This summer at Arlington, we're reading the New Testament together using a reading plan from the Optina Community in Russia, courtesy of our friends at YouVersion. The plan involves reading one chapter from the gospels every day, then two from the rest of the New Testament, beginning with Acts. At the end of 89 days (which takes us from Memorial Day up to a few days before Labor Day), we'll have read the entire New Testament together.
Click on the links to learn more and participate with us if you're so inclined.
I'm going to occasionally blog about the day's readings if I find something interesting, as I did today.
I'm on day 4 of the plan, which involved reading Matthew 4.
I'm kind of embarrassed to admit this, because I love both of these stories and I've preached on them numerous times, but it occurred to me this morning that these two stories are in the same chapter, and their proximity brings out an interesting contrast.
In the first story, Matthew 4:1-11, John has just baptized Jesus in the Jordan, and Jesus heads out for a long retreat in the desert that culminates in a proof-texting joust with ha-Satan. The absolute best meditation on this story I've ever seen is Henri Nouwen's In the Name of Jesus. In the second story, Matthew 4:18-22, Jesus calls some fishermen as his first disciples.
As I was reading the chapter as a whole this morning, it occurred to me that both of these stories involve one person inviting another to do something significant, and the contrast in these invitations spoke to me about the crossroads we find ourselves at in the church today.
Jesus' verbal sparring match with the devil involved three challenges that either implied or outright promised a specific reward: "You've been fasting for 40 days. Hungry? Make some food out of these rocks. Heck, with that kind of power, you could solve the world hunger problem!" "Want people to listen to you? Do a cool trick so they'll know you're for real!" "Swear allegiance to me and I'll give you the keys to this whole place. Think of all the good you can do!"
Jesus' call to those first disciples simply invited them to act. "Follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people".
In a consumer oriented society, where you can't go anywhere without being bombarded by advertisements, one has to do something pretty special to rise above the din and get people's attention. We in the church spend lots of time and money figuring out how to most effectively answer the "what's in it for me?" question. We say things like "we will strengthen your family", "we'll show you how to find true happiness and fulfillment", or "you can punch your ticket to Heaven here".
None of these things are inherently bad, of course, but the message is fundamentally self-centered. "Here is what this will do for YOU."
Setting aside for a moment that the temptations were from the devil, none of the things Jesus were being challenged to were inherently bad, either. They would have allowed him to accomplish his mission in a much more efficient manner. The problem is that he would have been glorifying himself, instead of letting God work and provide the ultimate glory of the Resurrection.
Jesus' invitation to his first followers, on the other hand, has little to do with their own personal gain. He only invites them to follow with some vague metaphor that helps them understand that their new mission will be at least a little bit like what they already do: fish.
Perhaps the correct response to a consumer driven, ME oriented culture is not to make our message a barely Christianized version of an ad for a washing machine, but to offer a real alternative to all these other things that may promise ultimate fulfillment, but ultimately leave us feeling more empty and more alone.
This is a terrible marketing strategy, of course. We won't promise a stronger family, greater financial security, or certainty about anything, really. We can't promise bigger churches with more people in the pews and more dollars in the plates, who pay their full year's apportionments on January 1 (my apologies to Bishops and District Superintendents).
All we really have to offer is the promise of being part of something bigger than ourselves. We have the opportunity to the never-ending ME addiction of our consumer society and make a difference in the world that lasts after machines break down and clothes wear out.
In the process, we just might find a stronger family, more fulfillment, and all that other stuff, but it's one of the perks along the way rather than the end goal.
Maybe we should drop all the ME oriented marketing. Maybe our logos should say, "Let's get over ourselves and go do something meaningful". That's probably a bad marketing strategy, but it did work for Jesus. It's worth a shot.