Sunday, 29 October 2017

Upon this Rock.

When Jesus told Peter that “upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it,” Jesus could not have made it any clearer about who is to be the Chief Architect of the Church. Let me break down the mandate into smaller bites here.

He started with “I will build My Church.” To avoid any doubts, the “I” here refers to Jesus and the “My” here refers to His Church. Christ is the head of the Church and her guiding light. Jesus therefore leads the way. He calls the shot – so to speak. He makes things happen in His time and in His way.

It’s His Church and He will build it. It is an ongoing process. It is not built in one day.

But make no mistakes, the church is made up of human believers who are fallible creatures of doubts, fear, greed, insecurity, and at the same time, it is also made up of transforming vessels demonstrating enduring faith, hope, sacrifice, courage and love.

As such, there is no perfect Church, because Jesus will complete it all one day. The perfect has yet to come. 

Needless to say, there is no ultimate Church, as one ex-City Harvest leader was led to believe about his own church, because Jesus is not embodied in a building. Neither is He contained in one location, one address, one Christmas program, one Easter service, one leadership structure, one evangelistic outreach, one dynamic praise and worship service nor one internationally adored Christian music band. 

On this, you can thank God that Jesus wasn’t referring to Peter as the human rock upon which His Church was to be built – though Peter’s name meant “rock” in ordinary parlance.

Jesus was not looking for a man or woman as the foundational stone for the Church. He knew better. The Rock was “Petra” – a feminine form for rock, and not a human name – and Jesus was bearing the Church on his back as her firm foundation, and not on men’s back as its main attraction.

It was the same burden he placed on Himself when he bore the Cross and carried it on his bruised and bloodied back on the road of grief.

As such, if the church can be reduced to one objective metanarrative, it would this: We are called to count the cost, carry the cross, die to self and rise with Him in victory.

Some preachers will downplay the Cross and cost part, undermine the death-to-self part, and frontload - with cherry and prosperity toppings - the part about rising with Him in victory. I call it the distortion-for-maximum-attraction gospel.

Here I recall the saying that God comforts the afflicted (with the hope of glory) and afflicts the comfortable (with counting the cost).

So, beware of any gospel that does the reverse, that is, one that comforts the comfortable (with the promises of prosperity as a mark of divine approval), and afflicts the afflicted (by emptying pockets to enrich the few in church who are shamelessly living in relative opulence).

Alas, at the last supper, Jesus reminded us that there will be trouble in this world but take heart, he has overcome it. He didn’t tell us to forget about the trouble, brush them aside, and just rush headlong to the part about having already overcome it all. Like a well-brewed cappuccino, all that foam latte art floating on top is not gold - it is not what makes the coffee, or its taste.

No doubt we are called to appropriate His victory, His righteousness, and His blessing at Calvary, but we are also called to do so by confronting life, the temptations and challenges, the good and the bad, the pain and suffering and all, and not deny, avoid and pretend they don’t matter, or don’t exist as we reside in the bubbled world of our faith.

Mind you, Jesus carried the Cross to the end – fulfilling all His promises in uncompromising obedience. Should we then leave ours behind to keep our journey light, pleasant and perpetually happy?

Here is a quote from journalist Malcolm Muggeridge about the power of the Cross and not the way it is understood today in some prosperity quarters:-

“Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at the time seemed especially desolating and painful with particular satisfaction. Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my seven-five years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my existence, has been through affliction and not through happiness, where pursued or attained. In other words, if it ever were to be possible to eliminate affliction from our earthly existence by means of some drug or other medical mumbo jumbo as Aldous Huxley envisaged in Brave New World, the result would not be to make life delectable, but to make it too banal and trivial to be endurable. This, of course, is what the Cross signifies. And it is the Cross, more than anything else, that has called me inexorably to Christ.”

Like it or not, Muggeridge is preaching a very unpopular gospel in this day and age. It is a gospel of redemptive suffering, of travailing, and of unshakeable growth via trials and tribulations.

Some churches have kept themselves away from such unpopular messages. It is too negative to start with. It is too jarring to the faith. It just doesn’t gel with the spirit of the time, or the revised and improved message of Calvary under the banner of an ever-generous God who is quick (even loose) to dispense with success, riches and a long life if we only exercise enough faith to ask for it. In other words, it is road towards personal enrichment masquerading as personal redemption. It reminded me of the Roman guards busy biding for Jesus' robe as he hanged above them struggling in agony.

The reality is that some churches have undergone an image makeover. It is faithfully keeping up with the times with a form of reflexive religiosity. And instead of being ministers of salvation, they have become engineers of attention.

They have therefore turned the personal salvation experience into a cinematic, multisensory experience just so as to cater to the consumerist appetites of the congregation. It is fast becoming a religion of emotions rather than a religion of quiet devotion and penetrating discernment where the believer is empowered with the moral courage to stand for what is right, regardless of how unpopular it can be, and to always oppose what is wrong, or accessibly convenient.

One author aptly describes the religion of emotions in this observation during an altar call service:-

“Those who had sought the Redeemer did not appear to be very redeemed. There were some sincere converts, yes, but the vast majority of those who came down front were not changed at all. Most did not continue attending church. They wanted the sensation. They wanted to feel powerful feelings. They wanted – gasp – a kind of entertainment that (the preacher) provided. They wanted the stories that carried powerful feelings, the sensations of rapture.” (James B. Twitchell – “Shopping for God”).

And the celebrity pastors are giving what their congregations are asking for.  They are pandering to their needs. They are attracting the masses with a cherry-picking, Calvary-lite gospel to please everyone, or as many as it is possible. It's the number game that seems to count now.

If the bait hides the hook, then the bait here is a faith that promises the believer everything good and the hook here is the deluded belief that Jesus had paid the price and carried the Cross, so He has done all the heavy lifting for us. As such, a lifetime of sanctification is thus forever subsumed into that moment when we utter the sinner’s prayer - the rest is a pampered, feel-good, unreflected Christian life.

Let me end with these sobering words by Pastor Eugene Peterson that every pastor (not just in America) should pay heed to. Here is the full extract.

“American pastors are abandoning their posts, left and right, and at an alarming rate. They are not leaving their churches and getting other jobs. Congregations still pay their salaries. Their names remain on the church stationery and they continue to appear in pulpits on Sundays. But they are abandoning their posts, their calling. They have gone whoring after other gods. What they do with their time under the guise of pastoral ministry hasn’t the remotest connection with what the church’s pastors have done for most of twenty centuries…

The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shopkeeper’s concerns – how to keep their customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money.

Some of them are very good shopkeepers. They attract a lot of customers, pull in great sum of money, develop splendid reputations. Yet it’s still shopkeeping; religious shopkeeping to be sure, but shopkeeping all the same. The marketing strategies of the fast-food franchise occupy the waking minds of these entrepreneurs…

The biblical fact is there are no successful churches. There are, instead, communities of sinners, gathered before God week after week in towns and villages all over the world. The Holy Spirit gathers them and does his work in them. In these communities of sinners, one of the sinners is called pastor and given a designated responsibility in the community. The pastor’s responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God. It is his responsibility that is being abandoned in spades.” (“Working the Angles – The Shape of Pastoral Ministry”)     
Alas, if the church were abandoned to men to run it, they would subject the gospel to the success of the church. But if the church were surrendered to Jesus as her cornerstone, the success of the church would be subjected to the gospel. 

And the enduring difference here is that the things of this world, all its riches, glory and fame, will grow strangely dim hidden by the shadow that the eternity of Calvary casts upon it.   Cheerz.

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