Luke 9 presents a series of vignettes about Jesus as he makes his way with his disciples to Jerusalem, where he will be crucified. One of the vignettes is from verses 46 to 48:
An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. 47 Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him. 48 Then he said to them, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.”
Consider that brief statement in v 46: "An argument started among the disciples as to which one of them would be the greatest."
Even at this late date, the disciples thought of Jesus and their discipleship in earthly ways. They thought that Jesus would arrive in Jerusalem and depose the Roman vassal, Herod Antipas, from the throne of Judea, then take the crown himself. He could claim it, being in the line of descent from King David. And the disciples knew that Jesus had a very large following, not an army but large enough to be turned into a formidable mob. In fact, when the Roman governor Pilate later interrogated Jesus, he expressed surprise that none of his followers were fighting in the streets to free him, prompting Jesus to reply, "My kingdom is not of this world."
So, the disciples argued on the Jerusalem road, basically, about which offices Jesus would appoint them to once he took power. Who would be the secretary of state? Treasurer? Chief of staff? Secretary of commerce?
"But Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts," put a stop to such foolish chatter. Then there is this stark sentence, verse 51: “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”
John Piper wrote,
To set his face towards Jerusalem meant something very different for Jesus than it did for the disciples. ... Jerusalem meant one thing for Jesus: certain death. Nor was he under any illusions of a quick and heroic death. He predicted in Luke 18:31, "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written of the Son of man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon; they will scourge him and kill him." When Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem, he set his face to die. ...
If we look at Jesus' death merely because of a betrayer's deceit and the Sanhedrin's fear and Pilate's spinelessness and the soldiers' nails and spear, Jesus’ death might seem very involuntary. And the benefit of salvation that comes to us who believe from this death might be viewed as God's way of making a virtue out of a necessity. But once you read Luke 9:51 all such thoughts vanish. Jesus was not accidentally entangled in a web of injustice. The saving benefits of his death for sinners were not an afterthought. God intended it all out of infinite love of sinners like us and appointed a time. Jesus, who was the very embodiment of his Father's love for sinners, saw that the time had come, so he set his face to fulfill his mission: to die in Jerusalem for our sake. "No one takes my life from me,” he said, “but I lay it down of my own accord" (John 10:18).
But all the disciples could talk about was, "What will Jesus do for us?"
Nowadays we call this a "consumerist" approach to following Jesus. Here is where the disciples went off course:
· They placed their own welfare and desires at the top,
· Their primary frame of reference was the organization,
· They saw themselves in competition with each other, and,
· They wanted personal benefits.
Of the four faults I have listed, the second is the most fatal and the most relevant for 21st-century Christians. We have a strong tendency to think of ourselves as organization people. Our primary frame of reference is the Church, while the New Testament is clear that it should be the risen Christ. Ideally, there would not be a tissue-paper's width of difference between the two, but we have never achieved that ideal though we must keep trying.
How much we fall into the disciples' consumerist error is illustrated by two simple words: "church shopping." Just Google those two words and see what comes up. The problem with church shopping is not that people are looking for a church, which is a great thing. It is that church “shopping” puts the church as the primary frame of reference rather than the Lord. As retired pastor Gordon Anderson put it,
The danger for those of us who are looking for
a spiritual community is that we might slip into a consumer mentality. You can
tell this has happened when you sound like a movie critic at lunch on Sunday
“I don’t know, the sermon kind of bothered me. I didn’t like the sound of his voice. How about that solo? Yikes, someone was off key. Also, what’s up with [using an offering collection station instead of passing the plate?] And anyway, I’m not sure they have the kind of youth program we’re looking for.”
A church consumer is focused on things like,
· How large is your children's or youth program?
· Is there a Sunday School for my age group?
· What kind of music program is there?
· Is there a VBS?
And other questions or statements with a similar outlook.
I want to be clear: All those things are important, and churches neglect them to their peril. But they are not of primary importance. A church’s organization and programs are not more important than the Christ who is our only reason for being.
Author Bill Muehlenberg put it this way:
The fact is that while we may be able to market the church, we cannot market Christ, the gospel, Christian character, or meaning in life. The church can offer handy childcare to weary parents, intellectual stimulation to the restless video generation, a feeling of family to the lonely and dispossessed – and, indeed, lots of people come to churches for these reasons. But neither Christ nor his truth can be marketed by appealing to consumer interest, because the premise of all marketing is that the consumer’s need is sovereign, that the customer is always right, and this is precisely what the gospel insists cannot be the case.
To anyone who may be church shopping, I pray God will guide you and suggest that you ask these questions of this or any church, its people, and its pastor:
· Is this a congregation where I can find help in moving on to Christian perfection?
· Are the people of this church taking dominion over sin and will they help me do the same?
· Are they being filled with the pure love of God, and may I also be filled here?
· Is this a congregation centered on Christ? Are these a people for whom Christ is so real that they live all their lives to his glory?
If the answer to those questions is predominantly affirmative, then looking at programs and activities may be a next step. But if the answer is no, then a church’s programs and activities don’t much matter.
Falling into the disciples’ error is before us and every church daily. So, let us pray that we remain focused not on what has Jesus ever done for us, but how we may grow together in holiness to serve the Lord and his kingdom no matter the benefits or costs to ourselves.
The disciples became apostles through Christ’s resurrection and his commandment to go into the world to proclaim the Good News. They learned their lessons superbly well. Never in their letters or epistles do we read any hint of consumerist Christianity. In fact, all but John were martyred for their faith, and John died in exile. Among the apostles, "What has Jesus ever done for us?" is never asked in anticipation, but with thanksgiving, as in Ephesians chapter 1:
3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. 4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will ... 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace 8 that he lavished on us. ...
11 In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12 in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.
This is the Spirit that should live within all of us and should be the main attraction to people seeking a congregational home. We can market our church but must not. We cannot market Christ; we can only give witness to our redemption through him and his forgiveness of our sins. And that is where we find what unites Christian people together as brothers and sisters with Christ and adopted children of God. We are not united by the bumper stickers we place on our cars, not by the political causes we support or oppose, not by our careers or credentials. We are united by loving God and one another and living according to the mystery of our faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
What has Jesus ever done for us? More than we can ever imagine. Perhaps we also should set our face toward Jerusalem, determined to stay faithful to the call of Christ no matter the cost, understanding what the apostles did: It’s not about us.
Let us then ask the Lord to strengthen in us and all Christians faith in Christ, the Savior of the world. Please join me in our Litany for Christian Unity, number 556 in your hymnal:
Let us ask the Lord to strengthen in all Christians' faith in Christ, the Savior of the world.
Listen to us, O Lord.
Let us ask the Lord to sustain and guide Christians with his gifts along the way to full unity.
Listen to us, O Lord.
Let us ask the Lord for the gift of unity and peace for the world.
Listen to us, O Lord.
Let us pray together:
We ask you, O Lord, for the gifts of your Spirit.
Enable us to penetrate the depth of the whole truth,
and grant that we may share with others
the goods you have put at our disposal.
Teach us to overcome divisions. Send us your Spirit
to lead to full unity your sons and daughters in full charity,
in obedience to your will; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
"May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God."