By Monte Sahlin
A paragraph from a recent article in Christianity Today by recently retired editor David Neff caught my eye. I think this is particularly interesting in view of the reactions to a number of statements by the new Catholic pope.
Reflecting on the fact that early Christians were clear about Christ's teaching against participation in the military, executions, abortions, etc., Neff writes, "How did the church lose its radical commitment to life? One key factor ... was that the apocalyptic framework of Jesus' teaching faded. Jesus promised to come back soon to establish his kingdom. But centuries passed, the Christian population grew, and the kingdom of God became associated with a church endowed with state power and a state blessed by church leaders."
As Christian leaders worry about the decline in religious organizations these days and the particular decrease in people interested in organized religion, perhaps someone needs to point out that a Christian expression that lacks institutional strength may be a path to greater authenticity and spiritual fidelity. A friend and fellow pastor told me long ago, "If the oncoming generation is not interested in organized religion, we need to offer disorganized religion."
A baby born in a shed may prove a stronger spiritual figure than a prince born in splendor and power and wealth. Pope Francis identifies himself with humility and simple lifestyle, and advocates on behalf of the poor and against consumer values, because that has always been the message of Jesus Christ. There is nothing really new here, except as it contrasts with those who have gone before him who were focusing more on the values of the world than on the values of Jesus.
To be a real follower of Jesus means to swear off the constant urgency of self-interest, the building of wealth for one's self, and the political power and influence that can so easily be maninpulated on behalf of "right" goals. Fundamental Christlikeness has been lost among all the institutional imperatives and fancy theories of religious establishments. Many of the Christian leaders in our world today need to be told to shut up, sit down and love your neighbor as yourself and the Lord God with all your heart. A faith that focuses on the return of Jesus and the establishment of His kingdom on Earth is central to that new/old message. It is ever timely.