The Lenten season is a time of reflection and repentance. Reflection upon who we are, what we believe about God, and how we live into those beliefs. And repentance for our sins, both personal and social.
Perhaps one of the sins we need to communally repent of this season is making faith seem too easy. In most worshipping bodies, men only compose about thirty nine percent. Have you ever taken time to wonder whey there are so few males present in comparison to females? Or so few young people? Or so few families? Whatever demographic you feel the church is missing. Have you done more then bemoan the fact that worship attendance is slipping? Perhaps one of the reasons that people are missing is because we’ve made Jesus’ image to be domesticated and docile. We have picked apart the Bible and have lifted up the parts that we would like to see emulated - the good shepherd, letting the children come, and Christ forgiving others. But in doing so we have left out a majority of scriptures - the places where Jesus was kicked out of almost every place he went or caused a riot or a stir. The parts where Jesus has righteous anger and flips over the money changers table. The parts where Jesus’ words challenge the hearts of religious leaders and the folks listening to him.
We need to present all of the pictures of Jesus in order to appreciate both who he is and who he is calling us to be as followers. We need to remember that Jesus is God - powerful and confrontational. Perhaps when folks come to worship they need to meet not necessarily a docile Jesus, but one who can be powerful in the midst of their struggles. Or one who brings a word of challenge when necessary.
Further, maybe people are missing from worship because we’ve made our faith watered-down. We don’t make membership challenging, difficult, or demanding. The churches that are growing in the United States, brothers and sisters, are those in which faith means something and membership vows are not taken lightly. They hold people accountable to tithing, being in worship, and being in a small group. They are the places that remind folks that membership does not come with privileges, but rather demands. When we don’t hold folks accountable the vows they make, we are essentially saying that numbers matter more to us then helping people live out their faith - and perhaps the easiness of joining the church makes it just as easy to leave.
The early church understood such problems. For the first 300 years, the church was illegal. And during that time there were at least ten mass persecutions of Christians, that resulted in so many people being killed that it was dubbed “the age of the martyrs.”
Why were so many people killed during this time period? Because they declared with their lips and their lives “Jesus is Lord”, which was threatening to the government where Caesar alone was to be Lord over people’s lives. In essence, these Christians were killed because they were committing treason in the eyes of the government, declaring that someone else ruled their lives. As a result, tens of thousands of people hung on crosses by major roadways as a warning to the people passing by not to believe or proclaim what they did, or they would meet the same fate. But it backfired. This time of persecution showed one of the fastest growths in the church’s history.
To be a martyr is to witness to something, and these Christians sacrificed their very lives to witness to their faith in Jesus Christ. What does our faith witness to today? Do we proclaim Jesus is Lord in a way that other people notice? Or has the church simply become a place that we go on Sundays for an hour or two, instead of being who we are as believers of Christ?
The Age of the Martyrs didn’t last forever. In 313, Emperor Constantine had a conversion and decided to cease persecuting Christians and instead make Christianity legal. After this point, the Christian flag flew under the flag of Rome. According to Pastor Mike Slaughter, “The new, legalized status for Christianity thankfully diminished the persecutions but ironically would prove to deal an almost fatal blow to the vibrancy of the church. Jesus’ followers started to become comfortable and complacent - enjoying being part of the status quo.” Before if you joined the church, it meant you were risking your very life for what you believed. You had to be sure that Christ was Lord of your life and you had to be bold in declaring it. Now, as Christianity became the status quo, it was simply expected. To be a Christian was to be a good citizen of Rome. Do you see the difference? Maybe he didn’t mean to, but by making Christianity legal and by flying the Christian flag under the Roman flag, Constantine was essentially saying, once again, that Rome was Lord of the people and Rome was Lord of Christ. Which the Christians just accepted.
Before we go criticizing the early Christians, I have to ask, don’t we do the same thing today? When we bemoan that America is no longer a Christian nation? Perhaps what we should be asking is how no longer being part of the status quo can increase our faith? How it can help us proclaim that Jesus is Lord. Perhaps if Christianity is no longer the religion of the state, we are freed to ask hard questions, such as: is our lifestyle aligned with meeting the status quo or the worldview of the Kingdom of God? A worldview is a set of beliefs or concerns. For the government, those concerns are chiefly being capitalistic and democratic. But are those the same concerns of the Jesus of the Gospels? No. But for some reason we’ve allowed the worldview of the government to become the Christian worldview over time.
Maybe this Lenten season we need to confess and repent that, in the words of Pastor Slaughter, “Christians began to value, honor, and prioritize a worldly system, ideology, and politics over the kingdom of God. Jesus’ authority began to be subjugated to the state’s authority.” Now I’m not saying to be antigovernment or anti-America. As Christians we can certainly respect and appreciate democracy, but I am asking you were your ultimate allegiance lies - with the nation or with God. Another way to ask this is what do we allow to create our values - what the government or the news tells us or the Kingdom of God we find in the gospels? Because we can proclaim that we are one nation under God, but the truth is, even some of the early forefathers had a very skewed view of Christianity, as they picked and chose what they wanted to believe out of the Bible. We will never fully be able to follow the Kingdom of God if we put nation above Christ.
Maybe this Lenten season we need to confess that we have made religion privatized - focusing on the fact that Jesus came and died so I can get to heaven, while forgetting to reach out to our neighbor. The verse from the prophet Isaiah today is about rebuilding, restoring, and renewing not just looking out for ourselves in this life and the life to come. Jesus came to bring heaven to earth. The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, reminds us that salvation is both personal and social. It is about our relationship with Jesus, but that should be manifested in god works. That is to say that works don’t save us, but they are a fruit of our relationship with Jesus, when we put what Jesus teaches into practice. When we just talk about our relationship with Jesus, it is as if we want to make ourselves an exception to Jesus’ cry for us to pick up our cross and follow him. It is as if we want to the rewards of discipleship without the cost. But being baptized means that we are fully submitted to the authority of Christ. If we make Christianity about what we want or our excuses or complaints and if we focus on these things we haven’t realized what it means to follow Christ fully.
Mother Teresa once said “Preach Jesus, the true Jesus, the real Jesus, the resurrected Jesus, and not the Jesus of people’s imaginations.” This Lenten season may we strive to know the real Jesus and put his teachings into actions. May we take a risk for the sake of the Kingdom of God. May we confess that which blocks us from following Christ more closely. And may we repent of making Jesus into who we want him to be, safe to follow, instead of loving who he truly is. Amen.