Sunday, January 02, 2011

Getting it Right

Matthew 25:14-30
A genuine commitment to anything is total, not trivial; and discipleship is demanding, yet not domineering. But discipleship is not "easy" by biblical or social standards and Jesus makes this abundantly clear, yet pastors and preachers and even many of the laity hold back for fear of creating yet another empty pew or being labeled as a "zealot", a "Jesus freak", a "holy roller", or a "narrow-minded bigot". Mature Christians need the "solid food" that is discipleship, but "milk" seems far more abundant, much easier to acquire, and easier still to digest by the many even as the Bible teaches Christians that "though by this time you ought to be teachers, [yet] you need someone to teach you again ... for everyone who lives on milk ... is unskilled in the word of righteousness ... solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil" (Hebrews 5:12-14). In other words, a committed life of discipleship.

Cheap grace, as the "milk" to which the writer of Hebrews may be referring, is defined by the 20th-century theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer as "the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, grace without discipleship, grace without the Cross, [in short] grace without Christ. It is to hear the Gospel preached as follows: Of course you have sinned, but now everything is forgiven so you can stay as you are and enjoy the consolations of forgiveness."

Conversely, Bonheoffer offers his definition and understanding of what is "costly" [yet genuine] grace: "It confronts us as a gracious call to follow Christ; it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a [person] to submit to the yoke and follow [Christ]. [Yet] it is grace because Jesus says: 'My yoke is easy, and My burden is light' ... our humanitarian sentiment made us give that which is holy to the scornful and unbelieving [in other words, excuses] ... but the call to follow Jesus in the 'narrow way' was hardly ever heard."

The restructuring, the rethinking, the reordering, the restoring of the United Methodist Church must necessarily go beyond making the organizational Church more efficient; it will require that the "movement" Methodism once was to become more effective in making disciples of Christ. It is - indeed it must be - about the reinvigoration of what it was about in the 18th century at its founding: saving souls, shaking Christians out of their spiritual complacency (i.e. 'making disciples'). The movement which began as a "Holy Club" and grew into arguably one of the greatest movements in the history of the Church was a movement within the Church that required but one thing for entry into membership: an earnest desire to 'flee from the wrath to come' (i.e., 'milk'). To maintain membership, however, went a step further: it required a willingness to be held accountable and a willingness to hold others accountable to the demands of discipleship (i.e., 'solid food').

What is unique about the Methodist movement, as opposed to the Protestant Reformation, is what it sought to achieve and what it hoped to recapture rather than "reform". The Methodist movement was based on the model of the 1st-century Church after Pentecost. It was not about finding a better church or a more pleasing pastor or an easier Gospel; rather, it was entirely about the disciple's total commitment to Christ through the Church. It was about "being" and "doing" Church; that is, "being" the Body of Christ and "doing" His will rather than one's own.

In the meantime, Dietrich Bonhoeffer's voice continues to call from a time when the Nazi Party was rising to power and the Church was painfully silent in the face of one of the greatest tragedies of human history: the Holocaust. The destructive power of evil which was apparent in Adolf Hitler's "Final Solution" had successfully silenced the complacent Church and had driven Her underground. The late Simon Wiesenthal, the "Nazi Hunter" and Holocaust survivor, posed this question in his book, "The Sunflower": Who is more guilty of this crime against humanity; the one who directly committed the crimes, or the one who witnessed it but stood by in silence?

During this dark period millions of innocent men, women, and children were enslaved and tortured, used as forced labor and as subjects of medical experiments that explored, for instance, the human threshold for pain by unspeakable means, or they were just plain exterminated. Sixty years later the Church apologized but did not quite repent because the deafening silence that comes from the Church even today is still apparent in failing or refusing to speak to that which matters above all else: the totality of our commitment to the Lord which is directly linked to how we will ultimately be judged, as illustrated by Jesus' Parable of the Talents - whether we as His servants will use what He entrusts us with in this life to His Glory in order to prove whether we can be trusted in the Life to Come. Or whether we take what He offers in that one brief moment in our lives ... and then bury it so that no one else can see ... thus denying the Lord a return on His "investment", a return He obviously expects and demands.

Yet being a Christian church member in the United States has become much easier than anything else we might undertake because we can "shop" around and find a more palpable Gospel that does not overwhelm us or ask more than we are willing to give. We can find a preacher who will tickle our ears and tell us all about being "saved", we can find a music leader who will entertain us, and we can find a church that will affirm what we have already convinced ourselves to be true: that commitment is to self-satisfaction, self-indulgence, and self-realization; to be the best "me" I can possibly be. "Sacrifice" in the context of what the Church is and WHO the Church is, is a foreign concept, merely a word that works well as it fills a gap in the sermon but rarely translates to what it means to be a disciple of Christ, what it means to follow Jesus all the way to the Cross.

We can say we already know what "commitment" means and what "commitment" requires. We are committed to our jobs, we are committed to our money, and we are committed to our families and friends; if we are not, we will lose them all. We are committed to and willing to sacrifice for most anything that offers to us a direct benefit of pleasure, happiness, comfort, and personally satisfactory (and immediate and tangible) results.

We define our lives by what is most satisfying according to our own standards as well as the standards imposed upon us by a secular society that knows less and less about the Bible and the demands of discipleship (and clearly does not care to know more) and yet continues to redefine - and often rewrite - the Gospel according to where we already are and who we have chosen to become. In the midst of such flagrant individualism, the Church as the Body of Christ is torn asunder because the commitment is "to each his own" rather than to the community, the Church which is the Body of Christ - not the several. In such individualism there is no commonality, no community, no sense of divine purpose ... no Church; maybe a chapel, but more likely a private chapel suitable only for those who neatly fit in - IF they bother to come in at all.

Submitting oneself to the Lordship of Christ and committing oneself to the life of discipleship is not simply a matter of escaping the Judgment, for the Bible tells us clearly the Judgment will come - we just don't know when the Master will return and demand an accounting. And because we cannot be sure of when He will return, we cannot be sure He will find us standing firmly with Him and working for and through Him when He does return; not if in our complacency we can take discipleship or leave it; whether we would choose "milk" or "solid food".

We all have problems and needs to one extent or another. There are those who do not have enough money just to get by, and there are those who have so much money they feel no need for Christ; they've become a little too comfortable. And then there are those "in-betweeners" who have a difficult time finding their footing because they are standing on the "shifting sands" of social secular standards, and the Church has been more a part of the problem rather than the Source of the solution.

Christians must be devoted and committed to Christ through His Body, the Holy Church. There are no short-cuts and there are no easy answers because the term "back-sliding" that Methodism is so familiar with is not simply a matter of turning to a life of evil; it is a term more appropriately applicable to complacency and delegation; that act by which we attempt to "delegate" discipleship responsibilities to "someone" who never seems to be around. But I am going to tell you what I used to tell those who worked for me in my previous life: when we become aware of a problem, that problem has become our own. It cannot be passed on to "someone" because "someone" is never around; "someone" always fades away especially when a problem presents itself.

This is no less true in discipleship and in matters of the Holy Church. We know there are problems out there and we obviously cannot solve them all, but we can no longer afford to ignore them because they always have a way of coming back to us. Always. And it is important to carefully read Matthew's account of the Parable of the Talents. "To each according to his ability"; it does not say "according to 'will' or 'desire'".

There is not one among us who can escape this clause because each of us has been spiritually equipped; young and old, rich and poor, black and white, male and female. We are inherently connected by the common image in which we were all created. We do not all have the same abilities, obviously, but we each have some ability and we must all have the same sense of purpose: TO GROW THE CHURCH, to make disciples. To encourage one another, and to love our neighbors into the Body of Christ, not support or contribute to their useless excuses. To not only meet them where they are, but to lead them out of the darkness which has enveloped them and into the Light of Christ.

Before we can do this, however, we must embrace our commonality. We must embrace our abilities and appreciate what the Lord has given us ... FOR HIS GLORY rather than our own comfort and sense of personal assurance. I am begging you to wake up and realize the time is short and the End is unknown to us all. The Lord loves you - I hope you know this - but our commitment to Him through discipleship is our response to that Love. There is nothing else to "get right" until this "First Thing" comes First.

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