Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Does the Church have the will to survive?

Since the writing of Paul’s letters and the Synoptic gospels, in the second half of the first century, the church has promoted the idea of salvation. The church has continuously taught that Jesus died on the cross as a sacrifice for the sins of humanity and to avail ones self of the redemptive power of that sacrifice one must be baptized. And coincidently, the only place where baptism could be administered is (of course) the church. For the better part of the last two thousand years this has been the primary message of the church – salvation, Jesus as the savior, Jesus as the redeemer, Jesus as our entry point into eternal life. To be baptized in the blood is to join hands with the Saints of old and reserve ones place in that glorious home on high…forever.

Such a contrivance has absolutely nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus. In all of what is thought to have been taught or spoken by the historical Jesus, ideas of a savior, redemption of sin or eternal life in a place called heaven, are noticeably absent. Jesus spoke nothing of these things. They are the manifestations of the church leaders of the second, third and fourth centuries.

Jesus taught people to love one another, to do unto others, as they would have others do unto them. He implored his followers to break down barriers of prejudices and tribal boundaries. He taught inclusiveness and care for the down trodden, those at the fringes of society. This is the true message of Jesus.

Adult Christians are – for the most part – products of the indoctrination they received during childhood and that indoctrination was chiefly one of Jesus as the good shepherd and savior. But today many adults, and young people alike, are rejecting these unsubstantiated claims. Our society is much more educated today, less willing to believe irrational stories of virgin births, resurrection of the dead, prayers to an invisible sky-god, etc.

Result; membership in Christian institutions world wide is on a steep decline. Granted, this is not the only reason for the decline but it is certainly high on the list.

Can the church stop this decline? How? What will take the place of the age old story of salvation and how will the church infuse a new mantra into the old fabric. Or is it an impossible task? Some say it is, that the church will simply die a slow death.

I hope not… but I see no indication that the church is eager or willing to accept the challenge. It seems to be marching straight toward the cliff, as if oblivious to the danger at hand.

That’s what I think….. but then, I could be wrong….. barry e

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Popular vs. The Biblical Jesus

Popular religion often depicts Jesus as if he were a good-luck charm. He is the defender of each believer, the one who carries prayers and concerns to God. Jesus is seem as a protector, one who keeps bad things from happening to good people. The Jesus of popular religion was a divine intervention in history, unaffected by social, economic or political realities of his time.

On the other hand. Those who have studied the biblical records in depth tend to arrive at a very different understanding of Jesus. The contrasts are severe;

The popularized Jesus protects the person of faith from life’s overwhelming problems; the biblical Jesus leads the follower into conflict with the powers and principalities, a conflict that can lead to suffering or even death.

The popularized Jesus promises a blissful, eternal existence beyond the grave; the biblical Jesus focuses of the current world, encouraging a quality of present living that is worth preserving into an infinite future.

The popularized Jesus lifts the burden of our guilt from us, paying with his own blood the price for our sins demanded by God (or by Satan, or by both); the biblical Jesus adds to our burdens, insisting that people of faith carry crosses of their own.

The popularized Jesus insists that people worship him; the biblical Jesus asks that people follow him.

The popularized Jesus gives simple and inflexible answers to each of life’s perplexing problems; the biblical Jesus gives often cryptic teachings that modern followers must struggle to interpret for their own time and place.

The popularized Jesus is based almost entirely on the resurrected Christ, a spiritual presence that transcends time and place to become a protective, comforting companion for every age; the biblical Jesus was bound by time and place, a historic person who lived amid the complexities of daily life.

Popularized Christianity is, then. egocentric to the core. While it includes enough authentic references to the actual life and teachings of Jesus to make it seem real, it also contains large portions of superstition. Jesus, in this view, is an adult equivalent of the child’s invisible friend.

One of popular Christianity’s most frequently used hymns states:

What a friend we have in Jesus,
All our sins and grief to bear….

The alternate view also stresses the presence of an eternal Christ, available to inspire us and put us in touch with our spiritual strengths. The resurrected Jesus promised that he would continue with his disciples, much as a dying mother promises to be a continuing influence in the lives of her children. This promise was given in answer to the problem of how to continue Jesus’ mission.

The living Jesus, then, will not hold our hand through life’s inevitable and often petty problems. Instead, the spirit of Jesus will inspire us to find the strength necessary to encounter the excruciating pains that accompany life. A hymn popular among the progressive Christians states:

Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,

For the living of these days.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Practice Resurrection—All of the Time…

Mainstream Christianity is no longer “main stream”. It is fast becoming a peripheral part of the Christian narrative in this country and abroad. Personally I celebrate this change of status for the following reasons.

There has always been something profoundly arrogant to be found in every mainstream movement, often expressed by the self-congratulatory remark that “we must be right because we are the majority” (numerically, that is). Our decline is nothing new and every organization, empire and society undergoes these same changes and adaptations over time.

My positive stance on the decline of mainstream Christianity has to do with the fact that once we become smug and self satisfied, we should always get the hint that it is time to move on.

Mainstream Christianity has been stuck in a rut for way too long and its time to move on.
Where do we find our inspiration and hope when all around us the old structures, familiar and beloved to us, are crumbling?

In the resurrection story!

Personally I have very little interest in the resuscitation of dead bodies, and it is quiet easy, when making the effort to read the most basic of literature regarding the ancient times, how great figures in faith always seemed to be “taken up into the sky”, whether it be Elijah, Jesus or Mohammed. These figures simply could not die as ordinary mortal men for the stories to survive in those times.

But true resurrection is an amazing and spectacular miracle and there are many resurrection stories in all of our lives. The one we treasure as Christians tells of how Jesus died on a cross; humiliated and brutalized by a system that could not bear the kind of resurrection he preached—but it is also the story of the triumph of his message.

His is a message that still inspires us and points us in the direction of hope after all of these centuries.

He truly is RISEN!

The mainstream church too, will be resurrected, but not to the old body we once knew. The church-stories of resurrection are manifold, as Hal Taussig demonstrated in his lectures here in February. The new is emerging from the old and those among us who wish to retreat into the familiar safety of the past will continue to be frustrated and disappointed. We will ultimately become embittered and lonely, even moving back to the “fleshpots of Egypt.”

But true life begins in the desert experience where everything is at risk and the stakes are high. Its a place of discomfort and even hunger and thirst from time to time. But it is only in courageous renewal that we will find new life—resurrected life.

For our communal life together, as the remnants of the so-called mainstream church movement, I see hope in our uneasiness and unsettledness. For it is in times such as these that we can truly begin to grow again—if not in numbers, then in maturity and relevance.

Let us open our hearts and our minds as we remember that discipleship in Christ is a life of giving ourselves away, not preserving and protecting the past. I am filled with hope for the liberating love of Christ is beginning to bloom again as the new butterfly emerges from the cocoon of past trappings. Yes, metaphorically seen… “God is still speaking…”

Anton DeWet