What Would Jesus Evade? DDWJWD Part 2

If anyone ever lived out the “What Would Jesus Do” ethic, Justin did. He moved into an abandoned train depot in the bar district of the next town over and took in homeless people. One night I think he baptized nineteen people in the fountain of the big Baptist church a couple of blocks over. His work with the down and out even made the local newspaper. We all wanted to be like Justin. It seemed that out of everyone anyone we knew, this guy was actually living like Christ.

Justin did what we all thought Jesus would do, but that didn’t mean he had been transformed into the image of Christ. He hadn’t. He could preach on the street one night and then get into a fistfight in a frat house the next night. One day I’d find him sitting serenely among his acolytes; the next I’d get a call from him demanding that I bail him out of jail.

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For some reason, Justin was just bad at life. He couldn’t keep down a job. He didn’t know how to navigate his marriage. He had no clue about taking responsibility for his actions. For Justin, itinerancy, singleness, and “martyrdom” offered an easy alternative to tackling his massive growth areas. He could evade life without admitting that he’d failed.

One time, after his wife’s family forced him out of their home, he came to live in our basement. I still remember him staying out to all hours drinking and then complaining that our kids walked around too loudly above his head as he slept until 2PM.

When we went on a short-term mission trip, we left Justin to watch the house. We specifically asked him to make sure the sump pump came on should a heavy rain come through. When we returned, we found our basement flooded and Justin nowhere in sight. He’d been invited last minute to do some outreach to the Rainbow People and decided to just leave the water to sit and the drywall to mold. Eventually, we discovered that he’d raided our five-year-old daughter’s piggy bank for spending money on the trip. When we confronted him over these things, he was unapologetic. Instead, he rebuked us for being too concerned about earthly things!

For Justin, the reproduction of some external details of Christ’s life made him a true Christian regardless of what else he did or did not do. He could wallow in the filth of his own sinfulness while judging every other professing Christian as impostors and Pharisees. Justin called nominal Christians, “Turds with frosting.” Ironically, that epithet could have been applied to him as well. The frosting was just a different flavor.

Justin’s example teaches that external conformity to WWJD accomplishes no more than external conformity to any standard of behavior. Holding up the lifestyle of Jesus of Nazareth as depicted in the Gospels for emulation doesn’t make people like Jesus, it just produces hypocrites of a different type. Whether our confidence before God comes from regular tithing or from selling everything and giving it to the poor, we’re legalists. The only difference is in the law we adhere to.

Not only did attempting to DWJWD fail to develop Christlike character in Justin, I believe that it exacerbated deficiencies which already plagued him. When people struggle to navigate their lives, it can be tempting to escape to someone else’s. That seems to be what drives young people to adopt strange personas such as with the goth or emo phenomena. Finding our authentic selves can be so difficult and risky that we can be easily enticed to abdicate the process and hide behind prefabricated templates. Then, in the dark recesses of our psyche, our souls wither unchallenged and untended. Escape into the Christ persona becomes that much more dangerous since the one who does so will find much internal and external reinforcement of their behavior.

In my own history, I made several attempts at adopting prefabricated personas to compensate for insecurity. I remember in fifth grade, I went through a greaser phase. I figured that if I wanted to be cool, then I couldn’t find a better exemplar than Fonzie. It didn’t work out. As a teenager, I went punk for a brief time. Well, my hair did anyway. Not coincidentally, this phase immediately preceded my conversion to serious Christianity followed by hardcore legalism. When I read about Jesus in the New Testament, I envisioned being him. I wanted to wear a robe and sandals sitting under a tree and laying down wisdom on the masses.

I don’t mean to say that there was nothing sincere in my conversion. I’m just pointing out that insecurity gets often confused for humility and obsessiveness for zeal. I have had times of real healing and insight that I believe have come from the presence of God. At other times, I’ve become inauthentic, judgmental, and self-important while channeling the Nazarene.

When we hold up Jesus’ life depicted in the Gospels as a standard for others to follow, we leave them with a focus on externals that substitutes merit for mercy. Should a person at some point ever perfectly mimic Christ’s life in every detail, they won’t be one whit closer to the actual character of Christ.

As Paul wrote,

And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:2-3 ESV)

According to Paul, dramatic, self-sacrificial gestures count for precisely zero when borne out of wrong motives.

The attempt to jump into Christ’s sandals often arises from an attempt to escape the slew of the day to day. Love, on the other hand, slogs through the mundane mess over the long haul.

As Paul continues:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4-6 ESV)

WWJD fosters evasion. Love requires engagement – engagement that carries a cross.
Jesus bore a cross every day of his life. It consisted of hardships specific to his own circumstances and calling. His cross isn’t transferable. That’s why he tells those who aspire to follow him, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) Living by faith will result in an array of struggles, shame, loss, and pain, but each person will only experience their own configuration which is their cross. Ironically, asking WWJD evades my cross in favor of a wire and foam facsimile of his.

 

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

If we would become like Christ, we must find our cross and take it up.

 

Let me illustrate with some examples of personal crosses available in our contemporary world:

  • A man finds himself stuck halfway up the corporate ladder in a soul-crushing job serving an unreasonable boss. He could walk away from it to serve an overseas mission effort, but without divine orders, that would just be to shirk his cross. Each day at his job, the man experiences powerlessness, pointlessness, and degradation. Taking up his cross will require him to enter those experiences gladly, trusting in God who raises the dead.
  • A woman who has spent her life raising children must face an empty nest. She might busy herself in a women’s ministry, but that could simply be an attempt to continue mothering vicariously. It could be that her cross would be to use her newfound discretionary time on intercessory prayer. Through solitude, she can find authentic, Christ-like love for others free from codependence.
  • An academically gifted high school graduate might combat the fear of leaving his church’s youth group by seeking to become a youth minister. Taking up his cross might require him to enter the hostile environment of a secular university and train to use his gifts among hostile colleagues in a secular profession.
  • A young woman discovers that she’s made a big mistake at work. She might quit, taking the discovery as confirmation of her long-held suspicion that this job wasn’t God’s calling for her anyway. Taking up her cross might require her to come forward to tell the unvarnished truth about the mistake, entrusting her future, either at the job or in unemployment, to God.

The cross as a Christian ethic applies to every individual regardless of the situation, if we learn to apply it. We must imitate Christ as we find him at the cross and not as we find him in the Gospels. The attempt to do that latter often just turns into escapism which keeps misshapen souls from the therapeutic effects of walking under the weight of tailor-made beams.

“What Would Jesus Do” appeals to people who don’t want to face the hardships and drudgery already present in their lives. Christ’s requirement that we take up our cross sends us under that drudgery with a redemptive purpose. The unredeemed of the world, constantly work to minimize the pain and maximize the pleasure of their existence. They resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms to offset misery and monotony. When I take up my cross, I cheerfully accept the full weight of life’s burden relying in faith on the resurrection to restore all that’s been lost. Rather than seeking to evade the unpleasant elements in my day, I relish them for the sake of learning to be more like Jesus.

“WWJD” is evasion.

The cross is full-frontal engagement.

Christ took up his cross and invites us to take up ours to follow him, so we can learn how to master real life. Jesus never evaded. At his cross, he looked life’s one fearful certainty directly in the face and owned that dude.


 

DDWJWD (Don’t Do What Jesus Would Do) – Series Intro

Some kid at Bible camp ran up behind my son, Jadon, and slapped him on the back of the neck. I guess he wanted to take on the biggest guy in the cabin.

Jadon whirled around, narrowed his eyes and growled. The kid, immediately regretting his decision, resorted to playing the Jesus card, “Now, now, man, take it easy…what would Jesus do?”

“Well, I don’t know.” Jadon snarled, cocking his head to the side. “Maybe he’d make a whip out of cords and drive people out of the temple with it.”

“What?!” the kid exclaimed as he scrambled to stay out of reach. Apparently, nobody told him that you’d better come well-armed if you want to use the Bible to manipulate a preacher’s kid.

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This story illustrates (don’t worry Jadon didn’t hurt the kid) the flaws in a method commonly used to guide Christian decisions – the old WWJD.

After reading Charles Sheldon’s book, In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do, a youth minister named Janie Tinklenberg ordered 300 friendship bracelets embossed with “WWJD?” for the students in her ministry to wear as a reminder to consider the question when making decisions.¹ What started as an object lesson became a movement, then a marketing goldmine, and then a farce. I guess nobody ever stopped to consider or care that maybe Jesus wouldn’t turn his own example into a flood of kitsch made by political prisoners in China.

The movement has since waned, but the question remains. Maybe that’s because as we fumble around for a consistent Christian ethic, doing what Jesus would do seems like an idea we can take ahold of even if the reality remains perpetually out of reach. The life of Jesus of Nazareth as depicted in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John holds a powerful allure. The personality that emerges from those pages stands in relief from the sullied characters we meet day by day at our work, in our homes and in our mirrors. Jesus can’t be critiqued. He’s at least “just alright” with everyone.

Christ’s allure drew me the first time I read the book of Matthew. He synergized passion and serenity, acceptance and truth. His piety shamed the most observant Pharisee even while his promiscuous social activities chafed their sensibilities. He called himself the wisest and greatest person to ever live. Then, he invited every burdened soul to come to him because he’s humble and lowly. Somehow, he pulled off the contradiction so well that I hardly noticed it. There he was – acceptance, meaning, purpose, wisdom. He pushed my dreams and drives aside and took up sole ownership of my consciousness. I could only envision myself living as a penniless itinerant, teaching in the open air about the kingdom of God. I thought surely every churchgoer would want to live his way.

But they didn’t.

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Six months’ immersion into church culture morphed my frocked and sandaled avatar into a besuited pulpiteer. The vision didn’t look much like the original, but it seemed more doable. Once I cleared the Bible college hurdle, I could go straight to the pennilessness and teaching ministry of Christ’s life.

I didn’t clear Bible college (more on this later), so I returned to reclaim my hopes of engaging in open-air ministry while attending the state university near my home town. That’s where I met Jamie, the girl who would become my wife. I shared some of my vision of following Christ with her on our first date. She seemed to buy in, but communication doesn’t flow as well as it should across a medium of nerves and hormones. For me, poverty meant homelessness. For her, it meant driving a used car and living in a humble dwelling. We continued to date and in the blissful blindness of young love we never did sync up our expectations.

We soon married and then spent the next ten years grappling with each other over the configuration of our life together. The dissimilarity between our lifestyle and that of Jesus afflicted my conscience. I always wanted to give stuff away or sell it. I wanted to move to deeply impoverished neighborhoods serve and to save the residents. Jamie was not inclined to take such drastic measures.

Because my compulsions felt to me like the will of God, I would demonize her. “How could she even be a Christian when she refuses to sell everything we have and live among the poor?” I would ask myself.

Since big change takes more energy than remaining with the status quo, I would normally just stuff my angst and move on to the next mundane task.

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At this point, you might criticize my lack of resolve but before you do, you need to know that my conviction was mitigated by another conflict roiling within me. Marriage thrust my heart into the center of an ugly custody battle between the New Testament Gospels and the Epistles. I wanted to radically follow Jesus as he appeared in the Gospels, but I was also beholden to the imperatives in the Epistles. The Gospels didn’t talk about marriage except to prohibit divorce and to require that disciples be ready to leave their wives and children to follow Christ. The Epistles prescribed commitment, love, consideration, and financial support for one’s spouse. Since I couldn’t simultaneously obey the Bible and do what Jesus would do, I would vacillate between each set of instructions depending on circumstances and mood.

During one of my Epistles phases, I agreed with Jamie that we should purchase a larger house. We bought an older craftsman house almost three times the size of our previous place. Aside from the discovery of a profuse water leak in the basement, we were delighted with it.

Then, the Gospels began to rebuke my un-Jesus-like decision. I brooded in my guilt and alienation from God. I hated that house and everything that came with it. According to the ream of papers I had signed at closing, the house would hold the title to my freedom for the next thirty years. I raged over every minute wasted on repairs and improvements. A dark shadow lowered across my brow.

Jamie couldn’t help but notice, and she pried from me the reason for my change in demeanor. By his time, she had endured ten years of this struggle, so she took a different tack. She suggested that we let God reveal whether he wanted us to sell the house. We would put the house up for sale until a date which I would set. If it didn’t sell by that time, we would accept that God did not want us to sell the house after all.

Ha! Now I had her. Obviously, God wanted us to sell the house. This would be my chance to finally pull Jamie across the gulf between us. I prayed for guidance over the configuration of the sale. I wanted to ensure that I didn’t derail God’s plan on its way out of the station. After a time of praying and waiting I felt led to list with an agent for a specific dollar figure. In accordance with Jamie’s proposal, I prayed for guidance over the divine deadline. I felt a distinct prompting that it should sell by March 20th which would be ninety days from the day we listed it.

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I passed eighty-nine days in the certainty that God would sell the house. My reasoning was solid. Jesus didn’t have a place to lay his head. He told me to follow him. Surely, homeownership stood between me and doing what Jesus would do. What would Jesus do? Sell the house, that’s what!

As time ran down, my confidence galvanized. Surely, this was just a test of faith and I didn’t plan to fail it. On March 20th, that test intensified into a full-fledged trial. The confidence, hardened over the previous three months, began to crack under the weight of elapsing hours. At the stroke of midnight, my model of Christianity shattered.

My body rose from my bed at four the next morning, an empty shell plodding off to the job I loathed. It required that I spend four-plus early morning hours every day working like a galley slave unloading trailers. Drained of all morale, I pled with God for a reprieve. About twice a year, I got to drive a truck over to the next state to pick up next day delivery packages which the normal distribution network had missed. I asked God to allow me to make that run as a mercy for a broken soul.

I walked under the conveyor belt to get my work assignment for the day. John, my supervisor, shouted out, “Nate, you’re in the unload.”

“Figures.” I thought to myself as I lumbered toward purgatory.

Before I reached the expanded metal platform, my supervisor shouted again, “Nate, forget about the unload. I need you on the returns trailer.”

“Well, at least that’s better.” I thought, half praying.

I’d handled ten packages or so when John changed my assignment yet again, “Brown up,² Nate, you’re going to Tulsa.”

God, it seemed had answered my prayer very specifically, but I wasn’t consoled. I was still angry.

After I’d driven the brown metal box for an hour to the west, I passed a geodesic dome that housed a “health and wealth” church. The marquee out front advertised a guest speaker from Trinity Broadcasting Network.

Disgusted, I confronted God, “You let crap like this go on in your name, but when I try to actually live a sacrificial life, you reject me!” I don’t remember what else I said. I only remember melting into tears and snot, swerving in and out of my lane, as I shouted my pain through the windshield. Somehow, I made it safely to the airport, but I wouldn’t have entirely minded if I hadn’t. I woodenly loaded thirty or so boxes and headed east, eyes glassy and burning from tears.

The rays of first light had just begun to grey the landscape when another church sign stood out in relief. As I neared it, these words came into focus:

“NOT ABANDONED”

I’m sure whoever put those words on the sign had their own meaning in mind, but for me, it seemed like a message straight from God. Though I was no less angry, I did feel less sad.

As I processed this experience, the image of Lucy Van Pelt goading Charlie Brown into kicking a football and then yanking it away kept flashing into my mind. I felt like God had strung me along throughout this process so that I would really run at selling the house and giving everything away. This was finally my big moment to prove myself and I wasn’t about to miss it. Then, “Aaaugh!” His chicanery left me embarrassed and aching, lying flat on my back. But at least I was at rest and looking up.

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I’ve come to understand that for zealots like me, only the dramatic failure of rigid expectations can shatter the Christ complex and make way for real spiritual progress. Apparently, (assuming God exists and responds to prayer) he didn’t want me to do what I thought Jesus would do.


Footnotes:

  1. “What Would Jesus Do? The Rise of a Slogan.” BBC News Magazine. December 8th, 2011. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-16068178
  2. In UPS lingo, “Brown up” meant to put on the brown uniform.

 

Prophets that Profit

Those who insist that we use the Bible as a set of religious and moral imperatives often support their view with passages like 2 Timothy 3:16-17. Let’s take a fresh look at that one for a moment:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

When we read, “…useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…” we tend to understand that to mean that if we want to know about God and live pleasing to him, we need to read and obey the Bible. A more faithful treatment of this text would be to understand it to say that if we want to know about God and live pleasing to him, we need to read and obey the Old Testament¹, but that’s hardly something Paul would say. In his letter to the Galatians he declares that attempting to follow the Torah doesn’t make a person righteous, it cuts him or her off from Christ.

Paul had a high view of Scripture, but he was careful not to allow a literal interpretation of it to become essential to a relationship with God. A key word in 2 Timothy 3:16 is “useful.” Scripture is a tool to assist in the fulfillment of something else. It’s a hammer; not the building. It’s a car; not the destination or even the journey. We need to make this distinction. If we don’t, we’ll begin to equate the performance of written rules with the achieving of God’s will.

Obeying the Bible isn’t the object nor is the Bible itself the subject. As a tool, the Scriptures don’t teach, rebuke, correct or train anyone. The “servant of God” fulfills these functions and the Scriptures help him to be thoroughly equipped for that work. The Scriptures don’t create these “servants of God.” Paul doesn’t intimate that the Scriptures were supposed to provide an ethic for Timothy, but rather they were to equip him for ministry to others. 2 Timothy 3:10-15 reveals the actual ethic that Timothy was supposed to follow:

You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.

Paul’s message and example were Timothy’s ethic. Paul taught Timothy how to live saved by faith in Christ. The Holy Scriptures made Timothy wise to accept that way of salvation; they were not themselves the way of salvation. The Scriptures were a tool to convey Timothy to Christ and Timothy in turn was to use the same Scriptures to point others to Christ as well.

Just like any other tool, the Scriptures cause harm when they are used improperly. Paul had left Timothy in Ephesus in the first place to keep people from doing just that:

The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Some have departed from these and have turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm. We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, 10 for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me. (1 Timothy 1:5-11)

Every tool has as a purpose or goal. According to Paul, the goal of the command is love from a pure heart, a good conscience and a sincere faith. A person who manifests and maintains those inner virtues is authentically righteous.

In Ephesus, there apparently were some for whom that ethic seemed too simple or “easy.” In their dissatisfaction, they went on to bind the more specific injunctions of Scripture on others. This approach defeats itself, though, since an external code can’t make immoral people authentically moral. It can only teach them hypocrisy or rebellion.

While a written moral code can’t make an immoral person moral, it can make a moral person immoral. Let’s suppose, for instance, that a man dearly loves his wife and couldn’t imagine betraying her. Then he encounters the Torah command not to commit adultery. The prohibition suggests to him that this something he’s inclined to do but needs to restrain himself from. Love for his wife becomes replaced by obligation to her and by fear of punishment. Over time, he begins to resent the obligation to his wife and to fantasize about the feeling of freedom that a new romance would bring. At this point, even if he never acts on his elicit desires, he’s worse off than he would have been had he never encountered the seventh commandment.

People forget that the Decalogue wasn’t given to individuals, but to a nation as a part of their charter. Nations need laws to ensure the social order and common good. At a national level, it makes little difference whether the citizenry conforms out of fear of punishment or from an internal moral imperative. Since government can do very little to shape character, it must resort to prohibition and punishment. Laws are necessary on the level of public policy, but toxic when applied to personal spirituality or to interpersonal relationships.

I remember once when I was sorting boxes at UPS across from a guy named Cullen, he described some Hollywood starlet as, “Worth leaving your wife and children for.” His words visibly took me aback. He noticed and said, “What, haven’t you ever heard that saying before?”

I answered that I hadn’t, and I told him that no woman could be that attractive. Then, I explained to him why.

Later that day I relayed to Jamie, my wife, what he’d said and how I’d told him that no woman could be that attractive.

“And why’s that?” she asked.

I answered, “I told him that nobody’s worth going to hell over.”

Wrong answer!

Fear of hell might keep a man at home, but no wife wants a man who’s only staying home out of the fear of hell or because he wants to please God or because he wants to maintain his witness. She wants him there because he loves her – really loves her from his heart.

None of this means that law is bad or that it serves no purpose. Paul said that the law is good when used properly. Law won’t make us love God or others, but it can show us just how much we’ve been forgiven, and Christ taught that a person who’s been forgiven much loves much.

Law can’t give us a good conscience, but it can convict our conscience to the point that we stop rationalizing and justifying long enough to appeal to God for good conscience sprinkled with the blood of Christ.

Paul told the Galatians that the law doesn’t operate on faith since those who attempt to earn merit through it count on their own efforts. Those failed efforts, though, can eventually evoke the desperate plea, “Who will save me from this body of death?” To which the glorious answer returns, “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

Pure love, a good conscience, and sincere faith – to those already in pursuit of those values, the regulations of the Mosaic law could only serve as obstacles. In the light of Christ’s work, the Hebrew Scriptures could no longer be thought of as the essence of God’s covenant with his people. They no longer could be thought of as essential, but they were still “useful.” They still are useful to convict evil people over their wrong actions and thought patterns. They also help believers in Christ to see their Lord better as in a mirror and be conformed to his image like 2 Corinthians 3 affirms.

That Paul would describe the Scriptures as useful rather than essential should hardly come as a surprise. What need would there be for a written law when according to him, all things are lawful? Consider the paradigm shifting message of 1 Corinthians 10:23:

All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not. (NASB)

I’ve cited here from the older, more literal NASB, because the NIV translators were apparently squeamish over the implications of this verse in its unvarnished form. Here’s the NIV rendering for comparison:

“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive.

I can’t possibly know the thoughts that went into the decision to insert, “you say,” into this passage, but it looks like they struggled to comprehend how the venerated Apostle Paul would have declared everything lawful. The preacher who baptized me (the second time) once expounded the meaning of this verse, “All lawful things are lawful.”

Say what now?

The idea that all things are lawful should be good news, but it scares the “Be Jesus” out of us. I’m not trying to be sacrilegious of flippant. “Be Jesus” doesn’t sound like a concrete enough ethic and so we ditch that one for something more declarative. A life led by grace and one led by written moral directives can’t inhabit the same person. To have the latter, we must jettison the former. This sad transaction has become so common that most Christians have no idea they’ve made it. Our faith simply stops working and we don’t even know why. We can once again live by grace when we by faith accept afresh the law free gospel preached by Paul.

To pave the road to recovery, we can take some of the scariness out of 1 Corinthians 10:23 by emphasizing for me in the text. Paul didn’t mean that all actions were universally lawful but that he had undergone a change which made law obsolete for him and for all who had likewise been changed.

Regarding those who insisted that Gentile believers conform to the Genesis 17 circumcision requirement Paul wrote:

May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule—to the Israel of God. (Galatians 6:14-16)

Faithful performance of our side of the new covenant requires adherence to one “rule” – the new creation. Written requirements have been done away in favor of authentic response to the promptings of a new spirit within each redeemed individual. Therefore, Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 1:9 that the law wasn’t made for a righteous person. Those who’ve put their faith in Christ have been made righteous. They aren’t just considered by God to be righteous; they have been made righteous people from within. Christians who don’t sense that inner inclination toward righteous actions usually have had the flow of grace squelched through external moral obligation. Their lusts then become enflamed by the prohibitions and they come to know themselves as animals in need of restraint. Legalists need law because legalism makes them inwardly unrighteous.

My understanding of Paul’s gospel might seem naïve to some who’ve seen the frontiers of the human capacity for evil. I assure you that I’m fully aware of the dangers of preaching a law free gospel. Telling people that everything is lawful for them certainly poses real risks.

Several passages of the New Testament address a problematic sect or sects within the church that taught a libertine aberration of the gospel. A large portion of 2 Peter combats that perversion of gospel liberty and mentions that the ones propagating it cited Paul’s own letters in support of their view:

So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. Therefore, dear friends, since you have been forewarned, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure position. (2 Peter 3:14-17)

By the writing of 2 Peter, Paul’s letters had begun to be received as Scripture. I’m not sure if Peter would have treated them as tantamount to the Torah, but they were “writings” which carried a weight of authority in the early church. As with Paul and 2 Timothy 3:16-17, Peter could not have meant the entire New Testament canon since, some of the twenty-seven books, including 2 Peter, had yet to be completed. The entire collection wouldn’t actually be officially treated as Scripture by the church for another three hundred years.

Christians believe we need to invest final authority in Scripture in a effort to keep from heresy or immorality, but that belief doesn’t align with reality. The false teachers against whom Peter argues used Pauline Scriptures to sow division and reap fleshly indulgence.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the words of Paul. They are water to my soul. I’ve often found myself praising God with hands lifted to heaven while alone in my study just contemplating those precious words. Paul’s letters encourage the heart and feed the soul because they point away from themselves to something worthy of praise. When someone treats the epistles like a moral code or ecclesiastical manual, the living water drains away leaving a broken cistern.

Peter understood the role of Scripture in relation to the living message preached throughout the world. He correctly called Paul’s letters Scripture, but for him that didn’t mean that either he or Paul had authored the new testament. Earlier in 2 Peter, he speaks of another message which his readers had already received and which was enough for their every need:

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. (2 Peter 1:3-4)

For Peter, a knowledge of Jesus was “everything we need” both for this life and the one to come. The inspired writings which predate and postdate this new testament in his shed blood help us to understand and apply that pivotal event, but the story of his passion gives us everything we need.

We’ve misattributed the title, “New Testament,” to mean a collection of twenty-seven inspired texts. None of the men who penned those texts authored the new testament. Jesus did that with flesh and blood, pen and ink. On the night Jesus was betrayed he told his disciples to drink the cup which he called the new covenant in his blood. With the shedding of his blood, he made the new testament (agreement) with his people and by his resurrection it was ratified by God.

When Christians treat the second installment of Scriptures as foundational, we make the very same mistake that Israel did when they failed to recognize the image of Jesus within their text. We become so blind that we easily use Scripture to mandate un-Christ-like behavior (cough…Religious Right…cough). For instance, the gospel has shattered all distinctions between people, but many in the church used Scripture to condone racism and slavery. To this very day 11 AM on Sunday morning remains the most segregated hour of the week. Christ cleansed every substance, but the church led the temperance movement and the war on drugs, both of which were utter failures.

Since Luther nailed his theses to the door of the Wittenberg church, the teaching that Scripture ought to be the final authority for the church in all matters of faith and life has spawned thousands of Christian denominations. Some might blame other factors for all the division, but that’s a hard sell given that Luther himself couldn’t even agree with one other independently minded expositor of the Bible, Ulrich Zwingli. The gospel requires that we accept each other on the basis of faith in the finished work of Christ, but Luther also required agreement on interpretation of the New Testament.

The Scriptures are inspired by God and profitable, but only if we use them correctly. Otherwise, they cause destruction. The message of the Bible isn’t, “Obey the Bible;” it’s, “Follow Jesus.”

But, don’t we need the Gospels, so we can do what Jesus would do?

No.


Footnotes:
1. The Old Testament was the only scripture in existence during Timothy’s upbringing.

My Pragma Ran Over My Dogma

Back when I was one of approximately four people going to heaven, I used to knock on doors to let others know. I didn’t really care that much if they accepted what I had to say; I just knew that in addition to conforming to every “command, example, and necessary inference”¹ in the Bible, I also had to warn others of their impending doom.

There was just one problem with doing all of that – it wasn’t possible.

I was newly married, had a part time job in the eeaarly mornings, was a full-time student, and spent at least two hours every day knocking doors. All of that was in addition to attending church services three plus times per week. After eighteen months at that pace, I played out. I reached a place where even the fear of hell wasn’t enough to get me off the couch.

I still remember when Uriah called. I took the cordless phone (this was the early nineties) out to the carport, rested my elbow on the washing machine and my ear on the receiver.

“Hey,” he said, “I was reading in Colossians and I got to 1:27 that says, ‘the mystery hidden for the ages is Christ in you.’ That’s it! That’s what it’s all about.”

“Man, I just don’t have the energy to think about that right now,” was my reply.

He responded, “This doesn’t take energy; it gives it! There’s something different about me now, I mean, I can’t drive by someone on the side of the road without stopping to help them.”

“That sounds great,” I dismissed. “Can we talk about this later?”

In a few days, my guilt compounded enough to pry me from the couch and into the seat of Uriah’s 1970-something Mercury Monarch. I still remember sitting in front of Applegate Apartments, paralyzed by dread.

“Man, I don’t think I can do this today,” I confided to my compatriot.

“I’m telling you, the answer is, ‘Christ in you,’” he responded.

I didn’t know what that meant, but there, trapped between hell on earth and hell in… hell, I decided to imagine that Jesus Christ himself did, in fact, inhabit my body. My willingness or ability no longer mattered. My limp hand rose to the door latch and dropped to pull it forward. My elbow swung outward and with it the creaky metal door. I half-fell to my feet, a disoriented newborn unsure of which way to place his first steps.

Just then, a long-haired man who looked as though he’d abused his body in nearly every way possible, came out of his apartment and hobbled toward us. He was probably in his early thirties but looked every sweaty swollen inch in his late forties. We accosted him with some sort of “are you saved” opener.

“I went to hell one time,” he blathered. “It was weird. It’s like all your stuff and your money and stuff…they’re not worth anything…”

He obviously wasn’t in any state to receive our rationalist take on conformity to the rules of the New Testament. Previously, that fact would have moved me on to a more coherent subject, but for some reason, I put my hand on his shoulder. I offered to pray with him. I felt a compassion for this lost cause that I hadn’t felt for others.

As we disengaged with that guy and moved around the apartment complex, our message changed from warnings about neglected New Testament requirements to invitations to a relationship with Jesus. The obligation that had been sapping my strength transformed into an invigorating indulgence in Christ himself.

At one point I remember turning to Uriah and saying, “You know what? Suddenly I don’t care if someone wants to worship God with a piano.”²

“Me neither!” he exclaimed.

When divine mandate failed to budge me out of the car, “Christ in you” put me to dancing in the street. Our relationship with God had been based on dogma gleaned from an ancient text – demanding, demoralizing, dead. Now, we’d sampled a hit of resurrection power. Our “pragma” (that which we learned through practical experience) had begun to run over our dogma.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying that we were completely free that day. It was just the beginning of a long journey to the powerful, primitive faith that I now offer to anyone who’ll accept it.

Old dogmas die hard. We didn’t care whether someone wanted to worship with instruments, but we still knew that represented the one true church. We talked less about doctrine and more about Jesus, but then we’d always get back to doctrine. Our minds remained calcified in convictions long set in doctrinal forms, but a living seed had been planted in the dirt between the cracks. It would take time for living experience to displace the hardened legalism that surrounded it.

For now, we channeled our new-found passion into the same old tactics. Once a door opened (literally and figuratively) we set out to delegitimize our victims’ previous religious experience. We’d show them our well-worn proof texts which made abundantly clear that Baptists had been baptized for the wrong reason, and Methodists had been baptized in the wrong way. We argued that if their church had been wrong on something so foundational that it must be the wrong church. They needed to join us in the one true church. After being baptized in the right way and for the right reason, of course.

Not long after having found “Christ in me,” we went door knocking again in the low-income neighborhood around those apartments where it all began. A kindly older lady in a cracker box house invited us in for coffee and condemnation. While we were working on her, a man who looked to be about ten years younger than she came to the door. He was apparently a friend and she invited him in as well. She made introductions all around and then said, “Hey Larry, these guys are here to talk about the Bible. I know you’re into that kind of stuff. Why don’t you talk with them?”

He agreed out of the side of his eyes, and we redirected our barrage at him.

I’ll never forget the serenity on his face as we hammered his claim on salvation.

When we called him to account for his dereliction of duty to the book we regularly violated, Larry would calmly respond, “You guys can say whatever you want. I know that I belong to Jesus.”

We scoffed at his subjective certainty, but we were also shaken by it. He could not measure up to our dogma, but we couldn’t measure up to his faith.

Then there was Shannon, a big guy who lived alone in a messy duplex. As he and I talked, we started comparing notes to discover that our experiences were almost identical. The longer the conversation went on, the more we found ourselves finishing each other’s sentences. We had a kinship that I didn’t have with anyone at the one true church, but Shannon insisted on remaining Catholic. I tried to help him bring his dogma in line, but he just didn’t feel the need.

The rift between us stretched through the middle of my worldview. If my experience had been authentically from God and Shannon had the same experience, then none of the doctrinal stuff mattered to God. But that would invalidate my exclusive claim on God. On the other hand, if my doctrinal formulas were correct, Shannon must have been deluded. If he had been deluded, I had no basis for confidence in my experience either. Shannon and I parted ways, but the tension continued to pull on my paradigm.

Eventually, I would discover that the whole problem had nothing to do with the Bible, but with my assumptions about it. Those assumptions had been given to me as axiomatic truth by the group to which I gave credence. The assumptions and not the Bible were my dogma. But that dogma didn’t hunt (southern reference). I mean it didn’t work.

It didn’t work practically. The New Testament when turned into a law is both too amorphous to master and too rigid to serve. The man who baptized me into the Church of Christ once described the Christian life as trying to hold a ball under water. “You push it down here and it pops up over there.”

So, you’re saying that Christianity consists of spending time and effort on a completely futile and frustrating endeavor? Sign me up!!!

At what point does a person chuck the ball out of the pool and say, “This game is stupid!”?

In addition to failing practically, my dogma also failed predictively. Like Ptolemaic astronomy, it failed to predict reality. If all those assumptions were true, then God couldn’t accept even one person like Larry or Shannon and yet it seemed that he had.

Before you write me off as a crackpot using his own experience to determine objective truth, could we look together at a biblical example of someone whose pragma ran over his dogma?

Peter was praying on the roof and he had this vision of a great sheet filled with all kinds of critters being lowered down out of heaven.

Then a voice said, “Get up Peter. Kill something and eat it.”

Peter’s response typifies the Biblicist approach to religion, “Not so, Lord, for nothing unclean has ever touched my lips.”

To which the Lord, responded, “Don’t call anything impure which God has made clean.”

For some reason, Peter needed to hear things three times  before he got them, so this cycle was repeated two more times.

A cynical synopsis of this narrative from Acts 10 could read as follows: “Christ appears to Peter and commands him to violate Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14.”

As Gentile believers, we might not fully grasp the psychological turmoil into which this vision cast Peter. He whose name means “rock” had never wavered from his resolve to obey the Torah. Now, the Living Word expected him to violate the written word. I don’t know if I can even come up with a modern equivalent from New Testament practice. I suppose it would be like Jesus coming and telling us to replace the wine and bread on the Lord’s Supper table with Monster Energy drinks and churros. Even then, we Gentiles don’t grasp the importance of the food laws to the Jewish identity.

Speaking of Gentiles, Peter, directed by the Spirit, then went to the house of a Roman army officer named Cornelius to tell him the gospel. That, in and of itself, wasn’t scripturally wrong so much as it was a violation of traditional Jewish practice.

While Peter preached about Jesus, Cornelius with all of his friends and family began to speak in other languages and to prophesy by the power of the Holy Spirit. In response, Peter commanded that they all be baptized – that is, that they be visibly accepted into the covenant community.

That posed a problem. Peter allowed the uncircumcised Gentiles into the messianic community even though Genesis 17:9-12 declares that everyone, even foreigners, must be circumcised if they are going to belong to the Abrahamic covenant.

When Peter and his cohort returned to Jerusalem, they were called on the carpet for this action.

The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.” – Acts 11:1-3

In his defense, Peter recounted the whole story of how he had been called to go to Cornelius’ house to preach the gospel and how God’s pragma had run over his dogma:

“As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?” When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.” – Acts 11:15-18

It would seem from God’s dealing with Peter that he never meant for Scripture to hamper our interaction with him in a dynamic relationship. Christ could command Peter to violate the Torah and then the Holy Spirit could circumvent the covenant requirements he himself put into place.

But why would God do this?

Because no written code, even one given by God, could possibly apply to every circumstance or address every person. Scripture serves a purpose, but it’s very nature also makes it provisional.


Footnotes:

  1. In my strain of the Church of Christ, we used these three phrases to establish New Testament authority.
  2. The Church of Christ is known for shunning the use of instruments in their public assemblies. Here’s an  article for more on the belief.

Eating According to the Gospel

photo credit: onsizzle.com @somexican

It’s a new year. This time, I’ll lose that excess weight and keep it off!

Right?

Okay, so I haven’t been focusing on my health this year, but I have been attending to it.

I was on my way to meet a friend for tacos yesterday and thinking about whether to get a salad or some other sad taco substitute. Then it occurred to me: Common people in Mexico don’t have weight problems and they subsist on tortillas. I concluded that eating tacos was a Christlike thing to do.

I know. I know. Convenient, isn’t it?

Hear me out.

I’ve struggled my entire Christian life to apply the gospel to my eating. Like many people, I’ve had a few victories in the battle of the bulge, but even more defeats. I just don’t have the resources personally to reach ultimate victory. I need the power of God to save me and that power is the gospel.

But what does the gospel teach regarding the care of our physical bodies?

Jesus had a body, but he doesn’t offer any impetus for concern over the way our bodies look. In fact, we only have this kind of description of his appearance:

…his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being
and his form marred beyond human likeness… (Isaiah 52:14b)

He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. (Isaiah 53:2b)

We live in a culture so egotistical that vanity has become a virtue. We can cut someone down with our words or ignore suffering around us without so much as a tinge of conscience, but we’ll be mortified by a candid photo that reveals our fat rolls.

Yes, the gospel does speak to our physical appearance. It says, “Stop thinking about it.”

I can hear the justifications now: “I’m not worried about how I look. I just want to be healthy.”

Great. According to the gospel, Christ offered his body to be destroyed for the sake of the world. Talk about bad stewardship!

Someone might argue that Jesus’ circumstance was unique and the rest of us should try to be as healthy as we can. Paul didn’t agree:

For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. (2 Cor. 4:11-12, 16)

I’m not saying that we should all go and seek martyrdom (though it should probably be more common than it is). I’m demonstrating the trouble I’ve had finding motivation from within the gospel to lose weight or eat healthy. Instead, these goals/obsessions run contrary to the message about Christ.

As I discovered on my taco run, though, the gospel does speak to what and how we should eat. Here are some things which the gospel is telling me about food:

  1. Eat cheap, readily available, calorie dense food most of the time. When eating becomes expensive, inconvenient, or complicated it draws resources away from the higher purpose of our life. We take money which we could invest in kingdom causes or give to the poor (who aren’t eating organic) to buy unreasonably expensive items which haven’t even been clinically proven to improve health. We draw our already taxed attention to study diets or plan elaborate menus rather than focusing our mind’s eye on Christ through reading and contemplation. We take time that could be invested in relationship to shop, prep, and cook stuff we don’t even like.
  2. Enjoy good food. Even splurge on occasion. When our kids were smaller, I used to enjoy watching my daughter in the rearview mirror as she watched a movie on the van’s DVD player. Something about seeing her amused face brought me such joy. God is our Father and he loves us way more than I love my daughter. He enjoys our enjoyment. As someone that grew up without a dad, that’s been a hard truth for me to grasp. I always thought of God more as a boss who only valued me when I performed. In more recent years, I’ve come to apply the gospel to my life not only in self-sacrifice but through enjoyment of his good gifts.
  3. Learn to be in want. The gospel teaches that we’re more than our physical bodies. Our bodies sometimes need physical reminders of this fact. Christ told the Pharisees that after he had left the earth his disciples would fast.* Do we? Are we trying to make him look like a liar? When Christ ascended to the heavens, he took our hope with him to keep on deposit. This world in its present form isn’t our home. We long for his return at which time we’ll celebrate in the “Messianic Banquet.”** When we fast, we remind ourselves that we’ve not yet arrived and that our master is Christ, not our stomachs.
  4. Do more than eat when you eat. I’m not talking about eating in front of the television. I’m talking about seeing food as a means to spiritual enrichment. Just as fasting reminds us that the Messianic Banquet is yet to come. Eating with other believers reminds us that it is coming. I’ll be candid on this score: elective dietary restrictions hamper community. When an individual either abstains from table fellowship or forces everyone to abide by their weight loss protocols, that’s a violation of the gospel. Empty yourself and fill up your plate. It’s literally what Jesus did.***
  5. Be thankful, not greedy. The gospel makes us eternal debtors to God. The first instinct of the redeemed should be overflowing gratitude. As redeemed people, we live in a state of grace. In Greek, that’s “charis,” which is also translated, “gift.” Everyone who belongs to Christ moves through a medium of God’s generosity. Thankfulness must be our de facto posture if we are to properly comport ourselves in divine society. Thankfulness and greed can’t cohabit in our hearts. Thankful people assess high value onto what they’ve received. Greedy people discount what they have, in pursuit of what more they want. I’m not overweight because I have a sweet tooth, or because I eat fast food. I’m overweight because I over eat. I over eat because I don’t stop to appreciate my food. We need to do more than give thanks before meals. We need to remain thankful for each bite. Rather than presume on God’s generosity, we need to stop and give thanks when we’ve had enough.

That’s my list of gospel dietary directives. Like the gospel, they’re counter cultural. Like the gospel, they’re paradoxical. That’s as it should be. We mustn’t see our faith as motivation to win at the world’s game. Faith puts us on an entirely different playing field where we’re always more than conquerors.

This new year, I resolve not to worry about losing weight or even getting healthy. I resolve to glorify God in everything including the way I eat.

*Mark 2:20
**Isaiah 25:6-8
***Matthew 11:19

Pessoptimism

I’m a bit of a critic. At times I’ve felt guilty for failing to be more positive. After reading Oman this morning, I feel a little less so.

A half and half morality always means a hopeless view of humanity; whereas a view of man as involved in a widely organised and radical corruption, always means a high estimate of his possibilities and a universal sense of the moral significance of life. –Grace and Personality

The gospel teaches that we live in a world infested with evil which permeates the hearts of every person. We were made to reflect the very glory of God, but have chosen instead to make our own destiny to our own destruction. These truths hardly call us to “accentuate the positive.”

That last phrase reminds me of a story which Bani, my friend from Albania, told me about living under the totalitarian regime of Enver Hoxha. Bani said that under communism the least mention of a fault in their society could get a person incarcerated. He spoke of a man who went to the store for potatoes to discover that they had run out. Later, that man met a friend for coffee and mentioned that there had been no potatoes at the store. An informant at the next table reported the man and he was thrown into prison. Apparently, the correct response to the question, “Why didn’t you get potatoes?” was, “I changed my mind.”

There is an optimism which hides corruption and a pessimism which reveals glory.

Most pessimistic of all is the teaching of Jesus. The highest morality turns out to be mere respectability, the purest religion mere formalism, and the insincerity is such that the Prince of this world is the Father of Lies. Nowhere, nevertheless, is the Kingdom so real or so near.

Jesus came to convict the world of sin, righteousness, and a judgement to come. He passed that call on to us (John 16:1-11).

Body Life Part 1 – United

When Jesus set out to make disciples, he gathered committed people around him and did life with them. Yes, he taught the multitudes, but it doesn’t seem that those people became champions of the kingdom after his death. Perhaps many of them were actually among the throngs demanding that Pilate crucify him. His teaching seems to have been an invitation to join the small group of committed people who shared life with him.

After his death and resurrection, he left his disciples with each other and the Holy Spirit.

He didn’t leave them a book or even a DVD series on how to live in the kingdom. They had no building, no programs, and no parachurch ministries – for crying out loud, they didn’t even have a place to drop their kids!

Those things belong to institutions, but Christ had made them his body. Bodies grow as life flows through to all of their members. Bodies perform work as each member receives direction from the head.

All of these functions are natural. They just happen in healthy bodies.

In Ephesians 4:1-16, Paul describes the healthy function of Christ’s body.

The Healthy Body of Christ Sticks Together

I know a guy who cut off the end of his middle finger with a circular saw. He took it to the emergency room, but they didn’t have a vascular surgeon on staff and the only one in the area wouldn’t be back in town for two days. So, they literally taped it back on! I’ve gotta tell you, I didn’t have much hope that he’d be able to keep the finger when I saw it. Two days later, the blackish purple appendage got reattached. It took, and he still has the finger. Unfortunately, he can’t bend it, so he inadvertently offends people once in a while.

Apart from the body, my friend’s finger was dying. His body also suffered the loss of that finger’s full function. That’s what happens when just one member of Christ’s body becomes separated from the rest. The body of Christ can suffer far greater damage when disgruntled factions defect at once. Can you imagine the trauma to a physical body if one third of its mass was suddenly cut away?

We didn’t make our bodies, but we know we need to keep them in tact.

According to the apostle Paul, it’s the same way with the body of Christ.

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1-6)

We don’t create the body of Christ. We don’t even join the body. We’re members of the body because we share one Spirit. The Spirit unifies all those whom he indwells into one. From the moment we’re born again, we become united to every other regenerated person. We are one body because we’ve received life from Christ.

We can’t produce the unity of the Spirit, but we can undermine it. In the same way that abuse or neglect of the physical body will jeopardize it’s health, so we need to “Make every effort to keep (or maintain) the unity of the Spirit.” We keep what we’ve been given by considering one another and tolerating each other. Who wouldn’t want to be in a community where everyone worked to be pleasant company and to keep loving each other even when they weren’t so pleasant?  In this way, we will begin to fulfill our calling.

What calling is that, you ask?

This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.

His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms,  according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Ephesians 3:6,10-11)

God means to hold up the church before all heavenly beings as an expression of his ability to bring all kinds of people together into one new humanity. It our job to get in step with this plan.

In an age of megachurch, it might seem strange to advocate for unity among believers. Someone might say, “Hey, we’ve got 20,000 people coming to this campus every Sunday. How much more unified can you get?”

A lot.

Here’s the problem. People go to megachurch to receive spiritual goods and services for themselves. If they don’t receive the type or quality of spiritual goods and services they’re looking for, they just go to another church that promises better products to meet their demands. Their relationship with the church isn’t with the other members but with the institution, and it’s a tenuous, codependent relationship.

It’s easy to go to a place where I can drop off my kids to be entertained, get a free cup of coffee, listen to a concert in a padded seat, and get an inspirational message all while being told that I’m following Jesus. And best of all, since it’s such a large group, I can sit or stand all alone in a crowd. (Unless that junior pastor makes everyone turn to shake hands.)

I’m not against worshiping through song, or hearing a message from the Bible. I’m just saying that those things can’t possibly be what Paul was talking about in Ephesians 4 because they don’t require us to “Make every effort.” If we’re going to put for effort into church, shouldn’t it be to build loyal, loving relationships with other believers who are different from us in every other way?

If the life of Christ within us isn’t enough to knit us together across every other cultural divide, then God has failed. He never fails, so we need to make every effort to cross the seat back partitions between us and share life. We need to eat together, travel together, work together, play together. That’s church. Nothing else will grow us into the likeness of Christ.

Strange Fire

The religious group that I came up in was built on the notion that God gave the New Testament to humanity as a blueprint for the way he wanted them to live and worship him. We believed that in the letters of Paul God had prescribed exactly how he wanted collective worship to be performed and that any deviation from that prescription would incur divine judgment.

For those of you who’ve always wondered, that’s why Churches of Christ “don’t have music” – the New Testament prescribes singing and so “playing” is forbidden.

To illustrate the gravity of any sort of innovation, we’d point to the tragic story of Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10:1-3. These two sons of Aaron offered “strange fire” before God which he had not authorized. In response to their sacrilege, fire flared up from the presence of the LORD and killed them. God required that anyone who came near him treat him as holy.

God hasn’t changed. We mustn’t despise him in any way. Worship has changed, though. When asked by the Samaritan woman about the proper location to worship God, Jesus divulged a secret:

Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.  God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth. (John 4:23-24)

The redemptive work of Christ would transition worship from physical rituals and sacrifices to spiritual practices and offerings (Spirit). He would reveal the reality (truth) represented by the temple and priesthood which had been shadows cast on a wall awaiting the full light of Christ’s presence.

The recipients of the letter to the Hebrews faced exclusion from the temple service in retribution for their “blasphemous” proclamation that Jesus was the Messiah. The author of that letter wrote to assure them that they would suffer no loss whatsoever since worship under the superior priesthood of Christ could never be withheld from anyone. Why not? Because we worship “outside the camp” in the wilds of our daily lives and not within sacred spaces or under the auspices of any human authority. Consider the glory of vulgar worship that pleases God:

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.”

 Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.  Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.

Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.  Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said,

“Never will I leave you;
    never will I forsake you.”

 So we say with confidence,

“The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.
    What can mere mortals do to me?”

 Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.  Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by eating ceremonial foods, which is of no benefit to those who do so. We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat.

The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood.  Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.

Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. (Hebrews 12:28-13:16 emphasis mine NAW)

This section is bookended with the idea of pleasing worship to God. Everything in the middle describes that pleasing worship. God has not changed since the days of Nadab and Abihu. He’s a consuming fire today just like he was then. On the day Christ fulfilled our obligations to God, the curtain of the temple ripped from top to bottom. The divine presence has been released, imposing holiness on every aspect of human existence.

Now, we worship when we mow our brother’s yard, take our sister a meal, or pray for a brother in prison. We encounter the transcendent and pure when we have sex with our spouse. We pay homage to God when we follow our leaders into the abandonment of material gain and goods because of faith in his provision. Consuming a ceremonial meal does nothing for our hearts because grace keeps us ever partaking and always filled. Instead of making an animal pay for our devotion to God, we offer the more costly gifts of unashamed confession of his name and sacrificial service and giving.

In light of that description of worship, the rituals and ceremonies which the church offers smell like strange fire.

We don’t gather weekly to worship. The early church didn’t model their meetings on the worship at the temple but on the gatherings at synagogue. God never called upon Israel to gather every Sabbath to worship him. He gave no direction whatsoever regarding the procedure or structure of synagogue service. Jews which had been scattered after the Babylonian captivity in 586 BCE, spontaneously began coming together (the literal meaning of the word “synagogue”) for mutual encouragement and learning.

Jesus never told his people when, how, or why to meet. He made them a called out people of the resurrection and disbursed them among a hostile world. Having risen out of Judaism, they knew that meeting once a week for mutual encouragement and learning was critical to the maintenance of their distinct identity and spiritual vigor. In structure and procedure, early church gatherings were almost identical to synagogue service.

Here’s the kicker, just as synagogue grew out of necessity and was shaped by human thinking, so church gatherings, governance, and their liturgy have no connection with divine mandate. God gave the gift of wisdom to Paul and the other apostles who ministered to their generation, but they appointed elders in every church because every synagogue was presided over by elders, not because Jesus told them that churches should be elder led. Paul prohibited women from ministering in the gatherings of some of the churches, but women couldn’t even attend synagogue.

If we’re going to regard Paul, then we’ll need to respect his declaration that we no longer serve God under a covenant based on written rules but one which expresses God’s purposes in Christ. When Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper, he didn’t specify how often they were to eat it. He only required that as often as they did partake that they remember him. Communion is for us. Through that remembrance, we come back to the wellspring of our faith. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul spoke of divine discipline carried out on those who ate unworthily, but the sacrilegious actions had nothing to do with mishandling emblems; it consisted of mistreating the people of God.

We meet to encourage one another – that is the spirit of Paul’s letters. When we attempt to strain out every doctrinal gnat of church procedure, we always end up swallowing the camel of dead legalism.

Because we meet for mutual encouragement, we need to stop asking, “What did the early church do?” or even, “What does the Bible say about how we should meet?” and start asking, “What will encourage everyone to go out into the world and really worship?”

 

 

 

Stand Up for Jesus?

I’m in an online group that’s reading chronologically through the Bible in a year. In today’s reading from 1 Samuel, Israel having suffered a defeat at the hands of their nemesis, the Philistines, brings in the big guns by sending for the ark of God to go before them into battle.

Rather than giving them the edge they hoped for, the ark itself got taken by the Philistines as spoils of war. To add insult to injury, they place it in the temple of Dagon, their god.

The next morning, the Philistines find Dagon face down in front of the ark. The next day, the same thing except this time Dagon’s and head were broken off. Dagon isn’t the only one to suffer from the presence of the ark. We’re told that the Lord’s hand was heavy on Philistines until they sent it back to Israel.

I’m also reading another book called Grace and Personality by John Oman. In discussing the order of the first three requests of the the Lord’s Prayer (God’s name to be hallowed, his kingdom to come, and for his will to be done), he has this to say,

How often is that order reversed! Let us do Thy will, that Thy Kingdom may be gradually brought in, and, in the end, every heart be inspired by the true reverence! The result is striving and crying, with the perpetual menace of defeat and the increasing shadow of despair. But the servant of the Lord should not strive, nor be, after that fashion, morally strenuous. An essentially apocalyptic hope, a dependence, not on man who runs, but on God who gives the victory, dominates this prayer as it does all our Lord’s teaching; and the ground of it lies in beginning with our relation to God, and, only through it, passing to man’s achievement. The order is first reverence, then surrender, then obedience, yet always one and indivisible, even when successive in their manifestation.

We don’t need to defend God. We need to worship him and surrender personally to his will. Efforts to “defend family values” undermine the faith of the gospel. Conceptually, they represent a god no more powerful than the one for whom the jihadis riot.

Signs and New Wine

Does it matter what words or names we use to describe things? I would contend that it does. Word meaning is a function of the way society uses them. While we might continue to want to use a word or phrase in a particular way, we don’t get to determine their meaning. Society does that for us and it is our responsibility to conform our usage accordingly if we want to truly communicate. In some cases words or phrases become soiled by the usage of others and we will have to discontinue their use if we want the concepts we’re espousing to remain palatable to our hearers. Words are containers for ideas. To help others understand this concept, I’ve concocted the following parable. I hope you enjoy the story and get the message.

Glass-wine-antique-decanter-with-handle-glassReginald was the steward over The Great House.  His father had been the steward before him and his grandfather before his father.  The Lord of the house was not only wealthy and wise, but generous as well. Every week, he would invite all of his servants and those from the surrounding villages to a great feast. As chief servant over The Great House, Reginald carried the honor of serving the wine.  Promptly at 6 o’clock Reginald would go to the kitchen and fetch the decanter from the cupboard and take it down to the family vintage to fill it up.  As he descended the stairs, Reginald would walk with almost a processional gate.  There was something sacred about this ritual and about the decanter.  For three generations his family had gone through this same routine carrying the same vessel.  As Reginald entered the great dining hall with the decanter, he almost felt as noble as the host of the great feast.  That beautiful container it seemed held more than wine.  It held his rich heritage as a servant to the Lord of the house.

One week, just before dinner, a great commotion broke out in the kitchen.  A new cook had taken on himself to include his own ingredients to the standard soup served before the main course.  The chef was livid.  He began to hurl anything he could get his hands on at the new cook.  Hearing the commotion, Reginald shot into the kitchen just in time to see the chef fling the great decanter at the cook.  The cook ducked and the decanter began its decent. Time seemed to stop as Reginald dove for it. He tipped its fat belly just enough to divert its path from the floor to the wall averting total destruction.  The stopper flew off and shattered and the handle broke – along with Reginald’s heart.  He stood up holding the remainder of the decanter looking down at it.  His body quivered partially out of grief and partially from rage.  Then he looked slowly up at the chef.  Something that sounded partly like a growl and partly like a hiss gushed through Reginald’s bottom lip, “You fool!  A man such as you does not deserve to prepare meals for our Lord.  From now on you will wash dishes while this new cook will take your place as chef starting now!”The chef’s face blushed, then blanched and then darkened. He said nothing but turned and skulked out of the room. The new cook gingerly slid over to the chef’s station and continued final preparations for the great feast.

Reginald, still quivering, cradled the decanter close to his chest as he ambled down the steep stairs to the family vintage. Though, there were other ornate vessels in the household, Reginald entertained no alternative to the sacred decanter. The damage it had sustained did not diminish its worth for him and so just like the week before, he filled it with the best wine the Lord of the house possessed and began his ascent up the stairs. As he trudged upward, his aching heart pulled his shoulders together and his chin downward. The battered decanter would not allow itself to be held forth but now required a closer grip with one hand around the neck and another supporting the bottom. Reginald’s thoughts wandered to his fore-bearers and their illustrious, lifelong careers. Shame and regret joined the grief and anger loitering in his heart. One event. One moment. Decades of glory were tarnished in an instant. How could this be?

As Reginald poured the wine, his pain began to subside. The guests marveled and raved over the exquisite vintage. Reginald comforted himself knowing that the real glory of the decanter had remained through the violence it had suffered. Reginald’s thoughts turned from the legacy left him by his father and grandfather to his own descendants. His furrowed brow smoothed and the corners of his mouth lifted as he thought of how they would tell the story of the chef’s tantrum and how the decanter had survived his assault. As the lamps in the great house were being extinguished and the watchman took his seat, Reginald had almost fully recovered from the trauma he had suffered. That night, his sleep was deep and his dreams were sweet.

The chef, however, could not sleep. The anger which had flared in him toward the new cook and his culinary presumption had dampened into a seething heat in his bones. That flame burned ever hotter as it fed on the memory of how he’d been disregarded, then violated and finally shamed. Over that steady, relentless heat the chef cooked up his revenge to be served quite cold the following week.

Coming into the kitchen late that night while all satisfied souls slept, the chef lit the main lantern and surveyed the filth which the new cook had left for him to relish. And relish it he did. With a giddy spring in his step he gathered two buckets and flew down to the well. He began to whistle a tune as he heated the water and gathered the greasy pots, the bloody knives and the soiled serving wear. When the water was sufficiently warmed, he filled the basin and with great flourish he scrubbed each item to spotless perfection, singing every tavern tune he could recall as he did. When the job was done, the chef took a step back to look at his glorious creation – not the stack of spotless dishes but the basin filled with grimy cess. Never one to let something go to waste, the chef put his concoction to good use. He took the old decanter from its housing and dropped it into the mottled, viscous ooze. Due to its specialized shape it floated for several minutes and then slowly sunk under the surface as the water filled its sacred chamber. At the sight, the chef’s mirth exploded into outright hysteria as a deep laughter erupted from his throat.

By morning, the chef had contained himself and fled the scene leaving only the basin filled with sludge and Reginald’s decanter filled with sludge. The angst and catharsis of the previous day had left Reginald depleted enough to make his normal waking time untenable. The maids could not afford such luxury and so they were the first to find the basin of dirty water.  Two of them lifted the basin and sloshed it out into the yard to dump it. As they did, the decanter tumbled out onto the lawn. It’s lifeless form lay there spilling its contents onto the surrounding lawn. The maids shrieked as if they’d seen a dead body.

The chef, who’d been waiting in his chambers to hear Reginald’s reaction came running to their side. “What has happened?” he asked.

“Our steward’s decanter!” They exclaimed. “Someone has soiled it with all of the filth from last night. Our Lord would never allow a polluted vessel like this to hold his precious wine. What will Reginald say? What will he do? What will happen to him? Surely, this will destroy him!”

“Yes, what will happen to him, indeed?” The chef thought to himself. He had hoped that he would have already known the answer to that question by this time in the morning but perhaps, this series of events might afford an opportunity to inflict such pain on Reginald that he might never recover. After all, his family had served as chief steward for far too long. Perhaps it would be time for a new dynasty in The Great House.

“Ladies,” the chef replied. “Why should your small minds attempt to entertain such large questions? The decanter, as you say, cannot be used for the master’s purposes but that does not mean it has no use whatsoever. I will put it to work on other needful duties in this house. As for Reginald, leave him to me.” And with that, he scooped up the pitiful container, tucked it into his overcoat and walked away.

The maids, however, failed to follow the chef’s advice and concerned themselves a great deal over the decanter. They told every servant in the house about what they had discovered that morning until the entire house was abuzz with the questions they had originally posed. But since no one wanted to bring the news to Reginald and since the chef had offered to handle it, Reginald remained oblivious.

By afternoon, the household servants could no longer stand the suspense over how Reginald would react, so they went to the chef to ask for an update.

“Yes, I told him all about it.” the chef lied. “You know, he took it surprisingly well. ‘No way to unring a bell’ or something like that was his response.  He told me that I could use the old thing for whatever best served the household. When he said that, I figured the best thing to do with it considering its shape would be to use it as a urinal on cold mornings when trips to the outhouse are just downright painful. So, I’m going to keep it here in the broom closet should any of you have a need.”

The servants were shocked. They struggled to believe that such a story could be true. Yet, they also knew that the decanter could no longer fulfill its time-honored purpose so they accepted the chef’s story. After a few days, they also accepted his suggestion. It was very cold outside and the wide mouth and bottom of the decanter did lend themselves splendidly to the other half of humanity’s liquid equation. By the time the week had passed, the vessel had been filled and emptied several times. On the eve of the great feast, the chef took the old decanter out of the broom closet, emptied it, and placed it back into its former place of honor.

Reginald, who continued to be kept in the dark shrouded over him by servants’ fear and by the subterfuge of the chef, went in high spirits to fetch and fill the vessel. The meal had begun with all servants attending the guests as he bounded out of the cellar in great anticipation of serving the glorious wine from this holy pitcher as durable as his family’s legacy. With flourish, Reginald burst into the great hall and held his decanter high. The guests all cheered at the sight of the symbol of the Lord’s generosity. Some of the household servants cringed, others stood with their mouths agape. One of the maids fainted and the butler threw up into a vase in the corner of the room. At this reaction, the guests began nervously to look around and then toward Reginald who stood dumbfounded. The room fell silent until one of the maids shouted, “Sir, please don’t serve the wine! That has been our chamber pot this entire week!”

The words rang in Reginald’s ears, boring their way into his resistant consciousness until their full weight landed with a dull thud on his soul. Reginald became light headed and darkness began to close in toward the center of his vision. With his last shred of awareness, Reginald staggered from the room into the kitchen where he found a stool on which to sit, his head between his legs. While he collect himself, he could hear the guests shuffling out of the room. They had somehow lost their appetites and were each going to their own homes. Under the dull roar, Reginald’s mind raced. How could he recover from this last blow?

Thankfully the Lord of the house had been away this evening. And why had he been away? Because he trusted Reginald to serve his great feast. He trusted Reginald because Reginald had always been perfectly faithful as had his father and his grandfather before him. Reginald thought, “And now it falls to me to decide how to proceed. To lose this great vessel would not only be a loss to me and my family but to the legacy and lore of The Great House.  I will not allow it to be discarded. Everyone knows how careful and faithful I have always been. I will wash the vessel three times and fill it with the best smelling oils for the next several days. Then I will wash it again. It will be ready to resume its regular duties by next week.” And so, after firing the chef, that is just what Reginald did.

The next week, the Lord returned to The Great House and took his place at the head of the table in the great hall where his guests were gathered. As he looked across the enormous table, he noticed a great many empty seats. Many of those whom the Lord had become accustomed to dining with were absent. Of those who had come, most were the lazy and disreputable rabble who were always welcome but who came not for the Lord’s company but for yet another handout. Though the number of guests was diminished, the Lord’s hospitality was not. “You are all most welcome here, dear friends, because whatever our state in life, we are one and so we should be together!”

The feast proceeded like always with salad followed by soup followed by appetizers and then the main course. As the main course landed steaming in the middle of the table, Reginald appeared in the doorway with his precious decanter of wine. The shocked guests, one by one stood up and excused themselves, bowing to the Lord of the house. As they left, many grabbed handfuls of food to stuff in pockets or purses. In his surprise, the Lord scanned the room. Every servant stood trembling (except for the butler who was throwing up into the same vase) and staring at Reginald who stood straight and proud holding forth the decanter. The Lord of the house followed the gaze of his servants to Reginald who was staring past him off into the distance. As soon as the Lord’s face was directed fully toward him, Reginald cleared his throat and offered, “Would you care for some wine, sir?”