05.10.2015 Preaching Text: “[For] whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith.” (1 John 5:3b-4)
In case you haven’t noticed, the focus of my ministry increasingly has been to reclaim, or re-present, the gospel found in the New Testament.
Ever since I was ordained some 25 years ago, and before that in fact, I’ve had to address the seemingly inexorable membership decline of the “mainline” church (which had begun in the late 60’s – well before my ordination).
In those years, I’ve suffering through the “church growth” movement which took hold of the U.C.C. in the mid-to-late 80’s, a movement begun a decade or two earlier at Fuller Seminary, an evangelical school in So. Cal. The idea was to market Jesus to the baby boomer generation. The concept subsequently expanded, logically, to succeeding generations.
In an attempt to reach the boomers, many of whom had rejected the church of their youth, this church growth movement sought to appeal to their particular tastes and lifestyle choices. Reared on TV rather than books, for example, the church growth movement dispensed with hymnals in favor of video screens and “popular” music.
Eschewing “church-y” accoutrement such as pulpits, crosses, robes, and other formal aspects of traditional worship, the church growth movement went to great lengths to avoid such effrontery. It is this movement that spawned today’s loud rock music, auditorium-style worship, high-tech video presentations, and pastors roaming around in Hawaiian shirts and jeans.
Besides this, I’ve also lived through a few other methods for attracting people to church. Generally, in our denomination, that has meant focusing on social and political issues. The logic, in part, is that because the church has sided historically with the establishment, and since the establishment has come under withering attack for over 50 years now, making an effort to appear socially and politically “aware” just might be the ticket.
The problem, as Tony Robinson points out, is that the secular world is already doing much of these things on their own…thank you very much!
You don’t need to go to church, in other words, to hear political commentary. Nor do you need to go to church to work at a homeless shelter. In fact, much of the historic role played by the church in terms of helping the poor and disadvantaged has been subsumed by government agencies.
As I’m always quick to point out, it’s not that these issues are unimportant or that they don’t relate to the gospel mandate to care for our world; it’s just that this is not our primary role. Up until 100 years ago, that focus was the salvation and resurrection life we have in Jesus Christ. Thus the church’s main “job” is to offer God-focused religion. It’s the only thing the church claims that no other institution or organization does.
At our core, human beings are not primarily looking for trendy theatrical productions or astute political analysis. Rather, they’re looking for God. Now that may sound trite, or patronizing, or even hubristic, but that’s what it all boils down to.
Which brings me to today’s reading from 1 John. Here the author writes: “[God’s] commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith.”
By the “world,” John means our earthly existence, and this broken and fallen world that has a way of exacting much suffering, discontent, and unhappiness. It is this world, though beautifully and wonderfully made, that breaks our heart and causes us to despair.
As any sensitive and observant human being knows, this world we live in is filled with such things, in spite of its God-given magnificence. And it is many a sensitive and observant soul who has despaired of its cruelties and injustices.
No slick presentation or utopian political strategy is going to address the deep, existential longing every living human being experiences, whether he or she recognizes it or not. Only deep spiritual things will address the deep spiritual longings each of us encounters daily.
Thus, when John talks about the “victory” of God over this brokenness, we are alerted to something critical. He is saying that, yes, our world is filled with dashed hopes and despair, but that the God from beyond this world has effected something that serves as the answer to our deepest prayers.
How many of us actually believe that through the Resurrection, God has set in motion a plan for the complete victory of good over evil, life over death, joy over sorrow? Just the word itself, “victory,” sounds so old-fashioned, so fairytale-like, perhaps especially to us “reality-based” contemporary types who generally disdain such Pollyannaish gibberish. The “real” action, after all, is here on earth. And the task of rectifying the world’s ills rests in our hands alone.
Yet after repeated human failures to accomplish precisely this, perhaps it’s time to reconsider the time-honored truth of the gospel: that the heavenly realm of God is real, and from this heavenly realm comes our very salvation.
After listing a few of the countless Christians whose lives have benefited our world, C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity: “[All] left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were preoccupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this [one]. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither…”
“[We] shall never save civilization,” he adds, “as long as civilization is our main object.”
Furthermore, there are certain longings each of us possesses, Lewis points out, which cannot be satisfied in this world. “Most people,” he writes, “if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world.”
But suppose “infinite happiness really is there, waiting for us?” he asks.
“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.”
Therefore, “I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same.”
Perhaps this is the victory John is talking about. And what the church should be focusing on. Amen.