Tag Archives: Gospel

“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.

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 “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.

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 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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“Get Woke!”

“Sleeper, awake!  Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
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Ephesians 5:14

 asleep

While some people are too grown-up to take themselves too seriously to engage with slang terms, the Oxford English Dictionary has officially added the word “woke” to its pages. It’s defined as “alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice”, or (more broadly) politically and culturally aware. …The roots of the word date back.  Fiona McPherson of the Oxford English Dictionary told Dazed Digital that ‘woke’, with its current meaning, has a history in Black American slang that dates back to the 60s. …Wokeness is an ongoing process, I think, even for the very woke. …Discussions about the porous boundaries between becoming woke, being woke, staying woke, being selectively woke, not being woke enough – need to happen. …There’s substance enough here (in the word and concept of woke) to unpack the complexities of what it means to live deliberately as a culturally/politically aware person. New, evolving language is what makes this possible.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________ http://www.marieclaire.co.za/latest-news/woke-added-to-the-oxford-english-dictionary

You, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief;  for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

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I Thessalonians 5:4-10

 cross
Surprising seasons of special spiritual sensitivity and heightened spiritual receptivity in the life and ministry of a church are sometimes called “revivals.” Our church – the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) – was actually born during just such a time (see: “Revival at Cane Ridge” – Mark Galli – http://www.christianitytoday.com). Another word that has been used to describe these times when God’s presence, power and provision are especially “thick” is “awakenings.”

The slang phrase “stay woke” that has just been added to the prestigious Oxford English Dictionary is used to describe someone who has become socially and politically aware. “Awakenings” is a word that describes a time in the life of the church when this same thing has happened to people spiritually.  They have become aware, and this is an idea that goes all the way back to the pages of the New Testament.

sleepI have an icon of the sleeping disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane hanging on a wall in my office that I look at every Sunday morning as I head down the hall to preach, teach and minister to my people. I deliberately put it there to tell me that I must be spiritually “woke” myself, and to remind me of the challenge that I face every single day as a local church pastor – spiritual sleepiness. “Could you not stay awake with me for even just one hour?” Jesus asked his disciples, and this torpor is the steady state of most of the churches and Christians that I know, and based on what Paul told the Thessalonian Christians in the first century, it seems that it always has been.

Richard Lovelace, an American church historian who has written extensively about spiritual awakenings, observes that “only a small fraction” of the Christians he knows, or for that matter, “only a small faction” of all the all Christians who have ever lived have “solidly appropriated the justifying work of Christ in their lives.” At best, he said that most of us have only what might be called “a theoretical commitment” to Christ, and it is from this lethargy that we must stirred.  We need to “get woke.

kellerA sleepy Christian may believe that they’re a Christian, but they don’t have a real sense of God’s holiness, their own sin, or the depth of his grace. They may be a moralist or a relativist, or living inconsistent lives. Nominal Christians may be going to church, but have never really been convicted of sin or received salvation personally. (Tim Keller @ https://www.redeemercitytocity.com) –

The question is how?
How are sleepy Christians awakened?

William Perkins (1558-1602) was a Puritan theologian and pastor who believed that the two primary instruments that God uses to stir us from our spiritual slumber are a sustained exposure to “the ministry of the Word” and the “Providences” – “some outward or inward cross to break and subdue the stubbornness of our nature that it may be made pliable to the will of God.” To “get woke” spiritually we first of all need to know what it is that God promises and provides for us by His grace, and second, we need to know our own desperate need for what it is that God promises and provides by His grace.

This spiritual dynamic was captured nicely by the title of Reuel Howe’s 1949 book Man’s Need and God’s Action.  Awakenings, personal and corporate, occur at this intersection. Where our deepest felt needs and God’s saving actions touch, people get stirred from their spiritual slumber and it will begin to show in their interests and concerns. Again, Tim Keller writes helpfully –

Let me give you what I would call my modernized American versions of the kinds of questions I would ask people if I was trying to get them to really think about whether or not they know Christ. These questions are adapted from The Experience Meeting by William Williams, based on the Welsh revivals during the Great Awakening. He would ask people to share about these types of questions in small group settings each week:

  • How real has God been to your heart this week?
  • How clear and vivid is your assurance and certainty of God’s forgiveness and fatherly love?
  • To what degree is that real to you right now?
  • Are you having any particular seasons of delight in God?
  • Do you really sense his presence in your life, sense him giving you his love?
  • Have you been finding Scripture to be alive and active?
  • Instead of just being a book, do you feel like Scripture is coming after you?
  • Are you finding certain biblical promises extremely precious and encouraging?
  • Which ones?
  • Are you finding God’s challenging you or calling you to something through the Word?
  • In what ways?
  • Are you finding God’s grace more glorious and moving now than you have in the past?
  • Are you conscious of a growing sense of the evil of your heart, and in response, a growing dependence on and grasp of the preciousness of the mercy of God?

I like these questions. As a “Justification Gospeler,” to use Scott McKinght’s language (https://bensonian.wordpress.com/2011/11/06/three-ways-of-framing-the-gospel-justice-justification-or-jesus/), they push and poke in all the right areas when you are concerned about being, or becoming, or staying spiritually awakened. But despite my decidedly “Justification Gospeler” commitments and inclinations, my desire for the “whole Gospel” and not just a “Soul Gospel” (again, thank-you Scott McKnight for the categories of my thinking) pushes me to frame some additional questions from the “Justice Gospeler” perspective that I believe would also challenge people “to really think about whether or not they know Christ.”

  • Are you washing anybody’s feet?
  • Are you as concerned about the interests of others as you are concerned about your own interests?
  • Do you prefer others in love?
  • Do you show mercy and prove neighborly to those who have fallen among the thieves?
  • Do you visit orphans and widows in their affliction?
  • Do you feed the hungry?
  • Do you give drink to the thirsty?
  • Do you welcome the stranger?
  • Do you clothe the naked?
  • Do you visit the sick?
  • Do you bring good news to the poor?
  • Do you proclaim release to the captives?
  • Do you recover the sight of the blind?
  • Do you set at liberty those who are oppressed?

Awakened people belong to the day. Awakened people walk in the light. And just one awakened person in a congregation can be the instrument of renewal that God uses to awaken the whole church. They shine and bring light to the whole house. Will that be you?  DBS +

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Seven Reasons Why I think the Disciples of Christ Are Right

It is General Assembly week for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).   We are so focused on our congregational life and mission here at Northway that I fear that it is sometimes easy for us to miss the life and mission of the larger church, the General Church, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada.  What follows here is part of a keynote address that I presented for a leadership training event in the Northeast Area of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the Southwest Region back in 2004.   What I say here was true for me in 2004, and it is still true for me today in 2017.

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chaliceBack in the 1920’s and 30’s a series of books called New Testament Christianity were privately published and freely distributed to the ministers of our churches.  It was our church’s version of The Fundamentals that were published at just about the same time and for exactly the same reason – to keep the church faithful to its historic convictions.

In the second volume of New Testament Christianity there is an essay by H.T. Morrison entitled “Twelve Reasons Why Disciple of Christ Are Right.” Now, that particular essay from 1926 doesn’t wear especially well today.  Its style is a tad bit more confrontational and its author a wee bit more argumentative than I am personally comfortable with being, but I sure don’t object to the concept.

If we didn’t think that we’re right about some things as a church, then why on earth, or should I say, why in the name of heaven, would we want to be Disciples of Christ?  I don’t know about you, but my conscience wouldn’t allow me to be, or remain, part of a church that I thought was fundamentally wrong on the basic questions of faith.  So, what are some of the reasons why I think that the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is right?

Well, here are seven of them –

  • First of all, I believe that we’re right as Disciples of Christ about having no creed but Christ.  As a church we’ve put all of our theological eggs in just one basket, and I think that’s proper. We believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and we relate to Him personally as our Lord and Savior. Ours is a decidedly Christ-centered faith; of Him we’re passionately certain, and everything else flows from that basic commitment. I think that’s right.  

book

 

  • Second, I believe that we’re right as Disciples of Christ about the authority of the Bible. We’re not much interested as a church in a debate about alternate doctrines of the inspiration of Scripture. Don’t tell me about how you think the Bible got inspired; instead show me what you’re prepared to do with what the Bible actually teaches.   Our founders changed their settled convictions about the proper form and candidates for baptism once they got better clarity about what the Bible taught. Many of us in our lifetimes have changed our view on place of women in Christian ministry by reading the Bible more carefully. And our changing perspectives about human sexuality are being driven not by a neglect of Scripture as a church, but rather by a more careful reading of the Scriptures. This practical approach to the authority of Scripture serves us well as a church. We want to be doers of the Word. I think that’s right

 

  • Third, I believe that we’re right as Disciples of Christ about the Gospel Ordinances – Baptism by immersion and weekly Lord’s Supper. When somebody voiced a desire to have a deeper experience of God’s grace and Christ’s presence, our church’s founders always sent them to the gospel ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. They thought that it was spiritually silly for a Christian to think that he or she could be spiritually vital apart from the means of grace that Christ Himself instituted for our spiritual well-being. And nothing’s changed. Ours is a vital spirituality firmly rooted and grounded in the Gospel ordinances. I think that’s right.

 

 communion

  • Fourth, I believe that we’re right as Disciples of Christ about the unity of the church. The late Evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer used to say that Christian unity is the “final apologetic” of the Gospel. Jesus Christ gave the world the right to examine the love of Christians and the unity of the church as the evidence of the truth of the Gospel. The church’s witness to the unconditional love of God simply has no credibility when we can’t get along with or won’t cooperate with our brothers and sisters in other churches. We call the disunity of the church a sin. I think that’s right.

 

  • Fifth, I believe that we’re right as Disciples of Christ about the freedom of conscience and the right of private interpretation under the Lordship of Christ. As Disciples we cherish the freedom that we have to search the Scriptures for ourselves and to arrive at our own settled convictions without the overbearing interference of others. As individual Christians and congregations we want to be able to work out our life of faithfulness under the Lordship of Christ and in response to the guidance of the Word and Spirit. And this right that we claim for ourselves, we are in turn required to accord to others. In my relationship with you, I must begin with the assumption that you are just as committed to Jesus Christ as I am, and that you are just as concerned as I am about being faithful to Him. This community of faith is not created or maintained by an authoritarian insistence upon conformity in doctrine or morality, but in our common commitment to listen carefully to Jesus. I think that’s right.

 

  • Sixth, I believe that we’re right as Disciples of Christ about not forcing a choice between the church’s spiritual mission of witness and the social mission of service. Evangelism and justice are twin mandates of Christ’s church. We are commanded to preach Christ and to feed the hungry; to make disciples and to shelter the homeless; to teach everything that Christ commanded and to tend to the sick; to baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and to work for the liberation of the oppressed.   Like “the two blades of a pair of scissors or the two wings of a bird” or the two pedals of a bike, Christ’s Church has two mandates. We are called to save souls and to serve society. We refuse to choose between them as a church, and I think that’s right.

sandals

 

  • And finally I believe that we’re right as Disciples of Christ about the ministry of every believer. There is nothing that I am qualified or required to do as a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) that you are not qualified and required to do as a member as well, and that’s Biblical. I can baptize; you can baptize. I can preach; you can preach. I can preside at the Table; you can preside at the Table. I can lead a person to Christ; you can lead a person to Christ. We believe that Christian ministry has been placed in the hands of every believer. You were ordained in the waters of baptism and equipped for ministry when you were filled with the Holy Spirit. Part of God’s eternal purpose has been entrusted to you. Each one of us has a place in the ministry of the church. And I think that’s right.

You don’t have to agree with me about what appears on my list, that’s what the freedom of conscience and the right of private interpretation under the Lordship of Christ means. But then again, you’d better have a list of your own, or start working on one, because that’s a big part of the responsibility of being a Disciple.   It was Socrates who said that the “unexamined life is not worth living.” And I would argue that an unexamined church is not worth joining.   If you conclude that the Disciples are wrong, then, for conscience sake, you need to find a church that you think is right. And if you conclude that the Disciples are right, then you need to start acting like it — get excited, talk about it, and be prepared to make some sacrifices for it. And if you just don’t know, then isn’t it time to start figuring it out for yourself?   DBS +

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Getting the Gospel Straight ~ Keeping the Gospel First

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It’s a familiar warning in certain parts of the church these days. They say that there are four steps in the process of a church “losing” the gospel.  First, the gospel is accepted and affirmed. Second, the gospel gets assumed and goes unreferenced. Third, the gospel gets confused with other things, many of them good and noble. And then finally, the gospel gets lost. People no longer remember why the church exists and does what it does. The example of the Mennonite Brethren Church is frequently cited as a classic picture of how this happens –

…the first generation believed and proclaimed the gospel and thought that there were certain social entailments. The next generation assumed the gospel and advocated the entailments. The third generation denied the gospel and all that were left were the entailments. (David Gibson – “Assumed Evangelicalism”Modern Reformation)

I thought about this observation again this past week with the controversy that was generated by something that Andrew Forrest, the minister who is leading the revitalization of Munger Place United Methodist Church over in East Dallas, said about community gardens and co-working spaces (http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/8114/andrew-forrest-every-dying-church-in-america-has-a-community-garden) –

Every dying church in America has a community garden. Every dying church in America has a co-working space. What do I mean by that? I have no problem with community gardens; a garden is a beautiful thing. And I don’t have any problem with co-working spaces. But Jesus didn’t tell us to start a community garden, and he didn’t tell us to start co-working spaces; he told us to make disciples. That’s literally the mission of the church.

The problem is not the gardens… The problem is that we often want to substitute secondary and tertiary concerns for the primary concern of discipleship.

What Andrew is doing here is a reversal of the field that David Gibson mapped out in his assessment of how the Mennonite Brethren Movement lost the Gospel.   Andrew is pushing back through that third generation mainline version of the church that has lost the Gospel and only has the social implications of the Gospel, and back through the second generation mainline version of the church that assumes the gospel and advocates the Gospel’s social implications, to a renewed mainline version of the church that believes and proclaims the Gospel and understands that it has some important social implications.

Of course, to do this one must have some real clarity about what the Gospel is. Andrew Forrest certainly does.  In that same article in which he names community gardens and co-working spaces as secondary concerns, he explains –

…Neither by background nor by training nor by inclination am I a fire-and-brimstone preacher. And yet the gospel itself makes no sense if it’s just vague feel-goodery. The gospel, as I understand it, is the good news regarding the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It seems to me that this “vague feel-goodery” substitution for the Gospel takes two forms in the church today.  In the traditional/conservative/Evangelical church it takes the form of the subjective experience of the individual Christian – the offer of forgiveness and personal peace of mind right now, and the promise of an eternity in heaven with God when we die.  And in the progressive/liberal/mainline church it takes the form of a focus on social action and a passion for social justice – changing the systems and structures of society so that people can thrive physically, relationally, emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, and spiritually in this world.  Personal spiritual experience and a conscientious engagement with social issues are neither unrelated nor unimportant to the Gospel, but, in the words of Andrew Forrest, they are “secondary and tertiary concerns for the primary concern of discipleship” which is what Jesus told us to do.

Graeme Goldsworthy, an Australian Evangelical Anglican and Old Testament scholar, wrote these words to his own traditional/conservative/evangelical wing of the church that he sees as being at real risk of losing the Gospel in its focus on the Gospel’s fruit of the subjective experience of the individual Christian –

The core of the gospel, the historical facts of what God did in Jesus Christ, is often downgraded today in favor of a more mystical emphasis on the private spiritual experience of the individual. Whereas faith in the gospel is essentially acceptance of and commitment to the declaration that God acted in Christ some two thousand years ago on our behalf, saving faith is often portrayed nowadays more as trust in what God is doing in us now… But when we allow the whole Bible – Old and New Testaments – to speak to us, we find that those subjective aspects of the Christian life, which are undoubtedly important – the new birth, faith, and sanctification – are the fruits of the gospel. The gospel, while still relating to individual people at their point of need, is rooted and grounded in the history of redemption. It is the good news about Jesus, before it can become good news for sinful men and women. Indeed, it is only as the objective (redemptive-historical) facts are grasped that the subjective experience of the individual Christian can be understood.

And I read Andrew Forrest’s article as a version of this same warning to his own progressive/liberal/mainline that is at real risk of losing the Gospel in its focus on the Gospel’s fruit of social action and a passion for social justice.

The fruit of the Gospel is transformation. Traditional/conservative/Evangelical Christians and churches emphasize the Gospel’s fruit of personal transformation. Progressive/liberal/mainline Christians and churches emphasize the Gospel’s fruit of social transformation. We all want transformation.  The real question is, what effects this kind of transformation, personally and socially?

With Andrew Forrest and Graeme Goldsworthy I would argue that it’s the Gospel, the transformative message of new hearts, new values, new lives and a new world through the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ and His indwelling and empowering presence in us, both individually and collectively as the church, through the Pentecost gift of the Holy Spirit. For the kind of transformation that we’re looking for, the Gospel is the power that we need. DBS +

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Seeing the Gospel

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Holy Week Worship
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There is tremendous confusion about the Gospel these days. J.C. Ryle (1816 – 1900) the 19th century Anglican Bishop and spiritual giant warned that the church can obscure the Gospel in at least three different ways:  By addition – that is, by adding beliefs and practices to God’s saving work in Jesus Christ; By substitution – that is, by making other things more interesting or more urgent than God’s saving work in Jesus Christ; and by disproportion – that is, by exaggerating the importance of the secondary things of Christianity, thereby diminishing the importance of the first thing of Christianity – God’s saving work in Jesus Christ.

When this happens, when the Gospel gets obscured, the church becomes “a trumpet that gives an uncertain sound,” as the Apostle Paul put it, and people don’t know what to do or where to turn (I Corinthians 14:8). And the tragedy of this is that the Gospel is “the power of God for salvation for everyone who will believe” (Romans 16:16).  People all around us are desperately looking for meaning and purpose, for forgiveness and reconciliation, for courage and strength, for hope and peace.  And we are too!  The Gospel of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ is what we’re all looking for, it’s what we all need, and if we’re not clear about what it is as a church, then what is it that we think we have to offer instead?

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I’ve been haunted for 50 years now by something that the radical Episcopal Bishop James Pike told the Evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer. He said that what he went looking for was the bread of life and that what the church gave him instead were just stones. One of the big reasons why I am a Disciple of Christ is because of our practice of weekly Lord’s Supper.  Every Sunday morning in the breaking of the bread and in the pouring of the cup the Gospel gets preached again to me again.  Each week at the Lord’s Table I am reminded of and renewed by God’s saving work in Jesus Christ. And it holds that possibility for you too.  No matter what else may or may not be going on in a church on any given Sunday morning, there’s living bread and not stones being offered at the Lord’s table in a congregation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) where Christ’s sacrifice of love is remembered in the breaking of the bread and the pouring of the cup.

The way I read the Gospels, Jesus Christ didn’t ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to preach another sermon. Jesus Christ didn’t ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to organize a movement. Jesus Christ didn’t ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to topple a government. Jesus Christ didn’t ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to make an argument.  Jesus Christ didn’t ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to work another miracle.  Jesus Christ rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to offer Himself as “the one perfect Lamb of God willing to take away the sins of the world in one final sacrifice.” So, draw in close this week. Pay attention to what’s happening, to the story that’s being told, to the events that are remembered in worship on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. This is the Gospel that we are seeing.  DBS +

 

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I say “To-may-to”, You Say “To-mah-to” ~ Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off…

horseI preached on the story of the Wise Men from Matthew chapter 2 last Sunday morning, and then I taught the very same text that evening in a Bible Study. In my preparations for preaching and teaching this text, I came across an article written by Kate Jones Calone and published at Sojourners online (01-06-2017) entitled “When the Wise Men Refused to Collaborate with Empire” (https://sojo.net).

What Kate wrote intrigued me.

After a brief reference to the broad outline of the familiar story, Kate gleaned this as her primary learning from the narrative –

Throughout human history, individuals and institutions have had to make difficult and risky decisions in response to unjust directives — especially those directives framed as required cooperation, “for the good of the country.” Resistance can take many forms: Dissent, protest, civil disobedience. Sometimes, though, what should be done is simply declining to participate.

And then she made this application –

This new year, conversations are taking place all around the country about whether local law enforcement agencies will assist Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials in tracking down and turning over undocumented individuals living in the United States. As political discourse and top-down pressure threatens to move us further toward mass deportations, those political leaders seeking to find and arrest those without documents hope that local law enforcement officers will become de facto agents of ICE…  The wise men decided not to collaborate in facilitating Herod’s raid on the holy family… the wise men realized, whether by recognizing Herod’s duplicitousness or taking seriously the warning that came to them in a dream, that it would be unjust and unwise to serve as Herod’s enforcers. We are called to empower our local law enforcement leaders to make the same decision today.

drBack in seminary Dr. William Baird, one of my New Testament professors, warned us to be careful about turning Biblical texts into “springboards to Washington D.C.”  What he meant by this was the political use of a Biblical text.  I don’t know, but I suspect that Dr. Baird would view what Kate did with the story of the Magi in her essay as an example of this.  When she read Matthew 2 she made an immediate political application. To her credit, Kate also made reference, in passing, to the redemptive dimensions of this narrative. She pointed out that “Jesus grew up to accomplish his saving work in the world,” and said that she believes that “God chose to move this salvation story forward through these holy non-collaborators.” But there is no doubt that Kate read this text primarily through political lenses.

I didn’t.

What Kate featured as primary in her exposition of Matthew 2 – the non-collaboration of the Magi with Empire in this narrative – would have been noted in passing as a secondary theme – an implication, an interpretation, an inference – of the text in my exposition of it, if I mentioned it at all. And what Kate noted in passing as a secondary theme – an implication, an interpretation, an inference – of the text in her exposition of it – the historical redemptive dimensions of this narrative – was primary in my exposition of it.  And I know how this story ends.

ballAll of my “progressive” peers and colleagues are shaking their heads at those of us who read the text primarily through redemptive lenses, and wonder how we could be so blind to its obvious political references.  And all of my “traditional” peers and colleagues are shaking their heads at those of you who read this text primarily through political lenses, and cite it as evidence of what’s wrong with the church today.  Like children on the blacktop at recess getting up a kickball game, we’re all busy choosing sides. “Redemptives” over here, “politicals” over there.  Kate will captain one team. I’ll captain the other!  The only problem is that I don’t want to play.

Oh, there’s no question about my “redemptive” sensibilities when it comes to my reading of the Biblical text.  It is primary in my hermeneutic because I find it to be primary in the sources themselves.  When I read the Bible what I find is a single narrative that holds together around the question of God’s saving work, a  narrative that climaxes in Jesus Christ, His death, burial and resurrection, and it mystifies me that others don’t see this as clearly as I do.

Getting ready for another assignment recently brought me to Wilfred McClay’s 1988 essay on “Religion in Politics; Politics in Religion” in Commentary.  I alternated between mad and sad as I read –

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A couple of years ago, I attended a funeral service for a young woman, a secretary at the university with which I was then affiliated. She was an attractive, generous, incandescent soul, beloved by everyone she worked with, no mean feat in such a contentious setting. She had died, tragically, in giving birth to her second child—a death even more bitterly shocking than an automobile accident or a street-corner shooting, for it seemed almost too atavistic to be possible. How, in this day and age, in a major American city with all the most advanced medical technologies available, could such a thing still happen?

Evidently the same question was on the mind of the minister who stepped up to deliver the eulogy to the overflow crowd of mourners that day. But where the rest of us had been stunned into reflective silence, awed and chastened by this reminder of the slender thread by which our lives hang, the minister had other things in mind. He did not talk about the deceased, except to praise her laughter briefly and imprecisely, leaving one with the feeling that he had not even known her. (I later found out this was not so.) He did not try to comfort her family and friends. Nor did he challenge us to remember the hard words of the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Will be done.” Instead, he smoothly launched into a well-oiled tirade against the misplaced priorities of our society, in which billions of dollars were being poured into “Star Wars” research while young women such as this one were being allowed to die on the operating table.

That was all the minister had to say. His eulogy was, in effect, a pitch for less federal spending on defense and more spending on the development of medical technology. There was also an unmistakable hint that the young woman’s doctors might well have been guilty of malpractice, but would of course be insulated from the consequences of their mistakes by our corrupt system. The only thing omitted was an injunction that we write our Congressman, or Ralph Nader, about this outrage.

I could hardly believe my ears. Had the minister set out to desecrate her memory rather than honor it, he could hardly have done a better job. But leave aside the eulogy’s unspeakable vulgarity, and its unintentional cruelty to the woman’s family. Leave aside the flabby and clichéd quality of language and speech. Leave aside the self-satisfied tone of easy moral outrage. Leave aside the fashionable opinions, too, since honorable and intelligent men and women can disagree about these things. I am even willing to concede, for the sake of argument, that the minister may have been right in everything he said. All these considerations are beside the point.

Nothing can alter the fact that he failed us, failed her, and failed his calling, by squandering a precious moment for the sake of a second-rate stump speech, and by forcing us to hold our sorrow back in the privacy of our hearts, at the very moment it needed a common expression. That moment can never be recovered. Nothing that religion does is more important than equipping us to endure life’s passages, by helping us find meaning in pain and loss. With meaning, many things are bearable; but our eulogist did not know how to give it to us. All he had to offer were his political desiderata. For my own part, I left the funeral more shaken and unsteady than before. Part of my distress arose from frustration, that my deepest thoughts (and those of many around me, as I later discovered) were so completely unechoed in this ceremony and in these words. But another part of my distress must have stemmed from a dark foreboding that I was witnessing another kind of malpractice, and another kind of death.      (www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/religion-in-politics-politics-in-religion/)

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That’s how we “redemptives” think, and that’s what we “redemptives” feel.  But clearly, as Kate’s essay on the Magi proves, we “redemptives” aren’t the only Christians in the church.   And I’m quite sure that you “politicals” could come up with an equally compelling story of the spiritual malpractice of a “redemptive” that made you just as mad and just as sad.  And I as a “redemptive” need to hear that story, just as you “politicals” need to hear mine.

This is our problem in the church today, if you ask me. We’ve stopped listening to each other.  So convinced are we of the rightness of our own positions as “redemptives” or “politicals,” that we’ve stopped listening to each other.  And the tragedy of this, again, if you ask me, is that in doing this, we’ve both settled for just half of Biblical Christianity.

bookIt was reading E. Stanley Jones’ book The Christ of the Mount (Abingdon 1931) when I was a freshman in Christian College that persuaded me that Christianity has both a redemptive side and an ethical side, and that “if the ethical side of our gospel is unworkable, then by that very fact the redemptive side is rendered worthless” (17).  To be sure, I find the redemptive side of the Gospel to be primary in my thinking and believing.  You may find the ethical side of the Gospel to be primary.  But so long as we both acknowledge that the Gospel is bigger than just what we ourselves regard as primary, that there is an ethical side to our redemptive side, or vice versa, depending on our perspective, then we’re potentially within “hearing distance” of each other, and the possibility of the formation of a vital community of interpretation exists.

But, for this to move from the potential and the possible to the actual and the experienced, we’ve all got to act on it. “Politicals” need to show that they are just as interested in talking to “redemptives” as they are in talking to other “politicals,” and we “redemptives” have got to show that we are just as interested in talking to “politicals” as we are in talking to our fellow “redemptives.” As a first step, as a gesture of good will, we could begin by refusing to caricature each other, erecting stereotypes to be smugly and gleefully dismantled with our respective airs of spiritual superiority.  This is the “good faith assumption” that I find to be so missing from recent theological and political rhetoric. It says that I will begin with the assumption that the person with whom I disagree is just as interested in and serious about the matter at hand as I am.  And as a second step, we could be deliberate in sending signals, just as Kate was in her essay, that we are aware of the others in the interpretive community who see the texts with different lenses, and to embrace the idea that there is always more to the text than my experience, perspective and presuppositions allow me to see.

magiOn Sunday night in my Bible Study on the Magi in Matthew chapter 2, I actually said the word “Empire,” and I noted the politically subversive nature of the Magi’s response to Herod’s sinister request, and the challenge it poses for us today.  And it was Kate’s respectful nod to the redemptive substructure of her political reading of this text that persuaded this “redemptive” to hang with her argument long enough to be able to see it as a valid dimension of the story’s meaning that needs to be included in any honest conversation about it.

When I am just as committed to listening to you and your interpretation of the Gospel, as I am in trying to explain to you my interpretation of the Gospel, and to persuade you that I’m right, I believe that it is the Gospel that is actually served.  DBS +

 

 

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