II Peter 1:16 – 21
You’ve probably heard the old saying that “it’s hard when you’re up to your armpits in alligators to remember you came here to drain the swamp.” It might well have applied to the congregations that received this letter. There are plenty of clues that the Christians to whom the letter was written were in a time of crisis. There is mention of persecution, false prophets, and divisions in the church. A real crisis!
And in a time of crisis it’s hard to stay on task. It’s hard to stick to the basic message that you heard and that you are supposed to share with the world.
And that is why this letter is relevant to our churches today, and especially my church, the United Methodist Church. We are up to our armpits in alligators. We are in a real multidimensional crisis. The result at the very least is a looming financial crisis that threatens our ability to keep our church institutions alive, much less thriving. And indeed many of those institutions have or will soon fail completely.
But that is the easy part. It also appears that we are no longer relevant. Our traditional worship is dismissed by the young as boring. Our social principles creed and conference resolutions are buried under cable news shows and blogs and Facebook fan pages and tweets. Is it only a passing phase? Maybe, but if you drown in a flood it doesn’t matter that the water will go down eventually.
So perhaps this passage from II Peter is worth looking at. Perhaps we can learn something from an apostolic answer to a church in crisis.
II. The danger of getting off message.
The key verse here is 19 “We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”
Paying attention to the message, in this case the message of the gospel, is hard to do in a crisis. It is easy to get off message, to get distracted, to even forget the message as you try to beat off all the alligators that surround you.
A. And we are distracted.
When I look at our churches and church leaders I’m reminded of what we often see with people facing terrible psychological stress. When things seem out of control many people get so overwhelmed that their minds collapse onto the small be irrelevant things that they can manage. A woman who has lost her life companion and faces an uncertain future suddenly gets obsessed with cleaning the refrigerator. A man who loses his job and faces foreclosure on his house spends a day in the garage arranging his tools. It is normal, and for the individual it may even be necessary. But for the church it has become deadly. We are in a four or five decade crisis of losing church members and social relevance and what do we do? We spend vast amounts of energy trying to regulate the status of homosexuals in the church, usually in an effort to even further dehumanize them. But Jesus never even talked about this! We Methodists desperately organize and reorganize the church hierarchy, changing out clergy orders, our rules of church membership, our General Conference structures when none of this relates to the Good News that Jesus preached and Peter witnessed. We have fought our worship wars as if Jesus died to save either contemporary prayer and praise or the Sacrament of Holy Communion Rite II.
These things are not irrelevant, but they will not make us relevant. Only proclaiming and enacting the good news that God’s Reign is near, so near you can feel it in the healing and justice that flows from the Body of Christ, will make us relevant.
B. Clever Myths
Peter, in verse 16, says, “we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” This reminds me of second kind of distraction we have been drawn to – the contemporary version of “cleverly designed myths.”
In Peter’s time these were the old Greek and Egyptian myths that provided such a colorful basis for cultist ritual, secret societies, and temple processions. And of course quasi-metaphysical costume dramas are popular today. We have folks that find some vague religious meaning in dressing up like characters out of the Star Wars saga, or the Lord of the Rings. How much more comfortable to find one’s meaning in the mythical world of Frodo and Bilbo fighting the Dark Lord than actually engaging the prince of darkness at work in a crack house or the U.S. Congress. Peter is reminding his readers that their faith is about real-world encounters, not mythic fantasies.
Speaking of which, these days the clever myth currently vying for our attention is the “Call to Action” published in October of 2010. It appears that many United Methodist church leaders like to dress up as corporate CEO’s heading for the board-room to live out the myth of American corporation as savior. Instead of Bibles they now carry under their arms laptops full of spreadsheets with statistics and demographic surveys of potential religious markets. The result? Although the “Call” is based on an expensive analysis performed by an outside consultant it does nothing more than regurgitate into a PowerPoint presentation and Executive Summary the church growth doctrines of Donald McGavran from the 1960’s, followed by the seeker church gospel of Willowcreek from the 1990’s, and most recently the power of positively thinking about how to build an “onramp” church from a 21st century Joel Olsteen.
The recommendations, and I take these directly from the document, are:
- Many small groups particularly for youth,
- A mixture of contemporary and classical worship with the use of multi-media,
- Topical rather than lectionary based sermons,
- Strong lay leadership,
- And pastors who do not need theological education but do need to be good managers and inspiring preachers. (Of course this last interests us at Perkins, since apparently the best way to train pastors in the view of the Call is the get them a subscription to the Harvard Business Review and a membership in Toastmasters.)
These things, we are told, are the definitive characteristics of “vital congregations.” Well they are not necessarily bad things. They just aren’t worth paying a consultant for, since they’ve been repeated in dozens of church self-help books over decades. But most importantly nowhere in this list, or the document as a whole, is there any mention of the presence of the Holy Spirit, the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, or fidelity to the witness of scripture and the traditional teaching of the church. None of these are apparently regarded as signs of a vital congregation. Yet without these things our church is living in the fantasyland of a market driven business plan to sell spiritual junk food.
And that is why the entire document is a distraction, a clever myth – directing us away from the message to which Peter was an eyewitness toward a group of management and PR tricks designed to increase our share in a declining market for overt religiosity. It is pandering to a market for which we do not and should not have anything to offer. It measures success without reference to the gospel, and therefore has no grounding in reality.
III. So how do we live in a time of crisis?
The apostolic witness in the New Testament takes this up in several places. This letter is representative of all of them. In a crisis, stay on message. Continue to proclaim the gospel that God’s Reign is near in Jesus the Christ. That proclamation and the praise and worship of God are the purposes, the only purposes, of the Body of Christ.
What makes our situation odd is that we Christians have already found ways to stay on message. At the center of the ecumenical worship tradition we find just that prophetic message that Peter speaks of. Our Eucharistic liturgy is nothing other than a careful recitation of that message. Our lectionary is a systematic guide to staying on that message. And our polity is, well actually was, a means of insuring that our congregations lived out that message in the love they showed each other and the world. Abandoning these things in a crisis is like throwing the ballast of a sailboat overboard in a storm. Yes, the ballast makes the boat heavy. It also keeps it upright in the water.
Our purpose is to be vital in ways that cannot be statistically measured. Our purpose is to be accountable to God, not to a hierarchy whose interests are more institutional than evangelical. Our purpose is to be alive with the Spirit of Christ. Peter writes, beginning in verse 3:
- “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.
- For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.”
Goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, mutual affection, and love; these will keep us from being ineffective and unproductive. Can we honestly say, before we hire the praise brand, turn seminaries into business schools, and toss out the systematic preaching of scripture that we have tried these things? Can we honestly say that we have been faithful to the gospel, prayed for all the gifts of the Spirit and manifest all her fruits to the world and that this was not enough? I think not. It seems that in our rush to stay viable and move with the times we may have forgotten our purpose and message.
Many years ago I visited the Mar Saba monastery in the Judean desert. The monk who met our group was quite rigid. Certain Catholic and Orthodox Christians were not allowed in because they were out of communion with his group. Women were forbidden. We Protestants were allowed only because, like Muslims, we were not considered Christian at all and pagans might after all be converted. After we entered the vast gate we were told that the great miracle of Mar Saba is this: when a monk dies he is put on a stone table underground but open to the outside air. After the flesh decays the ligaments and tendons in the joints somehow remain supple. So our guide repeated several times “flexible, they are flexible.” To which one member of our group replied, “more flexible than you” and another “but still dead.” Flexible, but still dead. Yes, that is possible.
The miracle of Jesus Christ is not flexibility in death, but resurrection.
American Christians live in a time of crisis. The distractions that keep us from facing that crisis are many, and mostly manufactured in response to fear. The clever myths that promise to guide us through the crisis are but the songs of sirens drawing us toward destruction on the rocks. These are dark days for our congregations and our denominations. We would do well to pay attention to the witness of the Gospel, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts. That may not be the path to an institutional survival in the shadowlands of sheol; a skeleton dancing to the tune of a perverse modern culture. But it is certainly the way to eternal life.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen