The Church’s Temptations
The devil tested Jesus by offering him three (false) ways of being Messiah and, thus, three ways of being God’s people. Ways that would offer no challenge to satanic rule over the world. Ironically, each of these three entangle God’s people in colluding with devilish designs in substantial ways.
We begin here because this bad news or our collusion with the enemy sets a necessary negative foil for our reflections in this presentation.
Jesus was tempted to provide bread for the masses. He rejected this temptation by pointing to the primacy and sufficiency of God’s Word. Rebuffed by Jesus, that old snake continued to ply God’s people with the same temptation. “Give the people what they want! Meet their felt needs! Feed them! Clothe them! Satisfy their needs and wants. Even in church, present God as the great vendor of religious services who will service their every spiritual need! Make consumers of them! They’ll love you and flock to you. And bring their friends.”
Mike Breen points out the problem here:
“The problem is at the end of the day, the only thing that Jesus is counting is disciples. That’s it. He doesn’t seem to care too much about converts, attendance, budgets or buildings. It’s about disciples. And, by nature, disciples are producers, not consumers. Yet most of our churches are built around feeding consumers” (http://www.michaeljamesbreen.com/obituary-for-the-american-church/).
American Christians have been perpetual suckers for religious hucksters. We want celebrities for our pastors. We think that fame and notoriety are ways to secure the significance and security were all seek and need. We may disavow Joel Osteen’s theology but many of us still wish our church was big and famous like his. Such fame gives outsiders something desirable to consume. It is not surprising to find a consumeristic mentality hand-in-hand with a celebrity preacher.
Breen again pinpoints the problem:
“Many subtle things happen in people who desire to this kind of celebrity status: They can disengage community and isolate themselves, setting themselves up for moral failure. They can make decisions that are numbers driven and not always Kingdom driven. They can skew to a shallow understanding of the Gospel as opposed to a holistic one that leads people to discipleship. They can put the good of their church (their personal Kingdom) over the good of God’s Kingdom.” And their churches often enable them in these distortions.
It’s not news to any of us that America is a very competitive country. It’s almost considered the essence of life. Competing, acquiring, having – is the American creed. And when churches are competing with each other, no longer for non-churched people, but for other churches’ members (which is the case today), well, the devil has won big time! And any “growth” experienced in this manner will not be growth that enhances the Kingdom of God. Breen writes:
“So gifted and skilled is our enemy, so conniving is he, that he has convinced us that beating the people on our own team is victory while he stands back and laughs, rarely having to ever engage in conflict, protecting his territory. He is beating us with a slight of hand, with a clever distraction, turning us against ourselves.”
Consumerism, celebrity, and competition are one important way to indicate the shape of the malaise choking the life out of the American church. That’s the reality we face and why I say we’ve never experienced the church.
Jesus also faced four major competitors to define Israel’s identity and vocation. One (Sadducees) chose to go along with Rome to get along in the world and carve out a comfortable and lucrative niche for themselves. Many of them were leaders in the temple and wanted to keep it from doing anything to tick Rome off and jeopardize their standing. They believed in the Bible, of course, Well, actually, they believed in the torah the five books of Moses. It trumped the prophets and writings. Allen Ross notes: “Josephus confirms that the Sadducees denied the resurrection, the immortality of the soul, eternal rewards, or the ‘world to come.’ The Sadducees kept their focus on the status quo of the nation of Israel in this world and not the next” (https://bible.org/seriespage/3-sadducees).
Those who are not driven by a vision of a most desirable future will settle for a present that in some way grants a significance and security to the now that must be fought for and defended. A church that does not believe in the resurrection, that has not believed it in such a way as to bet their lives on it, can only be a “Sadducee” church. It will align itself comfortably with the powers that be and make sure the church never troubles those powers. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer well put it: “Christ overcame death as the last enemy . . . from the resurrection of Christ . . . a new and purifying wind can blow through our present world. If only a few people really believed that and acted on it in their daily lives, a great deal would be changed. To live in the light of resurrection—that is what Easter means.” ( )
Pharisees were local community leaders who had as their goal to prepare Israel to be the people God wanted it to be when he returned to liberate it from its bondage. Their name probably comes from a root meaning to “separate.” And that is what they wanted for Israel, a community “separate” from the pagan world. “Holy” as a community which focuses on the characteristics that marks it out as distinct from the rest of the world. This was how the Pharisees believed they ought to shape Israel to be a community fit for God to receive and use when he returned.
This drive to make Israel “holy” in terms of separation from the rest of the world, Jesus turned on its head with his vision of holiness which sent his people into the world of unclean pagans confident that his touch of holiness through them would turn their uncleanness into cleanness and welcome them as God’s people too. No wonder he and the Pharisees kept bumping heads all the time!
A “Pharisee” church will be one that uses the rules to keep the people clear of the world and its lures and temptations. Its ministry will focus inward on serving the people already in the community. It provides many (too many) programs and activities that keep the people with others in the church rather than reaching to those outside. Holy Huddles are one name for churches that live this way. They often (though not always) privilege prayer, Bible study, and evangelism over doing works of mercy and justice in the world. What is important here is maintaining a clear line of demarcation between the church and the world.
“Essenes” believed the worship and service in the temple was so utterly corrupt that the only faithful response was to flee to the desert and set up community there to devote themselves to study and the practices that will make them ready for God when he returned. Here hope for world is set aside (it too is hopelessly corrupt) and only the arrival of the Messiah can help now.
No church today is really analogous to the Essenes in all its respects. But I suggest the “Spiritual but not religious” group may be the closest. They too believe the traditional church and religion are corrupt and immoral. They have left and begun to find their own way apart from organized religion. Sometimes they form groups of folks who are also seeking non-institutional, non-religious forms of faith. But many do not and pursue a personal and individual path. These folks have nothing like the highly disciplined communal practice of the Essenes. But in their judgment on the corruption of the religion of the institutional church there are perhaps some analogies.
Jesus had no interest in the Essene way. His way was “spiritual and religious.” While he pronounced judgment on the temple, and its coming destruction, he also proclaimed himself God’s new temple in whom people could now find all they sought from God. And his people in him were “living stones” (1 Pet.2:2) forming this new temple as his corporate body. Jesus intends his people be “in” the world (as a recognizable community or “institution”) at the same time as they are not “of” the world in their source, equipping, and outlook.
Finally, we have the Zealots or at least their precursors. Taking up arms is their answer to the problem of Israel’s Roman overlords and their idolatrous presence in the land. They believed that waiting any longer was unfaithful and their murder of Romans would incite their fellow Jews to emulate them.
Jesus rejected the way of violence at every turn. His zeal burned every bit as hot as theirs for the liberation and purification of the land. But he understood something about God that they did not. God’s love for his people was but a prelude to his love for everyone and his desire to include them among his people. God is patient and prodigal with his love. Far beyond what humans would consider appropriate or proper. Jesus’ zeal, therefore, burned with a far longer fuse and a respect for others as beloved by God as well.
Zealotry in our time we call culture wars. Liberals, progressives, conservatives, and evangelicals all have been engaged in culture wars in our country over at least the last 30-40 years. While most (but not all) eschew physical violence, these skirmishes have clearly lacked the same patience and respect for opponents that Jesus did.
Jesus’ people are to share in God’s patience and respect for others. However, we engage our culture, the way of the culture war (as we know it) is not the way. We do practice a violence of sorts, but it is the “violence of love” (Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love). That’s Jesus’ way.