Monday, August 17, 2015

What price, salvation?

There is a strange disconnect between what people say they want and what they really want, and yet they claim to be honest in their convictions. They declare their intentions and then go about laying down plans that cannot possibly bring them to their destination. What is wrong with us? Why do we try so hard to live up to our built-in law of failure?

We all know what the Church is, at least we ought to know, if we read our bibles, if we pray, and if we try to follow Christ in everyday life.

When we are honest with ourselves, how much of what we experience in the church ‘we go to’ is like what we know the Church is?

True, that may be an unfair question, but only in minor respects. We are used to massive failure in human society at large, and in human relationships up close. We have learned to adapt, ‘to roll with the punches,’ to be forgiving and indulgent, to accept the fact that ‘nobody’s perfect.’

We’ve taught ourselves not to expect the best, even when our faith in Christ keeps telling us to expect, not just the best, but ‘the resurrection of the dead,’ as we used to say in the Symbol of Nicaea before they ‘retranslated’ it to conform with modern churchly ‘norms’—it is now, ‘I look for,’ instead of, ‘I expect.’

Hey! I don’t look for the resurrection of the dead, I expect it! And it’s not my human pride, my ego or my flesh telling me to expect this: it’s the Spirit of the living God, living in me, who teaches me to expect it, and not merely look for it.

What do we find in church, then? They say that the Church is a hospital, that it is a place where the sick go to be healed. A nice metaphor, coming from the Orthodox East where sin is considered not so much a crime to be punished as it is a sickness to be cured. This is not an unhealthy attitude. It gives hope and relieves us somewhat of our natural instinct to blame and guilt-trip ourselves.

So we’re sick, that’s all it is!
Well, that means we can slow down, take it easy, follow instructions, take our medicines, and presently we will be well again. Not only that, we have this beautiful hospital, with beautiful procedures, we are simply surrounded by beauty, and we’ve been told, ‘Beauty will save the world,’ so we can be comfortable and content, as we wait to be made whole. This is the view from the patient’s bed.

We are told to be patient and follow instructions, and everything will right itself, almost magically, and we will be well again. But how long have we been lying there? Do we even know what being healthy feels like? And most importantly, do we really want to be made well?

A church says that they follow Christ, that He alone is Holy, that He alone is Lord. They say that they have seen the Light, that they have found the true faith, and that the Trinity has saved them. That’s great! But what of the others, those who can’t say these things? Those who don’t even know these things are possible? Who is supposed to tell them? Who to show them? We already know the answer to that—‘Here I am, send me!’ (Isaiah 6:8)

We go to church, and we hear the priest or deacon say—if they are good preachers—that we are the Church, not just the priests, and that ‘the great commission’ to ‘make disciples of all nations’ is our responsibility, not just theirs.

Fine rhetoric, this exhortation, very evangelical, but nothing more than fine rhetoric if it is not backed up by actions.

What happens if some of us take this responsibility to heart, and go forth two by two into the world to fulfill it? Are we supported by these same preachers? What preparations are they willing to take on behalf of our ‘mission’ and our ‘ministry’? Do they even know what preparations to take? Can it be, that all we have to offer the outside world looking in on us, is a once or twice yearly lecture series on such things as the history of the Church or its teachings ‘in our tradition, we…’, an invitation to come and ‘help us to get ready for the next festival,’ and of course, ‘just come and worship with us’?

I used to think the last one—just come and worship with us—was the best, and that it was enough, but honestly, it isn’t. We are not medieval Eastern Europe, where illiterate, barbaric people can come and be ‘awed by the beauty’ of our liturgical services. For them, perhaps, this wall of beauty was a real window into the Eternal, because they had little other possibility of access. For us today, it really can become just a wall.

Why? Because we have advantages, yet we don't make use of them. We can read. Bibles can be picked up in any language or dialect. Among us are experienced and knowledgeable ‘lay’ people, as well as clergy. If we rely on just the services to somehow magically inform and transform people, we are not giving them their true value, and we are lying to ourselves.

Christ came to make an end of magic, as holy father Ignatios of Antioch wrote to the church at Ephesos, “…every kind of magic was destroyed, and every bond of wickedness disappeared; ignorance was removed, and the old kingdom abolished, God Himself being manifested in human form for the renewal of eternal life. And now that took a beginning which had been prepared by God. Henceforth all things were in a state of tumult, because He meditated the abolition of death” (Ignatios to the Ephesians, ch 19).

If this was true and well-understood in the time of the early fathers, before the onslaught of the ‘dark ages’ submerged the Hellenic and Christian spirit, and continuing from the gospels and the apostles, how much more true today, when we have finally overcome those ‘dark ages’?

Where does this leave the churches?
Back to the statement made at the outset, there is a strange disconnect between what people say they want and what they really want, and yet they claim to be honest in their convictions.

What does the Church exist for?
Whom does it exist for?

They say it is a hospital for the sick, and that Christ is the Physician. Well and good.
Have they removed all obstacles to that purpose?
Have they laid out plans that facilitate it?
Have they got the priorities right?
Are the sick able to meet the Physician?
Are the instructions and medicines they are being administered working?
Are people being made well?

Or are secondary needs taking priority?
Are people being allowed to develop addictions to the medicines, dependence on the clinical staff, and diverted from getting to know their Physician personally?
Are the patients being administered cosmetic solutions to their real ailments, making them ‘look good’ to themselves and each other, while their critical illnesses remain untreated, because there’s no time for that, and no need?
Is a kind of spiritual homeopathy being applied, smaller and smaller doses of the same poison that created the symptoms, until these very ‘medicines’ have become nothing more than placebos, and health and recovery are redefined as ‘what the doctor tells you’ is healthy—not the Physician, but those who say they represent Him?

We are told that salvation comes through Christ. It doesn’t matter what church or denomination is speaking, the Message is the same, because we all use the same Book. “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst” (1 Timothy 1:15), and “God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Isn’t this what the whole mission of the Church is about, salvation through Jesus Christ? And isn’t this mission accomplished by following the simple command, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”? (Matthew 28:19).

Go, make disciples, baptize.
Can it be acceptable that churches do anything above and beyond these three things? Can it even be possible? Can we really think that we can add to the mission that Christ has already given us? Can we set priorities of our own that supersede what the Word Himself commands?
Go, make disciples, baptize.

A church says that we want the salvation of all, that we are offering the fallen world around us the gift of eternal life, vouchsafed to everyone who comes to Jesus and believes in Him.

Well, why aren’t they coming? Is that really how the Message entrusted to us works? Does the church go, do we make disciples, do we baptize, in that order? What have we put ahead of what we say we want? How can we have failed to realise that if we really want something, we remove all obstacles, and pursue it relentlessly?

We understand priorities in lesser things. How have we failed to apply the same principle to what we say is most important to us?
If we have to, what are we willing to give up to accomplish our mission? Have we really considered the question?
For there is really only one:

What price, salvation?

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