Sunday, August 18, 2013

Giving Away Your Faith

Wednesday I listened to a webinar on guns in church, dealing with liability and safety issues. I did this because Florida is one of the states that excludes churches from the list of places into which you are not authorized to carry a weapon. That is, unless we qualify under Florida statute 790.06, paragraph (12) (a) which exempts any “establishment licensed to dispense alcoholic beverages to be consumed on the premises.” But I doubt communion counts. Anyway, it turns out the big threat is from outsiders who simply come to shoot up the place. They are rarely members, rarely issue a prior threat and often commit suicide after their shooting spree. The good news is that since these shootings are rare and therefore unforeseeable, we are not liable for deaths and injuries coming out of such an incident! The bad news is there is no foolproof way to stop any determined individual from doing such a thing, especially if they plan to die anyway. The official advice is to draw up emergency operations plans beforehand and then, during an Active Shooter Incident, “respond immediately; run; hide; and 'fight,'” which is defined as adults considering disrupting or incapacitating the shooter with objects like a fire extinguisher or chair. We discussed the pros and cons of hiring off-duty cops, security guards or relying on the assorted competencies of armed church members. Cops are the best option because not only do they receive the best training for this, but also, once they respond to a crime, they are considered on-duty, and the church is not liable for what they do. Such is the world we live in.

As I said, these shootings, while not unknown, are rare. Richard Hammar, who gave the webinar, counted 15 church shootings in 11 years, which is not so alarming when you realize that there are nearly 400,000 congregations in the US. You are much more likely to be involved in an Active Shooter Incident in a workplace.

What was really interesting was the motives of the shooters in the 15 religious congregation incidents studied. In a third of the cases, the motive was unknown. In another third, the motive was a family dispute, though the shooter, as I said, was rarely a member of the church. Only in the last third was the motive to commit a hate crime.

The good news is you are unlikely to die for God in your church. The question is: do you live for him outside the church?

Our passage from Hebrews 11 is a roll call of those who both lived and died for their faith in God. But they lived in times of persecution, under regimes that would literally torture you, flog you, imprison you, and kill you for standing up for your God. And there are still countries where Christians can be lynched, legally executed or imprisoned simply for proclaiming Jesus. Our Coptic brothers and sisters in Egypt, pastors of house churches in China, and many more in Africa, Asia and the Near East are still persecuted.

Despite what some fundamentalists say, we in the US are not persecuted. Unlike France, you can wear conspicuous religious jewelry or clothes in schools here. Unlike Germany, you cannot be convicted of defaming religious belief. Unlike Saudi Arabia, you can own a Bible and can't be arrested and publicly lashed for proclaiming your faith. Nor would you be executed for converting to Christianity. Now that's religious persecution.

Do we have opposition? Sure. Because we have freedom of religion and freedom of speech, we live in a marketplace of ideas, competing for people's attention and allegiance with other belief systems. And as in any marketplace, we also compete with inferior versions and knockoffs of what we offer. If one promoter of Christianity goes too far, we are often tarred with the same brush. It's all sharp elbows out there. But it's better than official, organized persecution. And it's better than if we lived in country with an official state church. Because then people tend to lump together church and state and rebel against both. Church attendance is low in countries with an official church. And if there was a state-sponsored church, which would it be: Roman Catholic? Seventh Day Adventist? Baptist? It was Baptists who convinced James Madison to draft a constitutional amendment separating church and state, to protect everyone's right to worship as they chose.

Oddly enough, the opposition we have is rarely about the essentials of the faith. There are atheists, of course, who oppose all religious doctrines but there are less than you think. Only 5% of Americans call themselves atheists. The majority of the 16% of Americans who claim no religion still believe in God. Less than one-third of these “nones” are true atheists. Any criticisms of specific doctrines are just part of their overall efforts to denigrate any belief in the divine.

Most opposition to Christianity in America is concentrated on a handful of hot button political/religious issues that are not central to the faith. I'm not saying they are unimportant but it would be sad if people never considered the question of who Jesus is and what he's done because they couldn't get past secondary issues like abortion and homosexuality. It is akin to not going to the cancer specialist you need because you didn't like the bumper stickers on the cars of some of his other patients.

If we are to bring the gospel to people, as we are commanded in the Great Commission, we need to be clear about what it is. And it is all about Jesus. The basics are found in our baptismal statement of faith, the Apostles' Creed. It began to surface around the mid to late 100s AD when it was called the Old Roman Creed. By 700 AD it had not only attained its present form but was accepted as part of the official liturgy of the Western Church. It is the most basic summary of the key doctrines of the faith and is at the center of most catechisms. The creed obviously evolved around the persons of the Trinity. But the largest section is about Jesus. So let's examine that part in detail.

Right after affirming belief in God the Father who created everything, the creed says, “I believe in Jesus Christ...” You know, of course, that Christ is not Jesus' last name but his title. It is the Greek form of Messiah, which in turn means the Anointed One. The 3 offices for which the Jews anointed people were those of prophet, of priest and of king. When we call Jesus the Christ, we mean he is to us all 3. He is our prophet, speaking the Word of the Lord to us. He is our priest, reconciling us with God through a sacrifice for our sins. He is our king, to whom we swear allegiance and whose word is law to us, his royal subjects.

We also acknowledge Jesus to be God's only Son. His relationship to God the Father is that close: that of a son, and an only son at that. When we are dealing with Christ, we are not dealing with God's underling but with God's only Son. He knows the mind of the Father and speaks for him and acts on his behalf.

He is our Lord. We are not just acknowledging that he is an important consideration in our decisions but that he has authority over our lives. He has the final say over how we think, speak and act.

He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.” We have established that Jesus is divine; here we establish that he is human as well. The uniqueness of Jesus extends to the fact that he is both fully God and fully human. We have a God who knows from firsthand experience what our human lives are like. And if we want to understand what God who is a Spirit is like in terms we humans can understand, we can look at Jesus. He is God translated into a form we can grasp.

He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended to the dead.” No respectable historian thinks Jesus is fictional. He lived as a Galilean Jew in the early part of the first century AD. He was condemned to death by Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea and an historical figure. Jesus was crucified, a death reserved for slaves and traitors. He not only lived a human life; he died a human death, albeit the cruelest one the authorities could manage. He was truly dead and laid in a tomb and the door shut on him. And if his story ended there, no one would likely have heard of this poor Jewish laborer who had achieved brief local popularity as preacher and healer.

And the most important thing about his dying is that he did it for us. There have been many martyrs in the world, people who died for their beliefs. But their deaths did not make the world a better place, but poorer for the lack of their presence. Socrates' death did not redeem anyone. Moses' death did not take away anyone else's sins. Buddha's death did not reconcile the world to God. No prophet's death destroyed death itself and grants eternal life today. Only Jesus' death is not a sad coda or postscript to a holy life. Only Jesus' death had a cosmic meaning and a universal effect on the destiny of people's souls. Jesus didn't just die; he died for us.

“On the third day he rose again.” This is the one thing that clearly makes Jesus different from all the other would be Messiahs and religious authorities. The rest stayed dead. Moses died. Gautama Buddha was cremated in the 5th century BC. You can visit the tomb of Muhammad in Medina, Saudi Arabia. Only Jesus rose from the dead. And that was what turned his group of followers from a discouraged band of fugitives into fearless ambassadors for him, willing to die to spread the good news about their crucified and risen Lord. Jesus' resurrection changed everything, from how they thought about his teachings to how they thought about his death to how they thought about him.

He ascended into heaven.” There is no shadowy Sheol for Jesus. He goes into the presence of Father and we who follow him do so as well. In fact we follow him through death into new resurrected life.

He will come again to judge the living and the dead.” There will still be justice done. Those who do evil will not get away with it, not even through dying. Those who do good will be rewarded, even if they do not receive it before dying. The present is a grace period in which everyone has a second chance and third chance and more in which to turn their lives around, in which to enter the kingdom of God and become part of the creation of a new world, not made just for them or their kind, not one that merely conforms to their tastes or agenda, but one created by God for all people who love him, the God of love, and who love one another as Jesus loves us.

There is one other essential point that the creed makes over and over which I have not yet mentioned. It is not enough to like Jesus or some of the things he said. It is not enough to approve of some of the things he did. It is not enough to believe that he exists. The verb used all the time in the creed is “believe.” (Which makes sense since it comes from the Latin credo, which means "I believe.") It doesn't mean I believe these things to be facts the way I believe that Jupiter has 67 moons. If it turns out that Jupiter has more or less than that, it will not affect my life. But in Christianity, when we say we believe in Jesus Christ, we mean we trust in him, rely on him, commit our lives to his truth. It means we are invested in him and in the worldview that centers on him. It means we believe that to truly call ourselves Christians we must disown ourselves, take up our crosses and follow him in a life of self-sacrificial love.

In one sense, the Christians who live under persecution are more fortunate than we are. They know know that to follow Jesus will cost them dearly; they know that they are making a life or death decision when they put their trust in him. They know that their faith is real. Over here, people can drift through their life, deluding themselves that they are Christians because they go to church or pray occasionally or are nice people. They may sleepwalk in a facile fantasy of faith their whole lives. They are like those extremely handsome men or very beautiful women who think they are good actors because people keep casting them in movies and TV shows. But in fact they don't have the acting chops of, say, Steve Buscemi or Kathy Bates, who have to use their considerable talent to get cast in good roles.

In the same way, we in the democratic West have privileges that make it easy to call ourselves Christians. No one will set fire to your car if you put a Jesus fish on it. No one will arrest you or your kids for wearing a cross. No mob will attack and burn down this church. Proclaiming yourself a Christian will get you at most a roll of the eyes from a person in the room or a flame attack online from an internet troll. Yet because of that, we are too timid to talk about Jesus. We are in no greater danger than that of social disapproval and yet we stay as quiet and low key as if our very lives were at risk.

So if we do not fear for our own lives, what about for the lives of others? The churches who do fearlessly spread the gospel tend to be those who believe that Jesus came to do more than make us happier. They believe he came to save us from sin, death and damnation. And don't we? Don't we believe that there is more wrong with the world than that people need to be made to feel better about themselves? Don't we believe that they need to be made into better people? The problems of the world are not merely that people need to be a little bit nicer. They need to be made just and caring and faithful and respectful and reverent and to care just as much about the freedom and rights of others as about their own. They need to be transformed. Until they are, they will cheat and kill and denigrate and be unfaithful to others and be greedy, selfish and arrogant. They will continue to make this life hell on earth and they will not be fit for or be able to fit into the kingdom of heaven. They will not be fit to be around a holy, just and loving God since they would be out of harmony with all he is and out of place in his realm. They would not be at peace--with themselves, with others or with God. If they are not, how can they possibly stand his presence, much less spend eternity in it?

You know what is more likely to kill the people in American church than guns? Heart disease. Cancer. Lung disease. Stroke. An accident. Alzheimer's. Diabetes. Kidney disease. Flu and pneumonia. Except for accidents, these things are quiet, slowly developing conditions. By the time they make their presence known, most of the damage will be done. But if you saw the symptoms and behaviors leading to these things in a loved one, you'd tell them. You'd recommend a doctor. Right?

And you know what will separate most people from God? It will not be murder or any of the louder and flashier sins. It will be self-righteousness. Deception of others and of oneself. Self-indulgence. Apathy. The erosion of faith. The loss of hope. The cooling off of love for God and for others. Like a vitamin deficiency weakens a body, leaving it vulnerable to disease, lack of a strong and growing relationship with Jesus will leave you susceptible to the things that kill your spirit. But why do we hesitate to tell others about Jesus, when we see that they are wasting away spiritually? Why do we fight so much more to prolong physical life and yet let spiritual life drain away?

All it takes is someone to tell them who Jesus is, what he has done for us and how we should respond. Would it kill you to share your faith? Because it might just save someone else.

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