This past spring, I was contemplating what my friend Pete suggested in his first book. He challenged Christians, especially those in leadership positions in ministry, to seek to be the aroma of Christ, not the food of Christ. What he was getting at by this was that many times, we simply give people the food of Christ. The desire for Christ becomes satisfied and they put it to the back of their brains until this desire rises up again. On the other hand, if we seek to be the aroma of Christ, we are simply increasing this desire in others, while not completely satisfying it.
What implications does this raise for the church? Is the church supposed to be the food? Or is it supposed to point people on to the food? The metaphor of shepherd is often employed when referring to the pastor, and we see this analogy used a great deal in the book of Jeremiah. As shepherds of the flock, all we can do is lead people to green pastures and to fresh water. We cannot force feed the grass in their mouths, nor can we shove a hose down their throats to drink the water. All we can do is lead them to where they need to be. In this light, we are not the food itself, but that which gives testimony to the food.
Since the Reformation, preaching has been front and central in Protestant congregations. Over the course of these several hundred years, we have ended up with many three and four point sermons, or even sometimes acronyms to help us remember what was preached. When I turn the pages of Jesus’ teaching, he doesn’t specify one or two points. He tells stories. By doing this, he is not satisfying their longing for more knowledge. In fact, Jesus lets his audience do the leg work in interpreting his metaphors and stories. By no means is he spoon feeding them. What a stark contrast with today’s church, in which information is the goal. But in Jesus’ mind, information did not lead to transformation and it still does not today.
Here we are as the church, satisfying people’s longing for the bread of life. We run the risk of becoming a crackhouse – people get their hit on Sunday, bringing satisfaction to their longing, and then go about the rest of the week with little or no thought about seeking Christ or becoming an imitator of Christ. And of course, by the end of the week, after the wear and tear of the world has taken its toll on people, they are longing for another quick fix. So, they come back to church Sunday after Sunday always wondering if it will be enough to get through the week. And when it’s not, they just start participating in more church events (i.e. prayer meetings, Sunday school, small groups). Eventually, even this will not satisfy the craving of the people. Maybe we should take lessons from John the Baptist, who simply pointed people on to Christ, thus deflecting all his potential followers and fame and redirecting it to the one person who could actually begin to fulfill the longings. Pastors today must find ways to help the congregation recognize the moments Monday through Saturday that God is working in. Eugene Peterson calls this speaking God in situations. By doing this and not just giving people their next fix, the leg work, once again, returns to the people and beckons them into dialogue with God.
This is nothing new in history. The Israelites were having the same problems and the prophet Amos came to address them:
This is what the LORD says to the house of Israel:
“Seek me and live;
Do not seek Bethel,
do not go to Gilgal,
do not journey to Beersheba.
For Gilgal will surely go into exile,
and Bethel will be reduced to nothing.”
Seek the LORD and live,
or he will sweep through the house of Joseph like a fire;
it will devour,
and Bethel will have no one to quench it.
As we can recall from Genesis, Bethel was a very holy place. It’s literal meaning from Hebrew is “House of God.” Jacob encountered God at Bethel. But Amos is relaying on the message from the Lord that Bethel will not save them. Instead, it’s about seeking the Lord. That’s where life and bread and water are found. Not in the church. We, as the church, must resist the temptation to become these things. Instead, we must endeavor to simply lead the people to greener pastures, to clearer waters, and to places where life will flourish.