Thesis 3: Little Christs, Not Personal Jesuses
This post is part of a series of meditations on each of Luther's "95 Theses." You can view all posts in the series here.
"3. Yet it means not inward repentance only; nay, there is no inward repentance which does not outwardly work divers mortifications of the flesh."
I've been thinking a lot the past couple of days about the relationship between right thought and right action, and asking questions like: Does one precede the other? Do they live in a constant symbiotic relationship where they're always taking from and building upon each other? Must one act oneself into deeper belief, or believe oneself into more incarnational action?
The way we seem to set up church involvement/membership/belonging is based on causality: First, you believe the right things. Then, you can belong to us. Finally, you'll end up looking like Jesus (or perhaps our version of the Christ) because of these things.
Even our churches who would say that there is no right way of believing before acceptance by the community should look around at who is present and what their lives look like. Is what the community says it believes actively being sought after by the gathered? Or is Jesus writ too small, fractured into a thousand personal Jesuses with whom we have "personal relationships"? How many times have you heard that phrase? Does this not force our understanding of God into the realm of the individual, and not the community, indeed, the Kingdom? Is God not the same now and always? But why do our sermons sound like self-help book teasers? "Jesus can help you with your problem. Today! Just start believing harder in what he said."
The first command Jesus gives in his public teaching is to repent (metanoia). This was not a call to say a certain prayer, to accept him into your heart (whatever that means), and that then you'd be forgiven. It was more about changing your mind. Each time we go back to this teaching, it is still in the present tense imperative: Change your mind! Not "Change your mind once, and then my work is complete in you." A call to change one's mind is a call to always change one's mind. If we are to take this teaching seriously, and if Christians take the historic creeds seriously that God always dwells among us, then we should constantly changing our minds. Because he is always Immanuel, always God with us. We need to go and sin no more.
Luther pleads with us to see that making a decision to change our minds doesn't necessarily lead to changed communities, to glimpses of the Kingdom. Inward repentance must manifest itself physically. It must. If it doesn't, we have more inward work to do. Does this mean we cannot act before we're "right with God"? Of course not.
But we must rediscover prayer if we are to act in a way that is a reflection of who we are at the core: God. We cannot doctrine ourselves out of the mainline church's decline.
The less of us there is, the more room there is for the Spirit to move around, pester us, make us uncomfortable, do her slow work, and eventually shape us into little Christs. In this prayer part of praxis, we are not asking God for anything. We are seeking to find the place in our hearts where we have already been forgiven, where the Spirit was at work when we were too concerned with right belief and right action to notice. And if this rediscovery of prayer doesn't lead us on a downward path towards less (which is more), nothing (which is everything), poverty (which is wealth), the margins (which is the center), and death (which is life), then we must use prayer to recalibrate the compass for our journey into the upside-down Kingdom.
To be clear, I don't mean to imply a linear path of discipleship. We must do the work of freeing ourselves of this Western notion of either/or. Nonetheless, let's take a reading on the "outward work" of our churches and ask ourselves, honestly, whether they reflect true repentance, true mind-changing. If not, it's time for us to repent. If we can't even dialogue honestly about what we need to repent of, then we have a lot more work to do than I fear.