Wednesday, April 06, 2016

The Invitation

As it goes, typically in Protestant churches, toward the end of the worship service, the pastor will issue an “invitation” to the congregation.  Those who desire a relationship with The Lord are invited to come forward and commit themselves to Christ through His Church. 

What is also typical is the invitation to recite the so-called “sinner’s prayer” as a matter of confession with the understanding it is this prayer which summons The Lord to “come into one’s heart” to become one’s “personal” Savior and Lord.

None of this is bad … on the surface.  Yet when we look more closely at the state of the Church today and witness the continuing exodus from the Church of the so-called “none’s” and “done’s”, primarily of the millennial age (18-29), we may discover there is nothing beneath that surface if those who accept the invitation (and those charged with supporting these new catechumens) fail to go deeper.  Accepting this invitation is only the beginning of an exciting, sometimes dangerous, often uncomfortable, yet always fulfilling adventure in discipleship; i.e., following and learning from Jesus through the Written Word.

Having been raised in the Roman Catholic Church (RCC), most of this is still somewhat strange to me even these many years later as a United Methodist pastor.  Not bad, not good; just different.  There is a structure in place in the RCC that maintains a certain - often perceived as rigid - discipline.  Deliberately learning about church doctrine and moving into the Covenant is the essence of the sacramental process in the RCC (Protestants typically refer to this process as “unnecessary works”).  The invitation is answered at baptism when parents vow to bring their children into the Covenant and become active partners with the Church in rearing their children as disciples of Christ. 

My observation goes a little further than to assess the value of the Protestant invitation.  I’m wondering which way the invitation should be understood.

The typical invitation is to “invite Jesus” into one’s heart with the implied expectation that Jesus will magically transform one’s life with no effort on the part of the one inviting Jesus in.  I cannot say this is how it is preached or taught, but I can say with relative certainty that this is often how it seems to be understood; let Jesus do the work with one’s heart, and everything else will fall into place.  In other words, Jesus will follow us rather than that we are to learn to follow Jesus.

What if catechumens (new disciples) understood this invitation as it is biblically pronounced (“Seek The Lord while He may be found”)?  What if catechumens were taught there is a standing Covenant into which we are invited?  What if we all admitted that Jesus does not and will not separate Himself from that Covenant to follow us?  What if catechumens were treated by the Church (and parents!) as “students” who have much to learn and a profound need to learn more than the “coat-of-many-colors-fairy-tales”, that what they (and we) need to know will not be magically imparted to recipients unwilling to receive its terms?  What if the Church were to hold these new disciples (and parents!) accountable, just as a public school teacher holds each student accountable? 

The information is there, but one must delve into that information and engage in the work of learning as worthy of our attention and efforts while respecting the wisdom of the teachers.  Doing the work and actively participating in the learning process is how the knowledge is internalized to ideally become a part of the student’s learning process and of the student’s life.  Students typically understand this.  They may not like it, but they get it.  Though they may hope otherwise, students generally know if they do not do the work they will not make the grade.

So how can it be that we somehow seem to think this does not apply to discipleship studies in actively “seeking”?  How is it that the Church has allowed a very shallow notion that “getting saved” settles everything?  This is not to diminish in any way the power of The Lord to do wondrous things with individual lives!  The Lord has certainly done a work in my own heart; and though I may be “bound for the Promised Land” by my own desire and the “hope that is within me”, I also know holiness as “spiritual perfection” is not merely given but embraced in one’s own life (Matthew 19:16-21) by active participation.  There is always something new to learn about The Lord and His Word.  I know I am not “holy” (perfect, complete) and thus worthy of Heaven’s Gate, but I also know the potential is there and that with The Lord’s help, holiness is possible as Gabriel and Jesus both declare (Luke 1:37; Mark 10:27).

The Church is at a critical crossroads, and I know every individual church lives in fear of losing members – even members who do not tithe, do not participate in any discipleship studies, and rarely attend worship services.  The churches are even more afraid of confronting these marginal members for fear that any push may be the one that causes them to leave for good.  Yet we fail to understand that “tolerance” (the pop culture word-of-the-day) without accountability cannot be biblically or doctrinally justified as “love”.  We also seem not to understand that the strength of the community is compromised and ultimately diminished when that community’s standards are not faithfully taught, faithfully upheld, and faithfully maintained with integrity.

This is the heart of Covenant.  There are standards of holiness, standards of discipleship, and reasonable standards of expectation for those who are invited in (which should be everyone!) or who ask to become a part of that Covenant.  These standards also apply (perhaps even more so, cf Luke 12:47-48) to those who propose to teach and to lead. 

The sad fact, however, is there will be those who will decide for themselves they do not wish to be a part of that Covenant.  They want to be “saved” (who does not want to go to Heaven??), but they demand salvation only on their own terms as they “summon” Jesus to come into their hearts rather than to accept the wide-open invitation to enter into the Heart of Christ through His Church, His congregation, His people, His very Body. 

It is likely these have been taught from an early age by a careless church pursuing “popularity” and being “relevant” (rather than fidelity and holiness) that salvation on human terms is possible.  Since it is biblically expressed as The Lord’s will that all be saved (Ezekiel 18:23; 1 Timothy 2:4), it may be implied that The Lord will soften His demands and compromise His expectations of a holy people for the sake of becoming a “personal” Savior to one who so “summons” Him.

We must never forget it is The Lord who summons us in and through Christ Jesus.  It is The Lord who invites, and it is The Lord alone who saves – but we must be willing participants in our transformation by doing the work asked of The Lord’s people … on The Lord’s terms: “For your Father knows of your needs before you ask Him” (Matthew 6:8).

Let the invitation stand, but let us not be confused about the nature or direction of this invitation.  We are encouraged by Christ Jesus to “seek”, to “ask”, and to “knock”.  Never are we told The Lord may be summoned by us on our terms as a fairy tale genie who grants wishes and fulfills our commands.  The standing invitation from our God is to find what we are ultimately looking for, what we were created to desire above all else, who we really are in Him.  His is an open invitation to come as we are, but He loves us too much to leave us as we once were; for this is when Eternity begins.

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