A couple weeks back we discussed how the resurrection community is a participatory community, that is that Jesus invited his disciples to bring some of their fish and add it to the pile that he brought. The work of the church is to be actively involved in participating in Gods ongoing work in the world: its not solely up to us, nor is it solely up to God. Active Christianity is about a partnership between the two. Similar to the way a newborn child enters into an already pre-established history of family life, we as Gods children enter into an already active community that has been part of Gods story for thousands of years. To say that we are a participatory community is to recognize that we each have a part to play in that ongoing story.
But how are we to actually practice this participation? How are we to think about it what it means to enter into that larger ongoing story, especially when many of us are new to even knowing what this story is at all? In the next few Sundays, I want to lay out some ways we might think about being participants, co-laborers in this already, ongoing, work, and how we might understand what our role is in that work.
_Smoke and Mirrors
Lets take for example, the early Quaker movement which got its start because of an intense pursuit of an authentic spirituality. George Fox, one of the founders of the Quaker church, grew up in a Puritan home and in 1643, when he was 19, he left home and began a spiritual pilgrimage. He was hungry to find God. Young George felt that those in the church around him professed a hallow or inauthentic Christianity, he hoped on his journey to find answers about what made for some real. Then after wandering around England for more than a year, he came to a breaking point where he had a profoundly life-altering experience.
Ive read Foxs account of this experience from his journal before. In it he points to a new kind of connection with Christ, what Friends call a convincement, a change that we can see has deeply authentic meaning to a person. Fox wrote in his journal:
There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.
Foxs experience of seeking led him to empty himself, peel back all the layers of religiosity and hollowness, and then, in that intimate place, Christ was able to speak to his condition.
Theres a couple things we can learn about authenticity from Foxs pilgrimage. First, is that the real, the authentic is to cut through all the contrivances, the rituals, the customs, the baggage that we carry with us, and get down to the core of who we are. There we open up ourselves to Christ, through a deep searching and longing, and Christ can speak to us. But Secondly, it is to make new meaning out of what is already there. God can use anything, authenticity is being real to who you are and to who you were made to be. For Fox, this came often as a creative counter-position to those in his time. Like the punk movement of the mid-70s and 80s, Fox made meaning by challenging the systems of his day. The clergy of the 17th century was too hypocritical? They did away with Clergy, and showed that Christians, under the guidance of the Spirit, can worship together without an expert. They refused to doff their hats because that custom, and many others, created a two-tiered class structure, which early Quakers believed was not something the followers of Jesus were to participate in. The same went with taking oaths, taking oaths creates a two-tiered ethic, which pits our allegiance to our government over our allegiance to the creator of all things.
The often quoted Quaker critique of being professors but not possessors of Christ, was a critique of inauthenticity. Many more examples abound.
Like Magicians who use a combination of timing, trick, and distraction to create the illusion of something magical taking place, the church in Foxs time, and dare we say in our own, often succumbs to a religion of smoke and mirrors. There are too many examples to name all the ways those of us in the religious community give off the illusion of doing Gods work, without having any kind of deeply, life-altering, ethic-shifting, allegiance-changing, convincement like Fox and Friends did in their day. From the many rituals we partake in, to the Wal-Mart-like compounds we build to house our bookstores, cafes, recording studios, a wing for all our office suites, and oh yea, a sanctuary where we worship, we the religious are often the quickest to resort to magic.
And yet, in our day, the fake and the phony has given way for a desire among many of us for something real, something organic, something truly authentic. Like Fox, there are many who are unwilling to give up, and only pursue something that may not have the bumper stickers or the Christian t-shirts, but it is real in other ways. And you can see this in other parts of society too. Take for instance the popularity of vintages stores. Today people want to own old things, the things that were once based on quality more than quantity. This is why I still appreciate the sound of an LP on my record player. It sounds more real, the pop and crackle gives it a genuine warmth that our digital technologies just dont have.
Another way we succumb to the inauthentic, the fake and the phony is by falling prey to the allure of credentials. We can take this one of two ways. First, Im sure you have all been in a classroom, or a job training workshop, or something in the church, where we bring in the expert. The one guy or girl, usually guy, who has all the expertise known to humankind on this particular subject. And the guy just seems like a complete space-case, or worse. He doesnt have people skills, he clearly hasnt actually tried anything hes talking about, and well, hes got his head in the clouds. The allure of credentials is an easy way to build up something that is inauthentic. Or think about the negative example. The example of someone whose lived a really difficult, maybe even tainted and tortured life. The kind of person who really, if were honest and we knew all they have done, we might think twice about hanging around them. There is a kind of negative credential, or those with a lot of street cred are often also, for other reasons written off and rarely given a chance to find some kind of authentic identity that is true not to what theyve done, but who they really are in the eyes of Christ.
_The Convincement of Paul
Consider the Apostle Paul, whose own credibility, as we see here in Phil. 3, as well as street cred (Acts 7-8), make him a prime candidate for being a professor but not possessor of true faith. Not only does it say here in Phil. 3 that Paul basically had his PhD in being a rock-star Jew – he was after-all a birthright Jew, from the right fraternity, was educated at an ivy-league school, and got a tenured position at a different ivy-league school – but during this time, he almost single-handedly oversaw the demise of this little group of Jews who called themselves followers of Jesus. So in his off time, he basically tried to dismantle little radical Jewish groups that possessed threats to his own position of power and authority. This is why Paul had all the trappings of an inauthentic life. And heres the catch, he thought he was doing this all for Gods sake. He was working for the equivalent of the church in his day.
But then something does happen to him. He encounters Christ in a powerful way, actually he gets knocked off his donkey and Jesus asks him Saul Saul why do you persecute me? In other words, all the things you think youre doing to help me, are actually doing the exact opposite. This is the meaning behind Meister Eckharts prayer: God rid me of God.
God rid me of all the ways Ive constructed you in my own image, in my own understanding of who you are, because I know how dangerous that can be, I know that I can believe Im actually helping but instead I could be persecuting. It is easy to want to make God into our own image, we see this all around us. This kind of God is the God that strangely seems to do all of the things we would do even if there were no God. A God in our own image is just a religious excuse to do what we would do anyways. Its a facade that might look like success, but turns out to be smoke and mirrors.
Paul learned that convincement is about reversing this image. Rather than God being made in our image, we are being continually made (And re-purposed) in Gods. All that we are, all that we practice, all we believe is challenged by this God story were invited to participate in. This is why Paul says in verse 7,
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. [And as if that wasnt enough he says] More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ.
Paul recognized that what he thought he was doing to help was actually doing more harm and working against God. He saw his life was built up around smoke and mirrors. Whatever he had was leading him nowhere. All the professional credentials, all the street cred, everything hed gain, was taking him in the wrong direction, it was leaving him empty on the inside. Like an onion his life was made up of layers and layers of things that ultimately became obstacles to discovering what God really wanted from him.
Karl Barth puts it like this: Paul rejects his former privileges with horror, and treats them as liabilities.
What are those liabilities in our lives? Those things whether construed positively or negatively in our own culture, actually make us liable to turn out to be hallow inside? Those things that might look like good but actually might be rather destructive?
_Whats What: The Rubbish and The Recycle
In the next line in Philippians Paul says this:
For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…
I can imagine George Fox saying this same thing: All these things around me, all these rituals, ceremonies, all the pomp and the circumstance, all our credentials only reinforce an inauthentic religiosity, but really they are to be regarded as rubbish if we are to be found in Christ.
The point Paul is making is that props, obstacles, credentials, smoke and mirrors, or whatever we want to call it, are rubbish if and when they take the place of grace in our lives. If those are the things, whether they are good christian practices, or something else completely, that take the place of our own awareness and listening to Christ, then they are rubbish. If they are the things that help us to pretend that we are loving, without really loving then they are to be tossed out. If they only help us go through the motions but actually impeded us in listening and responding to the voice of Christ better, then they are loss.
We are called, along with Paul, to enter into Christs suffering, which is for us to lay down the right to control our own lives, to our privileges, to our beliefs and isms and abandon them all to living the way of Jesus. This laying down of our lives is the path to resurrection. You cannot be raised, if you do not first truly die.
Both Paul and George did this (I dont know about John and Ringo). They knew what needed to be tossed. But all of us here in the NW also know that God is into recycling.
I dont think Paul, nor George Fox wanted to create an austere faith that is simply defined by the things were against or what we throw away, otherwise Paul would have stopped at the part about rubbish. But like a good garbage collector who knows what is what, we know how to sort the rubbish from the recyclables. Our tradition helps us know what is truly trash, what is not salvageable, and what can be re-purposed and recycled into Gods purposes. It helps us know the good from the bad. And as you are well aware, more and more things are becoming recyclable these days, which is a nice way of saying, we are becoming more and more aware of all the ways that God can re-purpose our stuff. Another name for that is grace.
So if the first stage of authentic faith is finding the obstacles and learning what needs tossed, the second stage is to enter into the power of resurrection and discover all the places that God recycles, all the places where grace is manifested. The first is about peeling back to get to the core, the second is about making new meaning with who we truly are. All of life, under the grace of God, becomes a possible outlet for Christ to speak to thy condition. Everything within ordinary life has the potential to be either sacramental, a vehicle of Gods grace, or an obstacle and liability.
Our task as the church is to grow in our awareness and ability to listen and sort out what is what. To identify the smoke and mirrors in our lives. But we are also to create an environment where we can be who we are. Where we can come and discover God where we are at, with all our questions, our limitations, all our back-stories, all our skepticisms and disagreements. To be authentic is to cut through the things that become obstacles to us and make space so that Christ can speak to our condition.