Sunday, July 26, 2015

Church Math

The great singer/songwriter/comedian/MIT Professor Tom Lehrer (Before my time, so WAAAAY before most of yours!) wrote a song around 1965 about a new method of teaching mathematics that was referred to as The New Math. In his introduction to the song on the live album, That Was the Year That Was, he points out his frustration with this new method. He says, "The purpose of the new math is to make sure you understand what you're doing- rather than to get the right answer!"  Sometimes I feel like the Church has adopted the same system. Let's take a look at Church Math...

Many Christians are already familiar with how confusing Church Math can be simply because of the Trinity. Clearly God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are three different things. And yet they are one. Today I would like to give you a new math problem, also involving the number 3. If you grew up in the mainline or evangelical protestant church in the in the 1970s, 80s or 90s then chances are that you were taught (although you were probably unaware of it) 3 essential truths about Christianity. Here they are:

  1. Knowledge is the basis of faith, and the scriptures are the basis of that knowledge.
  2. The writings of the Apostle Paul explain what it means to live the Christian life.
  3. If you love the Church, and give your time, talents and money to your church, then you love God.
Over my 28 years of working for churches I came across person after person who had been indoctrinated with these teachings and were trying to live them out in their lives. I hear them being promoted (though seldom spelled out) in blogs and on Twitter on a regular basis. The problem is, there are not three essential truths about being a Christ-follower, there is one. Check my math...

1)  Knowledge is not the basis of our faith, a relationship with Jesus is! The scriptures inform us, convict us and guide us as we seek to grow closer to the living Christ, but primarily they are a record of God's attempts at relationship with humans. Jesus was the final attempt and the final answer. Answer this: If all of the bibles and theology books in the world were to suddenly disappear, would the love and grace of God in our world be rendered moot? Of course not, because Jesus would have still died for our sins and left us with the Holy Spirit. Knowledge is a great, wonderful and powerful thing. But when it comes to our faith, a relationship with Jesus is the true essential.
2)  The writings of Paul are extremely important to Christianity. His letters to the churches found in the New Testament encourage us, warn us and give us hope in all things. Paul was certainly one of the most important Christians who ever lived. But we do not worship Paul. He is not part of the Holy Trinity (last time I checked). So why is he quoted more often than Jesus? Why does seemingly every major argument about our faith begin with the words, "Paul wrote..." People will tell you that Paul was simply trying to elaborate on the things Jesus taught. If that's true, then where is his detailed explanation of the Sermon on the Mount- especially the Beatitudes? Where do we read his deeper exegesis of the parables of Christ? He would have been the first one to say, "It's not about me, it's all about Jesus"- and yet we so often make it all about him. Paul was a great missionary and writer, a committed follower of Christ whose letters have much to offer and much to teach us. But he is not the essential example of how to live the Christian life- Jesus is.  
3)  The third teaching is very important as well. We should love the Church, as it is"the bride of Christ." When we give of ourselves to our churches we help to further the Kingdom. But...when our giving becomes more about building new buildings and getting the pastor a book deal, then we may have lost sight of what's essential. Jesus commanded us to love God and to love each other. I think that sometimes loving our church gets pushed to the top of that list. We think, "If I love my church, then my church will love the least of these." The great commandment was not issued as corporate doctrine- it is up to each of us to love as Jesus taught. We should be able to see this quite easily in our world in 2015, where so many are offended (and not in a good way) by the politics and in-fighting of the church, but still long to feel the love of Christ in their lives. Church is a great thing, a fellowship of believers that can and should change the world. But church does not work without Jesus. He is essential.

So there you go. It seems in the new math, 1+1+1 does not equal 3. It equals 1. And that one essential, the one thing that no Christian can be without, is Jesus.  It's simple, but it's not easy. Head knowledge is always easier to acquire than real relationship. It's much easier to argue about gay marriage than it is to "turn the other cheek" and"pray for those who persecute you." And going to church is a breeze when compared to loving your neighbor as you love yourself. But we must understand and we must articulate that there is only one essential of the Christian faith- and that essential is Jesus. This is what the Jesus Revolution is all about. Theology, dogma and doctrine are wonderful things to know about and seek to understand. But they are not more important than getting the right answer! My prayer on this Sunday is that I will remember that Jesus is THE ONE THING, and everything else is secondary. I hope you will join me in that prayer...

Because of Jesus,

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