Tuesday, March 11, 2014

What has Jesus ever done for us?

A Lenten reflection

You may recall this little scene from the Monty Python movie, Life of Brian.


Luke 9 presents a series of vignettes about Jesus as he makes his way with his disciples to Jerusalem, where he will be crucified. There is a brief statement in v 46 that, "An argument arose among them as to which one of them was the greatest."

Even at this late date, the disciples thought of Jesus and their discipleship in earthly ways. They thought that Jesus would arrive in Jerusalem and depose the Roman vassal, Herod, from the throne of Judea, then take the crown himself. He was entitled to it, being in the line of descent from King David. And the disciples knew that Jesus had a very large following, not an army but large enough to be turned into a formidable mob. (Even later, when the Roman governor Pilate interrogated Jesus, he expressed some surprise that none of his followers were fighting in the streets to free him, prompting Jesus to reply, "My kingdom is not of this world.")

So the disciples argued on the Jerusalem road, basically, about which offices Jesus would appoint them to once he took power. Who would be the secretary of state? Treasurer? Chief of staff? Secretary of commerce?

"But Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts," put a stop to such foolish chatter. Then there is this stark sentence, v. 51:
When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.
John Piper wrote,
To set his face towards Jerusalem meant something very different for Jesus than it did for the disciples. ... Jerusalem meant one thing for Jesus: certain death. Nor was he under any illusions of a quick and heroic death. He predicted in Luke 18:31f., "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written of the Son of man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered to the Gentiles, and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon; they will scourge him and kill him." When Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem, he set his face to die. ...
If we were to look at Jesus' death merely as a result of a betrayer's deceit and the Sanhedrin's envy and Pilate's spinelessness and the soldiers' nails and spear, it might seem very involuntary. And the benefit of salvation that comes to us who believe from this death might be viewed as God's way of making a virtue out of a necessity. But once you read Luke 9:51 all such thoughts vanish. Jesus was not accidentally entangled in a web of injustice. The saving benefits of his death for sinners were not an afterthought. God planned it all out of infinite love to sinners like us and appointed a time. Jesus, who was the very embodiment of his Father's love for sinners, saw that the time had come and set his face to fulfill his mission: to die in Jerusalem for our sake. "No one takes my life from me (he said), but I lay it down of my own accord" (John 10:18).
But all the disciples could talk about was, "What will Jesus do for us?"

Nowadays we call this a "consumerist" approach to following Jesus. Here is where the disciples went off course:
  • They placed their own welfare and desires at the top
  • Their primary frame of reference the organization
  • They saw themselves in competition to each other
  • They wanted personal benefits
Of the four faults I have listed, the second is the most fatal and the most relevant for 21st-century Christians. We have a very strong tendency to think of ourselves as organization people. Our primary frame of reference is The Church, while the New Testament is clear that it should be the Risen Christ. Ideally, there would not be a tissue-paper's width of difference between the two, but we have never achieved the ideal though we must keep trying.

How much we fall into the disciples' consumerist error is illustrated by two simple words: "church shopping." Just take a look at the Google search page list of entries. How many times do we hear church shoppers ask about the church as their primary frame of reference rather than the Lord? As retired pastor Gordon Anderson put it,
The danger for those of us who are looking for a spiritual community is that we might slip into a consumer mentality. You can tell this has happened when you sound like a movie critic at lunch on Sunday afternoon.
“I don’t know, the sermon kind of bothered me. I didn’t like the sound of his voice. How about that solo? Yikes, someone was off key. Also, what’s up with those offering bags? I’m more of a plate man myself. And anyway, I’m not sure they have the kind of youth program we’re looking for.”
A church consumer is focused on things like,
  1. How large is your children's or youth program?
  2. Is there a Sunday School for my age group?
  3. What kind of music program is there?
  4. Is there a VBS?
And other questions or statements with a similar outlook.

I want to be clear: All those things are important and churches neglect them to their peril. But they are not of primary importance. The Church organization and programs are not more important than the Christ who is our only reason for being.

How refreshing and heartening it would be for a church shopper to ask,
  1. Is this a congregation where I can find help in moving on to perfection? 
  2. Are the people of church taking dominion over sin and will they help me do the same? 
  3. Are they being filled with the pure love of God and may I also be filled here? 
  4. Are you a people for whom Christ is so real that you live all your life to his glory?
During the Lenten season, let us pray that we remain focused not on what has Jesus ever done for us, but how we may grow together in holiness to serve the Lord and his kingdom no matter the benefits or costs to ourselves.

The disciples, becoming Christ's apostles through his resurrection and Great Commandment, learned their lessons superbly well. Never in their letters or epistles do we read any hint of consumerist Christianity. In fact, all but John were cruelly martyred for their faith, and John died in imprisoned exile. Among the apostles,  "What has Jesus ever done for us?" is never asked in anticipation, but with thanksgiving:
3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. 4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will ... 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace 8 that he lavished on us. ...

11 In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12 in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory (Ephesians 1:3-12). 
This is the Spirit that should live within all of us, and should be the main attraction to people seeking a congregational home.

What has Jesus ever done for us? More than we can ever imagine. What shall we do in return?