"Let your words be anything but empty
Why don't you tell them the truth?" From Brave by Sara Bareillies
Words and Phrases. We're so used to them that sometimes we can neglect to really unpack what they're actually seeking to say (and what they're really telling us).
Recently, I've been looking at what's put up as the shop window blurb on the websites of the "new" (Principally Charismatic, so circa 1980's on) church growth movement churches, and it certainly says something.
Most of them want to talk about being part of what's deemed "bigger" than us - the revitalization, the transformation - ideas that would fit well into the designer label bag of most post-modernists (here be the dragons that continually feed upon themselves!). Whilst these notions certainly give what's served up a contemporary tag, it's how you access these attractions that's particularly telling. There isn't much by way of structural doctrine to define what's believed at the gateway (that, of course, is left to the initiation courses - usually "Alpha" - which come later) , but when it comes through, it's often phrases about getting to know 'Father' (God) essentially by the work 'of the Spirit', and this was where the real troubles start to appear.
Huh? someone may say - why does it matter?
Surely, these places are clearly attracting people towards 'god', so that has to be a good thing, right?
Well, let's look at a Biblical story for a moment to answer that.
The book of Acts has some pretty miraculous moments, and one of the most startling occurs quite early on, at the cusp of the new church just beginning to dip a toe into taking its message out further than Jerusalem. A man named Phillip, who'd literally been a waiter before Saul started splintering the church community, had headed down to Samaria and was boldly preaching and casting out devils, when some trouble popped up in the form of a miracle man called Simon, who joined Phillip's entourage and then found himself eager to gain the kind of power these new teachers had, however much silver it cost him. This lead to a show-down with the likes of Peter and John, so things were certainly getting stirred up! Anyway, in the middle of all this, Phillip finds himself being told to chase down a chariot in the desert to speak to a guy on his way back to Africa. He heads off to the desert, does as he's told, and -whoosh!, then gets carried away to another town, a long way away in Caesarea, to carry on his work.
Did you see what I did there?
I told the outline - this happened, then this - of the story given in Acts 8, but I haven't actually said anything at all about what is at the hub of these events.
Before I say anything more, can you think what that might be?
If you can't, take a look at the chapter for a minute and then see if it comes to mind.
What's missing in my initial telling here has everything to do with what is also missing from the message of the websites I mentioned to begin with, and defines the trouble we all face today.
The Samaria story is filled with lots of exciting events - someone turns up and all manner of unexpected things happen as a result, but the entire narrative is given weight by that little 'footnote' of Phillip's side-trip into the desert.
Well, here, he meets someone from elsewhere who is struggling with the scriptures, and not just any 'ol portion of them - he's reading from the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah, speaking of one who will suffer for the sins of others.
Phillip's job was essential - to inform this stranger that the Prophet was speaking of the very one who had recently come and given Himself for us - to proclaim the one who had died and risen so that this man could trust in that atoning work and be re-born in baptism.
God took Phillip into the desert because this mattered, eternally.
So, look at that incident again, and tell me what's missing - what is it that needs to be mentioned, talked about, preached and proclaimed?
Here it is - "Then Phillip opened his mouth, and beginning with the scripture the man was reading, he told him the good news"... (wait for it)... "about Jesus" (Acts 8:35).
What mattered in what the church was doing at that very moment was something very clear-cut and essential, not only for those who belonged to it, but for the good of the whole world,
so, what's going on today?
Let me place this question in a somewhat broader context.
I recall some years ago on a radio broadcast how one of the shows team went to a major Christian convention in America and sought to interview people who were both running the event and attending by asking a couple of straightforward questions. These were:
What are the ten commandments?
What is the Gospel?
What does Justification mean?
Most of the responses weren't just bad, they were positively pagan, and whilst there were a couple of exceptions, the simple fact was people really didn't know what Christianity was at all - their churches were clearly failing them entirely.
We are imperiled, spiritually, when we are encouraged to move off from the vital truths of the faith, especially concerning The Preaching of the Cross (the saving work of Jesus Christ) to invest in a spirituality which majors in minors - a principal-based, naval-gazing spirituality that asks us to keep looking at ourselves in the immediate and at 'god' in the abstract (distant or spiritual, rather than present, in His Word and Sacrament).
The plain and simple truth is we're often communicating a religion that fits right in with our own religiosity, not turning us, as the wretches we actually are, to the judgement and mercy required at the Cross.
Jesus tells us plainly - life isn't possible for you and I unless its via the gateway of His death (for our sins) and ours (by being crucified with Him), so that we can begin to partake of something very different - a life where we're fed by the Spirit speaking to us by God's word (meaning, not our intuitions, but the word that will never fade or fail).
So, as Easter arrives, where will we be?
Will the Jesus message this year be something mystical, or shrouded behind a deluge of 'new' praise sessions, or 'revelations' or will it be as real and as stark as it was on the first easter, requiring from us repentance and faith in the eternal work of the one became the Lamb slain for us?
Church really isn't about us 'doing' business with God. It's where we go to once again learn what God has done for us at one place, forever.
We cannot hope to save the world, or even help ourselves, unless that's where we focus.