We are living through one of the most dramatic shifts in the history of Western Christianity, from being the most respected institution in the nation as a holy presence the Church is now tolerated by the powers that be as a mere provider of educational and social services.
Where Australians once thought of Christians as “do-gooders” they are now “do-badders” (McAlpine). “Born-again Christian” is not something that would help your C.V. Across the nation the confidence of believers in being able to influence others for Jesus has hit an all time.
Since the Billy Graham crusade of 1959 it’s been one long downhill slope for religion in Australia.
There are many cultural and sociological explanations for this decline, but as the Church bears the presence of Christ we must look to our own sins as being primarily responsible for the moral and spiritual devastation ravaging our nation.
When we are hiding from the Lord sooner or later it becomes clear that God is hiding from us (Isa 45:15).
In hiding his glory from us the Lord allows all manner of horrible things come to light.
The latest in an unending string of sex scandals involves a mission worker being charged with the repeated rape of a 7 year old Indigenous girl down the South West. Scandals in the life of the Church should shock us into prayer but even here we seem to lack the spiritual presence to know how to respond.
It must be that the Church lacks authority to challenge the self-indulgence in the world because we have lost the presence of the crucified Lord. This came to mind in an unexpected way in a recent prayer meeting.
It was 4.50 a.m. when my friend walked into the church building for the first time and said, “It’s unusual to see a cross in a Protestant Church.”
To which I replied, “They’re predominantly Chinese here; they are much less embarrassed by what others might think than mainstream Western Christians.”
From there we went on to pray into 2 Corinthians 8:9, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” Christ’s desire to move from riches to poverty for the sake of others is radically countercultural both to the world the Church as we know it today.
How different would the Church be today if we learned to see everything through the cross?
I was listening to a story this week of the crash of another high profile pastor.
We exalt gifted leaders calling them “God’s generals, spiritual giants, mighty women of God”. Instead of seeing that only those who are in spiritual poverty need to be spiritually gifted we lift up people because of “their” gifts.
The more gifted a person is the more this should be a sign to us of their poverty, that they needed to be filled with Christ.
Underneath natural and spiritual charisma is human weakness.
Elevating either others or ourselves is impossible in the light of Paul’s words, “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast..?” (1 Cor 4:7).
The meagre spiritual insight in the Church today is a sign that we lack “crucified eyes” and we lack “crucified eyes” because we have taken offence at the cross. In our prayer time a few weeks ago the Lord began to show us that we have turned away from the presence of Jesus in the weak and needy. This problem is as old as Eden.
Eden was a wonderful place and in particular all the trees of the Garden were “pleasant to the eyes” (Gen 2:9; 3:6).
The tree of knowledge was seen by Adam and Eve as especially delightful “to make one wise” (Gen 3:6).
There was however one word God spoke in Eden which seemed out of place, and in fact would become an offense. This was the word ““in the day that you eat it you will surely die”” (Gen 2:17).
People have often puzzled as to how Adam and Eve would make any sense of this warning for so far they had no experience of death. But the LORD had seen Satan and his angels lose the glory of their sonship in falling from heaven; this was the sort of spiritual death God as Father-Creator never wanted humans to endure (Job 1:6; Isa 14:12-15; Ezek 28:11-19; Acts 17:28).
The word ““you will surely die”” was a shocking word filled with a deep pathos of an already grieving Father.
At a spiritual and prophetic level this word about the horror of death drew its power from the reality of another tree, one which was yet to come, the one upon which the anguished Lamb was “slain from before the foundation of the world” (Rev 13:8 1 Pet 1:20).
The scandal of the cross was present in the Garden in God’s call for self-denial and self-deprivation, “Do not eat.” This call was spurned in favour of the superficial attractiveness of living forever without a God who commanded such things (Gen 3:5-6).
When they substituted self-centredness for God-centredness the eyes of Adam and Eve were opened to their nakedness and their inner eyes saw they had been stripped of the riches immortality they had so longed for (Rom 2:7; 3:23).
In their selfishness they had lost the opportunity to see everything through “crucified eyes”.
Filled with a sense of the shame they were compelled to cover up and became immersed in the wretched poverty of sin (Gen 3:7; Rom 3:23).
Since the Fall all human beings have been inwardly convinced that to be poor, physically, mentally, monetarily, religiously, relationally…is a source of shame.
Paul echoes this dreadful situation; “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom 7:24).
The word of the cross may have been rejected in Eden but the Lord kept it prophetically alive through the history of Israel.
The Old Testament has many predictive signs of the offense and rejection of the cross.
Isaiah (52:13-53:12) and Zechariah (12:10) speak of a sacrificial Servant of the Lord who after being rejected by the people would be exalted by God.
The persecution of the prophets themselves was a sign of the offense of the cross (1 Kings 7:10-12, 1 Kings 18:4; Jeremiah 1:19; Jeremiah 15:15; Jeremiah 26:20-23; Jeremiah 26:37-38 etc.). The psalms are peppered by the cries of the righteous poor crushed by the strong and powerful; “Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy.” (Ps 86:1 cf. Ps 9:18; Ps 10:2,9; Ps 12:5; Ps 14:6; Ps 34:6; Ps 35:10; Ps 37:14; Ps 40:17; Ps 70:5; Ps 72:2, 4, 12; Ps 74:19, 21; Ps 109:16, 22). The truly poor man who brings all these prophetic types to fulfilment is the one who emptied himself to nothingness; Jesus (2 Cor 8:9; Phil 2:7).
THE OFFENSE OF THE CROSS
The means of salvation God has appointed for wretched miserable sinners is appalling to normal human sensitivities. In John’s Gospel a great turning point comes in Jesus’ ministry when he opens his heart to reveal the mystery of salvation; “v.53 “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. v.54 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day…. When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?…But Jesus…said to them, “Do you take offense at this? After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.”” (John 6:53-54, 61, 66).
To eat and drink Jesus flesh and blood is to consume God’s Word in the form of a fractured body and outpoured blood; it is to have communion with a perishing person suffering in utter poverty on a cross.
Paul will call this “the fellowship of his sufferings” (Phil 3:10 cf. Col 1:24).
By its very nature the cross is “a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling” to the human mind (Isa 8:14).
People often say, “Wasn’t there some other way God could have saved us instead of sending his Son to die?”
I had a debate some years ago with a philosopher at UWA; at one point he exclaimed, “I don’t need to be crucified for my children to know that I love them!” But the same scriptures which call the gospel an offense promise that whoever identifies with God’s self- denying poverty in Jesus “will never be put to shame.” (Rom 9:33; 1 Pet 2:8 cf. 1 Cor 1:23; Gal 5:11).
Anyone who has gone to the pits with Jesus surely can’t be put to shame by any sort of “poverty”, physical, mental, monetary, religious or relational this world might inflict (Acts 13:35; Rom 1:16; 2 Tim 1:12; 1 Pet 4:16).
The language Jesus used of eating his flesh and drinking his blood was totally offensive to the Jews and led to the Romans accusing Christians of cannibalism. On the spiritual plane there is still something very powerful in the imagery of eating flesh and drinking blood which today’s church finds hard to embrace. This mystery of offense is clearly proclaimed in the Lord’s Supper.
In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul quotes the words of Jesus from the Last Supper, “v.24 “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” v.25 …“This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” v.26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” 1 Corinthians 11:24-26
Paul does not say that we proclaim the Lord’s resurrection until he comes, this would be relatively inoffensive; it is the gospel of the cross which confronts the conscience.
Only the appalling message that we need to eat the flesh and drink the blood of the sacrificial Lamb of God can persuade us that without Christ we are, to quote Jesus himself, “wretched, pitiable, poor blind and naked” (Rev 3:17).
Such are his words to the Church in Laodicea which thought itself to be “rich…needing nothing” (3:17).
Obviously this talk of eating flesh and drinking blood is concentrated spiritual symbolism, but it is a stronger and not weaker action than that of the need of the Israelites to physically consume the Passover Lamb if they were to know God’s saving power (Num 9:13).
If the Lord’s Supper brings an offense to the ordinary human conscience why do so few Christians seem to see this solemnity?
Why do so few have “crucified eyes”. We have tokenised the Lord’s presence, we have kept the signs of bread and wine but have lost the power of the thing signified i.e. the humble power of the broken body and shed blood of Christ’s death.
Our great problem is not that we have an inadequate theology of the Lord’s Supper; it is our lack of spiritual insight.
The reality of Christ’s presence amongst us in the Lord’s Supper can only be seen in the Spirit (cf. Rev 1:10). When Hebrews teaches us that Jesus “offered himself up through the eternal Spirit” it means the Spirit was empowering Christ’s body to be broken and blood to be shed as our sacrifice (Luke 22:44; Heb 9:14).
The weak and struggling man on the cross was the presence of God’s saving grace for all.
We don’t see the offense of the cross in Holy Communion because our “uncrucified eyes” don’t see Jesus’ presence in our weak and struggling brothers of Christ.
Let me explain from scripture.
Back in 1 Corinthians Paul berates the Church because their Communion was being destroyed since the rich were pigging out and getting drunk whilst the poor were going hungry; “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.” (11:20-22).
The rich Christians in Corinth were avoiding the offense of the cross because they refused to see the presence of Jesus in the hungry poor at the family meal. They were like the goats in the parable of Matthew 25 who didn’t see Jesus in the hungry, thirsty, isolated, unclothed, sick and imprisoned (Matthew 25:31-46). Jesus’ words to those who did not recognise him in the wretched state of his brothers/sisters are terrifying; “‘…as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”” (Matthew 25: 45-46). Paul’s words to the Corinthian Church are no less a warning to us.
“v.27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord…. v.30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” (1 Cor 11:27, 30). Jesus was handing over the self-confident believers in Corinth whose “uncrucified eyes” refused to recognise his presence in their impoverished brethren to sickness and death (cf. Rev 2:22-23).
This theme of the presence of the Lord bringing judgment in the Church appears elsewhere in the New Testament.
The love and generosity of the early Christians spelled out in Acts is legendary. “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold” (Acts 4:34).
But then Ananias and Sapphira sold property and tried to deceive the apostles that they were contributing all of the proceeds to the poor. “But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land?” (Acts 5:3).
At this point the Lord struck dead Ananias, soon to be followed by his wife (Acts 5:5-10). What compelled this tragic couple to lie to God?
Their fear of personal deprivation kept their own eyes spiritually uncrucified so that they did not discern the broken body and shed blood of Christ in the needy of the Church.
The fear of poverty is a dreadful thing; I will never forget a meeting when a prosperity preacher said, “It’s not a sin to be rich”, only for one of the crowd to shout out, “It’s a sin not to be rich.”
A godly minister once said, “If God dealt with the Church today like he did back in the book of Acts we’d have dead bodies all over the place.” But surely if “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.” it’s the case we do “have dead bodies all over the place” (Heb 13:8).
Unlike what we hear so commonly from the Third World many followers of Jesus in our churches are unhealed of serious diseases, tormented by mental illness, suffering from various addictions, experiencing marriage and family breakdown and so on because as-a-Body we are not recognising the identification of Jesus with the needy of this world.
The modern Western Church is often likened to the church in Laodicea to which Jesus said, ““For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked”” (Rev 3:17).
We are not seeing the crucified Lord in the poor that surround us today.
I am not thinking primarily of the street sleepers I walk past in the city every week, but the terrible global persecution of fellow believers which the average Australian Church simply ignores. Remember Jesus’ words to Saul when he blinded him on the road to Damascus, ““I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting”” (Acts 9:5).
Jesus is suffering terribly in his afflicted Body today, but very few want to see it.
As we were praying about seeing the Lord in the Lord’s Supper I began to sense something in the Spirit that deeply troubled me. I could see that people come to communion in a state like Adam and Eve in the Garden, still hiding behind the trees with clothes we have put on ourselves.
We love to cover ourselves with a sense of our religious good works; sound doctrine, spiritual gifts, noble tradition, contemporary cultural relevance etc.
If we had true wisdom we would be seeking for our spiritual nakedness to be exposed by the “living and active” word of God so that we might be clothed only with the righteousness of the cross (Gal 3:27; Heb 4:12-13; Rev 7:14; 19:8).
How do we receive “crucified eyes” so we can recognise the presence of Jesus in the spiritual, emotional, relational and material poverty that surrounds us?
Paul prays for the Ephesians; “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, 18 having the eyes of your hearts enlightened,” (Eph 1:17-18).
We need a revelation that enables us to see that there is a radical difference between the wretchedness of fallen poverty and the glory of the poverty which comes from self-denial in Christ. Though rich Jesus became poor so that through his poverty we might become rich (2 Cor 8:9).
Paul was clearly living in the revelation of this beautiful poverty when he says; “I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.” (Eph 3:13).
In Christ there is a glorious poverty. In the book of Revelation the exalted Christ speaks most highly of the church in Smyrna. ““‘I know about your suffering and your poverty—but you are rich!”” (Rev 2:9 cf. 2 Cor 6:10; James 2:5).
Today Jesus is saying these sorts of things to the churches in ISIS occupied areas of Syria and Iraq, and in Northern Nigeria where Boko Harem has destroyed about 11,000 church buildings; but it is hard to believe that Jesus would say such things to the Church in Perth.
If the Church hides the cross, rather than hiding in the cross, all manner of other things will be hidden.
This is shamefully evident today, as I have already remarked, in the matter of sexual abuse, but there are many other examples.
After a sermon in a conservative Evangelical church where abortion was spoken against strongly a medical doctor remarked to me; “I wonder if the pastor knows how many women in the congregation have had an abortion?” Pornography is a fact of life for many Christian men and they try very hard to hide it, but since they hide it outside the cross it’s power remains unbroken.
All of this could sound very depressing, but I am observing the Lord crucifying eyes in unlikely places.
More and more godly people are recognising that something foundational must change. One day this week I was visited by a highly experienced Pentecostal evangelist who said its time to stop shifting the deck chairs on the Titanic and pretending it’s real church growth.
The next day I was in conversation with a denominational leader from a group known for its evangelistic tradition, and almost the first thing she said was, “We are dying.” As more and more people across the churches accept our real spiritual poverty my hope for resurrection life grows.
We are living through one of the most dramatic shifts in the whole history of Western Christianity because if we hide from the cross God will hide from us (John 12:36)!
We are in the midst of a situation like that exclaimed by the apostle Paul when he rebuked the Galatian Churches; “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.” (Gal 3:1).
Christ was publicly crucified before their eyes not only in the words of the gospel but because Paul came “in weakness and in fear and much trembling” imaging the reality of the cross and imparting the gift of crucified eyes (1 Cor 2:3).
We have lost a generation of preachers, teachers and Christian leaders whose self-denial in the realm of spiritual or material poverty images the crucified grace of Christ.
The Church in the Western world is going to have to come to terms with its increasingly impoverished condition in society; it’s loss of power, influence, status, moral reputation and spiritual relevancy (http://www.biblesociety.org.au/news/church-seen-irrelevant-australians-lives-new-survey).
Just about everyone can see that this stripping down is happening.
What most believers refuse to see however is that it is the Lord himself who have been using social forces to chisel away at the self-confidence of the people of God until we come to that place when we live in the reality that Paul proclaims; “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I to the world.” (Gal 6:14).
When the Lord has finished cutting us down, when at last as-a-Church we have “crucified eyes” in a crucified heart, our identification with the poor, from inside to outside the Church, will be so radically counter-cultural, so oppositional to an increasingly self-centred society, that it will bring a powerful presence of Jesus impacting our world for the glory of God.
Let us pray for the eyes of Christ.