"Both prophet and priest are ungodly; even in my house I have found their wickedness." -- Jeremiah 23:11
Yesterday was Reformation Sunday, a day celebrated by Lutherans, and some other denominations, to honor the beginning of the Reformation. This day is also a reminder that the church and all of us, as Christians, are always in need of reforming. No one is perfect. No one is immune from going astray. Not even our religious leaders, as the quote above attests.
It is significant that Jesus not only came to rescue the lost sheep of Israel, the outcast, the sinner, the marginalized, and bring them back into the fold of God's Kingdom, but he also admonished the very religious people of his day, the priests and scribes, for being oblivious to the true ways of God. Jesus had to teach both groups of people about God's abounding love.
I do not think that Jesus intended to begin a new religion, just to reform the one he found. Jesus wanted us to look at our heart and the hearts of other people. That was what was most important. Not whether a person washed their hands the right way before eating. Not what a person tithed. Not how a person looked. What came from inside a person counted more than anything that could be seen on the outside of a person. If people could look in a mirror, and truly see what they needed to change about themselves in order to be more loving, then they would soon find God's Kingdom within their very midst. Unfortunately, many of the religious authorities of his day were not open to reforming their ways.
Luther also did not intend to form a new religion, just reform the one he found. He saw that the church had strayed from many of the teachings of Jesus, and he sought to open their eyes. His 95 Theses were simply proposed topics for discussion among the very religious people of his day. Perhaps the reason Luther translated the Bible into everyday German was to prevent future straying from the way of Christ. Now the average Josef and Jan would be able to know for themselves exactly what Jesus had taught. He coined the phrase "a priesthood of believers" so that everyone would think of themselves as equals (see Matthew 23:8-10). Everyone would be able to learn about Jesus for themselves, and experience God for themselves. And there would be no hierarchy of authority amongst the children of God.
Unfortunately, that idea kind of backfired. Once everyone could read and interpret the Bible for themselves, more and more people came to different understandings. Somehow the great forest of wisdom got lost as people began to focus on the trees. And instead of loving their neighbor who thought differently, they separated themselves from their neighbor, building walls around their favorite trees. Belief in the same set of doctrines became the most important thing. Excluding those who thought differently, even killing those who thought differently, was thought to be the way of God.
This despite the fact that everything Jesus taught had to do with how to love your neighbor, the one who thought differently from you, as yourself. As a result, one of the most important commandments, the one upon which all the law and prophets was founded, the one second only to, and just like, the greatest commandment of all -- that is, loving God with all one's being -- was dismissed entirely.
Even today, there are still many Christians who exclude. There are even some church leaders who teach exclusion to their congregations. They teach that they are "in" and others are "out." Only they will go to heaven. Only they are the elect. Others will go to hell. Others are damned. And they see no problem with this. This is the way God works. This is God's justice.
REALLY? Is this the way of Jesus? Is this what it means to become a new person in Christ? That we think of ourselves as better than the rest of humanity? No wonder so many people are turned off by Christianity. I, too, sometimes get turned off by Christianity, when it's described like this.
I came across John Ortberg's "The Life You've Always Wanted" this week, and read his take on what it means to become a new person in Christ. He makes a distinction between "psuedo-transformation" and authentic transformation. He writes, authentic transformation is "marked by greater and greater amounts of love and joy." Psuedo-transformation is when we "look for substitute ways of distinguishing ourselves from those who are not Christians.... the highly visible, relatively superficial practices that allowed people to distinguish who is inside and who is outside the family of God." Ortberg calls these boundary markers. "[W]hat makes something a boundary marker is its being seized upon by the group as an opportunity to reinforce a false sense of superiority, fed by the intent to exclude others." (pg. 31-32) His words reinforced my own understanding.
But still I wonder how to respond to those who exclude. Do I just ignore them? Or does Jesus ask me to do something more?
The other day I met a woman who, after a bit of conversation, thanked God that she and
her children were saved, and then proceeded to talk about the
terrible sinfulness of the youth of today. I just stayed silent, even though I didn't agree with her conclusions. Afterward, I wondered if this was the right response. Was this a loving response -- to leave her enclosed in her boundary wall of judgmentalism?
I wondered how Jesus would have responded to that woman. I think he would have corrected her in a way that would have struck a chord within her. I think he would have told her a story to illustrate a more loving way of looking at sin. Perhaps he would have told the familiar story of the lost sheep. Or the Prodigal Son. I think he would have somehow corrected her while showing her all the compassion, and forgiveness, that God shows all of us.
But, the thing that stops me from following suit is the idea that I have no right to judge. Who am I to correct someone else -- even if I think they are wrong? Is this my responsibility? Am I my brother's keeper?
Well, yes, actually. If I am a student of Christ, and part of the priesthood of all believers, then it is my duty and my delight to follow the way of Jesus ever more closely, and to find a way to share his love with everyone. Even if that means pointing someone in a different direction. Even if that means chipping away at their walls of exclusion.
This month, I've had to look at my own behavior and be open to correction. I've had to be willing to correct my husband. I wonder if God is trying to lead me, step by step, to understand that I need to be a little more proactive at bringing about his Kingdom outside of my immediate family, as well. After all, if I love my family enough to show them a better way, should I not love my neighbor likewise?
As Ortberg writes, "Every moment is potentially an opportunity to be guided by God into his way of living. Every moment is a chance to learn from Jesus how to live in the kingdom of God." (pg. 54)
So, dear God, may we, with your guidance, continually re-form ourselves in the light of Jesus. The world would be a better place, I know. It would be Your Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Love always, Pam