Friday, April 19, 2013

Tepid Christianity

  1. Only slightly warm; lukewarm.
  2. Showing little enthusiasm: "tepid applause".

I remember a line from a book.  A visitor has come.  A woman is caught without a fire.  She has tea in the pot but it is barely warm.  She offers it to her visitor.  "I am sorry it is too cold," she apologized.  "It is not too cold," replied the visitor, and, then when her back was turned, he whispered, "It is not too hot either."

Surely that is exactly the problem today.  The Church is not too cold -- it is just warm enough to know that the Gospel is there.  But it is not too hot either -- it is lukewarm, safe, and not a danger to anyone.  Is this the Church of Christ?  Is this the Church we seek?  Can we settle for a tepid Christianity which is neither cold nor hot, merely lukewarm?

One of the themes of Benedict XVI which Francis has picked up is the idea of a moral poverty and an empty Christianity too distracted by the desires of the flesh and too weak before the temptation to consume rather than give, to seek to be served rather than serve, and to an easy faith which does not challenge one's words or actions.  I think this is a healthy moment for Christianity as a whole.  I know it is healthy for my own Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.

We have grown accustomed to a cultural Christianity in America in which religion and the public square have seemed allies if not served as such.  We have become comfortable at a welfare state in which the government serves the poor and those in need with a little assistance from the Church (instead of the other way around).  We have become lazy in the face of a morality which was public though not very private and enforced in the court of public opinion more than in faithful preaching and teaching.  Now, a couple of generations removed from Roe v. Wade and the sexual revolution, we find ourselves aghast at how culture has become an enemy of the faith and have become merely naysayers to the images of freedom and acceptance promoted by a liberal and libertarian agenda.  It is as if we do not know how to act or speak anymore.  Some have responded with the shrill voice that grates and wins no battles and others have decided to make accommodation to the direction of the culture.  Is there no other path?

Must we be left with a tepid Christianity which is neither offensive nor powerful, a little sweetener for our otherwise sour days?  Is all we can hope for a lukewarm faith which offends no one and lives mostly in the hidden domain of private thoughts and feelings?  Have we only the mediocrity of the mundane or the enterprise of entertainment left to us on Sunday mornings?

I believe that Benedict is correct in the view that a renewed Christianity begins with a renewed Sunday morning.  For me as a Lutheran this means a renewal which has its source in and draws us back to the means of grace.  This is source and summit of our individual vocations as the baptized people of God and our daily piety.  If Sunday morning is not renewed, there will not be a renewal which endures.  Key to this is the preaching task.  We must preach the whole counsel of God and preach it without shame or embarrassment.  We must preach as those who not only believe it but who live under it, the flawed and failed sinners redeemed by the blood of Christ to live not for themselves but for Him.

I also believe that Francis is correct in exposing the moral emptiness of much of what passes for life today and the values of even supposedly Christian people.  The Gospel is not some overarching principle of love.  It is the love that is manifest in the great epiphany of the Cross.  It bids us to a bridge laid between God our Creator and we His fallen creatures -- the bridge which is Christ, His incarnation, obedient life, holy suffering, life-giving death, and resurrection to new and eternal life.  But it does not end there.  It moves us to love what He loves and transforms the desires of our hearts so that the will of God becomes our delight as well as our duty.  The Church must recover her voice to speak the moral truth of Christ to the world but not in some theoretical way as if we were out to win an argument.  This must happen because we live this truth within the framework of our frail and weak humanity, still afflicted by the thorn of the sinful nature yet not without the power of the Christ who lives in us.

If Lutheranism fails, it will not be because the faith confessed is wrong.  It will come as the inevitable end of a lukewarm Lutheranism confessed without real conviction that this is the catholic and evangelical faith.  It will fail because of the tepid faith of those who lead from the chancel and sit in the pews.  It will come because personal preference has been allowed to dominate creed, confession, worship, and piety.  It will come because Sunday morning has become the domain of the personal, the mediocre, and the prevailing wind of culture and entertainment.  It will be because Lutheran has become merely an idea instead of the living reality of a people gathered to confess this truth and live in its light.

A vigorous Christianity will offend some.  Those most offended will probably be those who have found the faith and the pews comfortable refuges away from the scarey culture or the comfortable family rooms dedicated to entertainment and dictated to by the whims of pleasure.  The world may be less offended than surprised.  That surprise provides the window of opportunity to speak Jesus Christ to the nations and to bring the nations to the Church.  If it comes to the demise of a tepid Christianity and a Church lacking enthusiasm for the Gospel, such an entity will hardly be missed by those inside or out.  Will the Son of Man find faith when He comes again?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Pastor Peters,

I so thank you for this post. I just wrote something to piggy back on it (not saying you will totally agree, but I hope so).

I appreciate your wise and measured counsel: