Thursday, January 03, 2008

Sermon: The Christ (Anti-)Event

Sermon delivered on December 30, 2007 at Chinese Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon.
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one's foes will be members of one's own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:34-39)
This morning, we are caught between two of the biggest events of the year: Christmas is behind us, but the New Year is still ahead of us. For some, like myself, it marks the start of a new semester of school. For others, the chance to try out a new diet or read a classic book that’s been sitting on your shelf all these years. But there’s something else interesting about this Sunday, namely, the fact that there is nothing interesting about it at all. You see, there’s this growing trend in church attendance studied by people who love statistics. The trend is this: while attendance is falling at an increasingly rapid rate in virtually every denomination in the United States, attendance is rising on Christmas and Easter. This is a curious phenomenon, and it’s true in Europe as well as in North America. People are going to church less and less in general, but they are going in larger numbers on the church’s two Big Days. Of course, there are a variety of reasons for this. Perhaps people are feeling especially guilty for going less and less during the rest of the year. But this trend is indicative of a more general cultural reality: viz., that our culture is drawn to Big Events.

Let me offer an example. I love Apple computers, and one of the things Apple is famous for is their product release events. Whereas most computing and electronics companies announce a new product many months before they actually release it, in order to “test the waters,” so to speak, when Apple announces a new product you can go to your local Apple store that same day and find it on display. Their strategy, in other words, is to build up all this hype for the announcement itself, because everyone knows that when Apple announces something, people listen. By announcing the announcement, Apple generates a lot of excitement about a mystery product that people expect will revolutionize our lives. Apple’s entire marketing strategy is built around the Big Day, the Big Event.

Apple, of course, is not alone in making the Big Event the centerpiece of their marketing strategy. The Big Event is really at the heart of American culture and has been for many centuries, stretching back at least to the Second Great Awakening in the early 1800s. Back then, revivals spread across the country due to the rise of new evangelistic methods. People would advertise an upcoming tent revival in order to build up hype for a sermon that would bring people back to God. We see this same strategy today, except now it is no longer revolutionary but rather standard practice. Churches thrive off of the Big Event, and the fact that attendance numbers are rising on Christmas and Easter is proof of this. Without these Big Events many churches would have to close their doors, or at least downsize to smaller ones. Besides Christmas and Easter, churches also have retreats for men, women, and youth each year which are often designed to be times of revival. On a much larger scale, Billy Graham’s evangelistic mission is built around Big Events—numbering 417 all together.

We live in a Big Event culture. Television ads tell us that this Saturday is the Big Sale. Televangelists tell us that this Sunday is the Big Revival. ESPN tells us that this Monday is the Big Game. Scientists tell us that this Tuesday is the announcement of the next Big Discovery. Entertainment Weekly tells us that this Wednesday is the premiere of the next Big Show. Marketers tell us that this Thursday is the release of the next Big Product. Trailers tell us that this Friday is the opening of the next Big Movie. Truly, we might say, there is nothing new under the sun.

There are two main components of any Big Event: (1) a sales pitch, and (2) a product. The sales pitch is always directed to You, the individual, the consumer. The product is then sold to you as something that you need, something you have always really truly wanted. Companies tell you that this product was made with you in mind, and that your life is somehow empty without it. Churches all too often say the same thing, except that they replace the latest flat-screen television with salvation and community. The product is different, but the basic sales pitch is the same. In every case, the Big Event is always individualistic—it’s all about me and you—and consumeristic—this is something you need to have. But as we all know, Big Events never last. And so we live in anticipation of the Next Big Event: the next sale, the next revival, the next game, the next show.

All of this has particular importance for us as we gather together on the week after the event of Christ’s birth. As we reflect on Christmas and look forward to a New Year, what can we say about the Christ Event? How is it similar to or different from the events that bombard us week after week? And what should we say about the church as it seeks to shape disciples for Christ in this world of advertising and consumerism?

Jesus knew something about Big Events. The Jews of his time were still bitter about the terrible event in which the city of Jerusalem was destroyed and the temple desecrated by Antiochus IV. This led to the event of the Jewish uprisings organized by the Maccabees. By the time Jesus was born many years later, the Romans ruled the country, and many were hopeful for another Big Event in which the Jewish people would finally be independent again. So it’s likely that people were ecstatic to hear Jesus say: “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” At last, some probably thought, the Big Event we’ve all been waiting for has arrived. But the rest of what Jesus goes on to say quickly deflates any hope for a something New and Big.

Jesus rejects all marketing strategies, all Big Events. He offers no strategy for revival, no solution to the problems of church attendance in the twenty-first century. Instead, he says,
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
This is a message which would never find its way on to a Hallmark card. But what does he mean? How could the Prince of Peace, whom we celebrate during Christmas, declare that in fact he did not come to bring peace but a sword? In Luke 2:14, the angels declare “peace on earth to those on whom God’s favor rests,” but then in Luke 12:51, Jesus declares, “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.” It is almost as if Jesus were rebuking the angels. So which is it? Peace or division? Harmony or the sword?

This is certainly a perplexing problem. During Christmas we tend to ignore these problematic statements from Jesus’ ministry, but it’s important that we address them head-on. We need to remember that Jesus disrupts all attempts at definition and description. The moment we think we have him figured out, he encounters us with a new dimension of his identity, one that forces us to start over from the beginning. Just when we think we know him, we discover that we really don’t know him at all. Jesus may be our friend, but he is unlike any friend that we know. He does not simply comfort us; he also confronts us. He does not simply embrace us; he also excavates us. And it is only when we grasp how wild and disruptive Jesus is that we will understand the sword that he brings. For the sword which Jesus came to bring to this world is not the sword brandished by Jewish zealots or Roman centurions, nor is it the gun fired by American soldiers. As Jesus said near the end of his life in Matthew 26:52: “All who draw the sword will die by the sword.” And Jesus himself declared that he did not come to bring death but life, and not just any ordinary life but abundant life, true life, peaceful life (John 10:10). In other words, the sword which Jesus came to bring is not the sword of war but the sword of discipleship.

In all of the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus calls his followers to radical discipleship. In Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34, and Luke 9:23, he says the same thing, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” And in our passage for today, he declares, “whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” Here we encounter the very heart of Christ’s message throughout his earthly ministry, and it is a difficult one to hear—even more difficult to obey. Jesus offers the anti-advertisement, the anti-revival sermon. Unlike the Jewish zealots who wanted to overthrow the Roman government, Jesus does not turn the sword upon political rivals; instead, he turns the sword against one’s parents, children, and even one’s own self. He shockingly declares that our enemies are members of our own household. And why? Because our loyalty and allegiance is to no person or thing but to Christ himself. His message is the complete rejection of the Big Event. Instead of a sales pitch, he offers a radical call to discipleship. Instead of a product, he offers himself.

While Christmas and Easter are indeed the central festivals of the Christian faith, there is a great danger in celebrating them with such hype and fanfare, because the more Christianity becomes a religion of the Big Event, the more we end up silencing the message of Christ—a message of faithfulness, obedience, and discipleship. The ironic thing about the historical Christmas and Easter is that both were actually non-events in their own time. Jesus was born in a run-of-the-mill barn in a remote village, unknown and unnoticed. Jesus died the death of a typical convict, just another cross erected by a Roman government famous for executing anyone who challenged the authorities. His resurrection, too, for that matter, went unnoticed, since he only appeared to a select few. By emphasizing these moments in Christ’s life as Big Events, we easily end up missing the consistent message of his life: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” In other words, Jesus does not call us to revival; he calls us to faithfulness. He does not call us to the next Big Show; he calls us to take up our crosses and follow him. He does not offer the next Big Product; he offers himself, broken and poured out for us on the cross. He does not present the next Big Sale; he tells us to sell all that we have and die to ourselves. To those of us searching for the Big Event, he asks: “What does it profit [you] if [you] gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit [yourselves]?” (Luke 9:25).

The call of Christ is the most challenging when we realize that it calls us to renounce all other allegiances. Jesus makes his message as clear as possible. He tells us that whoever loves father or mother, even son or daughter, more than him is not worthy of him. Jesus, of course, is not condemning the love of one’s family. Jesus is condemning any and all competing loyalties and allegiances. He speaks here of the family because this is the strongest of all earthly loyalties, and thus all other allegiances are included by extension. Jesus is saying, in other words, that no one and nothing must be allowed to compromise your sole allegiance to Jesus Christ, not even your son or daughter. Our family cannot be used as an excuse to make any concessions in our obedience to Christ’s calling. By extension, we must relinquish and abandon all other allegiances, whether to school or nation or even church. Following Christ means that I am not loyal to Princeton or to America or to Chinese Baptist; I am loyal to Christ and Christ alone.

If there is any denomination in the world today historically best suited to grasp this teaching of Jesus, it is the Baptist denomination. I say this with all sincerity. In their origin, Baptists were the strictest of all non-conformists; they refused to be attached to any institution or government. For those youth who have an itch to be rebellious, you can’t do much better than be a Baptist. Baptists were, traditionally speaking, the true rebels. One of the translators of the King James Version of the Bible, Daniel Featley, wrote out a list of Baptist teachings that he felt defined Baptists in the seventeenth century:
1. First, “that none are rightly baptized but those who are dipt” in water. This was a rejection of standard church practice.

2. Second, “that no children ought to be baptized.” Baptists rejected the typical association between one’s national citizenship and one’s faith. Back then, people assumed that if you are born in a Christian nation, you should be baptized at birth.

3. Third, “that there ought to be no set form of Liturgy or prayer by the book, but onely [sic] one by the Spirit.” Baptists rejected the liturgy approved by the government, which other churches used.

4. Fourth, “that there ought to be no distinction by the Word of God between the Clergy and the Laity but that all who are gifted may preach the Word, and administer the Sacraments.” Baptists rejected the status of a privileged class of religious people. They also rejected, at least in theory, any notion that men are privileged over women.

5. Fifth, “that it is not lawful to take an oath at all, no, not though it be demanded by the magistrate.” Baptists firmly rejected any loyalty to nation or government or political party. A true Baptist could not say the Pledge of Allegiance or join the military.

6. Sixth, “that no Christian may with good conscience execute the office of civil magistrate.” In other words, Baptists could not serve in the government.
With this list of teachings, Baptists are not only rebels, but they are also in a perfect position to answer Christ’s call effectively. Just as Jesus demands that we swear an oath to him alone, so too Baptists refused to take an oath to any person or nation because of their loyalty to Christ.

No one represents this legacy better than Roger Williams. Williams fled from England to the American colonies in 1630 as a Puritan seeking religious freedom. He founded the colony of Rhode Island as well as the First Baptist Church of America, but his most enduring legacy is the establishment of a separation between church and state. He was the first to speak of a “wall of separation,” later picked up by Thomas Jefferson, and his ideas influenced the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Williams was a rebel in his own time: he refused to acknowledge the king of England as a Christian and even charged King James I with blasphemy for calling Europe a Christian land. He made people even more upset when he denounced what was called the “citizens’ oath.” The government in Massachusetts forced citizens to take an oath of allegiance in order to assure their loyalty, but Williams responded by saying that Christ alone has the prerogative to demand the taking of an oath. No earthly authority has the right to claim our allegiance. Because of his Baptist beliefs, Williams knew that loyalty to God meant that all other loyalties were nullified. Perhaps it is time for us to recover our Baptist heritage.

The call of Christ is a hard one to bear. It’s no wonder that after one of his more confusing teachings, his disciples respond by saying, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus says in reply, “Does this offend you? . . . The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:60-63). Jesus says this again to us today.

Jesus came to bring peace to the earth, but it is unlike any peace that we know: for his peace is a sword which slashes violently against any competing loyalty, a double-edged sword which pierces until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow (Hebrew 4:12). Jesus came to bring life, but it is unlike any life that we know: for his life is the life of the cross, and he calls us to lose our lives in order to find them. On this week after Christmas, let us remember that the Christ Event is unlike any event that we know: for the event of Christ’s coming is not a moment of excitement which quickly fades, leaving us in anticipation of the next Big Day, the next Big Show, the next Big Sale. On the contrary, Christ comes again each moment and his grace is new each morning. Jesus stands at our doors every day and knocks. Christ continually confronts us with his way, his truth, and his life. He encounters us anew with his message of radical discipleship, and he beckons us here and now to take up our crosses and follow him.

1 comment:

Adventures of the Chaos Destroyer said...

You might want to clarify something in talking about the "Baptist" church. What is now the modern baptist church is far more "liberal" than that and it is the other branches of the anabaptist movement (for lack of a better word for it) such as the Grace Brethren and Mennonite churches that carry on those traditions and statements of faith. The Mennonites have a statement of faith almost identical to those you outlined as "Baptist." The G.B.C. is very similar, but does not prevent one from being in public office or voting.

I went to a G.B. church for three years and went through their membership courses, in which they discussed all of these interesting bits of their history. Oddly enough, though I was a member of their advisory board, I was denied membership...LOL. It's a long and crazy story that eventually worked itself out.