I swear if I hear one more Church figure use that word, I’m gonna scream. It’s become a buzz word over the past several years in Church circles and it’s making me crazy.
“Come and worship with us and hear messages that are relevant for today.”
“You need to be relevant in your preaching.”
Or other such nonsense as that.
It’s as though Christ isn’t relevant enough. I mean, that’s basically what is being said. The Gospel isn’t enough. No, we need relevance, whatever that means.
Therein lies the problem. Relevance means whatever you want it to mean. The whole premise behind the shift in the Church over the last 50-60 years just makes my head hurt. The thought that we need to adapt our worship or presentation of the gospel to “modern man” is just asinine. Modern man, in his lost state, wants nothing whatsoever to do with the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Here’s the thing. The only thing that is relevant to our lives today is the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the only relevant thing in life. Everything else is either a means to get us closer to Him or farther away. There’s a couple of things we need to consider:
The preaching of Jesus Himself
The reality of eternity
Let’s start with the preaching of our Lord Jesus. If you’ve read the Gospels at all, you will know that Jesus’ preaching and teaching was not exactly popular with the establishment of the day. Actually, it wasn’t exactly popular with most people of the day, period. He told people to repent. He told people to stop sinning. He told people that they were going to have to choose between loved ones and Him. He told people that they would have to carry their cross and be persecuted. He told people that allegiance to Him meant dying to the world. He told people that the Kingdom had come and it looked radically different than their idea of power. He told people to pray for their enemies and give away all their goods. He preached a gospel of radical self-denial and absolute surrender to God’s will. He told people that disobedience to what God (and He) said meant eternal damnation.
Now, let’s consider the “relevant gospel” that we so often hear today, from all denominational entities.
Be nice to each other. Be racially and socially woke. You don’t actually have to die for Jesus because He came to make you happy and healthy and have a great life. Don’t worry about sin and hell and damnation, ‘cause Jesus is nice now and He won’t condemn you. Enjoy all the comforts of life, ‘cause Jesus doesn’t want you to be uncomfortable. Just come as you are (that’s code for don’t worry about repentance). Be a good person. You get to keep your life just as it is. We don’t have to hear truth; I’ll just tell jokes. Heck, sometimes people even dress up as movie characters. We can re-think the way the Church has always done things. Our music is modern and we have relevant teaching for your children (that’s code for your kids get the warm fuzzies and get to play with toys). We’re gonna sing love songs to Jesus.
Do you see the difference? If Jesus were preaching today, very few would listen to Him…kinda like what happened in His day. If Jesus were preaching today, people would condemn Him as harsh and unloving because He told them to repent. He certainly wouldn’t be preaching a gospel of environmentalism (I’m looking at you, Pope Francis). If Jesus were preaching today, He would be utterly rejected by modern man and many who claim to be Christian.
Now, let us consider the reality of eternity. Aside from our society just straight up being a bunch of whiny babies, we really don’t seem to want to think too much about eternity. Here’s what I mean. If this life is all there is, then the “relevant” gospel makes perfect sense. If this life is all there is, then you better be nice and have fun activities and dress up like movie characters and tell jokes in your sermons and be woke. If this life is all there is, eat drink and be merry and don’t worry about those depressing things like repentance and the Cross.
But, if there is an eternity, if there is a Heaven and Hell (and Jesus said there was), then His gospel becomes supremely relevant. If our eternal destiny is either being in His presence and the fulness of joy versus an eternity of flames and anguish that never dies, relevance takes on a whole new meaning. If your gospel revolves around making yourself appealing to the culture, you are damning people to Hell.
Jesus didn’t seem too concerned with how people felt about what He said. He seemed far more concerned with how they lived their lives, whether they were obedient to what He said, lived righteously and how they loved others. The Apostles and Fathers and holy martyrs of the Church didn’t seem too concerned with being popular or relevant. They seemed concerned about fidelity to the person and message of Jesus Christ, no matter the cost.
There is only one thing that is relevant. Repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. Everything else is irrelevant and ultimately leads to the road to Hell. Our preaching, our worship, our cool and hip songs, and joke telling is utterly worthless if we don’t say first and foremost:
Repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.
If you know anything about me or have followed my journey of faith and walk with Jesus, you will know some of the story of me coming to faith in Jesus, going to seminary, being a Protestant pastor and eventually converting to the Catholic Church.
One of the first things I did on this journey, in a desire to understand what the early Christians thought about Jesus and how they interpreted Holy Scripture and lived out the faith, was to read the earliest Christian sources, other than the Bible, I could find. Those were the extant writings of the men we call the Church Fathers.
There are different eras and groups of the Fathers and I don’t want to get too much into that. But two of the earliest Fathers I spent time with were St. Athanasius and St. John Chrysostom, along with some random writings of some of the Desert Fathers. St. Athanasius was one of the greatest Fathers and Doctors of the Eastern Church. He was Egyptian, born in Alexandria. His work, On the Incarnation, was my introduction to the Fathers and just completely blew my mind. He is one of my heroes of the faith. He stood for the faith at a time when most of the bishops of the Church had strayed into heresy. St. Athanasius stood firm on the deposit of the faith and on who Christ was. He is, in fact, my confirmation saint.
St. John Chrysostom was another one of the early Fathers I was introduced to; again, one of the Eastern Fathers and perhaps the greatest preacher that has ever lived. He was born in Antioch, Syria and was eventually named as the Archbishop of Constantinople. His preaching was heavily influential in my life and journey into the Catholic Church.
What’s the point, you may ask?
My introduction to Catholicism began in the East. Most of the Fathers I read and studied were Eastern. By the East, I mean primarily the Greek, Antiochan, Alexandrian and Syrian Fathers; St. Irenaeus, St. Polycarp, Origen, St. Basil, St. Hippolytus, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Melito and others were among my earliest exposures to the Fathers. I have always had a love for the Eastern Fathers. Early on, I considered the Orthodox Church. Frankly, I ended up not joining them because of their separation from Rome. I wanted to be in communion with the Roman Church.
So, I “swam the Tiber” and joined the Latin Rite Western Church. Early on, I knew that I wanted to be part of the oldest practice of the faith I could find. The Novus Ordo, in my mind, has significant problems and I wanted no part of that. So, I gravitated toward the Latin Mass. It is, after all, THE traditional worship and liturgy of the Western Church. I have written about my experience in the Latin Mass and so won’t belabor the point here. I have fully immersed myself in the Latin Rite, learning Latin and teaching myself to pray in Latin. The experience of stepping into the deep stream of the historic worship of the Latin Church has been very rewarding and deeply humbling.
And yet, I have always been attracted to the East. I lean toward them theologically as well. While I love the deep, contemplative rigor of the Latin Rite, it has always felt…what’s the word…sterile. By that I mean it is very organized and structured and rigid. I’m not saying that is wrong. I love the rigidity of it, actually. By nature and practice I tend to be very disciplined and rigid in my own life so the unchanging nature of the Latin Mass is appealing to me.
I say all of this because I experienced something yesterday that I want to talk a bit about. I was finally able, at the invitation of a dear friend, to attend a Byzantine Catholic Church. For the record, I didn’t know until fairly recently that such a thing existed. I assumed that all the churches in the East were either Orthodox or Roman Catholic. What do they say about assuming….?
Anyways, my buddy and I attended St. Athanasius Byzantine Catholic Church for Divine Liturgy yesterday. How ironic, that the church is named after my confirmation saint…We walked into the church and I knew instantly that this would be unlike anything I had ever experienced. The priest and cantor were praying Matins. Well, I say praying. They were chanting the prayers.
The whole setting literally felt like I had just stepped out of our world and into another realm, another time and place (think about the wardrobe in Narnia). There were dozens upon dozens of beautiful and serene icons all over the church. At the “front” was an iconostasis, a wall with three gates. It was bedecked with icons. The center gate was golden and flowery, with a red curtain drawn behind it. I could hear someone (the priest) behind the wall chanting and singing and I heard bells constantly ringing. Not loud and clanging, but tingling bells almost like sleigh bells constantly ringing. I wondered what was making that noise and didn’t have long to guess. The priest came out from the left side gate and was swinging a censer that was billowing incense. The bells were attached to the censer. It was a melodious and intriguing sound.
A deacon, noticing that we looked a little lost, came over and introduced himself to us. He was most kind and engaging and helpful in explaining some things. He informed us also on the symbolism of all that we were seeing. The icons were representative of the saints and great cloud of witnesses. The iconostasis and the sanctuary behind it symbolically represented heaven and the nave represented earth. Other than that, he said, “I wouldn’t necessarily try to keep up. Just observe. You are all free to receive the Eucharist so long as you are in good standing with the Church, as we are in communion with Rome.”
As the Divine Liturgy began, it was a sensory overload. The icons, the incense, the processions, the chanting and singing back and forth between priest, deacon, cantor and congregation, the bowing, the gates of the sanctuary being opened and closed; it was an entirely immersive experience. It was truly wonderful to be there. It felt exactly as I would imagine it would feel to be immersed in the worship scene around the throne of God in St. John’s Apocalypse. We stood almost the entire liturgy. The priest’s homily was powerful and timely.
It was at once ethereal yet earthly, transcendent yet palpable, symbolically rich yet easily accessible. It really was precisely the opposite experience of a Roman Mass and a remarkable experience of joining with the saints in glory in worship. Where the Roman Mass feels austere and severe (I don’t say that to be critical), the Byzantine Liturgy was rich and stunningly sensory. I found myself, after receiving the Eucharist, to be very emotional.
After the Liturgy, we were invited by the small congregation to have lunch with them. The people were so warm and friendly and welcoming. We will definitely return to that parish soon. I learned something yesterday.
The Church needs the East. She needs the East for the rich diversity and splendor of her Liturgy. She needs the West for the structure and discipline that so characterizes it. The Church, the Body of Christ, needs to breathe with both lungs, East and West.
Let us embrace one another and not be afraid of our differences. They make the Body of Christ rich and deep! Thanks be to God for His grace to us in our diversity!