Sunday, June 04, 2006

Tangled Up in Cults

The church is a many splendoured thing. Its diversity is as colourful and surprising as the human beings whom the Holy Spirit has brought together.

The name of Jesus can be praised in any language, with any instrument to any rhythm in any time zone. God has given this throng of redeemed sinners the task of going out into every nation and making disciples, baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey the teachings of Jesus.

This is an incredible commission. In this process we immediately come into contact with people of different religions. We shouldn’t be surprised that people who have never held a bible still feel amazed at the sacred, appalled by sin and in need of salvation.

Paul tells us at the start of his letter to the Romans: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”

The message of Christ is one of liberation - that the God we instinctively fear in fact loves us and sent his own son to die to break down the barriers that kept us from him. But one of the tragic quirks of the church is we periodically bind ourselves in chains once again.

We complicate this simple proclamation of freedom with new rules and bizarre mythology. Instead of building a church that strives to be united in love, we plant competing cults.

There are two key characteristics of a cult. One is that they promise closer access to God - a secret truth about which the rest of the world and the church is woefully ignorant. The second is instead of being a blessing to the world they turn inwards, shunning contact with outsiders as they follow their own rules and regulations.

We should not be surprised that this happens. One of the most spectacular moments in the Old Testament - and history - is when God meets Moses on Mount Sinai and gives him the tablets on which are written the Ten Commandments. In the time it takes Moses to climb the mountain, the Israelites decide to abandon his leadership and worship a golden cow instead.

To celebrate their new deity they stage a mass orgy. Bad theology and bad lifestyles often go together. But it’s also possible to score great marks in one category and be disastrous in the other. The reformers talked about the importance of matching orthodoxy with orthopraxy - literally, right practice.

In Revelation chapter 2, John has a vision of the resurrected Jesus in which he dictates a message to the Christians in Ephesus. He praises them for identifying false preachers and persevering, but then gives the stern warning: “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first.”

When we think and talk about cults its easy to get distracted by tales of wild beliefs about space battles and vanished empires, but at heart what is happening is that people are being led away from an adventure of true cosmic significance. Cults may promise to bring people hidden knowledge, but God reveals himself when we follow him as he redeems the world he loves.

Jesus himself declared in Luke 8: “No-one lights a lamp and hides it in a jar or puts it under a bed. Instead, he puts it on a stand, so that those who come in can see the light. For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open.”

A church filled with the Holy Spirit is filled with a deep joy. It is the rejoicing that happens when humans begin to know fellowship with their Creator. When take place, a fear of accidentally sinning and displeasing a vengeful God is replaced with a new delight in the wonders of his creation.

Jesus said in John 10: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

And Paul, writing in his first letter to Timothy, a young Christian leaders, said, “The spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come though hypocritical liars whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything created is good and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.”

We associate sinfulness with hedonism and self-indulgence, but the church is constant danger of having its joy snuffed out. The adversaries of God would like nothing more than for congregations to consist of fearful men and women, wracked with guilt, sitting in cold buildings doubting that their sins are forgiven.

A paramount task of a church leader is to help his flock “grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge”.

Fulfilling this calling requires vigilance. We read in Acts 20 that when Paul said goodbye to the elders of Ephesus he told them: “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave savage wolves will come among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number, men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard.”

Leaders have the task of protecting the individuals who make up the body of Christ on earth. But unlike so many religions, they do not have special access to God and his revelation which sets them apart from the rest of the congregation. Rather, everyone who accepts the message of Jesus is united by the indwelling Holy Spirit. In short, a roomful of Christians is a roomful of priests.

The apostle Peter wrote: “[You] are a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” God created the concept of a priest when he chose Levi and his descendents as the Israelites who could draw close into his presence.

He explains in verses five and six of Malachi chapter two: “My covenant was with him, a covenant of life and peace, and I gave them to him; this called for reverence and he revered me and stood in awe of my name. True instruction was in his mouth and nothing false was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and righteousness and turned many from sin.”

There are echoes here of walking with God in Eden. The Fall of Adam tore the Creator and his creation apart, but in the priesthood a handful of humans began to lead lives which hinted at the intimacy the world might once have known.

Today the invitation to join this priesthood has been thrown open to the world. This is a message more exciting than any offered by any cult. No neo-guru could dream up so fantastic a proclamation.

When Christians gather together an event takes place as amazing as the one which happened on the summit of Sinai. Where just two or three gather in the name of Jesus, he comes to join them.

Just as Levi and his descendents witnessed to God’s revelation in times of plenty and days of famine, in eras of war and ages of peace, so, too, we are entrusted with a mission of honour and urgency.

Paul told the Romans: “[He] has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

What are the duties that God requires of his new priesthood? What rites and ritual does he ask us to perform? How does he want his dress and where does he wish us to worship? What type of building should we put up?

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus said: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

The simplicity of this instruction is devastating and beautiful. We’re not asked to wear a special talisman, smoke a mystic herb or travel to a destination. Instead, we are told to do something much more difficult: love.

Enlightenment and a place in the next life do not come through entering a trance or living the life of a hermit. Quite the opposite.

Jesus tells us in Matthew 25: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats... Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me... I tell you the truth whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’”

If we want to see God’s power up close, we should go to where he is working. Priests are not pious folk hidden from the world behind heavy doors. They are at the vanguard of a revolution.

As estrangement from God ends, so does estrangement with each other. Peace and righteousness break out. As people turn from sin, they turn to the needs of one another. But just as the serpent sowed chaos in Eden, even the most religious people are capable of giving into temptation, of chasing opportunities for personal wealth and exploiting the most vulnerable in their care. If a priest is now someone who leads people into the presence of God, there is the real danger that through our selfish stupidity we can become anti-priests.

A third mark of most cults is a founder whose is idealised and glorified. Even congregations which have splendid statements of faith can be shipwrecked by autocratic bullies who start to legislate about the minute details of their followers lives. How can we avoid such pitfalls?

As ever, Jesus has brilliant advice. In Matthew 20 he tells the disciples: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave - just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus fastidiously avoided the trappings of religious office. He had no time for grand titles of outlandish costumes. When a rich young man addressed him as “good teacher” in Mark 10 he retorted: “Why do you call me good? No-one is good except God alone.”

In one of his last acts before the crucifixion he washed the feet of his disciples - the same feet with which they would run away from him that same night.

He said, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now if you know these things you will be blessed if you do them.”

The wisdom of Jesus is greater than the most complex management theory. He understands our weaknesses in every nuance, and knows that no acid can corrupt or corrode like power and pride.

CS Lewis writes: “Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.”

In Malachi, God tells the priests: ”[Set] your heart to honour my name”. How can we do this? Prayer and meditation play a huge part, but so do practical steps to avoiding the temptations of wealth and adulation that can distract our attention from the true author of our lives.

Jesus’ advice to the rich young man was to sell everything he had and give it to the poor. James would later write: “Religion that God our father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

If a congregation commits with passion to following such a faith it is unlikely to mutate into a cult. Instead, the dreams buried deep in the hearts of humans - the God-planted longing for true liberty and fraternity - might just begin to bear fruit.

As the writer of Hebrews said, “[Let] us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus...”

If we have the chance to see Jesus, where else would we want to look?


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