I thought about it when I caught the final hour or so of the film, The Shawshank Redemption last week.
Red is in prison and meets Andy, who functions as a Christ figure. Red’s encounter with Andy is life-changing, life-saving really. Andy, who was wrongly convicted, escapes prison and tells Red that if and when he ever gets out, Andy will be waiting for him in Mexico – tells him where and also tells him where “treasure” will be buried (a play on Matthew 13:44, “the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field…”) in a field to get to Mexico. Like many prisoners, once released Red is in a fog. He talks about longing to be back in prison where he knew the routine, where he was comfortable, as strange as that sounds. He contemplates the choice of suicide like a fellow released inmate chose while living in the same apartment. But because of Red’s encounter with Andy, that idea of Mexico, the idea of a new life, wins in the end. Red chooses to risk and live – he breaks his parole, finds the “treasure” and gets on the bus for Mexico. The film closes with Red trudging, in his suit with pants rolled up, along the beach, toward a man restoring a boat. It’s Andy of course and even though it’s a wide angle shot, their joy and embrace is moving and visible – like that of a heavenly reunion. Visible, in the sense that you can see and know the joy, the relief, the liberation and the life in Red’s face and body. He is truly alive for the first time in his life.
Brothers and sisters, we are all prisoners. We are born imprisoned because our sinful natures. And throughout life, often we add layers to the walls of our prisons with our choices. Our only hope is that through an encounter or encounters with Christ – and when we respond and He saves us and liberates and we choose to make Him the Lord of our lives – the prison doors are open – we are forgiven and we are new creations. Sounds awesome, right?
So that anyone who is in Christ, knowing that he or she has been saved and rescued from eternal separation from God in hell as well as rescued from a life of emptiness, hopelessness and overwhelming misery, knowing all this – you would think the response would be an unceasing joyful party. But unfortunately, it’s not like that for many believers and many churches. Many believers and churches are spiritually asleep or falling asleep. Many believers and churches are hiding – afraid to live and afraid to die. And, many believers and churches have become so self-sufficient and self-righteous to remember that they are a saved, rescued people.
It’s as if, even though liberated and in Christ, many chose to just stay in their prison cell with the door wide open. Going back to The Shawshank Redemption – it would be like Red after getting out of prison, just stays in the apartment and while he never takes his life, never really lives his life either – never takes that risk and heads to Mexico.
Perhaps the only thing worse than people avoiding or choosing not to believe in Jesus, is all the people who believe and choose not to live in Him…
There’s this powerful story in the Bible that illustrates this. It’s found in Luke 7:36-50 and it’s the story of a woman who crashes a gathering of Jesus and religious people. Jesus is invited to dinner with some people who believe they don’t need Jesus and what he has to offer – they’ve “made” it on their own spiritually or so they think. This woman known as a “notorious” sinner comes in and makes a scene. While weeping, she washes Jesus’s feet with her tears, wiped his feet with her hair, kissed them and anointed them with perfume. Awkwardness aside, this is pure worship and adoration! But, as you might imagine, the Pharisees are offended – and question Jesus’s credibility as a prophet because he allows this “kind” of woman to touch him. Jesus then takes the opportunity to talk about forgiveness and how when people’s debts are cancelled they are thankful according to how much they are forgiven (or mindful of how forgiven they are). He explains that this woman is highly aware of how much she is forgiven and has responded accordingly; whereas the Pharisees offer Jesus no such response.
The Pharisee response to Jesus of “so what; we’re good on our own” is unfortunately typical of a lot of believers today. Further and unfortunately, the Pharisee response to the woman of “what is she doing here” is a lot like the response of some believers when visitors dare to show up on a Sunday morning. And here’s why…
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann talks about an overemphasis on “chosenness” – a kind of self-righteousness, self-sufficiency and pride that develops within God’s people that numbs and causes them to forget and neglect the power, sacrifice, grace and love of Christ that drew them into “chosenness” – salvation – via the cross and resurrection. Instead, with “chosenness” there is more of a focus on the exclusive social, religious and appearance aspects of spirituality and church rather than on salvation and missional characteristics; in other words more religion than Holy Spirit. With “chosenness” there is very little faith, little to no risk, and little passion; maintaining chosen status via pleasing people is the center rather than following and serving Jesus. “Chosenness” is like singing “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound…” and leaving off or ignoring, “that saved a wretch like me.” And this is exactly what is stifling the spiritual lives of many believers today and consequently causing churches to die. It is the arteriosclerosis, so to speak, of the Spirit in souls and churches.
In fact, a key path to personal spiritual renewal as well as church revitalization is a purposeful, sustained remembrance of how God has personally and uniquely sought us out, led us to confess and repent of our sins, and brought us to Himself through Christ. Remembering and valuing this over and above anything else – committees, traditions, activities, number of years at a church – all of which are good things – but these will ultimately not be the difference between living and dying, will not be the difference between faithfulness (what God desires) and being “good people” – but what will be the difference is remembering and utterly depending on God and His transforming grace thus naturally enabling a more alive relationship with God as individuals and as a people.
Like Red, like the woman in this passage, when we seek and work to grasp – how forgiven we are, how we don’t deserve God’s grace (but have it anyway), how broken and hopeless we are without Him, how we can be freed of the past and from our sins, what it cost to save us (Jesus bearing our sins at the cross), and from what we are saved; our responses over time will be increasing – joy, passion, gratitude, devotion, service, hope, strength and more. Oh what is possible when a group of people who are acutely mindful of their “savedness” (over their “chosenness”) and therefore alive and new in Christ, get together and praise God, love one another and go out and seek to share that love with everyone around them in their community and the world! And when their worship and fellowship and mission and serving and giving and their living throughout the week is more and more influenced and impacted first and foremost by their joy and gratitude from being saved by God – watch out!
Is something missing in our spiritual lives or in our churches?
Rev. Christopher B. Wolf
Christopher B. Wolf is the author of Giving Faith a Second Chance: Restarts, Mulligans and Do-Overs (2007) and the forthcoming, With You: Every Step of the Way (September, 2011).
“It is a matter of sharing and bearing the pain and puzzlement of the world so that the crucified love of God in Christ may be brought to bear healingly upon the world at exactly that point.” N.T. Wright