Sunday, September 8, 2013
Sermon: Membership Class
James Sledge September 8, 2013
Next Sunday we begin a new worship schedule and Christian Education activities resume. The beginning of a new program year means the start of a new Confirmation Class, and we’ll have a New Member Class later in the fall as well.
Classes for confirmation or new members have some similarities. In a way, both are about what it means to be an active, participant in the Jesus movement as that is lived out at Falls Church Presbyterian. At their conclusion, many in both classes will decide whether or not to “join,” to make a profession of faith, perhaps be baptized, and promise to be a faithful disciple here.
Given this, now would seem a perfect time to share with potential confirmands and members some of Jesus’ thoughts on joining him. In our gospel reading, a crowd is following along with Jesus. They are clearly intrigued. They’ve signed the “Friendship Pad” and checked that they are interested in membership. Jesus says to them, “If you don’t hate your mother and father, your siblings, your spouse and children, and even your own life, you can’t come with me. If you don’t carry your own cross and go wherever I go, you can’t come with me. If you don’t give up all your possessions, you can’t come with me.”
If you’ve spent much time in Presbyterian congregations, or just about any other Mainline group such as the Methodist, Lutherans, UCC, or Episcopalians, then you are likely familiar with our focus on membership. We urge people to “join,” and so we have lots more members than people here on the typical Sunday. For us a bit over half of our approximately 500 members attend on a given Sunday, a larger percentage that many Presbyterian churches.
But when you move out of Mainline denominations, you find different patterns. I had a couple of seminary classmates from Assemblies of God congregations, and I was surprised to learn that their Sunday worship attendance far exceeded their membership. One of the congregations had around 800 people in worship, but they only 250 or so members.
In these congregations, you didn’t join in order to affiliate in some way. If you just wanted to come on Sunday, attend worship, give a little money, and perhaps go to a class, you weren’t expected to join. Joining was a step beyond that, a more serious commitment. In some ways this fits with the distinction Jesus makes between crowds that are interested and want to hear what he says and those who are actually ready to go with him.
One of the unfortunate pieces of our Presbyterian heritage is an understanding of membership acquired in the era of cultural Christianity. In the day when church affiliation was an expected element of citizenship, Presbyterian and other Mainline congregations were the churches of choice, and we were happy to have you affiliate with us. Expectations were minimal. An oft quoted one is “Attend at least once a year, or give money. And unless you specifically requested it, it was hard to get taken off our membership rolls, never mind what Jesus or our own denominational rules said.
Jesus, by the way, never talked about membership, though he did talk a lot about discipleship, about following him. He says that all are welcome, and nothing can disqualify you from becoming a part of God’s new realm. He says that God is never happier than when a sinner comes into the fold. But if no one is turned away, and the worst sort of folks are welcomed with open arms, there is still no question but that following Jesus means a total reevaluation of priorities and loyalties.
The bit about hating your family and your own life is a colorful, Semitic way of saying that loving Jesus and the new family formed by those who follow him must take precedence over all other relationships. But the part about crosses and possessions is more straight forward. To follow Jesus is to encounter difficulty and even suffering that could be avoided by not following him. And our things, our stuff, personal comforts, and the careers, ambitions, and lifestyles that accompany them, are all huge obstacles to following Jesus.
We live in a consumer culture, and we’ve been thoroughly schooled in its ways. The way life gets better is to add things to it: cars, homes, and possessions. Events, activities, and experiences are consumer items as well, added to make our lives fuller and more meaningful. Religion and spirituality are on this list, experiences we add to uplift or enhance our lives.
But then Jesus comes along and says we’ve got it all wrong. Following him requires some subtraction, some hard calculations to figure out whether or not we’re actually able to be his disciples. Jesus is not being hard on us. He just wants us to know what we’re signing up for.
Jesus wants to disabuse us of the idea that he came to give us another consumer item or to create a new list of members, of religious insiders. He came to change the world, to get it ready for God’s new day, and to make us a part of that. But changing the world is dangerous and difficult work. Just ask Martin Luther King, Jr, Nelson Mandela, Bishop Oscar Romera, Aung San Suu Kyi, Benazir Bhutto, or Mahatma Gandhi. And of course Jesus. He’s well aware that such work will get him killed.
A lot of us aren’t ready to sign up for such work, and Jesus is kind enough to warn us in advance. We in the institutional church have tried to turn Christianity into something you can simply join or affiliate with, but Jesus just won’t go along. He keeps calling us to something more, something bigger and greater and more meaningful, but also more difficult, which is why Jesus probably would have made a terrible church pastor. Speaking of which, I think the ending of that sermon by Barbara Brown gets it just right.
He may not have made a good parish minister, but he made a very good savior, and I do not think he is through saving us yet. His best tool has always been the very thing that killed him—that cross he ended up on—the one he was carrying long before he got to Golgotha. He is always offering to share it with us, to let us get underneath it with him. Not, I think, because he wants us to suffer but because he wants us to know how alive you can feel even underneath something that heavy and how it can take your breath away to get hold of your one true necessity. Even suffering itself pales next to what God is doing through it, through you, because you are willing to put yourself in the way.
It is not for everyone. That is clearly what he is telling us. There are not a lot of people who have what it takes to shoulder the cross, but I do not think that means the rest of us are lost. It is for the rest of us—the weak ones—that he took its weight upon himself. If we cannot help him carry it, he will carry us too. I think he just wants us not to take it for granted. I think he just wants us to know what it costs.