Thursday, April 11, 2013

Conversion and the Other

Perhaps because individualism is such a big part of the American ethos, American Christianity is often highly individualistic. Yes, people come together in church congregations for worship, fellowship, mission, and community. But faith and salvation are often understood in a very personal, even private sort of way. In the stereotyped version of this, I am saved because of my interior, personal disposition toward Jesus. No other person required.

This stands in rather stark contrast to the biblical witness. Certainly scripture shows a personal encounter with God in Christ, but it does so in a very corporate context. Some of the conversions reported in the book of Acts speak of a person's entire household being saved. This includes spouse, children, in-laws, servants, and slaves. Many of these people made no personal decision. They simply found themselves caught up in a corporate salvation event.

The gospel reading for today does not feature conversions, but it does speak of repentance, of turning toward God and being forgiven. But when John the Baptist speaks to those coming to him for baptism, he insists that their repentance doesn't count for much without a corporate element.

Every one of the "fruits worthy of repentance" that John describes is about others, about helping them or refusing to harm them. And this should hardly surprise us. Today's reading is part of Jesus' story, the same Jesus who cannot separate love of  God from love of neighbor. For John the Baptist and for Jesus, faith may be personal, but it is never individualist. It never exists apart from the Other.

I've recently been inspired by a colleague, Steve Lindsley, to preach a sermon series based, in part, on a book titled Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations. And just this moment it struck me that all but one of the practices are directed away from self. Passionate Worship is directed toward God. Extravagant Generosity is toward God and others, and Radical Hospitality and Risk-Taking Mission and Service are directed toward other people. Only Intentional Faith Development has a prominent inward focus.

Most all of us have heard people speak of "going to church." And indeed that describes the primary activity that sometimes marks individualistic, American Christianity. Much like going to the movies, people go to church and get something that they like, that makes them feel better, etc. But John and Jesus keep asking us, "What about the Other?"

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

No comments:

Post a Comment