That’s Jesus talking there. It’s a verse many Christians know. (I used to say “most”, but Biblical Literacy among professed Christians is dropping like hailstones.) It’s one of my favourites because it’s Jesus talking to me and telling me what I need to do. The instructions are pretty clear. I need to:
1) Desire to be like him
2) Put aside my ego and my self-interests and my instincts* (this one will be important in a minute)
3) Put in the painful, sacrificial work each day on trying to make this goal.
In other verses Jesus warns against ostentatious prayer (Matthew 6:5) and public giving of charity (Matthew 6: 2-4). But Matthew opens chapter 6 of his Gospel by recording some key words from Jesus:
Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
Gatherings of Christians are praised in the Bible as a good way to worship (not the only way, but one way of many) and a good way to learn.
More and more often, it seems, the way we do church in North America however is not to gather for praise and worship and Bible Study. Sure we do those things too, but more and more it seems like what happens in the hallways and the fellowship halls and the narthex** is a dangerous corruption of intent.
Church is becoming a standard sociological organisation little different from an Elks Club or the VFW or any other common-interest collective. We are bringing outside influences into the way we perform Christianity because those influences are the underpinnings of the way we do community. We are comfortable with them because that’s how we’ve learned to navigate the world and we just can’t let them go.
Competition–Churches are defining their success by the number of attendees they have, by the niceness of their facilities. Even if they aren’t competing directly and outwardly against another church the effect is the same. By introducing comfort with the idea of competition into the church we’ve been able to sneak other worldly ideas in the backdoor. How many people vote for a candidate because a fellow churchgoer told them to? Maybe not from the pulpit or in Sunday School. But perhaps around the coffee carafe or outside their children’s Sunday School classroom.
Ingroups and Outgroups–By turning Christianity from a private discipline into a communal organisation we’ve allowed ourselves to use our faith to define Ingroups and Outgroups. “I hired my plumber from the Christian Yellow Pages”; “Vote for X–he’s pro-life!”; “I like that singer/sports player because he’s a Christian”. We’ve all heard this time and again. Our faith becomes not about looking to Jesus for daily examples and striving but instead is a team we root for. AND….where there are ingroups with their warm-fuzzy feelings there are Outgroups. “X doesn’t belong here because Xing is a sin.”; “Don’t vote for him–he’s pro-choice”; “I’m boycotting this album/TV show/movie because it said something negative about The Ingroup”.
Remember when I said I’d come back to that bit about putting aside our instincts? Well, here we are. Our human instinct is to fall into recognisible social patterns with our faith. Jesus asks us time and again to put that aside. He says outright to deny ourselves. He says repeatedly to not judge others. The latest Ingroup Scripture that’s being tossed around is Romans 1. We use that a lot to prove that the latest outgroup (when I was a kid it was divorcees; now it’s homosexuals) are doubleplusungood. What keeps getting left in the Bible and not as bandied about are the very next words…in Romans 2.
Jesus spent long years planing wood, softening the roughness and making usable items out of lumps of mass. Then he spent the last years of his life tied to no community other than the disciples who followed him. He called his followers away from their comforts…wealth, family, community. We need to go back to that. We need to put aside the parts of ourselves that worry about what everyone else is doing and just start picking up our crosses daily.
**Does anybody still even use this designation?