“About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they’re just one thing.” – Joan of Arc
Have you ever been burned by someone?
What does that feel like?
Betrayal? Crushing pain? Confusion and lost in a fog?
We call it a “burn” since it sears into our soul like a brand oppressing our whole humanity. We hurt in the aftermath. We flinch when that wound is touched. Our whole world is set ablaze, and we hope for the seeds of new life to grow among the charred trees and barren land.
Isn’t that how our spiritual life can feel after being burned by a church? We want to see growth like we once did, but all we see is the crumbling charcoal and abandoned ash blowing in the wind.
It isn’t surprising how much our spiritual life affects our physical life. They are interconnected. What happens in the hallowed halls of worship makes communion with our vocation, family, and friends.
The church can affect a soul. Either it is a balm of healing and growth, or it is third-degree burn blistering the skin healing into a mangled scar.
How can a place built on the sacrificial love of Jesus now be a place of pain, broken relationships, and so much hurt?
Let me take you to church…
Bound in blindness
A man came to Jesus asking what he needed to do in order to obtain eternal life. Jesus ask the man, “What is written in the law?” The myriad of moments in the synagogue flash before the man’s eyes. “The law says to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. Second is to love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus congratulates the man on his sound answer. Question and answer time over. Yet, the man asks one more question.
“Who is my neighbor?”
This starts the parable Jesus tells in Luke 10:25-37. We all know this story so well that we could tell it in our sleep; dreaming of the felt-board characters that illustrate the parable. However, how well do we know this story? Think about Christmas. Many children are told the story of Santa Claus over and over again till many of letters to Santa are sent out and visits to mall Santas are traditionally accomplished. A simple fairy tale can change a child’s whole world. Yet, does Christ’s parable change us in the same way?
A man is beaten, robbed, and left for dead. Two religious leaders show up. They pass by not wanting to get involved. Eyes go up, eyes go down, eyes go to the other side of the road. They couldn’t be bothered with anything else than where they were going and their lists of things to do.
How many of us have presented a need to the church or to other believers only to be passed by? How many of us have given hours to the church hoping for relief of the need we carry only to be passed by? It is like we are Blind Bartimaeus calling out for Jesus to heal us, but we are told to shut up
(Mark 10:46-52). Our needs silenced for the need to let the procession of worship walk on the other side
We do a better job training our eyes to avoid people’s needs than not looking at Victoria Secret when we go to the mall. We are bound in blindness to others crying out to us for help.
How did Jesus respond when his name was called? Did he turn Blind Bartimaeus away? Was his schedule to full for the children? Was he too grossed out to be anointed by a sinful woman? Are we too focused on avoiding Victoria Secret that we have become blind to the needs around us?
Holding back tears, your friend leads you to a quiet corner after the church service. Something is weighing on their mind. Fidgeting fingers, flinching facial expressions, and uneasy eyes dart around the room. After many breaths, your friend reveals a burden they carry every hour of the day. They tell about their struggles and pain. They come to you to lean on you.
A woman approached Jesus in the same manner (Luke 7:36-50). Weighed down, she could only muster enough strength to worship and plead at the feet of Jesus. Her eyes couldn’t even be lifted to his. And what does the religious leader say about this woman, “Doesn’t Jesus know who she is? He wouldn’t let her even touch him if he knew how much of a sinner she is!”
Two men go into the synagogue to pray (Luke 18:9-14). One man stands with his shameful head hung. He can’t even look up to his Creator. He begs for mercy as the weight of his sin causes him to punish himself by beating his chest. The other man, a religious leader, looks over at this “spectacle,” and thanks God that he is not like that man over there.
How do we react to those who reveal a burden to us? Have we told the church, saying things like, “Do you know about what they struggle with? I wouldn’t want them serving here,” or “That was a great sermon. I am so glad they were here. This matches up with their struggle,” or “We need to pray for them. This is what they struggle with. Let’s pray for them.” What is really being said is, “I am so glad I am not like that person. If the church knew who they really were, then that person wouldn’t be serving or being helped.”
The burdens offered to us to bear are betrayed and paraded like prisoners of war taken captive. People tell us our sins, and we sharpen our knives. We paint ourselves disguised with Galatians 6:1-2, but we betray our brothers and sisters with a kiss condemning them since they are truly not like us.
Yet, in both stories, what happened to the man and the woman? Both left forgiven and healed. They left with no guilt or shame. The Savior shouldered their burdens all the way to the cross for their forgiveness and restoration.
What are we doing with the burdens brought before us?
Beaten to bended knee
One thing that separates Christians from all other religions is the view of what needs to be done to get to heaven. In Jesus Christ, it is to believe and call on his name. In other religions, lists of duties plague followers.
Jesus came to fulfill the law, establish a covenant of grace, and free us. We sing and praise God for this. But, is this the reality we lead others into?
In Matthew 23:1-36, Jesus calls out the religious leaders. In New Testament times, the Pharisees had set up rules, regulations, and standards to be followed. When they said jump. The people jumped. They were treated like Pavlov’s dogs- conditioned to see their relationship with God as an obstacle course to be scored by their religious judges. Jesus condemned this. Jesus says in Matthew 23:4 the Religious Leaders tie people down with heavy loads like pack mules when they couldn’t lift a finger to do the same.
When someone comes to Christ or makes a spiritual decision, how do we treat them? Does accountability turn into score card of how well they meet our standards? Do we turn them into a dog worshipping at the shrine of our self-made rules loosely based on Scripture?
The outfit must be right, the Bible translation used must be correct, the image polished, and on and on the demands are burdened onto a person. In reality, our relationship with God is between us and God where our Father sees our true heart (Matthew 6:1-18). We need to encourage that relationship in the secret place even if it looks different than ours.
Healing the burns
We might reach the end of this post thinking this is just over-dramatized. Yet, how many people have left the church telling of their pain relating to a least one of these things above? How many of us, still apart of a church, have been burnt in at least one of these ways? Or how many times have we changed churches, because of how a church treated us?
We need to get back to Colossians 1:18 – Christ is the head of the church.
This means Jesus is the face of the church. When people think of the church, they should think of Christ. Joan of Arc was right when she said that Jesus and the church are the same thing. How Jesus acted, the church should act. How Jesus responded, the church should do the same. Yet, is that what happens? I agree, the church is full of sinners. However, we are redeemed sinners.
So what has happened?
We have sacrificed Christ’s love on the altar of our man-made, holy image. We exchange God’s love extending to others for graven images to worship – our own image. The church has become the altar to our image, and we will sacrifice all of Christ’s love if it means keeping our reputation, our standing with others, and how good we are perceived as Christians.
We are called to be a holy people by a holy God. Holy means to be set apart. How is God set apart? He is set apart by his unique, unconditional love for us. That is what he calls us to as we become holy.
Isn’t it time we sacrifice our image on the altar of Christ’s love?