Texts: Jeremiah 23:23-29; Psalm 82; Hebrews 11:49-56; Luke 12:49-56
There is tough stuff in Scripture that we ignore to the peril of our faith. Jesus’ words in the Gospel are shocking. They stun us with their contrast to the Jesus who offers healing and argues for love. His language here, as he moves toward Jerusalem, speaks of division, not unity; of judgment, not forgiveness. This is not a comfortable Jesus of whom we can be cultured admirers. Somewhere, Annie Dillard says: “Beware of any religion that makes you feel comfortable.”
And yet, that is precisely the religion that most of us want: a religion that will give us special privileges and that will offer a balm for every anxiety we are unwilling to face.
Mainline churches have dropped nearly 15% in membership numbers and in the numbers of congregations over the past decade (including Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics), and well over 60% of young adults under 35 do not attend church at all.
The reason young people have abandoned organized religion was probably well articulated in the past two weeks by novelist Anne Rice, who had notably converted to Christianity in 1998 after years of claiming to be an atheist, and now asserts that, in the name of Christ, she is leaving Christianity—but not Jesus, finding Christianity too embarrassing. She renounced organized Christianity, organized religion—which for her was the Roman Catholic Church, but she meant all forms of church life, I think, because she could no longer tolerate the church’s anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-science, and anti-birth control views, she said.
About her decision, Diana Butler Bass, a scholar of the sociology of American religion, especially Protestantism, noted: “…two things stand out to me. First, there’s a lot of this sort of thing going around right now. Polls, surveys, and other sorts of research indicate that increasing numbers of Americans are rejecting organized religion of all sorts and that the Catholic Church is taking some especially big hits right now with membership loss (their reported gains are not true–mostly because they never remove anyone from church rolls). Not only are people rejecting church, but they are also rejecting the labels “Christianity,” and “Christian” as Ms. Rice has done.
“Second,” Professor Bass goes on to say in her blog, “Ms. Rice is rejecting Christianity because it is illiberal. For almost four decades, the standard narrative is that Christianity in the West is dying because it is too liberal, not conservative enough, not theologically or ethically demanding. Rice’s comment moves in the exact opposite direction. She’s rejecting the toxic admixture of conservative ideology and Jesus-faith. She has been aching for a faith that is open–and not “anti-” everything; a faith that demonstrates the love, kindness, and mercy of its founder, not the “quarrelsome” disputations of Jesus’ all-too-human followers. If Anne Rice is any indication, Americans are hankering for a new sort of liberal faith the actually resembles that which Jesus taught and embodied.”
If so, then the untied Church of Christ (the somewhat ironical play on the name of the United Church of Christ), our sister denomination with whom we share many common ministries, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)—in its progressive manifestations—representing denominational varieties of “disorganized religion”, should be primed for new growth—if we can just get away from the worship of Jesus and commit ourselves to the imitation of Jesus, to following him….with perservance. We may be too old to run, but we aren’t too old to redirect our habits from sitting on the sidelines while others run the race with Jesus to becoming those who are, however lamely, getting into the race of which he is the pioneer, the model for us.
Rather than sitting around worrying about our future as a congregation, what if we spent the whole year ahead asking one another that cliché’d question: what would Jesus have us do? Who would Jesus have us see? How would Jesus hve us act and vote and spend our time as well as our money?
Christ’s invitation to us was not to believe, but to follow him. New Union can’t be a Disney-world plus God kind of church, like so many prosperity gospel mega-churches. It just isn’t in us.
But we can be something as old and as transformative and as renewing and as empowering and as exciting as followers of Jesus.
“I came to bring fire to earth, and how I wish it were kindled already!” This is some of the tough stuff of Christianity. Not exactly one of the verses of Scripture that you would tack up on your refrigerator, or that you likely memorized in Sunday School. More than likely you have tried to forget that you ever read those verses, so troubling are they.
They are troubling and tough because we have made our God comfortable, cozy, friendly as an old teddy bear. We are fans of Jesus rather than followers of Jesus.
Jesus upends those easy assumptions with this soliloquy. Jesus, Fred Craddock, says in his commentary on Luke, is the crisis of the world, the occasion for making a decision, the occasion when the status quo is disrupted.
Jesus is saying that following The Way upends everything you know. The last shall be first, the meek shall inherit the earth. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the peacemakers. The kingdom of God is among us and upon us. As verse 57 says, “Why do you refuse to see for yourselves what is right?
For me, Christ’s declaration that he came to bring “fire to the earth” stands as a call to decide—to draw near to that which will purify, refine us—in other words, do we want to have a church, or do we want to be the church? If we merely want to preserve a church we call “ours”, then we’re probably going to lose it. If we want to BE the church, a church that belongs to the God made known in Jesus, then we need to be asking ourselves what it means to try to look and act like Jesus, which…according to Hebrews means that we have to lay aside the weight of sin (a word that comes from archery and means “missing the mark”) and follow Jesus.
Jesus is not safe, because he calls on us to change, to stand apart from the norms of our times. He creates divisions in our lives and even in our hearts. He is a fire that burns away the impurities in the metal. He is the fork in the road that demands a decision. He is a swift and dangerous current that carries our souls to God.
Just accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior, as did Ben and Sam in their almost unknowing and half understanding way last Sunday, doesn’t end the process that has begun, as I told them then. Coming to church every Sunday, the saying goes, doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car. We will be divided continually from old habits. We will not be able to stop thinking of how to love God and our neighbors (including our enemies) more often. And as we do, the obvious begins to happen. Charitable people, who practice charity, find themselves becoming more charitable. Folks who know themselves to be forgiven by God, will be practicing forgiveness of others. Individuals who know themselves as outsiders who feel God’s welcoming embrace, will not be afraid of those who are different, and will become more accepting and interested in the lives of others who have also felt alienated.
And the really tough stuff is living with that persistent trust, not absolute certainty that some people think Christianity provides. Religion suggests that we figure out God’s plan and God’s rules. Then things will fall into place, perhaps even prosperity.
Tom Wright, the Welsh Anglican bishop, says: “The longer you look at Jesus, the more you will want to serve him in his world. That is, of course, if it’s the real Jesus you’re looking at. Plenty of people in the church and outside it have made up a ‘Jesus’ for themselves, and have found that this invented character makes few real demands on them. He makes them feel happy from time to time, but doesn’t challenge them, doesn’t suggest they get up and do something about the plight of the world. Which is, of course, what the real Jesus had an uncomfortable habit of doing.” (Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship, p. ix)
We often use the expression: “Light a fire under so and so.” To light a fire under someone is to get the moving. No wonder Jesus wished that the whole big fire had already been kindled. He wanted to get people going. He wanted people to be passionate…about caring, about love, about justice, about God and neighbor.
In the great old gospel hymn, How Firm a Foundation, (page 618), the 4th verse says: “When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie, my grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply. The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.” Every day is decision day with Jesus: Are we going to sit by the side of the road and clap for Jesus as his great admirers? Or, are we in the race with him to build this world where all of God’s children are deemed precious, where the sick and the sorrowful can find wholeness, where the anxious and worried can give up their fear and relax in trust? Where outsiders can find a community of care? What one thing might you, as an individual, do in the coming week that signifies to yourself that you are in the race, following Jesus? And here’s another biggie: what one thing might we do as a congregation in the coming year, besides coming together for our familiar worship service, to show that we are quite literally Disciples of Christ? We’ve got to decide, each of us, and all of us together. Amen.