Most people do not fully consider the risks involved in following Christ. Unlike the early Christian martyrs thrown to a gruesome death among lions, we face no apparent risks with following Christ today. People can come to church, or not come. People can pray, or not pray.
Mercifully, our society has moved beyond the post-Great Awakening period of cultural Christianity. After revivals swept across the United States in the early nineteenth century, people generally expected other people to go to church. This expectation ebbed and flowed over the decades, but most people went to church.
You might wonder why I welcome this shift away from a cultural Christianity. For those of you who are here or worship via the live stream, the experience must mean something. Almost no one is here because everyone they know is here. By stripping away the cultural pressure to show up, participating in God’s work has to mean something. When it doesn’t, a person can stop coming to church and face no social consequences.
The game is afoot. Either be transformed into the likeness of Christ and experience new life, or find something else to do. At first, a realization like this might sound like the church is under tremendous pressure. It would be under pressure if God was dependent on us, but God doesn’t need the church. We need God. We need the real God, not some cultural appropriation of God, or some creation of God in our own image. This need for the real God is the risk and cost of following Christ.
Flannery O’Connor distinguishes between cultural Christianity and the real God in her short story “The River.”
A babysitter named Mrs. Cronnin picked up a poor child named Harry from his apartment. He was 4 or 5 years old. She planned to take him to visit a revival preacher named Bevel, down by a river.
As they left his apartment, the babysitter said, “You’ll like this preacher… you ought to hear him sing.”
When they reached the river, the people sang hymns and the preacher performed some healings. The little boy Harry, who had changed his name to Bevel to match the preacher, watched it all. The preacher put on quite a show and the little boy Bevel soaked it in. Mrs. Cronnin lifted him up and called out for the preacher to pray for his sick mother.
After some commotion from the crowd, the preacher asked Mrs. Cronnin to hand him the boy. Holding little Bevel, he said, “If I baptize you, you’ll be able to go to the kingdom of Christ.” And then he asked, “Do you want that?”
“Yes,” the child said, and thought, I won’t go back to the apartment then. I’ll go under the river.
“You won’t be the same again,” the preacher said, “You’ll count.”
Suddenly, he spun Bevel around and held him underwater while he said the words of baptism. When he pulled the gasping child from the water, he said, “You count now.”
The problem was nothing changed. The day came to an end and Bevel went home. He tried to tell his parents that he counted now, but they were the same. His parents were having a party when Mrs. Cronnin brought him home. His mother and the others mocked his experience and when he went to bed, she interrogated him about what the preacher said, especially what he said about her.
Little Bevel went to sleep saying, “I’m not the same now. I count.”
The next morning, he woke up and puttered around as any unsupervised 4-year-old would. He turned ash trays over and played with the ash and cigarette butts in the carpet and found some morsels of food to eat, a few crackers and some anchovy paste and some raisin bread heels. He knew his parents would sleep until the afternoon. He laid on the floor for a while, studying his feet which he held up in the air. His shoes were still damp from the river.
That’s when he knew what he had to do.
Taking some money from his mother’s pocketbook, he took a streetcar to the end of the line and started walking down the road where Mrs. Cronnin had taken him the day before. He passed each of the landmarks he remembered seeing the day before. When he reached the river, he bounded into it with his shoes and coat on and stood in water up to his chest and looked around.
The sky was clear pale blue… and his coat floated to the surface and surrounded him like a strange lily pad. He stood grinning in the sun. This time, he wasn’t going to fool with any preachers but was going to baptize himself and keep going until he found the kingdom of Christ in the river.
He put his head underwater and pushed forward.
In a second he began to gasp and sputter and his head reappeared on the surface; he started under again and the same thing happened. The river wouldn’t have him. He tried again and came up, choking. This was the way it had been when the preacher held him under—he had had to fight with something that pushed him back in the face.
He plunged under once more and this time, the waiting current caught him like a long gentle hand and pulled him swiftly forward and down. For an instant he was overcome with surprise: then since he was moving quickly and knew that he was getting somewhere, all his fury and fear left him.Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1971), 157-74.
Flannery O’Connor shows religion as a big show, and the one who was truly seeking Christ tried to follow what the preacher said and completely missed Jesus. Heaven help us if that’s the case today. Her story is a stark reminder of how easy it is to misinterpret a new life in Christ. There’s no kingdom of Christ under the river. The crowd in John 6 practices this exact same misinterpretation as everyone in O’Connor’s story. To explain her shocking images, she once wrote:
When you can assume your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—…for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, ed. Sally Fitzgerald and Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1962), 34.
We cannot assume the people we encounter hold the same beliefs as us. The culture around us might agree with things like the Golden Rule, which is present in almost every world religion, or they might agree with helping people. The place where we part company is finding new life in Christ.
Jesus’ interlocuters in John 6 struggled with accepting eternity and transformation through this troublesome rabbi. When we read about Jesus saying, “I am the bread of life,” we know that we don’t actually consume Jesus’ flesh. Seeing Jesus as the bread of life and then eating that bread recognizes the way following Jesus nurtures our spirit.
In John 6, people couldn’t hear that Jesus is the source of new life. We have the same people today—people who don’t see God or Christ as necessary. Sometimes, it seems like our world has moved beyond religion. Phrases like, “I am the living bread of heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever” (John 6.51), sound cannibalistic and mythological. Through our actions, we can say to everyone in our orbit, ‘When we take in Jesus, we take in his life. We imbibe the lessons from what he did, what he said, and how he responded.’
This is all about lives that reflect the kingdom of God. God calls us to talk about real faith, like the faith of the little boy in O’Conner’s story. He believed there would be a change. That’s where you and I can step in. No one should be alone on this journey.
We arise from the baptismal waters or leave the table of the Lord’s Supper or leave worship and say, “I’m not the same now. I count.”
The family of faith is there to respond, “That’s right. You count.”
Jesus wasn’t trying to confuse anyone when he said he is the bread of life. He was offering an invitation to participate in his ministry and join him for a rich and abundant life.
We can do that today. Instead of being part of a religion, we can be part of the living faith of Jesus Christ. We don’t need to “go to the Kingdom under the river.” God’s Kingdom is here and we can be part of it. Through us, God can shine a light in the world. Amen.