Jul 23, 2011

A Word to a Church Obsessed with Success

The only way God saw fit to reconcile the world to himself was through the rejection, the suffering, and the death of his Son Jesus Christ. 

I don't know why the cross was the only remedy for sin. I don't know why there couldn't have been another way, an easier way, a way that was less painful and tragic.

Even Jesus cried out at Gethsemane wondering if there was any other way. And after having spent time with God, Jesus was resolved to go through what God had sent him to endure.

This reality should be quite disturbing to a church that is so enamored with success. We love numbers. We love growth. We love bigger building, bigger budgets, and bigger success. 

If the only way that the world could be reconciled to God was through the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, why do we in the church think that God will reconcile the world through any other way?

Could it be that the only way that the world will be reconciled to God is through the same path of suffering and death? 

Could that be what Jesus meant when he said, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up the cross and follow me?" (Mark 8:34).

In the fourth century there lived an Asiatic monk who had spent most of his life in a remote community of prayer and raising vegetables for the cloister kitchen. When he was not tending his garden spot, he was fulfilling his vocation of study and prayer.

Then one day this monk named Telemachus felt that the Lord wanted him to go to Rome, the capital of the world -- the busiest, wealthiest, biggest city in the world. Telemachus was terrified at the thought. But as he prayed, God's directive became clear.

How bewildered the little monk must have been as he set out on the long journey, on foot, over dusty roads westward, everything he owned on his back. 

Why was he going? He didn't know. What would he find there? He had no idea. But obediently, he went.

Telemachus arrived in Rome during the holiday festival. You may know that the Roman rulers kept the ghettos quiet in those days by providing free bread and special entertainment called circuses. At the time Telemachus arrived the city was bustling with excitement over the recent Roman victory over the Goths. In the midst of this jubilant commotion, the monk looked for clues at to why God had brought him there, for he had no other guidance, not even a superior in a religious order to contact.

Perhaps, he thought, it is not sheer coincidence that I have arrived at this festival time. Perhaps God has some special role for me to play.

So Telemachus let the crowds guide him, and the stream of humanity soon led him into the Coliseum where the gladiator contests were to be staged. He could hear the cries of the animals in their cages beneath the floor of the great arena and the clamor of the contestants preparing to do battle.

The gladiators marched into the arena, saluted the emperor, and shouted, "We who are about to die salute thee."

Telemachus shuddered. He had never heard of gladiator games before, but had a premonition of awful violence.

The crowd had come to cheer men who, for no reason other than amusement, would murder each other. Human lives were offered for entertainment. As the monk realized what was going to happen, he could not sit still and watch such savagery. Neither could he leave and forget. 

He jumped to the top of the perimeter wall and cried, "In the name of Christ, forbear!"

The fighting began, of course. No one paid the slightest heed to the puny voice. 

So Telemachus pattered down the stone steps and leapt onto the sandy floor of the arena. 

He made a comic figure -- a scrawny man in a monk's habit dashing back and forth between muscular, armed athletes. One gladiator sent him sprawling with a blow from his shield directing him back to his seat. It was a rough gesture, though almost a kind one. The crowd roared.

But Telemachus refused to stop. He rushed into the way of those trying to fight, shouting again, "In the name of Christ, forbear!" 

The crowd began to laugh and cheer him on, perhaps thinking him part of the entertainment.

Then his movement blocked the vision of one of the contestants; the gladiator saw a blow coming just in time. Furious now, the crowd began to cry for blood.

"Run him through!" they screamed.

The gladiator he had blocked raise his sword and with a flash of steel struck Telemachus, slashing down across his chest and into his stomach. 

The little monk gasped once more, "In the name of Christ, forbear."

Then a strange thing occurred. As the gladiators and the crowd focused on the still form on the suddenly crimson sand, the arena great deathly quiet. In the silence, someone on top tier got up and walked out. Another followed. All over the arena, spectators began to leave, until the huge stadium was emptied.

There were other forces at work, of course, but that innocent figure lying in the pool of blood crystallized the opposition, and that was the last gladiatorial contest in the Roman Coliseum.

Never again did men kill each other for the crowd's entertainment in the Roman arena.

"For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it." (Mark 8:35)

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