Friday, February 11, 2011
When the Gospel is no longer a matter of life and death...
Perhaps it is that we have achieved a level of sophistication and education (at least in our own eyes) that we no longer see death as the result of sin, disease the result of sin, the brokenness of the world the result of sin, etc. We have, to some measure, made our peace with death. It is no longer a shadow cast over us -- unless it comes too early and before we have had our chance to live a full and complete life. Death is just death and life is what happens between birth and death. We have come to terms with this is such a terrible way that faith is no longer essential to us but a fringe benefit for those who might find it helpful.
So it stands to reason if we have made our peace with death, that the attention of religion would shift from death to earthly life. In this way even staid and sturdy old denominations like Rome and Wittenberg have preachers (and prominent ones) whose gospel sounds more like Dr. Phil and Oprah than it does Jesus or Paul. We have come to see the role and function of the Church to enhance and improve this earthly life -- from the material to the emotional side of it all. Christ is the healer of relationships more than He is the Giver of life to the dead and dying. Christ is the guide to success for business and personal life more than He is the Author and Pioneer of the path that leads through death to life. Christ is the bestower of individual self-esteem and aids for marital and parental success more than He is the Innocent who dies for the guilty in order to declare them just.
On another forum I have listened to the cries of people who wonder how we can get people into the Church (whether for contemporary worship that mirrors earthly expectations or to encounter the mystery of God's presence in the means of grace and the liturgy). Over and over again people from both perspectives lament that people do not seem to want to go to Church (even those who were raised in the Church). I maintain that at least part of this is due to the way we have framed the Gospel. We have given up the ground for which Christ died and surrendered the life or death nature of faith and the Gospel. The faith and the Church are no longer urgent because they are not about the stark and real divide of death in search of real life.
Jesus has not come to make our lives richer or better. He came to rescue us from the death of sin that holds us captive. We are the dead, the walking dead, whose lives are but a shadow of our Creator's intention. We are the lost groping through death and its darkness in search of light that is always beyond our reach. And the miracle of the Gospel is that God came as one of us to walk in this dark shadow and even to embrace the dark night of our death and the grave. The love that would not let us go has triumphed over this darkness to shine with the light of life. He is risen not for His own glory or vindication but to lead us to the life that death cannot overcome. This is not a message tailored for the quality of our life but the proclamation of life that is empty and void until the Spirit breathes in us this life and engenders within us the faith to grasp His lifeline and be pulled from the encroaching death of sin to the safety of life. This is what persuaded Paul to become all things to all people -- not some hints to making things better or some helps for a people who have made their peace with mortal life.
Until we begin to speak again in these terms, the truth is that people will not know their need or the wondrous gift that God has given to us in His Son. Until we admit that making your peace with death is dancing with the devil who celebrates our demise, the radical nature of Christ's incarnation and His death that gives us life will seem distant, dull, and routine. Perhaps we have sown the seeds of our own irrelevance by accepting the greatest evil lie of all -- death is just death and life is what you do with the time between its coming and its going...