This was the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for Christ the King Sunday (C), 21 November 2004. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 23: 1 – 6, Colossians 1: 11 – 20 and Luke 23: 33 – 43.
I spoke last week (“Signs of Things to Come”) of the two responsibilities of the church, the social and personal responsibilities of the church in today’s society. Now, some might say that I spend too much time on the former while never speaking of the latter.
I have and I will always feel that my relationship with Christ is what allows me to speak out in this world, to speak out against injustice and oppression. I grew up in a world where the Bible and the words of God were used for injustice and repression. So it is that I think that it is my own relationship with God through Christ that allowed me to escape that view of the world and fight for a world of equality and justice.
In the words of Jeremiah, Jesus came to this world to take care of those that the world had forgotten. We seem to have forgotten that particular piece of prophecy in today’s world. Many churches today seem to think that this passage applies to the relief of oppression in the world and they hold onto that view at the expense of their own membership. For these churches, there is no church but the one outside the walls. Other churches, perhaps in response to the whole-world view of other churches, feel that the shepherd role applies first and foremost to a church’s own membership. For these churches, the world outside the walls doesn’t exist.
But the fact of the matter is that both worlds exist and any church that ignores one in favor of the other will, in the long run, suffer the consequences for its ignorance.
In a recent article comparing the nature of members in traditional, mainline churches and evangelical, fundamentalist churches, it was discovered that mainline churches favor traditional family values and are made up of traditional families. The members of the evangelical or fundamentalist churches are apt to be non-traditional, single parent families. You might think it to be otherwise, based on the most recent public events.
But the fact of the matter is that the traditional mainline denominations have difficulty adapting to the nature of the society outside the church and are not always willing to make the changes needed. The reason that these non-traditional families attend the non-traditional churches is that they get the one thing that they are missing in their lives, acceptance and love.
You may disagree with this idea but stop and think about it for a moment. These individuals are experiencing difficult family situations and are looking for a community that will help them get through their life. There is admittedly a dichotomy here. Evangelicalism holds up a traditional ideal of the family but has more non-traditional families, whereas mainline Protestantism holds up a more liberal ideal but has more traditional families in the pew. Churches may speak of being open and welcoming but whom do they welcome? To whom will the doors of the church open?
Jeremiah’s words are angry words and they were directed at the rulers of Judah. Jeremiah is merely acknowledging earlier pronouncements given in Ezra. And whether we care to admit it or not, those words are directed at this society where we have been given many of the same tasks that the leaders of Israel were given. And just like the leaders then, we have failed now.
But it is also interesting to note that the same Hebrew words that produce the phrase “bestow punishment”, used several times in this passage, also produce the phrase “bestowed care.” And God, in bestowing punishment on the people of Israel for failing to hold to the covenant promises, also provides care for those in need and suffering. The final part of this passage from Jeremiah is the prophecy that Jesus will come and He will be the one and true King of all people.
I think that the one thing that we have to consider is that no church, be it mainline or non-traditional, can presume to hold to one line of thought if its actions are opposite or not consistent with that thought. I think that is what has caused much of the problems with the mainline denomination; they hold to a liberal view of life, yet exclude or deny that view to many who seek it.
Paul’s letter to the Colossians is another example of Paul having to deal with problems in a local church. And again, it has to do with how the people have interpreted the original message. The commentary that I use indicates that the church in Colosse focused on six things:
- Ceremonialism – the adherence to strict rules about the kinds of permissible food and drink, religious festivals, and circumcision.
- Asceticism – the carrying out of strict rules to the extreme
- Angel worship – this was not necessarily a belief in angels (which was okay) but rather a worship of the angels themselves as suitable replacement for God (which can never be okay).
- The depreciation of Christ – in the false teachings presented to the Colossians, Christ as our Lord and Savior was reduced in stature.
- The development of secret knowledge, – this was the idea that not everyone was entitled to the knowledge of the resurrection.
- And, a reliance on human wisdom and tradition – the false teachers were implying that salvation could only be obtained by combining faith in Christ with secret knowledge that only they, the teachers, could gain and with man-made regulations concerning the activities that one undertook in church and in daily life.
It is not likely that what many churches are doing today compares to the problems of the church in Colosse. But much of what is done in many churches today (and I am not going to split the difference between traditional and non-traditional churches) is very similar. We don’t spend time focusing on the single most important fact about why we are here – that Christ is King and Our Savior.
I think we hide that fact. I think we would rather focus on the church as a building and an entity on its own. But, if we stop and pause for a moment and think about why we are here, then we have to realize that which Paul emphasized in the portion of his letter that we read today. For Paul, our focus should be on the simple fact that Christ is the one and only King.
As the New Year approaches, we are faced with choices. Shall we, individually and collectively, make the decision to follow Christ, to acknowledge that He is our one and only King? Or shall we make the decision to keep going as we have been going, trusting in our own judgement? We do not know why the two criminals were crucified on the same day as Jesus. It might have simply been for expediency.
We know that the Romans and the Jewish Church Council certainly had no understanding of what was to transpire that day. To them, Jesus was just another criminal for whom punishment must be meted out. But for us, the act of crucifying Jesus was the symbol of care being meted out; it was a sign that God cared for us.
For the one criminal, wise to they ways of the world, Jesus was just like him, a common criminal and sentenced to death. There was nothing but punishment to be gained. But the other criminal understood, even at the moment of his own death, that Jesus was the Son of God and the Savior of man.
We can be like the first criminal and accept the punishment of life that we are given. Or we can see Christ as our Savior, as did the second criminal, and be given eternal life, free from slavery to sin and death. We can know that Jesus’ crucifixion was the bestowment of God’s care for us. The choices are ours to make, what shall they be?