by Al Maxey

Issue #182 ------- April 2, 2005
Father Mapple: Jonah did the Almighty's bidding.
And what was that, shipmates? To preach the
Truth to the face of Falsehood! That was it!

Herman Melville (1819-1891)
"Moby Dick"

Faith In Formaldehyde
A One Cup Preacher's Powerful Sermon
That Resulted In His Termination

His name is John Modgling. He and his lovely young wife were newly married, just setting out on life's adventure together. They had exchanged their wedding vows, and became one flesh, on January 21, 2005. John was now involved in his very first work as a full-time minister of the gospel in a One Cup congregation of the Churches of Christ in Texas. This young man took his responsibilities as a minister very seriously, and he sought actively to lead the members of the congregation into the joys of God's marvelous grace. However, he was meeting with a great deal of resistance from various members who were finding it difficult to shed the shackles of LAW. In Issue #178 of these Reflections, to which John had fairly recently subscribed, the following letter from him appeared in the Readers' Response section:

"Brother Al, I am a preacher at a very legalistic, one-cup congregation. I have been told that I caused 'confusion' in the church because I passed communion from the side instead of the center. Another member thought that maybe reading a chapter from the Scriptures during each church service (a practice that I suggested we start) might not be 'Scriptural.' Others weren't against the practice, however, and we have incorporated it into our services. I have also been asked to cease all communication with people from 'other' Churches of Christ in town, because they are 'digressive,' and almost every attempt I have made to start a breakfast or something to bring us together more often has been shot down by accusations that I'm trying to start another 'called out assembly' separate from the Sunday assembly. No one really seems to want to get involved with me, and many members are murmuring that I'm not doing anything productive. On Sunday, March 13th, I plan on giving a lesson called 'Six Marks of a Dead Religion' -- (Religion vs. Christianity) -- and I suspect that the murmuring will greatly increase. This is my very first work as an evangelist. I know that this isn't really your problem, but I would like to solicit your prayers, and I would welcome any advice or encouragement that you may wish to offer. God bless you for all the work you do. Thank you!"

As we all now know, John did indeed boldly preach that sermon on March 13th. Later that afternoon, John was informed by the members of the congregation that his services were no longer required. Just 51 days after their wedding, this young couple was terminated by their "spiritual" family! Why? Because John dared to preach Truth, rather than regurgitate Tradition. Paul warned the young evangelist Timothy, "The time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires; and will turn away their ears from the truth" (2 Tim. 4:3-4). Nevertheless, Timothy was charged to "be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry" (vs. 5). Brother John Modgling heeded the instruction of Paul. He boldly and courageously preached the Truth, and this brave servant of the Lord, and his lovely wife, are now experiencing firsthand the affliction that often comes when one faithfully faces Falsehood.

Yet, even after being so horribly treated, John shows the depth of his Christian character by asking all of us, in a letter recorded in the readers' section of Issue #179, to pray for the very members who forced him out of their congregation!! This evidences a maturity well beyond his years! John and his wife are trying to maintain a positive outlook, and they believe God has great things in store for them. I believe they are right!! Our Father rewards faithful service unto Him, and this devoted young couple has certainly done that! Keep them in your daily prayers that God may quickly open a door unto them for further effective service in His kingdom. The cause of Christ needs good men and women like these two young disciples!

The Sermon -- Sunday, March 13, 2005

John asked me if I would like a copy of the sermon he preached that morning. Of course, I told him I would. He sent me a copy (snail mail), along with a picture of himself and his bride. I was so impressed by his sermon notes (17 pages long), that I asked him if I could present a review of that lesson in a Reflections article, providing quotes from his notes. He said that he did not mind at all, and that I could even reveal his name. He only asked that I mention that he got the idea for the sermon from Dr. David Dykes of Tyler, Texas. The idea for the "six marks" of a dead religion came from Dr. Dykes. John wrote, "I don't want to take credit for his contribution to the sermon." Bro. Modgling also told me, "I am honored that you would like to feature the sermon in one of your Reflections, and my prayer is that it will help at least one person in some way!" Amen! That is my prayer, as well. I also pray that the example of this young couple may be an inspiration to others to stand boldly for the Truth. They are heroes in the cause of Christ!

John titled his sermon -- "Six Marks of a Dead Religion." The Scripture reading for the lesson was Luke 11:37-54, which is a passage in which our Lord pronounces a series of "Woes" upon both the Pharisees and the Lawyers (the experts in Mosaic Law). It is the Lukan version of Matthew 23, one of Christ's most scathing rebukes of legalism and legalists to be found in all of Scripture! The sub-title of Bro. Modgling's message, one which I found to be particularly poetic, as well as pertinent, was -- "Faith in Formaldehyde." The concept, of course, is that this is a dead faith ... a faith in form only; devoid of any life or power. It is faith inside a pickle jar -- lifeless, but still visible! Like the church in Sardis (Rev. 3:1), these are corpses propped in pews; pickled patternists; dead, but not buried. It is time for them to "awaken, arise" from their stuporous slumber and move forward into the light of God's grace! Sometimes it takes a BOLD proclamation of Truth to arouse such disciples .... and that is exactly what Bro. Modgling provided on March 13th. When you revive such slumberers there will be one of two reactions: (1) they will thank you and return to life, or (2) they will attack you and return to sleep. Sadly, our brother experienced the latter.

In his Introduction, John quoted Mark Twain, who said, "After spending a considerable amount of time with religious people, I understand why Jesus spent so much time with tax collectors and sinners." Bro. Modgling made this observation, "I'm not comfortable around religious people. I don't consider myself to be religious." I have made this same statement many times over the years. It is my conviction Jesus did not come into this world, suffer and die, simply to establish some Religion. Rather, He came to reestablish Relationship between man and God. I have no desire to promote religiosity among men; my life is devoted to proclaiming a restored relationship with the Father through the shed blood of the Son. Thus, I have little use for patterns, systems, rules, and regulations.

Just what are the distinguishing marks of "dead religion" ... of "faith in formaldehyde"? John presented to the brethren in the congregation where he served the following notable characteristics, as adopted from Dr. Dykes:

FIRST --- If outer appearance is more important than inner purity (vs. 37-41). "Jesus was reacting to the attitude that says, 'Because I perform correct rituals, I'm better than you!'" John then quoted Isaiah 65:5, where God declared that the attitude of religious superiority irritated Him like smoke in His nostrils all day long! "Some people dress up for church in order to impress God," John said. "But, the truth is, it doesn't matter what you wear on the outside, God is concerned with inner purity." John sought to emphasize that God was concerned with the inner man, NOT with how we decorate the outside. He indicated that we may cover the outside with finery, but if the inside is tattered and ragged (spiritually speaking), God is not impressed. John had dressed nicely that Sunday morning, but at this point he removed his suit coat to reveal a tattered shirt. On the outside he had looked presentable to people, but when the outside was stripped away, the inside was revealed for what it was! I think this was a good, and very dramatic, illustration of the truth he sought to convey. It undoubtedly got their attention!

SECOND --- If ritualistic acts are more important than a personal relationship with God (vs. 42). John told the congregation that, like the Jews of old, "We all have our own rituals here at this place. We park in the same place, or try to ... we sit in the same place, or try to ... we talk to the same people, or try to. Some of us leave here without ever meeting God. That's an empty ritual." He went on to speak of praying from rote; singing from rote; etc. "The danger in these rituals is that it makes us feel good, but we don't put our hearts into it. Worship is a matter of the heart!!" He then quoted Micah 6:8 -- "He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God!" John said, "The Bible says that God is not interested in religion, He's interested in having an intimate relationship with His people."

THIRD --- If being seen by others is more important than serving one's God (vs. 43-44). John pointed out that the Pharisees "loved to sit in the most honored seats in the synagogue," and that when they would go out in public they sought out the attention and adulation of the people. They wanted to be noticed for their great "religiosity." They loved to be recognized. John asked those assembled, "Do you ever do something 'religious' and look around to see if anyone noticed?" He quoted Matthew 6:1-2 and emphasized that if one is simply seeking to be noticed by men, then they have their reward in full. What they do may "look good, but it is faith in formaldehyde" -- it makes a nice display for men to see, but it is dead inside. Actions not properly motivated do not impress the Lord.

Bro. Modgling sought to explain that there was nothing wrong with religious actions, in and of themselves. Indeed, many religious acts are very positive in nature, and "if everyone in the world acted religiously, the world would be a better place." "There's nothing wrong with religion in its place," John continued. "I just don't believe that it has any place in true Christianity." He pointed out that he felt too many were substituting religious acts for a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Such a substitution is fatal, he observed.

FOURTH --- If rigid rules are more important than love that liberates (vs. 45-46). When men live under law, they are bound and restricted; when men live under grace, they are set free! Our Father loved His children so much that He gave His only Son to liberate us! John pointed out how the Jewish religious leaders had for many centuries added countless rules and regulations to God's expectations for His people. The people had become enslaved to these legalistic traditions. The scribes and Pharisees were adamant that they be followed scrupulously ... every jot, every tittle! "Jesus tells these guys to lighten up! God didn't intend a relationship with Him to be burdensome, but liberating!" He then quoted Isaiah 29:13 in which the Lord lamented that the "religion" of His people had become nothing more than "lip service," an outward show. "They removed their hearts far from Me, and their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote." This was not what God wanted then, and it is not what He wants now.

John asked the audience: "Do you know what we call modern day Christians whose lists of rules are bigger than God's list of rules? We call them legalists." He observed that to these men and women Christianity is nothing but "a bunch of 'Thou shalt nots!'" He went on -- "You see, a lot of people live by these long lists of rules, and Jesus says, 'Hey! You've substituted a relationship with Me for a bunch of rules!' What Jesus is really saying is, 'It's not about law, it's about love!'" We are to love Him and one another with all our being; if we do this, we have fulfilled law!

FIFTH --- If reliving the past is more important than recognizing God's present activity (vs. 47-51). Many people seem to want to return to the "good old days," instead of seeking to be a part of what God is seeking to do right now. Bro. Modgling lamented, "How sad it is that there are thousands of religious people living today who are blind to what God is doing right now! Some people would just as soon this church stay the way it was in the 1940's -- no growth, no change, no outreach to the community." "If we're always living in the past," he continued, "how are we going to recognize what the living Christ is doing right now? Traditions are great -- unless they become sacred cows. Then they become enemies to the current activity of God." John then quoted Col. 2:8-10.

He said there are various kinds of bees in this world -- killer bees, honey bees, bumble bees. "There is now a new species of bee in the church -- USED TO bees!! They're buzzing around all over the place. 'I used to be active in the services' ... 'I used to be a leader of Bible studies' ... 'I used to be someone who could be counted on.' These dear people are living in the past. Our congregation of the Church of Christ has a wonderful past." However, John observes, God has great things in store for the congregation if they will recognize His leading right now, and look expectantly to the future. "Let's not make the mistake of the scribes and Pharisees. Let's keep our eyes on Jesus, and the things that He is doing today, and let's get in on it with Him."

SIXTH --- If preserving a religion is more important than experiencing life (vs. 52). In Luke 11:52 Jesus speaks of the "key of knowledge" which these lawyers have taken away. John asked the congregation what Jesus meant by this "key." He indicated he believed it to be the key that would unlock the meaning of the whole! He told the brethren that he believed the key to be the truth that "ALL the Bible is about Jesus Christ!" On the road to Emmaus, Jesus was talking to two disciples. "And beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures" (Luke 24:27). John said, "He started in Genesis and went through Malachi, saying, 'This is about Me, this is about Me, this is about Me!'" "Friends, that's the key!" Bro. Modgling then quoted John 5:39-40 where Jesus rebuked the legalists for searching Scripture to find LAW, and failing to discern that Scripture was really all about HIM. John declared to the congregation, "How sad that so many people open their Bibles and miss Jesus. Maybe they even come to church three times a week, and they still miss Jesus."

Concluding Thoughts

After presenting these six marks of a dead religion -- Faith in Formaldehyde -- John said to the group of assembled brethren, "The things we've talked about this morning are some pretty negative words. I'm not a negative preacher, so as I finish, if these are the six marks of a dead religion, let's turn them around. What are the six factors of a living, personal relationship with God?" Bro. Modgling then gave the following six positive aspects of a living faith:

  1. God values your inner purity, rather than your outward appearance.

  2. God cherishes you, more than He values your rituals.

  3. Pleasing God is much more important than pleasing people.

  4. When you really know God, you experience liberty, not bondage.

  5. God is at work right now, and He wants you to join Him.

  6. God wants you to enjoy life, not endure religion.

Our dear brother in Christ, John Modgling, concluded his message with these words -- "Do you know what thrills me the most as a preacher? It is when I see Christians set free from bondage, set free from religion, and see them fall in love with JESUS!" What a marvelous lesson this young man presented. It was firm, but it was loving. It preached liberty and freedom in Christ. It held up God's grace for all to behold. It challenged them to let God actively use them in the present, and to follow His leading into the future. It was Christ-centered. And his congregation FIRED HIM for it!!

Brethren, preaching God's message of GRACE has never been for cowards. It takes true courage of conviction to "preach the Truth to the face of Falsehood," as Herman Melville said in "Moby Dick." And yet, if we would do "the Almighty's bidding," we must boldly proclaim freedom to the captives, regardless of the personal consequences. John Modgling is a statistic. He is just one of countless devoted servants of the Lord who has experienced firsthand the horrific affliction that too frequently comes upon us at the hands of those who oppose the proclamation of God's grace. Yes, he is a statistic, but he is also far more! He is a spokesman of God Almighty. He is a son of the King of Kings! Although abused by those who have no desire to be free, he is nevertheless loved and respected by those of us who know the price he has paid to be faithful to his calling.

John will learn in time, although I suspect a young man of his obvious maturity already knows this, that even the most devoted proclaimer of Truth will not reach most people to whom he seeks to minister. Yet, John will touch the lives of many people during his time in ministry, if he will just remain true to his Savior. As long as John lifts up JESUS, our Redeemer will draw unto Himself genuine seekers. Brother Modgling and his dear wife will soon put this hurtful experience behind them, and God will lead them into a marvelous new work. In that new work they will see people led to freedom, and they will also experience the affliction and abuse of those who resist such. It is a lifelong, bitter/sweet journey ... but the trials of today are not even worthy to be compared to the eternal joys which await the faithful servant.

John, you are loved and supported by many. At your darkest moment, the light has shined brightly upon you. Brothers and sisters from around the globe have lifted you up in prayer, and many have written you to offer support and aid. A few disciples have turned against you; many more have embraced you. Already people are responding to your courageous stand. For example, I received just the other day this very touching email -- "Bro. Maxey, John Modgling is my son. I appreciate your encouragement and prayers for him and his wife. Thank you! In addition, I would like to subscribe to your Reflections. John has spoken very highly of it for months!" We never know the influence we will have on others; only eternity will reveal such.

Reflections from Readers

From a Minister in Texas:

POWERFUL! The Prophecy of Obadiah was a good study, and one that I will use here. Thanks, brother.

From a Reader in Alabama:

Dear Al, Thanks for another great lesson! I had the privilege of viewing the Dead Sea Scrolls in Mobile, Alabama this past weekend. It was a phenomenal opportunity to see God's word as it was copied down so many years ago! One of the main things I took away from the experience was learning about the Essenes: the group that the scholars believe copied the scrolls. The Essenes separated themselves from all the other Jews of the time period - namely, the Pharisees and Sadducees - because of their differences in beliefs about certain rituals, etc. They refused to have anything to do with them, and believed that they themselves were the only "chosen ones." Sounds rather familiar, doesn't it? As Solomon tells us in Ecclesiastes: There is nothing new under the sun! Thank you for the great work you do to free the enslaved! God bless you and your family as you continue to endure persecution from the legalists among our brotherhood. There are many of us out here who are so thankful to you for what you do!

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, I appreciated your last Reflections article, which once again highlights the attacks that many in the church make on each other. While this happens in other denominations also, I must admit it is most critical in the Churches of Christ, as brothers and sisters are basically condemned as "wicked" for having differences of opinion on what is actually just tradition and not the truth of God. I can still hear my mother-in-law when she found out that I was a member of the Church of Christ. She said that she didn't feel we truly understood the richness of God's grace! In every denomination I enter, I am considered a brother and fellow servant of God by them. I have even been invited to lead prayer and share in the communion, because they know I have given myself to God. Unfortunately, it is often we who deny the work of God in other people. There is a retired Baptist preacher who visits my home congregation about 6 or 7 times a year, and I believe one of our elders was highly surprised when he heard me refer to him as a "brother." He even asked me if I knew that this man was a Baptist minister, and I told him that I did know such, and had even heard him preach several times! Someday maybe we will all get to a point where we can actually recognize the power of God in more lives than our own!!

From a Reader in Florida:

Bro. Al, The Prophecy of Obadiah was another excellent lesson that all sides in the Churches of Christ needed to learn in dealing with differences of the past. It is still needed today as brethren from all sides of our many differences struggle with them. Please do not let this lesson for our people fall by the wayside, but keep bringing it to us in your own inimitable way, by various means and methods, and keep it ever fresh on our minds. Amen, Brother!

From a Minister in Texas:

Al, I know you are going to find this so strange, but no sooner had I written you the other day and asked for your prayers for my mission trip to Africa, than I was called into the church office by the elders and fired, after seven years of effort here. It seems so ironic, just a few days ago I was praying for that other fired brother in Texas. Now, make that two fired brothers in Texas. I must be making progress. This is the first time in 35 years of preaching that I have been fired. The reason they gave was that several brethren had "lost confidence in my preaching." These were a handful who had money, I might add. Maybe I spent too much time talking about their money. God only knows! I have always made it a point in my work in the Kingdom to keep an open and objective mind in my search for Truth. That is why I read your writings and other brothers like you who have not stopped thinking. Personally Al, I think this undoubtedly is the greatest thing that ever could happen. It has awakened in me a new resolve and a greater focus on the future. The way seems clearer now. Don't worry about me, brother. I am a big boy. You could pray for my wife of 45 years, though. She is really taking this hard. You probably note the hour I wrote this. I could not sleep, even though I know Who is in the boat with us.

From a Reader in Alabama:

Al, I would like to hear your reflections on the moral, ethical, political, and/or religious issues involved in the Terri Schiavo case. I watched FOX News a lot this week. I was opposed to the removal of the feeding tube.

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