Friday, July 12, 2013

Spiritual Pageantry or First Works

My dictionary defines the word "pageant" as "an exhibition, a show, or a parade." In other words, a pageant is an event primarily intended to be for entertainment. Some time ago, my family was given an interesting children's book. The story focuses on a young girl who will be playing the part of an angel in a church nativity pageant. In the days leading up to the play, the girl notices a man on a street corner who plays an organ grinder in order to get donations from passers-by. When she realizes the man is homeless, the girl asks her mom if they could do something to help him. The mother is unconcerned; she is far more preoccupied with her daughter's upcoming performance.

On the night of the pageant, this mother is only worried about getting to the church building on time for the performance, but the girl stops to give the homeless fellow her two mites and invite him to the play. Shortly thereafter, the performance is proceeding, and the girl steps onto the stage to recite her single line. She has spent much time memorizing it, but for some reason she cannot bring herself to say it. Then, the doors behind the congregation open, and in walks the poor man. Looking over the finely dressed audience, the girl knows it is time to deliver her line. "Behold! I bring you good tidings of great joy!"

I imagine it was not the author's intention to write anything more than a touching children's tale. Beyond this, I took a few other ideas away from this story. For one, it is an excellent demonstration of why the Lord said, "Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 19:14). Furthermore, I believe the book constitutes a sad commentary on the state of the modern church. So many people in America profess to be followers of Christ, but how many of us are proclaiming the good tidings of great joy? Quoting Isaiah, Jesus said, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord." (Luke 4:18-19).

Now I pose a question: is today's church renowned for preaching the gospel to the poor and helping the needy? Or does she spend more time and resources entertaining its members? I recall a time when I visited a contemporary church because a conference on creationism was being held there. As I was waiting for things to get started, I surveyed the host of props on the church stage to go along with the exciting sermon series the pastor was engaged in. Unknown to me, one of the scheduled sessions included a typical time of "worship" for this church. The lights went down, and the performers took their places on the stage. This was followed by what I would describe as a "Christian rock concert," complete with cheering fans and special effects such as a fog machine. My young daughter afterwards referred to it as "the show church." Out of the mouth of babes... Spiritual pageantry at its most sophisticated. Why feel burdened for lost souls or physical suffering when church is so positive and enjoyable? The mother in the story did not stop to think, it would seem, whether or not God would be pleased to see her snub a poor man in favor of a pageant depicting the birth of Him Who said, " as much as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me." (Matthew 25:45). Are we likewise guilty of being "...lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof" (2 Timothy 3:4-5)?

As the church in general becomes more engaged in spiritual pageantry, she seems to be less and less relevant to much of American society. Is perhaps a reason that the American church's salt is losing her savor is because she has fallen into the same trap as the church at Ephesus? Has she left her first love (Revelation 2:4)? The Anabaptist preacher, Menno Simons, wrote:

For true evangelical faith is of such a nature that it cannot lay dormant; but manifests itself in all righteousness and works of love; it dies unto flesh and blood; destroys all forbidden lusts and desires; cordially seeks, serves and fears God; clothes the naked; feeds the hungry; consoles the afflicted; shelters the miserable; aids and consoles all the oppressed; returns good for evil; serves those that injure it; prays for those that persecute it; teaches, admonishes and reproves with the Word of the Lord; seeks that which is lost; binds up that which is wounded; heals that which is diseased and saves that which is sound.
-Complete Works, p. 246 (pub. by John F. Funk & Brother, 1871)

There is quite a contrast between this description and the common "evangelical" faith in America. I aspire to the ideal described above, although I confess I fall short in many ways.  We can so easily become absorbed with things of fleeting existence, at the expense of matters with eternal consequences. "And these are they which are sown among thorns: such as hear the word, and the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and lusts of other things entering in, choke the word, and it becometh unfruitful." (Mark 4:18-19). Kingdom work often takes a back seat to entertaining or otherwise satisfying the flesh. We dare not become too comfortable and hence complacent. After all, Jesus told us to strive to enter at the strait gate (Luke 13:24).

There are so many "harmless" distractions for the Christian. I am not trying to point fingers at other people; I can certainly be affected by some of these diversions. All of us have weaknesses we must be vigilant to avoid. We can accumulate wealth in bank accounts or expensive properties instead of donating to help needy families. We can sit passively in front of a television instead of teaching our children the Word of God. We can go to an ear-splitting "praise and worship" session and have a group emotional experience instead of participating in a thoughtful Bible discussion with other believers. We can spend hours at a football stadium (literally or through a TV screen) on Sunday instead of visiting the widows and the fatherless. We can promote political agendas such as outlawing abortion instead of sharing the Gospel of the Kingdom of God with the poor women considering such an act, not to mention offering to adopt the babies or otherwise providing assistance. We can spend more time on looking sharp for Sunday morning than praying for the advance of the Kingdom.

The list could go on and on. We are concerned in having our theology just right, but that doesn't automatically make us like Christ. The Ephesian church was not rebuked for any theological problems, but rather for a deficiency in her works. Jesus said, "And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:27). The modern American church has largely become anemic, I think, because many of us have drifted from our first love. Despite what we say about serving Christ, our actions can tell another tale with our patriotism, our withholding our hands from the poor, or the spiritual pageantry that constitutes "church" for many. Do any of these characteristics describe Jesus? Furthermore, these inconsistencies have not escaped the world's notice.  The more the church becomes involved in worldly pursuits, the more anemic she is, and the the more society can brush her aside as unimportant. Why should the lost bother to flee the world for a church that acts the same way?

Christ's admonition to the Ephesian church reveals the solution to this problem and the consequences for ignoring it. "Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works, or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent." (Revelation 2:5). But God is merciful and long-suffering, and He gives many chances to repent. It is my plea that we do not waste these chances. "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad." (2 Corinthians 5:10).

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