Unpackaged

I have been assigned the daunting task to follow an article written by my friend Kiddo Cosio, Holy
Whore. 
The piece is great and in many ways articulates several of the same frustrations I have had and plays out some mental dilemmas I have been caught in myself. I think Kiddo’s article and mine go hand in hand. If you have not read it yet, please read it now and come back to this one. I’ll wait. I have no place to go.

– Martin

A few months ago, while on a trip to Seattle, I got very ill. My cousin went out to get medicine and left me in her apartment with my five-year-old nephew. I was sprawled out on the couch attempting to watch the Dave Matthews Band concert that had just come on (in HD, no less) when my nephew came up behind me, shook me and asked if I wanted to play a game. You’d have to meet this kid to understand what I mean, but I just couldn’t say no. I cut Carter Beauford and crew off right in the middle of “Jimi Thing”. He went to his room to retrieve the game of his choice and returned smiling with a board game called “Trouble”. I vaguely remembered the game from my childhood, but not enough to play, so my nephew gave me a brief refresher of the rules.

The game began, and to my dismay, I started to lose – to a five year old! Of course, “Trouble” doesn’t really utilize the experience and education that I’ve amassed in the 25 years that I lived before he was born, but oddly enough I felt bad about losing to a five year old (sad, I know). So I focus, because this was important. Just when I felt that victory was in sight, my nephew rolls the dice and lands on my piece and informs me that I have to send my piece back to the start. This was not one of the rules he had told me about at the beginning.

So I asked him, “Are you sure that’s in the rules?”

He walked around the couch, found the box of the game and emerged from behind the couch smiling from ear to ear. He handed me the instructions, which confirmed that I had to go back to the beginning and start all over again. Needless to say, he won the game.

This is a lot like our journey of faith. It is a long and meandering road, a process sometimes with very little logic. You start off slow, and then as you learn a little more about it, you pick up the pace. Then, just when you think you have it all figured out, something lands on you and sends you back to where you were when you started.

For some of us, that “something” was a death in the family that made you question your faith. For others, it was a relationship that went bad or parents that didn’t live up to their responsibility as parents. It may even have been something more dark and sinister. And for many others, more than I care to count, it was the church itself that took them in the opposite direction.

When we started Church Simplified over three years ago, we had all of these people in mind. We wanted people (most of whom were our friends) who would never set foot in a “church” to join us on our journey.

We’ve said it many times before – so many times, in fact, that we posted it on our website:

We believe that faith is a journey, one that everybody is on, regardless of what they do or do not believe and that everyone is at a different stage of that journey. We are intensely relational because we believe that this journey is not one to be undertaken alone, not least of all because that’s not how God designed us. We need each other.

 

As far as we can tell from the scriptures, the first time Jesus uses the word “church” was in the book of Matthew. Jesus is having a conversation with Peter and asks him,

“Who do you say that I am?”

Peter answers, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…”

Without getting too technical, the word Jesus uses for “church” means “an assembly of people”. And the “rock” that Jesus was talking about was the concept that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah.

The essence of what Jesus was saying was that the foundation of the people or His church, is the belief that Jesus is the Son of God – that’s it. There was no talk of institutions, denominations, rituals or even a religion – just “a gathering of people” who were like-minded in what they believed about Jesus.

The Coca Cola Company has been in the press recently because media has reported that the Coke’s secret recipe has been discovered in the old journals of the original inventor of the formula. This was particularly newsworthy because it had been said that Coke guarded this recipe so tightly that only a handful of people knew the actual secret recipe and that no one person knew the entire recipe. For many years, the Coca Cola Company had a mission. Put simply, that mission was “to put a Coke in the hands of every person”. All over the world, Coke is sold in cans, small cans, big bottles, little bottles, glass bottles, plastic bottles, six packs, twelve packs, on palates, and even in plastic bags (on the streets of Jakarta and Manila). However, regardless of the packaging, the content is the same – Coke’s secret recipe reproduced to perfection – and Coca Cola does not care what package you buy, as long as you are drinking a Coke.

Institutions, denominations, religions, and rituals, are an evolution of Jesus’ original concept, created and engineered by people. I believe that originally these were all meant to point people to Jesus, but somewhere along the way, the essence dissipated amid the pomp and circumstance. In the end, it is all just packaging.

Let me make something clear, I don’t have a problem with any of that – what other denominations look like, or how another institution is structured, nor with the rituals they perform. And I don’t care HOW you do church – as long as it reflects Jesus and still points people to Him.

There’s a quote by Mohandas Ghandi that is quite possibly the biggest indictment on the church as a whole. He said:

I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your
Christ.

I’ve met the Christians that he is talking about. I know that at times, I have been guilty of being one of those Christians. What he is saying is that the product of our institutions, our religions, our denominations, and our rituals does not reflect Jesus. How sad is that?

Let us get this clear. WE are the church – Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, Pentecostals, all of us who believe that Jesus is who he says he is. We are all in the same boat.

Truth be told, we are failing miserably at pointing people toward Jesus. We can all do better. We can all be better.

Maybe Augustine was right. The institution of church is a whore, or more accurately perhaps, acts like a whore at times. Maybe he is right to say that the institution has been dirtied by generations of people, who have used the church for their own purposes, forgetting or ignoring God’s purpose for His church. And God’s church, the fellowship of believers whom Jesus calls his bride throughout scripture, maybe the same can be said of each one of us…

Left to our own devices, we sin, and we sin constantly.

So I thank God every day for Jesus, who took all of our sin upon Himself on the cross.

I thank God that my sins died with Jesus that day and that God has graciously allowed me to be a part of Jesus’ resurrection and has spared me from the penalty of my own sin, which is death.

I thank God that in spite of our dirty, ugly and reprehensible sins, innumerable especially when aggregated across His entire church, God does not keep count of them, forgives and forgets our sins and loves us, as whorish as we may be. In His eyes, we are and will always be His spotless bride – not a whore.