by Mark Robinson
The summers of the early 1980’s meant many things to me. They meant long days playing baseball in the front yard. They meant nights riding the mini roller coaster or bumper cars at the local “Kiddie Park.” Ah, the American dream. No, my dog was not named Lassie, and my parents were not Ozzie and Harriet, but in many ways, the hot summer days of my early youth looked a lot like Wally and Theodore Cleaver’s.
One other thing that the summers of the early 80’s meant to me was an opportunity to use my skill and cunning to decipher how to take lots of bounty from a local establishment. Wait a minute . . . hold on! This sounds a lot like a foray into organized crime, not a Norman Rockwell painting. What on earth could I be talking about? I’ll spell out very clearly what I am talking about for you in three letters . . . V-B-S.
These three letters, of course, stand for Vacation Bible School, and within this week of eating two oreos at snack time and making a diorama of the Sermon on the Mount out of paper mache, I had the opportunity to act the part, recite the memory verses, and walk out of there each Friday with gift certificates good for ice cream at the local 31 flavors.
I would always get lots of praise for most all of what I did at this day camp. One teacher would comment on how I sang so well in the closing program (the louder you sing, the greater the chance at getting the gift certificates – my performance on this particular year earned me a chocolate shake.) To another teacher I would recite my memory verse to every day . . . and each one led to another gift certificate (I’ll take Rum Raisin please.) Within this week long culture, I knew how to play the game, and I played it well. Interestingly, at the time I was not really thinking about an eternal God and the forgiveness offered through His Son (and this is really what all those teachers wanted for me.) Though I acted the part, I missed the point. Given that is the case . . . were these summers a wasted time?
Let’s put a hold on that thought for a moment, and let’s look at Romans 2:17-29. In this section of Paul’s great letter to the Romans, he turns his discussion to the Jewish people, living in Rome and gives them a stinging critique. At the time this book was written, the Church universal was at a crossroads. For a couple of thousand years preceding the time of Jesus and Paul, God was primarily dealing with only one ethnicity of people in the world . . . the Jews. Our Old Testament contains the basis of the Old Covenant that God had arranged to govern His dealings with the nation of Israel. Jesus Himself was a Jew. Beginning with the death and resurrection of Christ, however, the doors were blown off their hinges, as now Jews and Gentiles BOTH had equal access to God through Christ as participants in a New Covenant relationship with God. I say all this to point out that when Paul wrote Romans 2, the Jews represented the people who had been a part of the “right” religious system for many years. In fact the Jews of Paul’s day “relied upon the law and bragged about their relationship with God (2:17).” They “knew His will and approved what was superior because they were instructed by the law (2:18).” They had become “instructors of the foolish and teachers of infants” in the things of God (2:20). When viewed this way, it is somewhat analogous to compare first century Jews to 21st century American church goers. If you grew up in the church, you too grew up hearing of God’s law and attending many meetings where people instructed all in the ways of God. If you grew up around the church as I did, at VBS and on Sunday mornings all your life you have heard the truth about who God is, and how we relate to Him.
I mentioned earlier that Paul leveled a strong critique at the Jews of his day, and by application, to the church goers of our day. That critique comprises Romans 2:21-24. In these verses, Paul describes how God is unimpressed with those who merely hear about the right thing to do, or are a part of the right religious system . . . He wants those who do the right things and have their heart trusting in the right plan of God. I believe that if Paul had written this letter today to the believers here in Norman, he would have said, “It is not enough to sit under the regular teaching of Bruce Hess or attend Wildwood Community Church. Sure you may know the right things to say, but Wildwood Community Church is still made up of a bunch of sinners. Mere church membership is not enough to save anyone.” In a sense, Paul was saying that salvation is not about what information you know or where you attend or how loud you sing in the service. Salvation is not given out like 31 flavors.
Salvation is only found when we trust in the saving work of Jesus on the cross to provide forgiveness for our sins. It is a gift of grace to an unworthy sinner, not a gift certificate to a hard working attender. My VBS teachers knew this . . . my heart just was not ready to embrace it. Perhaps you have come to view your relationship with God in this way. What Paul wants us to know here is that no amount of church attendance or knowledge of right and wrong or even moral uprightness will ever be enough to save us.
On Easter Sunday in 1990, I came to understand the truth that I was a sinner and in need of the great forgiveness that Christ offered. For the first time in my life, I realized my great need was met by Christ’s great provision, and I received His gift of grace. I had attended church for over 16 years, yet it all came clear that Sunday night in April 1990.
Now at this point, I want to go back to my initial question. Given the fact that I never really knew Christ during my years of attending Sunday school and VBS, were all those Sundays of attendance a waste of time? I mean, what was the value of hearing the stories about Jesus each week, when my understanding was as flimsy as the flannel graph board on which the story was shared? What was the value of making the paper mache mountain if I never really knew what Jesus said on top of it? What is the value to growing up in the church? If it is not enough to save you, is it doing more harm than good?
Absolutely not! Growing up in East Cross United Methodist Church is one of the greatest gifts God has ever given me. In fact, it is good in every way. It is good that Mrs. May took the time to teach our Sunday school class every week for years and years, patiently telling us about God and telling us the Old Testament stories. It is good that Duane Wakeley took the time to pray with a group of rowdy sixth graders who thought they were too cool for “Sunday School.” It is good that Alice Doyle had me tell Bible stories to little kids with a puppet on my hand. It is good that my parents took me to church all those years, when what I really wanted to do was watch the “NFL Today” pregame show with Jimmy the Greek and Brent Musberger. These things were good because when my heart finally caught up to my head in the spring of 1990, I had the blessing of knowing much more about God than I ever realized . . . and I have carried that legacy into a life time of serving Him.
As Paul says of the Jews in Romans 3:1-2, “What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way! Foremost of all, they have been entrusted with the very Words of God.” I am very thankful for how growing up in a Christian family and church have entrusted me with the very Words of God. In a way, this letter is an open thank you to all who God has used to build into me before I ever knew what was going on. Our heritage will never save us . . . but its value is immense.
I want to challenge all of you who have grown up in a Christian home or church to sit down sometime soon and write one person who impacted you a thank you note. Thank them for entrusting to you the very Words of God in your early years . . . and thank God for the heritage He has raised you within.
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