Thursday, August 22, 2013

Hard-Line Christianity

Twenty First Ordinary Sunday Year C

In last week’s gospel, we witness a hard-line Jesus telling us that he is setting the world ablaze and bringing division, division between those who will stand with him and those who choose to stand against him (even when they think they are merely standing on the sidelines). There’s going to be no easing up or softening of this radical challenge to make our option known. This week he reminds us of the tough kind of Christianity required of his disciples. He also takes a long hard hit at the false assurance of salvation – the belief that salvation is guaranteed and that hell is purely a myth, at least for Christians.

Many Christians actually believe that they are pretty good Christians since they have embraced the faith, but their version is just treacle—a syrupy version of hard-edged faith. The core teaching of this soft version of Christianity is the gospel of nice or ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’, as one author coins it. Instead of a suffering Christ on the cross, the jovial image of Santa Claus or even a cuddly Care Bear has taken over as potent symbols of this new religion. The Gospel of niceness has seeped into our own Christian culture and it has become indiscernible from the real thing. We are often too nice to say no, to question others opinions, to critique others decisions or to point out the obvious. We let people get away with stuff that is blatantly incorrect or wrong-headed, immoral or illegal, ill mannered or self-centered – we make excuses by being nice about it. In such a religious system, the following words and concepts are taboo and have been expunged from our vocabulary – sin, moral evil, and of course, the definitive ‘hell’! ‘A God who is the personification of niceness will never tolerate hell!’ Political correctness in all its forms is the gospel of niceness in extremis.

Here are some core beliefs of this new religion:
1.      God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other.
2.      The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
3.      God is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem.
4.      Since no one is really bad, and sin doesn’t really exist except in neurotic guilt and God is so nice and good, everyone gets to go to heaven. Yahoo!!

The ‘narrow door’ which Jesus speaks off flies in the face of the core tenets of the Gospel of Nice and Soft Christianity. It implies that Christianity is not a ‘free for all’ ideology. It implies that there are boundaries, there are rigid demands, there are consequences to our actions, that truly living according to the Christian lifestyle would mean that one must be open to admonishment. It suggests that one should not take salvation for granted and that damnation is very real for those who choose not to go through the ‘narrow door.’ Jesus knew that the nice people would get him and put him on the cross – that what he was saying was not nice – it would upset the ruling powers and authorities and at some point he would be crucified. He knew what would happen if he was not nice – sanitised – acceptable and appropriate. He goes to the cross not because he was nice, but because he loved. Because he said what had to be said and called for people to be counter-cultural – to stand up and to say this is not right.

In the final analysis, the gospel of niceness won’t do. It isn’t salvific. It isn’t Jesus’ message. It isn’t the Kingdom. In other words, it’s a false idol. Therefore, we have to dump our idols, even when they’re nice and make us feel good about ourselves – the gospel of ‘shiok sendiri’. Admit it; part of the appeal of a gospel of niceness is that it makes us feel good about ourselves. It often translates into the gospel of comfort and convenience – we know that we have subscribed to it when we complain about the uncomfortable pews, the heat in the Church, the inconvenience of parking and of course, the long services and homilies. If the story is that niceness is the solution, then we’ve missed the point. Niceness won’t save you. Comfort and convenience won’t save you. In fact, the only thing the easy and soft gospel of niceness will do is to ease you into hell. You won’t know what hit you till it’s too late. On the other hand, the life, suffering, death, burial, and resurrection of a crucified Christ will be our salvation. Anything else is an idol and a false gospel.

The Gospel of Christ, paid by his own blood on the cross is demanding. It demands that we make the ultimate sacrifice by turning our backs on wealth, power and popularity, comfort and convenience, the false gods that have become the defining elements in our lives. It demands that we burn our bridges when we have resolved to follow Jesus on the road to Calvary. It demands that store treasures in heaven where it cannot be stolen or suffer the ravages of destruction. It demands that we avoid seeking honour among men but strive to become rich in the sight of God. It demands passage through the narrow door. Jesus wasn’t Mr Nice, neither was he Mr Soft. The same Jesus who preached compassion is the same Jesus who publicly embarrassed his nemeses (the Pharisees) by calling them “a bunch of snakes” in front of a large crowd of people. The same Jesus who said, in a particular and oft-misunderstood context, that we ought to “turn the other cheek” is the same Jesus who made a royal mess out of the temple by taking a whip to a bunch of moneychangers. The same Jesus whom we fondly depict in art as the gentle Good Shepherd, is also the Heavenly Judge who will not blink an eye when separating the sheep from the goats. The same Jesus who announces that men from all four corners of the earth will be taking their places in the heavenly feast also declares that some will suffer the ‘weeping and grinding of teeth.’

Does that sound like a cuddly Jesus who turns a blind eye to sin? I don’t think so. It’s the real Jesus, the tough Jesus, the Jesus who saves! Jesus didn’t float on down to planet earth like a deflating balloon.  He dropped down like an atomic bomb, and his very presence was a provocation. Many men and women throughout the history of Christianity, have been set aflame with the explosive message of Christ. Many have even followed their Lord and Master to the cross by accepting the glory of martyrdom. We can be sure of this. Christianity wasn’t something ‘nice’ or ‘soft’ or even ‘convenient’ for them. Christianity to them was life. And they were prepared to give up everything else, including their mortal lives, to defend this.

I would like to share with you a long quote from a 19th century Christian author and cleric of the Church of Scotland, Horatius Bonar, who prophetically forewarns our present generation of the dangers of Soft Christianity and reminds us of the need to be tough Christians.

“For there is some danger of falling into a soft and effeminate Christianity, under the plea of a lofty and ethereal theology. Christianity was born for endurance...It walks with firm step and erect frame; it is kindly, but firm; it is gentle, but honest; it is calm, but not facile; obliging, but not imbecile; decided, but not churlish. It does not fear to speak the stern word of condemnation against error, nor to raise its voice against surrounding evils, under the pretext that it is not of this world. It does not shrink from giving honest reproof lest it come under the charge of displaying an unchristian spirit. It calls sin 'sin,' on whomsoever it is found … The religion of both Old and New Testaments is marked by fervent outspoken testimonies against evil. To speak smooth things in such a case may be sentimentalism, but it is not Christianity. It is a betrayal of the cause of truth and righteousness. If anyone should be frank, manly, honest, cheerful (I do not say blunt or rude, for a Christian must be courteous and polite), it is he who has tasted that the Lord is gracious, and is looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God.

I know that charity covereth a multitude of sins; but it does not call evil good, because a good man has done it; it does not excuse inconsistencies, because the inconsistent brother has a high name and a fervent spirit. Crookedness and worldliness are still crookedness and worldliness, though exhibited in one who seems to have reached no common height of attainment.”

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