Monday, August 02, 2010

The Kingdom of Heaven

Hosea 11:1-11
Psalm 107:1-9
Colossians 2:6-10
Mark 1:4-20

A recent article from the United Methodist News Service (UMNS) sought to explain the exodus of young people (18-24) from the United Methodist Church (UMC). The reasons cited were as varied as the people whose behavior they attempted to evaluate, but the common theme seemed to be the UMC's loss of identity. While "blame" may be too strong a word, there was an attempt to at least allude to "blaming" youth leaders for putting too much emphasis on attending nondenominational events that obviously did not and would not emphasis Wesleyan theology. Methodism stopped being important, the article seemed to suggest, because Methodist leaders stopped emphasizing Methodism.

Is a lack of denominational emphasis to blame for the continuing downward spiral of member losses and professions of faith in the UMC? Yes and no. Is there something more? There is much more. I would suggest it is not so much the sense of denominationalism that is being lost or watered down, but rather what the Methodist movement - our heritage - sought to restore at its founding. For instance, one young man cited in the article left the UMC because of our practice of and belief in infant baptism. Really? That was his biggest obstacle to fully appreciating what it is supposed to mean to be Methodist? Or is there something much deeper and much more abiding that is being overlooked? I think there is - especially if infant baptism is all he understood about Methodism.

As a result of my purely unscientific observations over the years, including my own experiences, I have concluded that people will remove themselves from the fellowship of the church for a variety of reasons, primary among them being that they just don't feel like going although they will rarely admit to this. These people, including myself at one point in my life, will tick off dozens of excuses which are predominately self-righteous in their nature in a vain attempt to justify their decision, but in the end it can easily be said that something has gone missing for them. It would be downright blasphemous to suggest that true knowledge of the Lord would not overwhelm the human heart.

It's not about worship attendance, though; not entirely, anymore than it is about "being Methodist" or even being a Christian for that matter, a simple title we claim rather than a life we choose to embrace. It is the clear indication that something is wrong, something is missing altogether, or something is just out of place. No matter how good the music is or how welcoming and loving the congregation is or how dynamic the preaching is, some will never come. Likewise, no matter how bad the music is or unfriendly the congregation is or how boring the preaching is, some will always come. And each one has his or her own reasons for attending or not. It must be understood, however, that mere worship attendance is only one element of what it means to be a Methodist Christian.

Even John Wesley, the Anglican priest, stood opposed to worship rituals as a substitute for Christ-centered faith. He insisted instead that Scripture study, prayer and good works were far more beneficial for the faithful than rituals that can be reduced to little more than a mechanical response as just something we are "supposed" to do. None of this is to suggest that corporate worship and practices - especially receiving the Sacraments of the Church - are of no value, but they are of limited value, as Wesley put it, as "occasional helps to human weakness."

Though my sum total answer may be a bit oversimplified, I think maybe what has ultimately been lost or misplaced over a period of time is, quite simply, the message. The Gospel of Christ. It is the Gospel itself that has gone missing because it has been overshadowed or, at the very least, watered down. And I am not referring to the condemnatory language about who is going to hell and why because there is plenty of that already being done. I am talking about the GOSPEL, the GOOD NEWS! And because the Gospel of Christ has been watered down or has gone missing altogether, the Church as a whole has lost its footing and, worse, its sense of identity.

It is within this struggle to reacquire and/or maintain our proper balance that the Church seems so clumsy and essentially lost to those outside the Body of Christ so much so that they have convinced themselves - with our help, I might add - that they are better off without us. Make no mistake; they have not rejected Christ necessarily. They have rejected institutionalized religion. And I would suggest they have rejected practices and doctrines of man because the element of the Gospel has been misplaced.

Because this very essential element is misplaced, the core of our pursuit is missing altogether. That core, dear friends, is the knowledge of the KINGDOM OF HEAVEN - the very reason for the Good News! It sometimes seems we would much rather spend time talking about hell and who is already there and who is destined to be there rather than talk about the Kingdom of Heaven and the Lord's desire that ALL join Him there! We have become far too preoccupied with cursing rather than blessing, worrying about what OTHERS should not do vs. what WE can choose to do. More than this, however, we have become far too comfortable to the point of complacency because the knowledge of the Kingdom of Heaven is no longer a point or source of excitement.

It is no less so for Methodism because of the very nature of our heritage and founding. John Wesley never intended to create a new church. Breaking away from the Anglican Church was the last thing on his mind, though it may have been arguably less so when he commissioned preachers for mission in America. The key word in his intent and design, however, was "mission", but that "mission" has been transformed over time to what it has become today, to the point of being very nearly lifeless, the very thing he sought to overcome in the Anglican Church: the complacency of institutionalization.

The "Kingdom of Heaven" is not an institution; it is, rather, a condition of the soul. It cannot be said that the Lord our God is an "institution" because by His very nature He is mobile and dynamic. Very much like a mother with toddlers, He actually has to work very hard to keep up with us, to protect us, to guide us, to teach us, and yes, to correct us! And too often just like toddlers, we have limited attention spans because of all that is going on around us! We become too easily distracted and excited about new things, "shiny" things, so much so that we often run headlong into such things and simply take for granted that our Protector will always be there to pick us up when we fall - if we think about Him at all.

But I think this is the whole point that Jesus is making in His proclamation that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near to us. We should be willing to run headlong into this Good News rather than away from it just as a small child whose faith in "mom" is absolute, unquestioning, and unwavering. I think surely this must be the reason Jesus teaches us that unless we become childlike, we can never enter into the Kingdom of Heaven - especially not if we question its validity or doubt its Eternal Promise - or simply take it for granted as "incidental" to all else.

So may we all commit to "repentance", but not in the negative, ominous, and threatening way we've been conditioned BY MAN to believe. May we, instead, see the proclamation of Christ as the PROMISE it is: the Kingdom of Heaven is UPON US ... NOW ... IN HIM! This is the Good News that gives us hope and a sense of peace - there is no substitute. To "repent", then, is to stop running away. Embrace it, live it, and proclaim it. For it is NOT what we do - it is, indeed, who we are.

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