Lent Week 5: The World’s Way of Doing Things Is Finished

lent06We began our Lenten journey this year by going straight to the end, where Jesus, in his dying moments on the cross, uttered a single word “Tetelestai” (no idea if that is the correct spelling but that will have to do).  This word translates into English as “It is finished”.

But what is finished?  Several things, which we are currently in the process of unpacking.  This is by no means an exhaustive listing; I am only hitting on a few.  If you’ve just joined us this week, it’s kind of like turning on a movie midway through.  I won’t try to catch you up on the earlier posts in the series now; they are in the archives and will be there for ever and ever, or at least as long as there is an internet, so you can do that for yourselves.

This week:  The world’s way of doing things is finished.

The world’s way of doing things is all about power.  It is all about trying to get ahead and stay ahead.  It is all about trying to project a huge impression of yourself so that others think you are big and important.  It is all about letting other people know just how big and powerful you are so that they are impressed.  It is all about chasing extraordinary, because as noted a couple of weeks back, in our present American culture, success equals life and to fail is to die.

We see the world’s way of doing things in the lives of individuals (believers or not, it doesn’t matter–we all have done and are doing this in some form or fashion, to some extent or another) who project a false self in order to gain the acceptance of others.  We decide who we wish we could be and who we think others wish we could be, and then work hard to project that to others.  Examples of this are rife in the world of religion:  the preacher who is normal in real life but gets behind the pulpit and morphs into this pious, feel-good, sing-songy clergyman, your soft-spoken friend in small group who at prayer time turns into this wildfire Pentecostal.  But you also see examples of this in the world at large, such as the rich businessman who hates life so badly he wants to slit his wrists.  You know what this is like; you really don’t need me to list any more examples.

You get so caught up in whatever role you are playing, whatever impression you are trying to project to others, that you hope that role will eventually become you, in the same way that Pinocchio eventually turned from a wooden puppet into a real boy.  But it almost never works out that way.  In the end you eventually get to a point where you become the role, so much so that there is no sense of a you behind the things you do.  It is a form of soul suicide, if you will.

We also see it all over the place in American evangelicalism.  The evangelical landscape is dominated by huge churches in every city, some of which are regional or even national.  These churches go to great lengths to present themselves as growing and successful, because that is what American evangelicalism is chasing.  Case in point:  Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill out in Seattle, which grew to became one of the largest and most prominent churches in American evangelicalism and ended in a spectacular grease fire at the end of last year.

Another case in point:  Perry Noble, who a few years back wrote a little missive defending pastoral practices which play to American evangelicalism’s worst tendencies.  I pushed back, contrasting Noble with Eugene Peterson and noting that how we follow Jesus matters, that believe it or not, there is a right way and a wrong way to follow Jesus.

And therein lies my point.  Because when your king and the leader of your movement is someone who got himself crucified on a Roman cross and died the worst death imaginable, everything goes out the window.  All your chasing after fame, power, status, and recognition in the world’s eyes is finished.

How we follow Jesus matters.  When you follow a king who got himself crucified on a Roman cross and died the worst death imaginable, it just doesn’t make sense to follow him according to the ways of the world.  It makes no sense that the Jesus movement should be a place for people to seek after power and status and success in all the same ways in which the world pursues those things.

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Theses by Matt B. Redmond

Today I wish to direct your attention to a post by Matt B. Redmond.  This doesn’t need me to say a whole lot about it, so I will offer you a little bit as a teaser and then just shut up:

With love and and some frustration…

1. The gospel is simple enough for a child to believe. And enough for a criminal in his final moments.

2. The gospel in the mouth of a content unknown preacher is a singularly powerful thing.

3. The great threats to evangelicalism are not the sins of those outside the faith but the swallowing of business principles, the alignment with political ideology, and reducing the faith to a means of materialistic ends.

Read the rest:  Theses by Matt B. Redmond

Lent Week 4: Division Is Finished

lent06We began our Lenten journey this year by going straight to the end, where Jesus, in his dying moments on the cross, uttered a single word “Tetelestai” (no idea if that is the correct spelling but that will have to do).  This word translates into English as “It is finished”.

But what is finished?  Several things, which we are currently in the process of unpacking.  If you’ve just joined us this week, it’s kind of like turning on a movie midway through.  I won’t try to catch you up on the earlier posts in the series now; they are in the archives and will be there for ever and ever, or at least as long as there is an internet, so you can do that for yourselves.

This week:  Division is finished.

Before we begin, I feel compelled to note that this is not about me attempting to get on board with anyone’s project of asserting that all Christians must come together under their particular expression of Christianity.  The boundaries of the church of Jesus Christ do not begin and end at the boundaries of any particular institutional expression thereof.

There are thousands upon thousands of denominations, sects, movements, traditions, streams and expressions of Christianity all over the landscape.  This is a reality both beautiful and tragic.

Let me direct your attention to a post at Alastair’s Adversaria from several years back entitled “The Denominational Church“, which has helped to guide my thinking on this issue.  It is very dense and lengthy, and it will take some effort for you to wrap your head around what Alastair is saying here, but in the end it will prove to be well worth the effort.

Alastair’s jumping-off point is the Federal Vision, which was a very contentious issue in his particular branch of Presbyterianism several years ago.  He begins by quoting a prominent denominational figure who seeks to warn those who disagree with his position that they are going against the visible church.  Alastair pushes back, saying that this particular branch of Presbyterianism is not to be equated with the visible church.  The rise of denominations (Baptist, Methodist, etc.) within the past couple of centuries has been a game-changer with respect to ecclesiology, and you cannot and should not equate the denominational (or non-denominational, as the case may be) congregation you happen to attend, with the Church at large in your location, which is the sum total of all denominational (and non-denominational) congregations in your area.  Alastair then goes on to list several practical ways we can work toward greater unity in the present climate, of which the first and foremost is this:  Don’t get too overly hung up on how your church/denomination/theological team expresses and formulates certain key doctrines and beliefs related to the Gospel.  These are not the Gospel.  Raising these things to the level of Gospel importance will only serve to insulate your particular team/sect/movement from all the rest of Christianity.  Alastair likens it to a language with many regional dialects, in that you should not equate your own particular dialect with the language itself.  In seeking unity, we should play up the features which our dialect has in common with all the other regional dialects and downplay those features which it does not.  He concludes by suggesting that the present denominational climate is a messy but necessary part of the process God is using to bring about a future unity much greater and more glorious than anything we can presently imagine.  This will happen in God’s time, and we should not rush the process by attempting to force unity where it does not yet exist.

Alastair makes the point that the Gospel message is much simpler than we think it is.  Certainly it is much simpler than any of the theological systems and categories by which we formulate the Gospel message, or any of the doctrines which we attach to the Gospel message.  Doctrine matters, but not nearly as much as you think it does.  When your doctrine becomes an excuse to treat other believers for whom Christ died as outside the family of faith, you have problems.

Certainly there are times when it is necessary to divide over matters of doctrine.  But your default setting should never be:  “This issue is of such critical importance that anyone who disagrees with us on it should be treated as if they are outside the family of God.”  While there are a handful of issues which rise to that level, you should never operate under the default assumption that the issue at hand is one of those issues.  If that is your default assumption, then you have problems.  That is why I reacted so viscerally to John Piper’s dismissal of Rob Bell a couple of years back.  And that is why I reacted so viscerally to Owen Strachan’s attempts to anathematize those who disagree with his views on gay marriage.

There is an allure in this type of thinking.  It is easy to get to thinking that you are purifying the Church by laying down the law as to what to believe and casting out all those who disagree.

The Pharisees of first-century Israel operated under a similar narrative.  We think of them as laughably stuck-up, petty legalists akin to the Church Lady of SNL fame (kids:  Youtube), walking around with their noses stuck in the Torah or else wrinkled in disgust at the perceived sins and transgressions of their neighbors while carrying around God-knows-what in the way of juicy, dirty little secrets under their sanctimonious robes.  All of which is true, to a certain extent, yet it completely misses the point.  You see, all those petty rules, legalisms, and ridiculous hoops they made people jump through to prove their worthiness to be part of the kingdom of Heaven served a higher purpose:  nothing short of the national survival of Israel itself.  They saw Israel as under God’s judgment, as evidenced by the fact that they had for centuries been in their homeland with pagan empires ruling over them and seeking to impose their unbelieving ways from afar.  They believed that Israel needed to purify itself and get back to keeping Torah (as they understood it) in order to get out from under God’s judgment and regain God’s blessing, and they saw themselves as the vanguard of this effort.

So it is with many nowadays who seek to divide over issues of doctrine.  I have, in many prior posts, highlighted the neo-Calvinist movement as a prime example of this.  They see the Church as under God’s judgment for believing false doctrine and a false Gospel which has no power to save.  In their minds, in order for the Church to get out from under God’s judgment and return to God’s blessing, the Church must purify itself by repenting of and renouncing false doctrine, and cutting off all disloyal, compromising believers who will not go along with this program.

When Jesus died on the cross, that changed everything.  The old narrative of God’s people purifying themselves through faithful obedience, carried out with zeal against the pagans who seek to impose their will from without and the disloyal, half-hearted, compromised, capitulating believers within, is finished.  Instead of God’s people versus pagans without and renegades within, the battle is God versus the forces of darkness and death in our world.  That battle has been won through Christ’s death on the cross, and we are part of making that victory a reality throughout the universe.  There is now no longer any place for the old narrative of God’s people versus pagans without and renegades within–all people are people for whom Christ died.

Allow me to close with a quote from C. S. Lewis which I believe is relevant to today’s subject matter.  In the introduction to Mere Christianity he likens the Christian faith to a large guesthouse.  The hall is a common space where Christians of all stripes can interact freely, while the rooms represent the various churches and denominations inside the Christian faith, places where one can find deeper fellowship and closer agreement.  No one is saying here that anyone has to give up their room or choose a different room, but it would behoove us all to spend some time in the hall, interacting with Christians of other stripes, seeking to understand and learn from them.  And when you return to your own room, take these words of C. S. Lewis to heart:

When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall.  If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them.  That is one of the rules common to the whole house.

Scot McKnight on Being on the “Wrong Side of History”

Today I wish to direct your attention to a post by Scot McKnight over at Jesus Creed, in which he takes issue with those who attempt to argue that those who disagree with them are on “the wrong side of history”.

In our age it is fashionable to look down one’s nose at ideas such as “manifest destiny”, “God’s plan for America”, or anything that might connect something like, for example, 9/11, with something else like, for example, same-sex marriage.  But ironically, there are lots of people running around out there who claim to know which way history is going, and that those who disagree with them are on the wrong side of it.  McKnight cites examples of those on the left who argue that religion is withering away, and others who argue the opposite, and those on the right who accuse Obama of being on the wrong side of history.

McKnight goes on to lay out several reasons why those who argue that their opponents are on the wrong side of history are wrong:  They read history as inevitable progress in their direction.  They make history presentist–that is, what is happening now is always better than what was happening before.  They destroy biblical eschatology by putting God’s blessing on their presentist reading of history instead of taking their cues from the kingdom which is still to come.  They claim omniscience by claiming to know where history has been and where it is headed.  They claim omniscience by assuming that all things in the future will be as they think.  They destroy both diversity and freedom, because to announce that history is headed in any one direction is to announce to those who disagree that their freedom to disagree is in jeopardy.  And they seek to centralize their vision in order to impose conformity, responding to failure of the centralized vision by pressing even harder for that vision and blaming its failure on the dissenters.

A prime example of this is the debates over gay marriage.  Speaking of which, our good friend Owen Strachan is at it again.  Just last week he dropped this doozy of a diatribe against Rob Bell, who has become something of a fashionable whipping boy among conservative evangelicals lately.  Bell now has a show on Oprah’s network; get too close to Oprah and your esteem among conservative evangelicals will drop like a brick.

Speaking of the likelihood that the church would affirm gay marriage, Bell said on Oprah’s show, in something of a history-is-moving-this-way argument:

“We’re moments away,” Rob Bell said. “I think culture is already there and the church will continue to be even more irrelevant when it quotes letters from 2,000 years ago as their best defense, when you have in front of you flesh-and-blood people who are your brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and co-workers and neighbors and they love each other and just want to go through life with someone.”

Strachan then spent the remainder of the post explaining how Bell is dead wrong and the church is most emphatically NOT giving an inch on the issue of gay marriage.  But while that may be true in the regions of the church where Strachan and others of like mind hang out, it is not true of the church at large.  There are places in the church where, like it or not, gay marriage is accepted.  And there are other places where the church is quite content to let individual believers negotiate that territory on their own without rushing in with dogmatic pronouncements one way or the other.

Strachan and others of like mind believe that the church is under judgment from God for “compromising” by becoming more accepting of gay marriage.  Bell believes it is essential for the church to become more accepting of gay marriage in order to not be irrelevant.  But where will we be in another couple of decades?  Some parts of the church will be accepting of gay marriage.  Others will not.  And still others will not feel any compulsion to take a stand one way or the other.  And at the end of the day, we will have diversity.  Like it or not, no one is “on the wrong side of history” here.

Pat Robertson Never Fails to Disappoint

robertsonI’m telling you, people.  Anytime I need fresh material for this blog, Pat Robertson is always there for me in the crunch.

What’s he up to this time?  you ask.

This item comes to us courtesy of the good people over at Right Wing Watch.  A couple of weeks back, a viewer called in to Robertson’s show The 700 Club and asked if she should be concerned about her daughter posting ultrasound pics of her unborn baby on Facebook.

Robertson’s reply was priceless:

I don’t think there is any harm in it. But I tell you, there are demons and there are evil people in the world, and you post a picture like that and some cultist gets hold of it or a coven and they begin muttering curses against an unborn child. You never know what somebody’s going to do.

For your viewing pleasure, I have linked the video below:

Lent Week 3: Self Is Finished

lent06We began our Lenten journey this year by going straight to the end, where Jesus, in his dying moments on the cross, uttered a single word “Tetelestai” (no idea if that is the correct spelling but that will have to do).  This word translates into English as “It is finished”.

But what is finished?  Several things, which we shall unpack over the next several weeks.

This week:  Self is finished.

Our way of doing things is finished.  Our rights, and any thinking on our part that we have rights, is finished.  When you look up and see Christ hanging there on the cross, whatever rights, plans, and agendas you may have just don’t matter anymore.  What rights does anyone have who needed the word “Tetelestai” (It is finished) spoken over them just to be alive?

Our striving is also finished.  Gone is any sort of thinking along the lines of “Jesus did so much for you, what have you done for Him lately?”  Answer:  Jesus did it all.  There is nothing to be done.  There is nothing you can do, even if you wanted to.

So much of American evangelicalism is addicted to chasing extraordinary.  It is as if we are not even Christian unless we are doing something extraordinary, unless we have a huge dream to change the world and are acting to bring it to pass.  In that respect, we are breathing the air of American culture at large, where success equals life and to fail is to die.

In response to this, I direct you to consider the example of the apostle Paul.  I wrote about this last year at Life in Mordor, the blog of Mike F. where I am a regular guest contributor, and I am linking it again because I am all about shameless self-promotion.  (Which is completely ironic given today’s subject matter, but here we are.  Deal.)

Paul gets a lot of play at large conferences for zealous young college students who want to go out and change the world.  He is routinely held up as an example of what to strive for (Look at his zealous, singlehearted, radical devotion to Christ!  Look at what all he went through in order to spread the Gospel throughout the known world of that time!  Look at the passion he felt, that drove him forward in all he did to advance the Gospel!  Shouldn’t you be ashamed if your life is anything less than this?)

But lost in all of this is a simple fact which is right there in plain sight:  Paul’s letters were not written to other apostles.  Nor were they written to other pastors and/or church leaders (with a couple of exceptions).  Instead they were written to ordinary, rank-and-file believers.  These people were no great shakes, spiritually or otherwise.  They were carpenters, farmers, traders, sailors, fishermen, shepherds, mothers, fathers, and children.  Their lives were quite mundane compared to those of the apostles.

On Sundays they would gather in the homes of fellow believers and eat their bread, drink their wine, and hear the Holy Spirit speaking to them through the words of the apostle.  And then they went home.  The next day they would get up and go to work.  And the day after that.  And the day after that.  Until Sunday came around again, and then they would do it all over again.  Week after week, month after month, year after year, until the end of their days.  Then they died, and now they are all but forgotten.

For the vast majority of these believers, the most significant thing that happened in their lives was the day they trusted Christ and became part of the Christian community.  After that, their lives went completely back to normal.  They received the words of Paul, and in faith they stayed where they were, doing what they were doing, all the way to the end of their days.

Never in any of Paul’s letters do we get the sense that he was attempting to challenge his readers to stop being who they were or doing what they were doing.  We do not get the sense that Paul was attempting to lay a guilt trip on them because they were back at home in (relative) comfort while he was enduring unspeakable hardships for the sake of the Gospel.  We do not get the sense that Paul was ever challenging them to pack it all up and go overseas to preach the Gospel.

For some of you, this may seem like a death.  Death to the dream of being extraordinary.  Death to the idea of having a unique destiny from God to do something big that will make a difference in our world for the sake of the Gospel.

I get that.  Really I do.

I once dreamed that I could be the next Chris Tomlin.  I once dreamed that I could stand on a big stage and speak or sing to thousands.  Hasn’t happened yet.

But for countless others of you, this idea of identifying with the rank-and-file believer instead of the apostle Paul is the greatest news you have ever heard, next to the Gospel itself.

As noted earlier, so much of American evangelicalism is all about chasing extraordinary.  It is as if you are not even Christian unless you have some big dream to change the world and are acting to bring it to pass. It is not enough to run your business ethically or raise small children to the glory of God unless you are doing it on another continent, with bullets flying overhead and malaria crouching at your door.  Why?  Because we approach life needing desperately to succeed.  To fail is to die.  Success equals life.

But because of God’s grace, we are free to be ordinary.  We don’t have to go out and turn the world upside down.  Jesus Christ already did that when he won the victory over sin and death at the cross.  We don’t need other people to love, respect, or approve of us in order for us to matter.  We don’t even need anything from God.  Why?  Because we already have everything we need in Christ Jesus.  Because Jesus was extraordinary, it is perfectly OK for us to be ordinary.

As noted last week, Lent is all about dying in order to be raised to life.  Our Lenten journey leads us directly to the cross, where Jesus died and was later raised to life.  With Him we die as well.  We die to our rights and ambitions, our plans and desires to make something of ourselves and make a difference in the world, in order that we may be raised to life knowing that Jesus has made all the difference.

Lent Week 2: Sin Is Finished

lent06We began our Lenten journey this year by going straight to the end, where Jesus, in his dying moments on the cross, uttered a single word “Tetelestai” (no idea if that is the correct spelling but that will have to do).  This word translates into English as “It is finished”.

But what is finished?  Several things, which we shall unpack over the next several weeks.

Today:  Sin is finished.

Most people think of sin as something that makes us bad.  In their minds the Christian life is all about learning to be good, or at least better than we are now.  Not so.  The reality is that sin doesn’t make us bad, it makes us dead.

That’s a problem.

Because dead people can’t do anything to improve themselves.  They may think they can, but they can’t.

Jesus did not come down to earth and die on a cross in order to make bad people good or to make good people better.  He came to make dead people alive.

Only what is dead can be made alive.

And therein lies the whole point and purpose of Lent.

In many places where Christians observe Lent, they speak of it as a time for getting stronger, more mature, more disciplined, etc.  They speak of “adventure”, “journey”, “discipline”, “formation”, “training”, and other such things.  They speak of taking on a life of self-discipline, throwing off the sin that so easily entangles, so as to run a good race and finish strong.

Christians who approach Lent in this fashion have completely and totally missed the point.

Lent is not about getting stronger or more mature.  It is not about adventure, discipline, journey, formation, or training, even though it is a journey and these things may happen along the way.  The end of this journey is not greater strength or discipline or maturity.  The end of this journey is death.

Because only what is dead can be made alive.

Forty years in the wilderness did not make Israel stronger.  All it did was buy just enough time for all of the old generation to die off before the new generation entered the Promised Land.  Was Israel any stronger for it?  Read the books of Joshua and Judges to see how well that worked out.  (Heads up:  Not very.)

And forty days in the wilderness probably didn’t make Jesus any stronger either.  We have this picture of Jesus coming off his forty-day fast stronger than ever, brimming with confidence and vitality as he speaks the words of Scripture to shut down the devil at every turn.  But it’s probably closer to the truth to imagine Jesus parched, starving, emaciated at the end of his forty-day fast, the words sticking in his throat and him barely able to get them out as the devil comes at him.  Mark notes that Jesus was in the desert among the wild beasts and the angels ministered to him.  It is probably not too much of a stretch to imagine hyenas and jackals circling, watching and waiting for him to breathe his last, and then at the end, angels coming to lift up his chin and get water into him through his dry and chapped lips, along with perhaps a bite of food.  Jesus at the very edge of death, being brought back from the edge one sip of water, one bite of food at a time.

But that was only the beginning.  Because Jesus’ entire life and ministry was leading to another day, when he would again be exposed and pushed to the edge of death.  But this time there would be no angels to minister from him and bring him back from the edge.

This was the Cross, where Jesus died and was later raised to life.

This is precisely where our Lenten journey leads.  To the Cross, where we too die.

Because only what is dead can be raised to life.

Lent has historically been the time when catechumens are prepared for baptism.  Forty days of getting ready to drown.  Death to the old self by drowning, so that they may be raised to new life in Christ.

It is the same with all of us.  Because we are not bad people who need to be made good, or good people who need to be made better.  We are dead people who need to be made alive.

Lent is when we die to the illusion that any amount of religious activity on our part will get us into a proper relationship with God (as noted last week), or that any amount of discipline, training, or formation on our part will make us better.

Dead people can’t make themselves better.  They may think they can, but they can’t.

Jesus did not come to earth and die on a cross so that bad people might be made good, or that good people might be made better.  He came so that dead people might be made alive.

Because only what is dead can be made alive.