2 Peter 3:8-16
“Christmas has lost its meaning for us because we have lost the spirit of expectancy. We cannot prepare for an observance. We must prepare for an experience.” Handel Brown
Anticipation demanded of faith rather than expectations as per our own demands. It is the profound difference between the “foolish” bridesmaids and the “wise” bridesmaids – both of whom represent the Church. Only five of these ten, however, will be allowed into the Great Banquet at the return of the Bridegroom who is Christ. These five “wise” ones fully invested themselves in His anticipated return. The five “foolish” ones took for granted that they were prepared, they didn’t really expect Him, and so they were turned away when they “demanded” to be let in when He did come.
This is the very spirit and discipline of Advent in our anticipation of the Return of Messiah – an Experience - rather than a mere countdown to Christmas – an Observance. Since we will not be passive observers when Messiah returns, we must prepare ourselves for the infinite Experience rather than settle for a finite Observance according to a date on a calendar!
Like Christmas, the vows of church membership have lost meaning for many – and for the same reasons. In large measure we come to “observe” with our lamps rather than to prepare ourselves for an “experience” by making sure we have oil for those lamps. When we join a church, we do so because that church happens to fit neatly into our lives as our lives are already ordered. Things in the church are done according to our own expectations and our own specifications, so we decide this is the place for us. And as long as the Church (and the pastor!) remember their places and continue to cater to individual demands, we’ll all get along just fine.
In the early Church, long before the Reformation and so many denominational choices we have today, catechumens who were being prepared for membership into the Church were required to undertake a serious course of study not only in doctrine but certainly in discipleship – to learn what it means to literally follow Jesus in daily living as opposed to simply becoming a member of a club in one day. The discipline of the early Church required that new disciples come to understand what baptism and confirmation in the Church really mean. They were not becoming mere “members”; they were being prepared to become the Church themselves.
This is the current – and expected - practice of the United Methodist Church in preparation for Confirmation. Too many churches take short-cuts, and consequently the confirmands are not prepared for the demands and the “experience” of discipleship. They are largely being prepared only for an “observance” of Confirmation Day. This may partly explain why so many young people leave the Church after high school graduation. They never really learned how to connect the Church to the Kingdom of Heaven – and then to “real” life.
Probably far from being a perfect system, such an involved process nevertheless seeks to convey to the confirmands that being a member of the Holy Church requires devotion and dedication to The Living Word; a commitment to a life-changing Experience. This process of spiritual growth should also convey to the confirmands that they should strive to accommodate their new life in Christ rather than to expect the Church to accommodate their old lives. As it has been so often said, The Lord our God does indeed love us “just as I am”, but He loves us too much to leave us in that sorry state! We must never forget that “Just as I am” is a hymn, a poem, a song; it is NOT Holy Scripture.
This discipline of “experience” was the driving force behind the early Methodist movement. It was not about becoming a member of a “popular” club and hanging out with people who are “liked”; it was entirely about discipleship, spiritual growth through the deliberate use of the means of grace, and the discipline of the “cost” of following Jesus in “real” life. To “flee from the wrath to come” was entirely about the spirit and principle (not the season) of Advent – the anticipated return of Messiah and the Day of Judgment. It was entirely about preparing for an “experience” rather than a mere “observance”.
All this is to say we do not equate Church life with Kingdom life. For that matter we do not typically equate Church life with our so-called “real” life. This is a profound loss not only to the Church and its diminished witness but also to the individuals who are being cheated out of a life-altering “experience” by a lazy, entitled, and complacent Church that is more interested in its marketing strategy than in its necessary discipline.
Discipleship is costly, challenging, and counter-cultural. It does not fit into what we consider our “real” life. It is easy in the abstract to “believe in Jesus” according to the Promises of the Gospel, but it is very hard to actually “follow Jesus” according to His demands; and this is the profound difference between our contemporary concept of church membership and the hard reality of discipleship. It is a truth the modern-day Church plays down for fear of losing members; but when the Church becomes little more than a habit or nothing more than a social choice rather than a deliberate decision and determination of faith, something is amiss.
So choosing to join a United Methodist Church should not be strictly a matter of social connection or cultural conformity, though there are those elements which are not altogether bad. We make vows, however – vows to one another AND to The Lord - to uphold and support the Church; the whole Church, its mission, and all (not some) of the Church’s ministries, by our “prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service”. And lest we think otherwise, these vows are of the same substance as those of a wedding and are taken as seriously by our Lord as our Lord expects of us because it is written in the Scripture more than once, “When you make a vow to The Lord, do not delay to pay it; for The Lord has no pleasure in fools” (Num 30:2; Dt 23:21; Eccl 5:4). These vows are important components of discipleship rather than strictly for church membership.
Advent is a wonderful time and opportunity to get back to the business of the Church, the business being that of preparing ourselves and one another not for the “observance” of a calendar date which will come and go and soon be forgotten – but for the “experience” of the Kingdom which will come and stay! It is probably more important than ever before that we re-examine our commitment not only to the Body of Christ but to the Covenant itself – for the commitment to One is in fact the commitment to the Other.
There is no better way to prepare for this “experience” than by prayer, our “waiting for The Lord” and “keeping watch”. Purposeful prayer. Contemplative prayer. Time-consuming rather than convenient prayer. Alone AND with our fellow disciples as per the vow we made. Prayer is but one of the essential elements of the “oil” we will need to “trim” our lamps; lamps we were given when we accepted our Holy Father’s invitation and chose to call Jesus our Savior and Lord of the Church. The oil we must acquire ourselves.
The arrival of the Bridegroom is undetermined by human measure, but we are offered everything we need to be prepared. Prayer is the beginning of every discipline within the Body of Christ. Prayer is also what is promised to each disciple from the whole Church. It is indeed a vow we must not delay to pay and a duty we owe to the Church and to one another. For it is the “experience” of the Banquet we do not want to miss. Amen.