“To Will and to Work”
September 25, 2011
I don’t want to alarm anyone, but, apparently, atheism is on the rise.
Last month, Adam Lee looked at the statistical evidence suggesting that “Americans are becoming less religious,” and that atheism is growing with each generation, with as many as 30% of those born since 1990 identifying as “nonbelievers.”
What is more interesting than the statistics is the reason that Lee gives for what he calls this “generational shift towards godlessness.” Apparently it’s not so much the appeal of atheism as it is the lack of appeal of churches.
Many Protestants and Catholics, Lee says, “have made fighting against gay rights and women’s rights their all-consuming crusade. And young people have gotten this message loud and clear: polls find that the most common impressions of Christianity are that it’s hostile, judgmental, and hypocritical.”
Lee, who argues that lack of religious belief is a positive liberation, concludes with a tone of dismay: “I admit that this…is a little damaging to my ego. I’d love to say that we atheists did it all ourselves; I’d love to be able to say that our dazzling wit and slashing rhetorical attacks are persuading people to abandon organized religion in droves. But the truth is that the churches’ wounds are largely self-inflicted.” It seems as though the trinity of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris are less effective than Christians in promoting atheism.
For an atheist, Lee speaks powerfully and helpfully to churches here. He’s telling us that churches have forgotten who they are; they have failed to announce the good news of God’s love. Instead, many churches who speak the loudest have taken on a mean-spirited defense of an out-of-date view of the world and of humankind.
We forget that we were once strangers to the love of God. As a result many people keep looking for some group that they can ostracize, that they can exempt from God’s love today.
We forget that God loves us unconditionally. As a result many people continue to think that some people are simply unlovable.
We forget that God forgives us unconditionally. As a result many people imagine that there is something they have done—or something others have done—that God cannot forgive, will not forgive.
We forget that Jesus came that we might have life and have it abundantly. As a result many people seek to live cramped and restricted lives. We set aside the common good, the public life of our community.
If we forget who we are, we will soon presume that God owes us something. We will decide to live under our own merit and not under God’s grace. We will run the risk of forgetting that we have come to a new place where God's love offers new opportunities and creates new challenges.
Most significantly, what many churches have forgotten—on both a local and a denominational level—is just who it is that we as Christians seek to follow.
Paul tells of this Jesus by quoting an early hymn—and if you look in most Bibles, you’ll see that his words are presented more as poetry than prose.
Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself..
being born in human likeness.
and became obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
It’s important for us to stop at this point to consider the astonishing message that we hear in these words.
To speak of Jesus “in the form of God”—of the “pre-existent Christ”—is an attempt to affirm the transcendence of Christ. The human Jesus is also the reality beyond all that is. In saying this, early Christians and Christians today announce the goodness of the world, of our bodies, and of life itself. Biblical scholars tell us that this is a hymn about kenosis. That is to say, this is a hymn about the pre-existent Christ “emptying” himself, taking on human flesh in Jesus. It is a Christmas carol of sorts—a song of the incarnation.
Now, this hymn offers no moral message. It does not tell us: “humble yourself now and later you will be number one.” At the cross, the future was closed. Karl Barth, reflecting on this hymn said that the door was locked; obedient service came to a bitter end. Or as another person put it, the grave was a grave, not a tunnel.
The Jesus of this hymn is the One who came not to be served but to serve. This Jesus is the One who came not to condemn but so that all people might have life.
Paul writes to the Christians in Philippi from prison. With deep affection for this congregation he writes out of his concern that the church is facing great outside opposition as well as internal conflict. He does not chastise or rebuke. Instead he reminds the community about the events that shaped them and that define who they are.
The incarnation and the crucifixion continue to shape and define us as Christians today. God invites us into full involvement with our world, involvement that means we work alongside other people rather than stand in judgment of them, involvement that means we work toward abundance of life for all rather than for those who meet some standard of worthiness.
As this ancient hymn concludes, the subject changes. God acts.
Therefore God highly exalted him…
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth.
Yes, it’s an old cosmology, this “heaven and earth and under the earth.” But it expresses the hope, both ancient and enduring, that the prophet Isaiah spoke of, that all the people of the earth might one day know the God who creates, redeems, and sustains all life.
This early Christian hymn calls us to humble service instead of judgment because that is the way of the One whom we seek to follow.
Paul suggests that when we have among us such a mind as was in Christ, we start to exhibit characteristics of healthy congregations:
Encouragement in Christ
Consolation in love
Sharing in the Spirit
Compassion and sympathy
I don’t want to alarm any atheists, but on this corner we’re experiencing not so much the hostility, judgmentalism, and hypocrisy that Adam Lee wrote about as the encouragement, consolation, sharing, compassion, and sympathy that are the signs of a vibrant congregation.
Rather than creating self-inflicted wounds, we are a community that nurtures and nourishes health and wholeness.
A growing number of college students have been finding us in recent years, discovering a place of welcome and acceptance, support and challenge.
A growing number of young adults looking for a good place to raise their children keep coming here because they want to pass on to a new generation the liberal values that they share with this congregation.
A growing number of older adults find this a church home where they can live out their faith in a God whose love is unending and whose mercy is never-ceasing.
We listened last Sunday and heard Paul encourage the congregation in Philippi to live a life worthy of the gospel of Christ. And it quickly became apparent that Paul was not one to provide a detailed list of what this would mean—which is a good thing, because a twenty-first century congregation faces challenges quite unlike those of a first-century church. A life worthy of the gospel today might look quite different from such a life two thousand years ago.
In the same way, the encouragement, consolation, sharing, compassion, and sympathy that Paul regards as hallmarks of a vibrant community of faith will show themselves today in ways that make sense for our time—which is why we can hear those words about “fear and trembling” as words of hope and encouragement.
To a healthy congregation, reminded of it heritage, Paul writes, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling”—and, yes, that can cause us some consternation. We recognize that it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God. What we do has consequences.
But we also believe that, as Paul reminds us, “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.”
We each have our own work to do. Together as a congregation we have our larger work as well. And in all of our work, God is seeking to do a greater work of love.
And, as I’ve said, I don’t want to alarm the atheists, but many of us still make room in our lives for wonder and for worship.
We come together to remember that God is at work in us.We go out to do the work that God is working through us.