Michael paused for a moment . . . then he picked up the book. As he thumbed through the pages he looked at Tom, "You see, the scriptures are so full of descriptions of the Church, how to organize, how to meet that it is hard to pick out just one passage."
Tom was focused with his hands resting on the table. "I think it is quite the contrary. Stepping in from outside of your culture, I see virtually no mandates for the parameters of the Church. There's a word here or there, but even if you sew them together on the threads of magical thinking, you still can't create any kind of mandate that is anywhere close to the complexities that you call the Church."
Michael seemed to ignore him as he stopped the flipping of pages and was reading in one place. "Okay, let me read from Hebrews chapter 10."
19 Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Michael looked up from the book and smiled, "So this is the mandate for us to meet on a regular basis. That meeting, by tradition, is Sunday morning. It is logical that if we follow the other passages that we have a time of teaching, thus Sunday school, a time of preaching, the sermon, worship and the sacraments. You sew them together, as you say, with careful thought and you arrive at the church we have today."
Tom was shaking his head again, "But pastor Monroe, listen to what you are saying. You are making the 'we are in Paris' argument again. We don't want your culture . . . we want the essence of the scriptures. You are a generous giver, always wanting to give me your culture . . . but we don't want it! It wouldn't work with my people. We must make a clear line of demarcation between the scriptural mandates and your culture and traditions." Tom thought for a moment and when he noticed, written on their faces, that no one was following him, he added. "Let me paraphrase that same passage so that you can dislodge it from your cultural connotations.
Hey, my fellow selected ones, since we are totally saturated with this overwhelming cleansing, we should be very confident that God accepts us just as we are and that we have a perfect validation in Christ. Therefore, we should be confident and stop trying to make ourselves feel valuable by the things we do, nor should we feel any shame when we approach God in all His glory. With that in mind, we have tremendous hope that in the end we will live with God forever and in his perfect acceptance. Now that we can set aside all our efforts to make ourselves pleasing to God, each other and ourselves, we can move on. We should then encourage one another and remind one another that we are perfectly clean and we can stop all these efforts for self-revaluation and focus on loving each other, and all of God's creation. I know that some of you see no point in getting together with other selected people, while I understand that (now that the yoke of religion has been broken) I think it would be good for you to get together, to remind each other that we are completely forgiven, so that we can continue on in that fulfillment. As the end of your physical life on this earth and our cooperative lives on this earth draws near, we shouldn't become more isolated, which is tempting to do, but hang out with one another even more. We need to be constantly reminded that we are good people, perfect . . . because of the Gospel. When we are alone, we start to feel devalued. That, my dear fellow selected ones, is the Church.
I know that was a bit long and maybe I got carried away, but nowhere in that passage do I see a mandate to meet every Sunday morning at 10 AM, to endure a Sunday school teaching session, a sermon, a worship exercise and on and on. If a mandate resides in those verses it is simply, don't avoid each other, you need to remind each other of the great benefit we have in forgiveness."
Father Randy spoke up, "Tom, I think one big difference between my Church tradition is that we do accept scriptures as God's word, but we also accept our traditions as being from God, as our forefathers and Church father's have interpreted them. So, I recognize what you are saying, that you can't come up with our system just from scriptures alone, but we relay heavily on the wisdom of our forefathers. Truth comes via them as well. So I stand as a bulwark in defense of our Christian traditions and the great men of faith who went before us."
Tom smiled and sipped his coffer, which of course was followed by the bitter frown. "Dear Father, I apologize if I have offended you in anyway. I have the utmost respect of the great men and women of courage and deep thought which sprinkles the path of your Church's long history. I'm sure in the Protestant traditions there are many great men and women of faith. I don't mean to criticize your culture . . . but simply to point out that it is culture we are talking about and not mandates from God Himself. While you have these great people to look up to, you and I both know that your history is also filled with much evil."
Tom then looked across the table at Michael, "I'm sure that your traditions are also littered with men and women who have done horrible things in the name of God. My point in saying this isn't to make you feel bad out of cruelty. It isn't to put your culture down. But to demonstrate that culture is not pure. Because things are a certain way, doesn't mean that it should be that way and, by hell, it doesn't mean that we need to import it into other cultures as mandates from God."
Tom took his last drink of coffee and sloshed it around in his mouth and swallowed. "I don't see how you people grow to like this stuff. I've tried. I still don't like coffee but I have gotten myself a caffeine dependency."
Tom paused then continued, "So, after studying your history and knowing human nature, I think what happens in the context of what you call Church, isn't what it should be. My metaphor would have people arriving at the doors of the church with outstretched hands and empty cups. They're not just hungry, they are starving to death . . . starving for righteousness. In the same way we were created for the oxygen that fills Earth's atmosphere, we were also created to be righteous, meaning having the acceptance of God's good favor. The Church has the opportunity . . . rather the obligation . . . to fill those cups so that the people are satisfied to an infinite degree. But instead, the Church has often seized on the pilgrims' vulnerability. They draw the people in with the scent of good food, but then put a ring in their snouts instead of a meal in their mouths. We hold the food, the prize, at the end of a stick to entice them. You tell them, 'just do this and that, THEN you will be fed with righteousness.'"
Tom looked around the group and saw that they were listening carefully so he continued, "For your Church, Father, it was the evils of the Medici Popes, their longing was for wealth and power not to pour God's righteousness on the masses. The longing was in their personal passion to have value. The indulgences were the apogee of that mis-directed longing." Tom quickly rotated to his left and looked at David, "In your churches, pastor Monroe, it is the myth of godliness or godly living that is the ring in the snout. It's the books of how-to Christianity, how to be the perfect Christian wife, the perfect Christian son, the perfect Christian business owner, or perfect pastor. Those books are written by people who believe in perfection in the same way that the children believe in pixie dust."
Tom was quiet for a moment and everyone was speechless, but he wasn't finished. "I've visited your worship services. You teach that this is what God wants for His people, to worship him Sunday after Sunday, singing your songs, rolling your eyes, raising your hands. But don't you see the truth in this?"
Greg and Michael both shook their heads slowly and Tom answered his own rhetorical question, "It is really an exercise in futility for the pilgrims with the empty cups. It isn't about God. It isn't about us telling God how much we love Him. It is all about us, telling ourselves, that we are pretty good people because we are good at worshiping God. I challenge you to do an honest word study of 'worship' in the New Testament. To God, our worship is a stench. It is a stench because we replace the simple, free purity, which a loving God wants us to relish in . . . with exercises, in which we hope that our own skill will redeem us."
Tom sat back in his chair and there was nothing but silence . . . except for Greg's sigh and his whisper, "Makes sense to me."