The community of Christ is being built

17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:17-19, NIV)

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The Kingdom of God and wineskins

Mark 2:22 (NIV): And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.”

What Jesus is doing can’t be fitted in to the existing ways of thinking and living. If people try to do that they’ll have the worst of both worlds. At the time, this meant that Jesus’ powerful kingdom-ministry couldn’t be fitted into the ways of thinking that his fellow first-century Galileans already had. They needed to think differently, to think bigger, to get new wineskins for the new wine he had to offer. Most people are threatened by that kind of challenge. (NT Wright, Mark for Everyone)

The true power of the gospel

The power of the gospel lies not in the offer of a new spirituality or religious experience, not in the threat of hellfire (certainly not in the threat of being “left behind”), which can be removed if only the hearer checks this box, says this prayer, raises a hand, or whatever, but in the powerful announcement that God is God, that Jesus is Lord, that the powers of evil have been defeated, that God’s new world has begun.  — N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope 

 

The great work of God

One of the great scenes in the movie, “Amazing Grace” (a story about William Wilberforce), is Wilberforce consulting with his old pastor, John Newton. Wilberforce had been contemplating a call into ministry or his work in parliament as the path of his life. Those around him were able to persuade him that his work in parliament was indeed his calling. The issues of social justice, and in this context the ending of the slave trade in the British Empire, were areas he could work in and God could use.

Albert Finney played John Newton and I can still hear that beautiful line delivered by Finney as he encourages Wilberforce to pursue his vocation in parliament: “Wilber, you’ve got work to do.”

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This is the great understanding we need as believers. Our work matters. N.T. Wright’s challenging book, Surprised by Hope, sets up the framework of “heaven” and “heavenly work” being far more than just being saved so our life after death is assured. All we do now as believers has a tremendous impact on what God is building.

“You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire.” (Wright)

We need to see our lives as believers count. God is inviting us into his great work!

Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world — all of this will find its way, though the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make.

Friends… we have work to do.

 

Life after Life after Death

I am refreshing myself with N.T. Wright’s work, Surprised by Hope.

Wright’s thesis for the book is that salvation isn’t about getting us saved and into heaven. it is about life now. There is a present hope and not just a “future” hope. To work in the present with the sick, the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the abused, etc., is not a distraction from the task of mission and evangelism. It is  central. 

Why? Because it’s what we see Jesus doing in his ministry.

“(Jesus)  was not saving souls for a disembodied eternity but rescuing people from the corruption and decay of the way the world presently is so they could enjoy, already in the present, that renewal of creation which is God’s ultimate purpose — and so they could thus become colleagues and partners in that larger project.”

When we are at work in this world in Kingdom power, we are doing things that will last into God’s future. It’s not about making this present life a little less miserable and a little more bearable. It is all a vital part of what is happening in God’s kingdom.

The work we do now is vital to what God is doing and what God will keep on doing.

A key to all of this is to re-work our definition of “salvation.” It needs to be unhitched from a meaning that is simply “this means I go to heaven when I die.”

Salvation means we have died. And now we have life. We aren’t preparing people for simply “life after death.” We have life after life after death. We aren’t about the business of saving souls to be ready for heaven when the humans die. We have a powerful life to live now that is all part of salvation.

Live now. And live in power.

 

Being people of hope

N.T. Wright leaves us with a powerful reminder of our call as the Church in his book, Surprised by Scripture. 

The mission of the church is to drag people into buildings or to run raffles or issues statements.

At some point having a place to worship, having funding, and stating beliefs do matter, but it’s not core to what the Church is about.

…the mission of the church is to be for the world what Jesus was for Israel — a mission that will send us back to the four Gospels again and again, not only to be amazed by the power and love of God but to draw down that power and love, through prayer and the Holy Spirit, so that we can be Jesus people for the world, kingdom people for the world, forgiveness people for the world.

It is to live in forgiveness, not mere tolerance. And with forgiveness comes “an implacable refusal to collude with sin, with violence or prejudice or spite…” If there is something that will deface and corrupt God’s good and beautiful creation, as the people of God we don’t want anything to do with it.

What we CAN offer this world is the forgiveness and love of Christ. It is a love that calls the sinner out and says, “You really don’t need to live that way anymore. You are capable of so much more.”

We CAN offer this world works of justice, acts of kindness, hope of healing, and a willingness to walk with anyone through their doubt as they truly search for a way that is better in their life.

The powerful hope of the Kingdom for this world isn’t found in the headlines. It isn’t even found in social media most of the time. The powerful hope of the Kingdom is found in people who anonymously go into hard places to serve in ways no one sees. They reach out to prisoners. They feed the homeless. They sit with dying patients when no family is left to see them… On and on. It is in the corridors of power where people will quietly meet with those in power are are so lonely… and NOT take a picture to post on Facebook. People who will simply be with them to hear their struggles and walk them through some hard decisions.

Powerful hope of the Kingdom is found in the out of the way places where no one goes. We feel good making a hashtag about Nigerian girls, but there are so many in that zone trying to simply live out hope and healing to the families that are left behind. Unsung heroes. True hope.

There is probably someone in your life today needing that hope and forgiveness. They’ve stumbled… again… and they will probably stumble again next week. A phone call, a card, a visit today would be life to them.

Bring hope and healing. And leave the social media out of it this time.

How did we get “wedge issues?”

In American politics, we call them “wedge issues.” These days, it can be just about anything. But, generally, it’s throwing something out there for “discussion” that won’t get discussion because the person throwing it out knows everyone has a pre-fabricated response.

Gay Marriage
Racism
Poverty
Immigration
Abortion

Wedge issues.

When did we get “wedge issues?” 1970s, when Roe v. Wade was decided?

I would really invite all believers to read N.T. Wright’s challenging book Surprised by Scripture. (He takes on Christian wedge issues there, like women in ministry and more.) His last few chapters are challenging in regards to how we see the founding of the United States and how western Europe in general has been since the Enlightenment.

Wedge issues, in his view, didn’t start in the last few decades for Americans. They started from the founding. The “Enlightenment settlement”, as Wright calls it, allows for “Christian witness” in some arenas, but shuts it off in other arenas. The contract we signed? The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. His argument is the church is told to step back from public life and do its own thing in private.

Again, it comes from the Epicurean philosophy our founding Fathers, especially ones like Jefferson, followed: God exists, but he’s a long way off. The world will now get along under its own steam.

The church can “purchase its independence by colluding with the implied pagan philosophy.” So, people get their “private religion” and can practice as they choose, but leave the spirituality behind when the “big people” issues on how the system runs are discussed.

Then delivers this bomb:

I suspect that one of the reasons why the creation/evolution debate generates to much heat in America — far more than anywhere else — is that people can hear all the overtones, social, cultural, and political, that it throws off. The idea of God having anything to do with the ongoing process of the world flies in the face of all that Western culture has stood for — including Western Christian culture.

And this:

Have we fostered a culture in which the lordship and teachings of Jesus, for instance about poverty or human dignity or war, have been honored, studied, taught and practiced? Or have we been content — as so many Christians on both sides of the Atlantic have been content — to drift with this or that prevailing political wind, to trim our sails so that only one or two real distinctives are left, related perhaps to sexual and family life, only then to complain when the principalities and powers, having quietly gained our cooperation in other spheres, such as rampant individualism and the neoliberal vision of the good life that goes with it, now come to attack those last remaining strongholds?

Is it possible America didn’t “fall” with the Supreme Court decision about gay marriage, or Roe v. Wade, but the church abdicated some responsibility leading into the very founding of a nation we thought we could call “Christian?”

Honestly, read Wright’s book. It’s a LOT more to dive into than just this simple post!

Idolatry 2.0

I am working my way through part of NT Wright’s work, Surprised by Scripture, and his chapter on Western gods called “Idolatry 2.0” is a fascinating read.

His contention is the Enlightenment re-introduced Epicurean thought through men like Jefferson. Tired of the antics of the Church in the medieval period, the thought of God being “there” but far off was appealing all over again. They were tired of the angry god theory, so they shoved him off on a shelf.

With the rise of science, Wright’s contention is that science isn’t evil. What Epicurean thought introduced, though, was scientism. The world has autonomy, so God doesn’t have much to say much about science.

Or politics, for that matter. Get rid of the divine right of kings and let democracy develop its own way. Of course, that belief has the assumption that when countries elsewhere in the world throw off their old dictators they would naturally want to be Western-styled democracies. When that doesn’t happen, and it really hasn’t happened (think “Arab Spring”), then western civilization is left scratching its head.

In Wright’s view, scientism and political autonomy have given birth to secularism, the dominant motif of the West, especially the United States. Because of the underlying roots of Epicurean thought, secularism still has that “bad taste” in its mouth about an “angry god” so secularism works to shove religiosity from American culture. Get “god talk” out of the public square. Conduct all of life (politics, science, even marriage) as though all that exists is simply visible. No big scary thing out there to worry about.

But what happens when you create a vacuum? The saying goes “nature abhors a vacuum.” You can push God, or gods, upstairs and out of sight, but history shows again and again when you try that, other gods quietly sneak in to take their place.

The “big three” for Wright are these: Mars, Mammon, and Aphrodite. We have the god of war (or power), along with money and sex.

We’ve come to think of sex as simply a “life force” one can’t resist. Christopher Hitchens, preeminent atheistic priest, once said one should never pass up an opportunity to appear on television or to have sex. Even unnamed, Aphrodite is served by millions.

We think money fixes everything. Even those who don’t like evil capitalists and think the government can solve all our problems still need one thing as their catalyst: MORE MONEY. The problem with schools? Lack of funding. The problem with poverty? Lack of funding. The problem with (just insert anything here)? Lack of funding. It’s MONEY.

If a nation is trouble (like Greece today), it’s a matter of shoring up their financial system and moving on.

We bow to Mars as well. Got a terror problem? Send in the drones. Got a church shooting problem? Let the congregation start packin’!

Try and solve something by forgiveness and reconciliation? Get a life! Just shoot someone!

Aphrodite, Mammon, and Mars are present and powerful. They are even more powerful because they go largely unrecognized. That’s what makes a stronghold a stronghold. You don’t recognize it. If we did see it, the ugliness would be so horrifying we would actually work to get it out.

So, while society has tried hard to rid itself of the Christian God, they have instead welcomed in other gods. And those are the big ones. Wright names others as well.

And this, my friends, is called being “progressive.”

But it’s simply idolatry dressed up in a new skin.

Somehow we’ve turned the good news into bad news

In Simply Good News, Wright goes into far more detail as to how we’ve managed to distort the announcement of the good news of the Kingdom into one of an angry God and simple fragments of a much fuller truth. It is well worth the time to read through his fuller treatment of how we have gone from proclaiming the good news to offering “good advice” to fragmenting the gospel so badly we’ve reduced it to bumper sticker theology that leaves people with a sense that God is just angry all the time.

A couple of years ago I had a guest speaker at my church and as we sat for the meal before our ministry time, he just began with his theology of God being mad. “God really is mad.” He went on to quote several verses dealing with the anger of God toward sin. It was in that moment I really want to exhibit a bit of righteous anger myself and uninvite him immediately.

The fragments we use are true… to an extent. We need to understand that saying “Jesus died in my place” is true. But to let that be the central part of the good news proclamation is to miss the greater picture, in Wright’s view.

We’ve turned Christianity into a “system.” We have a “system” of thought, a “system” of evangelism, a “system” of what is “central” to the gospel.

Again, it is important to read Wright’s fuller treatment in the book, but his contention is that we are missing the fuller picture of the gospel. We miss God as Creator and we miss the whole idea of covenant. As Creator, the whole world belongs to God and he longs to put that world right at last. It is about ALL of creation being redeemed. You can’t read Romans 8 without coming away with that conclusion.

In covenant, God calls Israel to be his people. It is a call of love. The call to covenant comes out of a heart of love, not anger.

Wright does deal with wrath and the meaning of God’s wrath. He doesn’t negate it. He calls us to keep it in context.

God’s goal in the good news is the restoration and transformation of ALL creation. Then Wright really puts the hammer down on our slim, distorted views of how we see the “central” message of the gospel these days:

To imagine a gospel that has forgotten about creation and covenant; to imagine a gospel with an angry deity who is pacified only by the blood of an innocent victim; to imagine good news that, instead of restoring and completing the work of the world’s creation, is prepared to throw away the world and take some people (“souls”) to a different location, namely a disembodied heaven — this picture looks far more like a complicated form of paganism than genuine biblical Christianity. (p. 74)

Somehow, we’ve turned the truly good news of Jesus Christ into some really bad news.

It’s time to re-think our view of the Kingdom of God.