Tag Archives: Gospel

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”

 breadcup

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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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.  

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  • 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.

 

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  • 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.

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  • 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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