Archive for December, 2006

CHRISTIANITY FOR TODAY

Friday, December 22nd, 2006

                                       

 

All too often we hear said of the church that it is no longer relevant to today’s world.  Statements along that line conjure up images for us of an archaic system of beliefs that have no place in our modern ‘enlightened’ understanding of the world.  They also make us look at the traditional churches in the same way we tend to look at the monarchy, as a quaint, if not absurd, relic of a bygone age.

Of course if the church was really proclaiming the inalterable truth, and bearing the fruits of the relationship it claims to have with God, it would forever be relevant.  The fact that the world is able to treat the church with such a patronising air is a statement in itself of the fading glory of this once grand and mighty institution.  But it isn’t only unbelievers that make such statements.  Jaded members of the church are also acutely aware of this lack of relevance and are desperately seeking ways to make the church appear vital and vibrant in this cynical age. 

There have been many and varied responses to this need within the church, the need to be relevant.  There has been an explosion of new denominational groups formed, which is in a sense a further splintering, an ongoing reformation, of the church.  Most of these new denominations have as their base the need to stimulate one another to an emotional religious fervour.  In a way it is a ‘feel good’ escape from the pressures and the disappointments of the world.  Anyone who has been to a Pentecostal style ‘spirit-filled’ church, with their repetitive chorus singing and swaying of arms, will know what I mean.  This style of worship is not confined to these groups alone however, for elements of this new ‘excitement’ are also to be found in all the mainstream churches. 

However the more traditional denominations seem to look toward making themselves spokesmen on social issues for them to fulfil their need to appear relevant to the world.  We have church spokesmen on taxation, welfare, Aboriginals, the environment, pornography, euthanasia, gambling and almost anything else that falls within the bounds of ethics and morality.  While all of these concerns are genuine and important they are not the message Jesus preached. 

Both of these attempts to create a relevance for the Christian message in today’s world are flawed because while they offer on the one hand emotional euphoria, and on the other compassionate purpose, they do not present to us the living witness of the Kingdom of God which Jesus, and in their turn the early church, presented to the world. 

In other words for the church to be relevant we must look back to the beginnings of Christianity and ponder what was the relevance of its message, and only then will we be able to plot a course for the future of the church. 

Before Christianity there was Christ.  When Jesus first appeared in the midst of Israel He did not go out and proclaim ‘Christianity’, but simply said that men should put their trust in Him.  He appeared in love in the midst of a religious tradition that had wandered as far away from its beginnings as the church of today has wandered from Him.  What we have preached from the pulpit today isn’t Jesus reaching out through His spokesmen, but rather we hear the presentation of the various dogmas and traditions that have been handed down to us. 

The disciples, the fathers of the church, did not have their lives turned upside down by their meeting a doctrinal statement, but rather by their meeting Christ.  They were men who had been brought up practising the religious traditions of their fathers, but in their meeting Jesus they found all of their preconceptions challenged.  Here was a man who spoke with authority and power, which had them question many of the values that their tradition had espoused.  He challenged the disciples to be like Him, He troubled them in all of their understanding, He did things which no one else could do – the miracles, His walking on water etc – and yet, while He spoke with an authority which often intimidated them, He spoke in love and they knew He loved them.  They gladly left all and followed Him. 

Who could ever claim this power of witness to today's Church?  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep because his life is to give them life.  This is what he lives for.  This we know is what Jesus did.  The disciples followed Him all the way to His crucifixion and He never let them down, even rising from the dead to reveal His love and concern for them. 

The church’s task is to make disciples of men.  To emulate Christ’s love, to draw men to itself in the power and love of the risen Christ and in His image to work together with Him to transform men’s lives to mirror that which we witness in Jesus. The church has forgotten the depth of the relationship that there was between Jesus and His followers.  The love between them was concrete and unshakeable because they knew each other in a complete and real way.  It was the power of this love between each one of them and the risen Lord that transformed the disciples lives and made them into fishers of men. 

Unless we too know Jesus in the same way, just as the Apostle Paul also grew to know Him without meeting Him in the flesh, we will never be of use to Him.  This unfortunately is the plight of the church.  For although they know the words that have been proclaimed concerning Him they do not know the power in which they were originally spoken. 

The disciples could not help but be relevant!  The Lord of all creation had been in their midst, befriended them and then charged and empowered them to reach out to others in His name, in His love, to proclaim that the love with which He loved them, He also loved all who came to Him.  He taught that the relationship that He had with them, He would have with all men who put their trust in Him, through His Holy Spirit which was poured out.  If a man does not know Jesus in the same intimate way that His apostles did, how can he ever hope to speak of the love of Christ and His power to save?  Without an identical knowledge of Jesus all we are able to do is parrot emptily the words other men have lived! 

If the church has lost its relevance it is because it has lost the power of Christ’s love to reach out and transform others.  It is because the church has lost its first love!  It is because those who sit within it as guides and leaders have not met with Christ and known the transforming nature of His love as the early fathers of the church did.  

If the church has any relevance for us today it is because Christ is still reaching out in love that we also might come to know our total dependency in Him, that we too might come to know the unexpected joy of a real faith based on a living relationship with Him. 

Faith does not mean waiting for death in hope of a better life; but rather faith begins living today the full hope that it has received.  The church should be a living witness to us all, of the life we all ought to be living, yoked in a perfect union of love with the risen Christ.  If that was what we saw, when we looked at the church, there could never be a question of relevance to be considered.

Christmas

Wednesday, December 20th, 2006

Christmas marks the calender like an indelible marker, for as much as you know that its arrival is meaningless nevertheless its passing always registers somehow upon you.  Of course this is understandable when you consider how long you are hounded, night and day, by the merchants anxious to receive your generosity, or more poignantly by various media outlets so overcome with Christmas cheer that they insist on joining with you by orchestrating a mass outpouring of yuletide fervour in carols by candlelight.  What is not understandable is that the world has not allowed this obvious recipe for unbridled nausea and cynicism to put an end to the charade.  There must therefore be, hidden under all the tinsel, some profound need in man that he has fulfilled through Christmas.  Why else would he bother?

The church, of course, gets in on the act raising itself to the full height of its stature that it might, in some measure, be equal to the pomp and ceremony that this self proclaimed importance has, most humbly, thrust upon it.  Naturally they fail miserably, but not without the entire world being forced to endure their pious platitudes broadcast through the various media outlets.  It's all part of the carnival!  What would Christmas be without the spectacle of grown men, looking unbelievably pompous in their fetching gowns and ludicrous hats, pontificating self-righteously to the assembled once-a-year Christians.

That Christmas endures year after year in the face of such worthy attempts to relegate it to the 'poor taste' day of the year, speaks volumes for the pluck and the resilience of the human spirit.  It would seem that we need Christmas with all its bacchanalian and hedonistic undertones.  We forgive retailers in a spirit of Christian 'goodwill' for their excessive clamour.  We choose to overlook their salivating over our paychecks, their polluting of our minds with their 'rent-a-carol' background muzak, all in the name of Christmas.  Both parties are somehow 'better' people, ritually cleansed through this subtle round of seasonal posturing.  We are much healthier for our forgiving attitude and they are much wealthier for having allowed themselves to be publicly humiliated to have been placed in our debt and be thus in need of our heartfelt compassion!

Of course the poor we always have!  Without them the party wouldn't even begin to get off the ground!  There is something inexplicably heartwarming about seeing our civic leaders giving up their precious time to humbly serve at the traditional paupers Christmas dinners.  The poor, whom through their policies and indifference they help create, being used carthartically to release the leaders repressed humanitarian qualities.  Who hasn't shed a tear in the face of such powerful symbolism?  For that one day of the year all is as it ought to be!  The fact that the poor live in cardboard boxes the rest of the year simply means that they only need to be gift wrapped to be brought out for next years celebration!

Yes the wonder of it all is that at bottom there are those who really believe in Christmas.  People from all walks of life actually believe the day means something.  Pope John Paul II for example actually believed that Cuba was a better place when it officially sanctioned Christmas!  Somehow Christmas is the sign of enlightenment, the mature response to the birth of Christ!  Never mind that the day has more in keeping with pagan nature worship than the humble suffering love of Christ. Nevertheless it must say something about man that he needs, and to some extent believes in the 'Christmas spirit'.

At best Christmas is a recognition of our imprisonment.  We need to acknowledge our lives aren't all that they should be.  We need a vehicle to express our Utopian dreams.  Heaven must somehow visit earth!  Good food, good wine, good cheer, contented children, satisfied parents, the poor clothed and fed, even full churches!  Christmas, as a day, has a lot going for it.  The major problem of course with Christmas is the other 364 days of the year it stands in contrast with.  Our deep need for Christmas is a recognition of our failings.  The more foolishly we cling, the more desperately we acknowledge our shame.  For if Christmas was really about the celebration of Christ's birth the celebration would never cease.  Jesus came to give life and give it abundantly.  Yet we, supposedly a Christian nation, acknowledge our lack of that abundance once a year.  Instead of the abundance of Christ – joy, peace, patience, love -we rejoice in an annual party.  This is why I find this such a sad day.  For on the one hand it is a cry from the heart for a better life and on the other an acknowledged lack of faith towards God for it to be possible.

The church leads the charge.  They want to put Christ back into Christmas, yet if they had really received Him they would know that every day is Christmas and each new day is a song!