Not What We Seem: Christian Oxymorons and Imposters in Church

The following reflection was written by the Rt. Rev. Scott Benhase. “We are treated as […]

Guest Contributor / 6.28.18

The following reflection was written by the Rt. Rev. Scott Benhase.

“We are treated as imposters, and yet are true.” – 2 Corinthians 6:8

The above sentence seems oxymoronic at first glance. St. Paul says that he and his companions are “treated as imposters, and yet are true.” St. Paul was speaking to a divided church in Corinth; one that had broken into factions. Each claimed the one true faith, while consigning all others to the status of imposters. So St. Paul says that while some of his readers in Corinth think he’s an imposter, he’s in fact truly proclaiming to them the good news of God in Christ. But also, he’s not denying that he is, in fact, an imposter. For St. Paul, admitting our own status as imposters is the first step to a right relationship with God. As he states elsewhere in Romans 7: “I know what God wants me to do, but I find myself doing the very opposite.” Then he asks rhetorically: “Who will save me from this?” And he answers his own question: “Jesus and his cross.” Recognizing that we’re imposters when it comes to living the Christian life makes it clear that we are in need of saving, which is something we can’t do for ourselves. Only Jesus and his cross can do that.

So, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that we’re all in one way, shape, or form: imposters. We literally make “poses” that aren’t truthful. For example, when we hit our knees in prayer, we’re not always penitent. When we stand to sing praises, we’re not always glorifying God. When we sit and hear God’s Word, we don’t always listen and heed its instruction. We make our poses hoping that someone will recognize us as Christians so we can maybe believe it ourselves.

It’s like those commercials on TV where an actor looks into the camera and says: “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV” and then he gives us medical advice. In our moments of greatest honesty, we must admit that we at times must say: “I’m not a Christian, but I play one on Sundays.” Our status as imposters is undeniable. A Rabbi friend of mine once said to me: “All we Jews ever want from you Christians is that you truly follow Jesus. If you did, we’d never ever fear for our lives again and there’d never be another Holocaust.”

Yet even as imposters, we’re true. What makes us truthful is our capacity and willingness to name who we are; to confess that as we pose as Christians, we’re really imposters. Such a confession is the beginning of a right relationship with God. For us to be a truthful people, we must learn to speak the language of truth about ourselves and about the world around us, a world, I might add, more and more comfortable with lies.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has written on the differences between the three great monotheistic faiths: Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. He said the greatest difference between them is that Christianity is full of irony and the others are not. At the heart of Christian irony is that God can die and that because of God’s death on the cross, life in all its abundance is poured out to the world. Archbishop Williams has gone to the heart of the matter. It is ironic that a 1st Century Jewish Rabbi could be God’s son and through his death redeem the world from its sin. Death bringing life to the world is nothing if not ironic.

So, the irony in our posing as Christians is oddly congruent. It’s our confession of the pride and hypocrisy of our lives that leads us to truthfulness. It’s the recognition of our own selfishness and exploitation of others that leads us to know how much we need God’s forgiveness. It’s our awareness that we have squandered so much of what God has blessed us with that leads us to our poverty before God. Our truthfulness comes from our confession that we’re indeed imposters, where we’re exposed, laid bare, and all pretense is stripped away. We’re reminded that we’re only fooling ourselves if we think we can go it alone without God imputing righteousness in our lives through the sacrifice of Christ, recognizing our own finitude before the Infinite God.

In our sharing the truthfulness about ourselves with others, we become the best possible evangelists for the Christian faith, because the most frequent criticism of Christians by non-Christians is that we’re hypocrites, regularly ignoring the teachings of Jesus because they would cause us to change the way we’d live our lives if we followed them. What if just agreed with our critics? It’d probably be a good idea to do so since they’re right about us. What if we simply said: “You’re right, I’m an imposter. I often ignore what Jesus calls me to be. That’s why I’m so thankful he died for a sinner like me.”

As imposters, as we confess that we’re often fakes and phonies, we’re proclaiming to the world that the truth about us humans matters even while so many others today lie with seeming impunity. But our truthfulness rests only on the sure foundation of God being true to his promises for us. Each Sunday, we come forward to receive the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood. This sacrament is a sign of God’s infinite promise in Jesus that God loves us even though we’re imposters. Through the sacrament, God takes up residence in our lives, come what may. And God will never forsake us.

And that’s where a man named Frank comes in. Awhile back, he was working in his garden at his home in San Diego when an idea came to him. You see, he and his wife had not heard from their son for a long time. All they knew was that he was living on the streets in Denver and that he was a heroin addict. Frank’s plan was to travel to Denver, find their son, and live with him on the streets. Frank said: “I love my son. And if I’m honest, I think his days are numbered.” Frank packed light even if it meant giving up essentials. He flew to Denver, found his son, and began living with him, which meant daily free lunches given out by local churches, sitting next to his son as he shot up heroin, walking for hours to find a place to sleep, finally settling in, and then only to wake up to feel rats crawling over his legs. He averaged two hours of sleep a night. And as he got more disheveled each day, he felt himself becoming invisible to others. While he was with his son, the one thing he repeated regularly to him was this: “I’ll be with you every minute of the day.” There’s no Hollywood ending to this story. His son is still on the streets addicted to heroin.

As we eat the Body of Christ and drink his Blood shed for our sins, it strikes me that God is making the same promise to us: “I’ll be with you every minute of the day, even if you never reform yourself, and even if you never kick the habit of sin.” God makes that promise to us even if we never become our own version of a Hollywood ending. In fact, God’s promise takes into account our continued sinfulness; our own inability to avoid being imposters for much of our lives. That’s the scandal of the Good News from God; that God loves us through the righteousness of Jesus and not by our own ability to be righteous.

We’re promised that even imposters like us are welcomed and loved by God; that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.