29 April 2006

The Devil's poisoned bumperstickers

3rd Sunday of Easter 2006: Acts 3.13-15, 17-19; 1 John 2.1-5; Luke 24.35-48
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Paul’s Hospital and Church of the Incarnation

Why are you troubled? Why do questions arise in your hearts? What do you fear? What worry eats at your spirit, chewing your joy? Who took your peace?

I am convinced that for a whole lot of us it is the Devil who teaches us our theology, the Devil who instructs us in the faith. He uses half-truths, whispered hints at beauty, mumbled tries at goodness. He hands you a penny and calls you rich; he burps in your face and calls it a gentle summer breeze. And you buy it. We all do at one time or another. He tells us what we think we need to hear. What we wish were true. He lies and we believe it and we take notes and we repeat to him what he taught us because he fears the truth all the time as much as we do only some of the time.

The Devil doesn’t have to work up an elaborate theological lie to teach us when he can take the truth of the faith and give it a new spin, tweak it just a bit, perhaps “make it relevant for modern times.” His teaching works so well precisely b/c he begins with the truth of the faith and dips a single poisoned finger—just his pinky—into the edge of truth, hoping we won’t notice the spreading rot of dis-ease, anxiety, and fretting infection. Hoping we won’t bother to test his tasty, deadly dish until it is too late. But we do notice when we are troubled. We notice when we are confused. We notice when worry chews at our joy.

You know this already but it is a truth worth repeating: Christ suffered and died and rose again and it is written that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all nations. And so it has. And along with it the Devil’s slightly tainted, bittersweet version as well, chucked-full of half-baked half truths and raw lies. Here lie the lies that worry us, that thump our hearts and minds too sweetly, too gently to resist even when we know the gentle thumping is a bloody beating and the sweetness hides a poison.

So that we are not deceived I want to point to two of the Devil’s lies. The first is captured perfectly in the bumpersticker mantra: “God loves us unconditionally; God accepts us just as we are.” The second is as easily captured: “I have an adult faith; I’m into spirituality not religion.” These two are directly addressed in the readings.

To the first: “God loves us unconditionally; God accepts us just as we are.” Now, is this true? Yes. But it is only a half-truth. It is absolutely true that God loves us without condition, without prerequisite. Deus caritas est. God is love. And it is true that God welcomes us in, accepts us as He finds us—as sinners, as doubters, as deniers, in our ignorance, even in our defiance. This half of the truth is clear.

Listen again to Peter, John, and Luke for the other half: “You denied Christ to Pilate; you released a murderer in his place; you put the author of life to death; you acted out of ignorance; you worry, you question—but we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, who is our rescue from sin. ‘Repent, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be wiped away.’” God loves us unconditionally, accepts us as we are in order to change us. It is God’s love for us that motivates us to repentance. God does not love us so that we may remain in our sin. He does not love the thief so that we might come to see that stealing is OK. He does not love the adulteress so that we might come to see that adultery is OK. He loves the thief and the adulteress so that they will stop stealing and stop committing adultery. God loves us to change us.

To the second bumpersticker half-truth: “I have an adult faith; I’m into spirituality not religion.” At the heart of this often-heard contemporary mantra is the truth that as adult Christians we rely on a spiritual relationship with the Father, that is, we grow and flourish in a relationship with God based on love, trust, mercy, hope, and constant conversion. An adult faith moves beyond the mere formalism of religious obligation, the raw legalism of ritual observance into a living, breathing, maturing relationship where the conscience is well-formed by truth and goodness and beauty.

All true. But that’s only half the truth. Listen again to Peter, John, and Luke: “God has brought to fulfillment what the prophets preached: that His Christ would suffer and die; he is the righteous one who died for our sins and the sins of the whole world; he rose from the dead so that repentance and forgiveness of sins would be preached in his name; to know him as your savior is to keep his commandments; those who say they know him but fail to obey him are liars, the truth is not in them.”

Our second bumpersticker half-truth makes a distinction between “spirituality” and “religion” that allows the gullible to believe that there is a theological difference between “relationship with God” and “obligation to God,” a difference between “knowing Christ” and “obeying Christ.” This bumpersticker hopes to teach us that an “adult faith” is one where we are in relationship with God without any obligation to Him or His church and that we can know Christ as our Savior without obeying Christ as our Lord. More often than not the battle cry of “I have an adult faith” is usually a more educated way of saying: “I will do this my way or no way and besides you’re not the boss of me!” More adolescent whining than mature self-giving, isn’t it?

It is also the case that the distinction made here between “spirituality” and “religion” –that spirituality is about relationship and religion is about rules—is made so that we can privilege spirituality over religion, or better yet, exclude religion in favor of spirituality. This is simple impossible in a truly adult faith. Our spirituality is how we understand and live out our religion. Our religion is how we know that our spirituality is based on revealed and well-reasoned truths. To have an adult faith is to know Christ as Savior and Lord; it is to be in a right-relationship, a spiritual communion with the divine firmly grounded in revealed religion.

These two half-baked half-truths steal from us the breath of life, the food and drink of our holiness. They promise us treasures and give us Crackerjack prizes. They are Happy Meals pretending to be the Heavenly Banquet. The bald-faced, open-handed, simple truth of the faith is this: God loves you—w/o condition, just as you are. God wants you to live with Him now and forever. God’s love for you and His desire for you to live with Him now and forever is all you need to repent of your sin, to come to Him in obedience, and to be radically changed, made into something utterly new, truly perfected in Him.

Why are you troubled? Why do questions arise in your hearts? We have an Advocate with the Father. Therefore, repent and be converted; be at peace and witness to his mercy; keep His word and…beware devils selling poisoned bumperstickers.


  1. http://catholica.pontifications.net/?p=1641

  2. Yet another reason I wish I lived closer to Texas.

    I'm showing this to my pastor (a wonderful priest).

  3. I am Catholic and I have a blog on Yoga for Christians: http://www.lightonchristianyoga.blogspot.com/

    My dear cousin posted this homily in the comments section and I thought it was so beautiful and true.

  4. I am delighted that I found your blog...my Catholic teachings bring me close, though I love the spirituality of life.


  5. Anonymous6:43 AM

    I needed to read that - thank you.

  6. Anonymous10:06 AM


    I like how you put this, and it touched a real nerve. I sent this off to my son who has a friend who is under attack from one of the Christian cults. I pointed him at this Homily and the rest of your site.

    thank you!