Sunday, September 04, 2011
Big God|Big Church
A bit of a recap…and then a question or two.
One summer when I was a little boy in Augusta, Kentucky (population 1500), my mom sent me to a church on Fourth Street for something called Vacation Bible School. No one in my family was really a Christian. We didn’t know that. We thought we were Christians because we were Americans. And sometimes we went to church.
And we weren’t Catholic.
Catholics were, well, Catholics. If you’re Catholic, don’t get upset. You were probably taught that people like me weren’t going to heaven because we weren’t Catholic. Yes, we were all spiritually dysfunctional; it didn’t matter what label you pasted on it.
If you drive up graveyard hill in Augusta, you’ll find a Protestant cemetery and a Catholic cemetery divided by a single-lane blacktop road. We didn’t talk about religion when we were sucking air…and we certainly didn’t mix things up when we weren’t.
Anyway, mom sent me to this church for Vacation Bible School. I didn’t like the sound of it. I knew that vacation didn’t have anything remotely to do with school. That’s an oxymoron if ever there was one. And then you throw the Bible-word in the middle of it and you have all the excitement of watching Mr. Rogers talk about dental hygiene.
But I went. Once. We colored little mimeographed (don’t ask) drawings of stained glass with waxy Crayola-wannabe crayons. And that was the last time I went. So each day mom sent me to Vacation Bible School, I would leave the house to walk to the church and then promptly head down a side alley to find my buddies and play army all day instead.
Church held zero interest for me. By the sixth grade, my parents no longer made me go. I suppose it wasn’t worth the hassle for them and I’m not so sure they even liked going themselves. But I was set free. To me, church had nothing to offer but sleepy monotone sermons, nothing that had any real connection with my life, and a waste of perfectly good free time on a weekend. And that’s how I felt through high school and my early college experience. Thanks, but no thanks. If it works for you, go for it. But keep it away from me.
And then something otherworldly happened: I met Jesus. Not in a blinding vision, but in the simple personal stories of some fellow musicians—people who looked like me—who had become part of the Jesus Movement back in the day.
Everything changed. I found myself being transformed, challenged and empowered. Suddenly the Bible came alive. And the Jesus I read about there was nothing like how I remembered him in my limited church experience: He was radically different. He upset the religious people, challenged the status quo and even ticked off His own disciples at times. What’s more, He spoke with an authority like no one else I’d ever heard. And He somehow mixed that power and authority with servanthood in a way that was neuron-bending. And what about that apparent “crucifixion-and-coming-back-to-life-again”-thing?—whoa. Could that be true? He became so real to me in ways I couldn’t fully understand. I began changing in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. My friends were puzzled and didn’t know what to say to me. I really didn’t talk about it that much (uh, I think), but in the house I was living with the other musicians in the band, the keyboardist suddenly said, “I’m not living in a house with a Jesus-freak” and moved out.
Truth was: I really liked Jesus. A lot. But I still had some problems with His followers…and this thing called church. At times it seemed so small, so focused on little things and inward. Sometimes it seemed that Christians could be beautifully charitable and then turn around and say something ridiculously racist or insensitive. And why were they so strange on TV with really big hair and makeup applied with a trowel, exchanging plastic crosses for “your love gift of $25”?
And sometimes I wondered why there were churches on every corner…and why did they argue over things that seemed—at least to me—inconsequential and petty?
Then one day I had an epiphany. A revelation from God.
I was one of them.
I was part of this thing called The Church. I was no longer an outsider who could take potshots at those hypocritical, judgmental Christians. Now I was one of them…and attending a church. I didn’t see that coming.
Truth was: my picture of the Big ‘C’ Church was very, very small. And Christianity had vastly changed the culture in ways I was largely unaware. I had a very narrow and plebeian view.
For instance, it was Christianity that helped change the world’s view of women. Greek philosopher Plato wrote that only men are “created directly by the gods and are given souls.” His pupil Aristotle said that women were no more than birth defects. In the footsteps of Greece, the Roman Empire simply didn’t want baby girls and freely practiced infanticide. At an archaeological dig at Ashkelon, archaeologists found one hundred skeletons of week-old infants in the sewers under a Roman bath. They had been flushed in the drains and drowned.
In his book Reasons for God, Tim Keller writes, “It was extremely common in the Greco-Roman world to throw out new female infants to die from exposure, because of the low status of women in society. The church forbade its members to do so. Greco-Roman society saw no value in an unmarried woman, and therefore it was illegal for a widow to go more than two years without remarrying. But Christianity was the first religion to not force widows to marry. They were supported financially and honored within the community so that they were not under great pressure to remarry if they didn't want to.”
He goes on: “...the pagan double standard of allowing married men to have extramarital sex and mistresses was forbidden. In all these ways Christian women enjoyed far greater security and equality than did women in the surrounding culture.”
The fact that Jesus had women who followed Him and were included in His extended circle of disciples and teaching sessions was incredibly shocking to both the Roman and Jewish cultures of His day.
Even more, Christianity was first to methodically argue against slavery. In the early Church, Christians would save their money to buy slaves in order to set them free. It came from the revolutionary notion that all were made equal in Christ; or as the apostle Paul writes in Galatians: You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus . . . There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:26, 28). Before we misapply Paul’s writings and accuse him of misogyny, understand the cultural and specific context.
All in all, it was an extremely radical idea for that world, and sadly, the Church hasn’t always lived up to it.
The story of the Good Samaritan that raised the question of who is my neighbor was shocking to say the least. And the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount created a servant culture in the early Church that was absolutely head-tilting. Love your enemies?—you’ve got to be kidding: we’re talking about an oppressive Roman government, right?
And it was the early Christians who stayed in the towns when decimating diseases and plagues struck so they could take care of the sick who were left behind, even when the local physicians would flee. In the fourth century, the Roman emperor Julian—who hated Christianity and wanted to rub it out—wrote angrily to a friend that the Christians “feed not only their poor but ours also.”
Our ways of viewing people and their intrinsic value has been so shaped by Christianity that we don’t even realize it, it is so much a part of our culture. When all the stories of the pagan gods were about them creating people so that they—the gods—may be served, the story of a God who comes to earth in the form of a servant in order to “serve and give his life as a ransom for many” was shocking.
My picture of the Church and its influence was way too small.
But one question still bothered the skeptic in me: What happened?
How did a self-sacrificing passionate movement end up doing crazy things throughout the subsequent centuries? How could it morph into an organizational system that produced factions and sects, an Inquisition, Crusades or Elmer Gantry-styled preachers?
One day Jesus told an unnerving story. He said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’ “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied. “The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”
Jesus would later say that in the end He Himself would separate the true from the false, the legit from the play-actors…and there would be many who come to Him and say, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you.’” There was never a connection, a truly humbled and surrendered dependence on Jesus. I find in exceptionally unnerving that Jesus would say He never knew someone.
Or there will be some who say, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?” In a mirror-image statement of His response to those on the right, He says to them, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’”
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father.”
That is a chilling statement. Now ask yourself:
Are you like me in that I didn’t really see this Big Idea called The Church? And how can we take something as spectacular as the Body of Christ and miniaturize it? The good news is that anyone can join this movement—the phenomenal Church that is bringing the Kingdom to earth—but the only way in is to humble yourself under the Lordship of Jesus.
At least, that’s what the earliest Christians would give up life itself for.
“…On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Matthew 16:13–19