Hypocrisy! It’s perhaps the single biggest reason people say they don’t go to church. In fact, according to UnChristian, a book based on surveys done by the Barna Research Group, among people with no religious affiliation in the 16- to 29-year-old bracket, 85% say one reason they don’t go to church is because Christians are hypocritical. And it’s such an easy dodge. One word: hypocrisy. Someone has suggested the best response might be, “There’s always room for one more.” There’s a kind of truth to what they’re claiming. If you’re looking for a group of people who always live up to their highest values and who never say one thing and do another, you’ll need to look somewhere other than the church, though I doubt you’ll find a group totally free of inconsistency anywhere.
It can be a healthy thing to acknowledge the contradictions between our profession of faith and our daily actions, but it’s also useful to qualify our confession a bit. In the New Testament, the only time Jesus hurled the charge of hypocrisy was when people were doing something deliberately to appear outwardly different from what they were inwardly. For example, he spoke about people who gave to charity “so that they may be praised by others” (Matthew 6:2). Likewise, he spoke against those who “love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others” (v. 5). He also chided the scribes and Pharisees for putting on appearances, saying, “For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth” (Matthew 23:27). Jesus called all of those people hypocrites, and the Greek word that’s translated “hypocrite” actually means “actor” or “stage player.”
How many church attendees do you suppose get up on Sunday morning and think, “I’m going to go to church so I can pretend to be righteous and appear to be holy”? No, when we church people admit to being hypocrites, we aren’t usually confessing to playacting. More often, we mean that we failed to follow through on our good intentions or that we can still see the gap between the people we are called to be and the people we actually are. But we aren’t trying to deceive anybody; we’re seeing where we still need to work to bring our behavior up to the level of what we really believe.
It appears, then, that when somebody is outside the church and has no intention of coming in, it’s easy for him or her to say it’s because of hypocrisy in the church. And there are some gaps between our best intentions and our follow-through. But church insiders are more likely to see those gaps differently. In other words, if you really get involved with members of a congregation, you are less likely to see problems in the church in terms of hypocrisy and more in terms of human failure. And when you’re talking about human failure, it’s easier to include yourself in that category. In fact, many people stay in the church because, though they recognize imperfections among both fellow attendees and themselves, they also see it’s a place where we’re called higher. And if you pay attention in church, you’ll often see people who are working very hard to follow Jesus faithfully.
Thus, one good reason to come to church is because it puts us in company with other people who also see that gap between their profession and practice, and care enough to want to narrow it. In church, we find people who aren’t that different from ourselves and who are on faith journeys similar to ours. And there is always room for one more!
"I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service..." (I Timothy 1:12)
When considering whom to call to be a promoter of peace and justice, an example of Christ's compassion and caring and a model of the gospel, we would not necessarily think of Paul. If the personnel department of Christian evangelism was looking for a candidate to spread the message of grace and inclusion that defined Jesus' ministry, Paul's résumé would not make the cut.
And yet -- here he is, preaching the gospel and somehow "judged ... faithful and appointed" to the service of Jesus Christ. When seeking a devoted disciple, God saw more in Paul than simply his past. His past was not his future. God, who can make all things new, opened up the door to new life and invited Paul to enter in. Paul was like the lost sheep that God rejoiced over redeeming.
So what's our excuse? If God can transform a Saul to a Paul, if God can "appoint to his service" a mean-spirited, blaspheming man of violence like Saul -- what are we waiting for? Why do we think that God has not "appointed" us to serve? Paul was a follower of Jesus not because of his upstanding behavior in the past but because of God's mercy and grace. God understands that Paul "acted ignorantly in unbelief" (v. 13) but is now ready to receive God's forgiveness. Ironically, it is Paul's experience with sin and turning away from God that makes him appreciate the gifts of God's mercy and kindness even more. It was precisely Paul's shameful past behavior that made him an ideal candidate for a future in forgiveness and redemption.
God reminds us through the example of Paul that our past does not have the final word. The past is prologue. God will give us the best job ever. The dream job. A job that will lead to the adventure of a lifetime: following Christ in serving the Kingdom of God. When I was young, my father told me, "If you love to serve, you will always have something important to do and you will always be happy." This is our calling as Christians. We are appointed to serve. And if we love to do it, God will give us joy and fulfillment forever.
Finding the Potter's House
As the old hymn goes:
Have Thine own way, Lord! Have Thine own way!
Thou art the Potter, I am the clay.
Mold me and make me after Thy will,
While I am waiting, yielded and still.
This hymn was written more than a century ago, leaving us with the question: Can we still find “the Potter’s House” today? Or will we decide to ignore God’s map for us?
First we need to make a right turn. A word that appears repeatedly in this passage from Jeremiah is “turn.” God speaks of a nation that “turns from its evil” (v. 8) and calls for Israel to “Turn now, all of you from your evil way” (v. 11). God also says that “I will change my mind” about a nation that turns from its evil (v. 8), and “I will change my mind” about a nation that turns toward evil (v. 10). This language of turning and changing is the language of molding and making. Nothing is fixed, everything is changing.
Second: When you get there, allow the potter to work with your clay as he chooses. Don’t worry about what shape you are in now; the potter can reshape you. Don’t fixate on the flaws of the past; the potter can purify you. Don’t stress about wrong turns you’ve made in the past; the potter can help you move in a new direction.
In the Potter’s House, you are ever-changing clay in the divine potter’s hand.
Allow the divine potter to make you and mold you, according to his will. Open yourself to being filled with the Holy Spirit, until — as the old hymn says — all shall see “Christ only, always, living in me.”
Rev. Dr. Shannon Smythe
United Presbyterian Church