When I arrived at church last week for Easter Sunday the parking lot was, as expected, jam packed with cars.
Like the parking lot, the sanctuary was stuffed full of people for both services. We had almost twice as many people in attendance as we would for a “regular” Sunday.
When I arrived at church this past Sunday the scene was noticeably different.
The parking lot was not nearly as full. When it came time for service to start the sanctuary was half empty at the first service and even more desolate at the second service.
Now, you may be thinking to yourself, “Duh. Thank you Zack for stating the obvious. There are always more people at church on Easter Sunday than any other day.”
While I am keenly aware of that fact, the stark contrast between Easter and the Sunday after (or the previous Sunday) really got me to thinking this year.
If church attendance isn’t a priority throughout the rest of the year, why do so many of us make such an effort to be there on Easter Sunday or any other high church holiday for that matter?
I’m sure some of it cultural and/or tied to family traditions. We like getting dressed up in new clothes and we figure we can make our parents or grandparents happy at least once during the year so that they won’t forget about us come Christmas time.
However, I think the spike in church attendance, followed by the sudden plummet, is more about a sense of obligation and, I would argue, our faith in checklist Christianity.
To be honest, I think a lot of us are just trying to pull a fast one over on Jesus.
Sure, there are many more of us in the church that go to Sunday worship on a regular, or at least somewhat regular basis, but our time in between Sunday mornings often times isn’t that different than the time our cohorts pass between their annual church visits.
For many of us, church attendance is a box we need to check off in order to call ourselves “Chrisitan” and, therefore, get our golden ticket into heaven. By showing up for church, or paying our tithe, or going to Sunday School, or participating in a whole host of other church related activities we think we can get our passport stamped for eternity.
Worse yet, I think we have convinced ourselves that when we do these things Jesus is somehow obligated to give us that golden ticket into heaven. In other words, we seem to have this sense that Jesus is contractually obligated to dole out eternal life to anyone who can check “yes” to a list of boxes on the “Are You A Christian?’ questionnaire.So, we seem to reckon, if we check off several of those boxes, i.e. “I go to church”, “I tithe”, “I believe in the historical reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection”, then we can distract Jesus from looking at how we live the rest of our lives and force him to give us credit for those handful of times when we did what we were “supposed to do”.
In other words, we think we can pull a fast one over on Jesus.
As absurd as that may sound, I am convinced that is exactly how most of us go about living the Christian life. We’ve deceived ourselves into think that Christianity is simply about the bottom line: believe the right things, say the right prayer, go to church a few times, and you automatically get into heaven.
The reality of the situation is that Jesus had some very tough things to say to all of us who claim to be Christian.
In Matthew 7, Jesus says some of the scariest words in the entire Bible,
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”
Jesus is not speaking here about ‘eternal security‘. What Jesus is warning us about is the absurdity of thinking we can somehow fool him into thinking we are truly his disciples. We may want to believe in a “let’s hold hands, sit by the campfire, and sing kumbaya with everyone” Jesus who doesn’t judge anyone or hold anyone accountable for their actions or lack thereof, but the Jesus we encounter in the gospels is one for whom discipleship means dropping our nets and leaving everything behind to follow him. Not just once a week or on special days throughout the year, but every waking moment of our lives.
Obviously that is not easy, and many times we will fail, but Jesus’ call is not to instant perfection. It’s a call to follow, completely and without abandon.
As should be expected when we frame our relationship with Jesus in contractual terms, we like to give ourselves (and others, although, by extending them this pseudo-grace we’re really just trying to ensure we get a piece of the grace pie too) an out in this calling. We like to borrow from the prophet Samuel and play the “God looks at our heart” card. In other words, while we may not actually live the Christian life in any way that is recognizable to anyone else, all that matters is “what’s in our heart.”
We want to believe that somehow our actions are divorced from what is in our heart or what we “really” believe. While there are certainly times in life when we “do the things we do not want to do,” that is not the sort of divorce I am talking about. I’m talking about how we deceive ourselves into thinking that our actions (or inaction) are not reflective of what is actually in our hearts. To put a spin on an old cliche, your walk is your talk.
What you do, where you spend your time, how you interact with others, that is who you really are. That is what you really believe. We can cry out otherwise until we’re blue in the face, but I can claim to play for the Atlanta Braves all I want and unless hell freezes over, I suddenly learn how to hit a curve ball, and step onto Turner Field wearing a Braves uniform, then I’m just fooling myself.
Here, though, is where the real irony comes in to our checklist Christianity.
Let’s assume for the sake of the argument, that Jesus falls for our checklist con and lets us into heaven. If the appeal of Christianity was a cheap grace that freed us from having to serve other or live in community, then once we enter through those pearly gates, we will discover very quickly that heaven is in fact our own personal hell.
You see, if we don’t like belonging to a community of faith or doing the serve your neighbor stuff now, we’re going to hate heaven. It’s not the private playground of enormous mansions and gold plated swimming pools that many of us picture in our imagination. It’s the ultimate community where people live in unity, love, and service to one another and with the God whose very being is the definition of that relational community.
So, if you don’t want to be a very real part of that community now, you won’t want to be a part of that very real community in heaven for eternity
To make a long story just a bit longer, I think if the Sunday after Easter has anything to teach us it’s that we either don’t understand how the Christian life works or we’re more selfish and self-centered than we want to admit. We may claim otherwise, but we don’t really love Jesus and his gospel, at least not the Jesus and the gospel found in the Bible. We’re all about the personal relationship, Jesus in your heart, all you have to do is believe is and maybe be generally nice to a few people sort of Christianity, but the type of costly discipleship that costs us every moment of our lives isn’t something we’re willing to commit to.
The truth, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer so eloquently reminds us, is that grace is not cheap. It’s not something Jesus doles out because we’ve checked off a few boxes and it’s certainly not something he gives out because he has to.
God gives grace because God chooses to and while God extends that grace to all, it is costly grace….
“Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God. “
Simply put, we cannot pull a fast one on Jesus. And even if we could, we would not like what is waiting for us on the other side. For the calling of the Christian life is not a contract whose terms we must meet in order to gain our reward. The calling of the Christian life is an invitation to participate in a community where other’s needs are put before our own, where the weak are considered strong, where the last find their place at the front of the line, and where “I” and “me” are lost in “we”.
Grace and peace,