A “Peculiar” People

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John Stott called his excellent 1978 commentary on the Sermon on the Mount “Christian Counter-Culture” (IVP).   He explained this choice by writing –

To my mind no two words sum up the intention of the Sermon on the Mount better, or indicate more clearly its challenge to the modern world, that the expression “Christian counter-culture.” (15)

…The years which followed the end of the Second World War in 1945 were marked by innocent idealism. …[Since then] we seem to have been passing through decades of disillusion.  Each rising generation is disaffected with the world it has inherited. [They seem unable to] accommodate themselves to the status quo or to acclimatize themselves to the prevailing culture.  They are not at home.  They are alienated.  And in their quest for an alternative, “counter-culture” is the word they use. (15-16)

…The first place to which they should be able to turn [to find such an alternative] is the one place which they normally ignore, namely the church.  For too often what they see in the church is not counter-culture bit conformism, not a new society which embodies their ideals of meaning, peace, love and reality, but just another version of the old society which they have renounced, not life but death. (16)

This assessment of things establishes two big ideas in my mind: (1) That being a Christian is supposed to make us different, and (2) That in many respects, we who are Christians today are not all that different from our neighbors who are not.  And I can’t help but think that this is a symptom of something that is fundamentally wrong in how we are going about becoming and then being Christians.

Years ago, Jack Arrington came back from a conference and told us that the keynote speaker had told them that he’d had his “great awakening” in his first parish when his job as their minister was explained to him as being a matter of helping to make “nice people nicer, and good people ‘gooder.’”  The Great Commission of this religion was: “Go into all the world and smile.”  All that’s needed is information and motivation.  Give people a playbook and a pep talk, and things will be just fine.  But the Gospel in the New Testament suggests that this is just not enough.  In fact, the approach to church that the keynote speaker at Jack’s conference described is “the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees” (Matthew 5:20) that Jesus told His disciples was completely inadequate for them because of their relationship with Him.  There’s got to be a change on the inside that results in changes on the outside.  Changed worlds are the result of changed lives, and changed lives are the result of changed hearts.  The Gospel says that there’s a fundamental change in who we are when we become Christians that then has real consequences for both our lives and our worlds.

Somewhere I’ve read that the very first Christians, when they were hauled in front of the Roman magistrates in the days of persecution, would answer “My citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20), whenever they were asked to tell him where they were from.  Back then Christians had a much more lively sense of being from a different realm and of living by a different code than we seem to have these days.  When I was first going to camp, one of the songs we sang said, “This world is not my home I’m just a passing through.”  I’m not sure what I thought it meant back then other than that I was presumably on my way to heaven when I died, but now I hear it as a radical reminder of how it is a part of my call as a Christian to “march to the beat of a different drummer”  here and now in this life.  Stephen Travis the British Bible Scholar has reflected on all this.

One of the things that the Bible says about Abraham and all true people of faith is that they are pilgrims – people who are just passing travelers, because they have no permanent home on earth. They “admitted openly that they were foreigners and refugees (or “pilgrims”) on earth” (Hebrews 11:13-16; 1 Peter 1:1).  …[But] we twentieth century Christians come off as “the best disguised set of pilgrims that the world has ever seen.”  What signs do we give that we don’t ultimately belong here, but are just ‘passing through”? (The Jesus Hope 94).

Last Sunday in my morning sermon I reflected on how taking Jesus seriously is going to make us “weird” by the standards of the prevailing culture (see “Out of the Heart” – Matthew 5:27-30 – in the “Sermons” file in the “Worship” area of the church web page).  It was Donald Kraybill, the Mennonite theologian, who imagined the difference between our values as Christians and the values of the world by putting two ladders side by side.

ladder On each step of each ladder, from the top to the bottom, there are placards with values printed on them.  “Faithfulness,” “Compassion,” “Generosity, “Service,” “Patience,” “Goodness” on the steps of the “Christian” ladder to the left, and “More,” “Bigger,” “Better,”  “Me,” “Mine,” and “Money” on the steps of the “Cultural” ladder to the right.  And then Donald Kraybill suggested that what you will find at the top of one ladder, either ladder, you will find at the bottom of the other ladder.  Called “the transvaluation of values” by the theologians, what it means is that what the Scriptures teach about the good life and what the world teaches about the good life are on a collision course with each other.

To use the title of Will Willimon’s and Stanley Hauerwas’ bestselling 1990 book Resident Aliens (Abingdon Press), we need to understand that as Christians we are going to be living “as strangers in a strange land,” as “aliens trying to stake out a living on someone else’s turf” (11).

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 A colony is a beachhead, an outpost, an island of one culture in the middle of another, a place where the values of home are reiterated and passed on to the young, a place where the distinctive language and lifestyle of the resident aliens are lovingly nurtured and reinforced.  We believe that the designations of the church as a “colony” and Christians as “resident aliens” are not too strong for the modern American church – indeed, we believe it is the nature of the church, at any time and in any situation, to be a colony.  Perhaps it sounds a bit overly dramatic to describe the actual church you know as colonies in the middle of an alien culture.  But we believe that things have changed for the church residing in America and that faithfulness to Christ demands that we either change or else go the way of all compromised forms of the Christian faith. (12)

In any earlier book on the church and the challenges that it was facing as it moved into the future (“What’s Right with the Church” – Harper & Row -1985), Will Willimon wrote –

The “Didache,” our oldest moral catechism, prepared candidates for baptism by instructing them: you will not kill; you will not have sex with other people’s spouses; you will not abuse children; you will not have sex outside marriage; you will not abort fetuses.  In this expansion of three of the Ten Commandments, the church put itself in a head-on collision with some of the Roman world’s most widely accepted practices.  Not content to be relegated to the backseat status of a general religions influence on Western culture, the primitive church saw itself as something other than the world that surrounded it. (69-70)

And could it be that it is here that we are coming very close to the poison that is trying to kill the church?

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 In Romans 12:2 Paul told Christians not to let the world squeeze them into its shape, but rather to be squeezed into the shape of Christ “by the renewing of your minds.”  And it seems to me that the very first step in this is the recognition that there really are competing forces out there that are trying to squeeze us into very different shapes.  There used to some graffiti on the wall of the youth hall here at the church that said: “dead fish tumble downstream; it takes a live one to swim upstream.”  It’s about awareness and resistance. First we’ve got to get a much better sense of who we are because Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior, and then we’ve got to become much more intentional and rigorous than we have been in drawing out the behavioral consequences that follow from His fundamental transformation of our hearts.  DBS+

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No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit.  Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers.  A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. (Luke 6:43-45)                                                                                                                    __________________________________________________________________________________________________________

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