After spending the better part of Sunday afternoon letting the weight of the sermon sink in, my friend decided to give me a call. The tone of his voice revealed the level of frustration he was experiencing. I tried to coax out of him why he was upset, but he remained vague. He maintained that he'd like to meet in person to discuss it further. We decided to meet up for lunch Monday afternoon.
I always hate going into conversations like this--completely blind. They make me anxious! For years I had a boss that was notorious for doing the same thing. He would come into my office to tell me that we needed to talk. Usually this was followed by a request for coffee or lunch later that day. Before I could even press him for details, my boss would be out the door and down the hall. Immediately, my mind would jump to the worst case scenario, thinking I was getting fired. I would work myself up. Worry would set in. My stomach would get in knots. And I'd make myself sick dreading that conversation until it was over. Nine times out of ten, my boss just wanted to reaffirm something I was doing and tell me how much he appreciated me. All things considered, you think I would be used to these kinds of conversations by now. But I'm not! You think I wouldn't get so worked up. But I do!
From the time we hung up until the time we met for lunch, I agonized over what the conversation might entail. I knew he and his wife were going through a rough patch. So, instantly, I thought he was going to tell me they were getting a divorce. I spent hours trying to think of things to say that would offer him some sort of solace. Having been there myself, I knew there were really no words that would do this experience any justice.
I was the first to arrive and made myself comfortable in the corner booth. A few minutes later he walked in. I grabbed his attention and he made his way to the back of the restaurant. He sat down and initiated small talk. After the waitress took our order, I cut to the chase and asked him what was going on. He was upset about something his pastor said in his sermon the previous morning. Quickly, he gave me a recap of the sermon. I'd be lying if I told you I heard much of what he said. I was too relieved to focus on the words that were flowing. However, he caught my attention when he quoted the pastor as saying: "If you aren't willing to die for this church, it might be time for you to find a new place to worship. We could use the seats."
Apparently, his pastor wasn't messing around. Not only was he challenging the church to take Jesus' call to be "all in" to an entirely different level; but, in fewer words, he told the congregation that he didn't really want some of them there. Maybe the whole statement was taken out of context. Perhaps his pastor got a bit worked up and didn't really mean to say it the way it came out. But then again, I can't entirely dismiss the fact that he meant exactly what he said. I can't help but think this mentality might be infiltrating our churches today. It might surprise you to know that pastor's statement doesn't shock me. Not because those sentiments resonate with me, but because I've seen this attitude present in the church for quite some time. To be honest, it's probably nothing new to my generation either.
While I haven't heard those exact words uttered on a Sunday morning, the same message seems to be popping up more regularly. For a time it seemed to be reserved for debates with "un-believers." But anymore, it seems they aren't the only ones we've gone to war with. Even in our fellowship (or lack there of) with rest of the global church, there is sense of pride. The church seems to be rearing it's smug attitude of superiority all over the place. I hear it in sermons, when pastor's brag about their denominational affiliation. I read it in books, when the author bashes any and every dissenting theological view. I see it posted on social media when my friends confess their love for their church. That's not to say I haven't been guilty of any of this. I have! However, I like to think that I'm now more aware of it and trying to fight against it in my own life.
To think that we have Christianity figured out and to garner a sense of pride in our church or our theology is to lack the humility Jesus so adamantly encouraged. Wasn't this the same pride that was foundational to the attitude Jesus condemned in every encounter with the self-righteous Pharisees? Aren't we the same as them in that regard--that our pride says to others, "My Christianity is superior to yours."? When we propagate this mind-set, we cease to partner with Jesus in the work of reconciliation and restoration. Thusly, we cease to truly be the Church.
There! Now I'll step off my soap box, and offer some insight--the same insight I offered my friend.
Everywhere we turn, someone, or something is vying for our allegiance. Sports teams. Car companies. Television networks. Politicians. Political parties. Flags. Countries. And of course, the church. Many of us will readily admit that Jesus taught our allegiance is to be, first and foremost to God. That is, until someone steps on our toes and throws our church into the mix. For many, their allegiance to God and their church are so intertwined it's difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. But what does Jesus have to say about all of this?
From my estimation, God makes it pretty clear that he does not want to vie for our allegiance. Isn't that the whole point of the first commandment? Jump ahead to the New Testament and we find Jesus teaching the same thing. At one point Jesus goes so far as to tell us that our allegiance cannot be divided. Either we will love the one and hate the other, or hate the one and love the other. According to Jesus, serving two masters isn't just difficult, it's impossible. To further illustrate this point, he even turns away a would be disciple. From reading the story, this man seems to have a legitimate concern. All he wants to do is bury his father before taking off to follow in the foot steps of this rabbi. But from Jesus' perspective, his allegiance is divided, so this won't fly.
Today is no different. God doesn't want to vie for our allegiance. Yet he must, because our allegiance is divided between church attendance, theological stances and denominational commitments (among other things). As if these things take precedence over following Jesus. Paul seems to address this all too common attitude in his letter to the Corinthian Church. To them he writes, "When one of you says, "I am a follower of Paul," and another says, " I follow Apollos," aren't you acting just like the people of the world? after all, who is Apollos? Who is Paul? We are only God's servants through whom you believed the Good News. Each of us did the work the Lord gave us. I planted the seed in your hearts, and Apollos watered it. but it was God who made it grow. It's not important who does the planting, or who does the watering. What's important is that God makes the seed grow. The one who plants and the one who waters work together with the same purpose. And both will be rewarded for their own hard work."
Who cares if you follow Wesley? What difference does it make that you are Baptist? Does it matter that you adhere to the teaching of Luther? Are these the distinctive things that make you a disciple of Jesus? Of course not! What's important, according to Paul, is that God is doing something. In spite of our varying beliefs, God continues to cause that seed to grow. But, from time-to-time the church would have you believe something entirely different. They will make it a point, perhaps indirectly, to major on the minors. Various churches will seek to exclude others from the kingdom of God based on a person's preference on worship style, which translation of the Bible they ready, or any other issue in which they don't see eye-to-eye.
Just because someone has a differing view on something doesn't mean we have to bring their allegiance to Jesus into question. This point was so eloquently made by Rob Bell. During an interview, he took a particular stance on a particular issue that lead many to question if he even believes in Jesus. "...You have a particular conviction," he said, "and all of the sudden your orthodoxy or your faithfulness to Jesus is called into question." This should not be the case. Jesus made room for the Church to be much more inclusive than all of that. According to Galatians 3:28, "There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For [we] are all one in Christ Jesus."
Let me be clear on this one thing: we cease to be the church when our divisiveness makes much of theology and little of Jesus. Being the Church has never been about agreeing on every little piece of doctrine. It has been about throwing aside our individual identities, in order to take on a new identity in Christ. One that no longer differentiates between all of this, but validates the work God is doing. It seems to me, that's why Paul specifically admonishes us to "never boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ." Perhaps it's time we again listen to the words of the old hymn that remind us "...[our] hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness."
So, you see, no matter how great, how biblical, or how Christ centered our theology, our church, or our denomination is, they are still fallible. And no matter how we spin it, to make much of them is nothing short of idolatry. These things, in and of themselves, do not make anyone a disciple. Just hear the words of Jesus "I tell you the truth, those who listen to my message and believe in God who sent me have eternal life. They will never be condemned for their sins, but they have already passed from death into life."