In his essay, “Beginning Afresh with Christ in the Search for Abundant Life in Africa,”  The Rev. Dr. Stan Chu Ilo writes,

Christ is that true home that Africans seek, night and day, as an answer to the deepest needs of their souls and the strongest concerns of their temporal reality…I am convinced that if the Church speaks more of Christ and not of herself, and that if the Church speaks convincingly of Christ as he is and presents him as he is through the life of the Church and that of Christians, she will have more appeal not only to Africans but to the whole world. It will demand that the way of being Church in Africa should be the way that shows the face of Christ and leads to Christ.

Father Ilo’s assertion struck me as the core answer to the question I often pray as a pastor, “How do I best serve God as pastor?” I am called as a Pastor, and we are called as Christians to speak more of Christ, to present him through our church and lives and to lead people to him. Jesus Christ has come, is present and will come again to give us super-abundant life. This eternal life comes through him alone.

Christians in the West have learned to measure abundant life in various ways other than intimacy with Jesus. We measure the abundance of our lives by our wealth, luxuries, status, power, influence, clothes, cars, networks, technology, travel, self-actualization, skills at leisure, etc. Yet these items indicate our secular success more than anything else and reveal nothing of our union with Christ. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, teaches that abundant life comes from him and especially from hearing his voice. Hearing and knowing his voice and following him determine the identity of his sheep. Sitting at his feet and listening to him and falling deeper in love with him indicate being his disciple.

I think American churches often reflect the disconnect between the Scriptural revelation of abundant life and our culture’s definition of abundant life. Our churches have been inculturated to the extent that we point Biblical promises to the goals of secularism and make church subservient to our self-referential lives. Jesus becomes insufficient to answer our culturally defined “needs” we bring to church. Christians come to church with the consumerist mindset that demands catering, comfort and entertaining stimulation. Church leaders have too often responded by presenting the face of secular success rather than the face of Christ as the solution to the concerns of the temporal reality of our lives. Because people are not satisfied with Jesus, churches give them something along with Jesus to bring them in and keep them coming. Jesus fades…”After all, he is everywhere,” we think, “What is so special about him?”  We buy into the lie that Jesus is not enough.

It happens in Western missions too. In his book, Roots & Remedies, Dr. Robert Reese describes how missionary zeal has presented Christianity wrapped in the accoutrements of the prosperous West, as if Jesus alone is not enough the save the souls and transform the lives of the natives of the Third World. We enshrine the message of salvation in the economic gospel that will make it palatable and appealing. Of course, we are only exporting what we manufacture. The African Church has begun to respond that Jesus is enough. I wonder if the Western Christians will learn the same lesson.

I think the problem most presents itself in our American churches in the sacrament of Holy Communion. Christians have celebrated Holy Communion since the apostolic era in response to Jesus’ command during the Last Supper, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Paul makes this of first importance in his instruction to the church at Corinth,

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

The church has since practiced Holy Communion in celebration of Christ’s death, resurrection, ascension and coming return. Holy Communion celebrates the historical and universal church’s unity in Christ with the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

I believe that when we celebrate Holy Communion today Jesus wants us to experience the intimacy that was present with him and his disciples during their supper. Jesus approached the meal by saying to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” Jesus sat at the table with them, looked into their eyes and hearts, and knew each of them intimately as only God can know someone.

Do our churches earnestly desire to come to the Lord’s Table each Sunday and know him and be known by him? Do we become intimate with him during our worship? Do we come to the Table beside our brothers and sisters in Christ of all ages and partner with them in their joys and trials? Are we communally coming to our true home in Christ as a family of faith at our churches?

I think we have allowed ourselves to forsake our true home, our true lover and our place as the beloved. We have taken Jesus for granted and presumed upon his gracious welcome and earnest desire for intimacy with us.

Last month, my hometown of Elizabeth City, NC celebrated the annual Potato Festival. Several thousand visitors came to the city and many vendors, bands, restaurants and games are showcased along Main Street and the waterfront. During the festival, there is a stand that gives away free French fries to anyone who will stand in line. Thousands partake of the free fries and go about their way enjoying truly excellent fries. While waiting in line, people may engage their family or friends or those about them, but no intimacy develops and no lives are transformed in the common table of the Potato Festival French Fries.  I think our Western practices of Holy Communion have too often taken on the convenience and friendliness of the free French fries and lost the face of Christ and imminence of the Holy Trinity of the Lord’s Supper, as revealed in Scripture.

In our relationships with others we can consistently behave like riders of a merry-go-round who stake our position and have only seconds to look in the faces of those we whiz by in each rotation, as we hold onto our place. Whether it is Jesus, the Father, the Holy Spirit or our family of faith, we merely pass them by here and there. “Give me mine quickly; I’m on a ride!” we say. Holy Communion welcomes us to Jesus and to each other…it doesn’t work when we are all looking and going our own ways, even if we are in the same room – however large or small.

The Apostle Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians, “Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.” (11:28) Pastors today face concerns for the church, too. The challenge is to reject the culturally-inspired demands and to adhere to the gospel-inspired pressure to proclaim Jesus Christ. This pressure demands that we deny ourselves in order to present the face of Christ—his word, his presence. God lovingly disciplines his pastors to set forth Jesus in word and in lives.

I am reminded of the “Mission Statement” from Jerry Maguire in the movie Jerry Maguire that leads to the sports agent losing his job but finding his life perhaps. The character played by Tom Cruise narrates,

I was remembering even the words of the original sports agent, my mentor, the late great Dickie Fox who said: ‘The key to this business is personal relationships.’ Suddenly, it was all pretty clear. The answer was fewer clients. Less money. More attention. Caring for them, caring for ourselves.

Maybe something needs to change; maybe the message needs to revert; maybe the light needs to shine again fully on Jesus—his gospel, his demands. Church, Communion, Worship and the Sunday gathering of God’s people are all about relationship with Jesus and relationships in Jesus. May we as Christian resolve to give more attention to Jesus and to each other through Jesus and in Jesus. May we demand of our churches: “Show us the face of Christ and lead us to him.”

In doing this, we are not neglecting those lost in our culture; rather, we are calling them home to Christ.