Text: Matthew 5:37: “Let your word be ‘Yes, yes,’ or ‘No, no’: anything more than this comes from the Evil One.”
The story of the Christian faith includes a wide variety of tropes. There are healing stories and teaching stories, stories about martyrs and stories about missionaries. There are stories about wealthy converts becoming renunciates like Saint Francis, or debauched people becoming holy people like Ignatius of Loyola or Thomas Merton.
One of the more enduring tropes in the Christian story is the deathbed confession. It’s the person who makes up their mind for Christ at the very last possible moment, or at least what we imagine is the last possible moment. The classic example, of course, is perhaps the most important example—it’s the Emperor Constantine, the king who ended the adversarial relationship between the Christian faith and the Roman Empire, and made Christianity the faith of the realm.
Even though Constantine was deeply involved in everything that followed—even though he passed laws demanding tolerance for Christians, even though he suddenly and substantially funded the church, even though not only called but attended the first gathering of the world’s bishops in Nicaea—he did all that while still, effectively, a pagan. Only on his deathbed did he finally get himself baptized; and not long after he was canonized. In fact Constantine might still hold the speed record in the sinner-to-saint sprint.
Deathbed confessions are a kind of theme, the upshot of which is to reassure us that we’ve made the right choice by pointing to others who finally came around to our team. In fact you can find a book on Amazon.com with the title Deathbed Conversions, with a really amusing subtitle: Finding Faith at the Finish Line. Apparently the book has dramatic stories of the last-minute conversions of folks like John Wayne and Patricia Neal, Gary Cooper and John von Neumann, and even Oscar Wilde. (Here I’d thought that Oscar Wilde’s last words were something more like “Either that wallpaper goes or I do.”)
There is a kind of drama in these stories. It’s the last-ditch effort, it’s the last-moment realization, it’s the last hope to be found at heaven’s coffee hour. The drama by itself makes the stories interesting. It draws us in; it appeals to our sense of the theatrical.
But there’s another thing about deathbed conversions that I think really makes intuitive sense to us; and that is the idea of not making a strong commitment on a matter of utmost seriousness until the last possible moment.
I mean, think of it. Constantine got himself baptized at the last moment, and he ended up a saint, without having to go to all those dreary Sunday services or signing up for parish workdays or sitting through choir rehearsals. I suppose the Council of Nicaea may have seemed like one immensely long vestry meeting, but if you really think about it how bad could it be, right? I mean, ten or fifteen years of Vestry meetings begins to add up to even more.
That idea of holding onto our commitments loosely, of trying to choose by not choosing until absolutely, positively necessary— that sounds a lot like our general condition. It’s not hard to see expressions of this idea in a lot of different places in our culture, different ways of appealing to our desire to have it all without cutting off possibilities, without making an irreversible commitment. It’s the amazing return policy of L.L. Bean’s or Zappos; it’s the try-before-you-buy deals on everything from eyeglasses to software; it’s speed-dating services, probationary hires on everything from McDonald’s counter staff to tenure- track professors, and it’s the ultimate way of holding off absolute commitment: the prenuptial agreement.
We are bet-hedgers. We are risk-averse oddsmakers. Even though, in a relative sense, we are all better off than the vast majority of human beings ever to have lived on the planet, when it comes to making the sacrifice necessary to make a commitment fully, we become suddenly aware of our scarcity. We want to give up nothing. We want to pay no opportunity costs.
In some ways this may be wise. It is certainly prudent. But the question is how this part of our behavior that is so culturally conditioned shapes our spiritual lives.
It turns out that our souls don’t do well when they’re spread thin over a broad horizon of possibility. We don’t make a balanced spiritual diet when we try to eat from an à la carte menu. Our instincts are to hold off on making a strong commitment—maybe to spare us embarrassment in front of our friends, maybe to avoid offending someone who has strongly negative views of Christianity or who has suffered an injury, real or perceived, from the church.
Maybe its because we don’t want to make a strong commitment on a part of human existence that is, after all, a mystery— something in which none of us get absolute answers, at least in this life. As long as our knowledge must be conditional, we think, it’s only reasonable that our commitment should be, too.
The problem is, we are not speaking here about the realm of reason; we are speaking about the realm of faith. And while it is true that the absolute truths of God are a mystery forever impenetrable to us—an idea that all by itself is objectionable to many of the thought leaders of our day—the reality is that the ticket for entry into the Christian faith is an acceptance of God’s sovereignty, not just over the cosmos and the natural order but over us, each one of us, over me.
The beautiful language of Deuteronomy, so familiar to us down through our own generations, reminds us that we confront both life-affirming and life-depleting challenges all the way along the path of our lives. But there is one choice we don’t make just once, but over and over every moment of our lives; it is our choice whether or not to accept the terms of the relationship God wants with us.
Jesus is the reconciler, Jesus is the redeemer, not because he somehow manages to right the scales by making us gods. Jesus is the redeemer because he manages to reopen the possibility of relationship between God and us despite the fact of our fallenness. God is still God, and we are still not.
And to that proposition there is no conditional answer. There is no “yes, but”; there is no “no, at least not right now.”
There is only a binary choice; yes or no. And it is not once for all; it is not just about being baptized, or confirmed, and then being done with it.
It’s a choice we face each time we encounter another human being and have the opportunity to see again another revelation of Christ in them. It’s a choice we face each time our own interests collide with the rules by which we’re called to live: compassion, forbearance, forgiveness. Helping others realize the possibility created in them.
The human condition is the condition of having to make choices. We cannot escape this; every day we must make decisions simply to put one foot in front of the other and move forward. I’ll say it again: The condition of humanity is the necessity of choice. Even failing to choose, even holding off making a commitment, is a choice in and of itself.
That is the wisdom of the teaching we have from Jesus this morning. And it is a warning against the way we might prefer to approach our spirituality. In the end, Jesus is saying, we can’t be only halfway God’s—and keep some of ourselves, some of our will, some of our hopes out of the deal. We’re either all in, or we’re not. And we make that choice, by little bits and little bits, every day. Amen.