Sermon - Lent 6 (Passion or Palm Sunday) Year A - | DB Home | RCL Resources Index |
Enthusiasm and loyalty
We all know when we celebrate the joyful welcome of Palm Sunday that it leads to the sadness and terror of Good Friday. Beneath our recollection of the enthusiasm with which Jesus was welcomed as king to the capital city, there is always our additional memory of the humiliating death of the servant of God. It was right that he should have been welcomed to the city of David as son of David, and servant of God, who as Messiah would establish once more the kingdom they dreamed of, and with it the reign of God on earth. It was good to celebrate, with his coming, the Kingdom of God.
Yet we know that they were only right in a sense they did not understand. He was the king, the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed one, the holy one of God; it was he who would bring in the Kingdom; but not as they thought and not without cost. We know that their enthusiasm was short lived. The loyalty they then professed would soon be tested and most would fail the test. We remember too that he received their good wishes with grace, but knowing what lay beyond and beneath the excitement he paused to weep over the city as he came in sight of it, saying:
It was out of deep yearning for the children of God that he wept over the city: Matthew and Luke tell us that on another occasion he cried out:
We know when we look at ourselves that we can hardly blame the people of Jerusalem for their failure to fully recognize him and to remain loyal to him. How many of us and how many of the people we know and love maintain loyalty? Even after knowing of his sacrificial death and resurrection, and even after professing him as Lord, how many fall away? How many, having made commitments gladly, even with great enthusiasm, sadly cease to follow him? Even we who maintain our commitment and frequently seek to renew our discipleship know that we are often unfaithful.
Does loyalty matter any more?
Rather than give further Biblical exposition today I believe I should ask whether there is anything for us to learn in our lives in the fellowship of believers on the matter of loyalty. The disciples who were so enthusiastic on the Sunday had run away by the Friday evening. Should we examine our own loyalty and think about loyalty in the church today?
Is it because it hurts so much that we do not wish to face the reality that there are many names of the roll of people who have been confirmed in the faith here whom we no longer see gathered at the Lord's table? Are we ready to make excuses for them, or even to accept it as something to be expected? Do you really say in your heart, "We are the last generation, at least in our traditions, to believe"? Do you really believe that "progress" must inevitably lead people away to a secular unbelieving way of life -- even if it is, as we were saying last week, increasingly a way of life filled with superstitions? The consequences of unfaithfulness are serious. Why do we not call disloyalty what it is?
Why are we afraid to confront the reality and challenge those who are disloyal, who break their promises as if, in the exercise of human freedom, they have a perfect right to do so? Would we tolerate broken promises in other aspects of our lives? Perhaps we do, for we have learned to accept, for example, broken marriage vows; and even amongst friends faithfulness, or constancy in relationships is often not expected. Someone was writing, in "The Age" newspaper, I think, the other day, of how it seemed that casual and shallow "networking" has been replacing deep long term friendships. Is the supposed freedom of the individual that important? Does it justify playing fast and loose with all kinds of relationships, including a person's relationship with God and the fellowship of believers?
It really hurts me to read the names of people who were confirmed in this local church, to see the photographs of previous youth groups and various local fellowships from the time long before I came here, and to know that many have, to use traditional language "gone the way of world". I wonder why people accept it so easily. Do you not feel betrayed? Or were people here never really committed? Was it just a convenient social organisation for young people to grow up in, before they found their way in the world? Did you ever confront them with your disappointment. Did you ever ask why they threw away the most precious gift you could give them: or why they kept the wrapper, the cultural forms, and threw away the gift, the faith itself?
Now, of course, I know it has been very difficult and a great cause of sadness to many who really did care. There can scarcely be any family where the pain of it has not been felt. We have been through a time of great upheaval in Western Civilization. The idea of progress has taken over in a way that has relegated the Christian faith to the scrap heap of history in the eyes of many who consider themselves progressive; while many in the church have sought desperately to imitate the secular world to make the church popular, not seeing that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, thus encouraging the young to seek the real thing elsewhere.
So the decline accelerates in our society; oddly, while the church goes ahead in leaps and bounds in other parts of the world so that there are very many more Christians in the world today than at any time in the past. Why do we so easily accept disloyalty, as if it were inevitable when it is not?
There is scene in the novel "The Devil's Advocate" by Morris West, set in Italy just after the War -- I think it was when a young couple was attempting to establish a new relationship amidst the chaos -- when someone comments, "A defeated society has no loyalty". Many people feel that about the Church. The feeling of defeat does undermine loyalty, but I do not agree that we are defeated. (In Australia in recent weeks in 2002 we have seen a media frenzy concerning a serious lack of understanding by a major public figure which has been driven in part by anti-Christian prejudice. The status of the church is much reduced by such means and Christians are considered fair game.) We should not surrender. I have no doubt whatever that the church will survive and grow. But there is no guarantee that any particular branch of the universal church will survive. The vine is pruned from time to time. It is, however, an extraordinary conceit for any Christian to presume to judge where the Lord of the vineyard will judge that the cuts should be made. We should be content to abide in the vine.
Disloyalty to a particular church
Even amongst people who call themselves Christians there is for too many these days only a very weak sense of loyalty to the church -- as if you could be a Christian without being a member of the body of Christ in a very earthy and organic way. It is not for nothing that the church is called in scripture the body of Christ. Faithfulness to Christ involves one in faithful relationships with other believers who share membership in the body. Membership in the body is a necessary part of discipleship. You can no more, with integrity, play fast and loose with communities of faith than you can with families or with lovers.
So we have unfaithfulness both amongst people who have turned away of God, and amongst others who still look to God but act as individuals without regard for membership in the body. A true member of the body can never presume to judge other Christians. There is no place in the church for religious connoisseurs, who "shop around" without commitment, seeking their own personal satisfaction.
A discussion paper issued by the Synod Commission for Mission describes the phenomenon this way:
The "shopping around" syndrome
One of the ironies of the present fashion for shopping around is that it tends to sectarianism. People become selective and critical of the differences. The breakdown of denominational loyalties as if such differences did not matter any more often ends up in blind defensive attitudes as small entrepreneurial sects seek members at the expense of the older more established churches. The unworldly are sometimes fashionable and even worldly in these attitudes of the competitive consumer society which they use to their own advantage.
It is perfectly true that denominational loyalty is weak, and we might say with good reason say that denominationalism is coming to an end; and I agree that it is a disease in the body of Christ. Sectarianism, in which people separate themselves in a defensive, judgmental and critical way from other Christians is worse. But I also believe there are good reasons to belong where we do and that the differences that divide Christians will never be overcome by careless disregard of our traditions. The Uniting Church was not formed out of such carelessness, but out of a deep struggle to be obedient and to discern the truth about God in all that we have received: it was essentially just one step in the long hard struggle in which we must continue to seek the catholic unity of the whole people of God. To act with contempt for serious differences between Christian traditions is to take far too lightly the conscientious commitments of other Christians and the generations of believers who have handed on the faith to us. The question of loyalty still remains.
At the same time, we should acknowledge the fact that more then half the membership of the Uniting Church now consists of people who were never members of the Congregational, Methodist or Presbyterian Churches. In places where the Church is growing -- and in spite of apparent local weaknesses, and there are plenty of places where the Uniting Church is growing -- where it is growing many new members, often with young adults and their children, they tend to come out of the community without regard to any church background.
A fellow minister in a Uniting Church parish was saying to me that he was worried by the fact that five families from the local Baptist Church had joined his congregation, saying that they had done so because they did not like the minister at the other Church. He was concerned that people could so lightly shift their loyalty, especially when the doctrinal differences were quite significant. Surely, if something is wrong in a local church it is the responsibility of a member to work with other members to put it right, not to walk away and deny their membership. Christians should suffer their pain together.
As for the meaning of membership, it is a time of flux. A change to the Constitution of the Uniting Church to redefine membership, which I proposed and our Presbytery recommended, has been moved through in the Assembly to amend the Regulations. So I do not say that we must merely re-assert the old values -- that things must go on unchanged. As with marriage, friendship, employment and other relationships, the ways we make and live out commitments must be expected to change. But even if it does take a different form, the need for commitment and loyalty remains. Faithfulness in earthly relationships, including the church, is required of all Christian believers.
It is a great old Protestant heresy to see the faith only in terms of the relationship between the individual person and his or her God. That is just as wrong as the old uncritical Roman Catholic conception of obedience to a particular authority structure. Within the freedom of the person to respond to God with integrity, so that their faith is a true expression of themselves in that relationship, it remains true for all Christians that you cannot be a follower of Christ without being a faithful member of the church; and that means a being a member of the universal church; and that it means you must belong somewhere in particular and accept the discipline of membership in that fellowship (as Protestants and Catholics now agree). A member is not a customer, and we who are members cannot treat the church like a bank or a supermarket -- it is not something apart from ourselves.
So what do you think? Is loyalty still important? Should we accept the values of the consumer society, and give pride of place to the freedom of the individual? Is it only to be expected that people will choose to break their promises and fall away from the church. Is shopping around OK? Is loyalty still important? Should we accept the ways of the world or should we rather challenge, encourage and support all members of the body to carry through the commitments made in the enthusiasm of their Palm Sunday, beyond the points of pain on their Good Fridays, with all love and care, sharing at the deepest level, so that they can still share with us in the joy of Easter Day?
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