When we talk about someone getting under our skin, we generally mean that the person annoys us. But it’s not just a passing annoyance.
We use that idiom only when the effect another person has on us lingers. We find it hard to shake. We catch ourselves thinking about the person even when he or she is not there. And we have trouble changing the mental channel.
They’re like what people call an earworm today: a song that goes through your head that you just can’t get rid of.
That’s why Cole Porter used this phrase for his classic pop tune “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” He was telling us about being helplessly, hopelessly in love.
Only it’s a longing, not an annoyance, that has taken root in the crooner’s heart. Listen to these lyrics:
I’ve got you under my skin/ I’ve got you deep in the heart of me/ So deep in my heart that you’re really part of me.
And then the song goes on:
I’d sacrifice anything come what might/ For the sake of havin’ you near
When we talk about faith in Jesus Christ, or even about loving Christ, we don’t usually talk in these terms. But that is just what Jesus himself commands. We are to make God our pearl of great price, our hidden treasure, our ultimate desire. This is what Paul means when he teaches us that salvation comes by faith alone, not by works.
Just when we settle in to the idea that salvation is not a human achievement, we encounter a reading like this one:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25:31-46)
It sure looks like Jesus is teaching us about salvation by works. Jesus says that he will return to reign forever. And when he returns, he will separate people into two groups: sheep and goats.
The sheep inherit the Kingdom. The goats go away to hell.
And what makes any of us sheep or goats? In other words, how do we attain salvation? From one perspective, it sounds a lot like works of mercy and compassion are the only way into heaven.
There is no question that Jesus instructs his followers to serve the poor, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked, and visit both the sick and the imprisoned.
But at no point does he say that he intends to count the number of times we do feed the hungry or gauge our sincerity in providing clothing for the poor or measure how effectively we address homelessness. In other words, he command to serve is not issued as a test with a minimum passing grade.
Jesus simply said that we serve him in all these acts. When we serve him we inherit the kingdom. When we refuse to serve him we go away to torment.
Let’s contrast this to what maybe many of you have as the model of salvation.
What many Christians have taught and preached and believed is that salvation is getting your ticket validated so that you can pass into paradise. Let’s call this approach to salvation the Paradise Ticket Narrative.
According to this narrative, the hope of an afterlife boils down to getting into paradise: what most people call heaven.
Paradise or heaven is a kind of really great, eternal vacation spot. There’s no suffering and no sorrow. No hunger or violence. Just peace and joy.
Don’t get me wrong, in Jesus Christ God promises us eternal life and it looks something like this. But the Paradise Ticket Narrative misses the main ingredient.
You could want a really nice place and care less about whether God is there or not. You could just want eternal comfort, eternal fun, and eternal entertainment. In other words, you chief aim in life could simply be the quality of your own life on an eternal scale.
In fact, in the Paradise Ticket Narrative, God becomes hardly more than a kind of gatekeeper. His role is to make sure that your ticket to paradise is valid.
To put it starkly, once you’re in you could care less if God shows up, so long as he keeps the place tidy and insures that you have a paradise-worthy experience.
And so the only question about salvation is about how to validate your ticket and there are two camps on this matter: faith and works.
Some people say that you have to think right. God admits only those with the right concepts of God and his Son.
Others insist that only righteous personal conduct validates that ticket to paradise. Your concept of God and his Son Jesus don’t really matter, so long as you are merciful and compassionate.
Some people mistakenly believe that when Paul insists on salvation by faith alone, it means having the right theology.
Another group of people read today’s Gospel—or they may hear St. James say that faith without works is dead—and they will insist that works of mercy open the gates of heaven to people of every faith and no faith at all.
In any event, it looks as if the Bible contradicts itself. But nothing could be further from the truth. The problem is not in the Word of God. It lies with the Paradise Ticket Narrative of Salvation.
So if salvation is not about getting your ticket punched, what is it? Let’s look again at how Jesus talks about it: inheriting and walking away.
Simply put, it’s about getting our heart’s desire. And by that I mean our ultimate heart’s desire.
Now here’s the tricky thing about being a fallen human being. We tend to treat good things as if they were ultimate things. Our jobs, our families, our friendships, our cars and our shoes are all good things.
But none of them is an ultimate thing. Any of these good things can give us a good feeling about ourselves. We can feel loved and fulfilled and attractive. And yet not a single one of these things—or any thing we can achieve or possess in this life—justifies our whole life for all of eternity.
And that is just what we long for. We want to know that our lives matter. Not just today or next month or even in the memories of our children and grandchildren.
We want to be assured that our lives will amount to more than dust scattered to the stars and into the dark void of empty space. Even the most famous author or rock star or religious leader or political leader or military hero or moral teacher will be utterly forgotten in a million years. And as the cosmos goes, a million years is a nanosecond.
If we will be forgotten at all, then none of this is worth it. What’s the point?
This is what salvation is about. What justifies our existence?
Salvation is about setting our hearts on ultimate things as our heart’s desire instead of staking it all on merely good things.
And the Gospel is that there is only one ultimate thing: Jesus Christ.
Eternal life is about being in the unremitting, glorious presence of the living God.
Seeing all the people we’ve loved, feeling unmixed joy, and never again weeping from loss and grief come along with being in his presence. They are the byproduct, the result of being in God’s presence.
God is not the gatekeeper to our ultimate desire. He is the only being truly worthy of being our ultimate desire.
Something or someone is going to get under your skin. You’ll go through anything or give up anything to have it or be with him or her. That is what you have set your heart on as your ultimate desire. It’s what you believe will make life worth living even in the face of adversity and trauma and sorrow.
Jesus teaches us again and again that he is the Bread of Life. The Way, the Truth and the Life. The Light of the World. The Living Water. The Son of Man. The King of Kings. In other words, he is the ultimate person who can justify our existence.
Everything else claiming to be ultimate is a counterfeit.
And so when Jesus teaches us to serve the poor, the outcast, and the needy, he’s simply telling us where to find him. Go there! He’ll give himself to you. You will inherit the kingdom.
Or you can walk away. Pin your ultimate hopes on something else, even though it will lead to the torment of ultimate disappointment.
We are all looking for salvation. And if you want to find it, it’s not enough to have Jesus in your head or to win him over with how good you are. Jesus has to get under your skin.
(This sermon was preached November 20, 2011 at St. Mark’s Cathedral.)