Let me offer up an assumption here to start us out with. Feel free to challenge it if you wish.
Most people who drive a vehicle for, say, about two thousand miles over an unfamiliar route will find themselves on the wrong road at some point. Maybe they miss their exit or take the wrong exit. Maybe they were distracted with something they were saying, hearing, eating or drinking or, like me sometimes, just not paying close enough attention.
I make this assumption, because I’d prefer to think I'm not the only person this applies to. Not just me who notices……wait a minute here……I think I missed something back there a ways. This isn’t the right road. Or that wasn’t the right exit. Or, I’ll bet I should’ve taken the other exit back there a ways.
Happens to individuals such as myself. Happens to probably most people. Happens to certainly all human organizations. To err is human.
Let’s take the Christian Church as a human organization. The question, at least based on my own assumption, is not one of if but rather when it went wrong. When, and where, did the Church go wrong?
If for now I might take off my therapist hat and put on my pastoral one, I then have to wonder if the season of Christmas isn’t an appropriate time to question yet again “why on earth was Jesus born in the first place?” Was he born to die, as some in the Church have suggested over the years? If so, why, according to the Matthew story of Christmas, did Jesus safely migrate to Egypt as a baby instead of dying by order of Judean King Herod as a baby instead of by the order of the Judean Governor Pilate 30-something years later? An unblemished lamb was traditionally killed earlier not later in Jewish tradition.
Or, assuming Jewish traditions and metaphors matter, if Jesus was born to die later on was it so he might save his sheep by first being their good shepherd? And if a good shepherd, then how are the sheep “saved” who refuse to eventually follow the shepherd’s lead?
And, if mixing metaphors according to other Jewish traditions, if Jesus was born to die later on as King of the Jews (the actual crime for which the Romans crucified him), then how are the servants “saved” who refuse to eventually obey the King’s commands?
Perhaps the single universal principle within every Church is a belief in prayer. By whatever ritual, prayer is practiced within the Church because it was practiced by Jesus. And one practice Jesus taught was to say words to this effect: God’s Kingdom come, God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
But what did Jesus teach us about God’s Kingdom and God’s will? He told Governor Pilate that Kingdom is "not of this world" (John 18:36) but is (implied) the Heavenly Kingdom? This isn’t the Easter story where we get into Heaven when we die. Rather, this is the pre-Easter story where Jesus has come to the world to get Heaven into us before we die. Christmas, if you will, is about God’s Heavenly Kingdom coming to us here on earth and not about us going to heaven from earth. That would instead be the Easter story.
Where the Church has gone wrong is in confusing the Christmas story with the Easter story. And declaring the Gospel as if it is an end without the means, a destination without the journey. A resurrection without a reason. A Christianity that begins at death instead of at birth is a falsehood. A Christianity that places us at some terminal location without our having to do any actual traveling to get there is an absolute myth or outright lie.
Put a different way, we cannot go where Jesus has gone unless we have first followed where he has led. God must come to us before we can go to God. The Kingdom (of heaven and "not of this world") must come to us and get into us before we die, if we expect to get into heaven after we die.
And where the church too often goes wrong is in thinking that, like the Kingdoms "of this world," bigger is better, richer is better, the first will be first, might will make right, the Kingdom is ours to use, the Power is ours to keep, and the Glory is ours to claim.
When the Kingdom of Heaven gets into us before we die (the Gospel of Christmas that programs in the correct route to our set destination of Easter) we become smaller not larger, like children, like mustard seeds, like servants, like the least and the lowest. We become like the crucified. And if not we have somewhere along the way missed the right exit, taken the wrong turn, and gotten off the correct route to that ultimate destination.
One of my appointments as a Church Pastor was to serve as what was then labeled “Pastor for Growth.” In other words, I was to join what some have called the “Church growth movement” and drive the process for growing that local church bigger than ever before. Which is still another way of saying that I personally helped the Church go wrong. I helped the Church go big instead of small. I helped deny Christmas in order to glorify Easter. I drove the proverbial busload off in the wrong direction.
I’ve since become convicted and convinced that the destination of Easter is determined by the journey of Christmas. That what we receive at death is measured only by what we give before death. And that the greatest thing we can give as the Church is perfect love in the smallest of ways to the smallest of people. Whether that means the best warmth to one who is cold, the best nutrition to one who hungers, the best water to one who thirsts, the best hope to one who despairs, or some other gift where needed most, the tiniest act of perfect love is the right road to take.
At a subsequent Church appointment, I took a more appropriate turn. As Pastor I led the congregation in each one contributing a package of children’s underwear on the occasional “Undy Sunday” (start of each semester) to take to the local elementary school so the kids who “had an accident” while at school could feel the love of a clean new pair to put on before going back into the classroom. Didn’t grow the Church but did get the Kingdom of Heaven into us before we died. Didn’t celebrate Easter but did proclaim the Gospel of Christmas.
The road beginning with Christmas has plenty of signs Jesus provided for use in navigating our Easter destiny. It’s not a short or quick journey. And there are a lot of places to get lost. Wrong roads to take. Plenty of speed traps for those who think they need to get there sooner than the next person. Plenty of on or off ramps for those who aren’t paying proper attention. Plenty of chances for the Church to mess up on our drive to Easter.
And I’d at least like to assume I’m not the only Pastor this applies to.