Sunday morning and I am at a Protestant Church in the Philippines, attending worship with my wife Sandy, along with a handful of other international guests on their way to attending an Asia-Pacific Deacons conference.
The local minister introduces the guest speaker as his mentor of twelve years. Quite a rap! Today’s preacher is Filipino, but has grown up in Canada – a member of one of many families that fled the Philippines when Marcos pronounced Martial Law in 1972. These days he is a pastor in Toronto, Canada.
His text is John 15: 12-17
My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.
Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
You are my friends if you do what I command.
I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.
You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.
This is my command: Love each other.
After an introductory ramble about himself I begin to feel uncomfortable.
‘Hands up if you need a miracle in your life?’ he asks.
Well, no! I seek to live a life open to God but I’m not dependent on actively looking for miracles all day long. My hand stays down. I see from the outset we are on a different page!
We hear his story of a ‘miracle’.
The night before he was to fly out to the Philippines he discovered his passport was out of date.
He’s an engaging storyteller and by the end of ten minutes probably everyone is convinced that it really was a miracle he had his passport renewed the next morning within an hour of lining up at the passport office – particularly if you were hearing with the ears of those living in the bureaucratic jungle of a developing country!
But a miracle? Have we got to the stage that when a clerk goes into emergency mode to help someone who has made an honest mistake, it is a miracle?
I don’t buy it. But the congregation seem to. They want to be rescued. They are looking for miracles. But we’ll come to that later.
He makes some good points as he begins to unravel the text. The need to invest in people, to be a blessing to others, to leave a legacy.
But then we get to the title of his sermon: ‘The Secret to Getting Whatever You Want’.
It’s his take on that verse in the reading: ‘Whatever you ask in my name I will give to you.’
The legacy the preacher wants to leave his children is to have more than he has. If he drives one car, he wants his children to drive three cars! Following Jesus, ‘living a godly life’, delivers ‘whatever you want’!
Behold, the economic miracle!
It’s just the ‘good news’ the people want to hear. And they’ve heard it from a pro. There’s a score of people kneeling out the front at the end of the service, praying they will live a godly life and get whatever they want.
I’m angry and not really looking forward to conversation over coffee afterwards, but a friendly man I had talked with before the service approaches me. He is a graduate of the University of the Philippines and practices commercial law. He is on the Church Board and we had had a warm conversation.
I can tell he thinks the sermon was wonderful – ‘just what we need to get us moving’, he offers. ‘We Filipinos are shy, you know, reticent, we tend to be followers, leave it to someone else to take a lead… So what did you make of it?’
Now I am a guest here. I want to show respect, but not at the expense of my integrity. So being as general as possible to leave room for conversation, if he wanted, I said I thought consumerism is one of the great problems we face and the preacher did nothing to address it.
‘Oh, the business of the cars was just a metaphor for the blessing of God.’
I didn’t want to take it any further with my host. This is a people usurped by “development” – NGO and overseas government handouts, pathetic paybacks by big mining companies in return for ripping the country to pieces and displacing its peoples from their ancestral lands. It’s like rape for a piece of candy – a simile not far from the truth from what we heard of the life story of a prostitute we met later on in a refuge for street-workers established by the Churches of Christ in the Philippines. “Development” has mesmerised the people and sapped them of their spirit just as surely as the colonialism of the past; in fact, my impression is that the country continues to suffer from the exploitation of colonialism, but under other names and guises. Our visiting preacher is continuing the tradition. He brings hope of a miracle to those who have had little or nothing.
I would not want to deny faith in Jesus and hope of his justice to anyone, particularly if Jesus is about all you’ve got. But this is a holey gospel that is an abuse of the vulnerability of a damaged people.
What I observed in that church that morning was a culture of underlying Christian guilt – guilt that the church was not prospering even though they were trying to fire themselves up with an overseas preacher – guilt that needed to be expunged by saying the right pious words, accompanied by spiritual whipping to ‘win others to Christ’ (that theology which thinks all the world’s problems will be solved if everyone becomes a Christian – which comes to a sticking point when you discover Muslims who have a theology that all the world’s problems will be solved if everyone becomes a Muslim!). Add a good dose of Christian consumer therapy, ‘getting what you want’, piously rationalised by selective use of Scripture, and the congregation glows with purpose.
It’s a winning mix for Christian self-centredness, a disconnect with the world other than that of the Christian chorus-singing club; without any reference, totally oblivious and disconnected, to the exploitation of others outside their holy world. And in the process they have been exploited and the truth of the gospel has been exploited.
Everyone gets a payoff. The preacher gets his ego massage. The congregation has a job to do and a reward to reap.