Bishop's Message

HERDS AND COWBOYS

Sep 2005    

JESUS was wary of crowds, though he often ministered among the crowds. Is there something He knew that we should also know?

We live in what has been called the “age of individualism,” the “me-first” age.

This is expressed in countless ways in popular culture and lifestyles. The way one dresses, talks and lives is supposed to show one’s own freedom to be oneself.

Those who offer various kinds of services also promise to cater to individual needs and tastes. We have therefore personal trainers, personalised banking and products.

On first glance, our age of individualism seems like a perfect environment for us to be followers of Christ, as we can be free from the stifling conventions or the enthusiastic frenzy of the crowds as we each pursue our individually designed paths.

But is this really the case? On closer examination, we will discover that those who break free from the conventions of traditions to pursue their own individual initiatives often become part of another new crowd.Have you noticed how expressions of new fashions or lifestyles reflect the old herd instincts that are deeply lodged in our human minds?

What are meant to be spontaneous expressions of individual freedom and taste are often the result of wanting to be like everyone else – wanting to be “hip” or with the “incrowd”.

Sometimes the most selfprofessed individualists are the ones most stuck in herd behaviour. Many postmodern individualists are in fact members of new postmodern herds. And in our globalised world, these herds are often global in nature and extent. There are very few true individuals. Almost everyone is a member of a herd – whether it is a traditional one or a postmodern one.

Convention rules our lives, no matter what we call it.

But what has this got to do with discipleship? It says something about how we ought to relate to God and follow Christ. The 19th century Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, lived at a time when the Lutheran Church was organisationally strong. Almost all Danish citizens were members of the state church.

Yet Kierkegaard was disturbed by what he saw. Christianity had degenerated into a nominal state religion practised by cultural Christians.

Kierkegaard lamented that there were “battalions upon battalions of unbelieving believers” in the church. People were following the crowd rather than personally following Christ. They were comfortable, conventional, cultural Christians rather than true cross-carrying followers of Jesus Christ.

Jesus found a similar situation during His ministry on earth. There were thousands of Jewish visitors to the temple in Jerusalem. But their religion was a nominal one – there were very few true worshippers of God. The religion practised by many of the leaders and influential people was a highly formalised and hypocritical one that had nothing to do with a personal knowledge of and relationship with the living God. The faith that was revealed through the prophets and priests had been distorted into a merely social religion.

Jesus appeared at the scene to shatter the pretensions and the bankruptcy of the religion that was popularly practised. He issued a counter-cultural call to be truly reconciled to God and to one another.

In His ministry, Jesus was tempted both in the solitude of the desert (Mt. 4:1-11), and in the crushing proximity of the crowd. (In this respect, it is interesting that in the film “The Passion of Christ”, the devil is portrayed as lurking within the crowd, stirring and manipulating it.) Jesus when facing the crowd, often ministered to the needy individuals in the crowd (Mt. 14:14). They flocked to hear Him. But they were also fickle and worldly. They wanted a leader and saviour on their own terms.

They pressed Jesus to conform to the shapes of their worldly agendas, tastes and schemes. But Jesus often withdrew from the crowd, rejecting their agendas (Jn. 6:15).

Jesus was a true individual who refused to join the ungodly pursuits of the herd, no matter how nicely clothed they were in pious garb. As Kierkegaard would put it, “the crowd is untruth”.

Jesus has invited us to follow Him – not the herd, nor our selfish desires. Hence, Paul talks about crucifying the flesh and the world within us (Gal. 5:24; 6:14). In other words, to be a true individual is to be a follower of Christ.

True freedom lies on the path of authentic Christian discipleship.

BUT does this mean that we must break free from all conventions and groups and walk our own rugged individual journeys? That cannot be so, if we read our Bibles carefully. Yes, we are called to a personal relationship with Jesus, and follow Him personally (and not herds, whether they are traditional or postmodern). But we are called to do this in community, in the Body of Christ. We must avoid what Ralph Wood has called “the heresy of solitary faith”. We are not to become spiritual cowboys – each on his own. We must be individuals but we must break free from the Enlightenment prison of individualism.

We must therefore avoid the two prisons of the herd and of individualism. One traps us in social conformity that results in religious nominalism. The other traps us in selfish esoteric spirituality. To follow Christ, the flesh and worldliness must both be renounced. Because they often work hand in hand, we cannot afford to consciously deal with one and leave the other alone. We are called not to follow the crowd, or our own pursuits, but to follow Christ our Lord.

We can do this only in true community. We each need to approach God’s throne of grace in repentance as we hear His invitation. We must personally respond to God’s call. Then as we approach Him, we will discover other fellow-penitents who had responded in similar manner. As we gather around the Feast Table of the Lord, with joy we discover true community – neither a herd nor a crowd of cowboys, but the family of God.

Are you a cowboy of part of a crowd? Both ways cannot help us to know God. We must each find Christ our Saviour and Lord, and in Him, our brothers and sisters. And as we follow our Lord, we will find true company.

A PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP WITH CHRIST

‘We are called to a personal relationship with Jesus, and follow Him personally (and not herds, whether they are traditional or postmodern). But we are called to do this in community, in the Body of Christ.’

REACH OUT

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