Monday, April 7, 2014

A Message of Malicious Subterfuge?

“Jesus says: “First obey, perform the external work, renounce your attachments, give up the obstacles which separate you from the will of God. Do not say you have not got faith. You will not have it so long as you persist in disobedience and refuse to take the first step. Neither must you say that you have faith, and therefore there is no need for you to take the first step. You have not got faith so long as and because you will not take the first step but become hardened in your unbelief under the guise of humble faith.” It is a malicious subterfuge to argue like this, a sure sign of lack of faith, which leads in its turn to a lack of obedience. This is the disobedience of the “believers”; when they are asked to obey, they simply confess their unbelief and leave it at that (Mark 9:24). You are trifling with the subject. If you believe, take the first step, it leads to Jesus Christ. If you don’t believe, take the first step all the same, for you are bidden to take it. No one wants to know about your faith or unbelief, your orders are to perform the act of obedience on the spot. Then you will find yourself in the situation where faith becomes possible and where faith exists in the true sense of the word.” [The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pages 73 – 74.]

We want to negotiate with Jesus. We negotiate our obedience, we negotiate our message. Obedience is an option when we preach and teach and lead; we lower the bar hoping that at some point people with have faith to obey – but disobedience breeds disobedience, and disobedience in the midst of the church creates confusion and leads to more disobedience. We have discarded the mantle of priest, of prophet, of pastor and now wear the cloak of the therapist –surely if we will make people feel good about themselves and maybe even feel good about Jesus, really really good about Jesus…they will eventually obey Jesus.

In our own lives we tell Jesus and others that we cannot obey Him because we don’t have the faith to do so – we’ve convinced ourselves of this and we’ve convinced others. We are not sorrowful about this condition, not sorrowful about our disobedience, not sorrowful about our lack of faith – as is commonly said today, “It is what it is.” Surely Jesus understands that “it is what it is”. Surely Jesus understands that we must have overwhelming faith to obey Him, that we must have a faith that takes no risk, a faith that does not require self-denial, a faith that will not risk the rejection of others.

We pat each other on the back and say, “It’s okay not to obey since you don’t have faith.” There are two group hugs happening simultaneously in our congregations; those in one group-hug reassure one another that their lack of obedience is acceptable because they don’t yet have faith to believe; those in the other group reassure each other that obedience is not important since they already have faith.

Not to require obedience to Jesus Christ is to undermine the church, the Gospel, the people of God. Those who work for companies understand that they must adhere to company policy; when we drive cars we understand the laws of the road; when we engage in business we know that our actions are governed by law – in many spheres of life we know both implicitly and explicitly that we are to conform to certain standards – we know there are benefits when we conform and that there are penalties when we do not. And yet, when we preach the Gospel (which is often no longer the Gospel) we are told that obedience to Jesus is optional – we are told (one way or another) that our obedience is dependent on our faith and not on the response of our will to His command. The preacher or pastor thinks that with just a little more therapy the congregation will come to obedience. Of course this begs the question, “If the preacher is no longer obedient in preaching the Gospel as Jesus gave it to us, how can the people have the opportunity to obey the Gospel?”

A tragedy of this situation is that we are deprived of the opportunity of knowing the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings; we are ignorant of the blessedness of taking up our cross and following Him. Sweet intimacy with Jesus, indeed with the Trinity, is found in following Him in His self-denial, in His obedience to the Father, in His sufferings. Jesus bids us follow Him so that we may know Him, He calls us to obedience so that we may know His Father – Jesus invites us into the unity of the Trinity, He invites us to a place where we can know as we are known, He invites us into a joy, a peace, a love, a vision that transcends all we have touched and known and that draws us into the Eternal One in the community of saints.

We do not spare people when we treat obedience as an option, we rather maliciously deny them the opportunity to know Jesus Christ and His Gospel. If we truly love others, as Jesus loves others, we will know and preach no other Gospel than the one that insists on obedience to Jesus Christ.