This is the message that I gave at Tompkins Corners UMC on the 4th Sunday of Easter, 17 April 2005. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Acts 2: 42 – 47, 1 Peter 2: 19 – 25, and John 10: 1- 10.
Why do it? Of course, the question should then be “do what?” In light of the Scripture readings for today and what is going on in the world, why would anyone want to be a Christian? Well, if current research is correct, regular weekly attendance at a religious service will result in increased survival and a boosted immune system. It is not clear just exactly how this works but it does seem as if something in religious attendance, be it the group interaction, the worldview or just getting out of the house, is beneficial to the health of many, especially the elderly. (From “Hit the pew and live longer” in Context, May 2005)
Of course, this could explain in part why Peter writes about the pain and suffering that early Christians had to endure. It does seem ironic though that while there may be a correlation between attendance and health, we are not always willing to let people know that we attend church and consider ourselves Christian. Even today, the mere act of professing to be Christian is apt to cause one to be ridiculed and possibly persecuted.
For many, I guess, the secret is not to publicly profess one’s faith. That way, you can keep your health. But it is sad that many Christians today, especially those that believe in the power of the Gospel as a message of hope and promise, don’t speak out. This means that the only words that those seeking Christ are likely to hear are from the spectrum of life which come from individuals who preach hatred, division, and exclusion.
It was interesting to hear Jane Fonda speak of becoming a Christian but being afraid to tell her husband, Ted Turner, for fear that he would talk her out of it. She made note of the fact that he did not care for Christianity. But like many who seem to have a strong appearance on the outside, the demands of life wreck havoc with the inside. And we are often shocked when someone so strong on the outside collapses under the pressures of life. So despite what she knew would be pressure from others, she made the journey to Christ.
Similarly, one of the most influential items in the journey of our own John Wesley was his trip to and from America. He could not endure the trip across the Atlantic, despite the public appearance of a strong faith. Even he could not understand how the Moravians, through simple prayer, were able to endure the hardships of the crossing. It is that seeking of peace that brings people to church. But why do they not stay?
They find churches such as the Baptist Church in Florida, that ask members, such as the judge in the Terri Schiavo case, to leave simply because they did something that the congregation disapproved of, in this case it was because they did not like his ruling on the issue of the feeding tube. Each day we hear of other Christians who claim that the only solution to the problems of the world is a return to an Old Testament life. While the laws of this land may have been derived from the laws of the Old Testament, we must also realize that Jesus came as a fulfillment of the law, not the enforcer of it. Jesus came as an embodiment of the law because of those who were more concerned about the law than they were about the lives of those who must live under the law. It was this dichotomy between what was preached and what was lived that led John Wesley to break away from the structure of the Anglican Church and begin the Methodist movement.
Those seeking a church home find that all churches and denominations profess the same belief but say that the other churches are not true believers. It seems that as the number of churches in a given area multiply, the weaker each individual church’s ministry and witness becomes. One pastor noted that the more he and members of the congregation visited homes in the area where the church was located, the more resistant to evangelism people became because another evangelism team from another church had visited with them not more than ten minutes before.
What should be a great opportunity for the presentation of the Gospel has quickly become nothing more than marketing for the masses. Each visitor to the church does not want to hear the message of the Gospel in terms of how they can help others but rather how the church can help them? It turns pastors from preachers of the Gospel message to peddlers of the Gospel. Like Jacob, who found ways to trick his uncle Laban out of his sheep, pastors today have to resort to a variety of marketing techniques in order to entice people into the church.
It should be noted that Jesus warned us that the road would be difficult. The little flock that formed when they heard His voice in the wilderness would be frequently assaulted by thieves and misled by hirelings. He even prepared us for the likelihood that there would be a few goats mixed in with the sheep. (Adapted from “Flocking together” by Edgardo Antonio Colón-Emeric in Living the Word, Christian Century, April 5, 2005) But because the road is difficult, we sometimes do not want to walk it. We do not want to hear the truth that accepting Christ as our Savior is sometimes a hard choice to make; we do not want to hear the truth that the road we must walk is not one paved with gold (in fact, it is likely to have more potholes than anything else); we do not want to hear the truth.
Think about it. What were we asked to do after September 11, 2001? We were asked to go shopping? Shouldn’t Christians have said, “That seems awful silly to me.” We have spent the last three and one-half years telling everyone that the world changed on 9/11/2001. But the world changed that first Easter Sunday back in 33 A. D. Our lives as Christians should be focused on the changes in the world in the light of that Sunday morning some two thousand years ago, not vice versa.
We have lived with death as a common part of life for three and one-half years and as a result, we are a nation living in fear. We do not want to think about death or the prospect of death. The last few weeks have reinforced that.
We did not stop to think about what happened on September 11th or what was happening in Florida. We saw the attack on the twin towers as war, when it was simply murder. If we had treated Osama Bin Laden as a murderer rather than the commander of an army, we would have ended this thing three years ago. Instead, we have allowed a war against terrorism to expand into a war in Afghanistan and then a war in Iraq. Now, the dead are coming home and we are afraid.
A young woman lies dying in a hospice in Florida and because her family could not agree, we as a nation are now afraid to die, for fear that we will not be allowed to or because we might be forced to die. And the politicians and the preachers with the loudest voices are saying that it is all because we are not a Christian nation.
Is it no wonder that those who seek Christ cannot find Him? Another recent study that was mentioned in my reading noted that while the majority of teenagers in American consider themselves religious and believe in God, they cannot explain the basic tenets of their faith. While there is an absolute historical centrality to the belief of salvation by God’s grace in Protestant churches, including the United Methodist Church, many conservative Protestant teens show no understanding of that concept. It also appears that other historical doctrines about the nature of God and revelation are unknown to teenagers.
Teenagers also feel that nobody is actually required to be religious. They can do whatever they want. Religion is presumed to be something that individuals choose and must reaffirm for themselves based on their present and ongoing personal felt needs and preferences. Religion becomes something interpreted from the view of modern culture; it is something that is quickly becoming a vision of “divinely underwritten personal happiness and interpersonal niceness.” God is not needed in this approach to life.
Such a formation of a belief comes because people do not know where to look or who to ask for information about God. They do not know where to look, and like the disciples who could not understand Jesus when he talked of the shepherd and the flock, they do not understand how there can be one church but many denominations.
But if we go back to the beginning, we see that we are called to follow Christ, not out of fear of bandits or from frustration with His hirelings, but rather out of love. This church was founded by the love of t he shepherd for His ship and it is held together by the love of the sheep for the shepherd and for each other.
It is understandable that the way of love, as expressed by Christ, is hard, especially since it does not appear to be enough. This is particularly true when the word is bandied a bout so carelessly and in such a way that it has no value. Sayings of the Bible become trite and banal. We cannot see love in the church because we are convinced that there is no love in the church. But the church was founded on the simple fact that God loved us and our love is based on that one simple fact.
We also are convinced that it is not possible to find love in the world, let alone the church, because it is a long process. It is easier for the thief to climb over the wall than it is to walk around and open the gate. Getting to know and love Jesus, to hear His voice, takes time.
This process is also hard. Peter’s commission to become the shepherd was contingent on his three fold declaration of His love for Jesus. It was a love that would ultimately require that He be willing to lay down his own life. (Adapted from “Flocking together” by Edgardo Antonio Colón-Emeric in Living the Word, Christian Century, April 5, 2005)
So why do it? Why should we seek to find those who are seeking Christ? Why should we even think about publicly professing our faith more often? Why should we spend time this week saying hello to strangers and inviting them to be a part of this community? Because, as Oscar Romero, the Salvadoran archbishop who was murdered for standing up and facing oppression and evil, wrote,
This is what we are about: We plant seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are the workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own. (From the May, 2005 issue of Context)
So why do it? Because it is the calling of Christ to bring the good news of the Gospel to the world so that others may hear it as well.