In Today’s Religious Marketplace, Let The Buyer Beware
One year ago, almost to the day, I stood in this pulpit and declared to you that in the coming months and even couple of years that we as a nation would become enmeshed in what I chose to call “Millennium Mania”. I indicated then that the coming millennium would produce a heightened awareness of and sensitivity to spiritual matters in this nation’s life. I even went on to say that as a result of that that we would see people engaged in all kinds of spiritual pursuits—some of them well-founded and well-grounded, some of them as weird and as wacky and even as wicked as the day is long. Sure enough, one-year later, we are seeing all of that and more. Just this last week both USA Today and the Wall Street Journal carried feature articles about how many Christians are facing the new millennium by creating what is a new growth industry -that is stockpiling food and supplies for themselves to ward off the damage created by computer crashes and the chaos resulting when 1999 becomes 2000. I suppose that most of what is going on around us is relatively harmless, but dear friends, there is some of it which is anything but harmless.
No doubt you have become aware of that cult led by a man named Monte Kim Miller. The cult is called “Concerned Christians” and it is their goal to trigger a violent incident on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in December of 1999, hoping to plunge the world into war and thus hasten the return of Jesus. Now let me call that—and all other efforts like that—precisely what they are: that is the work of the devil. There is nothing Christian about it.
Reminds me of a question a young man asked me just days ago after one of the sermons that I preached recently in California. He came up to me and he said: “You know, you have called us very convincingly to commit ourselves to faith in Jesus Christ. But I want to ask you something. What about those individuals or groups that call themselves Christians and do things that are simply not right, is it then always a good thing to have faith in Jesus Christ.” I answered him with what I now say to you. Faith—true faith in Jesus Christ—is always good. But faith when it is misdirected or when it is false is not good. Just as in the world of commerce there is counterfeit money, so in the world of religion there is counterfeit faith. History has proven that faith which is false or counterfeit can be terribly destructive. That is true for all religions. It is true for Christianity. Look, for example, at what happened in the Crusades or the Inquisition or the Salem Witch trials, or more recently in the awful killing in Ireland between Catholics and Protestants. Bloody wars and cruel persecution and strange superstitions and misdirected cults—all of those things have arisen under the cloak of religion. The point is clear: Faith, when it is true is very, very good. But faith when it is false is very, very bad. And therefore, it is incumbent on us to learn how to distinguish between authentic faith and counterfeit faith. You know, in the ancient marketplace they used to have an interesting disclaimer, a word of warning posted. The warning read: “Caveat emptor-let the buyer beware.” In other words, “Watch out. Be cautious. Be careful. Don’t be gullible. Don’t be taken in. Don’t be sold a bill of goods.”
Let me suggest to you that in today’s religious marketplace, that same warning is most appropriate. Beware of religious charlatans who promise you that faith will make you rich or guarantee you smooth sailing all the way through life. Beware of persons who indicate to you that they have all of the answers to the faith questions in life. Beware of individuals or groups who try to lure you away from your church with smooth talking or fake smiles, implying ever so subtly that your church is not as spiritual as it ought to be. Beware of counterfeit Christians, false prophets, religious charlatans. That warning is actually as old as Jesus Himself. In Mark 13:6 Jesus said, and listen to the warning, Jesus said: “Do not be deceived. Many will come claiming to be the Christ and they will lead many astray.”
With that warning in mind and in the midst of all of the swirling craziness produced by the coming millennium, I would like for these next few moments to draw some characteristics to your attention; characteristics which I believe can help us to distinguish between an authentic faith in Jesus Christ and a counterfeit faith in Christianity. Here are those characteristics.
Number one: Authentic faith pursues new truths.
Cult leaders, false prophets, religious charlatans.. .all of them have one thing in common. They all try to close the book on truth. They all say in one way or another: “I will tell you what you are to say and to do and to think and to feel and to believe. You have no need to ask any other questions, for I hold the answers.” That is absurd. Avoid a person like that like the plague. Do you understand that authentic faith in Jesus Christ is always a call to be growing, to be stretching, to be exploring, to be expanding. The call of Jesus Christ to us is to love and serve God with all of our minds; never, ever to stop pursuing new truths and being always open to new ideas made clear to us by the power of the Holy Spirit. Not only that, I think we need to beware of those who build their entire faith around a single dramatic religious or conversion experience and that’s all they can talk about. Understand, please, that a conversion experience which is genuine is going to move us forward into an ever growing, ever expanding faith, and that will be the focus of our attention—not the experience itself. Paul had as dramatic a conversion experience as anyone ever has had and yet it propelled him into an ever growing and expanding faith and when you read his letters you discover to your great surprise that he mentions that great conversion experience only rarely and then with no detail. That temptation to focus on a single event and to build your whole faith around it is the temptation that Simon Peter encountered on the Mount of Transfiguration. That great story told to us in Matthew 17, there on the top of what is called the Mount of Transfiguration, Simon Peter saw Jesus and Moses and Elijah right there before his very eyes. There he saw Jesus transfigured into shimmering glory. It was an incredibly powerful, mind-blowing moment. He knew that he was in the presence of God and what did he want to do? He wanted to stay there. He wanted to prolong the ecstasy of that experience. He wanted to make that moment the entire focus of his faith. And what happened? Jesus said to him: “No, Peter. No. This has been good, but we cannot stay here. We must go back down into the valley. We must be open to new ideas from God in other times and in other places.” That is an expression of authentic faith.
Someone once said that religion is like a parachute; it works best when it is open! I like that. You see, cult leaders and false prophets and religious charlatans try to shut down the truth and try to stop thinking and growing. Authentic faith is always open to the new truths God is showing us by His providence and by His grace. Authentic faith is always a growing faith. That’s number one. Authentic faith pursues new truths.
Number two. Authentic faith addresses present problems.
Underscore the word present. Authentic faith makes a difference in our lives now. Authentic faith makes us better people now. It is not some insurance policy for later on. It is not some escape hatch to try to get us out of this world. It is not “pie in the sky bye and bye”. Cult leaders or religious charlatans like Jim Jones of the Jonestown Cult or Marshall Appelwhite of the Heaven’s Gate Cult, or Monte Kim Miller of the Concerned Christians Cult, those people demand that their followers deny the value of life in this world and give themselves to try to find some way to get out of this world.
Not Jesus. Look again at Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. He did not stay in the rarefied spiritual air. Instead He went back down the mountain, down into the valley, down into where real need and where real life meet. And what did He do there? He promptly healed, changed, transformed the life of an epileptic boy. He was reminding us that authentic faith is never tied to the past, nor is it a slave to the future. It speaks to us now. It changes us now. It makes us whole now.
Bishop Arthur Moore used to love to tell the story about the fellow up in Georgia who was away from his hometown for twelve years. During that twelve-year period he was engaged in all kinds of shady practices and criminal activities. He even spent a couple of times in jail. When at last he came back to his hometown, the first thing he did was to go to church. When it came to be testimony time he jumped up and he immediately addressed the whole church saying: “Sisters and brothers, I want you to know how glad I am to be back home, but I want you to know that while it is true that I deserted my wife and I forsook my children and I embarrassed my parents—and while it is true that I have stolen and cheated and lied and spent time in jail, I want you to know sisters and brothers, that while all of that is true, in all of that time I never once lost my religion!” Yikes!
Let me tell you something. If your faith is nothing more than a life insurance policy for heaven, if your faith doesn’t change the way you live every day right here and right now, if your faith doesn’t alter how you deal with the problems and challenges of your life here, then let me tell you that not only are you missing out on the greatest joy that life can ever know, but you are being victimized by a counterfeit faith. You see, true, authentic Christianity not only promises eternal life in the hereafter, it also delivers new life in the here and now. That is number two. Authentic faith addresses present problems.
Number three. Authentic faith embraces other people.
It inspires us to deal with other people in compassion and service. Those purveyors of a counterfeit faith take exactly the opposite tack. If you listen closely, one of the things that they say is that everyone who is not a part of their group is the enemy. That is why the Bible again and again and again says that love is the genuine, the reliable, the accurate sign of true and authentic faith. Do you remember what Jesus said in John, chapter 13? He said: “I command you to love one another as I have loved you. For then, by that love other people will know that you are my disciples.” Do you remember what Paul said in I Corinthians 13? He said: “What does it matter if you can speak in tongues or work miraculous deeds or spout high-sounding theology? All of that is worthless and empty if it is not accompanied in love. Faith, hope and love abide. These three things endure. But the greatest of them is love. Therefore make love your aim.”
Listen very closely at this point, please. If your faith does in fact make you a more loving human being then your faith is a true and authentic faith. If, on the other hand, your faith makes you narrow and harsh and judgmental and “holier than Thou”, then, chances are your faith experience is not a valid one. The counterfeit faith asks: “What’s in it for me?” True faith asks: “What can I do for God and for others?”
One of the things that bothers me about so many Christians stockpiling food and supplies at this point in time is that every single one of them is doing that just for themselves and their families. They do not care about people in the world who are unable to stockpile food and supplies. That is a counterfeit faith. It is a faith focused only on oneself. True, authentic faith in Jesus Christ is always a faith that embraces other people. That’s number three.
You know, it’s amazing to me that in this story in the 17th chapter of the Gospel of Luke we see the three basic approaches to religion all contained in that single story—two counterfeit expressions of faith—one authentic expression of faith. First there is the approach to faith that I would call the approach of the pietist. That is, a pietist is concerned only about personal salvation and not about the needs of anyone else. That is symbolized in the experience of Simon Peter here who said: “Lord, let’s just stay here in the glory of this mountaintop experience and not get smudged by the problems of the world.” That is a counterfeit faith. The second approach to religion is what I would call the “social activist” approach. It is symbolized by the disciples who were down in the valley at that time and they were trying to heal and the Bible notes that they couldn’t heal. Why? Because they didn’t have the power. And why didn’t they have the power? Because they did not have the personal expression of faith. They were concerned only about the needs of people and not about personal salvation. That is a counterfeit faith. The third approach is the approach of Jesus. It’s the only authentic expression of faith, because, you see, Jesus actually combined the two. He put the worship and the service together. He put the personal salvation and the social action together. Jesus went up on to the mountain there to experience nothing less than the transforming power of God, but then what did He do? He went back down from the mountain, and by the power of God He transformed the lives of others. That is true, authentic faith.
So if you are confused and perplexed by all of the various expressions of the faith which are clamoring for your attention and for your allegiance these days, if you wonder what is the difference really between a cultic counterfeit faith and a true, authentic faith then let me suggest that all you really need to do is to look at Christianity’s one unique fact: JESUS OF NAZARETH. He is the pattern. He is the blueprint. He is the unfailing guide. He is the measuring stick by which you determine a true, authentic, and genuine faith. My beloved, follow Jesus Christ in your life. I promise you, you will never, ever go wrong.