One of the mantras of movie making is “Show; don't tell.” Don't give the dramatic backstory of a character in some long expository speech; dramatize it. Don't tell us a character is strong or smart or compassionate; show him doing things that demonstrates those qualities to the audience. Imagine a Sherlock Holmes movie where he doesn't do his trick of merely looking at a person and reeling off several facts about them, or going to a crime scene and noting several tiny details that totally change the way we see the crime. Imagine instead a movie where people just talked of how clever Holmes was and it was simply accepted as fact. It would be a dull movie and quite frankly the audience would be skeptical about the claim. The same thing thing would be true if you filmed the story of Jesus and didn't show him healing people or feeding the 5000 or dying and rising again, but just said he was God.
Epiphany comes from the Greek word meaning “appearance” or “manifestation.” Historically, it began as a celebration of Jesus' baptism, when God's voice from heaven declared him his beloved son and the Spirit in the form of a dove landed on him. Now it includes all the events in which Jesus was revealed to the world. So we remember the magi, the first gentiles to whom he was revealed, and his first miracle at the wedding in Cana. To me the significant thing is that these are events. It wasn't a matter of hearsay, where people heard something about Jesus and went about their business. These were times where people encountered Jesus and he or God or angels did something that revealed who he was or what his mission was all about. Jesus didn't just tell; he showed.
For instance, when Jesus healed the man lowered through the roof by his friends, he at first said the man's sins were forgiven. His critics immediately thought Jesus was blaspheming because only God can forgive sins. Jesus knew they'd think this way and said, “Which is easier: to say, 'Your sins are forgiven' or to say 'Get up and walk?' But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins...” Then he said to the paralytic, 'Get up, take your mat and go home.' And the man got up and went home.” (Matt. 9:5-7) Actions speak louder than words and Jesus knew it.
Why did people come to Jesus in the first place? For just about everyone except his disciples it was for his works of healing, not for his words. They had a need and Jesus met it. In the 1st chapter of Mark we are told, after Jesus healed Peter's mother-in-law, “That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. The whole town gathered at the door and Jesus healed many who had various diseases.” (Mk 1:32-34) Later we are told that “When people heard all he was doing, many people came to him from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon. Because of the crowd he told his disciples to have a small boat ready for him, to keep people from crowding him. For he had healed many, so that those with diseases were pushing forward to touch him.” (Mk 3:8-10) Later, we are told that “so many people were coming and going that they [Jesus and the disciples] did not even have a chance to eat.” (Mk 6:31) Coming and going isn't the behavior of folks wanting to hear a good sermon; it is the behavior of those who are coming to be healed or bringing loved ones to be healed. People came to Jesus because he did something for them. Only then did they stay to hear what he had to say.
David Wong, a writer for the humor site Cracked.com gave the best, most clear-eyed analysis of the past election anyone has written. Before that, he wrote what has become the most popular article on that website. It is called “6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person.” I suggest you read it. Basically, it all derives from the first truth he lists: “The World Only Cares About What It Can Get from You.” Sadly this is a fact of life. Outside of those who love you, people don't generally care about who you are so much as what can you do for them. The reason we were mourning so many actors and musicians who died last year was not merely because they were especially talented; it was because they entertained us. The world would not have cared that David Bowie or Prince or Carrie Fisher died had they not created music or books or scripts or performances that captivated us.
Yes, you can get people excited about you through mere hype and by promising big things but if you don't deliver, may God have mercy on your soul. For instance, to get people to see a film, it used to be enough to splice together a kind of highlight reel of the most exciting or funny scenes from the movie and put them in an ad. The problem is that we consumers have all had the experience of going to a movie feeling giddy with anticipation and then leaving feeling cheated because we belatedly realized that we had already seen all the best parts of the movie in the trailer. We have also seen this in superstar CEOs who are hired to turn a limping company around. They lay off people and do things that are calculated to generate good PR but do nothing to fix what's fundamentally wrong with the company's products or services or culture. There is a long history of politicians who campaign using popular slogans and sweeping promises upon which they cannot possibly deliver.
In his article, Wong points out how often Jesus says a tree is judged by its fruit, (Luke 6:43; Matt 7:15-20; John 15:2) in other words, by what it produces. And of course Jesus is talking about people's lives. Paul expands on this when he writes, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23) Now all of these are personal qualities. The problem is that we think these are primarily internal. And while fruit does have a function that benefits its species, ie, spreading its seeds, it does so by involving other species, namely the animals that eat them. Fruit therefore is rarely hidden. Indeed they often are highly colored and usually contrast with the leaves and branches of the tree. Green fruit is almost always unripe fruit and blends in. I don't think Jesus and Paul are thinking of invisible fruit.
Fruit advertises what a tree is. And it does so by advertising its benefits for others. Fruit says, “Here is something nourishing. And if you spread the seeds that would be great.” That's how spiritual fruit should work. Like love. Love is an attitude towards others. It is not meant to be kept to oneself. Like fruit it really doesn't benefit anyone if it is left alone to rot. And when the love offered is accepted, the seeds of that love are spread.
The other fruit of the Spirit are likewise meant to be shared and spread. Think about that. As Christians we are meant to spread joy, to share peace, demonstrate patience, offer kindness, act out of faithfulness, reach out in gentleness and exercise self-control especially with others. They all flow from our treating everyone with love.
Carrying these virtues out also spreads the seeds of the gospel. A big reason why a minority faith like Christianity was found to be attractive by many in the Roman Empire was the way Christians behaved. Their courage in facing persecution and death impressed some but their compassion in treating victims of plague and risking their lives by staying in the cities while the rich fled to the countryside made a bigger impact. It was the fact that when Christians said they were to love others self-sacrificially, they meant it.
This illustrates David Wong's point. One of his 6 truths is: “What You Produce Does Not Have to Make Money, But It Does Have to Benefit People.” It was not the mere existence of Christians that caused the faith to spread; it was that what they did benefited others. As William Temple said, “The Church is the only organization that does not exist for itself, but for those who live outside it.” And, sure enough, the churches that grow are doing things in their community. They are helping the needy, feeding the hungry, providing daycare or schools for children, visiting seniors and the ill, offering alternative activities to youth, and supplying a place for support groups for people with common problems, like grief, divorce, and addiction.
And they don't do that accidentally but intentionally. They make one or more of those things a priority and put it in the budget. I am reading Call The Midwife by Jennifer Worth, the basis of the wonderful TV show. Worth was a nurse-midwife who worked with an order of Anglican nuns in the terribly impoverished East End of London in the 1950s. In that place and time the role of the church was vital. “For the young people, surprisingly, the church was often the centre of social life, and every church had a series of youth clubs and activities going on every night of the week. All Saints Church in the East India Dock Road, a huge Victorian church, had many hundreds of youngsters in its youth club run by the Rector and no less than seven energetic young curates. They needed all their youth and energy to cope, night after night, with activities for five or six hundred young people.” They couldn't have done that on a shoestring. It had to be an intentionally high priority in the church's budget. And this was in a desperately poor area. But the church saw the need and somehow rose to the occasion. Then as now, churches that meet the needs of their community grow.
Church attendance peaked in the 1950s and 60s. Part of this was the effect of the baby boom. But part of this was that our men returned from the hell of battle in World War 2 and wanted nothing so much as a normal life. They had seen the worst of humanity and so as an antidote they, their wives and children went to churches to find sanity, order and the gospel. They came for spiritual healing. Because of the demand, the philosophy of church planting at this time was the same as Kevin Costner's in Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.”
That's not true anymore. The Baby Boomers gradually dropped out of church leading to a decline that became precipitous in the 1970s and is still going on today. Only 22% of Americans go to church regularly these days. The average child only attends when relatives are married or buried, or on the rare occasion they have a baby baptized. Most kids never see the inside of a sanctuary during the periods in between folks being hatched, matched and dispatched.
The old model (by which I mean the 1950s) doesn't work anymore. Most people will not simply seek out a church and start attending. We need to go back to the older model, by which I mean 27 AD. We need to go where folks are and meet their needs, as Jesus did. We need to realize that if my stomach is empty, if my body is in pain, if I don't have enough money to pay the rent, if my physical self is in trouble, I am less likely to be concerned about my spiritual self. But if you take care of my body, I may grant you the time to speak about my soul.
The odd thing is that because we are both physical and spiritual creatures, it goes both ways. An ailing body or mind can impair one's spirituality but what is good for the spirit is also good for mind and body. Numerous studies show weekly church attendance (the only objective way for scientists to measure religious devotion) is associated with lower blood pressure, less stress, lower rates of depression, lower risk of suicide, more sexual satisfaction, better marriages, greater likelihood of being happy, and a longer life. Children who go to church weekly tend to do better in schools, are less likely use drugs, tobacco and alcohol, and have lower rates of getting divorced later in their lives. But like exercise, it has to become a regular part of your life before you see the benefits. Contrary to what skeptics think, faith in God is not magic.
One thing I learned during my 20 years of writing ad copy and recording radio commercials is that the secret of selling is simple: offer people something they want at a price they are willing to pay. What do we offer? God's love. What's the price? It is free to all who accept it in trust. That's the gospel, or good news. But church members are very bad at spreading the word. They are more likely to recommend a restaurant they like or a doctor they trust than the Lord they supposedly love. A bishop once asked what do you get when you cross a Jehovah's Witness with someone from our denomination? Answer: someone who knocks on your door and then doesn't know what to say.
We're going to change that this year. Our focus will be on discipleship. “Disciple” is just a fancy word for “student.” We are called to be students of Jesus Christ. We are to study what he does and says and then put what we learn into practice. Otherwise we are just fans, on the level of the out-of-shape, sedentary sports fan who watches his team play from the comfort of his La-Z-Boy while eating cheese puffs and drinking 2 liter sodas. He in no way resembles what he claims to admire.
And Epiphany is the right time to start. Jesus didn't stay at his home and wait for people to happen through the door and then find out about him. He took to the road, to the point that he described himself as homeless (“Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Matt 8:20) Now he didn't have anything like Facebook or Twitter to spread the word but you also can't lay hands on others or feed people through the internet. Jesus manifested God's love through his deeds as well as his words. Today's church has become very lopsided, favoring words over works. As James says, “But be sure you live out the message and do not merely listen to it and deceive yourself. For if someone merely listens to the message and does not live it out, he is like someone who gazes at his own face in a mirror. For he gazes at himself and then goes out and immediately forgets what sort of person he was. But the one who peers into the perfect law of liberty and fixes his attention there, and does not become a forgetful listener but lives it out—he will be blessed in what he does.” (James 1:22-25)
Or as David Wong states in the last of his 6 harsh truths: “Everything Inside You Will Fight Improvement.” He elaborates. “Remember, misery is comfortable. It's why so many people prefer it. Happiness takes effort.” Why do people let themselves get out-of-shape? Why do some people let themselves get to weigh 600 pounds? Why do people continue to smoke after they develop such severe coughs that they are left breathless after a particularly long episode of hacking? Because change is hard. And while I wouldn't say misery is comfortable, it can be familiar. Change always involves some elements that are unfamiliar. And as the Irish saying goes, better the devil you know than the devil you don't. As I've said, I have seen patients choose to remain invalids rather than do the hard work of the therapy that will restore them to mobility and health.
And because change involves transitioning to a state that is unknown, as Wong says, this requires courage. This is possibly one more reason why angels always start with “Do not be afraid.” Because, unlike so-called psychics who primarily reveal stuff people already know about themselves, the angels' messages are about change, usually radical change, in the world but first in the life of the message's recipient. “God is going to do this and here's your part in this mission. In fact, he wants you to take point.”
We have a mission and it is called the Great Commission. Before his ascension, Jesus told his students to go and make more students in every nation, to baptize them and to teach them everything he has commanded us. We are like teaching assistants, students who in turn teach the newer students. Or med students who learn by seeing a procedure done, then doing it next time, and then teaching it to the first years. But before we do that, we need to know our subject well. And that's what we'll be doing this year.