What Happened to Mel Gibson’s Christian Faith?

Title: What Happened to Mel Gibson’s Christian Faith?

Text: Matthew 5:13-16, 13:3-9, 18-23

Time: March 30th, 2011

It was the Easter Season 2004. I was pasturing a small church in Western New York and the nation was all abuzz about a new movie coming soon called The Passion of the Christ. It was an exciting time to be in Christian church leadership because with Easter coming here was a major motion picture that got everyone talking about the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. The publicity for the movie had started months before, but really picked up momentum during the month leading up to Easter. What better time would there be in explaining the meaning of the life, death and resurrection of Christ then during a moment in society where everyone is a seeing a movie dealing with the same themes? Like I said, it was a great time to be a local church pastor. Mel Gibson, the creator and director of the film was interviewed by all the major media outlets, there were articles in the newspapers and magazines week after week, and the Internet was alive in promoting the new film as well. As a pastor, I ran a four-week sermon series leading up to Easter Sunday on teaching the related biblical passages the movie dealt with concerning the death of Christ. I also played video clips of Mel Gibson interviewed by Diane Sawyer of 20/20 on national television, where he gave an excellent witness to the gospel of salvation. Even though Mel Gibson was an ultra-conservative Roman Catholic, he explained the gospel like a Protestant – and I was so impressed that I recorded the interview, and played it in church. I also encouraged everyone to go see the movie, although it did contain a lot of violent scenes of the beatings of Christ, because it was a faithful recreation of the biblical accounts of Jesus’ sufferings. Looking back now during that time, I’m still convinced that countless thousands, perhaps millions, of people listened and understood for the first time the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross for sin. Perhaps thousands or even millions put their faith in Christ for salvation during the same time. Over the last seven years since the movie’s release, the DVD is still selling well in stores, so it’s influence continues. It’s hard to find a person who, if they haven’t seen The Passion of the Christ, at least they’ve heard of it and know what it’s about. So from that standpoint it’s a success. But unfortunately, the same can’t be said about director Mel Gibson. Since the movie, Gibson’s life has gone from bad to worse. His Christian testimony is all but discredited. First there was his arrest for drunk driving. Second, during the same arrest he broke into an anti-Semitic rant that confirmed his critics’ suspicions that he was anti-Jewish to begin with for making The Passion of the Christ. Third, he divorced his wife of twenty-plus years and married a young actress. Fourth, when the new relationship didn’t last, he was accused of verbal and physical abuse. So what happened to Mel Gibson? He makes this powerful movie that teaches millions of people around the world the sacrificial love of Christ, yet his life falls apart soon thereafter. How can someone so seemingly on the right track derail so quickly? What does all of this teach us about the importance of maintaining and preserving our Christian faith and testimony? I’d like to deal with a number of these issues this morning as we enter into the Easter season of 2011.

First, it’s not enough to start out strong, we need to finish strong in the faith. Matthew 5:13-16, “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men. You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” Looking back at the promotion of the movie The Passion of the Christ it seems as if Mel Gibson was everywhere, speaking and talking about the movie and about his Christian faith. Churches were inviting him to preview and explain the movie. For example, one of the largest churches in the country, Saddleback Church in Orange County, California interviewed Mel in front of the congregation. He also appeared on countless radio and television interviews. If you listened to him he presented a very clear, very powerful testimony to the saving power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. For example, he explained that as a Hollywood actor in the early years he got caught up in partying and wild living until the day came when he turned to God in surrender. He was delivered from his many addictions and given the power to resist the many temptations of the jet-set lifestyle of one of show business’s leading men. He gave all the credit to God’s power working through faith in Jesus Christ. For a period of time, during 2003 to 2004 he was without a doubt the most famous Christian convert on the planet earth. He spoke about love for his wife and their many children. I still have a DVD copy of his hour-long interview on national television with ABC’s 20/20 and I’m still amazed how powerful it is in communicating the essential message of the gospel. So here is a man who seemingly was a solid convert to the Christian gospel faith – and Christians were rejoicing at having such a well-known champion on our side. The passage says, “Let you your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” That is what Mel Gibson was doing during that special time-period. And we can think of others who like Gibson seemed so solid and powerful in their witness to faith. I knew one kid in Middle School who used to bring his Bible to class and didn’t even care if other kids made fun of him. This same kid one day on the bus ride home shared the gospel with me for the first time and witnessed to anyone and everyone who would listen to him. This kid had a lot of zeal for the Lord, but sadly, by the time he graduated from high school he took drugs, got drunk and lived a lifestyle the very opposite of what he had just a few years before. Sadly, Mel Gibson’s Christian testimony has taken a similar tragic turn.

Second, we can’t take for granted that we’ll finish strong in the faith. Matthew 13:3-9, “Then he (Jesus) told them many things in parables, saying: ‘A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they came withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop – a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. He who has ears let him hear.’” Now if you notice in this parable of Jesus only one out of the four cases turned out good, the rest all failed to bear fruit. When we look at people who start out strong in the Christian life, seemingly solid converts, but then fall away for some reason we have to think of the Parable of the Sower. After Mel Gibson’s taking the Christian world by storm in 2003 and 2004 during the release of his movie The Passion of the Christ, but then his meteoric fall, we have to wonder if he isn’t a perfect example of the seed that landed among the rocks and among the thorns. In the case of the seed that fell among the rocks, it sprang up but the ground was too shallow and its roots didn’t go down deep enough and eventually the sun scorched it and it withered. In the case of the seed that fell among the thorns, it too sprang up initially, but eventually the weeds it had fallen near choked it out, and it too withered. In looking back at Mel Gibson’s life – and others like him in a similar spiritual situation – we must ask the question: what happened? I’ve already described what happened. But briefly, let me review. During the publicity for the movie there were charges from Jewish groups that Mel Gibson was anti-Semitic because the movie blames the Jews for the death of Christ. Well, that’s just not true because the movie came straight from the pages of the Bible; nothing was made up. But Gibson encountered a lot of hate and anger from Jews and the politically correct crowd who felt the Bible’s account of the death of Christ unfairly blamed the Jews. So he faced a lot of pressure in making and releasing the movie. After the movie was released he was caught on tape drinking in a bar. He was also pulled over for drunk driving later (going 87 in a 45 zone, .12% level where .08% is legal limit, an open bottle of Tequila in the seat) Drinking must have been one of the addictions that he had battled and seemingly won victory over for a while. But eventually it came back. Finally, he left his wife of many years for a younger woman, fathered a child with her, but eventually even that relationship didn’t work out and they too divorced. So now after such a promising testimony to the Christian faith around 2004, Mel Gibson today is trying to pick up the pieces of his life. That’s what happed to him, but the big question is why? How can people start out so promising and fall away? How can we explain such a thing?

Third, how can we avoid starting out strong but ending up weak in our faith? Matthew 13:18-23, “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The one who receives the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away. The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful. But the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.” In looking back on Mel Gibson’s rise and fall we see that he isn’t the one with the seed that fell on the path, because he did receive the word and it did spring up, unlike the seed that fell on the path which was immediately plucked up by the birds. No. Mel did receive the word and there was growth begun. Nor was Mel Gibson the fourth type of seed that landed in the good soil that grew and produced a continual harvest, since we’ve just outlined his fall. So it must be that at present he represents the second and third types of seed, seeds that fell among the rocks and the thorns. They both sprang up and produced some kind of growth, but it was only short-lived growth. For example, in the case of the seed that fell on the rocks, it sprang up quickly, but soon withered because it didn’t have deep enough roots. Could that have been Gibson’s problem, in part? He wasn’t properly grounded in God’s Word? He was mature enough to handle the pressure or even of his own success? I’ve heard it said before that what’s even more dangerous than failure is success. I guess that could be true in some cases. His success brought more pressures and more temptations into his life. He may not have been mature enough to handle it. That’s why I always feel bad about teen celebrities, Hollywood stars or rock stars in their teenage years. It usually doesn’t end well, because it’s just too much pressure for a young person to handle; most don’t handle it well. Look at Lindsey Lohan. But Mel Gibson was probably not mature enough in his Christian faith to withstand all the pressure that his success brought him. But then the other type of seed fell among the thorns, which choked it out. Jesus explains this means a person receives the gospel initially but because of all the worries, cares and ambitions of life, is led astray. Wealth is a particular temptation Jesus mentions, and it probably played a part in Mel Gibson’s downfall. It just shows that any number of things can potentially cause us to fall spiritually. But what can we do to avoid falling?

I think the best thing we can do to avoid a train-wreck like we see in the life of Mel Gibson and other people who seemingly start out their Christian life on solid ground yet quickly fall away, is to be aware that we can’t take our faith for granted and be aware that there are forces out there that can bring us down. I have a feeling that Mel Gibson didn’t take these temptations and negative forces seriously enough. The sad thing is, most people don’t take sin and evil and the power of temptation seriously enough either. The ancient Christian theologians talked about three sources of temptation that constantly work against us – the world, the flesh and the Devil. The world is everything and anything in this fallen world that would take us away from God and his will. The flesh is our own sinful nature we inherited from our original parents Adam and Eve, that was passed down from generation to generation, that gives us the tendency to sin and rebel against God. It’s within us so it follows us wherever we go. And of course, the Devil is the fallen angel Lucifer who tempts us to sin and join his rebellion against God. These three negative forces acting against us present a pretty formidable opposition to our faith. Now the truth is, most people don’t take these forces seriously, or if they even acknowledge them, they only worry about maybe one or two of them, but rarely do they take all three seriously. Now in the case of Mel Gibson, I don’t have any inside information concerning his spiritual history; only what he has described in interviews on television. But if I’m not mistaken, at the time of the interviews, he was describing his relatively recent conversion to Christianity, at least to the gospel message, although I believe he was always Roman Catholic. So if that’s correct, he only recently had a spiritual conversion, or in other words, had only recently made an adult commitment to follow Jesus by faith. So if this is correct, he was a recent convert and immature in his faith. By putting himself out in the spotlight as a Christian and in speaking for Christians as a recent convert, he may have made himself an easy target for the Devil – that third negative force that wages war against our souls. I think of the warning in the New Testament against making new converts teachers and leaders in the church: “He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil,” 1 Timothy 3:6. We need to be aware of the Devil and never underestimate his ability to influence us if we let him. We also need to be aware of the sinful influence of the world – the selfish, sinful system that men in rebellion with God create for themselves. And then also the flesh, our sinful nature. We need to be aware of pride and all the other natural emotions, urges and needs. We can take these to extremes and begin to become imbalanced. How can we avoid losing our Christian testimony? By following the teachings of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane where he says, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak,” Matthew 26:41.

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