Background Passages: Matthew 23:25-28; James 2:14-18
My wife and spent the last two weeks celebrating our 40th anniversary on a Baltic Sea cruise. We started with a side trip to Spain before boarding a ship in London for Norway, Denmark, Estonia, Russia, Finland and Belgium. As with most of these European vacations, every stop featured palaces, castles and cathedrals.
I stood before each church and cathedral awestruck by the size and scope of the construction, thinking about how the architects of old created inspiring buildings worthy of God’s presence. Today, these massive facades still rise high above the surrounding neighborhoods, dominating city skylines with ornate spires and mammoth domes that reach toward heaven. Intricate carvings covering the face of each cathedral serve as silent and lasting testimony to the skill of the collection of artisans who spent centuries, in some cases, creating these magnificent houses of worship.
As I stepped inside and allowed my eyes to adjust to the dim lighting within, I marveled at the invaluable artwork that filled each sanctuary, drawing my attention always forward toward the marbled and gilded altars. I find it difficult to wrap my arms around the wealth represented in the gold-plated structures filling these halls.
A thought dawned on me as I stood in the back of the nave of St. Peter and Paul’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg, Russia, staring at the gilded altar rising to the ceiling. Inching my way through the milling throng of tourists snapping pictures, jabbering nosily, jockeying for position to catch a glimpse of whatever the tour guide highlighted, I felt a profound sense of loss. I stood in a magnificent house of worship, yet nothing about the chaotic atmosphere within resembled worship.
I sincerely appreciate the beauty and boldness of these magnificent churches, even though the opulent style challenges my simpler tastes. The beauty is wasted when you realize that few of the cathedrals offered more than the occasional worship service. Most served only a secular function, reflecting the history of time gone by. Museums to extravagance. Mausoleums for a faith dying of apathy.
Statistics tell us that the Christian faith in Europe has been on a steady decline for decades. Fewer than 10 percent of the populations in Norway, Denmark and Finland attend church regularly. Those who profess a faith in Christ stand in absolute minority among the citizens of Scandinavia and northern Europe. Did the extravagance of the buildings contribute in any way to the decline in faith, or was it something more personal?
As I sorted through my distress over the decline of faith and the emptiness of these sanctuaries of worship, I recalled an encounter Jesus had with the Pharisees late in his ministry. The conversation was one of Jesus’ most direct and confrontational messages to the religious leaders of his day.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence…You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” –Matthew 23:25-28
With those words Jesus reminds me that the decline of faith evident in Europe and in our own country has far less to do with the physical appearance of our buildings than it does the spiritual application of my heart. Jesus reminds me that I can play the part, speak the words, construct a beautiful façade as I proclaim myself a Christian, and still my heart beats as empty and devoid of worship as those amazing cathedrals. I can gild myself in gold, putting up a grand façade, but never demonstrate God’s love to a lost and dying world.
Cathedrals and churches echo with emptiness across the world because our deeds do not match our faith. James spoke to this.
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such a faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But some will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.” –James 2:14-18
Sadly, I’m sure there are times when those men and women searching for answers to faith’s questions see me as a gilded cathedral. An empty shell hiding behind a gilded face. Christ-like in outside appearance, but without the deeds to back it up. Such is the height of hypocrisy.
A cathedral without worship is a museum. Faith without works a mausoleum. How much better would it be for us to be plain an unattractive to the world, but open to God’s presence as we serve and minister to his people?
At the end of the day, these beautiful cathedrals sit idle because the people forgot what it meant to serve. Forgot what it meant to invest themselves in the lives of those they encountered. Our modern churches run the risk of becoming silent witnesses to our dying faith unless those of us who profess Christ act faithfully on his behalf in service and ministry to those we encounter today and tomorrow.
For the sake of our country and our faith, I pray we’re up to the task.