A Feel-Good Religion

Vigil: Gn 11:1-9 • Rom 8:22-27 • Jn 7:37-39/Day: Acts 2:1-11 • 1 Cor 12:3b-7,12-13 • Jn 20:19-23

A church along a heavily traveled parkway has a sign that scrolls messages in lights. Being electronic, the scrolling words can be changed often. Some of the messages are very amusing, such as, “Never give the devil a ride. He will always want to drive” or, “God answers kneemail!” or, “Walmart isn’t the only saving place.”

A priest who traveled this parkway always read the current message. After a while, some of the messages began to bother him. The sign would read, “Are you looking for a Spirit-filled church?” Or, “The Spirit is here. You’ll never be bored.” Or, “Worship without solemnity. Be able to clap your hands!” The priest understood his unease. He thought that the church was peddling entertainment, not religion.

There is no doubt that, to attract new members, churches will try all kinds of gimmicks. This past Ash Wednesday, the evening news featured a church (non-Catholic) that offered “drive-by ashes.” All you had to do was pull to the curb and the minister, saying a prayer, would reach into the car and put ashes on the occupants’ foreheads. One of those interviewed who took advantage of getting drive-by ashes commented, “I like churches that make religion easy.”

What was the original sin? The serpent tempted Adam and Eve with the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The serpent said eating the fruit would make them like gods. Eating the fruit gave much more than mere knowledge; it gave the power to decide what was good and what was evil.

We like this kind of godly power. We like being the decision-makers about what is right and wrong, and what we decide can change almost daily in order to make life more to our liking. Abortion was once thought to be abhorrent. Life was considered sacred. Now, an unwanted pregnancy is just a “health issue,” so abortion, which from time immemorial was thought to be abhorrent, hardly raises an eyebrow.

With the ability to decide what is good and evil, we have the ability to decide whether or not God is worth our time. Receiving ashes was once a sacred ritual that caused us to stop and ponder our lives. People made time for God. Employers used to respect holy days. Schools let out. People went to church. Nothing happened on Sundays except worship and family. Now we have drive-by ashes.

We really do look to be entertained in church. We look for toe-tapping music, fabulous preaching, and feel-good, it’s-all-about-me worship. But these are only peripheral. What we are about is worshiping and glorifying God and finding unity in Him. That is the point of religion.

Why Pentecost? The role of the Spirit is not entertainment. The role of the Spirit is to focus us, to inspire us, to give us the grace to choose the mission of Jesus Christ over personal missions of entertainment and religion-lite. The Holy Spirit gives us new power, power to once again choose the Lord’s will over our own desires. It is the mission of the Spirit to unify us in Jesus Christ.

Pentecost uses the images of creation to make the possibilities believable. The world was broken by the sin of Adam and Eve. The Old Testament tells the story of the Tower of Babel to emphasize the sin of human pride, the sin of thinking of ourselves as gods. The arrogance in thinking ourselves powerful enough to build a tower that could reach God introduced misunderstanding and division. Power corrupts, and our human pursuit of God’s power wrecked everything.

Today we hear a story where, once again, human beings speak with understanding. When the apostles again preached God and our humility before God, understanding and unity became realities.

The world in that day had slid away from the Torah. Jesus himself had pointed out how peripheral issues had distracted people from choosing God. With Pentecost, the Word of God was renewed. The symbol of the Torah was a “tongue of fire,” and tongues of fire descended upon the disciples. Once again God was God, and the power to serve Him over ourselves was restored.

How many locked doors have we placed between ourselves and God? For how many of those doors have we lost the keys? Jesus appeared despite a locked door. The Holy Spirit gives us the power to open our locked doors. Jesus wishes to enter our locked rooms.

We must not lose ourselves in a selfish desire to experience only a feel-good and easy religion and, instead, choose to follow God rather than to be God.

FATHER STEINER, born and reared in Chattanooga, Tenn., is a priest of the Diocese of Nashville. He currently serves as rector of the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville. Previously, he served in the diocesan high school as teacher, associate principal, and principal. He received his education from St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana, the Gregorian University in Rome, and The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C..