Sheer Christianity

DURING HOLY WEEK this year, columnist and practicing Catholic Andrew Sullivan wrote a Newsweek cover story titled “Christianity in Crisis.” He argued that Christianity is being destroyed by politics, priests, and get-rich evangelists. This would “baffle Jesus of Nazareth,” Sullivan wrote. “The issues that Christianity obsesses over today simply do not appear ... in the New Testament ... It seems no accident that so many Christians now embrace materialistic self-help rather than ascetic self-denial ... [and] no surprise that the fastest growing segment of belief among the young is atheism, which has leapt in popularity in the new millennium. Nor is it a shock that so many have turned away from organized Christianity.”

My sense is that people are leaving organized Christianity because it has left behind the radical message of its founder. This has been a long and continuing struggle. Jesus taught and embodied a revolutionary, transforming love. Forsaking wealth and power, he constantly reached out to those on the margins of society. Renouncing violence, he loved not just his friends but his enemies. Condemning religious self-right-eousness and hypocrisy, he healed broken lives and opened eyes and hearts to the near presence of the kingdom of God.

The church confesses him as the risen Savior and Lord. But then, so often, it tries to domesticate him, explaining away those sharp, demanding edges of his compelling words, and finding theological excuses for not following his radical ways. We call upon people to believe in Jesus. But the question is whether we believe Jesus.

In Ephesians 3:16-19, we read about the radical love of Christ: “I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

Deciding to root and ground your life in this love is a lifelong journey. And it begins only when, in mysterious moments of grace, you discover that this vast and immense love has reached out to you. And while this love comes to us freely, the invitation to respond is costly. And full of risk.

You have to bet your life that this love is real, trustworthy, and at the center of all things. This love of Christ overwhelms our understanding, shatters our restrictive categories, breaks open our hearts, and animates our vision. Maybe it’s something like hearing your favorite piece of music in surround sound with the volume turned up all the way. Your whole body and soul seems to reverberate as you listen with your entire being.

The problem throughout history, however, is that institutionalized Christianity wants to turn the volume down, remove some speakers, muffle some of the words, and subdue the real message. But it’s there, always able to be recovered. Simply reading the gospels, and listening to Jesus—at full volume—is a way to start. And then each of us can ask, What if what Jesus said is actually true? And what if how he lived is the real Way?

AS CHRIST DWELLS in our hearts, through faith, we become rooted and grounded in love “with all the saints.” Together and with one another—it is this vast love that becomes embedded into our core being.

However, organized Christianity has perfected the art of breaking away from one another. We have become Balkanized into tribes often warring against each other. Disagreements justify division by those who hardly seem to think twice about what it means to sever the body of Christ. It has reached such a lamentable extent that in 2012, as absurd as it seems, there are 42,340 Christian denominations in the world. Plus, most of the news made by Christians today comes from fighting over topics—including homosexuality or contraception—that Jesus never mentioned.

But this love directs us on an entirely different path. We can’t retreat into protective enclaves of those who self-righteously think alike and judge others, and then expect to know the depth and breadth of this love. Rather, it means moving out of our comfort zones and into that place where we know our only comfort comes from belonging not to ourselves, but to each other and ultimately to the One who is the source of this love.

Such love not only transforms our inner being, but it also transforms the world. The breadth, length, height, and depth of this love can never be constricted to just the human heart because it embraces the whole creation. What it touches it yearns to change, and bring into the fullness intended by God.

So whenever we turn to organized Christianity to prop up our own comfortable systems or try to reinforce our preferences and prejudices, we trivialize God’s love. Rather, we should be prepared to know that this love will fearlessly confront all that perpetuates injustice, all that destroys creation, all that protects greed, and all that extols selfish ambition.

When 80 percent of the real increase in wealth in the U.S. in the last 30 years has gone to 1 percent of the population, we no longer comprehend the breadth of the love of Christ. When we’ve experienced the hottest year on record and continue to destroy the integrity of creation, we no longer comprehend the depth of the love of Christ. When we condone economic practices that sanctify short-term gain and greed to the expense of the long-term common good, we no longer comprehend the length of the love of Christ.     

And when we bless the unbridled, self-seeking ambition of television preachers, polarizing politicians, or entertainment personalities, we no longer comprehend the height of the love of Christ.

So much depends upon opening our inner lives and becoming rooted and grounded in this love. It’s more than just our personal redemption. This love desires to save the world.

The prayer in Ephesians is that “you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit.” And that, actually, is the hard part. It doesn’t come naturally; our culture seems to wire us to be rooted and grounded elsewhere, especially in unconscious addictions. And it can’t all be changed by a momentary visit to a spiritual phone booth, like Clark Kent suddenly becoming Superman.

It requires disciplined practices and habits that can sustain you for the long haul, not unlike the way an athlete trains for the Olympics. And it begins by recognizing that this love “surpasses knowledge.”

Just as the love of a romantic partner cannot be understood intellectually, the love of God is immeasurable. We can’t know, contain, or rationally control it. It “surpasses knowledge.” Certainly it engages our mind. But if this love takes hold of us, it grips our soul.

IN THE END, we experience the fullness of Christ’s love more through relinquishing than through thinking—and more through abandonment than through achievement. Soren Kierkegaard said, “Faith is walking as far as you can in the light and taking one step more.”

If you ask yourself, I believe you will know what that “one step more” might be. It’s a step that will put you vulnerably in a place where your normal defenses and unconscious addictions no longer hold sway, and you are radically open to being held by a love so vast that it is beyond your understanding, and yet so personal that it can expose and heal your soul.

Maybe it’s ministering to the homeless. Or going on retreat to a monastery. Or opening your life to a trusted counselor. Or turning down that scholarship to join the Peace Corps. Or starting a spiritual accountability group. Or digging wells in Malawi. Or just honestly reading the gospel of Luke.

You know in your heart what step you could take to open your life more fully to this irrepressible love of Christ. It will stretch you; you may lose your security. You may feel like there’s nothing to hang on to, as if you’re going to fall off a cliff. Then you can only surrender to a love beyond your ability to comprehend, and be held there, embraced by a love fastened like a rope to the very center of your being.

Andrew Sullivan’s Newsweek article ends with this poignant reminder: “This Christianity comes not from the head or the gut, but from the soul. It is as meek as it is quietly liberating ... It doesn’t seek worldly recognition, or success, and it flees from power and wealth. It is the religion of unachievement. And it is not afraid. In the anxious, crammed lives of our modern twittering souls, in the materialist obsessions we cling to for security in recession, in a world where sectarian extremism threatens to unleash mass destruction, this sheer Christianity, seeking truth without the expectation of resolution, simply living each day doing what we can to fulfill God’s will, is more vital than ever.” He concludes, “Something inside is telling us we need radical spiritual change.”

I agree. And I think we all know, in the honest places of our hearts, that this is true. 

Wesley Granberg-Michaelson is author of Unexpected Destinations and former general secretary of the Reformed Church in America. This article is adapted from a baccalaureate address he gave this spring at Central College in Pella, Iowa.

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