Ask Me Into Your Heart
“Things Jesus Didn’t Say: Ask Me Into Your Heart”
A Sermon on John 1:35-42
by Rev. Elizabeth Meador Strobel
Preached at Trinity Presbyterian Church of Independence, Missouri
June 23, 2019 – 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time
The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).
Today we are kicking off our summer sermon series, entitled “Things Jesus Didn’t Say.” I hope some of you remember when Jay Leno hosted “The Tonight Show,” he did a segment called JayWalking where he’d ask people on the street basic knowledge questions. A couple of times, he asked Bible questions, and there were some…special answers. One person thought that there were 12 wise men, another thought that the burning bush was discovered by Nixon, and yet another was pretty sure that the Bible commanded that “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s car.” The reality is, we live in a world where the Bible is so famous that we attribute all sorts of things to it – and we often put words in Jesus’ mouth that weren’t ever there. Sometimes we do it by simple mistake, other times our misunderstandings can cause a lot of harm. It is important for us to know what Jesus really said, and even more important to be able to lovingly reply to misstatements with the truth.
So today, we are going to begin with one that I think is pretty easy. Jesus never said “Ask Me Into Your Heart.” I say this one is pretty easy because it’s usually fairly innocuous; it doesn’t hurt a thing to Ask Jesus Into Your Heart, in fact, sometimes it can help! But I also acknowledge that this phrase is personal for some of us. It may be tough to discuss it today. It’s such a popular phrase, many of us have experiences of asking Jesus into our hearts. Like many things in the church, there’s both good and bad to this.
The first time I asked Jesus into my heart, I was about 3 or 4. I don’t remember it, but my mom remembers my telling her I had done it. I suspect it went this way: My Sunday School Teacher at the time, Mr. Andy, who I loved and who had been teaching decades worth of children before I ever arrived, probably taught my class that if we loved Jesus and wanted to be with him in heaven, we should ask him into our hearts. He probably even led my class in a special, age appropriate prayer we could repeat after him. And so, loving Jesus and of course wanting to go to heaven, I probably gladly repeated that prayer. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily. It helped my little pre-school-self express my love of God and church. It planted the lifelong seed in my mind that Christianity takes intentional dedication. And it probably made my mom feel much better that the weekly battle to wrangle me into church clothes had actually made a difference.
But here’s where the trouble is. Notice I said that this was only the first time I asked Jesus in my heart. Because throughout my childhood and adolescence, Asking Jesus Into Your Heart was the mantra embraced by countless teachers, leaders, speakers, and preachers. There was a heaviness placed on that one action, as if nothing else in heaven or on earth could save your soul. And as the world and my understanding grew much more complex after pre-school, I began to be taught the notion that there was a right way and a wrong way to ask Jesus in my heart. That if I wasn’t sincere enough, or repentant enough – then I couldn’t be forgiven enough. Perhaps you’ve heard the question asked this way: “Have you truly asked Jesus into your heart?” – suggesting that we are capable of doing so falsely. I was invited to Ask Jesus Into My Heart over and over again in the hopes that I would get it right and God would be able to fully forgive me of my sins.
I tell you that part of my story because I find it to be fairly common. Christian culture in the United States has embraced the idea that Asking Jesus Into Our Hearts is a universal moment of personal salvation. It leads to the question some of our brothers and sisters like to ask, which is “are you saved?” – as if salvation is a documentable thing like whether or not your licensed to operate a motor vehicle. Some preachers will even tell you that if you do not know the day and the hour in which you were saved, then your salvation is not really assured.
But here’s the thing, friends. “Ask Me Into Your Heart” is something that Jesus never said. Not once. In fact, when inviting people to faith, he usually sounds a lot more like our Gospel reading from John today: “What are you looking for?” and then “Come and see.” It’s an invitation to journey, to question, to explore, and to spend our whole lives following – not an invitation to say a perfect prayer and move on.
Asking Jesus Into Your Heart is sometimes a good thing to do. We should always adopt a posture of inviting God to more intensely shape our lives. But, when taken too far, the theology behind this phrase can be harmful. There are two main reasons why: first, there is far more to being Christian than the moment we accept God; and second, it puts the burden of salvation on our actions and takes away from the glory of God.
When it comes to our salvation, it’s not a simple one and done deal. We don’t ask Jesus into our hearts, get a magical “saved” letter put in our heavenly file, and move on. Life as a Christian isn’t a box we check off on a list, it’s a journey and a way of life. Along the road, we will absolutely have moments where our hearts feel dedicated or rededicated to Christ, where we sense the presence of God in a much more real way – but those are just the peaks of the journey, not the whole thing.
Now, for some of us, we have a moment where we went from being a non-Christian to being a Christian. Conversion is a real thing. Some of you may have been people of the world before you were people of God, and you probably remember a moment when you turned your life over to Christ. Even though I grew up in the church, I remember a moment in my teenage years where the reality of opening up my whole life to God’s goodness became real for me in a way it never had before. Those moments are valuable, and they are good. And if you officially Asked Jesus Into Your Heart in one of those moments, then Hallelujah! Those are powerful experiences. But I also suspect you’d be the first to say that moment of conversion didn’t fix everything. We still sin. We still forget. We still need Jesus to ask us what we’re looking for and we still need to come and see the good things of God. No matter how Christian we are, we’re invited to keep following, to keep growing as disciples. Our journey of faith isn’t over.
There are also many of us who don’t know when our journeys began, who don’t have that moment of conversion. Billy Graham was a big proponent of knowing the moment of your salvation, but his wife, Ruth Bell Graham, was one who popularized a different notion. Ruth Graham was the child of missionaries and had been raised in the church – later in her life, she said that she couldn’t remember a time that she didn’t love and trust God. She had no clue when she “became a Christian.” Many of us are like that, too. We have loved God before we made concrete memories, and have been disciples our whole lives. Some of you never ask Jesus into our hearts, because it’s never occurred to you that he isn’t already there. Friends, that is a perfectly valid way to be Christian – don’t ever let someone make you insecure that you don’t have a big conversion moment. Just as Jesus called Peter by name before he even began to follow, Jesus called many of you by name in your infant baptisms and that was that. We all come to faith differently. There is no one way to do it.
Here’s the biggest problem with thinking that we must Ask Jesus Into Our Hearts: it’s works righteousness, plain and simple. Asking Jesus Into Our Hearts puts the burden of salvation on us – on saying the right prayer at the right time with the right attitude, or else. Beloved, God does not need to be enabled to forgive us. The Spirit does not need an invitation to accompany us. Jesus Christ does not need permission in order to save us. Our salvation isn’t in our hands, it’s in God’s. And there is nothing we can do to mess that up – not even forget to say the right prayer. To insist that we must have a big conversion moment to “be saved” is to insist that Jesus’ saving love is only as strong as we allow it to be and that is simply not true. God’s love for us, God’s salvation for us, God’s promises for eternal life are bigger and stronger than anything we’ve ever known, much less any prayer we’ve ever prayed.
And so know this: If you have, or if you want to, ask Jesus into your heart, that’s good. Part of faith is being intentional about our words and our prayers so that we can live into the Gospel as much as possible. We should always be open to God becoming a bigger part of our lives, and asking to be made more like Christ. But beloved, it’s important for us to know that no matter what ability we have to ask, God has infinite ability to give. If Asking Jesus Into Your Heart isn’t a part of your story, that’s fine. I’m pretty sure that the original disciples never said a Sunday School prayer before they left their fishing boats – they just followed, and fell in love with the Kingdom of God step by step.
Being Christian isn’t a matter of saying a prayer. It’s a matter of searching, of following, of journeying, of letting our whole lives become a prayer of thanksgiving. And our ability to be called children of God isn’t because we did something right, but simply because of God’s grace. My prayer for all of us is that our hearts would be open to God day after day, for the continued work of discipleship, that we may always hear the inner call to come and see where God is in our world. Amen.