Sunday, March 13, 2016

Decisions, decisions ... 5th Sunday of Lent

Deuteronomy 4:25-31
Romans 10:1-13
Mark 1:1-15

“Where there is no counsel, the people fail; but in the multitude of counselors, there is safety.”  Proverbs 11:14

The heart of the Proverb simply states “two heads are better than one”.  We have individual ideas about what needs to be done and how it needs to be done, but different perspectives with varied experiences can help us to see the same idea and the same goal much more broadly.   

This is why church committees can often be seen as unnecessarily cumbersome when the principle of local church governance is misunderstood.  The local church is not “run” by any single individual; not the one with the most money, not the one who screams the loudest or complains the most, and certainly not the pastor.  The real power of the Church depends on an equally invested Body participating equally toward the mission to which the Church is called – to make disciples - not to cater to individual demands.

I remember an article I had read some years ago about a church in a large city going to the “inner city” to have a picnic for an “outreach”; to offer Christ to children and youth.  With hot dogs and hamburgers and music and games with prizes, a good time was had by all.  At the end of the time, the pastor called for everyone who was there to “make a decision for Christ”.  By the host church’s account, “hundreds” came to The Lord that day.

The thing I never quite understood about these “hundreds” – apart from the host church’s presumption that none had ever heard of Jesus - is how their “decision for Christ” did not translate into new or enhanced discipleship training programs for children at the host church; how these “hundreds” did not translate into increased worship or Sunday school attendance, or how these “hundreds” (who were presumably transformed) changed the landscape of the “inner city” itself.

Now, of course this is a pretty narrow vision and may be an unfair assessment of the overall success of this outreach effort.  Maybe some among these “hundreds” did renew their commitments to churches in their own neighborhood.  Maybe the Holy Spirit really did reach out and touch these “hundreds” just as “thousands” were so touched by the accounts of Acts

This church that went to all this trouble to step outside their own bubble in the name of The Lord had the right idea and should be commended; they just did not have a mechanism in place – or even a real desire - to follow up, to disciple these “hundreds” and work to create real and lasting relationships.  The “hundreds” may have decided in that moment for Christ, but what they may have decided after that afternoon in the park is anyone’s guess. 

And the reason there is nothing left but a guess is because there was no follow-up.  The church leading this charge only needed these “hundreds” to repeat the so-called “sinner’s prayer” out loud to consider their efforts successful.  Whether these “hundreds” would follow them to their church was up to these who made their own decisions.  The church did not feel it was their responsibility after this – unless any of these “hundreds” would choose to follow them back to their church.

Here is the reason why this host church – and many others – ultimately fail with such one-time efforts: a decision for Christ is not a once-and-done proposition.  The “decision” must take much more into account than what may be happening in that particular moment, and it is the duty of the Church (the whole Body) to make sure these decisions are fully understood and not made in a void. 

No one wants to face eternal condemnation, of course, but few seem to understand a decision for Christ can never be reduced to only “smoking or non-smoking” – or any other such cheesy slogans – for all eternity.  Discipleship and Christianity are much bigger and much more holistic than this, involving the life that is now as well as life in the world to come.

There was a period in the early church in which the season of Lent was a time of preparation for catechumens to be baptized on Easter Sunday.  In that 40-day period it was necessary for these future disciples to fast and to pray and to learn not only about doctrine but to be given the time and information necessary to “count the cost” of discipleship (Luke 14:28), Jesus Himself making it plain that following Him is a life and lifestyle choice that can often come at extreme risk – as our brothers and sisters in China and Iran and in other parts of the world can attest to, extreme risks we know nothing about.

Ideally when we make a decision about anything that has the potential to be life-changing, we’ve done our homework.  We’ve consulted experts in a particular field, and we’ve considered the experiences of those who had gone before us, and we have made sure the mechanisms are in place to ensure continued success.  It is no less so in making a decision for Christ, because it will be far from over once that decision is made.  The decision itself is only the beginning.

Baptism, as a genuine Sacrament of the Church, must also be understood beyond the ritual.  Whether we are receiving a youth or an adult in baptism who had not known the Covenant or parents presenting their infants or toddlers to be baptized, there is a principle in John’s baptism that is often overlooked and involves the entire congregation.  That principle is in John’s calling to “prepare the way”.

The “way”, of course, is affirmed by Jesus Himself (John 14:6); but we have often been confused about how One who was “born without sin” would even need to go through the ritual of baptism.  The Apostles’ Creed affirms “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins”, but that statement requires a basic understanding of the doctrine of original sin but still does not explain Jesus’ decision to be baptized.  When we understand baptism as a “beginning”, however, rather than a destination or a single “decision”, then it begins to make more sense.

This “ritual” is reserved for those who are willing to fully repent; to prepare for and seek life in a whole new direction.  This “ritual” is only the portal through which to enter.  It is not the destination.  And we must decide not only to follow Jesus through this portal but beyond as well.

For us today, this standard is equally applicable to parents who present their children to be baptized.  Even if the child is not yet able to make his or her own “decision for Christ”, the parents AND the Church are stepping outside of their own bubbles and are making a vow to our Holy Father.  In the fullness of appreciating the depth and the breadth of that vow to teach – young and old alike – we are putting ourselves on the Holy Line in promising one and all that this “decision” must not end in that moment, that this “decision” settles nothing.

It is not possible for humans to know all there is to know about doctrine, theology, or the Kingdom itself.  For this, then, we have faith; faith enough to trust, faith enough to learn and to teach, faith enough to continue – because discipleship (“following Christ”) is hard, pure and simple.  As it is often said, if we find being a Christian to be easy and comfortable, we are not doing it right.  Or perhaps it could be said we’re not doing it at all.

There is nothing wrong with engaging in a “personal” relationship with The Lord … until it becomes an “exclusive” relationship that does not involve and include the whole “ekklesia”, the Body, the congregation.  When we serve as our own exclusive “counsel”, according to the Proverb, we are facing imminent failure in some form or fashion.  Perhaps when we choose to stand alone and are challenged for our faith or tempted beyond our capacity to resist, we may likely falter.

There is no real support, no real encouragement, no real accountability when we “decide” to stand alone.  And if we believe the Bible to be the “unerring” Word of God, we cannot discount the wisdom of the Proverb which serves to advise us that we need one another.  This need is the fullness of The Body of Christ and the measure of spiritual “safety” – when we can depend on, rather than to be suspicious of, one another. 

We must not seek out “guarantees”, but rather “safety” in decisions that can be affirmed and supported … or rightly challenged and corrected when we “decide” to stray too far from the safety of the “multitude of counselors” who have vowed to have our backs.  This will always involve the “decisions” we make daily according to the “Decision” we made long ago. 

When a decision for Christ is made, it must be made with the full assurance of not only the Holy Spirit but the manifestation of Christ in the world today: the Holy Church.  This is our affirmation that this “decision” was the right one, and the Church stands as the assurance that we will never be sorry for the “decision” we made. 

Let it be so; in the Name of The Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

No comments: