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On Avoiding Flabby Sentimentality and Barren Intellectualism

 

Jude 17-23

 

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could turn back the clock and take ourselves back to the early days of the church when there were no factions or difficulties or disputes? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could step back into a Christian community where everything was at peace and no one was having trouble or causing trouble?

As a matter of fact there never was such a time. There never was a Christian era free of problems and perplexities, free of difficulties and disputes. There never was a golden age, way back when, when everything was better, much better, than things are now. We should understand that virtually all of the New Testament documents were written to assist Christians in one matter or another with their daily struggle, their confusion or their danger. Mark’s gospel was written to fortify Christians who otherwise might renounce the faith and betray each other amidst the savagery of Nero’s persecution. Matthew’s gospel was written to correct Gentile Christians who were about to distort the gospel by jettisoning the older testament. The letters to the congregation in Corinth were written to discipline Christians whose behaviour was scandalous. In the earliest days of the church the gospel was passed around by word of mouth. Something was committed to writing only when trouble developed and a strong written statement was needed to se the troublesome situation right. We have written New Testament largely because difficulty and danger, disruption and dispute troubled the church from the very beginning.

Jude wrote his short, sharp letter in order to help Christians who had distorted the gospel and who were now groping and stumbling like blind inebriants in a basement. Jude had turned up two distortions, quite different from each other, that yet gave rise to a similar groping and stumbling. One distortion was a distortion of the gospel in the direction of a flabby sentimentality: mush. Mushy sentimentality laughs off any concern for the truth. “Who cares about truth?” it snickers, “What difference does correct doctrine make? Why bother with pointless abstractions that only fuel controversy anyway? Let’s just feel good together. That’s what the Christian life is really about: feeling good together.” This distortion of the gospel is still with us today.

The other distortion is just the opposite of this. It is a frigid, barren intellectualism. Here the gospel is warped into philosophy that happens to use religious words, a philosophy so very abstract, subtle, apparently, that only the intellectually gifted or the philosophically trained can understand it. Corrie Ten Boom, the brave Dutch woman who survived Ravensbruck death camp (here sister Betsie did not); Corrie Ten Boom was a woman whose assessment of the church’s health we should take seriously. She tells us that nowhere as in Germany is academic theology pursued with such rigour and precision — and nowhere as in Germany is the church so weak. This distortion of the gospel is also with us today.

It’s good to remember that the Christians before us didn’t live in a golden age when everything was simply glorious. And it’s even better to hear and heed the corrective that was necessary for individual Christians and congregations who would otherwise stumble.

 

I: — Jude has much to tell us. First he addresses the flabby sentimentalists: “Build yourselves up on your most holy faith.” He insists that we recover the substance of the faith, truth, and insists as well that we know it to be true, never apologizing for it. “The most holy faith” is holy because God has revealed it; and is the faith because it is true.

   Not many people care about the truth nowadays. They care about popular appeal and apparent usefulness and shallow pragmatism, but they don’t care about truth. It’s no wonder, then, that I find people asking me if I think I am “doing good” as a minister. Do I feel I am doing more “good” as a minister than I might do as a probation officer or a legal aid lawyer or a social worker? Sometimes, they even suggest (like the endodontist who has my mouth open for an hour and a half at a time during which I can’t say anything) that since the world is now too sophisticated for “religion,” I could be doing much more good anywhere other than in the ministry. But their question or suggestion is a giveaway; they have obviously missed the boat themselves; in fact they can’t even see the boat. My first responsibility is never to “do good.” My first responsibility as a minister, a steward of the gospel, is to safeguard the truth of God. The apostle Paul speaks of the gospel, the truth of God, as a deposit, much like a priceless treasure entrusted to someone for safekeeping. My first responsibility is to be a faithful trustee of the deposit of Christian truth. For the gospel is invaluable. And it has been entrusted to me for safekeeping, because there is a congregation around me that will be impoverished and spiritually threatened if I fritter away the trust.

Our superficial age has little time for truth, for substance. Our age prefers style to substance. Now that the sittings of the House of Commons are televised, parliament has become little more than a show. Parliament is a game show trafficking in frivolity. Important matters have been assigned to the courts, whose judges, be it noted, have been elected by no one and are accountable to no one. Our national leaders are little more than amateurish actors who have polished their rhetorical style and now preen themselves as they say little eloquently or even lie eloquently. What else could we expect? We get what we deserve, and a superficial public that prefers style to substance isn’t going to have substance. You must have noticed that most television preachers abysmally lack substance.

Everyone knows that I’m not a fundamentalist bible-thumper. Neither am I a nostalgia freak who thinks he can live in bygone eras. But I do understand and cherish the ages-long truth of the gospel. Unquestionably I am orthodox. “Ortho-doxy” means “right teaching.” And this right teaching I shall never apologize for, dilute, deny or depart from. That’s why we have to hear of the Incarnation at Christmas, the atonement on Good Friday, the resurrection of the crucified at Easter, and faith and repentance and righteousness and obedience at all times.

To be sure we aren’t going to express the substance of the gospel in the same matter as our foreparents did. Our mental furniture isn’t theirs and their vocabulary isn’t ours. My grandparents sang with great gusto, “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds.” Frankly, I don’t like the expression. I’m turned off by anything that associates Jesus Christ with candyfloss and tooth decay. Still, there’s something profounder here. You see, the “name” of Jesus, biblically speaking, is the person, presence, power and purpose of Jesus. And my grandparents certainly were acquainted with the person, presence, power and purpose of Jesus Christ even if they expressed it in a vocabulary you and I find somewhat saccharine.

It’s important that we distinguish the eternal gospel from the time-bound vocabulary by which it is expressed. We don’t have to hang on to time-bound vocabulary, and few of us would want to. Yet we must cherish the truth; we must build ourselves up on our most holy faith — for the truth, and only the truth, Jesus insists, is finally what sets men and women free. Only the truth profoundly, pervasively, permanently transforms human life. Flabby sentimentality — sugarcoated mush — may be attractive in the short run, but in the long run it does nothing good, nothing godly.

A Glasgow streetwalker was listening to a Unitarian speaker who, as a Unitarian, dismissed “the most holy faith”: Incarnation, atonement, and so on, the truth and substance of the gospel, what Jude calls “the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” She listened for a few minutes and then turned away, saying, “The rope he talks about isn’t long enough to reach me.” Our superficial age, daily saying, “Who cares about the truth as long as we feel good and find religious novelty useful?”; our superficial age forgets one thing: ultimately, at life’s deepest depths, only the truth of Jesus Christ is going to be profoundly useful because only the truth transforms. And because only the truth transforms, only the truth can finally comfort.

 

II: — Jude writes something more. This time he’s addressing not the flabby sentimentalists but the barren intellectualists whose doctrine is correct but whose hearts are colder than frozen cod. “Pray in the Holy Spirit,” he urges; “Pray in the Holy Spirit.” It’s crucial that we pray in the Holy Spirit, for we want to do more than understand the truth of God; we want to absorb it, we want this truth to penetrate us as Jesus Christ himself moves every more deeply into us. To pray in the Holy Spirit is to foster an ever more intimate encounter with him who alone bears and bestows the Spirit. A dear old Scot used to say that prayer is “love in need appealing to love in power.” We who love our Lord with love undying: when we pray it is love in need appealing to love in power.

Such prayer needn’t be wordy. It merely casts us upon God for what he alone can give. A dying criminal prayed, “Lord, remember me.” He was Jewish, and therefore he knew that when a Jew cried to God, “Remember me” he was asking God to give him the profoundest desire of his heart. A thousand years earlier Hannah, distraught at her childlessness, had cried to God. We are told that God had “remembered” her, had given her the desire of her heart, and she had become pregnant with Samuel. People in pain are never wordy. People in terrible need are never wordy. When I was a student minister in a construction town in British Columbia I came upon a man, an alcoholic who had been sober by the grace of God for many years. Yet he knew that he had to live and could live only one day at a time. In the course of one of our conversations he said to me, “Victor, in the morning I say ‘please’, and at nightfall I say ‘thank you.'” What is this but love in need appealing to love in power?”

I have long felt that people are discouraged in their attempt to pray inasmuch as they don’t have the “gift of the gab.” Words don’t come easily to them. As soon as they start to pray they run out of words, and thereafter it’s a tongue-tying exercise in English composition when they aren’t much good at English composition. The truth of the matter is, wordiness has nothing to do with prayer in the Holy Spirit. The dying criminal knew this much.

Such prayer, however simply uttered or repeatedly uttered, is an expression of our confidence in the living God who meets us. It’s an acknowledgement of our dependence upon him. And it’s always an intensification of our intimacy with him.

You must have noticed that when we are most grateful we have the least to say. When we are most grateful we don’t ramble on and on and on about our gratitude, simply because we can’t. When we are most grateful we are this because we have been overwhelmed, so very overwhelmed as to be left near-speechless. When we are least grateful we have the most to say; and we and everybody else knows how artificial and “smarmy” it is.

It’s the same with our greatest longing. The psalmist writes, “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for Thee, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.” This is “prayer in the Holy Spirit.” For such prayer is always a matter of crying to God to “remember” us, as the psalmist knew, the dying criminal knew, the sobered alcoholic knew, and Hannah knew.

“Pray in the Holy Spirit” is Jude’s word to those who have distorted the gospel into barren intellectualism and whose well-stocked head needs to be matched by a well-warmed heart.

 

III: — Next Jude addresses both flabby sentimentalists and barren head-trippers: “Keep yourselves in the love of God.” He means “Keep yourselves in the sphere of God’s love, in the atmosphere of God’s love. Don’t take yourselves out of this sphere, atmosphere.”

During World War II fliers in the Pacific theatre of the war were provided with shark repellent. A downed flier’s parachute and life preserver were useless unless along with his parachute and life preserver he was given shark repellent. The repellent spread out through the water around him and beneath him forming a sphere in which the shark couldn’t get at him. He was to keep himself in this sphere until he was rescued definitively and taken ashore where no sharks molested.

You and I are destined to be rescued definitively from life’s stormy seas and transported to a shore where we shan’t be molested any more. But we aren’t there yet. And until we are we had better understand that we can be threatened and endangered. At present there lurks in life’s stormy seas what can threaten us, even devour us. At the same time God, in his mercy, has surrounded us with an atmosphere that repels attacks that come upon us from behind and below where we don’t see them coming. The atmosphere is his effectual love, and we are ever to keep ourselves in this love.

The downed flier in the Pacific would be a fool if he came not to trust his shark repellent. He’d be a fool if he began to wonder where the repellent really worked; he’d be the biggest fool if he thought that life would be more adventuresome, more thrilling, if he moved outside the repellent in order to joust with the sharks, compete with them, take them on. But haven’t you and I seen Christians who, in a moment of culpable folly, have done just this?

Of course we sin. And we do frustrate God’s love. Still, it’s one thing to be overtaken in a moment of carelessness; it’s another thing deliberately, wilfully, defiantly to violate God’s love.

My wife loves me dearly. Her love for me creates a sphere, an atmosphere, in which I find refuge from much that lurks in the sea around me. And her love, graced as it is by the patience of God, absorbs my silliness and stupidity and moodiness and abrasiveness. Patient and profound as her love is, however, I’d be a fool if I thought I could trade on it. I’d be a fool if I thought I could deliberately, wilfully, defiantly violate it. Do I think I could move outside it, splash around in wider water (as it were) and yet remain within her love at the same time? Everyone knows we can’t be in two places at once. Then I had better keep myself in the sphere of her love.

Jesus says, “I have loved you. Abide in my love.” Immediately he adds, “If you keep my commandments you will abide in my love.” He means “If you keep yourself in the sphere of my commandments, you will abide in my love and in that love you will be protected with all the protection you will ever need.” It is our love for our Lord, or at least our aspiration to love him, which is both the means of our keeping ourselves in his love and the sign of our being there.

 

IV: — Jude’s final word to us, Wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.” His word here isn’t simply the fourth in a series of four. His word here speaks of the mood or attitude in which the first three are to be heard and heeded. When Jude says, “Wait for the mercy of our Lord” he doesn’t mean, “wait around for it.” To wait around is to loiter. Loitering is no good. Loiterers are people with nothing to do and nowhere to go. Loiterers always end up in trouble. In scripture, to wait is never to wait around; to wait is always to anticipate, to expect, to live for a future certainty. To wait, in scripture, is to live for, anticipate the day when God completes that good work which he began in us years ago. To wait is to live in anticipation of the day when God’s mercy, which has already found us and bound us to him, finally transmogrifies us.

In other words, to wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ is to live, every day, in a mood or attitude that encourages us to build ourselves up in our most holy faith, to pray in the Holy Spirit, and to keep ourselves in the love of God. For as we live for this we shall resist being flabby sentimentalists who don’t care about the truth of Christ, even as we resist being barren head-trippers who have no heart. Instead we shall wait for, anticipate, expect that future certainty which is the mercy of Jesus Christ unto eternal life, knowing that he has promised to render us without spot or blemish.

 

V.Shepherd