[March 20, 2016, on Facebook] Today is Palm Sunday, though the churches have ruined it by making it also Passion Sunday. Sermons are usually off-topic anyway, and even when they’re not, they’re usually vacant, especially since they lost their function of helping us “recognize” Christ in the gospel (and in the whole of Scripture) so that we can “remember” him in the Breaking of the Bread (the Lord’s Supper or Table, Holy Communion, or the Eucharist), instead replacing this with a condescending little ten-minute morality lecture.
Even if this were not so, to try to squeeze in both Palm Sunday and the entire Passion (Thursday and Friday of the gospels’ Holy Week, a huge proportion of all four gospels) into one hour-long service is obviously trying to do way too much — all in the vain attempt to accommodate those strangers who attend their worship at most two or three times a year. Meanwhile, though the liturgical calendar devotes one Sunday out of fifty-two to Palm Sunday, the Betrayal, the Last Supper, the Prayer in Gethsemane, the Arrest, the all-night Bullying by the “Chief-Priests,” the denials by Peter, the Mock-Trial by the Governor, the Crucifixion itself, and the Burial, all squeezed into one Sunday, the liturgical calendar devotes six or seven Sundays to the Easter event.
It is no surprise then if the churches miss the significance of the Passion, and fail to realize that the Passion really begins much earlier, publicly with the Lord’s baptism but actually with the Annunciation to Mary and the Christmas event that proceeds from it. It is therefore even less of a surprise that the significance of Christ’s dying is trivialized by both lay people and clergy having been reduced to that silly doctrine of the “Substitutionary Atonement,” the non-Biblical idea that Christ “paid” for our sins with the currency of his suffering and death — so that the debt which we owe, because of our transgressions of the rules (for which we owe suffering and death in eternal damnation), can be forgiven. Originally based on an analogy to the feudal honor system, we have updated it so that it fits our own consumerist-capitalist way of thinking. All we have to do is “accept Jesus as our personal Savior.” Thus the church trivializes what it means to be a Christian, for even the word “personal” has given up its existential sense to mean something like individual or private. Likewise “accept” (a bad translation in any case) seems — for a long time now — to have come to mean nothing more than to mentally “agree to,” that is, to agree to the idea that Jesus is my Savior by unfairly taking the rap for me (or paying off the debt that I rang up). None of this is Biblical, but people just assume, by an anachronistic and careless (non-literal and non-contextual) reading of the text, that that is what the text in fact says. It doesn’t.
Not for this reason (I was picking up someone special who came in on a morning flight, and bringing them home), I did not “go to church” today. This, by the way, is a weird way of speaking. The word “church” has come to mean a place, a sanctuary or auditorium, which gives the word a completely different meaning from what it has in the Scriptures. We also refer to our religious organizations as “churches” (for example, The Presbyterian Church). This is also completely different. Indeed, the organizations, which are (often bureaucratic) attempts to administer and control congregations (supposedly to help them, but mostly to perpetuate themselves as organizations), can only administer sects, (technically, in Greek, haireseis), never churches in the biblical sense. Both are a misuse, even a bastardization, of the biblical word, or else our translations should find an alternative English word to render the Greek word ekklesia.
A dear brother wrote: Thank you for saying this directly. I’ve often been confused about salvation without conversion. Attitudes and habits may be formed largely by poor phrasing such as you’re example given in the “accepting”. I’ve always had a feeling that such a statement reduces Christianity to an unbalanced transaction. Should be much more. I believe our Lord wants more.
I responded: In English the word “faith” or “believe” has many meanings. We speak, for example, of doing something “in good faith.” In Greek (in translation, faith and believe refer to the same word, pistis) the word has a range of meanings too. It can be translated as “faithfulness.” We are saved literally by the faith (pistis) OF (not IN) Christ — Christ’s faithfulness to God, and faithfulness to us. “Faithfulness” represents a semantic field: fidelity, loyalty, allegiance, fealty, etc. When Jesus called disciples, he was asking them to commit to him, personally, as their master, not to believe something about him (that would indeed come, but their understanding would depend on the degree to which they were faithful to him in the Way; this is the message of Mark’s gospel). WE also are asked for our fealty to him, which we commit by baptism. From then on we become penitents, placing ourselves under his examination and judgment (not hiding from it the way hypocrites do), turning not away, knowing and trusting in his mercy and love (which is why we are Joyful penitents, or can be), converting to him daily. When we enter this kind of relationship with Christ, we enter a sphere of blessedness — as in the Beatitudes. The more we become like him the more we can enjoy this realm (he becomes for us the Land of Promise). In John’s gospel the language is that we believe “into” him. The meaning starts out the same (the call to fealty to his person), but this gospel shows where it takes us, believing “into” him, he enters into us (ch. 14-17) through the gift of the Holy Spirit breathed “into” us on Easter (ch. 21); so that we are in him and he is in us.
Back to the point, we completely miss the point when we turn all this into a mere willful “accepting” of the idea that Jesus is now my personal Savior. I do not deny that God uses that. I consecrated my life to Christ on October 8, 1971 when I “accepted” Jesus in a prayer. But so much more happened at that moment; I felt so much more than I could comprehend. I gave my life TO Christ, and the Triune God has kept me all these years. Unfortunately, when this becomes a mere technique or method, something we think is in our control, the Holy Spirit will not subject herself to our control. She remains autonomous, the Lord (or Lady) Spirit. The work of conversion begins with the Spirit’s work, not our manipulation of means.