This sermon was delivered on February 25, 2018, the second week of Lent. It’s a personal favorite of mine, so I hope you enjoy it.
–Grant, the Nerdcore Theologian
31 Then Jesus began to teach his disciples: “The Human One[a] must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts, and be killed, and then, after three days, rise from the dead.” 32 He said this plainly. But Peter took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct him. 33 Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, then sternly corrected Peter: “Get behind me, Satan. You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.”
34 After calling the crowd together with his disciples, Jesus said to them, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. 35 All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them. 36 Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives? 37 What will people give in exchange for their lives? 38 Whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this unfaithful and sinful generation, the Human One[b] will be ashamed of that person when he comes in the Father’s glory with the holy angels.”
What will it profit you to gain the whole world, but forfeit your whole life?
These words have haunted me this week. They’ve haunted me for the past few weeks, honestly. I think frequently about the state of the church, the history of the church, and most importantly, the future of the church. Where are we headed? And is where we are headed look anything like the future Jesus had in mind for us, the Kingdom of Heaven?
Quite frankly, I dwell often on language because language defines thought. As such, this passage haunts me particularly, because of that one word, that one, simply little homonym for which I have named my sermon. Profit, with an F.
We don’t see that word often at all in scripture. Prophet with a “ph”? Everywhere. But not with an F. It sticks out like a sore thumb, and for good reasons.
I have some bad news for everyone today: Scripture does not think highly of profit with an F. In fact, it is quite vocally against it. Just a brief look at a word search for “profit” in the bible is very telling.
1 Timothy 6:17-19: As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.
Proverbs 11:4: Riches do not profit in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death.
Ezekiel 22:12-14: “In you they have taken bribes to shed blood; you have taken interest and profits, and you have injured your neighbors for gain by oppression, and you have forgotten Me,” declares the Lord GOD.
That’s just 3 of them. There are hundreds of them. More often than not, as well, translators equate “profit” with “dishonest gain.” And what is dishonest gain, but cheating other people out of their money through devious or cunning means? Surely there are those who make money honestly, of course, but more often than not, humanity seeks to gain the most wealth through the least effort, and often the least effort is through dishonesty.
Proverbs even calls out this dynamic: the best and most righteous gains, monetary or otherwise, are earned through hard work, not idleness, talk, or cheating. But these odes to honest profit are vastly outweighed by talk of dishonest gain.
On the other hand, Jesus here calls us to not seek self gain, but self-denial.
Jesus came as a prophet (ph) out of a long line of prophets. He spoke more like and Old Testament preacher, like Isaiah, or Jeremiah, or Amos. He was the direct successor of John the Baptist, who called people to pay fair wages, not cheat each other, to share resources. It shouldn’t surprise anyone then that he wants us to follow the words of a Prophet (ph) rather than follow Profit (f).
This passage confronts us with an important question: do you have your mind set on God’s things, or on human things? Are you interested in earthly gain, or heavenly glory? Is what we have here and now more important than what we will experience in the hereafter? Is there any risk in your religion? Do you want a profit with an F, or a prophet with a PH?
An Honest Look at the History of the Profits of the Church
Now, a subject I love almost as much as I love language is history. As I said earlier, I’ve been thinking a lot about the state of the church, and its history. The thing with history, though, is that with a subtle shift of perspective, the whole thing can look completely different.
Think for a moment on one of the most famous pieces of art ever made, Michelangelo’s David. The perspective from which most people see it portrays a young man, cocksure, ready to take on a giant with only the swagger that a young teen could ever muster. But if you don’t look up at the statue, but rather stare into David’s eyes at eye level, head on… his look has a different quality to it. Sure, there’s ferocity in the gaze, some would even call it a sneer, but there’s also an intangible sense of dread, or even doubt, that perhaps he’s taken on too much. It’s a masterful piece of work, to evoke that kind of emotion out of stone, but it illustrates the idea well: from a different perspective, what we take as the authorized version of things can sometimes appear differently.
So, allow me to take you through the history of the church, and along with it, the central question: Do you want a profit with an F, or a prophet with a PH?
In its earliest iteration, the church was a small but powerful–and growing entity. It attracted rich and poor alike, gentile and Jew–up until a point, of course, when the gentiles outnumbered the Jewish population of the church. They operated, largely, as the book of acts describes: small house congregations, care for the poor, the sick, the prisoner, the widow and the orphan alike. Christianity was also a non-governmentally recognized religion–which by itself means little, but one of the key aspects of Christian faith is the proclamation that Jesus is Lord, meaning that Caesar, the Emperor is not. There was a high risk that you would undertake being a Christian. You might actually die because of your faith.
After around the turn of the 2nd century, controversies arose, and internal conflict became public debates about philosophy. The focus of Christianity, and the church, became a thinking-person’s exercise, and moved away from public action and into the academies. Faith became a philosophy. Still, it was relatively small, and on the ground level, not much had changed. The goal had not shifted–sharing the gospel remained central. Risk still existed.
Then, in 313, something remarkable happened: the Emperor of Rome, Constantine, declared that this small sect of Christianity was no longer just some rogue cult, but an officially recognized religion. Loving Jesus became legal. That shift is critical, because it began the church’s slow turn away from the PH Prophet angle, and toward something different. The church became an institution, and could live in the open. More people with more money began flooding the church. It then became the only church of Rome. And thus, the face of Christianity was altered. The goal was now state Power, for a good deal of the leadership. People were no longer killed for being Christian. Quite the opposite, actually. Over time, if you weren’t Christian, you were killed. Quite a shift in priorities. The F started overtaking the PH.
Fast forward about 1200 years.
Martin Luther, John Calvin, Zwingli and his cohort, began a Reformation. Now there was no monolithic church, but several smaller denominations. The key thing to remember at this point though was that these denominations were still allied with the State, and so each State–like France, Germany, England, etc.–had their own religious affiliation. Wars broke out over variances in doctrine. Now, it was Christian killing Christian. At this point, the F and the PH were nowhere in sight. However, you could reasonably be killed because of your faith. The twist here is that your killer could also be a Christian. Christianity was a tool of the state completely.
When the early American colonists began our iteration of Christianity, they did so with these religious wars fresh in their minds.
The religious separatists, the Puritans, wanted a place to live their faith out free of persecution from the state religious authorities–what a noble pursuit! From there, the founding fathers remembered that noble thought and enshrined it in the first amendment–that congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The state will have no official religion, nor will it infringe on your practice of religion, or lack thereof. But already, there was a growing change in the way we performed religion, one that would not be felt until the 20th century. This is what I like to call the “religious industrial complex.”
Religion ceased to be like a state institution, or a bureaucracy, or even a wing of the military. Instead, it resembled something much looser, and much more American in flavor: Business. The denominations ceased to be like warring nations, and much more like competitive businesses in a marketplace. Each religion was given the space to either sink or swim on its own, without state help–which in turn, led to some interesting evolutions.
Soon, we began to see the rise of denominational bodies adopting decentralized structures, not too unlike that of a franchise. Advertising became the primary means of evangelism for a great many denominations as well. All the way up into today, the church has positioned itself is much more like a business than anything else, because why not? If business is successful, why not emulate the practices of business so that the church can be successful as well?
And that, brothers and sisters is where it all breaks down.
Through each iteration, the church loses just a bit more of the plot, the purpose, the reason Jesus himself came down, and saving action he took on the cross. See, there was a reason I wanted to spend so much on the history of the church from this angle–to show you how easy it is to lose sight of the word of God. The church kept changing with the times, sometimes for the better, but often times, for the worst. Each iteration may have had good ideals–be it the desire to not die, the desire to spread salvation to everyone on the continent, or to be successful in their mission. But the definition of success is different for each iteration. Success for a university looks different than success for a nation. Success for a nation looks different than success for a business. And each iteration gains something that isn’t what Christ told us to gain. Each version seeks a profit, often through unholy means. But Christ told us of this very danger–what profit is it to gain the world, but lose yourself? Your very soul?
A Call to Repentance
Brothers and sisters, this is not an easy word to deliver, but it is one that it is on my heart to ask you as an individual–do you care more about profit with an F, or THE prophet, the one with a PH?
It is my belief that the church has lost the plot. We have forgotten what it means to take up our cross and follow Christ. We’ve gotten too caught up in the struggle for power, for prestige, for success, and yes, for profit, to remember that none of that matters when compared to what Christ accomplished on the cross. We’ve been caught up in talk of competition, or fear of irrelevance, or the loss of our public place in the world. All of it shrinks before the reality of death, and the power of the resurrection. All of it means less than nothing when compared to the reality of the Messiah, and the good news he bears for your soul.
Jesus gave up everything so that we may have salvation. He calls us to give up everything for the glory of that salvation. Success for the church should not look like worldly success. We need to stop thinking like humans, and start thinking like God does. That means we need to think sacrificially. That means we need to think benevolently. We need to be loving. We need to be truthful. We need to be peaceable in the face of violence, and not be afraid of death, of risking everything. We must, or we will go to the throne one day, and Christ himself will ask us once again–what did it profit you to gain the whole world and to lose your soul?
So do you care more about Profit, with an F? Or do you care about the Prophet, with a PH? May you find your answer, and may it be wise. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.