The Church of Nothing

“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1)

A title like The Church of Nothing is bound to put some readers on rant alert. I don’t rant; it does nothing but tell you I’m upset. You could have just emailed me that. I’m missing the game in the empty stadium on ESPN. So if you don’t mind, or even if you do . . .

 And though it sounds like something you’d say if you were exasperated or frustrated to the point of anger, that’s not what this is about, either. It’s about real substance, the opposite of nothing.

It’s about radical approaches to the way the church functions. Radical–just the sound of it makes some people uneasy, and with good reason.

You may know it comes from a Latin word (radicalis) that means “root.” So a radical approach to removing the dead shrubbery by your front porch doesn’t mean cutting it off at the ground but digging down to get the whole thing out, including the roots (cf. metaphorical we changed everything, root and branch).

But the uneasiness stems from its less literal sense of extreme deviations from norms and traditional practices. So different as to be bizarre, weird.

My degree wasn’t in history, but I read a lot of it, and one historical example which combined both senses in one approach to governance occurred under Mao in China. Frank Dikötter, who teaches at the University of Hong Kong (or did, anyway), wrote three books on this. I own one and have read the other two.

It’s not easy or pleasant reading, starting with the 1949 Revolution and concluding with the days of the Cultural Revolution. And since I dated a Chinese-American woman in college, it occurred to me more than once, especially when I got to the final book set in the mid-1960s, that she could have been there if her family hadn’t fled to the United States before she was born.

Mao’s revolution was radical because it turned some Confucian ideals on their heads. The traditional respect for education and wisdom (i.e., a root of Chinese culture) was abandoned when he sent doctors and academics into the fields with hoes, or to gather wood for “backyard furnaces” that turned out steel that was largely useless. So he uprooted tradition in truly strange ways. And I am restraining myself when I use “strange.” Some of the results were appalling and even ghastly.

Jesus’ approach to inaugurating the kingdom of heaven was radical, too, in the sense that it laid the ax to the root of the whole system. The phrase “the ax is already at the root of the trees” is something John the Baptist said to the Pharisees and Sadducees when they came up to see him (Mt 3:10). You don’t have to guess who the trees were.

But Jesus didn’t order anyone to do weird, otherworldly things like sit atop a pillar as a form of devotion (Simon the Stylite, a real person). With all due respect to the descendants of Simon—if he had any, since sitting atop a pole makes certain conjugal activities just about impossible, to say nothing of dangerous—this seems more like something that grew back from an old root, not anything radically new.

I say that because what Jesus identified as the religious leaders’ motivation–“Everything they do is done for people to see” (Mt 23:5)—was the root that fed every branch, tendril, runner and leaf of the religious system that dominated Judea at the time. It wasn’t just what they did per se, but who they did it for that defined the character of their “righteousness.”

So when he said “practicing your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them” would result in “no reward from your Father in heaven,” he was really answering the question, What does doing things “for people to see” have to do with the kingdom of heaven? The answer: Nothing.

So for this post and at least one more, I’ll be your tour guide to the Church of Nothing. “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?” (Mk 8:36 NASB). Zip. Nada. Nothing.

You want to be a high-roller ministry, Reverend Fleesom? The apostle who wrote half the New Testament recalled “three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep” (2 Cor 11:25). You won’t travel on ships because your goal is your private “ministry jet,” which “God wants me to have, to preach his precious gospel.” (Excuse me for a moment while I mop up the puddle of tears on the floor.)

The only chance you have at spending a night in the deep is if your jet runs out of jet fuel and falls from the sky. I hope you can swim better than you interpret Jesus’ warnings about wealth: “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Lk 12:15).

What do these ostentatious displays of “God’s blessings”–translation: money obtained by cynically exploiting the legal definition of “non-profit corporation”–have to do with the true kingdom of heaven? Nothing, even though their IRS filings reveal that a man can profit handsomely from “ministry.”

What about persons who revel in their “charismatic fireworks” in every meeting, oblivious to whether or not anyone is truly edified? Or the grade-school vintage “show-and-tell” attitude behind people jostling to prophesy, share a word of instruction or a revelation, more concerned that no one cuts into their time, “because this is something the Lord really wants his people to hear”?

I have met genuine believers with a sincere respect for the word of God who, more than anything else, however, want to be the center of attention at every meeting, large or small, to display their knowledge, showcase their “spiritual maturity” (in contrast to all of you) or remind you of the “place of honor” or “important seat” they occupy in that church (Mt 23:5-7).

What does this have to do with the kingdom of heaven? And what if you “have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge” but prestige—the reward of men’s praise–takes precedence over everything else? What do you have? Nothing.

I have to include this, though it might send a shiver down a spine or two. After several months of social distancing, church-disrupting, church-canceling pandemic, what are many going to realize about their church, the church they’ve attended for 10, 20, 40 years? They say you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone (or at least Joni Mitchell does; someone else must have said it at some point).

What if they realize, now they’ve had time to think about it and live without it for a while, they haven’t missed anything that really matters to them? What if the answer is—nothing?

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