Sunday, February 19, 2012

A Voice from the past; an eye on the future

Jeremiah 29:4-14
James 1:2-8

That the Church in America has foundered in the past 50+ years is no secret.  That the Church is spiritually compelled to address this problem is also no secret.  The secret, then, seems to be in exactly how we need to address this spiritual drain - AND - why we even need to bother.  There is a lot of hand-wringing within the Church over the notion that we are somehow in "uncharted" territory, that this new "unknown" requires new programs for a new generation, that we face "new" problems of irrelevance and social insignificance, that no one (including, perhaps, many  members) takes the Church seriously anymore, that there is a "war on religion", or that perhaps we are indeed running headlong into the "end times" as foreseen in The Revelation and that there is simply nothing more we can do. 

Maybe none of these things, maybe all these things; but we are kidding ourselves if we think the problems the American Church face are anything new; or that the problems we face are purely "external" rather than primarily, perhaps exclusively, "internal".  The "holy" and "priestly" nation of Israel has already been down this dark path, and the prophets sent by YHWH to call them out of their spiritual slumber spoke directly to the problems and told the people of Israel exactly why they were headed to destruction if they did not repent.  The prophets were not sent to the "godless hordes" by whom Israel was surrounded; the prophets were sent to the people of YHWH! 

What the prophets shared with the people of Israel was nothing new to them; they just didn't want to hear it, didn't believe they needed to.             Because they were so arrogant in their faith, their religion, their heritage, or a combination of the three, they refused to listen.  Or maybe like the contemporary secular culture seems to demand of the Church, the Lord just needs to "catch up" with the times; but the Church fails to remember that the Lord did indeed "catch up" - and Israel was brought down not because foreign armies overtook them but because the glory and presence of the Lord had departed from them as shown to the prophet (Ezekiel 10), allowing the foreign armies to invade and destroy.

Several studies and well-intentioned efforts have tried to reach back to the book of Acts in order to rediscover and recapture the Church’s genuine “root” and reconnect to the movement that changed the world.  This is in fact our Wesleyan Methodist heritage.  It was John Wesley's effort and vision to revitalize the Anglican Church in England in the 18th century.  While we must not dismiss the usefulness of Acts in this endeavor (or any other book in the Bible, for that matter!), it occurs to me that we are not dealing with a Church that has yet to be called forth anymore than the prophets were dealing with a nation that had yet to be freed.  Rather I think we need to more seriously consider that we are dealing with a Church that is 2000 years old; a "faith" that is older even than this!  We should not be seeking to create a “new” thing like Abraham and Sarah tried to create with Hagar; the Lord Himself already did the New Thing (Isaiah 43:19).  We should be seeking to reconnect with and embrace that New Thing we have perhaps turned our backs on.

The Epistle of James, then, may be a resource better suited for our needs today because the apostle was addressing a body of believers who conceivably should have already known better than what they were actually doing - or not doing.  The epistle seems more an admonishment of the established Church than a letter of encouragement to a church under the fire of persecution. 

Where James veers from Paul's writings is that James was speaking purely from a Jewish Christian perspective to a perhaps a purely Jewish Christian audience.  Paul and James are both talking about how the church is to treat newcomers, the poor, and the otherwise marginalized without sacrificing some fundamentals or their spiritual and doctrinal integrity.  And both very pointedly require that the Church answer not to the newcomers nor to the dominant culture; but to the Lord Himself.  Always.  So the problem the Church today faces, such as it is, is INTERNAL; not external.

James is probably best known for his statement that "faith without works is dead" (2:17).  In this, then, and dating back to the Reformation period, James is unfairly (and often blindly) dismissed because his emphasis seems to be on "works" rather than on faith.  This is an unfair characterization, however, because James' audience is presumably more mature in the faith.  It is also reasonably to see that James is doing battle with a perceived heresy - like St. Paul's battle with the "Judiazers" in Galatians who tried to force circumcision on the Gentiles, a uniquely Jewish religious practice the apostles had agreed previously (in Acts) was not among the "fundamentals" - but James' battle is with spiritual complacency.  We often forget, as James' audience apparently had, that our Lord must - be - served!  And this service requires - REQUIRES - "works" of faith. 

Over the years, however, it seems to be that Christians have taken a sound Protestant doctrine that "no works can save" and turned it completely upside down in that "no works are to be performed".  This is, of course, a betrayal of traditional Christianity in which Jesus requires that His faithful "take up his cross and follow Him".  It should also be our understanding of what is required of us on the path toward "sanctification", that spiritual journey by which we go on and strive toward "perfection, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles" (Hebrews 6:1).  Call it "Advanced Christianity" because it's time to grow up and move to the next level. 

It is a good message to someone who does not know the Lord at all to be reminded that our Lord wants THEIR hearts; that they cannot - and need not - "earn" their way in!  Yet it is a remarkably careless word to the Body of Believers who know (or should know) that our "works" are not only those means of grace by which we are strengthened in the faith - but - are also those means of grace by which we share the Gospel (as we are called to do), help and hold one another to mutual accountability in the faith (as we are challenged to do); and serve the needy, protect the oppressed, and minister to the poor (as we are required to do).  The Body of Christ as an expression of Christ Himself can do no less than to "work" for and toward the Kingdom of Heaven.  Jesus' life and ministry were filled with "works" of mercy and "works" of piety!  How can we think we can carry on His work if we do no "work" at all? 

So James is a much more prophetic - and relevant - critique of the contemporary Church even as it was written 2000 year ago, and he uses his Jewish Christian points to show a practical approach to "hospitality" - a required component of the Church that reaches far beyond a simple handshake - which itself requires "works".  In this single element, then, I think it may be that the Church as a whole underthinks "hospitality" and overthinks "works".  We do not give enough attention to the communal purpose for which the Church was called into being - AND - we use the curse of "works of the Law" as a means by which to excuse ourselves from the need for the "works" to be performed; insisting perhaps that the burden falls to "someone else".  There is no one - NO ONE - among the faithful who is immune to this confusion and arrogance as evidenced by the modern Church flailing about, "doubting ... like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind" (James 1:6); "being double-minded"; trying to keep up with the secular Joneses, vainly attempting to play on both sides of the spiritual street.    

This challenge is not easy.  Repentance is not easy.  Both, however, are necessary.  Both require that we take the steps necessary to draw closer to the Lord - intentionally and purposefully.  Both require that we examine not only the Word of the Lord as revealed in Scripture - but - also examine the reality of the culture and how it relates to the Lord's revelation in Scripture.  And both require this certain knowledge: that sanctification is not possible without "works" of faith. 

If we choose to live like Israel did - and for which they were driven from the good land the Lord had given to them - we should not be surprised when the Lord turns His back on us.  And where is the Lord?  Where is the Lord while our children are numbing themselves to reality with drugs and alcohol?  Where is the Lord as men and women decide to abandon hearth and home to find new lovers or seek self-fulfillment?  Where is the Lord while our children are killing each other in the streets for money and drugs and “turf”?  Where is the Lord when our women sell themselves on the street for drugs or money?  Where is the Lord when widespread corruption has come to be acknowledged as “just the way it is” in politics?

Yet in the midst of this chaos the promise is certain: "You will seek Me and find Me - when - you search for Me with all your heart; I will be found by you" (Jeremiah 29:13,14).  Jesus did not take away our need to repent - He showed, instead, why we should!  To receive life.  To participate in the "New Thing".  To strengthen us for the journey.  To grow His Beloved Church by His means - and not our own.  To lead us Home.  Until that time, then, let us begin to "bear fruit worthy of repentance".  Let us give Glory where Glory is due - because we have seen the New Thing ... and it is good!  AMEN.  

No comments: