29 April 2010

"A Relationship With Jesus" or "Going Through the Motions"?

Being in an area dominated by Roman Catholicism, and in teaching in our parochial school that has only 7% Lutheran students, I have an interesting window into a particular part of American Christianity. In fact, though not entirely accurate, I could quip that I can tell who the non-Lutheran students are since they are the ones crossing themselves.

A lot of our school's families are Roman Catholic, and many are only nominally so. A good number of our students identify themselves as "Catholic" but have no idea what parish they belong to because they never attend church. At least in this region, Roman Catholicism has a great hold on people who tenaciously cling to the label into middle and even old age, though they have no real bond with any Christian community nor attend services anywhere - perhaps not even for decades. They have no idea who their pastor is, and can't remember the last time they went to confession. Some even come to church with his or her Lutheran spouse more often than attending Roman Catholic Divine Services.

Along with Roman Catholicism, there is another brand of Christianity that is very popular in this area: Non-denominationalism.

"Non-denominational" is really a misnomer, for even an independent church that shuns a label or affiliation with a national church body believes in something. They accept neither the pope nor the patriarch as the head of the Church, so they aren't Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. They do not practice infant Baptism, so they aren't Lutheran or Anglican or Reformed in their confession. This basically makes them either Baptists or Pentecostals - depending on their congregation's teachings regarding the Holy Spirit and "spiritual gifts."

And the Non-denominational churches in our area do tend to have a lot of former Roman Catholic converts in their ranks. I've heard the same testimony from a lot of people: raised Catholic, "christened," "made my communion" - perhaps attended Mass on occasion, but never read or learned the Bible, and, most of all: "never had that personal relationship with Jesus." Their previous Christian life was all about "going through the motions." Then the person, having visited a Non-denominational church with a friend, heard the Bible and the Gospel for the first time, and only then entered into a "relationship with Jesus."

And thanks be to God that these folks and their families now have that trust in Christ and that communion with the Most Holy Trinity. Thanks be to God they immerse themselves in God's Word and are raising their children to be Christians, not mere label-holders. Thanks be to God that they are no longer "just going through the motions."

But it is also with sadness that I hear these stories. For I think they've missed something important, something that they overlook in their assessment of their lives as Christians - the role of Holy Baptism. So much emphasis is placed on their acceptance or their faith as adults that they forget that they did not initiate the relationship. God did. And He did so when they were at their most helpless and dependent on His grace.

I don't like the word "relationship" because it is a flabby word, laden with all sorts of modern connotations. Everything these days is a "relationship." It's become an Oprah-Doctor Phil word. We have lots of "relationships" - everything from spouses and siblings, to sports teams and to our favorite soft drinks. What we have with God and with our fellow Christians is koinonia - which is "fellowship" or "communion." These words ("fellowship" and "communion") are not only more historical and churchly, they also tend to remind us that our relationship with God is not like a boyfriend/girlfriend thing, not "brand loyalty," not something driven by emotion or felt needs, - but something unique and mysterious, transcendent and eternal. Jesus is indeed our "friend" - but He is not our "buddy," "homeboy," or good luck charm.

But be that as it may, the "relationship" that converts to Non-denominationalism have with God was not initiated by them, nor by their brothers and sisters at church, but rather by God Himself - "before the foundation of the world." God knew them in the womb and called them to a vocation in this life according to His plan. And God Himself saw to it that they were "born again of water and the Spirit" and washed them in the "washing of "regeneration" (literally "re-birth") when they were baptized as infants in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

People who leave nominal Roman Catholicism (or Lutheranism) and join active Non-denominationalism do indeed re-spark that dormant relationship they had with God, the one God established eons ago and delivered personally through water, from the hands of a servant of God, and by way of the holy name of the Trinity. Unfortunately, people who find this particular path back to the Holy God and the Holy Church are typically compelled to deny or downplay their Holy Baptism, either by describing it as a hollow ritual or by re-creating it by going through the motions of being "baptized" now as a "believer." The implication is that their first church was not a real church, their baptism was not a real baptism, that they were not previously "believers," and that they never had a "relationship" with God until now.

Sadly, this denies not only baptism, but also God's Word insofar as that they were already believers as baptized children, as churches that do not baptize infants deny that children can be believers. It says to God: "You never established a relationship with me until now." It is a denial that God called them long ago, and denies that they, not God, estranged their relationship. For in reality, it was they, not God, who became the prodigal.

And though returning to an active life of hearing the Word, walking in faith, praying, striving to keep the law, enjoying the forgiveness of sins and a new life that will never end is a thing to celebrate and thank God for, I think it would be more helpful, humble, and honest to understand and confess that God initiated the "relationship" long before, and He never abandoned them - but rather the opposite. God used baptism to give them new birth, and their latter conversion was only necessary because they left God, not because God left them.

And I believe there are lessons for those of us raising children in the Lutheran tradition of Catholic Christianity.

Parents have the responsibility to raise their children as Christians - not merely drag them to church once in a while, run them through the motions of baptism, Sunday school, confirmation, first communion, and then consider it all done. We Christians are disciples - discipuli - that is "students." We finish studying and learning, struggling and growing - when we die. God calls us, predestines us, baptizes us, offers us Word and Sacrament, and holds us in the palm of His hand until we enter into the fullness of communion with Him face to face in eternity. Parents who do not bring their children to God's House, to hear God's Word, to set the example of receiving God's body and blood, and grasping hold of God's forgiveness every Sunday as their top priority are teaching their children that their "relationship" with God is a low priority, that the Christian life is a hollow, ritualistic "going through the motions" that must simply be endured.

Parents who fail in their responsibility to teach their children the basics of the faith, to live in the newness and richness of the Gospel, to pray, to assemble with the saints, and to seek forgiveness are setting their kids up to leave the safety of the holy ark of the Church for the unholy floodwaters of death and destruction. And the ark that preserved Noah and the Eight is a type of the very baptism through which our Lord claims us as His own child.

It is especially crucial for those of us who belong to historic communions within the church catholic that we not only baptize our children, but nurture our little ones who have been born again - day by day, year by year - lest we allow their "relationship" to cool and their communion with God to become a "bruised reed" or a "faintly burning wick" - something that will make it easy for them to wander away from. There is no excuse for Christian parents who, because of their own inattention to the faith, allow their children to lose their faith, so that these children must rediscover their faith later, and at the expense of the comfort of being able to look at a baptismal certificate on the wall, knowing that they were saved by grace alone, making the sign of the cross, hurling their baptism at the face of Satan, and acknowledging that they are indeed in communion with God and have been since before time began.

God did not merely "go through the motions" when He gave Himself for us at the cross. Nor does He "go through the motions" when He delivers Himself to us at the altar, pulpit, and font. Let us never allow our communion with God, or if you prefer, our "relationship with Jesus," to become nothing more than "going through the motions."

--- Rev. Larry Beane


Sue said...

Thank your for your thoughtful insights. It makes me want to go back in time for a do-over with my kids! But also, it gives me great thoughts to ponder, and will help me in discipling people around me, including those now-grown kids (one never goes to church but says he still believes).

George and Colleen said...

In NY we have a similar situation to you -- a Catholic-dominated religious culture. I agree with what you say wholeheartedly. In fact, I was raised non-denominationally (or perhaps pan-denominationally). What many people who were raised in a sacramental church who convert to "evangelical" protestantism do is focus on their new life as a believer (by which they mean good works) over against those dead religious ceremonies (sacraments, etc.).

I too am happy for them that something about the gospel clicked for them, but very sad to see many become works-righteous, often self-righteous, people. It's very hard for them to look at a Lutheran, much less a Catholic, and see a Christian. They often assume that if you haven't left the spiritually dead church you're in, that you're one breath away from damnation -- all the more if you have a beer in your fridge.

That's my 2 cents.


Kelly Klages said...

Excellent points throughout.