a false teacher who lead the faithful away from God, and he was exiled to Egypt and never heard from again. It was Augustine of Hippo who led the charge against Pelagius; Augustine’s theology is contained to this very day in the theology and doctrine of Reformed and Presbyterian churches.
So what was so wrong with Pelagius and pelagianism? One fault the councils of the church found with Pelagius was the idea that humans could somehow change their standing in God’s eyes by some physical or outward act. This basically turns God into a vending machine. When you put the right amount of money in a vending machine and push the right buttons, 99.9% of the time you get exactly what you want. Sometimes, however, the chips or candy bar gets stuck. When this happens, a few kicks at the base, a little shaking at the top—maybe rock it back and forth a few times—and voila! This is the God of Pelagius. Pelagius’s God is a vending machine of blessing and grace and mercy; if you do all the right things, follow all the laws, give it a kick every so often, you’ll get what you want. This has extremely troubling implications. What if a person does not know how to pray or act according to God’s law, does that mean they are excluded from the grace of God? One bishop asked Pelagius at the council in Carthage, “Does God speak Greek, Latin, or English?” because the bishop wanted to be sure they were speaking a language God could understand. Is there such a thing as forgiveness with this God or do we get one chance and one chance only to get it right?
Another main issue with Pelagius has to do with Jesus and his death and resurrection. The death and resurrection is the central event for Christians; it is the event that reconciles all of humanity to God. If there is some way that you and I can climb the ladder or receive more from God, than what was the point of Jesus? Jesus came to show us the way to salvation—if we can earn salvation on our own, why did he come? Jesus came to teach us how to love and serve each other—if I can be the apple of God’s eye just by following a set list of rules, why did Jesus come? Jesus came to show us the face of God—if it turns out that God is just some childish being who always needs to be mollified like an infant with a pacifier, why did Jesus come? Pelagius made Jesus completely unnecessary. He made God completely disinterested. He made the Christian life about nothing more than bean counting, putting checks in boxes, a totally selfish way of life that is utterly divorced from the world.
Why am I telling you about Pelagius today? I only know about him because he came up in a church history class in seminary. Unless you are interested in pre-Middle Ages theology—and let’s be honest, is anyone interested in pre-Middle Ages theology?—it is likely that you hadn't heard of Pelagius before this sermon. Why am I tell you about Pelagius today?
First, if you watch Christian TV or listen to many of the Christian radio stations today, you are hearing and seeing pelagianism, and it is as wrong today as it was 1600 years ago. The message of most TV and radio preachers is that if you follow a prescribed list of rules and rituals, you’re golden. If you pray a certain way, if you give this amount of money, if you stay away from this, if you condemn that, if you teach these specific things to your children, you have nothing to worry about…your ticket to heaven is stamped and ready to go. This furthers the idea that God is a vending machine; if you don't have the money, you’re out of luck. It makes faith in God just another method of self-help, and while it might help you live your best life now, it does nothing to help your neighbor get out of the ditch where they are laying on death’s doorstep. Thought it may not seem so on the surface, it is a solitary way of life. There is no transformation here, no ethical or moral or spiritual change that will help heal us and the world, just more rules to follow to make up for ones we’ve broken. In this religion there is no talk about faith, no talk about the power and might of God, and if you listen to these preachers and teachers you won’t hear anything about Jesus, at least not the Jesus who invited us to take up a cross and follow him. This type of religion is wrong, it hurts people, it hurts God’s creation.
Second, I’m telling you about Pelagianism today because the God we worship and serve is much bigger, much more powerful, much more intimately involved in our lives, much more interested in our healing and wholeness and hope, much more interested in the impact we have on the world and our neighbors, than any of us, Pelagius included, could ever imagine.
Thank God, God is God, and who God is has nothing to do with who we are. That is what we must say after reading from the book of Exodus today. Granted, the Israelites had come a long way in their journey out of Egypt; they were tired, hungry, worn out from the journey, starting to lose hope. They were used to being mistreated and killed, and the journey out of Egypt looked like more of the same. They raised their voices against God and Moses and said, “We should have stayed in Egypt. Sure, we were slaves there, but at least we had food!” And yet—and yet!—their complaints had no effect on God. Even though the Israelites said they were more willing to be chained as slaves than live as the people of God, God is God. And thank God! God’s choice in that moment was not to revoke the covenant and send the Israelites back to Egypt. Instead, God leaned into the covenant even more. Instead of sending the Israelites back, God preserved them where they were and continued to prepare them for the Promised Land ahead.
We may see manna from heaven and quail as insignificant when it comes to the nature and being of God. But it is not. The manna and quail represent exactly what the people wanted and everything they didn’t know they needed. They needed food to keep their bodies going, they knew that. But they didn’t know that they also needed some sign from God that God was not going to abandon them in the desert. The manna and quail satisfied their bodies, but also their hearts and minds. The bread and meat filled their stomachs while their hearts and minds were filled with God’s grace. Grace is getting what we need, whether we know we need it or not. This is exactly how God acts and it is completely independent from how we act, and it certainly has nothing to do with what we deserve or our worthiness. The manna and quail show us a God who is entirely free from human influence, but who is a God so radically and desperately in love with humankind that God listens to us and answers us.
Jonah points us to this same God. When God decided not to destroy Nineveh, Jonah was beside himself. “O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than live.”—it sounds like Jonah took a page from Israelites’ book of complaints. God’s answer is simple, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Jonah thinks it is his right, but God wants to teach a lesson. The bush that gave Jonah so much shade and pleasure, and the worm that ate the bush and exposed Jonah to the sun, stands as testament to God’s utter and profound freedom. God says to Jonah, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow…and should I not be concerned about Nineveh?” In other words, while Jonah is concerned about getting it all right by the book to receive God’s pleasure and favor, God is concerned about an entire city that does not know the Lord and the Lord’s power. While Jonah is only worried about himself, God has concern for all of creation. While Jonah just wants some shade for himself, God wants knowledge and freedom and peace for everything under the sun.
This is all tremendously good news, far better than any religion or theology that says we can somehow have an impact on God. Imagine what life would be like if we got from God exactly what we wanted and deserved—exactly what we wanted and deserved. Instead, we receive from the Lord exactly what the Lord knows we need, because God is just that good. God is God, and thank God! And while we might take this as permission to sit back and let the good times roll, this places on us very intense ethical and moral obligations. As those who receive from the Lord everything we need according to the goodness of God, we must share what we have and spread around the immense blessings we receive from God. This includes our resources of all kinds, but it also includes the things that cannot be counted or measured. We have received unconditional and irrational love from God—we must share that. We have been forgiven by God, completely cleansed of our past sins and transgressions—we must forgive just as much and just as often. We have been welcomed by God, into the church and to the table of the Lord—we must fling open the doors of the church and our hearts in the same exact way. We have been called by Christ to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves—since we don’t have to worry about checking the boxes or earning our salvation, we have so much time and freedom to show Christ’s love. And when we do these things, we don’t change God, God changes us and we take part in God’s transformation of the world.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. The steadfast love of the Lord is ours today and always. Let’s get to speaking and doing the things that are of God, that show God to the world and transform hearts and minds. That is why we are here and there is nothing that brings more pleasure to God than this. Amen.