Faith is more than just me and Jesus

There’s a Twilight Zone episode called, “A Nice Place to Visit.”  This episode first aired on April 15, 1960.  The quick synopsis of the show is that the main character, Henry Francis “Rocky” Valentine gets shot while robbing a pawn shop.  When he wakes up, he is greeted by a respectable man named Pip, who guides him around, shows him to a beautiful apartment where he is told he’ll be staying from on, and explains to Rocky that he can have anything we wants – anything at all.  Rocky is initially skeptical but comes to believe what Pip is telling him.  He has a grand time – he wins at gambling, he wishes for beautiful women and they just show up, he asks for riches and they appear.  Life is great!  This goes on for a while and eventually Rocky calls Pip to tell him that he is bored.  Everything he wants, he gets – there is no challenge and no surprise.  Pip tells him that only Rocky and he are real in this place – that Rocky is really all alone, everyone else is just a figment of his imagination.  By this time, Rocky realizes he is dead and says that he doesn’t think that heaven is for him and asks Pip if it can be arranged for him to try “the other place.”  And finally Pip tells Rocky:  “Heaven? Whatever gave you the idea you were in Heaven, Mr. Valentine? This is the other place!”  The episode ends with Pip laughing malevolently as he watches Rocky try to escape his paradise.  

The episode offers some great theological questions for the viewer to ponder.  Some think that heaven is getting your own mansion away from everyone and getting an endless supply of everything you ever wanted. But, wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that being alone and always getting what you want is a form of hell? Wouldn’t that be punishment?  Sin and Hell can be described as many things.  Sin, it has been said, is taking something inherently good and pushing it to the extreme so that is it no longer good, no longer something that points us to God, but rather to ourselves and our own desires.  We make ourselves into a type of god with this kind of focus and attention.  Think of the so-called “seven deadly sins” – pride, envy, wrath, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust.  Each of these take something good and pushes that thing to the extreme.  When our desires become most important, we have made them extreme.  

One version of a description of hell is separation from God for all eternity.  Wouldn’t that be torment?  Not in the traditional sense of God actively punishing someone, but in the sense of God giving someone exactly what they wanted – to be apart and alone.  

But eternity isn’t about our own place apart from everyone else.  That isn’t heaven.  Read Revelation 21 where it talks about God coming out of heaven to dwell with the renewed creation for all eternity.  You see love doesn’t exist in solitude.  It doesn’t exist in our getting what our selfish selves want – especially at the expense of others.  Love exists in community and for community.  And we are part of a community.  

In our culture, we place a high value on individualism.  One definition of individualism is: “Belief in the primary importance of the individual and in the virtues of self-reliance and personal independence.”  Another definition from the same site includes this: “A doctrine holding that the interests of the individual should take precedence over the interests of the state or social group.”  

It can easily be argued that Individualism is a core creedal American belief.  But is Individualism in alignment with Christianity?  Or do we blur the lines as American Christians, sometimes having difficulty differentiating the two or seeing that American doesn’t always equal Christian.  This isn’t an all or nothing type of thing.  It helps no one when we argue individualism vs collectivism, as if these intellectual ideas are somehow compartmentalized and separate in practice.  It is impossible to not have at least some of each in any society.  The question is how much and when do we have too much of either idea, or what is too much? 

A strictly individualistic approach to life is in conflict with what it means to be a Christian by the very nature of what Christianity is all about.  

And this isn’t just some fun abstract topic to banter about at a bar with a pint of one’s favorite adult beverage.  It has real implications.  

One of the biggest challenges people in our society face, or suffer from, is loneliness.  Another that is tied to this has to do with the struggle for purpose and meaning.  Just google these topics and you will find endless stories about loneliness being an epidemic among people of various ages.  Some of this, I argue, comes from our heavy cultural focus on individualism.  You can’t “cure” loneliness as an individual.  You can’t solve it alone.  And searching out meaning and purpose alone will only fill a person with hopelessness and dread if they don’t come away with a clear answer.  But if you tackle this alone, there is no one to help you discern these things.  We need both internal and external – individual and community.  

Deaths of despair (suicide, drug overdose, and alcohol liver poisoning), averaged almost 70,000 deaths a year from the mid-90’s into the mid-2000 teens.  But this has been on the rise in recent years.  The pandemic certainly plays a part in this, but even before the pandemic, this was becoming a more serious problem.  In 2017, there were 158,000 deaths of despair, which one article put into terms we could relate to by saying – it was the equivalent of “three fully loaded Boeing 737 MAX jets falling out of the sky every day for a year.”  That’s a serious problem.  

Despair is defined as a “loss of hope.”  Hope gives us something to live for.  And often that something goes beyond ourself.  Usually it involves other people and a vision of what is possible for ourself and others together.  A loss of hope usually comes when we feel that there is nothing we can do and that no one cares.  “What’s the point?” might be a refrain that summarizes someone who is caught in despair. 

St. Paul, in his letter to the Roman church, had this to say – “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:1-5, NRSV). 

When we read that passage, we see that this isn’t Paul endorsing some kind of individualism or individuals being separate and facing trials alone and apart from the community of faith, but rather it is an argument for community identity and struggling together.  As much as our entertainment like to present us with the lone hero going it alone in a major struggle, enduring pain and suffering alone, and overcoming unbelievable odds alone, these stories are ultimately unrealistic fairy tales.  Even the Horatio Alger mythical stories that make the phrase “pull oneself up by their bootstraps” are fairy tales based on his belief, but not based on actual stories.  In fact, his own personal story doesn’t even live into the myth.  He needed others.  

What then are we to make of this?  What role does our faith play?  What is a Christian view of individualism and collectivism?  What does Scripture say to help us get started in the conversation?  And lastly, what does the church have to offer for this epidemic of loneliness and the creed of individualism?  

Let’s start with Matthew 18.  In this chapter, Jesus begins by talking about what true greatness is.  “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:4).  He says that humility like a child is the mark of greatness.  He didn’t say being the strongest, or the most powerful, or the best at anything.  No, he says that the humility of a child makes one great.  A child could not survive on their own in that culture.  They have to have humility if they are to exist.  They have to ask for help.  They have to receive help.  They have to be cared for.  They have to be taught.  Humility is about modesty, recognizing ones’ lowliness and status, not being full of pride or arrogance.  It is a state of being in which we recognize our need for others.  It is relational at its core.  

Jesus then goes on to talk about temptation to sin.  “If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6). This isn’t personal sin that Jesus is talking about – as if it only ever applies to just the individual.  Rather, this is about causing harm to others, especially the vulnerable.  Again, it is relational.  Sin never just affects only the individual.  It has a communal effect – breaking relationships, weakening trust, causing separation, and more.  

Then Jesus turns to a parable – the parable of the lost sheep.  “‘Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.  What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray.  So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.” (Matthew 18:10-14). 

In the West, where we emphasize the importance of the individual and where many churches preach about individual salvation and how Jesus is “my personal savior”, this parable is often interpreted from the point of view of the one lost sheep.  How good it is to be found by Jesus – he cares about you so very much!  And this aspect is true, but it’s not the whole story.  In fact, it misses some important and larger points that makes the parable much more impactful.  

Not how all cultures see this story as about the one lost sheep.  And if we take the context of the chapter that Matthew is telling us this parable in, as well as the importance of community in a Middle Eastern Jewish context, we come away with a different interpretation – one that makes us see beyond ourself and our self-importance.  We actually get a reign of God view of what the Kingdom of God is really about.  

You see the parable isn’t at its core about the one lost sheep.  It’s not about the 99 either.  It’s about the 100.  The whole flock.  The one is important, but that’s not the end of the story.  The one being lost is about the whole (the 100) not being whole any longer.  When Jesus finds the lost sheep, now the flock can be whole again.  It’s a parable about shalom – which means wholeness and completeness.  

The concept of individualism didn’t exist in the time of the writing of the Scriptures.  It wouldn’t come about until the Enlightenment in Europe.  Community identity is what is most important.  That is also why hospitality is so important in so many cultures – because it’s not about being nice as an individual, but rather it’s about the health and wellness of the whole community.  When we look at Jesus’ parables, this runs through so many of them. 

The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) isn’t primarily about the one man doing something good for another man.  The priest and scribe avoid the man on the side of the road because they are more concerned with their own ritual cleanliness rather than the welfare of the man beaten on the side of the road.  They are taking an individualist approach.  Their sin is about turning inward on themselves and being concerned with their individualism rather than the wholeness of the community.  

When Jesus offers the judgement of the nations in Matthew 25, he isn’t referring to individual acts of charity.  It’s the judgement of the nations after all.  The judgement of the whole community in how it acts and treats the least of these among them.  

Jesus’ healing miracles isn’t just about the healing of the individual who has been suffering.  It goes far beyond that.  Jesus’ miracles also are a restoration of community and relationships.  For example, in Mark 5:25-34, we hear about a woman who had been hemorrhaging for 12 years.  She touches Jesus’ hem and is healed.  That’s great, but if we stop with the individual physical nature of this healing, we are missing out of some important aspects of the healing which have a greater effect.  The Law said that blood many a person unclean.  Unclean people could not be around other people, or they would make the others unclean.  For 12 years this woman probably had no physical contact – did not feel another human’s touch.  Relationships she had were probably long broken.  In this act of healing, she is able to have restored relationships, to experience human touch again.  This is a miracle that has community implications.  

Likewise, in the raising of Lazarus from the dead, the entire community is impacted.  Relationships that had died along with Lazarus were brought back to life.  Mourning is a community event in Jewish culture, recognizing that the loss isn’t individual.  And the mourning goes on for a long period of time.  Jesus’ raising Lazarus means that the community is made whole again.  Shalom is experienced.  

In a way, each time Jesus heals someone, they are the one lost sheep who is found and brought back to the 99 to make the flock whole again.  Over and over again, it’s not about the one.  It’s about the whole.  Faith isn’t just some kind of individualistic me and Jesus adventure.  It’s about shalom.  It is integrative.  

How are we supposed to have a theology of stewardship if faith is only about me and Jesus?  Stewardship implies that there is more than just me and Jesus.  How are we supposed to have a theology of justice or service if faith is just an individual endeavor?  How are we supposed to participate in Communion, the Eucharist, which is a community sacrament?  Yes, each of us partake individually, but we do it together as one body of faith.  How are we to follow the Golden Rule?  How are we supposed to seek peace?  How are we supposed to practice forgiveness?   How are we supposed to live into the Lord’s prayer, which literally starts with “Our Father,” not my Father?  How are we to live into the creeds?  How are we to understand the whole point of the community of faith?  How do we possibly read the prophets who repeatedly talk about God’s concern for the poor?  How are we supposed to treat others?  What is the point of church at all if faith is just an individualistic endeavor?  

We can’t do any of that.  But faith isn’t just an individualistic endeavor.  And often the individual is secondary to the whole when it comes to faith.  Faith is integrative in our lives and in community.  Faith is the foundation of our lives, or it should be.  It is supposed to impact how we live, how we speak, how we interact with others, what we do with our time and money and skills.  It is supposed to impact how we treat enemies and neighbors.  It is supposed to impact how we carry out our civic duties.  Do we actually believe what we claim to believe as Christians, or do we say we believe certain things but set those things aside and live differently?  The second way doesn’t make sense, but there are certainly plenty of Christians who do this.  Why?  I don’t know. 

When we consider the individual versus the collective in relation to faith, it becomes clear why some Christians have difficulty with what the church does.  There is a common complaint that is lifted up in our culture – that the church is “too political” when it makes statements on social justice.  When faith is seen as primarily an individualistic endeavor, rather than having a collective aspect and focus, then this criticism makes sense.  But the criticism loses its teeth when we recognize that faith isn’t just an individual thing.  It has community impact.  Faith is about shalom wholeness.  When faith is just individualistic, then we can believe that social justice issues have no relationship to us personally and they may make us uncomfortable.  We may come to believe that if something doesn’t directly impact us or affect us, then we don’t need to be bothered with it, or worse, we may convince ourselves that the issue doesn’t actually exist.  When we do that, we make the universe and creation awfully small – limited to our own experience, rather than the vastness of God’s creation.  

But nowhere in Scripture is faith ever described this way.  Jesus doesn’t consider faith as solely a private affair.  The prophets never did.  Our individualistic approach to faith would have been foreign to all of them.  Paul would have sent off an epistle to the American church.  The prophets might have spoken words of woe.  The individualistic approach to faith is unfaithful and has been a disaster.  It has blinded us to the needs of those around us and to the care of God’s creation.  The heavy focus on individualistic faith has allowed Christians to dismiss injustice.  It has made an excuse for inaction related to care of creation, how people’s labor is abused, the infringing and taking away of civil rights, and believing that it is acceptable and faithful to be the morality police on others who are different or believe different from ourselves.  Individualism gives us the false belief that we are the standard bearer of truth and that we can impose our beliefs on others.  

Individualistic approaches to faith is particularly and American challenge because individualism is such an American value.  But that doesn’t make it a faithful approach.  When we overemphasize the individual and disregard the collective side of faith, we end up with problems, as I mentioned above.  

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11 and 12 about Christ being the head and the church is the body and that there is one body, but many parts.  The point is that individual believer is a part of a larger unit – a community of faith.  Just as one part of our body can’t survive on its own but needs the rest of the body, so it is with our community of faith.  We can’t be Christians on our own.  We need the community of faith.  We miss so much when think that it’s just me and Jesus.  We miss how God is at work in the world.  We miss out on a community of support that need and we need to contribute to.  We miss out on how we are called to serve and to seek peace and justice.  We miss out of what eternity is about and how we are called to live into the reign of God right here and right now.  And we miss out on all of that, we miss seeing Jesus more fully.  We only get a small slice of Jesus.  But why settle for the small slice when Jesus makes himself fully present to us?  When faith is just an individualistic experience, then it becomes just a nice place to visit.  And as Pip indicated – whatever gave us the impression that was heavenly?  

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