Monday, November 24, 2014

Feel the burn

Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46

"To be in Christ - that is redemption; but for Christ to be in you - that is sanctification."  W. Ian Thomas

So this question goes directly to the confusion experienced by almost every demographic group that is outside of the Church (and even some who are in): how "saved" do we need to be?  How engaged in the Christian life, which is discipleship, does one need to be? 

I am reminded of the rich young man who approached Jesus to ask "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" (Mark 19:16-23)  Jesus' answer was very simple and very direct: keep the commandments.  This statement alone flies in the face of the contemporary Church that cries "legalism!" when commandments are lifted up as necessary toward the fullness of life.  The man was not satisfied with that simple answer, so he virtually pulls out his "check list" and says, "Which ones?" 

Jesus names off a few from among the "Ten", but He also pulls out one commandment that is not listed among the "Ten": "You shall love your neighbor as yourself".  This one, of course, comes from Leviticus.  It is not part of a "list"; it is part of a discourse.  It is not listed among the "Ten" in Exodus or Deuteronomy, but its importance in the grand scheme cannot be overstated as Jesus reiterates this particular commandment's overall impact in Mt 22:40: All the law and the prophets depend on it.

What is funny about this is that this last commandment seemed to have gone right past the young man because he obviously "checked it off" his list as "done" - or he didn't hear it or want to hear it.  Yet when Jesus tells him that in order to be "perfect" (Matthew) or to acquire what he actually "lacked" (Mark & Luke), he would need to sell everything he had and give the money to the poor.  So his faithfulness was not simply a matter of what he should refrain from doing; it was rather a matter of what he was willing to do - always in the future.

We're left to wonder, then: what did the young man believe he had once done that this last commandment would have been considered by him, according to his own standards, to have been "fulfilled" or "kept" or "obeyed".  If he walked away saddened by the concept of being poor himself for the sake of those who needed help, how could he have considered that he had "loved his neighbor" - a necessary requirement for eternal life, according to Jesus? 

This is an honest question that requires an honest answer, for it is our answer not in recitation or memorization but in actual practice that will determine where we find ourselves in the Day of the Lord.  It is not about what we once did "yesterday"; it is entirely about what we are willing to do "tomorrow" in perpetuity.

In order for the Church to grow in sanctifying grace, we have got to get past the prescription formulas and single-answer check lists by which we determine our own righteousness.  We have become so dependent on man-made - and incomplete - doctrines that we have virtually ignored altogether what is actually written for us to know - AND for us to grow on.

For instance, we might be inclined to decide for ourselves (as I have actually heard this preached) that the "saved" are the sheep (Mt 25:31-46).  That is the popular notion, of course, but it does not go deeply enough because it clearly does not read the text carefully enough.  The sheep are indeed those to be "saved", but that mercy will not be extended to those who do not fit the profile Jesus lays out very carefully.  He does not say, "Those who recited the 'sinner's prayer' or memorized the Apostles' Creed or the Lord's Prayer will be on My right ..."

No, where we are indeed headed is a place of "perfection" that requires "perfection"; as Jesus commands, "You shall be perfect, just as your Father in Heaven is perfect" (Mt 5:48).  Where the Church gets tripped up, however, is strangely ironic in that the 16th century Reformation Church did its level best to distance itself from the prescribed "works" of the Roman Church and its sometimes corrupt practices and borderline superstitions - only to trade one set of superstitions and prescriptions for another. 

Now we can split hairs all day long about what constitutes salvation, what it feels like and what it may look like and what prayers must be said to make it happen, but Jesus seems pretty clear that faithfulness in perfect obedience - AND - perseverance in the face of adversity will rule the Day; not only "that" Day but every day between now and then: "Those who endure to the end will be saved" (Mt 10:22). 

There are extreme "growing pains" associated with discipleship, and discipleship is entirely wrapped up and invested in "sanctification" - that is, "going on to perfection" purposefully rather than incidentally.  What we seem to be entirely trying to avoid, however, are precisely the growing "pains" we must endure in order to be sanctified by Christ. 

All too often we are more in the role of the young man who wanted the bare minimum, a "one-and-done" formula.  In that narrow vision, however, he would deny himself the "perfect" state that was being offered to him in that moment with our Lord.  The invitation was there not only to sell all he had but to rid himself of the world's encumbrances so that he would then be ENABLED to "take up the cross and follow" Jesus all the way to blessedness! 

Yet he walked away because the cost and subsequent discomfort was more than he was willing to bear.  And he cheated not only himself but others with whom he would come into contact not because he was selfish - but because he was too narrowly focused only on himself.  He missed the entire point of salvation!  He was looking only at what it was going to cost him; he failed to see what was being offered to him, what he would certainly gain rather than what he might lose.

So when we ask "what must I do to be saved", we are asking the wrong question; and because we are so completely engrossed in "what's in it for me", we will always walk right past - or away from - all that is being offered to us.  There is nothing - NOTHING - that will make a commitment to Christ and His Church any easier.  There is only the Church on earth; and that, my friends, is the key not only to our glorious future - but is central to a life worth living now; a life filled with purpose and joy in sanctification.

I am constantly bombarded with websites and e-mails from the Conference, from advisors, and other religious and church 'experts' who seem to have those simple prescriptions and formulas by which people will virtually run to our churches.  I am more and more convinced, however, that people are not walking away from Christ. 

People are walking away from the Church due to a lack of purpose and righteous fulfillment and substance, things too often lacking in the Church.  They have begun to question the Creeds and the prayers and even the Sacraments that seem no longer to have any real meaning because these practices don't go anywhere; they just sit there because we leave them there.  The "lost" (as we fondly convince ourselves they have become) have pulled away the facade of the Church and have found, for lack of a better term, little more than "Ezekiel's bone yard" (Ezekiel 37). 

The contemporary Church has been on such a tear for so long against "works righteousness" - actually since the Reformation - that we have missed altogether the point of our very existence as the Body of Christ!  It is not now nor has it ever been about what we can get out of it for ourselves.  That is not "Christ in us".  It is entirely about what we can do for The Lord and His Church, what we have been equipped to do, and what we have been called to do for Him and in His Name regardless of risk or cost.  THAT is "Christ in us".

The "burn", the pains of spiritual growth, the hard lessons learned, the scars produced of a life filled with spiritual fruit are the only means by which we learn and find fulfillment.  We are challenged to go against our very nature - which is hard-wired to self-preservation - to swim against the tide of our humanness, and allow the nature of Christ to guide and direct us, to rule us, to regulate everything we do.  But because we have been convinced over generations that we don't have to do anything, that becomes our choice because it is easy and painless and cheap.  It asks nothing of us.

I cannot tell you what you must do to be saved - nor can any preacher or priest or rabbi - apart from what is written of and spoken by Christ Himself.  And if "personal salvation" is all we expect or hope for with no regard for our "neighbor", then we've missed the point entirely and salvation itself may be a moot point. 

If Jesus' words mean anything to us, it is not the "saved" who will be on the right hand of Christ; it will be the "sanctified" - those who knew what was the right thing to do in all circumstances regardless of personal risk or cost, and pursued that righteousness with hunger and vigor for the sake of something much greater than any person or any moment. 

He is Christ our Lord.  He is not only our Savior; He is also The Boss.  And He is IN us - or not.  Amen.

No comments: