Sunday, October 10, 2010

Do yourself a favor - Don't go to church! (part 1)

What's one of the first things you do when you find out that your friend is a Christian? You probably ask them, "What church do you go to?"  I'm not going to get into all the sociology of why we ask a question like that, but trust me, I've thought of it.  But I do want to pick on that question a little bit. But not so much the question itself, but the prevalence of this idea in our culture of church as a place that we "go to."

I'm going to upset you up front and try to win you back by the end of this talk. Here it goes - I think Jesus would tell us not to "go to church."

Ok, this is going to be an exercise in semantics, I understand. Overall I'm definitely going to support going to church, especially over, say, going to the strip club. My point is simply that I think the language we use tells us a lot about our values and consequently our behavior. (There's my sociology for you.)  In this case, I believe that, for many of us, the phrase "going to church" betrays the reality within our thinking that there is a duality between church and the rest of our lives.

This topic comes up in conversation between Jesus and a religious teacher in Mark 12:28-34. Some disgruntled religious leaders are after Jesus again. They send some of their teachers to bombard him with a series of tough religious questions in order to discredit and arrest him. They picked the most critical and culturally/religiously defining questions, that you just better not get wrong. They were questions kind of like, "MJ or Kobe?", or "Greatest rock band of all time?" You better know this, Jesus or you're dead. Basically.

Jesus stuns them and gets the first two questions right - MJ and Led Zeppelin. Finally, a religious teacher comes up to him with the mother of all tough questions, and says, "All right, what's the greatest commandment of all?"  Jesus doesn't flinch - "Love God, and love people." Next.

But I’m going to take a stretch here and suggest that the teacher was asking Jesus - "Where do you go to church?” 

Here’s why I am taking that stretch. Jesus answers him from Deuteronomy 6:4, from the Torah, which was essentially the handbook for spiritual and communal life of ancient Israel.  Their practices were supposed to be observed as a community of God, or to take my stretch, as a "church." So Jesus' answer carries communal implications.  Loving God and loving people is something, the most important thing, done in intentional community. This thought is the backbone of the Bible. Even if you look at the structure of the 10 Commandments, you’ll see it…God and People. And that's why you see the entire nation of Israel punished in the OT whenever they fail to love God and love people.

Ok, so far so good.

And the religious teacher knew that Jesus nailed it, and his reply is very interesting. He agrees and says that this commandment is more important than simply offering all the burnt offerings and sacrifices in the book of law (the Torah).

Now he’s referring to those spiritual rituals (sacrifices, practices, offerings, etc.) listed in the Torah that the Israelites were supposed to observe in order to maintain their relationship with God.  Unfortunately, as you see often throughout the story of the Old Testament, that people’s hearts often checked out of God – they lived how they wanted, and kind of checked off their penance. They were doing the things of God, they were “going to the temple,” but their hearts weren’t in it.  And so you find the Lord speaking against his people through Isaiah by saying,

“These people say they are mine, they honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote.” (Isa. 29:13)
Can you relate? Have you ever gone through the motions of obligatory bible reading and praying, mindless singing in church, throwing in a token offering, or endless church hopping…and you’re heart is really not in it? You’re not really that involved or connected? Your life is not really changed?

So I think this teacher of the law is basically recognizing that loving God and loving people is more important than simply “going to church.”  Because loving God and loving people, as a community and as an individual, is a heart issue. It's something that we have to be, and not just attend. It's more important to "be church" than it is simply to "go to church."

Jesus pats him on the shoulder, winks, and says "You got it buddy."

To be continued...

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