Be Good If...
“Things Jesus Didn’t Say: Be Good If You Want to Go to Heaven”
A Sermon on Luke 23:39-43
by Rev. Elizabeth Meador Strobel
Preached at Trinity Presbyterian Church of Independence, Missouri
July 21, 2019 – 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding Jesus and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
I had a church member come to talk to me one day. This was before I came to Trinity, when I was working at a church in Atlanta. This church member, we’ll call him Robert, hauled his oxygen tank into my office and took an exhausted seat across from me. Robert had been a member of the church his entire life; he had a wife and a son buried in the church graveyard, and sat with his grandchildren during worship. The library was named after his mother, who had also passed. In his younger years, Robert spent every Saturday at the church doing yard work. He had been a deacon and an elder, as had his living children. He had led the men’s Bible study for many years. Before I knew him, he visited every church member who went to the hospital. He wasn’t wealthy, but he gave generously to the church – in fact, he bought me the black “Geneva gown” preaching robe that I wear most Sundays. He was kind, he was funny, he was faithful, and he loved Jesus. He was the model Christian – a pillar of the church, as we sometimes call them. He reminds me, now, of many of you.
And so as he sat down across from me, panting from the exertion of walking from the parking lot, I waited patiently for him to catch his breath. I was always glad to see him. Sometimes he wanted to tell me stories; sometimes he wanted to see how I was doing; sometimes he had questions about theology or the Book of Order. This day, though, Robert was concerned he wasn’t doing enough for the church. Emphysema and several other maladies had claimed most of his time. He couldn’t do yard work anymore, couldn’t do hospital visits, wasn’t well enough to regularly show up for Sunday School much less teach it. He wanted to know what he could do, and was frustrated that he wasn’t up to the same activity he once was. Many of you may resonate with that frustration. And so I said to Robert what I have said to many of you: It’s ok to slow down, sometimes. It’s ok to take care of yourself first. Life comes in different seasons. And there are things you can do to serve the church while sitting in a chair – like praying or calling or card-writing. I believe those things and mean them, even as I know they ring a little hollow to those who are used to being more active.
We talked back and forth a little more, and finally he leaned back, took a good deep breath of his oxygen, and said something I’ll never forget. With what I swear was a tear in his eye, Robert said to me: “I just hope when I reach those pearly gates, that God judges me good enough to enter.”
In what was not my best pastoral moment, I stared at him – agape and in shock. I couldn’t imagine how this man, this pillar of the church, this thoroughly Reformed Presbyterian, feared that God might not think he was good enough. Didn’t he know that none of us are “good enough” to enter heaven? Didn’t he know that he was saved through faith – not by his good works? Didn’t he know that God loved him? Didn’t he know about grace?
Of course, he knew all that. There wasn’t much he didn’t know. But the reality is that no matter our church or theology or practice, we have all heard the story that we must somehow earn our salvation. “Be good if you want to go to heaven,” we’re told as little children. “Ask Jesus into your heart so you can be saved,” we’re taught. “That person did something terribly sinful and evil, so they must be going to hell,” we overhear. “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” we say. “You’re not a Christian without good works!” we read. And through all of these messages, we begin to believe the lie that we have to be good enough for God to love us, for God to spare us the worst judgment. And being hard workers and sometimes even control freaks, we convince ourselves that what we do differentiates the sinners from the saints. “Be good if you want to go to heaven” becomes our inner voice. But Jesus never said anything like that.
God has too much grace for that.
The Bible talks a lot about good works, that’s true. And we’re going to talk a lot about good works in church over the next two weeks. But let me be abundantly clear: God’s grace and love are extended to you no matter what you do or what you have done. You are not going to commit some sin and be doomed to hell. You are not going to fail at being good in such a way that God can’t forgive you. We will all sin and repent and face consequences and do it all over again, but God’s love is more powerful than anything we can do.
People come to me all the time wondering if they are good enough for God – Robert was just the first. I think it is, in part, because we compare ourselves to each other. We buy into the Instagram version of Christianity where we only see the shiny, pretty parts of other people’s faith journeys rather than the dark nights of the soul. In our haste to be good Christians, we compare our worst inner moments with people’s best public achievements. We determine that other people must be better Christians than we are, and so we need to up our game. Or, worse, we think that we are the best Christian in the room, which naturally leads to fears of arrogance and blindness. We fail to forgive ourselves, and assume that God won’t forgive us either.
But God has too much grace for that.
I think it would be more helpful, instead, to do a different comparison. Let’s recall the two criminals that were hung on crosses next to Jesus. They’re both guilty, it says so right in the text. They’ve done some unnamed crime or crimes worthy of execution. I doubt these are people who lived in a particularly upright and holy fashion. One is obviously not interested in Jesus – he jeers at him right along with everyone else. But the other one is intrigued by this innocent prisoner. He may believe in Jesus as the Messiah, he may not believe at all but be desperate for a last straw of hope, he may simply be trying to comfort the dying guy next to him who everyone is mocking. We have no clue what his motivations are. All we know is that he admits to guilt and asks Jesus to remember him. And y’all, if I were God, I would have said “Nope, too late. Good try, but that application was due months ago. I don’t do sob stories. All these disciples have been here this whole time, you don’t get to cut in line. That wouldn’t be fair.”
But God has too much grace for that.
Jesus looks at this criminal who has done nothing to earn salvation, who has been bad, who has broken the law, who has no time left to turn his life around, and says “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Friends, that criminal on the cross was not “good enough” to get into heaven. But God has too much grace for that. How much more easily, then, can God extend grace and welcome to you?
In our Psalm 103 today, we were reminded:
God does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. As far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us.
You do not have to be good or do any one thing to be fit for heaven. Of course, God wants us to do good things and to make the world better – I’m not giving you a license to do whatever you want. Sin is real and there are things that we should not do and, like I said, we’ll talk about those a lot the next two weeks. But know today that all those sins are forgivable by God. Whatever good we do isn’t a way to earn salvation but to show gratitude for the grace we will never have to earn. It doesn’t matter if you are a lifelong church member or a criminal on a cross, God offers us welcome and forgiveness. If that doesn’t make sense to you, it’s because God’s love is beyond what we can reckon with.
And so if you are here today worried that you are not good enough: quit it. That’s not how God works. Jesus told us to be good because we are loved, not that he would love us if we are good. God forgives you just as you are. So forgive yourself for whatever you may be worried about. God has too much grace for that.
My friend Robert passed away several years ago. I believe two things. First, that he no longer has to lug around that oxygen tank he hated so much. But second, and more importantly, when he reached “those pearly gates,” or whatever it is that we enter in the life to come, Jesus welcomed him not with a list of sins to account for, but with the enthusiastic welcome of a steadfast friend who gets to show him around Paradise. That is the gift of grace. Thanks be to God. Amen.