Gary Swisher

Archive for the ‘Christ’ Category

Is Christmas a Holiday Befitting Christ?

In Chrisitan Right, Christ, Christianity, Christmas, Flesh, Materialism, Sensualism on December 28, 2011 at 10:14 pm

Christians often express satisfaction that Christ is remembered by the world at least one day each year. But is it really possible for the world to do something that commemorates Christ? The world, in its ignorance, offers up a season that glitters and tantalizes its own sensual nature–largely in direct contrast to what Jesus truly embodied and taught. How did such an extravagant season ever come to symbolize Christ?

One may argue as to what Christmas should be, whether they think it is about Christ, helping our fellow-man or a pagan feast day. Yet each year Christmas proves that it truly belongs to the world, no matter how much goodwill is used for its window dressing. Who can argue that the Christmas season is anything but the most sensual and materialistic time of year for our society? It twists everything about Christ to reflect it’s own carnal nature. I recently saw a TV commercial in which this statement was made, “It is better to receive than to give.” Hmmm… what season is it again? Whose name are we attaching to it? This is the season by which the world measures commercial and financial success. It’s the time of year when we indulge ourselves in everything that feels good, tastes sweet and brings us pleasure and material increase.

At Christmas we go to great lengths to please our senses, adorning pine trees with shimmering ornaments and decorating our houses with colored lights. Stores are decked with the most enticing holiday displays and gifts are wrapped in beautiful colors, with bright foils and bows. And under every Christmas tree we pile up presents to satisfy our greatest material desires. I am not saying such things are blatantly wrong. But how exactly does this reflect Christ?

He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

Where is the glitter in this passage? Where are the wrappings and decorations? Where is the extravagance and indulgence of every desire? The true Christ is not popular with the people. He is not appealing in the way of Santa Claus. Christ is not about pleasing the flesh. But everything about Christmas appeals to the natural man and the nature of the world.

All that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.

As Christians we often overlook the materialism because Christmas is perceived as the season of giving, but in reality it is the season of gift exchanging. While a few people give to the poor in connection with Christmas, the majority spend hundreds or thousands on gadgets and gizmos for their own families, and fully expect gifts in return. The apex of the Christmas celebration for Christian and non-Christian alike is the morning when all the presents are unwrapped. With church programs out of the way, we’re free to move on to the good stuff. And after we have exchanged gifts with each other, we go back to the stores and exchange them again for what we really wanted.

What does any of this have to do with the nature and character of Christ? The kind of giving Jesus had in mind was not the merchandise that tends only to please the flesh. Jesus was born in a barn and laid in an animal’s trough. He had no place to lay his head and no worldly possessions. He spoke often of forsaking the world’s treasures and having riches toward God. He taught that we should not covet possessions and serve wealth, but Christmas fosters these very things. He taught us not to give feasts for people who have no means to return the favor; that giving is better than receiving. Giving is also better than exchanging, which is the true practice for most on Christmas. It is easy to give rich gifts to those in our family, or to friends who will give back to us in exchange. But true giving has no expectation of return.

Each year Christmas shoppers become mob-like, trampling and even attacking whoever comes between them and their Nike Air Jordans. Would they get up at 4:00 in the morning for some spiritual purpose? We stress about what to give to the man or woman who has everything. Why do we give more material goods to someone who already has more than they need? Is it because Christmas has much more to do with materialism? Some even buy Christmas gifts for themselves. In spite of getting what we want, our gadgets are isolating us from others and our endless entertainment is making us spiritually numb. Why do we keep investing our lives in things that distract us from what is important? Such is this holiday of Christmas.

The word “holiday” once had a far different meaning. It was contracted from the words “holy day.” If that were ever applicable to Christmas, it’s hardly the case anymore. The word “holy” means to set apart for a special, higher purpose. But Christmas is commonplace and full of every worldly craving. A true holy day is associated with things like fasting, rest and regaining perspective. But most of our society gorges itself at Christmas like no other time. There is nothing wrong with gathering and eating, but why is this season known for such overindulgence? Why do Christmas parties involve even more excessive drinking and wild behavior than normal?

What is it about this time of year that engenders such excess? Is Christ the root of it all? Why is pleasing our taste buds such an important part of observing Christ’s “holy day”? The weight gain associated with the holidays is an appropriate picture of what Christmas truly is–a feeding frenzy for our flesh. So much of Christmas is about acquiring things and pleasing the senses for our families and ourselves. It is the flesh, not the spirit that Christmas magnifies.

To set our minds on the flesh leads to death, but to set our minds on the Spirit leads to life and peace.

While Christians may hold Christmas as holy, 90% of their energies perfectly reflect the mindset of the world. Any common person in our society will set up a tree, bake cookies, shop, decorate, listen to Christmas carols, wrap presents, spend time with family and perhaps even give to the needy. A Christian does all of the same, but also attends a Christmas Eve service and implores everyone to keep Christ in Christmas.

And just why should we mix Christ with everything that is contrary to his nature? Nothing in scripture upholds the world’s approach to honoring Christ. You would think reindeer and gift exchanges were found in scripture, with all the pleas to make Christmas about Christ. Christians should wake up from their sugar-plum-fairy dreams and realize just how far off-the-mark this holiday season is from the things that honor Christ. Rather than putting Christ in Christmas, Christ should be set apart from the world’s most glorious day. Why do we insist that the world continue to confuse and mix him with it’s own values and desires? The world cherishes Christmas as much as Christians, but not because of Christ.

As children, the first thing we learn about Christmas is a lie. But the lies don’t end when we discover there is no jolly man delivering toys around the world. Those who defend Christmas as a day that honors Christ betray the extent to which they are held under its delusion. The world itself is enmity with Christ and it demonstrates it most graphically in the season affixed with his name.

Old Man at the Cross

In Christ, Christianity, evangelical, Theology on April 29, 2011 at 2:39 pm

Last weekend I saw a few channels airing The Passion which Mel Gibson produced several years ago. Most Christians have seen it, but if you have not, The Passion is a very graphic portrayal of the trial and crucifixion of Christ. It can be very hard to watch if you are sensitive to blood and trauma on the screen. When the movie first came out our next-door neighbor commented that Christians should see the movie in response to what Christ did for us. I tend to agree that we need to have an appreciation of the horrible punishment Jesus endured, but for many, including my neighbor, I sense more of an obligation to view this movie–similar to required reading for a class.

I think this element of obligation might actually show a lack of appreciation for the cross and what it means. How can I say this? As with many things we hold and believe, there are different ways to understand the cross. There is a natural view and a spiritual view. I once heard a pastor rightly comment that if we had been able to witness the actual crucifixion of Christ, it would have had an enormous impact on us, yet it would ultimately not cause any effective change in us. As wrenching as it was, the impact of the crucifixion must go beyond our natural ability to respond.

I get the sense that many want to look at the cross for their motivation; retelling it, reliving it as a way to renew commitment, ignite devotion and respond as God would have us. This thinking holds that the more we see the brutal torture borne by our innocent Savior, the more we, who were truly guilty, will be inspired to go out there and live like never before.

How we perceive the cross will greatly determine the power it has in our lives. Our tendency to find motivation from what Jesus did may actually work against the intent of the cross because our natural man wants to “live up” to the sacrifice. Our human reaction is to feel compelled to respond with remorse, passion and fervor. But fervor, like all things, fades. This may be why we need a more graphic portrayal of the crucifixion. Perhaps we have lost sensitivity to the event, having become so familiar with it. Yet, I don’t know that my middle-aged heart will ever relive the impact the cross had on me when I first digested the great injustice that brought mercy to me. What will happen, then, after the graphic effects of The Passion also begin to lose their impact? Having watched the movie, one key thought occurred to me. The scriptures do not go into very explicit detail about the crucifixion. This is not to minimize the immense suffering Jesus endured, but it may minimize the relative effectiveness of focusing on just the natural impact of the crucifixion.

What effect does the cross produce in us? Is there a great sense of inadequacy? Good. Is there a desire to learn from the heart of Christ? I think that is good too. But is there also a desire to “rise to the challenge”? Is there a sense that we can use the crucifixion to produce more sorrow for sin, and a greater resolve to do better? Could there even be, heaven forbid, an attempt to defray the cost to Jesus by virtue of living better? This is not good, I believe, because it fuels the fire of self reliance and ultimately is rooted in self justification. Our old man may feel obliged to respond with all his muster. It is the tendency of our flesh to try to live up to and do justice to Christ’s sacrifice.

Part of us thinks we need to justify Christ’s offering. We need to change and become worthy of such a sacrifice. We should not be surprised that such a lofty aspiration comes from the most corrupt nature. This very nature undermines grace and the utterly helpless state we occupy without Christ. What’s more, it neglects the true power of the cross. Since Christ died for us when we were powerless we cannot attempt to reform the “undeserving nature” after the fact. We need to let that nature be crucified with Christ and stake no claim to it. There is no use for a reformed old man. Christ is victorious when our life ends on the cross with him.

For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh; so that the righteousness of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Rom 8:3 -4)

Paul also said he was (past tense) crucified with Christ so that the true life and nature of Christ might live in him. This was not his aspiration, it was a done deal. He reckoned himself dead, having been baptized, not just into some pool of H2O, but baptized into the very death of Christ. Christ did not just do away with our sins, he did away with ourselves, the old man, with all his reforms, improvements, remorse and fortitude, was wiped out. Only by complete removal of the corrupted nature can the way be cleared for Christ to rise up in us.

The cross should not produce a sense of guilt–since by it, all guilt is crucified–in order that we can walk in newness which is the nature of Christ. As much as Christ suffered for sins, it was Adam (the old man) who died there. That was me and my old ways up there–both the good and the bad–all together crucified. My agenda is not to work and improve myself, but to give up my agenda, to let it be crucified for the sake of taking on the life of Christ. Here we take on a life which is not our own. No longer directing our own steps. Nothing needs to be salvaged or rescued from the old man. In the crucifixion we need to realize our own death.

Or are you ignorant that all who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore, we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, so also we may walk in newness of life. (Rom 6:3-4)

Looking for the Passover Bunny

In Christ, Christianity, church, evangelical on April 20, 2011 at 9:53 pm

As Christians all over the U.S. prepare to attend a special service on what is known as Easter Sunday, church leaders are looking for ways to get the crowds into their particular church. One church in my area, World Harvest, is holding a grand sweepstakes to get people to attend. Pastor Rod Parsley has decided that his church will give away a used car among other fabulous merchandise, including cool gadgets like an iPad. There is a long list of prizes on their website, and a host of prizes for the kiddies too. All you have to do to enter is register prior to the service, but you must be in attendance when they announce the winners at the program’s close. Subtle, isn’t it? (I wonder if Bob Barker will be on hand?) In addition to the merchandise, they’re giving away a real, live bunny and 50,000 eggs. I’m not kidding.

This kind of farce does not characterize all churches, yet I still can’t help get the feeling that most churches are very opportunistic around this time of year. They may put it under the guise of reaching the lost, but it seems they don’t mind strengthening their numbers and their reputation in the process, so they all look for ways to promote their Easter service. As nauseating as Rod Parsley’s raffle is, it may only differ in scale from what other churches will do. I know one that’s giving away mugs to anyone who will commit to attend their Easter service.

It seems there’s a crowd out there who feels compelled to make an annual pilgrimage to their local church of choice, just to make sure the bases are covered when it comes to the one important service (two if you count Christmas). After all the hoopla, the crowd that calls itself “Christian” on a survey will be pretty much finished with church for the next several months. The churches who courted this demographic will return to the normal level of attendance and go back to business as usual. All their prizes and promotions will be for naught.

But let’s take inventory. What comes to mind for most people when they think of Easter? Bunnies, bonnets, eggs, Hot Cross Buns? How about a chocolate cross? Is that too much for a disciple to bear? Add to this whole circus the fact that Christ was not raised on the day called Easter and things really come apart. Easter isn’t Christian. It is a Roman corruption displacing the Passover—which, incidentally, occurs some other week this time of year (on the Hebrew calendar). We don’t even commemorate the right day. No bunnies were around when Jesus was executed on a cross. And his cross wasn’t made of solid milk chocolate. It was real wood, covered with real blood. Let’s put that on a billboard and see how many will come. But if you want a good turnout, better give away some cars, eggs, maybe even some cash!

Sideshows aside, I think Churches are actually responsible for creating this pilgrimage-mentality. They have become complicit in the belief that, if you only connect with the cross of Christ once a year, it better be on Easter. They hope to hook some people into regular attendance, which might happen occasionally; and maybe some souls will even be saved. By-and-large, however, when all the wooing is over, there isn’t much return on the investment. Once-a year-pew sitters are hard to change, especially when the message is focused on the freebies, both physical and spiritual. The message of the cross becomes one of “seeker-friendly” convenience during most Easter services. It doesn’t have to be a prize-festooned extravaganza to cheapen the message of the cross. Just let the visitors know nothing is expected, that grace gets them off the hook, and hopefully they will come around next time. It makes you feel good to know that marginal Christians choose your church for their rare appearances.

No matter what the time of year, churches continue to make attendance a primary focus at the expense of Christ. The list of gimmicks never ends, ranging from Hot-Rod Sundays to personal finance workshops and even free carnival rides in the church parking lot. What message is the world hearing? Churches will do almost anything to get people to attend. It’s become a popularity contest. Yet Jesus wasn’t concerned about his popularity. He knowingly said and did things that would turn the crowds away. On one occasion Jesus fed a multitude, but when the people realized he wasn’t just a meal ticket (or a raffle ticket), they lost interest and left. They just walked away, and Jesus let them.  He didn’t even do follow-up visits on their front porches Tuesday evening. Knowing this, why do churches go to such extremes to please the masses and get warm bodies in the pews? Jesus was more likely to turn people away because what they sought was not in line with the kingdom.

Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. (John 6:26 NIV)

Then Jesus had some hard things to say…

From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. (John 6:66, NIV)

Jesus spoke the truth. He let the crowd know their reason for coming had no value. Not very seeker friendly when you think about it. Many of today’s churches are striving to do just the opposite by appealing to the carnal desires as a bait-and-switch. The only switch will be when the crowd gets their fill and walks away.

The Passover Bunny doesn’t exist. You cannot take a sacrificial lamb, pour out its blood and then decorate it with chocolate eggs and Easter Lillies. If the first connection to the crowd is aimed at their belly or their greed, how do you proceed to spiritual things without losing them? If the message the world is hearing is that Christianity is so boring and unfulfilling that you have to dress it up with gameshow prizes, how do you reverse that mindset?

You don’t.

Ties that Bind (3)

In Christ, Christianity, church, denomination, evangelical, sectarian, unity on March 27, 2011 at 4:58 pm

Christ prayed that his believers would all be one. It is apparent today, with numerous divisions and such rigid walls about us, that we are opposed to this purpose of Christ. If we are not minding what Christ desires, it suggests that our flesh is in the way, because the flesh is enmity with God and cannot please him. Most of Christendom has forsaken unity in Christ. Instead, Christians emphasize their beliefs in the areas where they differ. May I reiterate that? Christians focus and build their identity on their points of disagreement! I am of Apollos… I am of Cephas… I am pre-millennial… I am Trinitarian… I am A Capella… I speak in tongues…And yet another says I am of Christ–as if to say all the others are not.

Wrong as they are, factions exist for a reason; they have a purpose in the body. Paul said that heresies must come in order to reveal those among us who are acceptable, or approved (1 Cor. 1:19). He doesn’t expand on this statement, but it seems clear that developing or adhering to factions puts us at odds with Christ’s purpose to have and behold one body that cannot be individuated. Individuating is another way for us to understand heresy, because our individual nature is the fuel. The lexicons say that engaging in heresy is choosing or taking for oneself. It is to choose or prefer some particular thing above others.

When we address the issue of factions, it is vitally important that we learn to discern between conformity and true unity. Conformity is based on numerous points of alignment. There is a mandate to agree in order to be included. Surely we can get along with those who share all of our vital views and practices. In this sense our churches are no more based on love than a political party. Agree to all the right issues and you’ve got support! When all doctrines are in sync in your group, fellowship seems more based on “right thinking” and conformity. How easy it is to love those with whom you have no conflict. Without differences to challenge our unity, how do we know we have the kind of agape love described in 1 Corinthians 13, remembering how this love surpasses knowledge? Doctrines are sourced in knowledge. Knowledge is needed, but without love it becomes divisive and legalistic.

So how do we define the body of Christ? Are we to rely on our complex doctrines, separate denominations and movements, perceiving the security of our faith to be found in a statement of beliefs, a list of practices, or our forensic approach to scripture? Or, should we take up the ecumenical approach? I doubt that the multiplication and combination of every religious tradition will move us any closer to the simplicity of Christ.

Jesus said to Martha that she was distracted by many things. Mary, on the other hand chose the one thing. It is the one thing that should be the focus of all believers. Otherwise they will continue to divide and create doctrines of their individual choice. Churches do not seem to mind the one thing. They are concerned and troubled about numerous and diverse things.

So then, if there is any comfort in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, fulfill my joy, that you think the same, having the same love, one in soul, minding the one thing, doing nothing according to party spirit or self-glory, but in humility, esteeming one another as surpassing yourselves; (Phi 2:1-3, LITV)

I like how this version puts it; minding the “one thing.” That is a very literal translation. There is simplicity in Christ. There is a singular focus. There is “one thing” in the Christian walk.  “There is one body and one Spirit…  one Lord, one faith… one God and Father of all…”

What does scripture have to say about the one thing? In regard to doctrines there is one faith. In regard to divisions there is one body. In regard to submission there is one Lord. In regard to unity there is one Spirit. In regard to our provision there is one God and Father of all. “For if you should have myriads of teachers in Christ, yet not many fathers; for I fathered you in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (1Cor. 4:15 ). This is the one thing.