There’s been recent talk about the growth of the “nones,” that is, those who when asked to identify their religion, check “none.” There’s no question that cynicism against organized religion (and sometimes I think specifically Protestant Christianity) has increased. I was wondering if we Christians brought it on ourselves, and a day after thinking that I came across this blog piece suggesting that arrogance on the part of Christians may have contributed to the Rise of the Nones. It’s like that bumper sticker that says, “Lord, deliver me from your followers.” It’s possible that some parts of the Christian community haven’t been as Christ-like as we could be.
Yet here I am a pastor and biblical scholar wannabe, still holding out hope that we who profess to be Christians can make a positive impact on our world. Through our love (for God, for each other, for our neighbors, and even for our enemies) we can diminish the cynicism and help people find faith. The kind of love I am talking about cannot be mushy sentimentality. It cannot be merely rhetorical. Love must be shown through our actions individually and collectively.
New Testament Scholar Richard Hays in The Moral Vision of the NT: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics refers to the Christian community as “embodied metaphor.” He writes, “The church itself, being transformed into the image of Christ, becomes a living metaphor for the power of God…” Dr. Hays writes his thoughts while reflecting on these words of the Apostle Paul found in the New Testament:
You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts (2 Corinthians 3:2-3 NRSV)
Christian communities are living letters. But what do our letters communicate? Judgment only? Self-righteousness? Anger? Or do we communicate faith, hope, and love? Dr. Hays emphasizes the power of God being evident in communities of faith that “perform the Scriptures.” I agree, but right now want to focus on our performance of love.
I was the founding pastor of two churches, one in Brooklyn way back in the late 80s and then one in Washington, DC at the beginning of the New Millennium. Now I am the senior pastor of a relatively young congregation in Minneapolis, Sanctuary Covenant Church. I am thrilled that my current church, like those I planted, is made up of different kinds of people: ethnically, economically, and in many other ways. This church, like those others, is committed to justice for all—especially those on the margins of society. We are trying hard to be living letters who communicate Good News, the Gospel!
Recently, as I have been preaching a series of messages about God’s “tough love,” I got a Facebook message from someone who brought a friend to worship with us. She was thrilled that her friend, a visitor, was treated with respect and love, and also heard a message that seemed relevant to their life. But we not only strive to make the visitor who ventured inside the doors to feel welcome, but also to communicate genuine love to our friends and neighbors who may never attend our worship services. Being living letters isn’t just a Sunday exercise.
And we certainly aren’t the only congregation committed to being a living letter. There are many in this country as well as other countries. My hope is that we will all do our part to love as our Lord Jesus loved, to eliminate arrogance, and maybe even to help convince some of the “nones” to consider faith in God. After all, we believe Jesus taught that the greatest thing to do is to love God with our whole selves, and love our neighbors as ourselves. In doing so, we’ll be living love letters to all willing to read.