I was driving on the interstate the other day when I noticed a big billboard for a church. Now, here in the American South religious oriented billboards are nothing noteworthy, but this one stood out. It read: “Real. Comfortable. Church.” in big letters, next to a picture of a couch, along with the name of the particular church being advertised. I was floored- comfortable church? My initial thought was, man, at my church we stand up for the entire service, I wonder if we could figure out how to get that on a billboard- maybe a guy standing and another prostrating, someone having an allergic reaction to the incense, with a caption like “Orthodoxy: Real. Uncomfortable. Church.” Fr. Justin and I talked about the sign this evening- he had noticed it also- and he suggested, in a more serious vein, “Real. Martyred. Church.”- but more on that in a moment.
On further contemplation, there are a multitude of things that greatly bother me with the image of a “comfortable church.” Now, I suppose someone could construct a justification for the term, how it’s meant to attract people turned off of church by all the various things that turn people off to Christianity. There are types of discomfort that should, must be avoided in church- the discomfort of vicious politics and character assasination, the intercine struggles and nastiness and internal schisms, the hurt feelings and the ruined relationships over petty things- all the things I’ve seen in church life (I grew up literally on church property as a pastor’s son, and got to see all the dark secrets from the inside), all of which cause intense discomfort and should be avoided. But there are also numerous, absolutely vital ways in which we ought to be intensely uncomfortable when we go to church- indeed, if we are not somehow discomforted, then we are missing out on the whole point of the Gospel! Christ did not come to tell us all how wonderful we are, and how we can just go on doing what we’re doing- and oh if you’d like and you’d say your quick prayer you can come chill with Me on my couch in Heaven after you knock off down here.
No! Sed contra, Christ declares to the world as a whole and to each one of us- look at your lives! Look at the sin, the injustice, the violence, the oppression, the self-destruction you’re perpetrating on yourself, on everyone around you! Repent! Is the call to repentance comfortable? Does it make us feel good when someone calls us on our actions? Why do you think they threw Jeremiah in the pit? Why did they- we- crucify- still crucify- Christ? Because He, and all the saints and prophets, disturb our comfort, our cherished love of our selves that will brook no one telling us otherwise. Because the prophets come telling us we have blood on our hands, that our comfort is paid for with the blood of the oppressed. Because Christ comes telling us that our comfort in our selves will lead us straight to Hell, that we are living, not the life of God, but the unlife of the Enemy so long as we linger in our drugged out comfort built on sin and deceit.
Christ came, as was said of Dorothy Day, “to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” Why? Because we- the comfortable (and that includes most of us living here in the West, where life is handed to us on a silver platter, compared to the plight of people in much of the Majority World)- must be afflicted with the truth if we are to wake up to our true state, and seek repentance and the genuine life of Christ.
And that life- once we have been jarred from our sleep, rolled off the couch into the light and truth of Christ- is not easy, is not cozy comfort. Christ gives us consolation and relief from the despair of sin and the blindness of the world and its comforts (which really are no comforts at all but mere opiates)- his yoke is easy and his burden is light- but he also calls us to a very specific form of life. He calls us to pick up our Cross and carry it with Him- and as the Apostles who first heard that message would have known immediately, carry a cross means getting crucified, it means death. Crucifixion is not comfortable. Getting martyred is not comfortable. Christ calls us to spiritual combat, but it is not push-button bombing from an armchair. It is the warfare of love, our weapon is the cross, the weapon of peace, and our tactics are turning the other cheek, forgiving our enemies, dropping the literal sword, cutting off our anger and our hatred and turning to love. This is not comfortable! God knows all of this is hard, it sounds hard, and it is hard- loving your enemies, living a life of constant prayer, rejecting the opiates of the world- if it was easy, if it was comfortable, we’d all be doing it like we should, I’d be doing it like I should and not slipping back into the blissful ignorance and sleep of the world. Christ calls us to look our sin in the face and call it what it is- extremely uncomfortable. Christ calls us to look the homeless man on the street and call him human and mean it. Christ calls us to look at those icons of the saints and the martyrs and embrace them and seriously imitate them- even to death. It is not comfortable, it is not easy, it is at variance with a world that embraces the grossest extremes of comfort, that has desensitized itself to the killing of the unborn and the killing of its enemies in distant lands, that dresses its worst and most brutal violence in comfortable tones and images. The Church is not called to be a comfortable church, a church that exists to affirm the violence and sin of State and Society. The Church is called to be a martyred Church, one that stands against the comforts of its age and suffers for its witness.
I do not need any more comfort. I am stupidly comfortable in my quiet little mostly untroubled existence. I get up, go about my business and if I avoid the homeless men over in Downtown and don’t pay too much attention to my prayers I usually manage to feel pretty good about myself every day. May God save me, save all of us, from feeling good about ourselves, from being comfortable with our sin and the violence and despair around us. May God wake us up, roll us off the couch, and may we pick up the cross and really, truly, follow after Christ. May God grant us to live as a martyred Church, a Church that has died to the world and is living the difficult, demanding, but true, life-filled and life-affirming, the light-filled life of the Crucified Christ.