I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. -John 15:5
Christianity without Christ is a strange thing. The church devoid of the gospel—devoid of Christ—is a monstrosity. Many years ago, the National Football League went on strike and NFL owners decided to continue the season by hiring replacement players. At first, people tuned in for the novelty of watching guys play for their teams who, under normal circumstances, would have never made a professional squad. But after a few weeks the laughs were over and the ratings plummeted. Why? Because people were not getting what they expected. The term “professional football player” meant something distinct in the public’s mind, and the replacement players were not the real deal.
What happens in churches where Christ is not present? In almost all instances, there eventually are not enough people to support the church. I thank God for that. I am heartily glad that without Christ pretend ministries and pretend ministers cannot prosper. A Christian church that exists without Christ as its cornerstone is, gladly, doomed. If a confectioner were to open a shop and begin to advertise candies and cakes without sugar or sweeteners, you can be sure that the business would not succeed.
The ancient Greeks envisioned evil spirits and gods as demons formed like animals with conflated body parts. Half man and half beast, land animals with wings or squatty gargoyles with pointed ears and noses. They did so partly because humans have in their minds the notion that some things go together and some things do not. Those that do not are usually conceived of as being evil. Most people have a prejudice in their minds (and taste buds) that favor candy with sugar in it and professional athletes as the very best in the business. Even in an increasingly secular society, most also assume that a Christian church that claims to present the gospel must also have Christ at its center. Some may rejoice that the “work of God” is accomplished without a claim of obedience to Christ, but the majority will not countenance it. Here we are not speaking only of believers (this would hopefully be obvious) but non-believers as well.
A church without Christ at its center may seem like a fine idea, but over time non-believers find other things to do with their time and money. This is plainly seen in the rapidly declining numbers among liberal-leaning denominations. There is a good reason why there are no Unitarian and Universalist mega-churches, and we can thank God for it. Smart people do not throw away their time and money to worship a God who is their equal, or to be challenged to live faithfully by men or women who clearly do not. When everyone is going to make it to heaven regardless of their commitments, lifestyles, or faithfulness to the truth, why waste time gathering together for worship and equipping when the golf courses are open and beds are warm? Lazy Sunday mornings almost always trump going to church and sharing our resources when all we are doing is mutually admiring one another. And rightfully so.
Jesus is often complimented these days, but not often submitted to as Lord and Savior. Men and women who reject the truth of the gospel may say many pretty things about him, but in the end, it amounts to nothing more than so much chaff in the wind. They speak of Jesus like a man speaks of distant stars while viewing them through a telescope. They talk much about what God is saying to them personally or about how old truths have been replaced by new truths, but they back up neither claim accurately with the Scriptures, and their lives demonstrate their lack of love for its truths. This folly has created a great emptiness. When a pulpit is devoid of Jesus Christ, nothing of lasting importance is accomplished. It is true that this world knows a few exceptions where men or women of charisma preach messages filled with simple-minded self-help tidbits and speak admiringly of Jesus, and for it they are rewarded with large crowds and swooning followers (and the monetary riches that naturally follow), but such ministries will soon dissipate. Without Christ we can do nothing. It, like everything else produced by finite humans, simply fades away.
Each year during Lent many of us spend “40 Days with Jesus.” We focus on Jesus’ words from John 15:5. We recognize that Jesus is the vine and we are the branches. It is an apt metaphor. We draw our nourishment from Christ. As the apostle Paul told the Athenians, “In him we live and move and have our being.” If we do not acknowledge always the absolute supremacy of Christ, we shall do nothing of lasting importance in the church or in our lives. Holy Week is an appropriate time to take stock of where we stand in relation to Christ. Is Jesus Christ at the center in our lives and ministries? If so we may rightly rejoice. If not, there is no time like the present to consider a change in course—to submit to his lordship and worship him as Savior and King. I am in the process of doing that this week. I hope and pray that you are as well.
Grace and peace,