A Rod For The Back
I was at the movie theater when a preview for a Hillsong movie played. One of the only two other people in the theater said to the man sitting next to her, “Why do they think we’d want to watch that?”
Her words reflect the culture in which the church find itself. The crisis of relevance has been with us for a long time. The idea that Christianity is not only unwelcome but also dismissed as ridiculous is gaining wider currency. And, of course, we in the church find ourselves wondering how to respond.
A good question for us is this: What is the cause of people’s negative reactions?
Many people will point to the church itself as a cause. They have no end of advice about ways we can make ourselves more attractive to those who disdain us. But allow me to propose a different interpretive approach.
Is it possible that people disdain Jesus and the church because they are unconverted sinners? – John Meunier, “To Which Heart Should We Be Relevant?”, John Meunier: An Arrow Through The Air, December 8, 2014
On the lips of one who has understanding wisdom is found,
but a rod is for the back of one who lacks sense. – Proverbs 10:13
Let us reflect how oft we insult Him after numberless goodness, yet he standeth and calleth us to Him, and how often we run by Him, but He still doth not overlook us, but runneth to us, and draweth us to Him, and catcheth us in unto Himself., For if we consider these things and such as these, we shall be enabled to kindle this longing. For if it were a common man that so loved, but a king who was thus beloved, would he not feel a respect for the greatness of the love? Most assuredly he would. But when the case is reversed, and His beauty is unspeakable, and the glory and riches too of Him that loveth us, and our vileness so great, surely we deserve the utmost punishment, vile as we are and outcasts, treated with so exceeding great love by one so great and wonderful, and yet wax wanton against His love? He needeth not anything of ours, and yet he doth not even now cease loving us. We need much what is His, and for all that we cleave not to His love, but money we value above Him, and man’s friendship, and ease of body, and power, and fame, before Him who valueth nothing more than us. For He had One Son, Very and Only-Begotten, and He spared not even Him for us. But we value many things above Him. Were there not good reason for a hell and torment, even were it twofold or threefold or manifold what it is? For what can we have to say for ourselves, if even Satan’s injunction we value more than the Law of Christ, and are reckless of our own salvation that we may choose the works of wickedness, before Him who suffered all things for us? And what pardon do these things deserve? What excuse have they? Not one even. – St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Romans, Chapter 2, Verse 16
It is not for nothing that the post prompting this response comes during Advent, when we should be preparing ourselves for Christmas, for recalling the coming of the Messiah even as we remember the promise of the Messiah’s return and the fullness of the Kingdom of God. From the random comment of a stranger flows a judgment upon their stance before the Throne of God, rooted in a view of Wesley I have never heard before. He relates this to the matter of relevance, insisting that Wesley’s view of “relevance” was certainly to go to the people, yet to bring with him the Gospel, as if it were something that Wesley had not adapted to the circumstances of his day and time through language and custom and history and politics and all the other things that mark him and his message as uniquely that of the 18th century. In other words, the question of relevance, at least as happens in our contemporary churches, is not so odd after all, but something with which the Church struggles throughout its history.
Further, the very idea that some Other is an unrepentant sinner is as alien to the Gospel as is the idea that there are different kinds of “hearts” which the Gospel encounters. The long excerpt from Chrysostom makes it clear that, since the beginning of the Preaching Church, it is not They or Them, some Other, who is in need of the message of salvation. Rather it is we, us – all of us and each of us, each day anew, every day in a bit different way – after whom Christ consistently runs, ignoring each rebuff, forgetting each slight, never once giving up. In a prior section of this particular homily, Chrysostom recounts the history of the killing of the prophets and martyrs, the way the Old Testament recounts the many ways the people of God ignored and even scoffed at the one who had called and created them a people who were once no people.
And this is the Gospel message, after all. This is the message summed up in that indelible image, a young couple in a stable, their newborn baby wrapped in rags, lying in a cow’s trough, surrounded by shepherds. The Incarnation is not an event for Others, for those unrepentant sinners who would dismiss a “Christian” film out of hand, thus demonstrating their hearts hardened by nature, incapable of hearing the word of Grace that is the Gospel. As Chrysostom makes clear through the use of the first-person plural, it is we – all of us and each of us – to whom and for whom God became flesh and dwelt among us.
When Meunier says the church has many failings and things for which to repent, surely this is chief among them: forgetting that it is we for whom Jesus was born; making the story about a need some Other – however we imagine and name that Other – might have, rather than a story we need to hear often, recall often, and should call us each day to repent and remember how we have failed to live and love as we should. It is not a matter of what kind of “heart” we have. Nor is it a matter of “relevance”, at least as that word is used here. It is, rather the ease with which some Christians make determinations about others based solely on an overheard phrase or snippet of conversation. To look outward at the world and expect unrepentant sinners to abound without accounting for the unrepentant sinner that always abides with us is chief among the church’s sins.
It would be far better if we remembered that the issue of relevance lies precisely in the blind spot exposed by Meunier’s post: we have Good News of great joy that shall be for all people. Considering some to be unrepentant sinners, impervious to the Good News when in fact they may be tired of being told they aren’t good enough to be loved of God, when in fact the whole message of the Bible, and in particular of the Incarnation in the birth narrative is the exact opposite message. Furthermore, that is a message that is not for “them”. It is for us. We are the ones who need to hear, and hear anew, the angels words to the shepherds, and rather than wonder about others, get up and go see what all the fuss is about. If we aren’t announcing Good News, who’s going to hear it? If we consider Others to be Unrepentant Sinners, why bother?