A former Lutheran pastor sharing thoughts on faith and life. Please join the conversation! I love your comments!

Monday, May 14, 2012

If this is Christianity, am I a Christian?

The prologue of a book by Robin Meyers* (Saving Jesus from the Church:  How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus, 2009) jumped out and grabbed my attention.    “A Preacher’s Nightmare: Am I a Christian?” I could totally relate to where he was coming from because there is so much about the church today, as well as Christianity, that actually seems to be diametrically opposed to following Jesus. He describes a kind of daydream/nightmare he had, writing,

“….the music in my dream was provided by rightwing talk-show hosts, crooning like backup singers in a concert of death. TV preachers did the drumming, slicing the world in half with the rhetoric of entitlement. The judgment is coming, they were saying, but instead of sheep and goats, one axis is God’s chosen, the other, God’s despised. We love Jesus, so we are entitled to kill for the cause; the others are crazy infidels whose resistance to the crusade is inexplicably evil. A preacher smiles and says, ‘They just want those seventy virgins.’

“The moment I opened my eyes , with the dream still fresh and vivid, I wondered about the future of the church to which I have given my life. Is it toxic now beyond redemption? Should it be allowed to die, so that something else can take its place, or should we go in search of Jesus one more time? It was as if an animal had curled up on my chest while I slept, bringing with it an urgent message from somewhere east of decency: if this is Christianity and these are Christians, I must not be one.“…

In my dream, those in power never took responsibility for anything, nor could they seem to remember anything, especially if it was important. The counsel of Jesus to let our speech be ‘a simple yes or no’ was as foreign as the idea of actually helping the poor. In my dream, the image of Jesus had morphed from a Rembrandt portrait of a sad but radiant face into a bobble-headed doll in the back of a stretch limo. In the landscape of my dream, churches had ceased building sanctuaries and opted for metal auditoriums without steeples or religious symbols. While the band played and the privileged wept tears of self-satisfied joy, young warriors for Christ were taught to love Jesus by hating Darwin and homosexual

“…In this brave new world, Orwell’s ubiquitous ‘telescreens’ were everywhere, and the simple truth was treated like a quaint liability. Loyalty counted for more than competence, and the secret handshake in the halls of power was the wink of crony capitalism. There seemed to be fewer and fewer citizens now, lost in a stampede of consumers. Instead of grand and trembling rhetoric that called us to sacrifice, we heard only advertisements--dazzling new reasons why we should hurry up and act now on our own behalf. I woke up thinking, if this is Christianity and these are Christians, I must not be one.”

 Last week I talked about my own personal emerging understanding of resurrection. I believe that in the person of Jesus, his followers encountered a flesh and blood human who embodied God for them in a way no one had ever done before. They seemed to know, to intuit in every fiber of their being that God, as revealed through Jesus’ life, was the real thing. This understanding of God made more sense than anything they had ever known. When Jesus was crucified, they were understandably lost for a time. He had been with them, had been active in his ministry for one, two, three years? Not for very long. Their assumption was that this glorious revealing of God’s nature must surely die along with Jesus. But then, quite unexpectedly, they began to catch glimpses of Jesus and his revelation still alive in this world, still alive within them. They began to believe that within them and through them and others like them, Jesus’ revelation of God could live eternally. Christ had arisen.

However, in order for this movement, this new understanding, to get off the ground, they needed to somehow persuade people that Jesus was more than just a man. So you have Paul, the first New Testament writer, who writes that after Jesus’ death and through the Resurrection, God lifted him up to be divine with God (Rom. 1:1-4). Then Mark, the next chronological writer, moves the timeline up a bit and indicates that Jesus became divine at the moment of his baptism when the heavens opened and God’s spirit rested upon him (Mark 1:9-11). Matthew and Luke move things up even more through the story of the virgin birth. In this narrative, Mary serves as a simple vessel for the supernatural God born in human form. And finally, we have John, which was written right after the Jesus movement was expelled from Judaism. John, like Mark, has no birth story. Instead, John states that Jesus was the Word that was with God from the very moment of creation (John 1:1-4).

So these leaders in the Jesus movement are doing everything they can to lift Jesus up as someone set divinely apart, and they are doing this in an attempt to expose everyone they can to the testimony of Jesus’ life. You’ll note, all four of the gospels spend a lot more time with Jesus’ life, his teachings, his actions, his way of being in this world, than they do with his birth or his resurrection. The emphasis is on his life.

We see this in the way the early church is structured (Acts 2 & 4). The believers are working to emulate Jesus’ life. They share all things in common. They work to make sure everyone has enough. They eat together. They pray together. They are super busy. And the church is booming. People come flocking, Gentiles and Jews alike, drawn by this lived ethic. In fact, the church is so successful, it makes those in power rather uneasy and so this Jesus movement has to weather several periods of persecution....that is until Constantine comes along some 200 plus years later.

Constantine and the emperors that follow him, gradually usher Christianity in as the official state religion, taking this upstart religious movement from persecuted to powerful. At the same time, other religious movements and pagan groups begin to be squashed. It’s also important to note that up to this point, there are many different Christian streams of thought. It is not a unified religious movement by any means. And many, if not most, of the divisions have to do with different ways of understanding the nature of Christ. For example, Arians believed God and Jesus were both divine but were separate. Homoiousians felt God and Jesus were one and the same and were eternal (Christianity in the 4th century - wikipedia). Ebionites thought Jesus was a righteous man chosen by God to be a messianic prophet (Ebionites - wikipedia).

Constantine believes if Christianity is going to serve as the state religion, then there needs to be a set creed of right beliefs, so in 325 he convenes the first council of Nicaea. Between 200 and 300 bishops from across the empire attend, representing many of these different streams of thought. Arguments are made, votes are taken and at the end of the day, or however long the council lasted, a new statement of belief is crafted and everyone from that point who is at odds with the conclusions reached by the council, is declared heretical and in some cases is persecuted by the state.

I grew up in the Lutheran Church reciting the Nicene Creed every first Sunday of the month, communion Sunday. Below I've pasted the middle section of the Nicene Creed below.  This is the piece about Jesus.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only begotten Son of God,
begotten of his Father before all worlds,
God of God, Light of Light,
very God of very God,
begotten, not made,
being of one substance with the Father;
by whom all things were made;
who for us men and for our salvation
came down from heaven,
and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost
of the Virgin Mary,
and was made man;
and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered and was buried;
and the third day he rose again
according to the Scriptures,
and ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of the Father;
and he shall come again, with glory,
to judge both the quick and the dead;
whose kingdom shall have no end.

Does anything here seem odd? This is supposed to be a summary statement of what is means to believe in Jesus. So we have the early church, called the church of “The Way”, described in Acts as a community committed to following the example of Jesus. Now fast forward a couple of hundred years and what is included in this creed about the life of Jesus? Nothing. The church has gone from following Jesus to worshipping Christ. The emphasis is no longer on ethics or living your faith, rather the emphasis is on right belief, how you understand the nature of Christ and what you believe about Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus has morphed into an ethereal Christ who we can revere and glorify, but who is so far removed from us, we cannot hope to follow him. He was God after all.

A trajectory was set in these first few hundred years that makes the state of the church today not nearly so surprising. Why are so few Christians pacifist? Why doesn’t the Christian Church insist on universal healthcare? Why does the religious right get so hung up on the topics of abortion and homosexuality - two issues Jesus never even addressed? Why can so many churches preach a prosperity gospel which totally contradicts the teachings of Jesus? Well, because since the time of Constantine, the Christian Church set itself on a path which would consistently devalue the relevance of Jesus’ life.

Robin Meyers puts it this way, “The Bible is both inspired and covered with human fingerprints--but the Bible is not what we worship. The God to which the Bible points us is what we worship, and the claim of the first followers of Jesus was not that he was God, but rather that he revealed the fullness of God at work in a human being. For our part, however, the evolution from symbol to idol is inevitable. We are always tempted to make golden calves out of the instruments of revelation, and the result is more than just the sin of idolatry. Jesus becomes the Christ, and then Jesus is lost. We stare across the abyss of adoration at a deity we can worship, but not emulate.”

Throughout this book, Meyers urges the church to renew its relationship with both the ethic and wisdom offered through study of scripture. I John 5:1-6 was one of our scripture texts on Sunday.  According to this passage, three things are expected of us: that we believe Jesus was the Christ and that we demonstrate this belief in the way we live our life - obeying God’s commandments and loving God and one another. So my first question after reading this passage was, what exactly were God’s commandments? If I believe, in the words of Meyers’, that “Jesus revealed the fullness of God at work in a human being” and thus came to be understood as the Christ, well then, I need to go to the gospels to get a handle on God’s commandments.

And so I chose Mark, which was written first and is believed to be most historically accurate of the four.
As I read through all the red print in Mark, I was taken aback, realizing how few commandments Jesus really outlined. Jesus spent far more time teaching and not a whole lot of time commanding. However, here’s what I came up with: We are to take care of children.  We should not murder, commit adultery, divorce or steal. We are to honor our parents. If we really want to lay it all on the line, we are to sell everything we own so to more perfectly be able to follow Jesus. But then Jesus says, you take all the commandments in the entire Bible and they can be boiled down to this - Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself.

That’s all Mark gave me by way of commandments.

If we jump over to the gospel of John, we find scripture singing in unison. In John 15:12, Jesus says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Meyers points out though the difference between believing something and obeying it. He uses Luke 11 as an illustration, when a woman from the crowd hollers out, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” Jesus responds saying, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”

Meyers writes, “Notice he did not say blessed are those who hear the word of God and believe it. Nor did he say blessed are those who hear the word of God and enshrine it as doctrine. Nor did he say blessed are those who hear the word of God and co-opt it for a particular religious or political agenda. He said, blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it. That is, blessed are those who give up their old way of being in the world and willingly surrender to a new way…..The first question any churchgoer should be asked and expected to answer is: What are you willing to give up to follow Jesus?”

The wisdom offered in these New Testaement passages, is to love. The ethic is how to make obeying the commandment to love God and others the blueprint for how one lives their life. The operating instructions are offered in the gospel’s testimony to and about Jesus’ life. Whether or not the church can reclaim Jesus and reorder itself according to the imperative to follow Jesus will determine the future of the church, whether or not it will survive.

Just as Meyers’ opened the book with a kind of living nightmare about the present state of the Christian Church, so he closes his book with a dream about what the church could be.

“In my dream, I heard the voices of a new generation of leaders who will one day restore dignity and honor to this land I love, and who, in humility, will know what they do not know. War will again be the horror of last resort, and peace will be waged at the highest level with the help of the church of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. Fashions may change, but one thing will remain constant--the church can be counted on for an unwavering commitment to nonviolence. We will never again argue the case that violence saves.

“In my dream, TV preachers had all retired to serve local parishes because preaching into a camera and asking strangers for money was not what Jesus had in mind. On Sunday mornings, the inside of a church had become the only place where a millionaire could end up seated next to a homeless person living with HIV, or a church matriarch could sing hymns in harmony with a teenage runaway who joined the youth group just for the pizza. I woke up thinking: if this is Christianity and these are Jesus followers, I want to be one.

 “In my dream, I saw walls knocked down, built by nations that once condemned their enemies for building walls. Preachers got their nerve back and thundered: ‘Nothing advertises human failure like a wall, and no human being should ever be called an ‘alien’, illegal or otherwise.

“In my dream, no one had to choose between science and religion, as if the head and the heart cannot marry, and women took their rightful place around the open table, serving as well as being served. Sexual orientation was an identity, not a curse, and money was a form of portable power, not an instrument of oppression.

“In my dream I saw churches lead the way to protect the environment--conserving energy, recycling, preaching the virtues of organic farming and lawn care, and establishing community gardens. Sunday school classes were free and open forums in which adults could ask any question, and no one feared new ideas or new ways of being faithful. I woke up thinking: if this is Christianity and these are Jesus followers, I want to be one.”


*Robin Meyers has been the pastor of a large Congregational church in Oklahoma City for over 25 years, is a professor in the philosophy department at Oklahoma City University and has authored several books.


Charlene said...

Looked at this way, Jesus has a lot in common with Buddha. (Though the Buddha was around a little longer to resist the deification...which eventually happened in some circles anyhow.) Also, all the things Robin is attracted to about the early church and wanting to see in the future church, are, interestingly, all the things that attract me to the current neo-pagan movement. It's not organized, there's no creed, but it is generally pacifist, environmentalist, and egalitarian. If neo-paganism ever gets organized, I probably won't like it much anymore. Though it might take a couple hundred years to get institutional enough to be really ruined for me.

Lynn Schlosser said...

Thanks for the comment Charlene.
Two things come to mind in response....One, when you get down to the core, "best of" qualities of any religion or spiritual path, there seems to be an awful lot of common ground. What does that say about the Divine?
Two, it feels like institutionalized Christianity, over the course of history, keeps going back and forth between an emphasis on either right living or right belief. Right now, as a whole, the balance is totally tipped towards right belief. However, the early church described in Acts was all about right living and not so much right belief - also "no creed, pacifist..and egalitarian". I'm far more drawn to movements that embody a lived ethic. While I don't know much about neo-paganism, it sounds like again, there's lots of common ground in shared ideals. And the best indicator, in my mind, of a genuine relationship with the Holy is how love, compassion, justice and inclusivity are lived out.