All posts in Theology

Our Public Savior

On Sunday morning, during the introduction to a sermon series on the Sermon on the Mount, I told the congregation that I would be pushing their buttons throughout the series, mostly because the text of the Sermon that Jesus preaches in Matthew 5-7 is a provocative rule of life–a rule that requires us to embody our faith in Jesus rather than merely stating or theologizing it.

To that end, today’s reflection goes at what I believe is one of the most unhelpful concepts that has crept into Christianity and deflected attention away from the way of discipleship–the idea of Jesus as “my personal savior.”

If you were to ask most Christians, particularly those from more evangelical traditions, what the “gospel” is, you would mostly likely here something along the lines that it involves “asking Jesus into your heart” as your “personal savior” whose salvation makes it possible for you to go to heaven when you die. The good news in this sense is good news for the individual.

This theological construct reminds me of something N.T. Wright talks about in his wonderful book After You Believe, where he compares this theology with a pre-Copernican view of the universe. Before Copernicus, you might recall, most people believed that earth was the center of the solar system, and that the sun revolved around the earth for the earth’s purposes. That would seem to make sense if you didn’t know the truth about astronomy and the laws of the universe.

Humans have always been prone to see themselves at the center of things, thus it makes sense that we would expect God, as well as the universe he created, to revolve around our purposes, our needs, and our desires. Wash that through the Western worldview of consumerism and Platonic dualism and you get a gospel that is custom made for the individual. I invite Jesus into my life, and when I do I get points in the ultimate rewards program. All I have to do is ask. Nothing else is required.

As we look at the Sermon on the Mount, however, and as we look at Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God, it becomes clear that the opposite is true. Jesus doesn’t revolve around us and our purposes and our personal salvation alone, instead he calls us to revolve around his purpose–establishing the kingdom–the reign and rule of God “on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus invites his disciples to follow him on his mission, rather than simply waiting for an invitation into their lives. Jesus teaches them in private, but then takes them public. Jesus isn’t leading them off to heaven, but leading them to a cross–the place at which God’s love for the whole world is played out on a very public stage. Jesus does not rise from the dead as a disembodied spirit, showing the disciples the way to a spiritual heaven, but rises from the dead in the body, showing them the reality of death defeated, and the promise of resurrection life for his people–renewed people in a renewed world where heaven and earth are truly one. The kingdom of heaven isn’t far away, says Jesus, but is “within you,” and compels you to give your allegiance the king who is bringing in his kingdom.

The biblical reality of the gospel is that Jesus is inviting us to join him in a very public project called the kingdom of God. That’s a project that is less oriented toward reward than sacrifice, less about “me” and more about “we,” less about praying the right prayer than it is working for what we pray for.

“Many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord,'” says Jesus, but unless we have reflected his public mission, unless we have obeyed his call for compassion, justice, and peacemaking in the world, then he won’t recognize us as his own (Matthew 7:21-23; 25:31-46).

What is needed in Christianity today is nothing less than a Copernican shift in the center of our theological universe. Rather than asking Jesus into our hearts, inviting him to revolve around us and our needs and purposes, we need to accept Jesus’ invitation to follow him as disciples and agents of the kingdom. To be a disciple means that our purposes, hopes and dreams revolve around Jesus and his mission, not the other way around.

The Sermon on the Mount gives us a comprehensive view of what that kind of worldview looks like in practice. John Wesley said that the Sermon on the Mount is what shows us the true “way to heaven…the royal way which leads to the kingdom; and the only true way.” Here’s a new way of defining heaven–heaven as a way of life on earth. That is the way of the kingdom. E. Stanley Jones puts it this way: [Jesus] came, therefore, not to get men into heaven, but to get heaven into men; not to get men out of hell, but to get hell out of men.”

This is the way of the kingdom, and Jesus calls us to follow.

The Sermon on the Mount as the Charter of Human Freedom

As we dive into this sermon series on The Sermon on the Mount, one of the temptations we might face is seeing the teaching of Jesus as simply another set of rules to follow–a set that is based on the "old" rules in the law of Moses, but simply adds on more conditions. 

Truth is, we're good at rules–good at making them, good at finding the loopholes in them. But when any group of people devolves into dependence upon rules to manage their relationships with each other–pointing always to the rule book instead of the relationship–then it's a sign that the group is spiraling downward. If you have to whip out a Book of Discipline at every church meeting, for example, you're probably in trouble. 

What Jesus is offering here, however, isn't simply a rule book. Instead, it is the way to freedom. E. Stanley Jones, the great Methodist missionary to India in the early decades of the 20th century, called the Sermon on the Mount "the original charter of human freedom." Says Jones: 

"We mistake [the Sermon] entirely if we look on it as the chart of the Christian's duty, rather it is the chart of the Christian's liberty–his liberty to go beyond, to do the thing that love impels and not merely the thing that duty impels. The fact is that this is not a law at all, but a lyre which we strike with the fingers of love in glad devotion. This glad…piety is the expression of a love from within and not the compression of a dull law from without."

"Put the man who spoke these words into the background and look only at the sayings and they become as lofty as Himalayan peaks–and as impossible. But put the warm touch of his reinvigorating fellowship into it, and anything–everything is possible, for these things were not to be worked out on the unit principle, but on the cooperative plan." 

"…Jesus was the great simplification of God. He is also the simplification of duty. 'Love and do what you like,' he says in essence. And the things you will like will be just these 'impossible' things which he lays down here in the Sermon" (The Christ of the Mount,  p. 34). 

Indeed, Jesus boils all this down in Matthew 22:34-39 when he claims the greatest commandment as loving God, and loving neighbor as we love ourselves. That love is not a mushy sentimentality or a means of ignoring brokenness, but rather a sacrificial love that will always go the extra mile. If we truly love God, we are able to love others and ourselves. We are free to be the people God created us to be. 

In Case of Rapture, Can I Have Your Car?

With all the talk about tomorrow being Judgment Day, I'm reminded of my favorite juxtaposition of bumper stickers I saw awhile back. The first one I saw said, "In case of rapture, this car will be unmanned." The second one, however, was the better one: "In case of rapture, can I have your car?"

I've spoken and written extensively on how bad eschatology leads to all kinds of distortions of Christian faith. Speculating continuously about "end time" events ranks right up there, mostly because it turns the focus away from what Jesus said was really the most important thing: the kingdom God that transforms the whole creation and us. 

I'm trying to have a day off and watch a ball game (I mean, what would you do if you knew the world was ending in 24 hours?), so I'll defer to one of my academic and theological mentors to do the heavy exegetical lifting. As for the so-called "rapture," N.T. Wright discusses how a misreading of Paul has led to all sorts of bad theology and a misdirected Christian worldview. Check out his essay here

It's also interesting that in this same ostensibly apocalyptic week, Stephen Hawking came out with the statement that heaven is a "fairy tale." This got a lot of Christians foaming at the mouth as well but, again, it's an exercise in missing the point. Historically and biblically, Christians have believed in resurrection from the dead and not a permanently disembodied existence in a faraway heaven (though many still subscribe to the latter). The creation still matters, even at the end. Wright writes rightly about that as well. You can check out that essay here. (Note: I reference Wright twice here because he is the one New Testament scholar who seems to address these issues when they pop up and does so biblically, theologically and rationally!). 

I thought about not preparing a sermon this week since, well, you know… But Jesus keeps prompting me to prepare it anyway. Yes, I do believe Jesus will return one day, but it won't be according to our timetable, and it probably won't look anything like we expect. It didn't the first time, either. 

On the day before the "end," I'm still pretty confident that God will be doing what he has been doing from the beginning–making all things new. Better that we keep working with him until he says otherwise!

For more, check out my colleague and ministry teammate Joe Iovino's blog. Joe always has a way of looking at things from an interesting angle. 

Good Earth Friday

EarthCross In one of the more interesting juxtapositions of dates, today is celebrated as "Earth Day" throughout the world, while much of the world also celebrates "Good Friday." What's most interesting to me about this is the fact that many of my Christian brethren are using today to be indignant about the culture's fascination with the earth when today is supposed to be a day of solemn reflection on the death of Jesus. The "creation vs. Creator" argument is lighting up the social networks today. 

I have a different take on this, however. Theologically speaking, I think it's absolutely appropriate that these two "holidays" should fall on the same day because they're really biblically symbiotic. Today, in effect, the biblical story comes to its climax in a way that should cause everyone to celebrate. Here's what I mean…

The Bible begins with the story of Creation in Genesis 1, which at every stage God calls "good." From the very beginning, we learn that the material world–the environment, plants, animals, and everything else–is blessed by God as God's own good creation. Humans, the last finishing touch on God's creation, are called "very good." They are created in God's own image, created with bodies and created to live in and have dominion over God's good creation. Creation and humanity depend on each other, and both depend on God. 

Sometimes I think that Christians forget that Genesis 1 and 2 came before chapter 3–the point at which God's good creation gets abused by human sinfulness. The humans who are created in the image of God sloughed off that image in favor of becoming something less than human, and they began to see creation not as something to be stewarded, but exploited. Sin not only broke humanity's relationship with God, it also broke God's good creation. When we became less than the image of God we were intended to be, the creation suffered right along with us. Because we and the earth are so intimately tied together as God's creation, what affects the one affects the other. Paul expresses this in Romans 8:19-24–

"For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subject to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies." 

To put it another way, our redemption as humanity is tied to the redemption of the whole creation. The creation is waiting for us to get our act together, and take on the vocation we were created to have from the beginning as people created in God's own image. 

Of course, that's not something we've ever been able to do on our own. The brokenness of sin and the powerful consequence of death prevent us from being all we were created to be. In order for the whole creation to be redeemed, we need to be redeemed first. We are, after all, the ones who broke it and continue to do so. 

That's where Good Friday comes in. The New Testament writers make their point pretty clearly–that in Jesus Christ God came into the world in person–in a body, into the midst of his creation–to redeem the whole project. John says, famously, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have everlasting life. Indeed, God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him" (John 3:16-17). 

This is the project that Jesus sets out to accomplish–a project that comes to its climax on a hill outside Jerusalem. Jesus is nailed to a cross, suffering evil at the hands of broken humanity. He dies in the most shameful of ways as a testament to the violence and grief of death that comes as the result of human frailty and brokenness. He dies at the hands of the very people he is trying to save, and forgives them while they kill him. He dies because he loves them, and you, and me, and the good world he created. This, he understands, is the only way to begin making it all good again. 

That's why we call today Good Friday, and that's why Earth Day is perfect for today as well. God so loved the world…we should, too. 

The Power to Begin – Justifying Grace

John-wesley-150x150  When I was a teenager, I remember going to several youth
camps and conferences where we heard testimonies of people who had been
converted to Christianity out of some pretty amazing life experiences. We heard
stories of people who were strung out on drugs or who were successful athletes
or entertainers who reached the top and realized they didn’t have it all. We
heard from gang leaders who had changed, people who had survived abuse, people
with some horrible disease…on and on. These were amazing stories of
transformation, but while the goal was to teach us about how God can transform
people, what it made me think about more often was the fact that I didn’t have
a really good story to tell about my conversion!

I grew up in the church, went to Sunday School and youth
group, was always the obedient and dutiful child. I went on mission trips. Even
in college, I didn’t drink, didn’t enjoy parties that much, didn’t do much of
anything that is typical of your average student. I believed it was “hip to be
square.” I mean, I was the designated driver at my own bachelor party…that
should tell you everything you need to know.

 I remember being asked to give my “testimony” at camp and
there simply wasn’t that interesting a story to tell, at least to my way of
thinking. I was always taught that salvation was a dynamic event, a moment in
time, a flash of revelation—like Paul getting knocked off his feet by a
blinding light, or like that scene in Monty Python when God rips back the
clouds and tells King Arthur what to do. Well, I hadn’t really had that. I had
just kind of always “been there” with God. Sure, I had asked Jesus into my
heart when I was in second grade, but that didn’t seem like anything unusual…nothing
really changed. It always seemed like it would have been better to have had a
dramatic conversion…like I was missing something.

When I became a Methodist, however, I began to realize that
salvation or conversion isn’t so much about the story of our past as it is the
reality of our present. If we believe in prevenient grace—the grace that goes
before our knowledge and love of God—we begin to realize that no matter whether
our story is dramatic or mundane, God is the one who has moved toward us first.
Any story about our conversion begins with God, not with us, and the reality of
our relationship with God is that it’s not merely historical—it’s bound up in
the present.

 Last week we began talking about the foundational theology
of John Wesley and the Methodists—which we can sum up in one word: grace. We
talked about how we were created in the image of God, to reflect God’s glory,
and that our vocation has always been to be in relationship with God and God’s
creation. We talked about how the first humans were created to be “very good,”
but that the humans wanted more than to be in God’s image—they exercised their
choice to disobey God in order to try and become gods themselves in effect.
They chose for themselves—a choice the Bible calls “sin.” Sin separated them
from their intimate relationship with God and set them and their descendants on
a journey far from God. Sin is our legacy, it is in our spiritual DNA, and we
are all carriers of that original disease—even if we somehow still believe
we’re pretty good.

 But God did not and has not given up on us. God continues to
seek a relationship with us, to transform us, and renew us in the image of God
we were created to be from the beginning. Remember the “one thing”—the goal of
grace of according to Wesley: renewal in the image of God. Not just our
personal renewal, but the renewal of all of creation “on earth as it is in
heaven.” Prevenient grace is God’s movement toward us, the grace that woos us
back to God and God’s image. Prevenient grace is the “porch”—the place where
God meets us, wherever we have gone and whatever we have done.

 Prevenient grace stirs us to move back toward God at God’s
invitation, but there comes a point when we have to respond in order for a new,
transforming relationship to begin. There comes a point of decision, a point of
surrender, a point where we say “yes” to God’s offer of grace. It may happen in
a dramatic moment, or it may happen quietly and gradually, but grace always requires
a response.

 Wesley would call that response “justifying” or converting
grace. If prevenient grace is the porch, where we meet God, justifying grace is
the door—an entry point into a new relationship. We respond to God’s
invitation, and God responds to us. Our salvation, the beginning of our renewal
the image of God, requires something from us and something from God.

 Wesley would say, along with the apostle Paul, that our
response to God’s offer of grace is faith. Notice what Paul says in Ephesians
2:8,9 – for by grace are you saved through
faith
. It’s not our good works, not being a “good person” that saves us—it
is only faith in the grace of God that can begin to transform us.

 What is faith? That’s a key question. For Wesley and for
Paul, faith was not merely an intellectual exercise but rather an active
movement toward God. The New Testament reveals that faith has always had two
components: repentance and belief. John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus’
coming by calling people  to repent
and believe the good news. Jesus said, “Repent for the kingdom of God is at
hand.” Paul told King Agrippa that his message was that people should repent
and turn to God (Acts 26:20). Repentance and belief are the movements of faith.

What is repentance? Well, when we hear that word it often
has a negative connotation. We think of it as being a bit depressing. I
remember one time after a worship service I had a woman come up to me and say
she really disliked it when we said a prayer of confession because it made her
feel bad. Well, that’s kind of the point. We can’t begin to change until we
realize that we need to change! To repent means to literall turn around—to do a
180, to move in a new direction. That’s all. It’s a change of course.
Repentance means change—which can be a good thing, but also a painful thing.

 When we repent, we begin to get a better picture of
ourselves. We realize that we aren’t what we should be or could be. We need a
course correction, or maybe we even need to stop and do an assessment of our
lives. Repentance involves another word we might find a bit harsh: conviction.
That’s a word we associate with prison! But conviction is actually an essential
part of repentance and change.

 Have you ever been driving around and suddenly your “check
engine” light comes on? What do you do when that happens? If it’s me, I start
looking for a mechanic right away. Something’s not right underneath. I’m not
sure what it is, but I need to find out. The repair might be costly, but it’s
the only way I’ll be able to keep moving forward and keep my car on the road.
Conviction kind of acts like the warning light of the soul—it brings us to the
point of change by telling us we have a problem. It’s only then that we can
begin to work on it, and we can begin to change.

 Repentance always comes before belief. It’s a reminder that
we have to turn from something to something. We need something new to replace
that which is old—we need what Thomas Chalmers called the “expulsive power of a new affection.”

 Belief, then, is the act of turning toward God. It is an
act, not just an idea or a thought-process. Belief is not simply agreeing to a set
of doctrines or propositions. Simply saying, “I believe in God” doesn’t mean
much. After all, even the devil believes in God!

 Instead, belief involves several important dimensions as a
component of faith. To believe means:

First, to have confidence and trust in the mercy of God.
Belief involves having a conception of God as love, that God is offering grace,
and that God wants to make us whole. It’s in vogue now for people to say, “I
don’t believe in God.” When they say that to me, my first question to them is,
“Which God don’t you believe in?” They usually say, “I don’t believe in a God
that is judgmental and arbitrary, a God who assigns people to hell, a God who
doesn’t do anything about the suffering in the world.” Well, I say, I don’t
believe in that God either. I believe in a God who wants to restore us through
grace, a God who loves us enough to die for us, and a God who engages our
suffering through his own suffering. That’s the message of the cross. We
believe in a God who doesn’t cut us off when we’re distant, but one who will
run to us and throw his arms around us when we return from failure in a far
country. Belief means that we have an assurance that this is the God who wants
to save us, and not the god of wrath, the god of hate, or the god of consumerism.

 Second, belief involves a change of allegiance. When we
truly believe in God, we engage in an act of surrender, giving up control of
our lives to the Christ who is Lord—Lord over everything in our lives—our
relationships, our vocation, our family, our finances. Belief means we
recognize that God is above all and in all. Belief means we engage another word
that has a negative connotation: obedience. When was the last time you heard
that word? To obey means that we are subject to another, but in the case of God
our obedience is not a negative. In a counter-intuitive way, obedience to God
is an act of freedom. When we obey God, we are free to become the people God
created us to be because we are free from the burden of trying to find meaning
in all kinds of other places. The great Methodist missionary E. Stanley Jones
put it this way: Everyone obeys something or someone. And within obedience
there is freedom. An airplane pilot is free to fly anywhere he wants as long as
he obeys the rules of flight…(need rest of quote). Have you ever seen that
bumper sticker that says, “God is my co-pilot?” Now there’s a recipe for
disaster! God needs to be the pilot, or the flight is doomed.

 God moves toward us in prevenient grace. We are called to
respond to that offer of grace. When we choose to respond, we do so with faith
that is characterized by repentance and belief. When we respond with repentance
and belief, surrendering ourselves to God, God then does something for us and
in us—another movement of grace we call “justifying grace,” within which God
does two things: something for us and something in us.”

 What God does for us is what the Bible calls
“justification,” which Wesley defined as “pardon, the forgiveness of sins.”
When we repent and believe, when we confess our sins, our need for God, our
need for change, God extends forgiveness to us. Forgiveness is healing, a
wiping clean of our past, giving us a clean slate on which to begin writing a
new story of a life being renewed in the image of God.

 Truth is, we can’t ever be healthy and whole without
forgiveness. Forgiveness frees us from the prison of guilt and shame. When we
forgive someone else, we are released from the bondage of anger and the prison
of the past. Forgiveness is not the same as forgetting—rather it is the
redemption of our memory. We don’t forget, but we do learn. It is the process
of transforming evil into good.

I’ve counseled a lot of people over the years, and I would
say without reservation that the failure to give or receive forgiveness is the
root of most of the problems that people deal with. People have a hard time
forgiving others, the have a hard time asking for forgiveness, and have an even
harder time forgiving themselves. This is why we need to understand the power
of grace. God does not leave us in this prison, but wants to free us!
Forgiveness is freedom! The good news is that God has offered to heal our
brokenness through the brokenness of Christ. We are forgiven! God has done a
new thing for us. We are free!

 Freed from the effects of sin, God also does something in us.
We are given a new birth, and we begin to come alive as never before. The new
birth begins our renewal in the image of God. We are “born again” to become new
people with a new future—God’s future for us and for the whole creation.
Through God’s grace, we are given the power to begin to overcome sin and its
effects, we are given a new vision of wholeness. God begins a new work in us.
God begins to perfect us in his own image.

 This is only the beginning, however. A lot of Christian
traditions emphasize being “born again” as though that is the primary focus of
God. Wesley would say that God works a new birth in us, but that God expects
that we will begin to grow up from there! A lot of traditions look at the
moment of new birth as the point at which one becomes a Christian—that the
moment accepting Christ is the ultimate goal. You accept Christ, you are a
Christian. Wesley (and I think Paul, too) saw the new birth not as an ending,
but as a beginning. We don’t fully become a Christian at that point of
decision, but rather we begin
becoming one. Becoming a Christian, becoming a follower of Christ, becoming a
person who reflects the image of Christ, is a life-long process—a journey of
grace.

 New birth doesn’t make us perfect. Sin is still a temptation
that we are predisposed to. But Wesley would say that God’s grace is always
greater than our sin. The more that we continue to grow in God’s grace, the
more that we are filled with the Spirit and love of God, the less of an
influence that sin has over us. Any return we have toward our former life of
sin isn’t a failure of God’s grace, but rather a failure of our will and a
failure of faith in God’s ability to renew us in his image.

For Wesley, salvation is a dynamic experience and not a
static one. The question for us isn’t “When were you saved,” but Methodists
always ask, “Are you saved now? Are you on a journey of grace? Are you being
transformed and renewed in the image of God?” That is a continual choice on our
part.

 God will never rescind the offer of grace, but we can still
refuse it at any point. Someone asked me if Wesley believed that we can “lose”
our salvation, Wesley believed first and foremost in God’s grace. God does not
ever rescind that offer of grace—that’s what prevenient grace is all about.
But, because we have the ability to choose, Wesley did believe that we could
exercise that choice to refuse God’s grace. Like the prodigal son, we can walk
away and go on our own journey. We don’t “lose” our salvation, our inheritance
of grace, but we can squander it and give it away. There are consequences for
our choices.

 But even then, even when we have walked far away, the Father
still looks down the driveway, waiting for us to return home!

 See, it doesn’t matter what your past story is, interesting
though it may be. What matters is the story you’re writing with God right now.

Wesley was always asking the question, How is it with your
soul? Where are you in the journey of grace? Have you responded to God’s offer?
Are you ready to repent and believe? Or are you still in a far country? Have
you experienced the depth and breadth of God’s justifying grace? Have you
experienced his forgiveness? Are you ready to be forgiven? To forgive someone
else? To forgive yourself? Are you on the way to becoming the person God
created you to be?

Wherever you are on the journey this morning, I invite you
to join me in prayer…