Rev. Katherine Todd
Jesus said to them, … “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
In seminary, we read a book called Christ Or Culture by religious scholar, Richard Neibuhr. While I cannot remember the details of the book, my take-away was that it is a complex thing to untangle Christ from our culture, but that we are each responsible to work on it.
The basic gist is that when a people has lived with Christ for some time, the knowledge of Christ gets integrated into the way things are done and vise versa. Culture gets mingled into our understanding and worship of Christ. Our traditions, rites, and rituals are all a co-mingling of Christ and culture.
When we’re in our own cultures, it is almost imperceptible which is which at times. For example, our Christmas trees feel very Christian, though their origin is distinctly pagan. We have taken things that had no association with Christ and connected them to Christ, so those things acquire new meanings. Now, Christmas trees are in most churches in America. Few even think to question their place.
This merging of Christ and culture is honest and natural. It’s as natural as our own American melting pot. Made up of people from most nations, our country indeed begins to take on the blending flavors and cultures of those nations. We take for granted the fact that we can buy Chinese, Italian, or Mexican food on the same block, get our nails done by a Vietnamese shop owner and have our clothes dry cleaned by a Korean family. Obviously these are stereotypes, but as with most stereotypes, they communicate because there is truth behind them. My point is that we are accustomed to this blending of very different foods, people, and culture. It is the natural outcome of our nation of immigrants.
In the same way, when a culture hears the good news of Christ, their own traditions and rituals start blending with the Good News of the Gospel, and in the end, it can be difficult to tell one from another.
All of this is just fine. Where it has most often gotten problematic is on the mission field. When well-meaning Christians leave home and culture to share the good news with a people who’ve not yet heard, they, as would any of us, can have quite a time discerning where their own native culture ends and Christ begins. Since our own cultures are simply our “normal,” they can become invisible to us. They are the air we breath and the ground we walk on, so to speak. We take them for granted. We rarely question them, if we even notice them at all. But when we encounter folks from another culture and try sharing our faith in Christ with them, our own culture inevitably is also communicated.
Now, this isn’t all bad. Learning of another culture can be a beautiful and eye-opening thing. IT gives us new eyes to see the world around us. Where it has gotten toxic is when culture is mistakenly presented as being part of Christ and one way is presented as the way.
Now, I don’t think all cultural traditions or mindsets are made equally. Some native traditions are full of the honor and respect we learn in Christ. Some are filled with domination, cruelty, and the things Christ warns us against. But when we share the Gospel with another, we need to let Christ be the center and the guide and not impose our culture on others.
This is easy enough to say, but it’s quite another things altogether to do.
How do we separate Christ from the culture in which we’ve come to know Christ?
How do we separate Christ from these walls in which we’ve worshipped, year after year?
How do we separate Christ from the creeds we’ve memorized?
How do we separate Christ from the songs we can sing by heart?
How do we separate Christ from our experiences of Christ in this community?
All of these are excellent questions.
And while we cannot answer them all cleanly, it is important that we ask them and keep asking them.
The reason can be found in the Hippocratic oath Doctors take. They promise “first, to do no harm.” And when we impose our own cultures onto others in the name of Christ, insisting that our way is superior to their ways, we can do a great deal of harm to that people.
Now, I know you guys are not missionaries in the traditional sense, so all this talk of Christ & Culture may feel misdirected, but if you are a Christian, you are indeed a missionary because Christ lives in you. You have the Spirit of the Almighty God living in you, and God’s heart is for the whole world. God’s love is for the whole world. And God is pouring out love and light in the world through each of you.
Now you can rightly point out that if you haven’t left your culture, this information is not exactly pertaining to your sort of mission work in the world, but I would argue that in our culture today, Christ is not the center. And even when we thought it was, it probably wasn’t. Truly, when cultures have adopted Christ as the main religion, they have often, if not always, done so with covert motives, using Christ to one’s own ends. And even if motives started purely, the result of aligning Christ with power and regimes is growing corruption of faith for political power and personal gain.
My point is that we live in a post-Christian society. Most families and people do not go to church. Many do not claim Christ. And a great number do not consider themselves religious. So our experiences may be a great deal different than that of our neighbors.
But we know that God’s heart is for each of them. We know that God’s love extends to each of them, just as they are, right where they are, many here all around us in this neighborhood, in their houses, running trails, or perhaps in the park just blocks away.
We know that God doesn’t require conformity first, in exchange for love and acceptance, but that God has loved and accepted us first, and we are called to respond in faith, walking in God’s ways.
We are bearers of light. We have a message folks deeply need to hear.
But we will lose people and do more damage than good, unless we can untangle our own histories of Christ & culture and begin to imagine what Christ is doing in new cultures, in a new people, in the lives of those who’ve sworn never set foot in a church.
Because God IS moving in their lives.
God IS inviting them to come close.
God IS calling, through work and rest and play.
God is reaching out first.
It is not therefore, our job to INITIATE God’s work in their lives.
Rather, it’s our job to listen and follow God’s work in their lives.
It becomes a matter of listening for what is profoundly Christ-like in their unchurched lives and affirming those commitments to love and justice, respect and community. It becomes a matter of listening for what may be destroying life and listening for God’s invitation to wholeness and healing.
So, our children do not have to do exactly as we do. They don’t necessarily need to sing the same songs or speak the same creeds in order to hear God’s still small voice. But perhaps when they love as God has loved us, we celebrate the beauty and goodness of their lives. Perhaps when they undo themselves with poor decisions, we forgive as we have been forgiven and call them to a better way.
In other words, we affirm the love and goodness of God in their lives, listening for God’s lead and following. And we echo the words of God for all who are suffering in sin saying, “You are made for so much more. You dear and beloved, just the way you are. Please do not hurt yourself or anyone else anymore.”
When we truly begin doing the work of separating Christ from Culture, we will find that things and rituals, traditions and nostalgia matter far less than we may have thought.
For as Christ quotes Isaiah, saying to those criticizing his disciples for not following the rituals, “This people honors me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me. In vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrine.”
All our routines and rituals are beautiful but only a vessel for the divine. And without Christ at the center, all of it is meaningless. For it isn’t what we say, but what we mean that matters. It isn’t calling ourselves Christians but rather living as little Christs that matters. It isn’t singing hymns, saying creeds, or even coming to church that is the most important thing. What matters is following God, day by day. What matters is loving as Christ has loved, forgiving as Christ has forgiven, doing justice as Christ brings justice, loving mercy as Christ has shown us great mercy. And none of that requires a steeple or an organ, a pastor or a sermon.
Now all those things can help us a great deal. We have reasons for doing them. But these THINGS, these ROUTINES are meant to be a vehicle of God’s presence and power. These expressions of faith are meant to empower us in the living of our faith. They are not meant to be obstacles or litmus tests or criteria for inclusion in the club. Our forms and ways of being church are meant to flow out of vibrant lives of discipleship, and not the other way around. And when Christ is truly at the center, we may find that there are an infinite number of ways we can follow faithfully – at least as infinite a number as we have one-of-a-kind children of God in the world. And just as the rituals we follow were once birthed from new vision and ideas, new rituals and traditions are emerging still.
And so may we not be as the Pharisees in the scripture today – criticizing those who do not do as do we do, looking down on those who do not come when we come, …thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought. But rather, may we recognize that what matters most is on the inside. And may we each tend to our hearts and minds and spirits with great and loving care.
So that when God moves in new and unexpected people and places and rituals – those outside our circles, who look differently, and live differently, and see the world differently – we might see and hear and follow – ever following Christ, beyond the borders of these walls, of our own cultures and ways, and into new broad vistas of an ever-deepening and living faith. For our God is calling, calling each one out of darkness and into Christ’s marvelous light. And that broad place is like nothing we have ever experienced before, transcending all the ways of this world, and all the things we’ve come to know. Christ alone remains.
In an ever-changing world
where church as you may have known it, no longer exists,
where potlucks no longer fill the hall and Sunday School isn’t packed…
May we keep our eyes on Christ.
It is Christ who knows the way;
Christ IS the way.
The landmarks and scenery will ever change,
Our tools and methods and rituals will also change,
but our God remains the same and is ever with us.