Sunday, March 21, 2010

C: Lent V

John 12:1-8, Isaiah 43:16-21, Philippians 3:4b-14

Even before I moved to Warsaw in 2007, I was aware that this is a community that is visibly and overwhelmingly Christian—more so, perhaps, than any place I’ve ever lived. If you randomly pick somebody behind a shopping cart at Owen’s or Marsh, the chances are they could tell you what church they go to, or at least the particular church that they don’t go to! So it may be a little difficult for us to wrap our minds around the fact that Warsaw is becoming more and more the exception in this regard, rather than the rule. In the Pacific Northwest, where I once lived for ten years, those who have any church affiliation, let alone attend regularly, are a distinct minority of the population. Not only in the United States, but in the western developed world in general, Christianity no longer enjoys the privileged status it once took for granted. In fact, mounting evidence suggests that Christianity is in a period of decline, quite rapid decline, in fact. (Interestingly, this is in contrast to the developing world, the so-called Global South, where Christianity is still expanding at an impressive rate). As a result of this more and more noticeable decline in the west, there’s a veritable industry that has sprung to life that is devoted to making “church” on Sunday attractive and interesting, so that the Christian community might attract people whose default prejudice is that Christianity is boring, or irrelevant, or untrue, or all three.

I follow this “church growth industry” fairly closely, as you might imagine, and, in fact, try to incorporate many of its insights into my ministry as a church leader. They have many good ideas. But I’m more and more convinced, as I ponder the issues, that there is one underlying widespread misconception that, if we don’t deal with it, will undercut anything else we might do to turn around the decline of Christianity in America. This misconception is something to which I apply the label “ethical theism.” But that’s probably pretty opaque to you, so let me break it open. Ethical Theism is the notion that what Christianity is after you strip away all the packaging and boil it down to its pure essence is this: Believe in God and try your best to be a good person. This is certainly what a great many, if not most, non-Christians in our society think Christianity is. And, I would suggest, it’s also what a great many Christians in our society think Christianity is. If we were to have that focus group conversation with randomly-selected Warsaw grocery shoppers, I would wager very heavily that their perception of Christianity could be reduced to Ethical Theism: Believe in God (however you think of God) and try your best to be a good person.

Now, let me be honest with you: To the extent that I am able to put myself in the shoes of a non-Christian, if I thought that Christianity were about nothing more than believing in God and trying my best to be a good person, I would have no interest in it whatsoever. Anyone whose perception of Christianity is stuck at level of Ethical Theism, even if that person is a nominal Christian, or even tries to be a practicing Christian—anyone who thinks Christianity is about believing in God and trying to be good probably finds the claims of Christianity—and Christianity makes some pretty extravagant claims about a whole lot of things— and the practice of Christian religion—which can get pretty demanding, particularly at this time of year—that person probably finds the claims and practices of Christianity to be dreadfully, oppressively, irrelevant and boring, or, at best, simply old and tired and worn.

But there’s a line we can cross, I think, that enables us to see it all differently. Different people approach this line in different ways, from different angles, in different seasons of their lives. I might call it the “getting it” line. Some people “get it” at a very young age, in childhood. Others “get it” as young adults, or in middle age, or in the autumn of life. We cross this line when we look at the world and look at ourselves and feel profound sorrow—sorrow at the core of our being—over the way things are. When we “get it,” we are in touch with what Christian theology calls the “fall” of creation, that the entire cosmos, from the largest planet to the smallest sub-atomic particle, is infected, distorted, out of balance. Because the world is fallen, children get leukemia. Because the world is fallen, young women get murdered while they’re jogging in the park. Because the world is fallen, we can’t find better ways than war to solve our conflicts. Because the world is fallen, the least bad way to run an economy depends on human selfishness. Because the world is fallen, tectonic plates shift and cause earthquakes. I could go on, but I hope you see my point. Until our awareness of the fallenness of creation reaches a certain threshold, and our sorrow over that fallenness reaches a certain threshold, we’re like a person who has a very mild headache, not quite intense enough to get our conscious attention. But once we cross the line, once we “get it,” when we understand the true size and scope of the human predicament, we then realize that the human race has a collective “headache” that is the mother of all migraines.

So it’s when we hurt bad enough, and pretty much only when we hurt bad enough, that we can see and appreciate what God accomplishes for us in Christ. Two weeks from now we’ll be singing the Church’s ancient song about Christ trampling down death, and all that death signifies, which is nothing less than the fallenness of creation. Death is the ultimate sign that we are fallen. Yet, we will sing that Christ tramples down death … by death. Jesus takes the fallenness of creation into the tomb with him, and leaves it there. He introduces something entirely new—new ‘DNA’, we might think of it—something entirely new into the created order. The prophet Isaiah calls this to our attention today:

Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
God is doing something completely new, something completely outside that which we could even imagine, beyond what our minds can fathom. And in doing what he’s doing, God is connecting to our brokenness, our fallenness, in an unimaginably direct way.

There’s a great hymn by Charles Wesley that begins, “And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood?” It’s almost as if Wesley were admitting that he once found Christianity irrelevant and boring, but something happened that gave him an unexpected “interest” in “the Savior’s blood,” an interest in the “new thing” that God is doing, the new thing that is the precise medicine for the deep sorrow we feel over the fallenness of the world. He apparently reached that threshold where the mild headache turned into a raging migraine; he cross the “getting it” line, and was suddenly interested in what God has done to remove the source of our pain, what God has done to trample down death by death and bestow life to those who dwell in the tomb.

If the “headache” doesn’t bother us that much, actions like that performed by Jesus’ friend Mary when he visited her home in the village of Bethany make no sense at all. She took a jar of very costly perfume, perhaps worth up to $20,000 in today’s money, and poured the whole thing over Jesus’ feet. A practical and prudent person would say, “What a waste!” on many levels. But Mary had crossed the threshold. She “got it” in a profound way. She was in touch with the “new thing” that God was doing in and through Jesus. She was acknowledging that it would be “by death” that Jesus would trample down death, and was anointing his body for burial in advance. If the “headache” doesn’t bother us much, then and language like St Paul’s when he writes to the Philippians seems annoyingly excessive. After counting all the many blessings of his life, he exclaims,

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…

Unless we have crossed the “get it line,” this seems totally out of proportion to whatever reality these words signify, kind of like using morphine to treat an ordinary headache.

But if we know that we have no ordinary headache, but a super-migraine, we realize that a completely radical response is always appropriate. We realize that Mary wasn’t crazy for pouring that jar of perfume over Jesus’ feet; she may indeed have been the sanest person in her village. When we know that the world has no ordinary headache, but a super-migraine, we realize that St Paul’s language was not over-the-top when he effectively called the immense privileges of his birth and education so much garbage in comparison with knowing Christ, but that he actually couldn’t find language that was excessive enough to describe the vastness of God’s accomplishment in Christ. In the words of the twentieth century poet Ursula Vaughan Williams: “Never since the world began, such a light such dark did span.”

Do you get it?