Jesus: the Hood Ornament for Our Self-Importance

Viridiana Martinez shared the following photo on her facebook page this past weekend:

If the bottom text is too fuzzy for you to read, the whole billboard says, “We follow Christ, so it’s basically a win/win for you to follow us.” The arrogance of this advertisement is astonishing. I get that this particular church is trying to make a play on words since the word “follow” probably refers to following the church’s actions online on twitter or some similar network. But this sign captures an attitude that a lot of us Christians seem to have about the relationship between our faith in Christ and our self-importance. Instead of renouncing our self-importance as followers of Christ submitted to His will (which is what it actually means to “confess Jesus Christ as Lord”), many Christians blaspheme their salvation by seeing their faith in Christ as the reason why other people should look up to and follow them.

In many ways, this is the story of Western Civilization. At least between 1492 and somewhere in the mid-to-late 20th century, Jesus has served as a hood ornament for our triumphant march across the globe to conquer and enslave other races. In all of the royal proclamations claiming the land of the New World for the kings of Europe, the land-grabs were explicitly justified by the purpose of establishing Jesus Christ’s reign over the territory conquered. I’ve read the journals of the Spanish conquistadors. They really did believe that killing and enslaving native Americans was the way to share the gospel with them.  It’s horrifying but it really happened. It’s hard to tell how much cynicism was involved in the theological gymnastics they underwent to justify genocide.

The challenge to us today as Christians, particularly in white evangelical churches, is that we have inherited theology that has been warped to justify the sins of the past. The “family values” movement for instance was launched in the early 1970’s by the same segregationist church leaders who had just been bulldozed by the Civil Rights Movement. That doesn’t discredit the very legitimate concern of trying to keep teenagers from getting pregnant and ruining their lives. But when my “family values” become the basis for my feelings of moral superiority and my excuse for not loving my neighbor whom I have deemed “immoral,” then they have become squarely opposed to the whole purpose of Christianity both in my personal walk with Christ and in the social transformation of establishing God’s kingdom on Earth as it is in heaven.

Let me put it plainly. Jesus died to save us from the imprisonment of our self-righteousness. As long as we keep cataloging all our actions as proof of what good people we are, we can never enter into the joy of communion with God, because that joy depends upon being able to interpret whatever good deeds we’ve happened to do in life as gifts from God to us rather than resume bullet-points that we can use to argue  God into accepting us. By trusting in Jesus as Lord and Savior, I am set free from needing to prove my own righteousness. If on the other hand, I view my professed faith in Jesus as the legitimation of my self-righteousness (as many Christians do), I haven’t been saved at all but have turned the antidote for my fallen sinful condition into the source of my damnation. In the Bible, it says there’s one unforgivable sin: “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.” There are many different interpretations of what this means, but I think we blaspheme the Holy Spirit when we glorify ourselves for whatever good the Holy Spirit accomplishes through us, when we feel compelled to say, Follow me because I’m doing it right. If I cling to the need to be important, have followers, etc, I am actively resisting God’s effort to transform me into a vessel of His love for the purpose of creating a world where His mercy reigns.

A good litmus test for whether Christians have actually accepted God’s mercy and the fact that they don’t deserve it is to see how easy they find it to judge other people whose lives they know nothing about, whether it’s gay people, undocumented immigrants, Palestinians, or any of the other modern-day equivalents of the 1st century Samaritans whom Jesus championed not because they were uniquely great people but because of how much his fellow Jews hated them. It’s one thing to confront people we know and care about regarding some sin or shortcoming in their lives if we think it’s hurting them. But when we rail against “those illegals,” “those gays,” or “those Arabs,” we’re not taking some kind of moral stand against sin; we’re just feeding the insatiable appetite of our self-righteousness and building a wall against the healing power of God’s mercy in our hearts. Jesus’ parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:21-35  describes the mindset of far too many Christians in our country right now. For those of you who don’t know the story, a servant gets forgiven a debt by his master and then he goes and beats up another servant who owes him money. That kind of perverse hypocrisy is precisely what we engage in when we see Christ’s sacrifice as the justification for our self-righteousness rather than liberation from self-righteousness.

If we have really accepted God’s mercy through Christ, then we will treat and talk about other people with mercy. And not only that, but we won’t go around looking for other people to follow us. We will instead follow Christ into the world and seek His face in the eyes of other people whom we serve. Our goal as Christians should be simple: to be Christ to others and to see Christ in others. The first part doesn’t mean that I need to be the world’s savior; it just means I should be a servant to all in imitation and obedience to Jesus’ example. The second part doesn’t mean that other people are perfectly sinless like Jesus; it just means that Jesus cares enough about even the least of His brothers and sisters that whatever we do to them, we’re doing to Him. So let’s follow Jesus and stop looking around to see if other people are following us.

Going All In For Jesus

Sermon for 5/14/2011
Text: Acts 2:42-47

Five years ago, I had a rock band called the Junior Varsity Superheroes that was going to make it big. We had recorded a CD and got some reviews. We were gearing up for a CD release party in April of 2006. But in the midst of this excitement, we had some conflict. I wanted us to go all in, sending our press kit out to venues and festivals all over the country, with the goal of quitting our jobs and becoming full-time rock stars. But my bandmates saw the band as a fun hobby and a way to blow off some steam. So we held our CD release party and we were all set to play our first big out-of-town gig. Then three things happened. My son Matthew was born, our guitar player got transferred to Columbus, Ohio, and our bass player got into pharmacy school in Georgia. I had wanted to go all in for the rock ‘n roll lifestyle, but God knew that He had to close that door so I could go all in for something bigger than myself.

I share this story because we find ourselves in a season of graduation speeches that always seem to have the same thesis statement: go out and do something important that changes the world. Our culture has this assumption that changing the world and becoming somebody important are synonymous. But I want to suggest to you that they are actually a conflict of interest, because the world got to be the way that it is from millions of people trying to be important. The only way we can change the world is to give ourselves completely to the mission of the only One who can change it, to go all in for Jesus.

Our scripture reading for today is taken from Acts 2:42-47. It describes the first church in Jerusalem right after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension to heaven. Throughout the centuries, Christians have viewed the Jerusalem church as a model to which all every church should aspire.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

This is what the world looks like among a community that decides to go all in for Jesus. It’s a world filled with awe in which the signs and wonders of God are noticed and appreciated. It’s a world where people are devoted to learning all they can about God and spending quality time with each other. It’s a world where people share with one another and everyone has what they need. It’s a world where God is worshiped in word and deed. But notice also what is missing from this world. There are no rock stars. No individual is in the spotlight. Certainly the apostles were teaching, but they were simply fulfilling the role to which they had been called. All of the pronouns used in this scripture are plural – they, all, and everyone. Important things were happening, but nobody needed to be important.

It kind of reminds me of what’s been happening in this building this weekend. Nothing feels all that heroic about filling up baggies with dried food to send to other countries. It would be much more exciting if we got to be the ones who delivered the meals especially if it involved rappelling out of a helicopter or something like that. But somebody has to mix the baggies. It’s something that we can do right here where we are. And the cool thing about doing work like this is that God doesn’t just use it to change somebody else’s world; He uses it to change our world too, because doing unglamorous work teaches us how to be servants. This weekend, there have been many people who have taken care of lots of logistical details behind the scenes. But they didn’t give any speeches; they aren’t asking for any medals. What they have received is the gift of having a purpose by devoting themselves to God’s purpose.

One background hero who I wanted to mention is a woman who came last weekend for the Duffy House event here at church. I’d never seen her before so I don’t think she goes to our church. She saw me stuffing door-hangers so she told me to go do something else and she spent her whole day stuffing door-hangers as she greeted the guests and told them where to go. She probably did about 500. Because of her work, about half a dozen more people were able to participate in putting up the door-hangers that she stuffed, and then some of our neighbors who received these door-hangers were able to participate in God’s kingdom. That’s the way it works in the kingdom – God uses our intangible, unglamorous deeds not only to help people with concrete needs but also to expand His kingdom by creating opportunities for others to join in. But it only works if people are willing to put aside their need to be important and humbly take care of the task that God has put in front of them.

Another thing God does to change the world is to change our boundaries. In Acts 2, the Jerusalem church became God’s family by breaking bread together with people who had no blood relation with them. The concept of having a community potluck might not seem like a big deal to us now, but this was a huge shift in cultural values 2000 years ago. Poor people and rich people eating together? Jews and Gentiles? It never would have happened outside the body of Christ. Because they saw each other as one family, whenever anybody in that church had needs, people with property would sell some of it and give the proceeds to their brothers and sisters in need. It also says that they held their possessions in common, a radical step that would be way outside of our comfort zone today.

Now I don’t think this means that we’re supposed to sell all our houses and set up cots in the fellowship hall to form a squalid refugee camp here at the church. That would be poor stewardship of the resources that God has given us. But the fact that we have our own individual houses should not mean that our family is only the group of people who live between the walls of those houses. God has put us in the neighborhoods where we live and the offices where we work for a reason: to invite others to be a part of God’s family. The world changes when we look at other people not just as clients, colleagues, business partners, or target audiences but brothers and sisters who all share the same Father in heaven. To see ourselves primarily as belonging to God’s family doesn’t mean that we neglect our biological families; our household is our primary mission field; but the boundaries of God’s family must supersede the other boundaries that the world draws for us between rich and poor, citizen and immigrant, black and white, between what’s inside my gated community and the scary world outside of it. When we see others in the world as part of our own family, then we help people in need not to show them that we’re more responsible, mature, or better than they are, but simply because they’re our brothers and sisters.

If we see ourselves and the rest of humanity as members of God’s family, then our global household has a single Head. In Acts 2, all that the Jerusalem church did to build community and become one family revolved around a single purpose that they shared: to worship and glorify God. When we live to worship God, we enjoy His creation and each other for the right reason – not as objects to be exploited for the sake of our self-promotion but as gifts from a gracious Father that open our hearts to His love. The world gives us plenty to be cynical about, but when we look at the world through worshipful eyes, we see all the ways that God’s kingdom is at work. Going all in with our devotion to this kingdom is how we build a world in which everyone has a part to play and everyone’s needs are fulfilled.

So the way to change the world is build the kingdom of God. It’s more than just doing nice things for people. Packing meals for hungry people, putting together school kits and medical kits and birthing kits are all an important part of this process, but only if we allow God to change us through what we’re doing. Though we can’t see God, He provides the most important ingredient in every mission project that we do, because what God does through all the objects that are organized, put into boxes, shipped to places far away, and shared with others is to make this process a means by which His love is shared with those who fill the boxes and those who open the boxes. If you didn’t get to be a part of changing the world this weekend, there will be many more opportunities. God is changing the world all the time. And when you want to help out, don’t feel like you need to do something important. Come to be changed; come to be shaped into God’s family; come to fall more deeply into love with God; because that’s the way the world gets changed, through the body of people who have decided to hold nothing back and go all in for Jesus.