Imagine the Sermon on the Mount this way. The people are seated on the mountain. They use a tent as a staging area. Ten apostles start playing drums. The apostle John comes out to the beat. He encourages the crowd on their feet and leads the chant, “We will, we will, rock you.”
Next the apostle Peter comes out dancing. Mary and Martha run out from behind the tent and start doing backflips. Finally Jesus comes out and gives high-fives to the waiting crowd. The crowd, still chanting, goes wild. Peter starts the wave. And then Jesus finally begins his message:
“Blessed are the confident, for you will succeed!
“Blessed are the driven, for you will dominate.
“Blessed are the perky, for you will motivate.
“Blessed are the beautiful, for you will procreate.”
And he goes on. The event has all the trimmings of a high school pep rally, minus short-skirted cheerleaders.
Back in the day, some of our high school pep rallies were terrific. If for nothing else these events got us out of class.
You didn’t need to be taking calculus, however, to realize there was no strong correlation between great pep rallies and winning football games. We had some great pep rallies that preceded losses. There was a discrepancy between what we wanted to believe and reality.
I say this because sometimes in my effort to sell Jesus to the world I’ve turned him into “Pep Rally Jesus.”
You know him, don’t you?
Pep Rally Jesus will improve your health, finances, family life, marriage, sex life, and your career. Those are mostly true, but not always—they are gracious gifts, not guarantees. The older I get the more exceptions I see.
Pep Rally Jesus is supposed to improve your family life. But what about the woman who came to Christ and her family fell apart shortly thereafter?
Pep Rally Jesus is supposed to improve your sex life. Isn’t that what we promise every waiting teenager with a raging libido? But lately I’ve become aware of married people in church with medical problems who struggle sexually.
Pep Rally Jesus will transform disciples overnight. But what about all the addicts who have relapses?
Pep Rally Jesus is supposed to ride into a financial mess and intervene with a miracle. Sometimes yes, but many times no. What about the unemployed person who cannot pay for groceries?
Pep Rally Jesus is supposed to reward a life of faith in old age. My grandmother, a very godly woman, is mentally disabled from a stroke and sits paralyzed in a wheelchair. My aunt and grandfather are both crippled with arthritis.
Pep Rally Jesus is supposed to bless a career of ministry and service. For 25 years my mom and dad led a church to consistent growth. My mom was an incredible part-time trauma nurse who served thousands of individuals. I expected them to glide gracefully into an easy retirement. Not so.
In the last years of their ministry in western Maryland my dad was mugged and carjacked, and their vehicle was totaled. The church’s youth minister confessed to molesting three youth. Years of criminal and civil trials followed. After completing all the legal obligations, my dad stepped down.
They now serve a small church in Delaware. Mom’s health problems began about the time of their move. Five months after their first grandkids were born, Mom was diagnosed with cancer and given a 50 percent chance of surviving five years. So much for an easy retirement.
I’ve never believed or preached the health and wealth gospel. I’ve always believed our real treasure is in Heaven. But I always expected that God guaranteed some earthly compensation for serving Christ—like reasonably good health, financial stability, and a peaceful retirement. In my mind, I created a list of benefits for following Jesus that I could sell to modern audiences. Last on the list was the resurrection.
Judging from Christian literature and cable TV, I’m not the only one to consider the benefits package. Christian literature (especially that which is aimed at raising money) is permeated by catchword adjectives like exciting, explosive, and dynamic.
Yet as I look at some of the godliest people throughout my life, none of those words fit—people like my grandmother, my parents, and a mentor named Ray.
Ray Gurley and his wife, Carol, befriended me when I moved to Pittsburgh in 2000. Ray’s paid career had been as a high school teacher, but he also had a ministry background. For 30-plus years they served the inner-city church where I served for 10 years. The Gurleys lived the Beatitudes as much as any people I’ve ever known. They were my friends and my pastors.
Ray’s asthma problems started in about 2000, after Carol made it through her first round of cancer. The asthma progressively worsened, and steroids were prescribed. Shingles arrived the day of his mother-in-law’s funeral in 2003 and stayed permanently. The steroids ate away at his bones, leading to constant pain and more surgeries.
He began walking hunched over until, finally, he could no longer walk on his own. More medical tests followed, along with weekly trips to doctors. Millions of prayers were offered over the years. He was largely immobile the last two years of his life, and his final two months were miserable.
It was a blow to my faith. Is this what you have to look forward to after years of service?
Pep Rally Jesus fails to deliver.
I wonder how many times I’ve been guilty of doing the same thing as exercise equipment advertisers—the ones who use professional models to demonstrate their products and imply that you, too, can have the same type of body with only 20 minutes a day on the “Flab-burner 4000.”
A great book called Why We Love the Church by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck said Evangelicals have become addicted to “happy ending” stories where we go through “x” (hard thing) and then start praying and—Shazam!—God makes everything better. The Christian ends up in a sort of utopia, with a great job, great family, time off, the free plane ticket, or great healthy kids.
But sometimes—in fact, often—the happy ending is Heaven, and one goes through many trials on his way there.
Oddly enough, two funerals turned my discouragement around. The first was Ray’s. It was one of my greatest honors to lead his funeral. Even though the last years of his life were physically miserable, the funeral was packed with people whose lives he had touched. In life and in death, more people were drawn closer to Christ through him.
The second funeral was for my wife’s grandmother, Gladys Thornton. I had only known her as Gladys with Alzheimer’s. In the days following her death I learned of the godly, pre-Alzheimer’s woman who mothered six children and dozens of foster children, who baked enormous cakes, who led backyard Bible clubs, and who was deeply devoted to the church. One of her sons died as an infant. She lost another son to an unusual construction accident, and a young daughter-in-law to cancer. Despite all the tragedies within her family, there are more of her descendants in Christian service than I can count.
In old age and death, Satan poked them in the eye one final time, but in the resurrection of Jesus they overcame.
Power of the Resurrection
With all the Christian props we use to support worship and church growth, sometimes the resurrection gets bumped to being a side dish rather than the main course. We offer the synthetic hope of manufactured miracles. Sometimes we’re guilty of paying lip service to Jesus while subconsciously worshipping youth, success, looks, styles, and fads.
At a closeout retailer, I recently noticed hundreds of formerly hot-selling, widely promoted Christian books. Now they sit in the closeout section next to O’s Big Book of Happiness by Oprah Winfrey. Keeping a watchful eye on culture is still essential to evangelism, but rockin’ music, hip styles, and hyperrelevant preaching (all of which I prefer) dare not distract from the suffering required of the cross and ultimate power of the resurrection.
To Carol in the present world, to Ray and to Gladys in the next, I say thanks! The cross and resurrection is the gospel that deserves to be shouted from rooftops. The rest of it are only gracious gifts, not guarantees.
Jim Herbst, a Christian minister, lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia.