Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Dark Side

Luke 19:28-40

Putting together several dictionary and online sources, the summarized definition of a “Christian” is this: one who professes belief in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ; one who is a member of a Christian denominational church. While this cannot be said to be an exhaustive search result, it does speak substantially to what being a “Christian” is about: discipleship; a journey that begins but does not end in a single moment. Being a Christian is, like love itself, an intentional act of one’s will. It is in no way “incidental” but is, rather, a deliberate and chosen way of life marked by perseverance, constancy, integrity, and faith.

Compare this to the definition of secular humanism: A system of thought that rejects religious beliefs and centers on humans and their values, capacities, and worth; a cultural and intellectual movement of the Renaissance that emphasized secular concerns.

Though the values may seem similar on the surface as they pertain to the worth of the human person, there are still fundamental differences between the Christian and the humanist (and no, one cannot be both). One has foundational “rules” and values that are not subject to review or revision, despite apparent evidence to the contrary. The other’s “rules” and values shift from one generation to the next. For Christians, this means acknowledging the sacred value of the life of the human person, a value that cannot be measured, marked, quantified, or qualified except in holy terms; sanctity, of sacred worth meaning that the value of the human person is according to the Lord’s desire and not ours or society’s.

The humanist measure of human value, on the other hand, is assigned by society and is determined from one generation to the next according to one’s usefulness to the dominant culture. The set value is determined from generation to generation and fluctuates to accommodate a very fickle human race that may value a certain attribute today and then find it completely useless tomorrow. One must then be prepared to “keep up” with the constant and undefined changes in values and social mores or risk being labeled a social liability rather than a cultural asset.

Think in terms of how the Church as a whole is typically regarded today and compare that to 20-30 years ago, and it is easy to see how values change from generation to generation and how the Church in general has shifted its values from the sacred to the more humanist. Once, the Church stood as the believable Body of Christ; now it seems to be little more than an unbelievable “wet blanket” that gets in the way of “real life”. How can an institution that promotes Life be considered anything less than the “Life” of the party??

The Lord alone knows the answer, but humans – perhaps especially Christians - will bust a hump trying to figure out how to keep up to the point of compromising his own integrity in a vain effort to “be popular” to the point of moving from one church to another to follow a charismatic or popular preacher or a particular program … or, worse, dismissing the fellowship of believers in church and Bible study altogether.
Clearly Christian priorities have shifted. Once, it was unthinkable to miss church; now it is simply a matter of mood or something more appealing. Once, an unborn child held promise; now such a child can be regarded as a threat to a promising future. Once, homosexuality was a sin; now it is “lifestyle”. The humanist list of shifting priorities is endless and strangely enough, the Church in many instances has even jumped on this humanist bandwagon in a vain effort to be “relevant” or “popular” or to “fit in”. And the world is laughing, not WITH us but AT us.

This fickle behavior could very well mark the day when Jesus rode into Jerusalem, that moment many refer to as the “Triumphal Entry”. The Gospels differ slightly in how Jesus was received and by whom, but it can be said that without this particular moment Jesus still had throngs of followers besides the Twelve – for the time being. Luke says “people” threw their cloaks on the road and that “the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God …”

Disciples. Followers of Jesus, students of the New Testament, but not necessarily believers in the New Covenant of the Lord God. Sometimes things turn ugly. Sometimes things stop going the way we believe, expect, or demand they should. Sometimes humanist values and social pressure become overwhelming. And like the disciples of Jesus’ day, we abandon that which was once considered “absolute” in favor of that which is trendy and popular for the moment but clearly will not last. Unfortunately, we don’t always see or acknowledge that until it’s too late.

Triumphal Entry, indeed. Only there was no triumph, no apparent victory. Nothing was overcome, no one was chased out of town … except for most of the disciples when they suddenly felt … vulnerable … threatened … not so well protected ... pressured to join the crowd or simply disappear. There would soon come a time when their devotion to discipleship, their devotion to Christ would be tested far beyond any test you or I will likely see in our lifetime. At least, maybe not a physical test.

The truth is we are tested each day in some form or fashion, and whether we pass or fail these tests is determined by the choices we make, by how intentional we are about our faith journey or whether we simply take it for granted that a single “moment” in the course of our lives will be adequate for salvation, for redemption; “just enough” to avoid hell.

Following Jesus through the Gates of Jerusalem and making a public proclamation in the “name of the King” is sort of like attending worship. We’re there … until other choices pressure us to abandon the “triumph”; choices like fishing, hunting, golf, sports tournaments, lounging in bed, reading the Sunday paper. And when we make these choices and disregard that which could have been, should have been a “triumphal entry”, the world sees us “running away” – or worse, joining the crowd that demanded His Crucifixion. It is when the “triumph” comes closer to resembling a “defeat”.

These moments are not only when the darker – if true - side of self is revealed but these moments are also how the Church today loses its momentum and its moral authority to speak to anything. These are those moments when the label “hypocrite” actually finds its mark and sticks because, you see, the Church is not some faceless entity, a lifeless institution, or a building on the corner. The Church is not the Committee on Relief or the General Board of Church and Society. The Church is not even the Pope or the many Catholic and Methodist bishops. The Church is you and me. The Body of Christ is not some lifeless form that has no shape, no mission, no purpose. It is His presence made manifest in the life of His disciples, warts and all – or not at all. As stated earlier, there is no in-between, no “little of this” or “little of that”.

As the Lenten season winds down, it is appropriate that Christians take the time to reflect upon the journey that is Lent, the journey that takes us up to and through the Gates of Jerusalem, the journey that continues beyond those Gates … or simply fades out. It is when disciples discover their true allegiance and whether a relationship with the Lord exists at all. And it is indeed a time not only of reflection but a time of repentance – because the journey through Holy Week is going to get very ugly before we can even think about rising from the darkness.

Monday, March 22, 2010

On the Road to Jerusalem

John 12:1-8

Often when we are on the road to somewhere, a stopover is incidental to the journey. It is not necessarily relevant to the destination but is, instead, a brief interlude with no real meaning, no real purpose except that which is, as previously stated, incidental. And while Jesus’ stopover in Bethany at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus – the one whom He had raised from the dead - may seem incidental to us, the 7th century English historian and monk known as St. Bede saw Jesus’ stop-over as intentional within the context of Jesus marching to certain death while passing by and breaking bread with the one whose life was restored. From death to life, from life to death, we are shown more than a simple trek to Jerusalem as a fulfillment of prophecy. Much more.

According to St. Augustine, Mary’s hair is not so coincidental. And according to St. Theodore, Judas Iscariot is fooling only himself. On the road to Jerusalem, then, we see through the eyes of the early church fathers more than the passage of time and certainly more than a simple journey incidental to the destination. We have before us a recurrent theme that there is nothing – and I mean nothing – incidental to, for, or through our Lord.

The biggest stumbling block I see in this passage, however, is the seeming choice that is laid before us between paying homage to the Lord or serving the poor. And as I was reading this passage and working to overcome this apparent obstacle, I was thinking about the coming “Rethink Ministry” workshop, “Restoring Methodism”, and the many other discussions floating about within the United Methodist Church, all dealing with mission and ministry within the context of steadily declining membership as well as declining worship, Sunday School attendance, and professions of faith.

So with all these issues and sub-topics swirling through my feeble mind, it finally occurred to me that what we may be able to glean from this relatively small passage “on the road to Jerusalem” is the difference between “intentional discipleship” and “incidental presence”, the defining point of which seems to be centered on Mary and marking the difference between what John Wesley called a “nominal Christian” and a bona fide disciple totally devoted to the journey WITH Jesus. On the same road. With the same destination. And with the same sense of purpose.

The extravagance of Mary’s gift to Jesus is defined in terms relevant to the day. Judas claimed that the perfume with which Mary anointed Jesus was worth about 300 denarii. Considering that the average working wage was about 1 denarius per day, 300 is indeed extravagant. In our contemporary society, pouring a year’s worth of wages into the Church rather than to share with the poor who are hungry and who are doing without seems to figure into what the Church is struggling with today and even with what we have been taught about tithing, that act of worship by which we offer to the Lord only a portion of our wages rather than the whole enchilada because, after all, we have to eat, too.

It’s not about money, though, and it’s not about choosing between offering all we have to the Lord OR feeding the poor (worshipping vs. being in ministry). And most certainly, Jesus’ statement about the perpetuity of poverty does not diminish our call to help those who cannot help themselves. Rather, I think it is an understanding that there can be nothing set apart that the Lord does not have a legitimate claim to, that there is nothing we cannot use for His glory. Even the hair on one’s head! Think about what a head full of oily hair looks like and the vanity one deals with while preparing to go out in public, and decide for yourself whether you would be willing to mess up your hair for the Lord!

Now remember that Mary has already witnessed Jesus bringing her beloved brother Lazarus back to life. Her rather extravagant act of worship goes far beyond the moment and speaks volumes about our own struggle between either/or when it comes to the proper worship of the Lord by our tithes and offerings OR giving to the poor. The fragrance of this nard was apparently pretty potent and if Mary has dumped all this much on Jesus’ feet as an anointing, as an act of worship, she has made a proclamation – and a rather compelling one – that involves everyone around her. Even if they are not active participates, they are at the very least passively involved because they can SMELL the extravagance even if they could not clearly see! It is equally compelling that Mary’s anointing was done very publicly and while Jesus is still alive rather than in secret after He’s dead, don’t you think?

Discipleship is this journey we must choose to endure on the road to Jerusalem, beginning with the moment when those who might choose to follow Jesus are called to “count the cost” of what such a journey means and how much of ourselves we are willing to give to this journey and even how much needling we might be willing to endure, such as being called a fool. One scholar wrote: Mary’s gesture of love demonstrates that an act of service to one person can be an inexplicable extravagance to another. Especially another who does not comprehend the depth of love that is being demonstrated by Mary and by so many others who portray to an unbelieving world what it means to be a disciple of Christ – and by doing so, conveying what Christ’s compelling love means to an unbelieving world. After all, would you be willing to die for someone who would sooner spit in your eye than to simply say, “Thank you”?

This is discipleship. It is not a “moment” of realization; it is a journey. It is the epitome of what Jesus’ death on the cross conveys: a complete and extravagant emptying of oneself for the sake of another. The journey on the road to Jerusalem reveals this and prepares us for what is to come. Judas not only does not get it, but he seems to represent a world that does not want to get it. In fact, it can be said that Judas probably best represents that significant number of “nominal” CHRISITIANS who don’t get it. Judas is attempting to hide behind even a commonly held understanding of society’s responsibility to the poor in trying to detract from that act of worship and the totality of Mary’s devotion to the Lord. Judas wants the world to see her foolishness and, ultimately, protect himself and all he can gather not for the poor but for himself.

Rather than reveal her foolishness, however, Judas reveals his own. Not only does he fail to diminish Mary’s act of total and complete devotion to Christ, he actually highlights it especially when he receives a direct rebuke from Jesus Himself. The United Methodist Church could learn a lesson or two from this encounter by understanding and conveying to an unbelieving world that there is a time and a place for everything. Even Jesus went away to be alone and to pray. Yes, the poor deserve our attention and help but pure worship, pure devotion, pure submission to the Lord must come first. Discipleship is the result of that devotion, that total submission. Discipleship comes as a result, not as a cause. It is not an either/or proposition.

It is the very extravagance of our worship, the overwhelming “scent” of our total devotion to Him such as with the oil and even using our hair to wipe clean the feet of Christ that compels an unbelieving world to notice – even if they don’t understand it … or reject it outright. We don’t have to make Jesus out to be something He is not, and we do not have to rewrite Scripture to accommodate the unbelievers. We simply have to be devoted … entirely and completely. Or not at all.

It is discipleship at its finest … on the road to Jerusalem.

Amen.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Restoring Methodism

Reference Text: Restoring Methodism: 10 decisions for United Methodist Churches in America; Scott, James B. and Molly Davis, Provident Publishing, Dallas TX

Restoration: an extraordinary activity of YHWH, through the work of the Holy Spirit, which transforms both individual believers and the community of faith into the image of Christ.

Within the context of “restoration”, there are a couple of points upon which the Church as a whole must agree: 1) that restoration is necessary, and 2) what we hope to restore is pure and holy. One may be inclined to think the answers would be simple especially in light of consistent decline not only in church membership in America but, perhaps more significantly, also in worship attendance, Bible study classes, and new professions of faith. That restoration is necessary may not be in dispute, but what the Church must be restored to may be somewhat more elusive because as much as we may claim a disdain for “labels” (e.g., “conservative” or “liberal”), the truth is we are pretty clearly defined by these labels as clearly as we define others by these same labels.

Within a quest for “restoration”, however, is contained a conflict which is inherent to the task of “restoration”. The idea is not to offer to society a “new and improved” Church or a “kinder, gentler” God but to restore that which has been lost to the world and an overwhelmingly secularized culture over the course of centuries. Those who insist upon “restoration” will be at odds with those who insist that it is incumbent upon the Church to become more relevant to the world and its ever-shifting standards and ideals. The conflict exists and will continue to exist as long as humanity refuses to submit entirely and completely to the sovereignty of the Lord and continue in vain to be “all things to all people”.

The truth is there will always be that element of humanity which will reject the Lord and His Gospel. Jesus advised His disciples of this very thing even in His days on this earth (Matthew 10:14-15), but He never commanded His disciples to come up with new ideas, new programs, or a new angle by which to approach those who had rejected the Gospel nor did He suggest any sort of compromise. The only real “need” these people had then – and have today - according to the Lord, is the Gospel.

This perspective is, I think, important to consider in light of the hellenized and pharisaic culture that existed during this period of time in Israel. These people must surely have been confused about what religion was all about, and the Gospel which was surely presented to them was an offer to free them from these bonds and shackles of inconsistent standards and practices. Yet Jesus knew His disciples would be rejected even after an honest effort, so He gave them permission to move along. By telling them to “shake the dust” off, He was virtually commanding them to unapologetically leave those who reject the Pure Gospel (unencumbered by human ideals) behind. “It will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city.”

Must we apologize for what Jesus says? Or do we follow behind the so-called “Jesus Seminars” through which a group of intellectuals determines for itself whether Jesus actually spoke certain words or phrases? Or do we work more stridently toward an enlightened understanding of what Jesus actually meant when these words were spoken and recorded? Indeed, there is surely a fine line dividing those who can’t seem to grasp such a concept as a God in heaven – let alone an interactive One - and those who just don’t want to. In America in particular, that “land of the free”, we celebrate our “God-given” rights by rejecting the very God to whom we attribute these rights. Clearly something is amiss and in its perpetual quest to discover exactly what and where the problem is, the Church seems to have been left without a clear identity of itself and its mission. As a result of such confusion, it is reasonable to conclude that those on the outside looking in are unsure about what they observe and perhaps determine that they are better off to simply stay away.

The Church does, in fact, owe the world an apology. More importantly, the Church owes the Lord an apology. The Church has failed to serve as the Divine sanctuary against the world and has failed to properly or adequately maintain her role as “bride” waiting for the return of the “Bridegroom”, who is Christ. The Church has committed adultery, has cheated on the Father just as ancient Israel did when it also tried to be all things in all ways to all people, failing to understand the very nature of its existence as a “holy” and “priestly” nation set apart for the Lord. And by cheating the Lord in her betrayal, the Church has ultimately cheated the world by failing to offer a clear, consistent, and eternal alternative to chaos, confusion, and pain inherent to a world that is clearly lost and cannot find its way in the dark. The “light” that was once the Church (Matthew 5:14-16) has been dimmed by her adultery.

The Church cannot work this out on its own without first repenting. This is the necessary first step toward restoration. We must first resolve that we want to be “restored”. And though it may seem to make no sense that the Lord would turn His back on the institutional Church that is His bride, we cannot ignore the words of St. Paul to the Romans: “Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the Truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever". Amen (1:24-25).”

There is hope. There is always hope just as expressed to the seven churches in The Revelation, but time is surely running out. It is incumbent upon the Church to identify herself first to the Lord according to her chosen allegiance. Then and only then can we be the “light” Christ has called His faithful to be in a world filled with darkness.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Prodigal Children, All

Psalm 32
Luke 15:11b-32


A few years ago there was a very nearly violent confrontation at a workplace instigated by a man who had a tendency to speak his mind very aggressively, especially if he felt challenged. Being a rather large man, it seemed he knew how to use his size and his booming voice to intimidate. What was going through his mind, however, is not necessarily relevant nor is the situation that led to the blow-out. In the course of events, the man had all but told his supervisor – in front of the rest of the work team – to go jump in a lake, though I cleaned the language up a bit! In the end, the president of the company called the managers together to discuss the confrontation and what course of action to take. This president preferred consensus management over delegated authority. The managers were unanimous in their agreement that the man must be terminated immediately, being aware of legal precedents which were already established.

The president, claiming to be a Christian, said; “What about the Prodigal Son?” He felt the offender should be forgiven and given yet another chance. One manager asked: “Did he ask for forgiveness? Did he apologize?” The president answered that the man had not only not apologized but insisted that he had no reason to apologize.
Finally, another manager a little more familiar with the Scripture and the story answered the president. “There is a key element to the parable: REPENTANCE. The Prodigal Son did not insist that he was “right” even if his method had been wrong – AND the Son asked to be forgiven AFTER he had come to his senses and realized the harm, the sin, and the subsequent damage, all that came about as a result of his chosen and deliberate separation from his father.

The man was finally fired.

The second story involves a son who took some money from his father for a weekend retreat with a church group – only the son took the money and went bar-hopping and skirt-chasing. This story is similar to that of the Prodigal Son except that this young man got locked up for drunk and disorderly. Since he had already spent all the cash, he was forced to call his father for bail. Of course dad was disappointed because he never suspected his son to be so inclined, but he posted the bail and said very little on the ride home.

The next morning the son did finally muster the nerve to apologize to his father, and dad readily accepted his apology and forgave him for the incident after the son had assured his dad that such a thing had never happened before (a lie) and would never happen again (a big, ol’ lie). Later one of the son’s buddies came by to pick him up for a ball game. On the way to the game, the son was laughing about the “good ol’ time he had until he got picked up by the police. A bit of bad luck, he said, but the women I met and the high time I did have …. Wooo-weee!! “Next time I’ll be more careful!”

The first story involves a man who is unwilling to believe that he could be wrong on any level, that it was everybody else’s fault. Since the incident which led to his dismissal was not the first offense and since he refused to make peace with anyone when he was given the chance, he was dismissed by a man who was eager to “forgive and forget”, but there was that portion of the equation missing from the entire situation: the man was not sorry, and repentance was not an option.

The concept in the second story some may consider being a little trickier because dad’s forgiveness was sincere. When the son had asked for forgiveness, the father readily accepted the apology and was ready to put the incident in the past where it belongs. However, the unconditional blessing coming from dad has been somewhat complicated by an ungrateful and manipulative son who said “sorry” not because he was but because he was seeking to avoid further consequences. He wanted dad to believe he had learned his lesson. He was manipulating his father and the circumstances for his own benefit. He had learned nothing, his “apology” was no apology at all and as he had expressed to his friend, repentance was not an option.

So the question we’re left with in the story of the Prodigal Son is this: if son had just come home after he ran out of money and said nothing, would or should dad be compelled, required, or inclined to forgive him without a word, especially if the only thing the son might have been sorry about was that he ran out of money? To be sure, the portrait Jesus is painting is that of a loving father who is painfully aware that his son has gone astray. It could be inferred that the father was not na├»ve about why the son took the money in the first place, but he nevertheless gave the son his portion without question and without warning. The son was not seeking a new business venture or to expand the family enterprise. The son was up to no good and the father may well have known this but this was his son, not an indentured slave. The son was free to stay or go – the choice had to be his own.

In the case of the wild man in the work place, forgiveness from the president would have been inappropriate because the president was not a party to the incident and had not been directly offended. In the case of the father with the drunken son, forgiveness came easily as it was the father’s nature not to hold grudges. He was inclined by his good nature to give anyone who asked the benefit of the doubt. Dad is no fool, however. There is a limit to his patience and good nature. He possesses a pretty sound understanding of human nature which allows him to give a great deal of slack especially for those with a rather weak constitution, but he also understands that one’s intent is eventually revealed. Those who apologize as a mere courtesy but make no real effort at reconciliation are not interested in a restored relationship; they only want to escape retribution.

The Prodigal Son came into a real awakening, but the story goes much deeper than just surface issues such as consequences for bad behavior. Children leave home and set out to make their own way in the world. In fact, we parents do our best to teach our children to function independently in the world. So our kids leave, but the loving relationship which existed before still exists. In fact, that loving relationship can be extended by the child who was taught how to love. So rather than a relationship being completely severed, that relationship can actually be extended to include others who will eventually come into the child’s life. The life line from generation to generation still exists.

In the story of the Prodigal Son a genuine, loving relationship had been severed by the son’s choice of action. The son sought not only to strike out on his own but to completely separate himself from his father altogether. Why he made such a choice is anyone’s guess just as we parents are even today sometimes left scratching our heads and wondering why our children sometimes make such obviously bad choices. I don’t see, however, that Jesus makes an attempt to go there because that is not the point of the story.

Jesus is speaking to an entire audience of prodigal children – then and now. He is speaking to a huge chunk of that crowd, many of whom likely believe their sins are so great that restoration is not possible – so they don’t even try. But listen carefully. Jesus is also speaking to the many who take such forgiveness for granted and merely assume that such grace is automatic, that it is not necessary to apologize, make amends, or even attempt to live a life worthy of such love and consideration. Simply to say, “I’m sorry” says nothing of tomorrow. It is merely in the moment and seems to be appropriate – and it is, but it is not enough.

Repentance goes far beyond spoken words. In fact, like “love” itself, repentance requires an act of the will. We not only express our sorrow for any offense we’ve committed, but within the apology is an expressed implication that we won’t do that again. Repentance also indicates which way we want the relationship to go and whether we are truly seeking restoration of that relationship – or simply trying to escape punishment or avoid consequences. It’s funny that we teach our children to apologize when they’ve hurt someone because it is the polite thing to do. I think often we also try to teach our children to see and understand the harm they’ve done, but in the end it is the apology we will insist upon – whether they want to or not. But think also of this: do you really want an apology from someone who does not mean it and has no intention of changing his or her behavior?

The “meat and potatoes” of the story is for those who are truly sorry and who truly intend a new direction for their lives. It is for those who understand how directionless and pointless and fraught with danger is a life spent apart from the very source of life. It is for those who would be grateful to the Father for mere “scraps from the table” but would soon enough discover that their place at the table is still intact and that our Father has just been waiting – and hoping – we would choose to return to Him.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Making Nice

Luke 13:1-9

“Unless you repent, you will all … perish.”

The incident involving the Galileans “whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices” (Lk 13:1) lacks a lot of detail for even scholars to determine whether that incident is historically significant. That it is theologically significant, I think, is not so much in doubt especially as it pertains to the point Jesus is making: the sin of one is no greater than the same sin committed by another. Sin is still sin, it is rebellion against the Lord, and it still separates us from the Lord. As a point in fact, it will weigh much more heavily on those who do know the difference, on those who claim to be “saved”, than on those who live in genuine ignorance, as Jesus points out in Luke 12:48: “He who did not know, yet committed things deserving of stripes, shall be beaten with few. For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more.”

We live in a society in which sin has become relative; relative to who commits the sin, relative to how much visible damage is done as a result of that sin, and relative to one’s own understanding of what actually constitutes sin. In fact, in many quarters including many religious denominations we are actually attempting to redefine sin, but this is not a new phenomenon. Our largely secular society – including the churches - has completely lost a sense of “fear” (i.e., “respect”) for the Divine and thus a sense of itself within a significantly secularized culture in which “anything goes” as long as we are not directly responsible for doing harm to someone. And even that does not seem to stop many of us. Consider malicious gossip as a prime example.

To a large degree, the Church can even – and perhaps especially – be held responsible for this secularization of cultural responsibility by having granted “free passes”, by choosing to appease rather than appropriate and maintain adequate biblical standards of living and worship. What this means is simply this: the Church is becoming far too involved in and acclimated to worldly affairs rather than calling people out of the world. And by “calling people out”, I do not mean as an accuser pointing a finger because if anyone stands accused, it is a complacent Church that chooses to appease by ignoring rather than by challenging people to a much greater calling and higher task. We have largely chosen to “surrender” rather than “sanctify”, and the greater judgment will one day befall us – unless we as the Church repent and stand on what we proclaim and demand for others. And indeed we must before we can reclaim the moral authority to demand anything.

Jesus does not mince words; why would the Church, His very Body, the manifestation of His presence and His Word? James Akin, a Catholic writer, offers this: “Portraying one’s religion as "dynamic" and "up and coming" (as in the latest trend or fashion) is an appeal to the desire for novelty. But it is precisely the desire for novelty that must be avoided in religion. The purpose of the Christian Church is to pass down what was given us by Christ and the apostles. Consequently, anyone who advertises himself as having a novel approach is playing a risky game, one that frequently results in heresy.”

Novelty, by its very nature, wears off. And quickly. And this seems largely to be not only what the American Protestant Church is trying to buy into itself but is also trying to convince those who have never known or have fallen away from the Body of Christ that they have found a “new and improved” Jesus, One who does not judge but only saves. A Jesus who turns a blind eye to sin because a “loving God” would not condemn His beloved for all eternity. Soon enough, however, the Truth is ultimately exposed, the “shine” is diminished, the “novelty” is gone, and people go away. By its very nature, “novelty” cannot long endure and in the case of religion, it cannot happen at all. 2000 years of Christian history already took care of “novelty”.

It is “novelty”, at least on some level, that is driving people in large numbers to non-denominational churches that require little and ask even less. There is a lot of fluff, a lot of novelty, a lot of popular appeal by giving folks what they want rather than what they need, a lot of “feel good” religion that glosses over such biblical truths as “Unless you repent, you will all … perish”. And from my own observations, what I have noticed is that such trendy religion does not call people to repentance and out of the world but, rather, invites people to join on their own terms. Coming to faith in Christ in such a setting refuses to “count the cost” of discipleship that even Jesus required and ignores repentance as an absolute necessity to sustained spiritual growth. Novel, trendy religion seeks to tell folks they can have their spiritual cake and eat it, too; that it is the Lord who will ultimately surrender – not us.

But, it is often argued, isn’t “Gospel” synonymous with “Good News”? Threats do not come across as “good news” and after awhile, folks get a little tired of being beat over the head. Besides, a good listen to a more contemporary Christian might come closer to suggesting that if there are portions of scripture you don’t like, just ignore it. After all, everyone else does, right? Including Christians? YES! ESPECIALLY CHRISTIANS! Because the New Testament is OF, BY, and FOR CHRISTIANS! And we are nothing if not “cafeteria” Christians who take certain portions of those things we like and dismiss those things we don’t like, exercising our – wait for it! - God-given “freedom” to do as we choose when we choose and as often – or as little - as we choose.

Appeasement is the mark of a complacent Church, and complacency is the kiss of death. It is at that moment of complacency when the Church – as the Body of Christ - ceases to exist. It seems to be widely believed that being “friends” with the world will show a “kinder, gentler” Church to a world gone mad and in need not of guidance and direction but friendship. It is the mistake often made by complacent parents who try to be “friends” with their children rather than the “parents” the Lord God has called them to be. And appeasement (or, more accurately, “surrender”) rarely works. Not only are those who are counting on integrity to take a stand left profoundly disappointed, but the authority that comes with integrity is diminished – or lost … forever.

Even in the midst of such gloomy “threats” as “thou shalt not …” or “unless you repent”, there is Good News, but we have to listen for it not only with our ears but with our hearts. Such statements come to us from the very Divine Mouth that will one day come to judge. And because we are loved, we are called. We are warned. Because of His enduring patience, we are given every opportunity to repent and embrace Him. The entire world of humanity deserves this very same consideration that comes from a benevolent God and Father, and it falls on the Church – the Body of Christ – to be this voice. We are not called to be “drinking buddies” with the world.

If there is faith at all, there must be these warnings, these calls to repentance, because if our conduct and our level of faith did not matter at all, there would be no need for Scripture except as historical records. Nothing more. No laws. No code of ethical behavior. No moral compass. No need to choose between this world and the next because faith itself will never have existed. There would be only the “here and now”. No future. No everlasting life. No “mansions in the sky”. No hope. No contentment. No peace of mind. No rest for the weary soul because there would be no soul to comfort. Everything would be a matter of flesh and bone.

There would be only chaos, despair, anarchy. Jungle rules by which animal instinct dictates who lives and who dies would be the order of the day. The weak among us, living in constant fear, would be trampled underfoot, and social justice would not even be a concept. Less-than-attractive, less-than-perfect newborn children would be cast into the fire – and it would not be the parents who would make that decision - and the elderly and infirm would be cast out as no longer useful – and it would not be the family making that determination. Social rules of engagement would be determined not by right but by might.

Just to imagine if there is no God …

The people of God cannot “make nice” with evil and complacency, greed and self-indulgence. We are called to repentance by the One, the Holy One, who came to show us the way out of this chaos and despair; the One who came to us like a firefighter entering into a burning building looking for survivors who are trapped by the smoke and the flames and cannot see the Way out. He is the one who, by calling people of faith to repentance, is reaching out His hand. All we have to do is take His hand, and He will lead us out; not stay there with us. Make nice with that hostile environment in which we are trapped … and we will surely perish.