Monday, April 18, 2011

You say you want a revolution?

But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God! For this reason he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, because a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant.
- Hebrews 9:11-15

“Once for all.” That means never again. Centuries before, not one but several different prophets tried to get across how unnecessary it was to cook animals on an altar to please God. The world was just beginning to grow out of the childish notion that the divine favor would only rest upon us if we sacrificed something. Now, a sacrifice can certainly be a show of love and trust, and this is a good way to deepen a relationship. But it is never necessary. And when it becomes dogma, and when it becomes so rooted in society that it becomes a way to exploit the poor and fatten the privileged, then it is not only unnecessary to God … it is hateful.

This was the situation Jesus stepped into. The temple sacrifice system was so entrenched that nobody could imagine any other way. Like the system of indulgences in the medieval Church, or the system of slavery in the American South, it was an economic institution that was a deep part of the tradition—never mind the thousands upon thousands of lives it destroyed.

So after telling many parables about what God is really like, and finding that the people still couldn’t get free of the dominant paradigm, Jesus did something unprecedented. He became a parable. He stepped right into the metaphor and made it literal. It was the only thing that could get our attention, and it cost him his life. Jesus became a temple sacrifice and unmasked the dark forces at work in the system so we could reject them. He ended temple sacrifice once and for all.

Ever since, we have created other entrenched institutions to keep people at arm’s length from God, all the while telling them these are the hoops God wants them to jump through. Christianity in America has become a parade of “You Shoulds” with unspoken logical conclusions.

-    You Should read the Bible [so that you can understand God].
-    You Should pray more often [so that God will love you].
-    You Should come to church more often [so as to get away from the corrupt world].
-    You Should accept Jesus into your heart [so that you will be saved].
-    You Should get involved in a ministry [so as to show your loyalty to the church].
-    You Should give the church more money [so that God will love you more].
-    You Should send your kids to Sunday school [so that they will come to do all these things, too].

Add to that a worship of radical individualism that despises the need to rely on any other person for our well-being. What happens when we set that alongside the example of Jesus, who had no home, but wandered from one place to another, confident that people would support him?

Throw in a culture of such overwhelming financial prosperity that even in a recession, we’re far better off than most of the rest of the world. But we can’t recognize that, because we think our newly manufactured clothes and technological toys and huge vehicles and processed food and infinite entertainment options represent a minimum standard of human dignity! How can we set these things alongside the words of Jesus, who urged us not to worry even about where our next meal will come from?

Many centuries ago, the Church claimed a monopoly on Jesus and turned him into whatever it needed to maintain the status quo. It’s no wonder that people are running away from Jesus in record numbers. They think he belongs to the Church, instead of the other way around. And the Church is propping up the culture.

Well, we may not be able to change the culture, so let’s transform the Church. Let’s change the Church from a place called You Should to a place called We Do:

-    We Do immerse ourselves in millennia of tradition and writings that fascinate the mind and transform the heart.
-    We Do engage in prayer practices that make us more mindful of God at work in our lives.
-    We Do gather every week and on special occasions to come close to the mysteries of God and to show each other, in tangible ways, the infiniteness of God’s love.
-    We Do learn about Jesus, who taught us, healed us, and revealed God’s love to us in a new, unprecedented way. We understand that Jesus was and is a living icon of God.
-    We Do reach out into the community with concern for those who are not our members (and most of whom never will be), freely giving our time, talent, and money to help heal broken places and situations in the world. We are more concerned for the ongoing revealing of God’s Kingdom in the world than we are for the ongoing institution of the Church in forms we are familiar with.
-    We Do support the work of the Church with our money so that all these things can continue. We acknowledge that the fear of not having enough money is less relevant in our lives than we think it is, especially when we live in community with each other and let people know, in good faith, what we truly need.
-    We Do immerse our children in the Church from birth, involving them in as many ways as possible and teaching them our practices and traditions. We recognize that they already have their own relationship with God that will develop in ways that surprise and delight us.
- This is what We Do. And we hope it benefits you, regardless of whether you choose to join in our efforts or not.

In a community in which we are doing these things as a matter of habit, maybe we can learn to ask for what we need and receive these things from each other with no strings attached. Maybe we can somehow learn to live with less, or at least needing less—so that when financial prosperity fizzles, we won’t panic and flail and fall into depression or desperation. A world full of disconnected individuals will suck this planet dry. But a world full of caring communities that also honor and love individuals? Well, that can change everything!

It’s a new kind of revolution: the kind that doesn’t trample on any individual, doesn’t remove our free will, and doesn’t claim to have all the answers. When it comes to church, let us never say to another person, “You Should.” Instead, let us say, “We Do,” and then humbly suggest, “Come and See.”

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