Pastoral Musings from Rain City

it's about 'what is church?' it's about whether 'emergent' is the latest Christian trend or something more substantial. it's musing on what it means to live the city, in America, in community, intergenerationally, at this time in history...

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Some sins are worse...

There's a sort of "party line" when it comes to sin that says, "sin is sin. It doesn't matter what form it takes, it's rebellion, death, darkness." The party line will quote Galatians and note that if someones stumbles in one point of the law, their failure is total. They'll explain, as I did this past Sunday, that "you can be in a cathedral or a brothel and be in rebellion towards God" implying that all sin is the same.

Um... not really. Yes, all sin is rooted in our rejecting of intimacy with our creator, our desire to go it on our own. Yes, all sin is destructive. But even a cursory reading of gospels indicates that Jesus was patient with some who were living in sin, while he raged against others, seemingly showing now mercy.

He's patient, for example, with sexual sin, as he reaches out to the woman in John 4 who's living with her lover after several failed marriages. Let's not forget the woman caught in adultery in John 8, or the woman busting into Simon's party.

He also seems patient with shady tax dealings, though in His case the shady figure with whom he's dealing isn't a tax evader, but an IRS agent. Violence? His own disciples want to reign down fire on the people who don't like Jesus, and one of cuts a guy's ear off when Jesus is being arrested in the garden. They'd make good radio preachers, and even in this Jesus shows remarkable restraint, as he does with the false confidence of those same disciples later on. Through of this, Jesus shows patience and compassion.

On the other hand, in Mark 7:6-7, Jesus shows no mercy and compassion when he exposes the thing that He hates most of all: hypocrisy. He quotes Isaiah, as he says that the religious leaders are the worst sinners of all because their actions on the outside don't correspond to who they really are. They're acting a part, playing the role of holiness while on stage, in front of people. the word hypocrite comes from the Greek word meaning, "actor", and it becomes clear through Jesus ministry that this sin is the worst sin of all.

The reason this sin is exposed by Jesus as the worst sin is because this is the sin that will prevent people from experiencing transformation. What happens when hypocrisy becomes ingrained in us? We make a pact with duplicity. We invariably place ourselves on the moral high ground, seeing the failures and shortcomings of others with 20/20 vision, while being blind to our own garbage. Do this long enough, and you begin to actually believe that you are the part that you're playing on stage - the holy one. This play acting disgusts Jesus.

Of course, anyone can play act, but it becomes increasingly easy to do so, the longer you hang out with church people, and the higher you climb in Christian social circles. In fact, it even seems that there's a subtle wicked synergy that can happen when Christians are together. We're sorely tempted to put on our show in a similar way that I'd never consider going to a Sounder Soccer game without wearing my Sounder shirt. It's as if, subtly, our collective gatherings become the stage for a religious play, and our real selves get left at the door. Maybe I'm being too harsh, but even if this only happens a little bit, that little bit is hypocrisy, the one thing God hates most of all.

A friend of mine recently wrote, "Jesus did not die for Christians, nor for Atheists, nor for Hindus, Buddhists, or Muslims. Jesus died exclusively for sinners." We nod in hearty agreement. We shout "Amen". But unless I actually stop performing, and come to Jesus, not as a religious hero, but as a sinner, I can't come to Jesus at all.

The good news in this is that I'm suddenly freed from performing. No longer needing to put on my religious clothing for the religious game, I can be honest to God - with my failures, my doubts, my weariness, and the darkness of my heart.

The bad news is that, if everyone else is wearing their game shirt, I'm going to feel a little awkward with my plain old clothing. But the fraternity of the awkward is, strangely enough, where Jesus delights to hang out. He calls it, "outside the camp", where the designer labels of Christian performance aren't seen.

What does this mean for church life? For worship services? For your own walk with God? I'm very interested in your thoughts.


At 21/7/09 09:42, Anonymous Nathan said...

I'm going to have to think very long and hard about this before responding to your final question... But I do know this; These words of yours, today, are some of my favorite and I will cherish them deeply and consider them fully.

Thanks for the challenge.

At 21/7/09 13:40, Anonymous Ken said...

I am not a Bethany regular (living in OR) but our home church here had a message on Sunday speaking to the strange way the church promotes the gospel and God's Kingdom. Consider our use of the cross as our primary symbol, the Billy Graham CRUSADES, Campus CRUSADE, etc. Do we really look back and view the Crusades as one of our finest moments in Christian history? Should the cross, representing foremost the death of Christ, be our symbol? Indeed what has church become over the past two thousand years of human development that God never intended? We have hypocritically turned it into a social club, a rallying point for various causes, a campaign to "reclaim" territory for Jesus, a moral compass classroom and so on. And those are some of the "GOOD" results. How about those that are the private social clubs? The racially, morally, technologically pure churches? Some have obviously remade Jesus in their own images, but others, most in fact, are much more subtle. Our calling to show the world God's love precludes us having ownership of the church, salvation, redemption, eternity for that matter. Yet we act like it's our show. That seems to me God's greatest frustration with our hypocrisy, that we're in charge. Just as wearing the T-shirt doesn't actually help the players on the field win the game, neither does wearing a cross. Being on the team or as you drew the picture recently, Richard... "in the river", makes the difference.

Our home pastor refers to the strangeness of God's calling as follows... "I once heard Christianity referred to as the “upside down kingdom.” The phrase stuck. I’ve learned to see Christianity as being in that odd group of illogical truths such as pruning (cutting off life so that you get more life), exercising (stressing your heart so that it can better withstand stress), and peanut butter banana sandwiches (who would have thought those could go together?). Christianity is illogical because you are asked to die so that you may live. You are asked to seek the happiness of others that you may be happy. You are told to be humble that you may be worth something."

"In the end, Christianity is a huge gamble on something counter-intuitive. It’s putting all your chips in the middle and betting on God. If God delivers, you win. If God fails, you lose. Paul articulates this aspect of the faith in 1 Corinthians chapter 15. The upshot of his argument is that Christianity only makes sense if it is true – and if it is true, it is the only thing that makes sense..." [] for full text.

Be very afraid when any program, church, para-church, cause, movement, or government becomes all consuming, all controlling in life. Odds are pretty good the train has jumped the track and is headed away from the upside down kingdom.

At 22/7/09 23:04, Blogger ryan said...

the discussion tonight was great. really encouraging to be a part of a church where people are willing to talk, disagree, and love one another. what a gift! thanks for helping make it happen.

At 23/7/09 00:02, Anonymous lauren said...

this one hit me in the gut. deep in my heart. i'll be praying and probably repenting much over this one. thank you for difficult but needed words....

At 23/7/09 18:20, Anonymous Michae; said...

As where i am walking in the Spirit,i love your blogs b/c now is the time to Open-up and Share w/others in the church. i think in my walk, i am Walking like Jesus says to do but there are times i stumble or make mistakes but is this Sin ? i think it is a learning experience for me & try my best to 'Get-up'dust myself off and continue to walk....
Thank you so much,Michael
Your Native Brother

At 23/7/09 18:50, Blogger Curtisimus Urquhartichus said...

Great blog, Richard. What you've written has been a blessing and, as usual, provoked my thoughts.

My family and I just moved back to the city where my wife and I met. We began attending the church we went to when we met. I quickly discovered how things have changed there but remained the same. New pastors, new people, new atmosphere. When we left there was promotion of programs in the church to help share your faith. "We'll win this city for Jesus!", was the cry. Well, after being away for 15+ years we have come back to the same message in a new format. Another "new" program at how to share your faith. What has caught my attention is how much the "sharing you faith with others" over rides building a relationship with Christ and how it is Him at work in us that produces what He wants in us. The focus seems to be on me doing it all. If I take these classes I'll be prepared. Sunday after Sunday of evangelism and the program. Every message preached from the Word seemed to be steered toward evangelism. I was getting increasingly frustrated by this. We ended up leaving when the pastor told a story about how another church was having issues with growth and the pastor said that the parking lot should be made bigger. Bigger parking lot = church growth.

We have not been attending any church since then. We have met with other Christians on occasion but these have been rare moments. I long for people who are real. No painted on happy faces with an "everything in my life is SO wonderful" attitude. Where a person can be open about their struggles and not feel like they're the exception in the Christian life.

Since I have not been attending a church I have been listening to taped sermons and reading the Word. For right now this is enough, or seems to be. You mentioned in this writing about being able to come to God with my doubts, weariness, failures, darkness of hear, etc., and I have felt renewed encouragement in these words. Thank you so much for your honesty, and your guts to say what you said and to put it in writing for all to see.
Peace, brother.

At 28/7/09 15:02, Blogger J said...

Amen to this! its refreshing to know that pastors think this way. I come out of an old school religious system that places leaders on a pedestal as the "sinless elite." It sickens me even more to know that I behaved (and behave) this way. To know that Jesus would look into my heart and see things that he detests makes me sad but also gives me that desire to not put on a religious facade but to be as genuine as He was. Thank you for this.


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