Wednesday, May 29, 2013

History Ain't Pretty

Dear Friends,

How on earth did we get from the first century church service to what our services look like today? From those first organic lay-led services to the pageantry, brightly-colored vestments, glitter of the formal liturgical church and the sensory-driven concert style of some mega-churches with a celebrity pastor giving a brief motivational talk? Let’s see how our church service evolved:

As the church became structured and organized, the simple, first century service that our fictitious Jacob and Chloe worshiped in was soon to be changed. Many of us would call this the decline of the church.

The first stage of decline was to sup-press the spiritual gifts of the laity and teach that the Holy Spirit gave spiritual gifts only to the ordained. In the early church, bishops and elders (presbyters) had been equals, and in the second stage of decline, bishops were elevated above all others. The third stage of decline was to give bishops the status of high priest who now had spiritual power over the laity. By then the church had efficiently demolished the Apostle Peter’s “priesthood of all believers.”

The church had effectively kicked the teachings of the apostles to the curb and reorganized itself to once again resemble the Old Testament hierarchy. Like the “high priest,” the bishop now determined if ones sins were forgiven or retained.

The once persecuted Christian church became the state church in 388 A.D. and was now deeply inter-twined with politics. Bishops and ordained priests were often political appointments and many had no previous church experience. Formal liturgy was developed to give them a script to read in the services. While there is no historical evidence for  “apostolic succession,” that doctrine was created to justify the spiritual authority of the bishops.

Pharisutical rules were now in place requiring that a Christian had to have recently confessed his sins to a priest and received absolution before he could take communion. Many took communion only once a year or not at all. The Eucharist service had evolved from a celebration of Christ in the company of believers to a priest often taking communion alone.

The Roman Church now became focused on amassing great wealth and while the Apostle’s teaching of giving generously had been followed throughout the New Testament church, voluntary giving was no longer deemed to be sufficient. In 585 A.D. a regional church council reestablished the Old Testament practice of tithing and a decree to excommunicate those who didn't tithe. This decree was soon made church law by the Roman church who additionally refused to administer last rites if it had not been given wealth or land in the will of the dying. If our Jacob Bar-Jonah and Chloe saw what their church had evolved into, they would have been truly heart-broken. I’m sure Jesus was.

The effort of Martin Luther and others to reform the church back to the earliest days didn't work. Some of the Roman Church doctrine was stripped away but the new Protestant church was still a long way from the organic church of the first century.

What is your reaction to the history of the Christian church? Did the church evolve to the glory of God or the glory of man? Now, think about the different church traditions today – what the interior spaces look like... the liturgy... the pageantry... the music... the fellowship. And then compare our Christian traditions today with the ancient New Testament church. Has the church been “reformed” enough  or should the church continue to reform ourselves back to the ancient church? What do you think?

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Wired for Worship

Dear Friends,

When I was doing my study on the Apostle Andrew, I found that in 1964, his head had been a thoughtful gift from Pope Paul VI to a Greek Orthodox church in Patras, Greece. Andrew’s bones have been distributed as relics to other churches who claim Andrew as their patron saint. Relics are typically a body-part of a saint and their presence consecrates (makes holy) a Catholic or Orthodox church. The faithful are to venerate the relics meaning they bow down before them and revere them with ritual actions. Church teaching is that when you venerate a relic, “..many benefits are bestowed by God on men.” In actual practice, there is no real difference between “venerating” and “worshiping” and the worship of human relics is practiced by many Christian and non-Christian religions. It doesn’t seem to matter if we’re Christian or pagan. We all have this intrinsic need to worship something or someone.

In the early days of Hollywood, movie stars and singers were described as “goddesses” and “gods” with spellbinding power over their audiences. If you’re of my generation, you might remember hysterical, screaming girls watching the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show. If you’re younger than me and can’t relate to the worship of John, Paul, George and Ringo, think of the young girls (and their mothers) hysterically screaming at Justin Bieber concerts. Nothing has changed but the names and faces of the celebrities we worship.

We even collect their relics with the same fervor as the early Christians sought the relics of saints. In 2002, a former barber of Elvis Presley sold a clump of the singer’s hair for $115,000. A lock of Justin Bieber’s hair was a comparative bargain at only $40,668. A piece of bubble gum chewed by Britney Spears recently sold for $160. And a tissue used by actress Scarlett Johansson went for $5,300. If I were a famous celebrity, I’d do a fund-raiser for our church. I’m pretty sure that my old, used toothbrush would be worth at least $25,000.

We are wired for worship. It’s in our DNA. That’s why we have that intrinsic desire to worship something or someone. Yet, only someOne can truly satisfy that desire. Blaise Pascal, a famous French mathematician and philosopher, put it like this: "There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God the Creator, made known through Jesus Christ." If we try to stuff anything but God into that God-shaped hole in our lives, we'll end up dissatisfied, restless, and  discontent. But when we fill that God-shaped hole with God, we will always find the peace and contentment that we had been seeking all along.

Listen now to the Apostle Paul debating in Athens with the philosophers and polytheists  about God: "Men of Athens, I notice that you are very religious in every way, 23 for as I was walking along I saw your many shrines. And one of your altars had this inscription on it: 'To an Unknown God.' This God, whom you worship without knowing, is the one I'm telling you about. 24 "He is the God who made the world and everything in it. Since He is Lord of heaven and earth, He doesn't live in man-made temples,27 "His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward Him and find Him –though He is not far from any one of us. (Acts 17:22b-24,27 NLT)

Paul told them that God does not live in temples, He lives in our hearts. In the 4th century, a bishop named Augustine wrote, “Lord, You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find You.” We have an emptiness inside us. An aching loneliness without God. A restless search for something to fill that void. We try to fill that void with unbiblical religions, drugs, alcohol, parties, material things and other people. And we remain empty and find ourselves restlessly seeking... 

Only the one true God clicks into that God-shaped void. And when that happens, our search is over and our worship is for Him and Him alone!  Amen?