I have played soccer for about twenty years now so the rules come fairly naturally to me, but when I started on the Purple People Eaters U-5 rec team it was a different story. Five year olds were running everywhere, no one knew how to play a position, and the referee was constantly blowing the whistle. It took a great deal of time to be able to play the game without having to think about the rules, but now, if I were to try to go play a game of soccer with that same group of five year olds, it would be miserable. The rules go from being binding to being the very thing that help maintain the freedom and fun of the game.
If there were overarching themes t the vast majority of the Sermons I preach to middle and high schoolers, one would certainly be that the Christian life is not about rules, it is about a way of life. I have long believed that, and yet recently I have come to question whether that is true. I want it to be true, because no one likes rules. They are un-attractive, especially to those who want nothing to do with following Jesus in the first place. We naturally crave freedom, not bondage.
I have come to this conclusion: Christianity is not about rules… but sometimes it is. Senseless rules only serve to confine, but I believe that the rules Jesus set forth actually serve to refine. There is a great void between the moment of Regeneration (a moment of rebirth or acceptance into a Christian way of life) and the completion of Sanctification (the process of being made holy). All too often we confuse a moment or commitment to follow Jesus with the refining of the rough parts about us. Likely, when Christians seem abrasive, its not for lack of genuine commitment to following Christ, it’s a lack of realization that they are in a continued process of being made a new. The process of being made holy requires both joining with a community that is in the same process and engaging with the practices that remind us how we are to live.
There has been a building downtown near where I live that has been half built for a few years now. It had a very promising start. Deals were made, plans were drawn and the construction got underway. There was do be luxury condominiums, possibly even a Starbucks on the ground level. Then the economy took a turn for the worst. The construction company apparently was hit by hard times and so they abandoned the project. At one of the busiet corners in the area stood a building half finished.
We could all see the potential; we knew what it was supposed to be. And yet, standing in its unfinished state, with no visible progress for year, I watched, as it appeared to rot. I heard that the insulation was poorly protected and would be no good. It actually came to be nicknamed the birdhouse, because it never had any windows put in. The feelings as I passed by turned form anticipation of its completion to the tiresome wait for its demolition. What began with a beautiful promise sat disappointingly unfinished.
Recently, another contractor has taken on the task of finishing the building. It was indeed not demolished however the current construction crew not only had to continue the work, they had to repair the damage that had taken place from the years of neglect.
Most everyone begins a journey of faith with a beautiful promise. We relish in the joy of something new and exciting. The momentum of a new task, a new pursuit, and a new challenge typically carried us for a while. But all to often, for whatever reason, perhaps an economic disaster, perhaps a relational failure, perhaps simply being tired of moving toward a finished project, circumstances lead us to sit disappointingly unfinished.
But we are promised more. We are promised that we will be mad into a new creation (Revelation 21:5). We are promised that he who began a good work in us will carry it on to completion (Philippians 1:6). The initial jolt is great but it will only take us so far. We are all sitting in an unfinished state, and there is work that needs to be done.
I think this is where the Church, rules, you, and I, intersect. All too often I have been overly apologetic about the notion of Christianity having rules. And yet, in any setting whether it is organizational, athletic, academic, or otherwise, the rules in place are meant for the benefit not the detriment of the participant. This is where we get confused; we believe that our confession of Jesus must be in the form or the rebuke of the world when in actuality our confession of Jesus must be in the redemption of the world. The church is to be the restored and redeemed community that the world is to become. The Church is the embodiment of those who acknowledge that the parameters of life have gone haywire. It is a community that exists not to judge externally, but slowly be repaired internally so that we can be of use to the world.
A friend of mine recently told me about a difficult conversation she had with another person at her Church. A coworker stated to her that she never thought that she would encounter such broken people when she came to work at a church. My friend beautifully responded, “If we are doing our jobs right, this place should be filled with broken people.” It is so true, the Church is and should be be a made of filled with broken people. It stands as a guide; it upholds the parameters that keep us moving toward being made new.
As we join together and engage in practices that serve to remind us that the world is to be made holy, we also are reminded that we are to be made holy, with the implication that we are not there yet. We will one day be free to engage with creation and the parameters that we have been given for the best life possible will come naturally to us, having been built into and refined for us overtime, But for now we can only seek to continue to practice, to continue to follow the rules. They can initially seem confining, but we will never truly appreciate the game as it is meant to be played if we can’t first understand how to play.