Advent Week 4: Walking Toward The Messes

advent4We are now in week 4 of the Advent season.  Advent is the 4 weeks before Christmas (or 3 full weeks plus whatever fraction of a week is needed to get to Christmas).  Advent is the season in which we symbolically await the coming of Jesus Christ which we will celebrate on Christmas, while we wait (for real) for him to return at the end of the age as he promised.

Last week we ended with the age-old question that haunts the world of evangelical discipleship:  What do I do now that I am saved?  With the sola fide-focused understanding of the Gospel that is prevalent in much of evangelicalism, this is a very poignant question because the death Christ died for me does not have any immediate, practical relevance for me until I die and am standing face-to-face before God.  But with a Kingdom-shaped understanding of the Gospel, this question becomes a non-starter.  Christ is coming to reign in our world, and he has invited all of humanity to join him in the new community that he is building even as we speak.

And what does this Kingdom, this new community that we get to be part of, do?

We walk toward the messes.  In our own lives, in the lives of those closest to us, in our communities, and in our world.

We all have an idealized, romanticized image of what Christmas is supposed to look like.  Every Nativity scene you have ever seen has the baby Jesus lying there in the straw with Joseph and Mary standing or kneeling there beside him (doesn’t Mary look great for having just given birth?)  The shepherds and wise men are gathered all around, with a few sheep, horses, mules, camels, or whatever thrown in for good measure.  All are watching and adoring, caught up in the moment.  And then there are the angels up above the whole thing.

But the Nativity is one thing we cannot afford to idealize.  If we do so, we lose sight of the fact that Jesus’ coming into this world was a monumentally messy affair.  Joseph and Mary were just teenagers when all of this went down.  Mary had an angel tell her that she was about to be pregnant without ever having been with a man, and she would have to tell Joseph that her child was the son of God.  She did, and it went over about as well as you would expect.  Joseph did not believe her, and it took another angel appearance just to keep the whole thing on the rails.  And then they got the news that they were going to have to take a road trip.  With Mary eight months pregnant.  They got to Bethlehem and wound up having to stay in somebody’s stable.  More than likely there was a powerful stink, and the animals were not well-behaved or happy about having to share their space.

This is how Jesus chose to come into the world.  Think about it:  He could have come into the world any way he wanted.  He could have come through one of the wealthiest or the most politically powerful families of the day.  He could have come through the cleanest, most hygienic facilities available at that time.  But he didn’t.  He chose to come in a messy place.

Jesus did not shy away.  He walked toward the messes.  And we who follow him are called to do the same.

Earlier this year my church did a sermon series called “Christian”, in which the big idea is that Christianity has an image problem because the word “Christian” appears very seldom and is not clearly defined in the Bible.  The word “disciple” is all over the place and is very clearly defined.  One of the marks of a disciple is that we love others in the way Jesus loved them.  Here is the link to part 1; from there you can access any other part of the series.

If you’re down for a good time, I strongly recommend part 5.  This message contains a juicy illustration and it stirred up some controversy in the blogosphere as a result.  It got this reaction out of Albert Mohler; I would count that as stirring up controversy.

I wrote a response to Mohler’s reaction.  This post gets lots of pageviews, and has even gotten a few comments.  It has been instructive (to say the least) to see how the commenters have reacted.  All you have to do is say the word “homosexual” and people’s panties get up into a wad.  We can’t stand the thought that any of those people might–God forbid–actually be in our churches.  One might actually think that the Gospel is being compromised if we have any of those people in our midst.

Grace is scandalous stuff, people.  Just go on and get used to it.

If you are loving people the way Jesus loved them, then at some point people will call you “postmodern” or “emergent” or they will accuse you of “abandoning the Gospel”.  Get used to it.  The Pharisees of Jesus’ day constantly leveled similar accusations against him.

Allow me to close with a quote from a Michael Spencer essay entitled “Our Problem with Grace”, a long piece but one well worth the read:

Sometimes Christians go very, very far down the road of sin’s allurements and dwell there for years. When this happens, we shouldn’t be outraged by such behavior, as if the church is scandalized. The church ought to be a scandal of grace every day, and when it’s not, the Gospel is missing. Go find it. Our treatment of that wayward person, in personal relationships and in the congregation, is all about God’s determination to be glorified in the lives of those for whom Jesus died as a substitute and a sacrifice.

Grace doesn’t approve. Grace just refuses to give up on us. (God really is amazing!)

Advent Week 3: What Exactly Is The Gospel?

advent3If you have been tracking here lately, you know that we are in the middle of the Advent season.  Advent is the four weeks prior to Christmas (or more accurately, three full weeks plus whatever fraction of a week is needed to get us to Christmas day).  Advent is the time in which we symbolically await the coming of our savior Jesus Christ which we will celebrate on Christmas, while waiting (for real) for him to come again as he promised.  We are now in week 3 of the Advent season.

During the Advent season my modus operandi is to pick an Advent-related (somewhat at least) topic and talk about it for four weeks.  This week I would like to continue our discussion by focusing in on what exactly constitutes the Gospel.

The Gospel is the core message of our Christian faith, so it is vitally important that we get it right.  Lately there has been a lively discussion in some of the blogs where I hang out regularly.  To get things going, allow me to direct your attention to two pieces by D. M. Williams at Resurrecting Raleigh:

What is the Gospel?  Sola Fide, Kyrios Christos, Christus Victor?

What is the Gospel?  “The Gospel” in the Gospels

In these pieces, Williams critiques the view widely held in evangelical circles, particularly in the Neo-Reformed wing that has gained tremendous influence over the past decade and includes the likes of R. C. Sproul, Mark Driscoll, and John Piper.  This view identifies the Gospel with the Protestant distinctive of sola fide (justification by faith) which formed the core of Luther’s teaching during the Reformation.  In the first of the two pieces, Williams includes several written definitions and video discussions which illustrate this.

Over and against this, Williams contends that while sola fide is an important component of the Gospel message, it is not the whole Gospel.  If the Gospel is sola fide, then only some Protestants believe the Gospel and the vast majority of church history was dominated by rank unbelief.  That alone should at least give us pause:

If one identifies the gospel with the doctrine of justification sola fide, then, by implication, one has to say that only (some) Protestants believe in the gospel.  Not only does this equation require one to automatically put contemporary Catholics, Orthodox, and many other Christians in the “unbeliever” box, it also means putting everyone from the 1st century to the 16th–Ignatius, Irenaeus, Basil, Thomas a Kempis, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, etc.–in that box as well.  Most of the spiritual greats of Christian history–the Church Fathers and Mothers, the Medieval doctors, the great mystics–are all cast outside.  To my mind, this implication alone is sufficient to warrant a reconsideration of the evangelical equation of the gospel with Luther’s doctrine of justification.

Williams goes on to contend that the Gospel message is bigger and wider than just sola fide:

Over the last seven years I have become increasingly convinced that the message which the apostles proclaimed as “the gospel” was not sola fide but Kyrios Christos, “Christ is Lord.”  That is to say, the gospel is, properly speaking, the royal announcement that Jesus of Nazareth is the God of Israel’s promised Messiah, the King of kings and Lord of lords.

To support this viewpoint, Williams argues that the first century was not a cultural vacuum and that people would have understood the word for “Gospel” in very specific ways.  Specifically it would have referred to some conquering ruler’s proclamation that he has defeated all enemies and he is lord over a specific region, for example the frequent announcements throughout the Roman world of Caesar’s lordship.  Over and against this, Christians offered the massively counter-cultural message that Jesus (not Caesar) is Lord, and that he has conquered all enemies, even death itself.

In the second piece Williams looks at what was meant by the phrase “the gospel” when it appears in the Gospels and contends that it points to the Kingdom, and not just sola fide.  Starting in the Gospel of Mark, he walks through all the occurences of the phrase to euangelion (the gospel), and shows how they point to the Kingdom.  He then argues that the portions of the Gospels which are taken as classic examples of the justification by faith message have no euangelion language anywhere near them.

So what does all this mean?  First, in Williams’ concluding words:

…if the NT gospel is the announcement of God’s ruling the world through Jesus Christ, then all Christians–Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox alike–believe in the NT gospel.

I find it extremely difficult to believe that St. Peter is standing at the gates of heaven (How did he get the job of celestial bouncer anyway?  But that’s another diatribe for another day) with rubric in hand, checking everyone who passes through to see if they can articulate a doctrinally correct statement of penal substitutionary atonement, double forensic imputation, or what have you.  One doesn’t have to understand the workings of the internal combustion engine in order to enjoy the benefits of driving a car.  In the same way, one does not have to be able to articulate a theologically correct understanding of justification by faith in order to be justified by faith.

Second, one of the classic dilemmas of the Christian life is the question “What do I do now that I’m saved?”  If the Gospel is nothing more than the message of justification by faith, then this question becomes especially poignant because Jesus’ substitutionary atonement does not have any relevance for you (beyond the abstract and theoretical realm) until you actually die and are face-to-face with a God who is asking why He should let you into heaven.  Under this view, the Gospel becomes nothing more than eternal fire insurance with a Rapture boarding pass thrown in for good measure.

But if we understand the Gospel in Kingdom terms, namely that Jesus has defeated all enemies including death itself, that he is building a new community and all of humanity is invited to become a part of it, then those in-between years from the time we are saved until the time we die become much more important and meaningful.  It is during this time that we live as part of the community of Christ-followers all around the world, working at the vocations to which God has called us, watching and waiting together for our Savior who has promised to return for us.

Advent Week 2: So What Exactly Is A Christian?

advent2We are now in Week 2 of the Advent season.  Advent is the 4 weeks prior to Christmas, in which we symbolically await the coming of the promised Christ which we will celebrate on Christmas, while at the same time we (for real) await his promised return at the end of the age.  Not that there is ever a time when we are NOT awaiting Christ’s return, but Advent is a time when we are especially dialed into this.

During the Advent season my modus operandi is to pick a topic that is at least somewhat related to Advent and talk about it for four weeks.  This week I want to continue exploring the idea of what it means to be a Christian and what it takes to be a Christian.  These ideas come from a sermon series that my church did earlier this year on this issue.  You can find it here if you are interested.  (The link takes you to part 1; from there you can access any other part of the series.)

–The term Christian is very subjective.  It can mean almost anything you want it to mean, because there is nothing in the Bible that gives any definition to the term Christian.  Why?  Because the term Christian hardly ever appears in the Bible.  It was never used by early Christians in reference to themselves; instead it was a label used by those outside of the Jesus movement.

–The early Christians did not call themselves Christians; instead they referred to themselves as “disciples”.  Whereas the word “Christian” appears only three times in the entire New Testament, the word “disciple” is all over the place.  The meaning of the word “disciple” as it is used in the New Testament is much clearer and much more terrifying.  A disciple is someone who looked to another person as a mentor, who sought to learn to manage situations and relationships in his life in the exact same way as his mentor, who was committed to doing things his mentor’s way no matter what.

–Jesus made it perfectly clear how his disciples were to be recognized by the world as such.  One word:  love.  (John 15:12:  “This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you.”  Jesus repeats himself in verse 17 if you didn’t get it the first time:  “This I command you, that you love one another.”)  If Christians down through history had gotten just this one thing right, history would have looked much different:  Many of the wars and conflicts of the past two centuries would have not happened.  Slavery would have been a non-issue here in America.  There would have been no civil rights movement.  It would not have been necessary.

Advent Week 1: What Does It Take To Be a Christian?

advent1Welcome to Advent.

Every year, right around this time of year, you start seeing pictures of candles and seeing me use words like Advent.  For those of you who do not come from liturgical backgrounds:  Advent is the four weeks before Christmas.  To be more precise, it is three full weeks plus whatever fraction of a week is needed to get us to Christmas Day.

Advent is a season of waiting.  It is a season in which we remember the Israelites who waited for a Messiah whose coming we will celebrate on Christmas, while at the same time recognizing that we still wait for Him to come again.  Basically, my approach to Advent is to pick an idea that kinda relates to Advent and talk about it for four weeks.

Today I would like to start off the Advent season by getting us to think about a simple question:  What is a Christian?  And what exactly does it take to be a Christian?

To prime our thinking, I shall direct you to a piece by Jeff Dunn that appeared at earlier this year:  What does it take to be a Christian?

In the beginning, the term Christian (Christlike, or little Christs) was attached to followers of the Jesus movement by outsiders because they looked and acted in ways that reminded them of their movement’s founder.  But nowadays, the term Christian can mean just about anything you want it to mean.  It can be a noun or an adjective, it can describe a person, an environment, a movement, even a nation.  So what does all of this mean today?  What does one have to do or believe in order to be Christlike, a little Christ?

Church attendance:  It is widely accepted that one cannot grow in Christlikeness without regular fellowship with others of like mind.  To a certain extent–a very large extent–that is true.  But what exactly are we talking about here?  If Sarah attends church every week while Jane only goes every other week, is Sarah more Christlike than Jane?  How about church involvement?  Is it OK to just show up?  Or does one have to be involved in every thing the church is doing?  Does one have to be there every time the doors are open?

Bible reading:  It is widely accepted that regular Bible reading is an essential part of the Christian life.  But how regular is needed?  Every day?  Every week?  How about on a need-to-know basis?  If Dick reads his Bible fifteen minutes every day while Tom reads his thirty minutes every day, is Tom more of a little Christ than Dick?  Most evangelicals believe that spiritual formation begins and ends with Bible study and the personal quiet time.  But what if I believe that there are other tools in the toolbox besides the personal quiet time?  Am I any more or less Christlike than you?

You can see where this is going.  I will stop here because the Jeff Dunn piece explores a whole host of questions pertaining to several facets of the Christian life such as prayer, baptism, witnessing, family, and differing interpretations of difficult Bible passages.  I don’t want to just rewrite that post, as that would be bad form.  But this should be enough to get us thinking.