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.

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