The following is the text I prepared for my sermon Sunday, October 21, 2012, at Plainfield UMC. This sermon focused on the second part of our mission statement: “Equipping people for a growing relationship with Jesus Christ to serve all.” The thesis is that we can be extremely well equipped, but if we’re not standing for Jesus and resisting the “ways of the world,” i.e. “sin,” then we’re not building strong “faith muscles.” A “growing relationship” with Jesus / faith in Jesus grows and strengthens from “resistance training.”
“Resistance is futile?” Can anyone identify how this catch phrase was popularized in culture?
Wikipedia: “The Borg are a collection of species that have turned into cybernetic organisms functioning as drones of the collective or the hive. A pseudo-race, dwelling in the Star Trek universe, the Borg take other species by force into the collective and connect them to ‘the hive mind’; the act is called assimilation. The Borg’s ultimate goal is ‘achieving perfection’. The origin of the Borg is never made clear, though they are portrayed as having existed for hundreds or thousands of years. In the movie Star Trek: First Contact, the Borg Queen merely states that the Borg were once much like humanity, ‘flawed and weak’, but gradually developed into a partially synthetic species in an ongoing attempt to evolve and perfect themselves.”
Borg Queen: “Assimilation turns us all into friends. In fact, it brings us so close together we can hear each other’s thoughts.” Doesn’t that creep you out? Yet, we likely find the idea of “being friends” or at least “getting along” with everyone an appealing ideal. Remember Rodney King’s public appeal in the midst of the Los Angeles riots of 1992? “Can we all get along?” The Borg, however, want much more than just “getting along” with each other, and certainly much more than mere coexistence, they want “assimilation,” which has as its ultimate goal, “achieving perfection.”
“Achieving perfection” as a goal should sound familiar to us as Methodists. From the earliest days of the Methodist movement, under the leadership of John Wesley, our forebears taught the concept of “Christian perfection.” What is Christian perfection? They answered: “The loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. This implies, that no wrong temper, none contrary to love, remains in the soul; and that all the thoughts, words, and actions, are governed by pure love.” Wesley wrote of his early encounters with the concept of Christian perfection: “Hence I saw, in a clearer and clearer light, the indispensable necessity of having ‘the mind which was in Christ’, and of ‘walking as Christ also walked’; even of having, not some part only, but all the mind which was in him; and of walking as he walked, not only in many or in most respects, but in all things. And this was the light, wherein at this time I generally considered religion, as an uniform following of Christ, an entire inward and outward conformity to our Master.”
Last Sunday we heard Ephesians 4: “But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” We are “one body” in Christ. And consider these words from the Apostle Paul in Philippians 2: “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”
Do we pursue the goal of “Christian perfection” through “assimilation” into the “one body” or “one mind” of Christ? Does an individual, personal relationship with Jesus Christ actually require, as Wesley taught, “an entire inward and outward conformity to [Jesus as] our Master?” “Entire conformity?” Doesn’t that sound Borg-like? In our highly individualistic culture, doesn’t talk of “assimilation” and “conformity” make us squirm and even rebel? What about these Christian ideas of being “of one mind” with a bunch of other people? What about being “one body?”
We probably find disturbing placing side-by-side our cherished ideas of Christian “oneness” and the concept of “assimilation” by the Borg of Star Trek fame. Contemplating our human nature in this way may make us confused and uncomfortable and our human nature appears to be self-contradictory: we instinctually think and react as individuals, constantly on guard against outside forces that may harm us. We value strongly our individual liberties and freedoms, so much so that we have enshrined some of them as rights guaranteed by our Constitution. Yet to survive we must work interdependently within various social groups whose group survival depends on varying levels of selflessness, and in some groups even complete self-sacrifice to the point of death.
So, what is true about human nature? Are we mostly individualistic? Or groupish?
In his fascinating recent book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt characterizes human nature as “90% chimpanzee and 10% bee,” a metaphor that attempts to explain the balance between our individualism and our groupishness. At the risk of gross oversimplification, Haidt locates ecstatic religious experience (including worship!) in our 10% bee-ish nature. We have an innate desire to, on occasion, turn on the “hive switch,” as he calls it, and become “one” with our surroundings and our fellow humans. Flipping the hive switch an attaining “at-one-ment” can happen when you’re totally alone, hiking in the middle of a beautiful landscape or while yelling at the replacement refs in a football stadium with tens of thousands of people. The loss of self and the feeling of absorption into the group or the “universe” is necessary to maintain health and happiness, so claims Haidt. Most, if not all, religions teach some kind of practice of seeking and entering into atonement. But let us not confuse our human feelings of and desires for atonement, as Haidt suggests with words like “groupishness” and “hive switch,” with the grand idea of atonement taught by the prophets and by the Lord Jesus Christ. We should not be afraid of our complex human nature and the different directions we are pushed and pulled in by complicated forces in society and by our own emotional states. On this side of life we are incomplete, at best, and unfinished works of God.
Our “growing relationship with Jesus Christ” is both individualistic and collectivistic. Consider the two readings from the Gospel of Luke this morning. The first reading from Luke 6 sounds very collectivistic, the words of Jesus: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. [F]rom anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.” Yet the same writer puts these words in the mouth of Jesus in Luke 12: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided.” What do we do with these scriptures? Both claim to be the very words of Jesus! “Love your enemies” in one speech, and yet in another speech Jesus says he came to divide families! What on earth is going on here?!
A “growing relationship with Jesus Christ,” that’s what’s going on here! For anything to grow there has to be resistance, namely resistance to death. If two or three people in a family follow Christ, and the other two or three people do not follow Christ and live their lives in complete disregard to the lordship of Christ, then division is likely to happen. Resistance to abuse and neglect is essential for one’s survival. Resistance is not futile. But wait a second, you may think, didn’t Jesus say in Matthew 5, a parallel to Luke 6: “But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Jesus was saying do not flatout oppose and stand completely against another. Resistance is completely different. In Jesus’s example of striking the cheek, turning the other cheek is resistance to the ways of the world and our gut instincts that tell us to strike back in self-defense, to react with further and even increased violence. To strike back is not resistance; it is assimilation to violence and ultimately to death.
Resistance is absolutely not futile. Actually, resistance is absolutely essential to a “growing relationship with Jesus Christ” just as growing muscles comes from strengthening them through resistance training like lifting weights or working the machines at the Y. Similarly, relational resistance training for a “growing relationship with Jesus Christ” involves praying, studying the scriptures, worshipping, communing in small groups, giving, and witnessing. If you’re not doing these things because your faith is solely in your head or you are doing them, in various degrees, because they are your habits, then today is always a good day to reflect on just how and how much you are growing your faith by resisting the ways of the world, which would have us do them not at all or to do them without meaning, purpose, or self-understanding.
Last week Eun-Hye preached on “equipping” the saints for the work of ministry, and she used the metaphor of “head, heart, and hands/feet” with the head referring to being equipped, the heart to our relationships, and the hands/feet to serving. Some of the practices for relational training I have named, like praying and studying the scriptures, are also practices of equipping, but I want to express a crucial difference between being equipped and growing relationships through these spiritual practices. You can pray mightily to God every day and diligently study the Bible for years and thus be incredibly equipped to transform the world, but if you’re not resisting the world, that is, resisting sin at the same time, then you’re lifting one pound barbells and never moving to the heavier weights or to cardiovascular exercise to strengthen your heart, which will enable you to grow strong in your faith. And the stronger you grow in your faith–in your heart, the stronger your relationships will become with your family, with your friends, with your co-workers, and with Jesus. And then, yes, you can become “perfect.”
The early Methodists asked John Wesley: “But whom then do you mean by ‘one that is perfect’?” To which Wesley answered: “We mean one in whom is ‘the mind which was in Christ’, and who so ‘walketh as Christ also walked’; a man ‘that hath clean hands and a pure heart’, or that is ‘cleansed from all filthiness of flesh and spirit’; one in whom is ‘no occasion of stumbling’, and who, accordingly, ‘does not commit sin’.” Wesley was clear later in life after his ideas of Christian perfection caused much controversy that “perfection” does not equate to “sinless.” He wrote: “And I do not contend for the term sinless, though I do not object against it. As to the manner [of Christian perfection]. I believe this perfection is always wrought in the soul by a simple act of faith; consequently, in an instant.”
May your growing faith with Jesus Christ always be open to glimpses of God’s grace in your imperfect relationships and in your private moments of atonement. And, to modify the words of the Borg Queen, may “our resistance to sin turn us all into friends and bring us so close together we can forgive each other’s sins.” Amen.