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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


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


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

 Romans 5:1-5 _________________________________________________________________________________________________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Getting the Gospel Straight ~ Keeping the Gospel First


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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“Compel Them to Come In” (part 2)

Making a Case for Northway Christian Church


Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes
and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full.
(Luke 14:23)


In Luke 14:23 the master of the house who was putting on the party sent his servants out to “compel” people to come in.   The word “compel” here refers to the act of making a convincing argument that will move another person to make an appropriate response, in the case of this story, to persuade them to come into the house.  So, what are the convincing arguments that we can make to persuade people to come to Northway?  Today I will provide you with my first five reasons, and tomorrow I will conclude with my last five.

  1. Because we believe in a generous God. Richard Mouw says that this is the first and most important theological decision that any one of us has to make – Do we believe that God is stingy or generous? Is God reluctant to love us and has to be convinced to save us, or is God so in love with us that it takes extraordinary effort on our part to keep Him out of our lives?   The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is the church of a generous God because it is a church based on the person and work of Jesus Christ.
  2. Because we are a church that has no creed but Christ and no book but the Bible. I found the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) at a moment in my young Christian life when I was being pulled in different directions by well-meaning brothers and sisters who were all insisting that “real” Christians believe this or that. No sooner would one of them tell me that one thing was true, than another one come along and tell me the exact opposite thing was true. It was all very confusing to me. And then a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pastor sat down and talked with me about how the “what” of doctrine always divides while the “who” of Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, our Lord and Savior, always unites. He advised me to be certain of Christ and then to stay just as open as I possibly could about everything else, testing every faith claim and assertion by the teaching of Scripture. This approach – so characteristic of Disciples – has served me well.
  3. Because we observe open Communion each and every week. Going to the Lord’s Table each Sunday morning keeps me focused on the redemptive purposes of God in Jesus Christ, keeps me anchored to the Gospel experience of grace in Christ, and keeps me oriented to the mission of reconciliation through Christ with which the church has been entrusted and for which the church has been empowered by His indwelling Spirit. Weekly Lord’s Supper keeps the Gospel of Jesus Christ front and center in my own life, and in the life and mission of the whole church. The Disciples are a movement for wholeness in fragmented world. We welcome others to the Lord’s Table just as God in Jesus Christ has welcomed us.
  4. Because we respect the competency of each soul to do its own believing. Romans 14:4-5 looms rather large in our life of mutual encouragement and accountability as Disciples –

    Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Master is able to make him stand.  One man esteems one day as better than another, while another man esteems all days alike. Let everyone be fully convinced in his own mind.

    In other words, we’ve all got to decide things for ourselves, and we will all have to answer for how we’ve decided them. This is the right of private interpretation and the freedom of conscience distilled into the concrete practice of mutual respect for which we as Disciples have been justly recognized.  As Disciples we honor the freedom and responsibility of each believer to “work out their salvation with awe and reverence” (Philippians 2:12).  We are not the kind of church that’s going to tell you what to think, but rather we are going to be the kind of church that’s shows you how to “think believingly,” and that then challenges you to get on with it.

  5. Because we make a “good faith assumption” about one another.  Because we are forever deciding things differently as Christians, there is a very real temptation to conclude that those whose conclusions are at variance with our own conclusions on any number of vital matters of faith and practice must be either stupid or wicked. The “good faith assumption” is the glue that holds us together in spite of those differences.  When we disagree about something, the “good faith assumption” says that I am going to believe and behave in such a way that shows that I think that you are just as serious about Jesus Christ as I am, and that you are just as committed to knowing and doing what Christ commands as I am.  And as Disciples, it is going to the Lord’s Table together each week with people who don’t necessarily think as I think, or believe as I believe, that seals the bond of this resolve for unity in love


 Tomorrow I will post the last five reasons I use to make a compelling case for Northway Christian Church in particular, and the Disciples of Christ in general. DBS +


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Loving Our Muslim Neighbors


I am convinced that one of the greatest issues of this day that we are living in is the relationship between Christians and Muslims, made even more difficult by global tensions and the current political climate. As the “Common Word” (www.acommonword.com) that was addressed to the Christian Community by 138 of the world’s most important Islamic leaders and scholars back in 2007 put it –

 Christianity and Islam are the largest and second largest religions in the world and in history. Christians and Muslims reportedly make up over a third and over a fifth of humanity respectively. Together they make up more than 55% of the world’s population, making the relationship between these two religious communities the most important factor in contributing to meaningful peace around the world. If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace. With the terrible weaponry of the modern world; with Muslims and Christians intertwined everywhere as never before, no side can unilaterally win a conflict between more than half of the world’s inhabitants. Thus our common future is at stake. The very survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake.

 What makes this such a complicated thing for us to do are our family ties and our strained history as Christians and Muslims. Christianity and Islam belong to the same Abrahamic family religions. We share some spiritual characteristics and have some common theological and moral perspectives. But we also have a long history with each other, and not much of it is good.  As the two great missionary religions of the world who equally believe that it is part of their God-given mandate to convince other to believe as they do, Christians and Muslims have been in nearly constant contact and direct competition with each other for centuries, and that’s crated some wounds and left some scars.

The late Vernon Grounds, one of the giant American Evangelical theologians of the last generation, liked to compare Christians to a pair of porcupines on a freezing winter’s night.


He said that they pull in close to each other for warmth, but just as soon as they get close, they start to poke each other and that forces them apart.   Well, I think that this same dance characterizes Christian/Muslim relationships.  We are drawn in close to each other because we recognize a family resemblance in one another, but just as soon as we start to move in each other’s direction, we begin to poke and jab each other because of our differences and disagreements. We need to choreograph a different dance.  But to do so, I believe that two attitudes prevalent among Christians will need to be adjusted.

Some Christians, mostly from the progressive wing of the church, approach the Christian/Muslim relationship with the idea that our differences of belief are insignificant and unimportant. Peter Kreeft often points out that the only beliefs that separate Muslims and Christians are the Incarnation, the Atonement and the Resurrection.  But doctrinally, that’s pretty much the core of Biblical Christianity!  And just as convinced as I am about their truth, and just as passionate as I am about their proclamation as a Christian, in my five years of monthly public dialogue with Muslim Imams here in Dallas, I have yet to meet one who is not just as convinced that I am wrong about these things, and who is not just as passionate about telling me so. The approach to Christian/Muslim relations that begins with the idea that there’s really not anything important that separates us is a dead-end.

But so is the approach of other Christians, mostly from the conservative wing of the church, who argue that there is nothing that Muslims and Christians have in common spiritually, and that to even talk with them about the things of God is a dangerous compromise. More than once I have been accused of betraying Christ and denying the Gospel because I have entered into serious conversation with them about matters of faith and practice, and because I have chosen to related to my Muslim colleagues with respect and affection.  There’s got to be another step to this dance.

Back in 2012 our “Faiths in Conversation” series consisted of a cycle of fascinating presentations on what we as a Jewish Rabbi, a Christian Minister and a Muslim Imam believe about Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad.  What follows are my remarks from that conversation the night we talked about Muhammad.  In my presentation I tried to navigate a narrow path between wanting to honor the convictions of my Muslim friends about the status of Muhammad as a Prophet, and remaining true to my own commitment to Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and my Lord and Savior.

In this historical moment when Islamophobia seems to be running rampant in the West, I offer here a different way of thinking and talking about Muhammad as a Christian that attempts to build a bridge rather than erect a wall, that wants to find a space where we can come together rather than closing a door that drives us even further apart. I’m not saying that I succeeded in this in what I said that night — but  I am saying that we’ve all got to try.  The whole world is watching.



Christians and Muhammad


  Dr. Douglas B. Skinner
Northway Chistian Church
Dallas, Texas

The Koran has a high regard for Jesus, affirming His claim to be the Messiah and numbering Him among the true Prophets of God. Why, there’s even an entire chapter in the Koran devoted to Mary the mother of Jesus where the Virgin Birth gets fully affirmed!  And then there’s the famous “Charter of Privileges” that Muhammad gave to the monks at the Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai Peninsula that offered them, and all Christians his respect and protection.  History tells us that Muhammad was nice to Christians, so why haven’t Christians been nice to Muhammad in return?

The history of anti-Semitism in Christianity is a shameful legacy of my branch of the Abrahamic Family Tree. It is a contradiction of the Gospel of love that is the very heart of our faith as Christians.   And the history of anti-Islamism by my branch of the Abrahamic Family Tree is no less shameful and no less a contradiction of the Gospel of God’s love.  And while most of the Christians I know will openly acknowledge and easily voice regret for the very real damage that we’ve done to our Jewish parents, we are not nearly as quick to acknowledge or apologize for the very real damage that we’ve done, and are doing to you, our Muslim siblings.

And so, as one Christian, let me begin by saying to my Muslim relatives in the Abrahamic Family who are here tonight, that I am sorry: I am sorry for the disrespect that we have shown you; I am sorry for the distortions of your beliefs that we have perpetuated; and I am sorry for the hatred that we have sanctioned if not actually encouraged against you. Our Lord and Savior told us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, and I confess that we have not always loved you, our Muslim neighbors, like that.  And our Lord and Savior told us to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.  And I confess that not only have we failed to do this with you; when you have done this with us – as with Muhammad’s “Charter of Privileges” – we have not even had the simple human decency to reciprocate.

And so I certainly don’t want to do or say anything here this evening that could be construed as an insult to you as a people of deep and genuine faith, or taken as a lack of respect for the beliefs that you hold sacred. But I am here as a Christian, and Christians, while we share some beliefs, practices and values with you who are Muslims, we don’t share all of the same beliefs, practices and values, otherwise we would be Muslims. My specific assignment here this evening is to talk for a few minutes about how Christians think of Muhammad; what Christians do with Muhammad.  And I suppose that I could just say that in the history of the world that Muhammad ranks as one of the great men, a fact that Christians can clearly see and easily acknowledge.  Politically, socially, economically, intellectually and culturally – Muhammad was one of greatest men who has ever lived.  His genius is obvious to anyone who takes the time to read his story and look at the facts.  And I suppose that I could say this, as a Christian, and then just sit down.  It would be accurate, I would be honest, and it would be a dodge.

You see, as great a man as Muhammad was politically, socially, economically, intellectually and culturally, these are the wrong criteria to be used by me in his assessment here tonight. I am here as a Christian believer, and it is as a Christian believer that you have asked me to tell you what I think of Muhammad, and what I do with Muhammad.  This is a religious question, and it deserves a religious answer.  And so, specifically, the question that I am going to try to respond to this evening is the one that Mahmut Aydin framed in his essays “Muhammad in the Eyes of Christian Scholars” published online at http://www.onislam.net-

Since we Muslims accept Jesus as a genuine prophet and messenger of God, can you Christians not reciprocate by accepting the genuiness of Muhammad’s prophethood?

Now, to answer this question as a Christian, I must first tell you briefly about an internal conversation that we Christians have among ourselves. It’s a debate over the question: “Does the gift of prophecy still operate in the church today, or has it ceased?”  In the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, he affirmed both the fact that there was a gift of prophecy operative in Christianity by which people spoke for God under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (11:4; 12:10; 12:28-29; 14), and that this gift of prophecy would eventually “cease,” specifically when the “teleion” – the  Greek word for “the perfect” or “the complete” – “comes” (13:10).

Now, some Christians have interpreted the meaning of the “teleion” in this verse to be a reference to the Apostolic writings themselves, the books of the New Testament.  When it was finished, traditionally argued to have happened in the middle of the last decade of the first century, 95ish when the Apostle John finished his Gospel and letters – “the perfect” had come and so the gift of prophecy was said to have ceased.  It was no longer operative.

Known as the “cessationist” position, these Christians have a simple answer to the question about Muhammad’s status as a prophet of God, and it’s – “No, he’s not a prophet.”  But don’t take it personally – cessationists say this about anybody and to everybody who claims to have had a prophetic gift after the close of the first century, the Apostolic age – Montanus, Bahaullah, Joseph Smith, Mother Ann Lee, Mary Baker Eddy, Syung Yung Moon – any of them, all of them.  They can’t be prophets because there are no prophets anymore.  The gift of prophecy has ceased.  Case closed.

But not all Christians think this way.

With the rebirth of Pentecostalism at the beginning of the 20th century, one of the largest and fastest growing subsets of global Christianity, the belief in prophecy as one of the continuing gifts that the Holy Spirit distributes sovereignly according to the Divine purpose among believers for the building up of the church and the fulfillment of its mission in the world has been widely embraced. “Continuists” interpret the “teleion” – “the perfect” – of I Corinthians 13:10 as a reference to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, and since that hasn’t happened yet, the gift of prophecy is still operational and that means that prophets still exist.

In another one of his letters, the Apostle Paul writing to the church at Thessalonica specifically told them not to “quench the Spirit” by “despising the words of prophets.” But neither did Paul want them to just blindly believe every prophetic claim.  And so, “test everything,” Paul told them, “holding fast to what is good” and rejecting what is not (I Thessalonians 5:19-21).  Christians who hold to this position – and I am one of them – would not reject the genuiness of Muhammad’s prophethood automatically out of hand as being impossible like “cessationist” Christians do, but would want to test the claim instead.  And the way that such a claim gets tested is by comparing the content of what has been “prophesied” to what has been previously accepted as a genuine revelation of God.

Just like you, Christians believe that God is really there and that the God who is there is not silent. God has spoken and acted in human history to make Himself known to us.   This is what we Christians mean by revelation, and when Christians think and talk about God’s revelation, we typically think and talk about it in two ways, in what’s called “General” Revelation – God’s speaking and acting generally in nature and conscience; and in what’s called “Special” Revelation – God’s speaking and acting specifically in the history of Israel and in the person and work of Jesus Christ, all of which has been preserved for us by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the Scriptures, both the Old and New Testaments.

It is against these two grids of revelation – “General” and “Special” – that the prophethood of Muhammad must be evaluated by me as a “continuist” Christian, and when I do, what I wind up with is a hung jury, a split decision.  You see, by the standards of the Special Revelation that I have as a Christian, I have some fundamental difficulties with Muhammad’s claim to be a prophet.

The New Testament tells me that Jesus is “Emmanuel,” “God with us,” the “Word made Flesh,” and that He went to the cross to die an atoning death for my sins and for the sins of the whole world, and that He was raised from the dead on the third day and ascended into heaven where He is seated at the right hand of God the Father from where He will come again at the close of the age.

Now I understand and can appreciate the fact that these are not things that you believe as Muslims. And I also know that you argue that your “Special” Revelation, the Koran, “corrects” what it believes are the distortions that we Christians have introduced into the record of the New Testament about Jesus.  You use your “Special” revelation as Muslims to correct what it is that I believe about Jesus Christ as a Christian.  But the very things that you would “correct” by your “Special” Revelation are the very things that I believe because of the “Special” revelation that I believe I have as a Christian.  And so beyond arguing the credibility of our respective sources of Special Revelation – which we have been known to do – I just don’t see much room for budge here.

There are fundamental differences, monumental differences, between the New Testament’s teachings about who Jesus Christ is and what Jesus Christ does, and what the Koran teaches about who Jesus Christ is and what Jesus Christ is. But as far apart as we are as Muslims and Christians with respect to the content of our respective “Special” Revelations, with respect to what we affirm about God from the source of “General” Revelation, we actually share a remarkable unanimity. And that’s not “nothing.”

David Bentley, a Christian scholar, has written an important book for Christians to see. It’s called The 99 Beautiful Names of God (William Carey Library – 2012). These are the 99 names of God that I see so beautifully calligraphied on the walls of the Mosques I visit, and that I am told you recite with your prayer beads.  Dr. Bentley wrote this book to show Christians that the God whom Muslims obey and adore is the same God whom we as Christians obey and adore.  Using the Bible as his source, Dr. Bentley showed that the 99 names you who are Muslims use to think about and talk to the One, True and Living God are 99 names that we who are Christians use to think about and talk to the One, True and Living God as well!

And the only way that I can explain this is to say that for all of the problems that I face as a Christian in accepting Muhammad as a genuine prophet of God because of the very real differences that exist between what our respective “Special” Revelations teach, at the point of “General” revelation there is no conflict and no question at all.

The Apostle Paul, preaching in the New Testament book of Acts, made it clear that there is a genuine knowledge of God available to us as human beings through “general” revelation.

“In past generations he allowed all the nations to follow their own ways; yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good—giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy.” (Acts 14:16-17)

From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’” (Acts 17:26-28)

And at the beginning of his magnum opus – his letter to the Romans – Paul made the case for “special” revelation –

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” (Romans 1:19-20)

And so, with these texts in support, without hesitation whatsoever I can affirm the conclusion that Muhammad was a prophet of God’s General Revelation.  He personally knew and publically proclaimed some important truths about the God who is there.  And while that’s not everything that you as Muslims believe about him, I would propose that it is way more than what many Christians have been willing to say in the past, and that it provides us with a real basis for our relationship with each other as we move ahead, together.



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O Adonai…

O Adonai and Leader of the house of Israel, you appeared to Moses
in the flame of a burning bush and at Sinai you gave him the Law:


Come with your outstretched arm to save us

tenEvery Easter night for as long as I can remember Cecil B. DeMille’s epic movie “The Ten Commandments” has been broadcast on network television.  I often hear church people wonder about this choice.  Wouldn’t it make more sense to broadcast a “Jesus movie” – you know: “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” or “Jesus of Nazareth,” or even “The Passion of the Christ”? “What does Moses and the Exodus have to do with Jesus and the resurrection?” is the question that I hear being asked on Easter Monday every single year.  And if you don’t have a good answer for that question, then it is highly unlikely that the intercession and affirmation of second “O” Antiphon is going to make much sense to you either –

O Adonai and Leader of the house of Israel, you appeared to Moses in the flame of a burning bush and at Sinai you gave him the Law: Come with your outstretched arm to save us!

The church prays this petition in the run-up to Christmas each year because the primary Biblical template for understanding Christ’s saving act is the story of Moses and God’s deliverance of His people from their bondage in Egypt.

  • On the Mount of the Transfiguration when Moses and Elijah had a conversation with Jesus right before He set His face toward Jerusalem and began to move with purpose to what awaited Him there, Luke tells us specifically that what they talked about there was Christ’s “departure which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31). The word translated “departure” is literally the word in Greek for “Exodus.” The use of this word here forever ties the climax of the Christ event with the defining event in the Old Testament’s story of God’s deliverance of His people.
  • When Jesus came to John the Baptist to be immersed by him at the beginning of His Messianic Ministry, John publicly announced His arrival by shouting out for all to hear, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Christ’s death on the cross just as the Passover lambs were being sacrificed in the Temple closes this important circle of interpretation of the meaning of the Christ event.
  • When the angel told Joseph to name Mary’s baby boy “Jesus” (the Greek form of the Hebrew name “Joshua”) it was with the climax of the story of the Exodus clearly in mind (Matthew 1:21). Just as Joshua led God’s first covenant people into the Promised Land, so Jesus now leads God’s new covenant people into the Promised Land of forgiveness and life eternal.
  • In the Synoptic Gospels the institution of the Lord’s Supper is deliberately linked to Christ’s great desire to keep the Passover with His disciples on the night before He Himself was sacrificed (Matthew 26:2;19; Mark14:1; 12-17; Luke 22:1;13-15). In this way the Exodus story of God’s deliverance of His people from their bondage becomes the primary interpretive frame for understanding the meaning of what it was that Jesus Christ did for us on the cross, and this is exactly what we see at work in a letter from Paul that was written before any of the Gospels were composed – Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. So let us celebrate this feast, but not with the bread that has the old yeast—the yeast of sin and wickedness. Let us celebrate this feast with the bread that has no yeast—the bread of goodness and truth” (I Corinthians 5:7-8).


  • And in the book of Revelation one of the primary images of Christ that we are given is the Lamb who looks as if he has been slain (5:6; 12; 13:8), another Passover allusion.

And so it is against this Exodus backdrop that in these days of our spiritual preparation for the annual remembrance of the coming of Christ at Christmastime that the church prays for Adonai to “Come with your outstretched arm to save us!”

adonai“Adonai” is Hebrew for “Lord.”  It was the substitute for the name that God gave Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:13-14). The name that God gave Moses consisted of consonants alone, and was therefore unpronounceable.  This safeguarded the holy name of God in a faith tradition that regarded its vain use to be blasphemous (Exodus 20:7).  And so “Adonai” became the standard way that the Jews spoke of God whenever God’s personal name appeared in a Biblical text and it was the way that they spoke to God in prayer and worship.  The fact that God gave His own personal name to Moses when He was asked was “a sign of infinite graciousness… it meant that He wanted to be known as their (the Hebrews) God, for them (the Hebrews) to be seen as His people” (Oliver Treanor). And the initiative that God took and the effort that God made – all of the mighty acts of God stories in Exodus, two of which are cited in the “O” Antiphon text itself: the burning bush and the giving of the Law from Sinai – are concrete evidence that God’s arms are in fact “outstretched to save us.” The second “O” Antiphon is the perfect petition for people whose lives are in real crisis, and for a world that seems to be tottering on the brink of confusion, chaos and catastrophe.

It was President Kennedy who said that –Our problems are all man-made, therefore they may be solved by man. And man can be just as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.”  Position this notion as one pole of a continuum in your head and heart.  And then at the other end, as the other pole of the continuum, position the perspective of the first three steps of Alcoholics Anonymous: “(1) We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable; (2) We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity; (3) We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”  You can insert whatever it is that threatens your own personal sense of self, stability and security for the word “alcohol.

Now, study the continuum –

X ——————————————————————————— X
Completely Self-Sufficient                                                                                              Absolutely Dependent

Where you come down on this continuum between these two poles, it seems to me, will largely determine just how urgently you pray the petition and just how fervently you believe the affirmation of the second “O” Antiphon this Advent – “Come with your outstretched arm to save us!”

marneyCarlyle Marney, the thoroughly unconventional Southern Baptist preacher of the last generation, said that he was the Spiritual Life speaker at a major University when he was asked by the strong and handsome captain of the football team with the beautiful and popular Homecoming Queen on his arm what the meaning of life was? And Dr. Marney told him “No.” He wasn’t going to tell him, he said, because he knew that at that moment it was just talk. Strong and handsome, young and beautiful, popular and successful, Dr. Marney knew that a conversation about the meaning of life would be completely lost on that young man at that moment in his life. “Come back and see me,” Dr. Marney told him, “when you’ve just gotten divorced, or been turned down for that big promotion at work, or when you’ve just been diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, or when your kid gets hooked on drugs. Then we’ll talk,” he said, “because them you’ll be ready for it… then you’ll mean it.”

Theologian Paul Tillich called it the boundary situation. He said that it’s only when we’ve personally curled our toes over the edge of the abyss and stared into the darkness of its meaninglessness and cruelty that we are prepared to take the claims of religion seriously. And this means that whether the annual coming of Christmas is the announcement of “good news of great joy that in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11) for you, or just another culturally manufactured holiday of artificial cheer and conspicuous consumption depends, in no small measure, on the state of your heart and your assessment of the condition of the world.  As Jesus Himself put it – “Healthy people don’t need a doctor–sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners” (Mark 2:17).

The second “O” Antiphon are for those of us who know that we need a physician, for those of us who know that we are powerless and that our lives and our world have become unmanageable, and who have made the decision of faith to turn our will and our lives over to the care of the God who, by the witness of the historical-redemptive trajectory of the story that the Bible tells, is stretching out his arms in Jesus Christ to save us.   DBS +

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Gospel Wakefulness


Last week I wrote about how I think the light gets in.

Long mystified by how the Word, the Sacraments and the Fellowship of the Church are life-giving for some people while just burdensome and stultifying to others, last week in my blog I explored the way that the “Providences” – all of those inward and outward crosses that we are called upon to bear as human beings – instead of being problems that our spiritual lives have got to solve, could in fact be the very experiences that empower our effective engagement with the Word, our useful reception of the Sacraments and our meaningful participation in the life of the Church.  It’s the Providences of God that tear the roofs off of our lives and leave us exposed in our hurts and hopes, desperate for grace.  It’s been both my experience as a Christian and my observation as a pastor for more than 40 years that the Word, the Sacraments and the Church are most often effective “means of grace” for people who have a deep personal felt-need for grace.  As Jesus put it, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick” (Mark 2:17).

Jared Wilson, an author who speaks to me, and for me, just as often and as powerfully as anyone out there these days does, writes about this in his 2011 book Gospel Wakefulness (Crossway).

bookHe wrote this book in response to the question of one of his good friends in ministry who wondered after planning another “shock and awe” worship experience designed to “impact” the feelings of those in attendance.  Jared’s friend wanted to know – “How do we who are followers of Christ not become numb to our relationship with Christ and the routine of church?”  Ever-increasing showmanship is the expected answer, the “Disney-ification” of worship – making every Sunday morning a bigger and better show than the week before, and always bigger and better than the show that the church down the street is putting on.  But Jared asked if it isn’t “the weekly efforts of so many churches to top themselves in razzle-dazzle for the cause of Christ that itself numbs people”?  He wondered if it isn’t “like the cycle of drug addiction… always chasing the first high, and never quite reaching it” (16).  The big question for Jared is: What is it that makes the Gospel of Jesus Christ “eternally interesting”?  To answer this question he wrote about two people he knows.

In the well-appointed study of a professor of history in a prestigious university in the American South sits a brick-sized piece of the Berlin Wall. It sits on the floor, because he uses it as a doorstop. He is not ignorant of the piece’s historical significance; as a historian he is deeply informed of the struggle and the repression attached to the wall, to the shame it symbolized and the division both literal and cultural it created….

In a small, dingy apartment in Midwest America lives and elderly immigrant woman who sells newspapers and fresh cut flowers during the day and cleans an office building in the evenings. On an iron shelf in her bedroom sits a small lidless glass jar, and in that wall is a piece of the Berlin Wall the size of a marble. She has often held that piece of rock in her withered hand and wept. Her husband did not live to see the wall come down. Her cousin was one of the estimated five thousand people who tried to escape from the communist Eastern Bloc into West Berlin….one of the estimated one hundred to two hundred people killed by border guards in the attempt….

When the professor hears the epic Brandenburg Gate speech in which President Ronald Reagan famously commanded, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” he admits it as a watershed moment in history, as iconic a sound bite from the annals of historical rhetoric as any. When the woman hears, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” she is stirred, always. When the professor speaks of the fall of the Berlin Wall as an earth-shattering event, he really does mean to communicate the radical nature of the event; he really does understand this.  But the woman knows that the fall of the Berlin Wall was an earth shattering event deep in her bones.  (19-20)

“This is Gospel Wakefulness” Jared Wilson says, knowing the Gospel not just dispassionately in our heads, but “deep in our bones.” “Gospel Wakefulness means treasuring Christ more greatly and savoring His power more sweetly” (24), and “this experience happens,” Jared argues, “at the intersection of profound brokenness and the proclaimed Gospel” (32).  It’s what happens when the Gospel is heard less as a theory and more as a love letter; when Jesus Christ is seen less as a theological abstraction and more as the friend who shows up to help when we’re in real trouble.

“We find Christ at the end of ourselves” Jared writes (41), and what he means by this is that it’s only when we are out of all the other options that are out there that Jesus Christ becomes our absolute treasure (39). This is the genius of the recovery movement with its 12 steps.  Just as the addict has to finally admit that she is powerless over her addiction, and that her life has become completely unmanageable as the first step toward her sobriety, so we spiritually have to be systematically stripped of all of our lesser securities and satisfactions before we will know the true security and satisfaction that Jesus Christ brings. “The joy of Gospel Wakefulness requires a depth of felt brokenness in which the phrase ‘poor in spirit’ makes much more than just intellectual sense” to us (42).  And so Jared explains–

Those who possess saving faith in Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins and the hope of heaven when they die can and do grow numb to any number of religious and spiritual experiences, no matter how well orchestrated, sincerely produced and [thoroughly entertaining they may be].  But those – saved and unsaved – who find themselves utterly captivated by the Gospel can hardly be entertained by anything else. (18)

If this is true, then it changes the conversation, and rather dramatically so. It’s becomes less a matter of churches thinking that they have to constantly be jumping through the hoops of creative brainstorming in the hopes that they can come up with the next big thing that will make their worship “attractive” to the outsider, stirring them from their spiritual torpor to faithful and enthusiastic participation, and it becomes more a matter of churches working on the effective communication of this “captivating Gospel” to people in the particular settings and varying stations of their lives.

Jared warns that “what you win people with is what you win people to” (16), and then he quotes Sky Jethani who wonders if “ministries that focus on manufacturing spiritual experiences, despite their laudable intentions, may actually be retarding the spiritual growth of people by making them experience-dependent” (17).   The crucial conversation is about the Gospel that heals people’s brokenness and not the gimmicks that get people’s attention.

If we are regularly and excitedly engaging people in the good news of the finished saving work of the dying, rising, exalted, sovereign Jesus Christ who is the death-proof, fail-proof King of kings before all things and in all things and holding all things together as he sustains the world by the mere word of his power, the ones whose hearts are opened by the Spirit to be won to Christ will be irrevocably changed. Numbness will be the exception, rather than the norm. (17)

But to be captivated by this Gospel, this Gospel has got to be communicated to people by people who speak and act in ways that clearly say that it is all important to those who are doing the communicating. In other words, a captivating Gospel is best communicated by people who have been captivated by it themselves – people who know the truth and power of the Gospel “deep in their bones” – people who would be best described as “Gospel   Awakened.”  I don’t believe that the future of the church is going to  depend on the next big thing, but rather on the old, old story told by those who have loved it long, and know it best.  DBS +

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“Eager for Unity”

unity“I beg you,” Paul told the Ephesians “…to make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:1; 3).  I know, I know, there is a scholarly consensus out there that says that Paul is not the author of Ephesians, but that’s not really my concern here today.  I’m not blogging this week about the authorship of Ephesians.  I doubt that I will ever blog about that.  What I am blogging about is something that is in the canonical text of Ephesians. And so, if it will keep you reading, then whenever I write “Paul” interpret that reference to mean whatever satisfies your intellect and imagination, and let’s get on with the more substantial task of trying to make sense of the moral and spiritual instruction that this “received” text authoritatively speaks into our lives and situations.

Paul didn’t beg the Ephesian Christians to create unity – that’s well beyond our capabilities as human beings, in fact, that’s Christ’s work, done on the cross Paul said, where He broke down the dividing wall that separated us from each other (Ephesians 2:14). This is how Christ has become our peace, Paul told the Ephesians (2:14). He came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were nearby” (Ephesians 2:17), reconciling us to each other by His saving work on the cross. In fact, according to Paul in the first chapter of Ephesians, this was the whole point of Christ’s coming – He has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (1:9-10). This is what God is doing in Jesus Christ — He is working to heal the divisions of the world through His reconciling work of love on the cross, and when someone belongs to Him by faith, then our own inner and outer divisions get healed, and the work of healing becomes our primary assignment as Christians. As Paul put in in 2 Corinthians — “God reconciled us to Himself through Christ [our own experience of getting healed], and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” [our assignment to then be about the ministry of healing in the church and the world] (5:18).


Harold Heie was for many years a Christian College Professor and Administrator. Seeing the way that both society at large and the church in particular were becoming increasingly and vociferously fragmented, he began a movement for what he calls “respectful conversations” among Christians (http://www.respectfulconversation.net/). Believing that Jesus Christ – the One in whom “all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17)intends for His church to be a place where people who have different convictions about the hot-button issues of the moment can still sit down together and talk to each other honestly and civilly and still relate to each other lovingly, Harold Heie has been brokering respectful conversations between Christians on all of the difficult topics that are currently tearing churches, families, friends and the electorate apart.  And out of this experience, he has identified what he calls the three “preconditions” to which we must all be committed as Christians if we are to maintain and extend “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”- humility, patience and love.  Interestingly, these three Christian virtues correspond exactly to what Paul told the Ephesians must be cultivated in them if they were to have any chance at maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace – “…humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love” (4:2).

mountThe first precondition is humility.  Paul Tournier, the Swiss Psychiatrist, told a wonderful story on himself. He had taken the train to Italy and there in the station he saw a travel poster on the wall with a picture of the majestic Matterhorn on it.   Being Swiss, Dr. Tournier said that he knew very well what the Matterhorn looked like – it was, after all, something of national symbol. And so he said that he instinctively knew that there was something wrong with this picture on the poster. As he studied it closely, he said that it finally dawned on him that that the distinctive peak of the Matterhorn was pointing the wrong way in the picture. “These stupid Italians,” Dr. Tournier thought to himself, “have reversed the image; they got it backwards.” Feeling all superior and smug, Dr. Tournier said that it only gradually dawned on him later that from the south, from the Italian side of the mountain where he was standing at that moment, the picture in the poster was what the Matterhorn would in fact look like!  He had failed to take the Italian perspective into consideration, and Harold Heie says that “respectful conversations” are only possible when we humbly admit that other people are going to have different points of view that we really need to hear and to try to understand. As a “finite, fallible human being, I do not fully understand the truth as God knows it, and so I can always learn from conversation with others,” and they can learn from me.  There can be no respectful conversation and no maintenance of the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace if I begin by thinking or saying, “I have the truth, you don’t,” so agree with me or go away, or else I will.


The second precondition is patience. Writing about grief, the Christian poet Cecilia Venable observed –

In due season, your heart will be healed…
I know, for God has led me down this long, often confusing path…
[on this] weary but immeasurably worthwhile journey…
And I know that it is well to trust in His seasons,
until they become our seasons…

Trusting that “His seasons” are becoming “our seasons” is not just crucial for the healing process of grief, but also for the stretching process of spiritual maturation.  The bottom line is that we are all works in progress, all the time.  We are men and women who are only gradually being transformed by Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18).  And this means that all of our actions and attitudes, all of our beliefs and behaviors as Christians are at this moment, and at every moment, still very much in the process of being formed. We’re not finished yet, and so we have to learn the delicate art of being able to balance ideas that we are willing to fight for and maybe even die over, with a stance of openness that says I am always willing to learn more and to be taught better.  In my senior yearbook from Glendale High School one of my teachers left me with this parting counsel: “Stand firm in your faith and keep searching for truth; you will one day discover that these two things are in conflict.”

 crossesRecognizing this himself, Harold Heie likes to say that he is “on pilgrimage.”  He says that as he walks through his life, “faithful to his present understanding of how he should think and act as a Christian,” that he also understands and fully appreciates the fact that “the very process of walking is going to lead him to further insights about how it is that he should be walking.” And if this is true, if we are all still being formed spiritually, then we’ve got to be patient with ourselves and with each other as together we continue to grow in conscience and conviction.  And we have got to resist the constant impulse to walk away from each other when we disagree because to do so is to cut short the very process by which we all will continue to grow and change.

The third precondition is love.  Jesus said that people outside the community of faith have every right to look at the way that we are loving each other inside the community of faith to determine both the depth of our commitment to Christ (John 13:34-35), and the validity of the Gospel itself (John 17:20-21) on the basis of what they see.  It’s easy for me to love you and for you to love me when we see eye to eye on things.  It’s much trickier for us to love each other when we disagree on a matter of conscience and conviction, but this fightis exactly the kind of love that the world will sit up and take notice of because it’s just so rare these days.  We’re so much more accustomed to people lining up on opposite sides of the street to hurl insults and throw elbows at each other when we disagree.  When people come down on opposite sides of a question about which they have carefully and prayerfully settled conclusions that involve passionate feelings, and they nevertheless choose to stay in relationship with people who have arrived at the opposite conclusion prayerfully and carefully and with the same deep feelings, even though it’s hard to do so, I believe that they are doing the very thing that Paul told Christians to do in Ephesians 4.  They are maintaining the “unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace.” They are giving concrete and costly expression to their belief in Jesus Christ, the One who “holds all things together,” and who will one day “gather up all things in himself, things in heaven and things on earth.” The church and the world are desperate for the emergence of people like this. And so I beg you, on the basis of your calling in Christ, the One who holds all things together, to become one of them. DBS+


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