Tag Archives: Gospel

Gospel Words and Gospel Works

handsThere’s a memorable scene in the movie version of “Jesus Christ Superstar” where Jesus gets surrounded by a sea of needy people, all of them stretching out their hands trying to grab hold of a piece of the wholeness that He had offered to other people in His ministry of healing.  They wanted their share, and in this scene in the movie Jesus gets engulfed by this crowd with their needs and He disappears into them as if sinking into quicksand.

I think of Mark 3:7-10 whenever I see of this scene –

Hearing all that he was doing, they came to him in great numbers from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, beyond the Jordan, and the region around Tyre and Sidon. Jesus told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, so that they would not crush him; for he had cured many, so that all who had diseases pressed upon him to touch him.

The physical needs of people were so great and so many in the days of His public ministry that Jesus could very easily spent every waking moment He had healing them, feeding them, and delivering them. And so Luke tells us that early in His ministry Jesus withdrew to a lonely place to think and pray, and when the crowd found Him and wanted more, He told them – “I must preach the Good News of the Kingdom of God” (Luke 4:43).

Word and action were inextricably intertwined in the ministry of Jesus. The verbalization of the Good News of God’s presence and purpose – His “Kingdom” – and the visualization of the Good News of God’s presence and purpose were equal parts of His ministry.

Jesus preached and Jesus healed the sick.
Jesus preached and Jesus cast out demons.
Jesus preached and Jesus raised the dead.
Jesus preached and Jesus fed the hungry.
Jesus preached and Jesus calmed the storm.

This is why Luke began his second book, the book of Acts, with a description of the content of his first book, the Gospel of Luke. “In the first book,” Luke explained, “I dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1). “Do” and “teach.” Jesus did things and Jesus talked about things. Word and action — that was the pattern of Christ’s ministry.

JesusIf I’m reading Luke 4:40-44 correctly, then it was figuring out how to balance the things that Jesus was sent to say with the things that Jesus needed to do to give those words credibility that proved to be so tricky for Him because there were always more people who needed Jesus to do things for them — to heal them, and to feed them, to deliver them —than there were people who were eager to sit and listen to Him preach. It would have been easy for Jesus to have neglected His mandate to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom because He was so busy meeting people’s physical needs.  This is a theme that recurs throughout the Gospels.

The Adversary tempted Jesus to turn stones into bread in the Wilderness. Some interpreters hear in this taunt the suggestion that Jesus should substitute His spiritual mission for a purely material one alone “You don’t have to go to the cross as the Messiah to do the saving work of God, just meet people’s physical needs, that will get you a following” seems to be the subtext of the Devil’s suggestion.  And then later, in the Gospel of John, after feeding the 5000, we’re told that the crowd was actually ready to take Jesus by force and make Him King (6:15), and why not?  He could keep their bellies perpetually full.  But Jesus turned and walked away from this offer, and when the crowd finally caught up with Him again, He told them directly –

“You came looking for Me because you ate the bread and got all you wanted, not because you were looking for the Christ.  Don’t seek the food that spoils; instead, seek the food that lasts for eternal life. This is the food that the Son of Man can give you…” (6:26-27 – paraphrased)

Then Jesus preached one of His most important sermons in the Gospel of John — the Bread of Life discourse.

What I see going on in the story that Luke tells in 4:40-44 is this same struggle to hold the Gospel’s words and the Gospel’s works together in proper balance. This isn’t easy to do.  In fact, it’s a horse that we can fall off from either side.  And so there are word churches. There are works churches.  But there are very few word and work churches.  Word churches are good at telling people about Jesus.  Works churches are good at showing Jesus by the compassionate things that they do.  But what God wants, what God needs, what God always intended, was for every church to hold their Gospel words and their Gospel works together in proper balance.

The church I serve is a Gospel works church, in fact, we do the works of the Gospel just about as well as any church I’ve ever known. If there’s someone who needs to be fed, or clothed, or sheltered, or taken care of in a time of distress, deprivation, or desperation, we’ll be there because we understand that this is what Jesus Christ expects of us as His people. But ask us to tell somebody about Jesus, and we’re like deer caught in the headlights.

assisiWe just love that saying that gets popularly attributed to St. Francis of Assisi – Go into all the world and preach the Gospel; if necessary, use words.”  We love this saying because we’re Gospel works Christians, and we think that it excuses us from ever having to talk about our faith. There are several problems with this.  First of all, St. Francis never said it. The Franciscans have thoroughly checked.  They’ve searched their sources, and not found it anywhere.   And the truth of the matter is that it’s highly unlikely that St. Francis would have ever said this.  He was a preacher, and the order that he founded – the Franciscans – are an order of preachers.  They’re all about the preaching of the Gospel.  They’re word Christians. And finally, we probably shouldn’t say it because it’s ultimately illogical.  Saying – “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel; if necessary, use words” – is sort of like saying – “Call me on the phone, if necessary use numbers,” or – “Fix me dinner, if necessary use ingredients.” The fact of the matter is that the Gospel has some specific and essential content. It’s about Jesus — it’s about who He was and what He did – and that means that it can’t be preached without using words.  The Gospel is inherently verbal.  The cool cup of water that we give has got to be explained at some point if it is in fact being offered in Jesus’ name.

Alan Kreider, the late Mennonite theologian, had a good friend who spent some time serving at one of Saint Teresa’s hospices in Calcutta. As he reflected later on his experience there, he said – “Since I don’t speak Bengali, I couldn’t talk to them in their own language, and that meant that they were left to draw their own conclusions about why I was there.” And that troubled Alan’s friend because he knew that he was there serving.  He wasn’t there because he was such a good and generous person in and of himself, but rather because he had such a good and generous Savior, a Lord who wanted him to be there. His actions were all because of Jesus, but the people he served never knew that because he never mentioned Jesus.

Churches and Christians that do the works of the Gospel need to speak the words of the Gospel with equal intentionality. And churches and Christians that speak the words of the Gospel need to do the works of the Gospel with that same focus.

steveSteve Sjogren, was pastoring a church in Cincinnati back in the early 1990’s when he realized that his verbalization of the Gospel was in desperate need of some Gospel visualization if it was ever going to get an honest hearing. Steve says that he had become a pretty obnoxious “word” Christian.  People actually turned and walked the other way when they saw him coming because they didn’t want to be badgered by him about Jesus again.  He was that guy who went into public bathrooms and unrolled the toilet paper in each stall just so that he could roll it back up again with a witness tract strategically stuck in-between the sheets every five squares or so.  Not many people were coming to Christ through his efforts.  So Steve dramatically changed directions.

godworkSteve resolved to start doing the works of God’s love for people with the heart of a servant before trying to share a single word about God’s love with them. He concluded that if people could first see a demonstration of God’s love in Jesus Christ that they would then be more receptive to hearing the message of God’s love for them in Jesus Christ. And it was a woman that Steve humbly served one day at the point of a need she had that actually confirmed that this was the right approach for him to take.  She began to weep as Steve served her at the point of her felt need, and when she asked why he was doing it, he simply said – “Because of the love of Jesus Christ.” “I’m 50 years old,” she told them, “and all my all I’ve ever heard Christians do is talk, talk, talk about God’s love. But here today, for the very first time in my life, I’ve actually experienced something of God’s love for me personally!” (The Conspiracy of Kindness – 102).

The Gospel is something we say. The Gospel is something we do. When we hold the Gospel words and the Gospels works together — when people can see the Gospel then they will be so much more willing to hear the Gospel. So, how shall we live so that people will want to know more about Jesus Christ who is our Lord and Savior?  What can we do that will make somebody stop and wonder – “Why is she like that?” “Why is he doing this?”  And should they dare ask these questions of us out loud — are we prepared to tell them — “Because of Jesus and His love”? DBS +

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Beloved

beloved
The great temptation of the church in an era of challenge and decline like the one that we currently find ourselves in is to want to pull back and take care of ourselves rather than to turn outward in Christ’s mission of extending God’s compassion to anyone and everyone who has been kicked to the curb and told that they don’t matter. And because this is just such an era of challenge and decline for churches like ours, the Jesus I believe we really need right now is the Jesus who meets us in the Gospel of Luke.

jesusesThe Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel is the Messiah of God’s complete faithfulness. The Jesus of Mark’s Gospel is the Son of God’s mighty purpose and power. The Jesus of Luke’s Gospel is the Son of Man whose compassion draws the least, the last, and the lost into the embrace of God’s inclusive love.  And the Jesus of John’s Gospel is the Word of God made flesh who comes to offer us the gift of eternal life.

I know all of these Jesuses.
I believe in all of these Jesuses.
I need all of these Jesuses.

When I struggle with knowing what’s true and who it is that I can finally trust, I find that it’s the Jesus of the Gospel of Matthew I really need. When the days grow dark and it feels like chaos is winning the fight, I find that it’s the Jesus of the Gospel of Mark I really need.  When loved ones die and I am confronted with the fact of my own mortality, I find that what I really need is the Jesus of the Gospel of John.  And when I am tempted to pull back into the cocoon of myself to pursue my own private interests and to seek my own selfish well-being, I find that it’s the Jesus of the Gospel of Luke I really need.  The most important thing for a church like ours to rediscover and then proclaim in a mean era when people are increasingly picking sides, drawing lines, and building barriers to keep others out is that we are God’s “beloved” — we are — all of us — God’s “beloved.” And this is precisely what the Jesus of the Gospel of Luke makes clear to me.

Near the end of his life, Henri Nouwen said that the central moment in the public ministry of Jesus as the Christ as far as he as concerned was His baptism in the Jordan by John when He heard the voice of God say – “You are my beloved.”  The last great theme of Henri Nouwen’s long and distinguished vocation as a spiritual teacher was the development of this idea that at the very center of the spiritual life for us as Christians is hearing the words – “You are my Beloved” – in “a deep way,” and then living out this truth as a contradiction to everything that the world believes.

belovedThe world says that our worth is determined by how we look, by what we weigh, by who we vote for, by where we live, by the level of our education and income, by who we love, by where we were born, by the color of our skin, or by any one of a hundred other things. But in the world our worth is always conditional.  It always depends on something else.  It’s something we have to deserve.  It’s something we have to be worthy of.  It’s something we have to earn.  But the Biblical word for “beloved” cuts through all of this and says that our worth is something that is established by God’s own determination and declaration instead.  The Biblical word for “beloved” is variant of the Biblical word “agape,” a word that refers to God’s love – a “deep, active, self-sacrificing, and absolutely unconditional” kind of love. To be “beloved” is literally to be “agape-ed.”

Jesus heard that He was “agape-ed” ~ “beloved” when He got baptized.  Jesus was baptized in the Jordan by John to fully identify Himself with the people He came to seek and save, and so when God declared Him “Beloved” I believe that it wasn’t just a statement about Him alone, but rather it was a statement for, and about us all.  As one of the greatest theologians that the church has ever produced, a man named Athanasius (296 – 373), put it – “He [Jesus Christ] became what we are so that he might makes us what He is.” Getting into line with all those people who were being baptized was part of Jesus “becoming what we are,” and God’s declaration of Jesus as His “Beloved” child is part of Jesus “making us what He is.”

In a sermon that he preached at the Episcopal Cathedral in St. Louis at the beginning of January in 2011 [http://yourcathedral.blogspot.com/2011/01/you-are-my-beloved-sermon-for-feast-of.html] the Rev. Mike Kinman explained that the truth of “Beloved-ness” is a truth that moves in three directions at once.  First it moves inward. It’s first a word that gets spoken to each one of us individually. Once we’ve internalized this truth and feel it in our bones, then it starts to move outward.  You see, not only am I God’s beloved, but so are you, as is everyone in this beloved community we call the church.  So, in your imagination tattoo the word “Beloved” onto the forehead of every other Christian you meet – the Conservative ones and the Liberal ones, the Progressive ones and the Fundamentalist ones, the ones who are most like you and the ones who couldn’t be more different from you – and then frame every thought you have of them and every word you speak to them, or about them, by the fact that they are numbered among God’s “agape-ed.”  And once we’ve started treating each other around here, inside the four walls of the church, as “beloved,” then it’s time to open up the doors and take this show on the road.

John 3:16 doesn’t say that God so loved the church that He sent his only begotten Son, but that God so loved the world. It’s the whole world and everyone in it that’s “Beloved” by God.  There are no exceptions.  And so Rev. Kinman told his congregation that Christians are people who –

…through prayer and [Bible] study listen to God’s voice saying: “You are my beloved,” and who every day grow a little less fearful and a little more trusting that it is true. It’s being people who look at each other and see before anything else someone whom God adores. [And] Who every day try just a little bit harder to be a part of God adoring everyone else…

cupJesus heard God say that He was “Beloved” while standing in the waters of His baptism.  I think that where we are most likely to hear God say that we are His “Beloved” is at the Lord’s Table where bread is broken and a cup is poured in remembrance of Christ’s saving acts and in celebration of His continuing presence.  We come to the Lord’s Table to hear God say – “You are my Beloved.” And then we go from the Lord’s Table knowing that every person we meet is God’s “Beloved” too, and understanding that we may very well be the only people in the world with the power at that moment to tell them, and to show them, who they truly are – God’s “Beloved.”  DBS +

 

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Christmas Movies and the Gospel

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This Christmas at my house we watched “Elf,” “Christmas Vacation,” “The Santa Clause,” “Christmas with the Kranks,” part of “White Christmas,” “A Christmas Story,” and the “Miracle on 34th Street.” Movies are some of our culture’s most familiar texts for interpreting the meaning of this season. And I predict that they will only grow in importance in the future as fewer and fewer people go to church and publicly identify themselves as Christians.

buddySomething Christmas movies buffs like to discuss are their favorite characters. Online you’ll find lists and lists of people’s favorite characters in Christmas movies – Buddy from “Elf,” Ralphie from “A Christmas Story,” George Bailey from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Clark Griswold or Cousin Eddie from “Christmas Vacation,” or any one of the characters from “A Christmas Carol” — Jacob Marley… Tiny Tim… Ebenezer Scrooge.  The character from a Christmas movie that I personally find most spiritually intriguing is “old man Marley” from “Home Alone.” Old man Marley is the across-the-street neighbor of Kevin McCallister, the kid, who through a series of blunders, gets left behind when the rest of his family flies to France for the holidays. We are introduced to old man Marley in “Home Alone” when Kevin sees him shoveling the snow on his sidewalk.  Kevin’s older brother, Buzz, has convinced him that old man Marley is “the South Bend Shovel Slayer,” a man who had infamously murdered his family with a snow shovel, and so every time Kevin bumps into old man Marley early in the movie, he yelps, turns, and runs away.

HomeAloneThe best scene in the movie, in my opinion, is when, alone and afraid, Kevin slips into a dark church where a children’s’ choir is rehearsing for Christians Eve and old man Marley, who is also there, alone and afraid in the dark, slips into the pew beside Kevin. Their conversation eventually gets around to their families, and old man Marley tells Kevin that he’s there listening to that children’s choir rehearse because it was the only way that he could hear his granddaughter sing.  You see, old man Marley hadn’t murdered his family, they were estranged, they hadn’t talked to each other for years.  Old man Marley lived his life in the pain of this isolation, and poignantly he told Kevin, “You can say hello when you see me. You don’t have to be afraid.  There’s a lot of things going around about me, but none of it’s true.”  These are the words of someone who’s been pushed away and who just wants to belong somewhere, to somebody.  There’s Gospel in these words.  Paul told the Ephesians that Jesus Christ came to specifically bring people who felt pushed away back into the circle of God’s care and concern. “He is our peace… He broke down the barrier of the dividing wall… He came and preached peace to those who were far away” (2:13; 17).

shadowsIn Luke’s familiar version of the Christmas story, the shepherds are old man Marley. They were the ostracized ones, the people who were pushed away and lived in the shadows. Shepherding was hard and dirty work. Living with their flocks in the open fields, shepherds stank of sheep.  Nobody wanted to be around them, and not just because of their poor hygiene. Daily contact with blood, manure, and dead animals rendered shepherds unclean spiritually. And so they were excluded from the community of faith, and from the ceremonies in the Temple.  They didn’t belong.  They weren’t fit to be with God, and they weren’t fit to be with other people. They were the “far off” ones, and then on the night when Christ was born, Luke tells us that they were the very first people to be told of it and to be invited to come and see it.  This is not an insignificant detail of the story. The way that Luke tells us his story of Jesus, God makes His way in Christ to all of those who have been pushed away – the poor, the sick, the different, the unclean, the needy – and He invites them all back into the embrace of His love.  And here’s a secret that we all live with, every single one of us — in some way we’re all old man Marley.  In some way, we’re all the shepherds.  In some way, we’ve all been pushed away.  In some way, not one of us really feels like we quite belong.

hollowhillsIn her book, The Hollow Hills, the novelist Mary Stewart told the story of a young man who had been raised in one of the great households of Northern England. But deep inside, he knew that he didn’t belong there.  He’d been told the story for as long as he could remember about how he had been left in a basket at the gate of the castle as a baby.  He was unknown and unwanted — illegitimate, an embarrassment, an object or shame and scorn. He belonged to no one; no one belonged to him. He knew all too well the pain and fear of being pushed away. And then one day, unexpectedly, he was brought to the court of the king.  And as he stepped into that royal hall, the king stepped down from his throne, and gathered that boy up into his arms.  With tears in his eyes, the king explained that he was his son, his first-born, the heir of the throne, the next in line to become the king of the realm.  The king explained how he’d had to send him away at birth to shield him from the plot of an enemy who sought to destroy him, but that now the time had come to finally restore him to his rightful place, and this story is ours.

Somewhere deep inside we all feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for. There are painful ways that we have all been pushed away. We’re all familiar, in our own way, with the pain of not fitting in, and with the fear of never belonging to anyone, anywhere.  And then, in that darkness we’re told about a little baby born in Bethlehem to be our Savior, and we’re invited to come and see Him for ourselves.  And it’s there, kneeling at the manger that we discover that we are in fact wanted, that we are in fact loved, that we are in fact accepted, that we do in fact belong.  In Christ the “far off” are brought near (Ephesians 2:13-17), and that’s me… that’s you… that’s us… Merry Christmas!  DBS +

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The Gospel in Christmas Cards

I remember the great care that my parents took every year with their Christmas cards. Early in the fall there was always a trip, and sometimes more than one, to the stationary store where together they poured over those big sample notebooks for hours looking for just the right Christmas card.  Mom and dad certainly had their standards.  It had to be traditional and not contemporary, religious and not secular, show Jesus and not Santa, and be about Bethlehem’s manger and not about Christmas trees, or reindeers, or snowy forests.  I learned my appreciation of Christmas cards from them, in fact, through the years I’ve become a kind of Christmas card connoisseur. While I appreciate every Christmas card that I’ve ever received, and honor the spirit of friendship and affection that they signal, purely on the level of image, symbol and art, I have my favorites.

card

Years ago Mary Lynn and I received a Christmas card that was a print of Pieter Bruegel’s painting “The Census at Bethlehem.” It shows a typical 16th century Flemish village on a cold winter’s day.  There’s nothing distinctively “religious” or “Christmas-y” about it, except for a “wreath” over an open window where a crowd has gathered and seems to be conducting some kind of business with the official looking people inside the building. In the middle of the picture there’s a man with a basket of tools on his arm leading a donkey with a pregnant woman sitting on it toward the crowd at that open window, and only gradually does it dawn on you that this is Bethlehem and that is Joseph and Mary!  Mary Lynn and I liked this Christmas card so much that we later bought a print of the painting, had it framed and it now hangs in our home.

egypt

Another favorite Christmas card of mine is one that shows Mary cradling her infant son against the cold of a winter’s night. Now that’s a familiar enough Christmas card image, isn’t it?  What makes this one so unique is where Mary and her baby happen to be.  You see, on this card she sits in the lap of the Sphinx in Egypt cradling the Christ, reminding us of the flight of the Holy family from Herod’s brutality.  It’s a powerful image, one made even more powerful today as a reminder that Jesus, Mary and Joseph were political refugees who had to flee the violence of a Middle Eastern tyrant and who found a home in a different culture where they were welcomed.

baby jesusI think my favorite Christmas card image is the one that I have of the baby Jesus reaching up from His manger to touch the head of a lamb with both of His hands. In my mind and heart, this is the perfect picture of what Christmas means. Now, technically, the Bible says nothing about there being any animals at the manger in Bethlehem.  Oh sure, we have them prominently positioned in our crèche scenes on the mantle at home, and they regularly show up in the Christmas carols that we sing in church.  But technically, there are no references to animals of any sort in the Bible’s story of the first Christmas apart from Luke’s note that the shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks by night (2:8).  But that wasn’t in Bethlehem at the manger.  No, that was in the fields outside of town.  The Bible actually says nothing about animals being present at the manger. Nevertheless, it seems perfectly logical to me to conclude that animals were there.

angels

In fact, when you go to Bethlehem and visit the church at the shepherd’s fields on its walls you will see a series of three wonderful frescoes that tell the story of the first Christmas, and prominent in them is another animal, a dog. In the first panel where the angels are making their announcement of the birth of Christ that dog cowers in fear behind a rock. In the second panel where the shepherds are shown going to Bethlehem see this thing that happened, that same dog runs ahead, leading the procession.  And in the third panel, that dog reverently sits at the side of the manger adding his devotion to that of his masters for Him who was born to be the Savior of all creation.  And as whimsical and attractive as all of this is, it is nevertheless a fanciful addition to the story.

We can only talk about sheep at the manger with any degree of Biblical certainty. And the symbolic significance of this for the Gospel comes later in the New Testament’s story of Jesus Christ when John the Baptist identified Him as “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29; 36).  Gary Burge, in his commentary on the Gospel of John, says that he once asked a mature Christian why Jesus is called “the Lamb of God.” The answer given was this: “Because Jesus is so gentle and nice.” But this is the wrong answer.  The right answer is that Jesus was called the Lamb of God because in the world of the Bible lambs were the animals of choice for sacrifice.  We’ve never seen an animal sacrifice, and would probably be horrified if we did.  And the problem with this is that sacrifice was an enormously important part of the Biblical world, and if we can’t get our heads wrapped around what sacrifice meant in the Biblical world, then we will never understand what John the Baptist and the rest of the New Testament means when it tells us that Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God.

lambIn ancient Israel sheep drove the economy. Their wool kept people clothed and warm.  Their meat kept people fed.  And so, when it was time to show God just how much He meant to someone, or just how desperate a person really was for God’s help, then something of real value to that person would be offered in sacrifice.  And nothing was of greater value to the people of ancient Israel than were their sheep, especially an unblemished male lamb.  That was your money maker.  His reproductive capabilities was the key to one’s prosperity, and so when offered up in sacrifice, that lamb became a powerful outward and visible expression of the intensity of the inward and invisible intentions of a person’s heart.

In the ancient ritual of sacrifice no gesture was more important than the laying on of hands. “You are to lay your hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it will be accepted on your behalf to make atonement for you,” is what the Law prescribed (Leviticus 1:4).  This point of contact, this physical connection between the animal being sacrificed and the person who was offering it as an expression of what was in his heart, this is what made this whole ritual of sacrifice personal.  And in that picture on my favorite Christmas card of the Son of God reaching up from His manger to touch the head of a shepherd’s lamb what the artist was symbolically telling us that just like the lamb that He touched, Jesus Christ came to be our Savior through an act of sacrifice.

adoration

Now, the Christmas Card that I really want to receive is the one with Benedetto Bonfigli’s (1420 – 1496) painting – “The Adoration of the Kings, and Christ on the Cross” (The National Gallery, London) – on it. This painting expresses my Christmas faith as powerfully and concisely as any image I have ever come across. The way that it surprisingly brings together Bethlehem and Jerusalem, the manger and the cross, the Magi’s Messianic gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh with Messiah’s self-offering on the cross reminds me of Dag Hammarskjold’s famous observation in Markings (1964) that – “the Manger is situated on Golgotha, and the Cross has already been raised in Bethlehem.”  Rodney Clapp argued that the best way to keep Christ in Christmas was by always keeping it clear that Easter and not Christmas is the central Christian holiday. He said that when Christians are known “for our Easter, then we will have our Christmas back.” And that’s why I love this image.  That baby who sits on Mary’s lap is the Savior who will die on Calvary’s cross (Matthew 1:21; Luke 2:11), and when this is clear, so is the Gospel. DBS +

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“Around the Table of the Lord’s Supper”

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Can Traditionalist and Progressive Disciples Still Sit Down Together? ______________________________________________________________________

I had lunch last week with two really good friends, one a Disciples minister who was a seminary classmate of mine, and the other one the Disciples church historian who had been our professor back in the day.  My minister friend has just announced his retirement, and so our table talk last week was twinged with a certain amount of nostalgia.  We talked about our life journeys and about how things were different back when we were all just starting out some 40 years ago, and one of the things that we each noted in our own way was just how much more polarized and polarizing the church has become of late.  Maybe this is just an example of the “good old days” syndrome, but things really do feel different today than ever before.  People were certainly no less opinionated in the church 40 years ago than they are today, and they were certainly no less passionate about those opinions, but it feels like something significant has changed.

The United Church of Christ theologian Gabriel Fackre wrote about the twin theological virtues of “mystery” and “modesty,” and that’s what’s been lost in the last 40 years, if you ask me.  Because we don’t know everything that there is to know, even about the things that we think we know, we all must leave some room for “mystery” in our convictions.  And because we don’t know everything that there is to know, then we need to hold what we think we know with some “modesty.”  There are always other ways of looking at things, and the people who look at things differently from the way that we do are not evil or stupid just because they do.

To honor “modesty” and “mystery,” I have always tried to accord to Christians whose convictions and conclusions differ from my own what’s been called the “Good Faith Assumption.” When I disagree with what another Christian is saying or doing, I consciously try to keep in mind that they are just as serious about their faith as I am about mine, that they are just as intent on knowing and doing the truth as I am, and that they are just as committed to Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, as their Lord and Savior, as I am committed to Him as my Lord and Savior.  I became a Disciple based on the promise that this was going to be the characteristic way that we would think, talk, reflect, and relate as a church.

Last October I wrote about the impact that the collection of the famous “Look” magazine articles on the denominations in the United States that were published over more than a decade in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s had on me.  I described how I, as a very young Christian, had eagerly read through all of these essays, one right after the other like a shopper earnestly searching for the perfect product to meet his needs, and how it was James Craig’s essay on “Who are the Disciples of Christ?” that was the one that made me sit down and pay attention.  It was this one line from that essay that thoroughly captured my heart’s imagination –

chaliceThere is nothing to prevent literalists and liberals from sitting down together around the Table of the Lord’s Supper, each responsible for his own belief and each serving God according to the dictates of his own conscience.

That’s the kind of church that I went looking for 50 years ago, and it’s the church that I actually found in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). This was the church that I gladly joined then, and that I have wholeheartedly served ever since.  Not a perfect church; the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) was the perfect church for me because it was a church that honored careful thinking and respectful talking.  It was a church where people were not expected to agree on everything, but where they were expected to maintain unity in that diversity.   But this is a church that, sadly, I am seeing less and less evidence of these days. Increasingly, what I am seeing are traditionalist Disciples and progressive Disciples pulling away from each other, and what I am hearing both traditionalist Disciples and progressive Disciples say is that the terrain that they now separately occupy is the only one that is authentically and thoroughly faithful to what it means to be a Disciple.

Granville Walker exploded the hubris and ignorance of this kind of thinking for me in his 1954 book Preaching in the Thought of Alexander Campbell (Bethany Press).  After showing how Alexander Campbell believed in the full authority and inspiration of the Bible for the faith and practice of the church, and that the Bible had to be carefully interpreted using every critical grammatical and historical tool at his disposal, Granville Walker then argued that the conservative Disciple who puts the emphasis on “the absolutely binding character of the apostolic sanction,” and the liberal Disciple who champions “the thoroughly scientific approach to the Bible,” are both the spiritual heirs of Alexander Campbell, and are both members in good standing of his spiritual tradition. As Granville Walker put it, “It is no insignificant fact that both claim to be heirs of the genuine tradition” (138).

There was a time when both conservative Disciples and liberal Disciples truly believed this, and behaved accordingly.  There was a time when conservative Disciples and liberal Disciples could sit down together around the Table of the Lord’s Supper, and each one would let the other one be responsible for his or her own belief, and each one would allow the other one to serve God according to the dictates of his or her own conscience.   We could, and we often did, disagree with each other.  We could, and we often did, talk with each other about those disagreements without ridicule, disdain, anger, or division.  And then we would all get up and go to the Lord’s Table together to find our unity in the shared love of God made visible in the person and work of Jesus Christ our Savior for all of us.  But today, it seems to me, our tendency is to disagree with each other, to talk at (i.e. “issuing” statements) each other, to dismissively talk about each other, and then to go our separate ways fully convinced in our own minds of the rightness of our answer and fully convinced in our own hearts of the righteousness of our stance. We are quick to organize protests, and slow to build bridges.

HolyBibleThe widely heralded release last week of a statement on human sexuality (“The Nashville Statement”) by a group of prominent traditionalist Christian leaders (none of them Disciples, but some of them teachers and theologians with whom conservative Disciples have a certain affinity), and the response of progressive Christian leaders with counter-statements of their own (“The Denver Statement” by Nadia Bolz Weber and “The Nashville Statement [A Plain Language Translation]” by John Pavlovitz), has had the predictable effect of both traditionalist and progressive Disciples taking public sides and then, looking out across the widening fissure in the church, thinking, and sometimes even saying out loud, that those on the other side could not possibly be their Christian brothers and sisters.

This bears little resemblance to the church that James Craig promised me 50 years ago, and it painfully tears at my heart as a traditionalist Disciple whose Gospel experience of the open Table of the Lord’s Supper to which everyone is invited and at which everyone is welcomed has moved me to become increasingly “progressive” on matters related to God’s grace and human sexuality.  Because I have a foot firmly planted in both of these worlds now, I think that I understand what those traditionalist Christians who issued the Nashville Statement were trying to say, and why they thought it so important to say it.  But I think that I also understand why what they have said caused such pain in the LGBTQ community, and has generated such outrage from the progressive Christian community.  And as a Disciple, I can’t help but think that if, as James Craig put it, we could just sit down together “around the Table of the Lord’s Supper, each responsible for his own belief and each serving God according to the dictates of his own conscience,” that with time and the forbearance of God’s love, the transformative power of Christ’s grace, and the convicting work of God’s Spirit, that we could find a way forward that excluded no one from the beloved community and that actually created space where all of us might grow.

bridgeTo see someone who is actually doing this in his own community of faith, we need look no further than Fr. James Martin, S.J.  An advocate of dialogue and encounter, Fr. Martin has been criticized by some in his church for being too progressive, outspoken, and inclusive, and by some in the LBGTQ community for not being progressive, outspoken, and inclusive enough.  Fr. Martin responds to every critic respectfully as part of his own spiritual discipline, and as a way of modeling how to advance the conversation and be truly respectful of people who disagree with one another.

After the issuing of “The Nashville Statement” last week, in an opinion piece published in The Washington Post, Fr. Martin didn’t rage or ridicule, but gently and thoughtfully offered  what he called “Seven Simple Ways to Respond to the Nashville Statement” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/08/30/seven-simple-ways-to-respond-to-the-nashville-statement-on-sexuality/?utm_term=.7fb1a51e809c).

Re #Nashville Statement –

  • I affirm: That God loves all LGBT people.
  • I deny: That Jesus wants us to insult, judge or further marginalize them.
  • I affirm: That all of us are in need of conversion. 
  • I deny: That LGBT people should be in any way singled out as the chief or only sinners.
  • I affirm: That when Jesus encountered people on the margins he led with welcome not condemnation. 
  • I deny: That Jesus wants any more judging.
  • I affirm: That LGBT people are, by virtue of baptism, full members of the church.
  • I deny: That God wants them to feel that they don’t belong
  • I affirm: That LGBT people have been made to feel like dirt by many churches.
  • I deny: That Jesus wants us to add to their immense suffering.
  • I affirm: That LGBT people are some of the holiest people I know.
  • I deny: That Jesus wants us to judge others, when he clearly forbade it.
  • I affirm that the Father loves LGBT people, that the Son calls them and that the Holy Spirit guides them. I deny nothing about God’s love for them.

I’ve read lots of blogs affirming “The Nashville Statement” from my traditionalist Christian friends and peers, both inside and outside “Discipledom,” since it was issued last week. And I have read lots of blogs condemning “The Nashville Statement” from my progressive Christian friends and peers, both inside and outside “Discipledom,” since it was issued last week. But it seems to me that none of the blogs on “The Nashville Statement” that I read last week better reflect James Craig’s classic vision of what it means to be a “Disciple” than did these “seven simple ways to respond to the Nashville Statement” offered by a Jesuit priest. Because what he wrote is so informed by the Gospel, and is so reflective of the Gospel, I can’t help but hope that we Disciples, both traditionalist and progressive, as Gospel people, might stop lobbing broadsides, climb down off our barricades, and commit ourselves to sitting again with one another at the Gospel’s Table where God’s grace has the power to transform us all.  DBS +

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“The Whole Counsel of God”

Cultivating and Celebrating a Faith
that is as Big as the Bible

candlebible

 “Why would you want a smaller Bible?”
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“In the Old Testament Jesus is predicted,
in the Gospels Jesus is revealed,
in the book of Acts Jesus is proclaimed,
in the Epistles Jesus is explained
and in the book of Revelation Jesus is anticipated.”   

Our tendency is to think that the person and work of Jesus Christ is confined to just the 33 years of His life on earth to which the New Testament’s four Gospels bear witness.  The way we think and act, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the Bible’s “Jesusy” books.  We think that they alone are where we are going to find Him in the Bible.  Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are where we go to hear Jesus speaking and to see Jesus acting.  But because the Gospels are about who Jesus was and what Jesus did in the past, the way we tend to approach them is as past history.

We think of Jesus in the same way that we think of Abraham Lincoln.  He lived. He mattered. But now he’s gone.  Oh, we still feel his influence.  We continue to be inspired by his example and we’re certainly grateful for his contributions, but now he’s just a dead, distant memory.  Our only access to Abraham Lincoln is through the historical records that we have that tell us something about what he said and did when he was here.  Knowing Lincoln is a matter of historical research.  But knowing Jesus it’s different.

“Dead as dead can be” on Good Friday afternoon, Jesus was “alive again and alive forever” come Easter Sunday morning.  That’s what the Gospel story tells us, and even this is not where the Gospel story about Jesus ends.  The way that many of us approach the Gospel story, Jesus gets up on Easter Sunday morning, but He’s got nowhere to go and nothing to do.   But the way the New Testament tells the Gospel story, the resurrection of Christ is just the prelude to His Ascension which in turn is the trigger for Pentecost and the outpouring of the empowering presence of God through the Holy Spirit who has been given to the church for mission and assurance. The Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost are the three foundations to the church’s experience of the continuing presence and activity of Jesus Christ.

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell us about the 33 years of Jesus Christ’s ministry on earth.  But the book of Acts and the New Testament’s Epistles are the opening chapters on the Risen Christ’s continuing ministry in heaven that has now been underway for 2000 years.  And what this means is that the book of Acts and the Epistles are just as “Jesusy” as are the Gospels.  He was just as present and He was just as involved with the things that we find in the book of Acts and the Epistles as the Risen Glorious Lord in heaven as He was during the days of His earthly life as the historical Jesus.   We see Jesus and we hear Jesus everywhere in the Bible, and not just in the Gospels.  This is where I think “Red Letter” Christians get it wrong.

 “Red Letter” Christians are those Christians in the church today who, understandably weary of the disproportionate attention that has been paid to the book of Acts and to the Epistles of the New Testament by much of the church for so long, have consciously turned their attention back to the neglected Gospels, back to the “Red Letters” of Jesus’ teachings.  But rather than restoring a lost Biblical balance, the unintended consequence of this “Red Letter” initiative for many has been to now do to the book of Acts and the Epistles of the New Testament what had previously been done to the Gospels. “Red Letter” Christians objected to the way that the Gospels had been marginalized in the preaching, teaching, and believing of some Christians and some segments of the church, and rightly so. But in their attempt to address this problem, many “Red Letter” Christians have now, in turn, marginalized the book of Acts and the Epistles of the New Testament.

Whenever and however a pecking order for the authority of the books of the Bible gets created that excuses us from having to pay attention to their witness to the speaking and acting of God reduces the Bible by labeling some books as being “secondary” and “unnecessary.”  But we don’t need a smaller Bible, we need a fuller Bible.  We don’t want fewer colors in our crayon box to work with, we need more!  Any approach to the Bible that tries to convince us that there are parts of it that we don’t really have to deal with is going to finally restrict our knowledge of God and leave gaps in our spiritual experience because too much of the Bible has been pushed to the margins and left out of the conversation of faith.

What we need is a Bible that’s just as big as the canon of Scripture that has been placed in our hands.  What we need is a way of reading the Bible that doesn’t leave certain parts of it out, that doesn’t declare certain books in it to be irrelevant and unnecessary, that doesn’t diminish our expectation of being able to hear God speaking and to see God acting when we take up our Bibles, open them to any page, and read. The Bible’s library of the collected testimonies of witnesses to the presence and action of God in the history of Israel and in the person and work of Jesus Christ set the boundaries for the field on which the game of our faith gets played.  It’s big and expansive and rich and diverse, and deliberately so.  So, why would we want to settle for less?  Instead, let’s cultivate and celebrate a faith that’s just as big as the Bible.  DBS +

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“Which Gospel?”

The Competing Versions that Vie for our Attention

tug of war

On Sunday, July 23, 2017, I had the privilege of preaching and teaching at the First Christian Church in Edmond, Oklahoma, as one of the guest presenters in their Summer Series. I was asked to reflect with them on how we as Disciples characteristically use the Bible. In the Forum I talked about Alexander Campbell’s “dispensational” way of reading the Bible and how the “canon within the canon” that it created for us as a church has not always serve us well.  And in worship I brought this message about the importance of embracing a “whole” Gospel.  DBS + _________________________________________________________________________________________________________

When Matt Chandler was just getting started as the lead pastor of the Village Church, he says that he kept hearing the same thing from the people who were being baptized. “I grew up in church,” they’d say.  “I went to church every Sunday… got baptized when I was 8, or 10, or 12, or whatever… I attended Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, Youth Groups, went to Summer camps and conferences.  And then I just sort of drifted away until somebody invited me to The Village and I heard the Gospel for the very first time in my life, and it blew me away.”  And Matt says that when he heard people saying things like this that he didn’t believe them.

“How can you grow up going to church every Sunday and not hear the Gospel?” Matt wondered, and so he concluded that these people must have heard the Gospel before getting to the Village, but that they just didn’t have the spiritual ears to be able to truly “hear” it. So Matt said that he began talking with all of these new people who were getting baptized at the Village Church to hear their stories and to confirm his hypothesis.  He asked them to show him their Bibles from those days and any notes from any teachings or sermons that they might have heard.  And Matt says that while some of them did fit his theory, the vast majority of them did not.  Many of them had in fact grown up going to church every Sunday and had never heard the Gospel.  Of course, that begs the question: “What is the Gospel?”

Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, said that knowing what the Gospel is, and being able to distinguish it from the other Biblical Word that God speaks to us – the Law – is the essential Christian distinction. Simplistically put, when you hear Scripture saying – “This is what you must do” – what you’re hearing is the Law.  And when you hear Scripture saying – “This is what God has already done for you” – what you’re hearing is the Gospel, and this is what Matt Chandler says that the people who were coming to the Village Church had never heard before.  They’d never heard anything about what God had done for them in Jesus Christ, but instead they had been fed a steady diet of sermons that urged them to nod at God, do good, be happy, and try harder.  Jesus was never offered to them as a Savior but rather as a life coach. With more information and a little motivation, they could be successful at life. The focus was not on forgiveness and eternal life, but rather on how people could live the best life possible right now, personally and socially.  The crisis in the church today, Matt concludes, is a crisis of the Gospel.  There are competing versions of it vying for our attention.

The first version says that Christianity is about the Kingdom of God that Jesus announced was breaking into this world through Him. This is the version of the Gospel that Christians in the mainline church typically prefer.  The Gospel is about justice; it’s about setting things right in this world.  It’s about God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.  It’s about making life better for people right here and right now.  It’s about hungry people being fed, and sick people getting better, and oppressed people being set free, and marginalized people being welcomed in.  These are “red letter” Christians, those Christians who say that what they are paying attention to most are all of the things that Jesus actually said.

________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim
release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
 competing versions of it vying for our attention.

Luke 4:18-19

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The second version of the Gospel that other Christians embrace says that it is about the forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation that Christ’s death, burial and resurrection provides. This is the version that Evangelical Christians like those at the Village Church in Dallas prefer. The Gospel is about justification; it’s about getting right with God.  It’s about being saved from sin, and death, and darkness, and being saved to newness of life now, and to the promise of eternal life when we die.  These are “black letter” Christians, those Christians who say that what they are paying attention to what it was that Jesus Christ did, and to what the rest of the New Testament tells us that it means.

________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we[c] boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,  and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

 Romans 5:1-5 _________________________________________________________________________________________________________

The way that many have framed this struggle to define the Gospel today, this tug-of-war between the “Social Gospel” of mainline churches, and the “Soul Gospel” of Evangelical churches, is to talk about it as a fight between Jesus and Paul.  Jesus came preaching the Kingdom of God, and Paul turned it into a conversation about the church, it’s said.  The simple religion of imitating Jesus who just went about doing good in this world became a complicated religion about having to believe in Jesus for eternal salvation in the hands of Paul, it’s argued.  And the assumption here is that there is this fundamental and irreconcilable difference between what we find in the Gospels of the New Testament and what we find in the Epistles of the New Testament.  But I’m not so sure that this is a safe assumption.

Take, for example, Jesus’ familiar Parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke chapter 15, and lay it side-by-side with one of the great summaries of the Gospel that Paul preached in Ephesians chapter 2. It was the Jesuit Bible Scholar David Stanley who pointed out that there are “striking resemblances” between the summary of the Gospel in Ephesians 2 and the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 (The Jerome Biblical Commentary – 345).

  • Ephesians 2:13 – “You who were once afar off have been brought near.”
  • Luke 15:15 – The son goes to a far-off country.
  • Ephesians 2:4 – “God the Father rich in mercy.”
  • Luke 15:20 – “His father saw him and was moved with compassion and ran and fell upon his neck and kissed him.”
  • Ephesians 2:1 – “When you were dead… he made alive.”
  • Luke 15:24; 32 – “He was dead, and has come back to life again; he was lost, and is found.”

And David Stanley concluded, “It would seem that the theology of Luke 2 gets expressed in story form in Luke 15.” And so, while some Christians want to frame the Gospel through the category of justice based on their reading of the “red letters” of the New Testament, and while other Christians  want to frame the Gospel through the category of justification based on their reading of the “black letters” of the New Testament, there have got to be some Christians somewhere who insist that the Biblical Gospel is not properly framed by the categories of justice and justification alone, but only by the category of Jesus, and to get Jesus we need both the New Testament’s red letters and its black letters (Scott McKnight).

While some Christians insist on a “social” Gospel, and other Christians insist on a “soul” Gospel, there have just got to be some Christians who insist on the “whole” Gospel, and I can’t help but think that we who are Disciples ought be those Christians, after all, our denominational identity statement says that we are “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world,” that “part of the one body of Christ” that “welcomes all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.” Look closely at this statement, listen carefully to what it’s saying, and I think that what you’ll see is justice and justification coming together in Jesus.  The Social Gospel and the Soul Gospel sit down across from each other at the Lord’s Table and become a Whole Gospel.

Richard Lischer is the Professor Emeritus of Preaching at Duke Divinity School. A number of years ago his church was building a brand new sanctuary, and the architect approached the board one day with a question. “What do you want for the space’s central appointment,” he asked, “an altar or a table?” Most churches these days, Dr. Lischer points out, want tables — welcome tables — not altars in their sanctuaries, and for good reasons.

At the table there is the coziness of family relationships. One belongs at the table. Only for the most heinous of crimes is the child sent from the table. There, at table, one has direct access to the parent. …At table there is bread, wine and conviviality.

The inclusiveness of this Table symbolism appeals to “red letter” Christians.  It bears powerful witness to the meals of Jesus in the days of His public ministry and to the way that He deliberately sat down to eat with people His religious culture was consciously spurning.   Our heritage of open communion as Disciples, of having a Table to which everyone is invited and at which everyone is welcomed, is pretty close to the heart of who we are and what we do as a people.   And Dr. Lischer doesn’t disagree.

Although he is a Lutheran, Dr. Lischer is just as much as advocate of working for wholeness in a fragmented world as we are, and he is someone who wants to welcome all to the Lord’s Table just as much as we do as Disciples.  But Dr. Lischer is also concerned about the way that we are “shielded from origins.” “As an experiment, [he suggests] ask a child this question: “Where does that slice of bread on your sandwich come from?” And he says that they will likely say “from the store” and know nothing about the farm or farmers, nothing about a bakery or a baker.  That’s what it mean to be “shielded from origins,” and when it happens in church, what we get are communion services without the cross. What we get is a welcome to the Lord’s Table without any reference to how it is that God has actually welcomed us in Christ.  Bread gets broken without anything being said about how it is a sign of Christ’s body broken for us; a cup gets poured without anything being said about how it a sign of Christ’s blood poured out for the forgiveness of our sins.  We wind up where theologian H. Richard Niebuhr a generation ago feared we were heading, to a Christianity of “A God without wrath who brings men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”

And so, when that architect asked Dr. Lischer’s church what it was that they wanted in their sanctuary, they finally told them. Make it a table — but make it a very substantial one.”  And Dr. Lischer explains –

Most churches today have tables… as the setting for their sacramental meals without remembering all that lay behind it. …But our theological instincts told us that that there is [in fact] something big and powerful behind the table… …[We understood that] our table-oriented family relationships in the church was only possible because behind the table, visible to the eyes of faith, there is the outline of something more substantial and more terrible… The table from which we receive the bread and wine is possible only because once, for all people, there was an altar on which God’s Son was sacrificed. … The table does not create the altar; the altar creates the table…

 You see, it’s not the altar or the table, it’s the altar and the table. It’s not Jesus or Paul, it’s Jesus and Paul. It’s not just the red letters or black letters of the New Testament, it’s both the red letters and the black letters of the New Testament.  It’s not a social Gospel or a soul Gospel, it’s a social Gospel and a soul Gospel – a whole Gospel. It’s not justice or justification, it’s Jesus.

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