Rarely does the church admit mistakes. But since it's Lent, maybe we could. Maybe we could admit that we, the church, have domesticated Jesus. Made a milk cow out of a raging bull. Softened His call. Cheapened His grace. Made confusing His clarity. Worse of all, we've violated the eleventh commandment: Thou shall not make God boring! And if that is so, then, what has it cost Jesus? What has it cost the world and what has it cost us?
It's next to impossible to gauge how many people have come through the doors of our churches in earnest only to leave in disappointment. Impossible to gauge the number of people who came in open but left closed. My sense is that there are many. If creeping secularism is the mother of the Spiritual-but-not-Religious Movement, then its Father is dispassionate Christian witness. We should admit that. God will forgive.
So what do we do? To whom do we turn? How about St. Paul? You remember his story. He never lacked passion. But his passion was perfected when he met the Risen Jesus on a dusty road. Until then Paul was going nowhere fast. After that meeting, everything Paul says and does is about one thing, trying to throw words and deeds at his experience of Jesus Christ.
That's the mark of actually meeting God, things get changed. What we think about God, ourselves and others, all change. Each of Paul's letters are about this. His confidence is the first thing that changes after meeting Jesus. Before, he had confidence in his pedigree, confidence in his willpower to keep the rules. He even had confidence in persecuting the church. But something happened. His confidence shifted. Paul's balance sheet changed. Red has become black. What was gain is now loss. What was foolishness is now foundational. New insight is gained through faithful living. That's the way it happens best. You can almost hear him say, "God is in Christ and Christ is in me. It's true, God is trustworthy." Paul is clear now. There's a better confidence to have. God confidence! "There's value that surpasses all other value," and that is "knowing Christ Jesus...." (Phil 3.8)
I like how Paul doesn't try to placate his listeners. "Surpassing knowledge," he says. God is not relative. Pay attention; this God is real. The most real. This is what the church is called to in this present age, a gentle boldness. Bold in God because God has been bold in love toward us. We hold a gentle confidence while the inferior confidences of the world crack and crumble.
While our tendency as a church is to speak more of institutional life and issues and such, we could take a lesson from Paul in our times. When church is dominantly about those things, then church loses its edge and forgets the beauty of its uniqueness. Young people and guests are the first to recognize this has happened to us.
But churches do thrive when they exist as a treasure trove of God's revelations in the world for the world. Church is a gathering place for those of us who can't contain the good news of God by ourselves. Church is that place of confirmation for the world weary, who hope in God. Church is where we are being made seasoned spiritual guides as we ourselves journey on to spiritual maturity. That's where the power is. God confidence. No God confidence, no power. No power, no transformation. No transformation, then, what's the point?
It is hard to reconcile our modern faith with Paul's faith. Paul found something in Jesus that emboldened him to forfeit his previously normal life. Paul's faith is made up of things forfeited. How do we know that? That's what he said, "I've suffered loss...in order that I may gain Christ." (Phil. 3.8) What did he forfeit? Plenty! Title and reputation, professional friends and community standing. Steady income and a warm bed most nights. But, more importantly, he forfeited designing his own life. He gave up careerism for calling. He gave up the fantasy of independence for the truth of interdependence. He allowed what was in his head about Christ to enter his blood stream, his calendar and his checkbook. He took on Jesus' spirituality of simplicity. He became a scandal by virtue of following Jesus the scandal.
Does our faith resemble Paul's? And if not, why not? Are we guilty of "...taking on a form of godliness while denying the power thereof?" (2 Tim. 3.5) We scarcely want to be inconvenienced for Christ's sake, let alone actively forfeit anything. Just look at the cajoling that has to go on in most churches for time or money needed to enlarge God's mission. Just look at how much we like being liked more than leading our people in the direction that God is calling them.
Like the Bible story, we have become the rich man and made Jesus the poor beggar who sits at our gates. And "there is a great gulf fixed between us." (Luke 16.26) Still, it does not have to be so. Paul didn't embark on a faith of de-privileging himself. His forfeiture was the consequence of gorging himself on Christ. Praying without ceasing, cheerfully giving, basking in the quiet that speaks, ever mindful that there is no condemnation or separation from the love of God in Christ Jesus. This filled him up and rescued him from the folly of entitlement.
And it will rescue us. Paul never said I want to know lack or hardship or loneliness. Nobody says that. He said I want to gain Christ. He said, "I want to know Christ." (Phil. 3.10) He said, like John, "I must decrease and He must increase." (John 3.30) Come what may. He said no stuff, no self- preservation, no pride of position will keep me from that.
This is what young people and people beyond the church are checking our eyes for, an obsession with ultimacy. They want to know, for all our praying and singing, sitting and standing, have we gained something the world cannot give? And having gained Christ, have we made Christ first? So many believe in God, but they wonder does the church still believe in God? Paul would always say, "To live is Christ and to die is gain." And I believe him. How else could he say to people under the threat of death for following Jesus, "That, I reckon these present afflictions are not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed in us." (Rom. 8.18) You can't say those words until you've lost something and seen Jesus change it into abundance. You can't commend Christ as all sufficient until you know it yourself. The world needs new Paul's and Paulette's. This is the stock and trade of Christian leadership. Witness forged in discipleship, communicated in authenticity. No wonder people would be moved to follow Jesus after Paul got done preaching. They wanted to know who he knew, who we know. And they still do--that's the point.
I heard a man recently tell a room full of clergy that "The world with all it's recent snarking at faith has done the church a great favor," he said." "They have created an opportunity for us to rediscover what's fun about being church again." I believe that. Christianity isn't dying, the illusion of cultural Christianity is. Good riddance. Now let's have some fun.
What shall we do? Paul said it plainly, "...press on toward the goal...." (Phil. 3.13) Paul had a goal-oriented faith. And so must we. That goal had three parts. Step one: "Forget what lies behind." (Phil. 3.13) Jesus has redeemed the past and bought us a future with his love. So don't get stuck in the past. You are free. "Those whom the Son has set free are free indeed." (John 8.36) Step two: "Strain forward." (Phil. 3.13) Moving forward with Jesus takes some work. You have to confront your fears. Christianity is for the spiritually athletic. It stretches us exactly how we need to be stretched. You can trust the process. Step three: "...press on toward the goal of the heavenly calling." (Phil. 3.13) Followers of Jesus aren't obsessed with being good people like so many people are nowadays. No, our goal is God, not good. We can't make ourselves good. Obsession with our goodness is narcissism. The only good there is comes from pursuing God, so we press on toward our heavenly calling.
You and I have been called to release heaven wherever we are. And you and I have been given the capacity to release heaven wherever we find ourselves. And more heaven gets released every day you and I press on with Jesus. Forgiveness is from heaven. So is love, peace, joy, generosity and kindness. We're pressing on toward that at home and at work, in the church house and in the court house--wherever we find ourselves.
Pressing on with Jesus is the only way to be right with God. That's the whole point. Pressing on with a God that is beyond our asking or imagining. A God who came among us gently, lived wonderfully, taught truthfully, died violently, was risen triumphantly, empowers generously and remains our companion steadfastly. No words can contain it. No effort can attain it. Shame on us if we constrain it. The best thing is to proclaim it. That's the whole point.
Let us pray. Ever living God, whose will it is that all should come to you through your Son, Jesus Christ, inspire our witness to him that all may know the power of His forgiveness and the hope of His resurrection, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.