Gospel, part 4

I started a blog series on Monday on the theological term “gospel.” If you’ve missed any or if you want to start at the beginning, you can go here, here, and here.

Tradition and Revelation

In the NT, Paul uses “gospel” as a proclamation about Jesus being Israel’s crucified and risen Messiah and the world’s one Lord. It was a message, much like the one from Roman culture (see post #1)

There is a peculiar tension when looking at the way Paul describes the anticipation of the gospel as we compare his letters.

For instance, Paul is certain that the gospel was anticipated from Israel’s Scriptures:

“By this gospel you are saved… For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” (1 Cor 15:2-5- Note: Paul’s use of “according to the Scriptures” is interesting… but we’ll discuss that another time)

In this crucial passage, Paul conveys a gospel that is tradition, something anticipated and “passed on.”

However, it is interesting to take note of another place where Paul speaks of how the gospel came to him:

“I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 1:11-12)

This confession from Paul is striking. It is worth noting that the verses that follow show Paul’s dedication to Judaism and the “traditions” of his fathers and that what ultimately formed Paul was an experience from something outside of the tradition. Instead of the gospel being a “tradition,” here it is a “revelation” an unveiling of something once hidden.

NT scholar James Dunn finds this to be a striking observation, a tension in the theology of Paul.

Therefore, the gospel (at least theologically) is always new and old, at the same time. Lesslie Newbigin once said that there is no generic gospel to proclaim, that gospelling is shaped by tradition and context.

What might be good news in the Donetsk region of Ukraine could be different than what would be good news in Deerborn, MI. Sure, Jesus is at the center of what would be good news in those areas but how the gospelling takes place would be different.

If the Apostle Paul were able to witness Billy Graham’s ministry he would say that what Graham was up to was both good and different.

If Jesus has asked us to go to the nations (think “people groups,” not “nation states”) we can imagine that gospelling in different contexts will take creativity and wisdom, that the witness of the gospel has the opportunity to be born again in each new age.

So, let’s ask our gospel another set of questions:

“Are you shaped both by tradition and innovation? Am I allowing others who do not share my context to have the space to gospel in their own settings without my bias opinions?”


Gospel, part 3

Earlier this week, I started a series on “gospel” as I prepare notes for a talk on Sunday evening. I thought that doing a short blog post for each idea in order to help me to prepare was a swell idea. If you would like to join along, you can start here and here.

Whole

It is my suggestion that the gospel that we claim to share, believe, etc. needs to be “whole.” Typical renderings of the gospel include a problem that God fixes. The problem that gospelers normally point to is the Fall of Humanity from Genesis 3. Adam and Eve disobeyed God and the curse of sin shattered God’s good world “all the way down,” touching every aspect of human life.

Scot McKnight, and other theologians, suggest that the text in Genesis 3 reveals four fractures in the human condition:

Between Human and God

Between Human and Human

Between Human and Self

Between Human and Creation

So, if the problem is the fracturing of God’s good world in four, foundational places of human life, we should expect the solution directly addresses and reconciles these fractures. A whole gospel would place all four of these issues at the center of importance. An incomplete gospel would address some but not all of the fractures.

This may seem menial or disinteresting to some, but I find it to be a vibrant theological and pastoral conversation. For instance, if our gospel sharing helps to mend the Human and God relationship, but neglects the Human and Human relationship, it would be awkward, right? This seems to be of central importance for one of John’s letters to a church; one cannot claim to love God and not his/her brother. Sure, we might find it inconceivable that someone would love God and not their neighbor but common experience shows that we’ve had a tough time separating church and hate.

This lack of wholeness is revealed in the way that people read the Gospel books of the NT. Some tend to read them as long introductions until Jesus finally dies for individual sins of sinners. To them, the things that Jesus did before his suffering, death, and resurrection are not directly involved in “the gospel,” they function merely as preparation of it.

Others read the gospels the other way, that Jesus did so much for individuals who were oppressed by Empire and it was such a shame that Rome finally caught up with him in the end. Imagine what would have happened for human progress if Jesus could have lived a bit longer. This “gospel,” then, is something that reaches out to the Human and Human, Human and Self categories without addressing (directly) the fracture between human and God.

The gospel, then, is “hyper-relational,” as McKnight puts it. It speaks to this amazing idea that Paul wrote to the Colossians, “For God was pleased to have his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things…” (Colossians 1:19-20)

All sounds like a whole lot more than just me and my sins and more than just a recycling campaign.

So, ask your gospel a couple of questions:

“Are you whole? Do you give an anticipation and hope that God is making all things new and mending the four cosmic fractures deep within all of human life?”


Gospel, part 2

I started a blog series yesterday on “Gospel.” These short posts are simply a way for me to gather my thoughts before talking about the theological and practical ramifications of the gospel in a talk for this weekend. Feel free to join in on the conversation, it began here.

Yesterday I spent some time talking about the original meaning of gospel and that it meant “good news.” So, yesterday’s content suggested that our gospel needs to be good; not just good to us (or people like us) but good for the world, which God loves.

News

So, let’s talk about news. The gospel is good news. News is an interesting concept in our culture. It is my observation that it is hard to come into contact with news anymore. We have “news outlets,” but they are usually shaped by a rather distinct vantage point, and it might be better classified as “media outlets” who will give people of their persuasion something to repeat to other like-minded friends or to “repost” a video clip to Facebook so that people who already agree with them can give them high praise for being so informed.

Stitching together a story, with commentary, and commercials about how one needs to change their cash to gold, could be called “news,” but one would not be too sensational to call it propaganda, a tail wagging the dog.

It reminds me of a recent conversation that I had with some Christians about some of the most pressing issues that face our world in which our faith could provide a solution. I was disappointed in our list; the things that we are passionate about seemed to not be of the slightest interest with the wider world. I was discouraged and felt as if we had nothing to offer the world unless they asked us a question that we gave them, so our answers could be queued up.

This is not the heritage of our faith, right? There seemed to be something compelling and provocative about the Christian witness over the centuries. The Romans (or other dominant systems) had a particular interest in seeing the Christian witness stifled because of how subversive, true, and news-worthy the Christian witness was in their contexts.

Let’s be honest, political systems are a bit too busy to track down and sensor groups that are only using “inside crowd” chatter and are focused on private spirituality. But, if a group is beginning to confront things that the dominant system takes for granted, they might use some brute force do something about it. Yes, Jesus and his followers were put on crosses (and other such devices) because of how they confronted the political structure of the day, not just because they were praying prayers. (more on that in another post)

So, ask your gospel a series of questions:

“Are you news to anyone outside of my inside circle?”

“Do I have to feed someone questions in order to have anything to share about my faith?”

“Do I feel like a door-to-door salesperson when I share you?”

“If someone was skeptical about the gospel, would they still want to believe that it could be true?”

“Are people’s positive responses really just a placation so the conversation will end?”


Gospel, part 1

I’m getting a talk together for next weekend and thought I’d put some thoughts about Gospel down on the blog in case anyone would like to read and join in on the conversation.

Gospel is a huge word in contemporary discourse, inside church circles, at least. People are naming networking groups after the gospel. I hear a lot of preachers and authors using the term gospel. Sometimes, it seems to be a word that one is compelled to say when they run out of other words. Or, it is a term that is a qualifier, like “gospel-centered worship”, etc.

So, what does it mean? When Will Willimon is asked, “What is the gospel?” he normally responds, “Do you have an hour for me to explain?”

I plan on sharing about the theological idea of “gospel” by using rings around a center (Christ). The rings are in no order of importance, but it is a way to talk about different themes.

Good

The first ring is “good.” The origin of the word “gospel” is found both in Roman culture (the wider setting of the NT) and the OT and extra-biblical literature. “Gospel,” or euangelion in the NT Greek language, represented an announcement of good news. A gospel would be shared around Roman provinces and territories to share about Caesar’s birthday, a battle victory, or the installation of a new Emperor.

At the heart of the gospel then is the value of goodness. Goodness could be subjective, because what may be good for one person could be tragic for another. I suggest that goodness should be examined in whether our good news is good for the world. Jesus may have said, “My kingdom is not from this world,” (John 18:36), as in its origin, but we can conclude that his kingdom is meant to be experienced in this world. As NT Wright suggests, “Jesus’ kingdom may not be from this world, but it is certainly for this world.” Bishop Todd Hunter has suggested that we do church “for the sake of others,” an excellent idea, in my opinion.

So, the question we need to ask our idea of the gospel is, “Are you good?” (And, I hope that we hear, “Not just good for me and people like me.”) It may seem automatic to some, but I hope that we give our gospel a good examen.


FCC Questions Post #1

I preached a sermon on 5/11/14 that challenged our church community to be courageous enough to ask questions. The church practiced asking questions by… submitting 1 question that they had about the Christian faith at the end of the service.

The questions were compiled and organized into different categories. I’ve been challenged to answer a question routinely, so I am going to post my response (not necessarily ‘official church positions’) on the blog. I will answer in 500ish words or less, which will hopefully spur on further conversations and not more data mining.

I received 2 questions that are getting at the same thing, so I’ll start there today.

“Do you believe in once saved always saved?”

“Is it possible to once have ‘accepted’ Christ and lose your salvation?”

This discussion is interesting. One position (Eternal Security or “Perseverance of the Saints”) says that one cannot lose salvation, ever. If it appears that one is turning away from God after Christian conversion, some would conclude that they were not a Christian to begin with, in order to retain their position.

The other position says that one can leave Christianity/lose salvation after a genuine conversions.

These positions are usually the result of other doctrines, not least one’s preference to Reformed or Arminian/Wesleyan positions on election/free will, etc.

A couple of things to consider:

1. Both positions can be defended with an array of NT texts. Here is a sample of each to get a flavor:

“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” (John 10:27-30)

“It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.” (Hebrews 6:4-6)

1b. The texts written to support the idea that one can lose their salvation is (generally) written to Jewish-Christian communities. ¬†The Jewish doctrine of “zeal” stressed obedience to God at all and any cost. This zeal doctrine shaped mid-to-late 1st century Jewish revolution movements and convinced those faithful to God to kill/assassinate their enemies as devotion to God.¬†Perhaps the spirit behind the warning passages are a different application to this same development in the 1st century.

These warning texts, then, should be expected. These texts were used to provoke faithfulness to Jesus amid communities that had entered into a malaise of faith. (e.g. Hebrews and James)

The texts to support the Perseverance idea are generally written to the Gentile-Christian audience. These promises would have been equally evocative for them as the warning passages for the Jewish-Christians. The Gentiles were non-Jews entering into the Jewish story at its climax. It would have been easy to assume that one in their community was a 2nd class citizen, that (s)he didn’t belong. Hearing of one’s secure state before God, regardless of their starting point or family of origin, would have been massive.

Both sets of texts in this issue help to nudge a believer in different situations to the same place. I had a doctrine teacher once say that this stale mate cannot be resolved. Ministers, then, need to use these texts at different moments in congregational life, whether their community needs to hear security or if they need to hear warning.

2. The “thing behind the thing” in this issue is the classic legalism vs antinomianism (“cheap grace”) stale mate. On the one hand, we need to help people feel secure in their faith in Christ, that God loves them and that Jesus died for them “while they were sinners.” (Romans 5:8) On the other hand, being a Christian also means engaging in transformation. God meets us where we are, but doesn’t leave us where we are.

What is asked is, “Will salvation ‘stick’ to/in me, even if I make mistakes?” Some say, “Yes and always yes.” Others say, “Yes, but you’ve got to grow up, or else.”

One of the question-askers wanted my take on the issue.

Reminder: this is not the official church position or even shared by all staff persons, perhaps.

I’ll put it this way: God’s ability to keep me in the covenant family is greater than my ability to walk away.

Sounds like “Switzerland,” perhaps. But, that is how I’d answer it today.


Bieber and A Curious Phone Call

My Office Manager at church received what initially was a call from an anonymous person who, “had a Bible question.” I eagerly took the phone call, anticipating a great conversation.

Yeah, right.

The person on the other end wanted to debate their theological vantage point. He was rude, he avoided my questions, etc. The caller was so heated that I anticipated that he’d show up to our church to engage in round 2 of his assault.

After the phone call, as I thought about what had just happened, I wondered, “Did this guy really want to win a convert or to just argue with someone, to have a story to tell his buddies (if he had any left) about his zealous exploits for their faith?”

It reminded me of the reaction that Ginger gave me when I read a headline that Justin Bieber was arrested on suspicion of robbery.

“Why would he need to rob anyone,” she wondered.

“Maybe to prove to himself and others that he was tough enough to do it,” I thought.

Religious zeal is fine, but we have to check why our chutzpah-rate-per-second is soaring, right?

Does it come from a pure place?

Is our attempt to passionately serve God and others really have to do with serving our own selves?


‘The Bachelor’ and God Talk

I was working in Starbucks one day long enough to hear two different conversations in the seats directly behind me. Same seats. Both conversations had two people, reclined in coffee-scented, leather chairs. One conversation’s main theme was The Bachelor (or The Bachelorette), commenting on who went home and who the conversation partners “could not believe is still on the show,” along with their predictions as to what would happen next.

The conversation’s tone went up and down, each person taking turns raising their voice and expressing amazing passion about the topic at hand.

The next pair’s conversation had a main theme of church. They talked about author’s they were reading and whether or not they should tithe to the church that they were going to because they were unsure about the doctrine of eschatology that the associate pastor hinted at in his last sermon.

The conversation’s tone went up and down, each person taking turns raising their voice and expressing amazing passion about the topic at hand.

I found this to be an interesting phenomenon. I came to a conclusion that The Bachelor had somehow crafted a religious response in their fan base or that religion has created a spectator response among its adherents.

Deciding which could be more accurate is not easy; one could make an argument for both and for either.

Of course, my concern is for the latter, for it speaks to the nature of belief. What intrigues me is that a spectating faith could actually separate what a person believes from how that belief works in his/her life. Beliefs become commodities that one can stack on a shelf (metaphorically), safe and tucked away until there is an opportunity to take it off the shelf to use it, like in a conversation or in a FB post battle.

Vincent Miller suggests that beliefs used to hold people; today people hold beliefs.

This is why we can have spirited conversations about God and “be there” but then “switched a gear” when the experience is over and say, “Wow. That was nice. I haven’t talked about God like that in a long time.” And it really had been a long time.

This is why we can have a conversation with someone at church with enough Church-inese stuffed into our part of the conversation so as to give the other person the conclusion that many words were used but nothing was really said.

 

It is why we can have a “Christian self” that runs alongside other selves that we’ve hatched into the world. Everything is fine with that set up until our Christian self bumps into another self that doesn’t get along with the Christian self. We then ask ourselves, “Selves… who am I?” And all three of you say, “Not sure.”

This is why we can say that we love someone all-the-while express acute (and not-so-acute) postures of distaste. No wonder they cannot hear us even when we say I love you in frantic, angry tones.

Have you ever asked someone to explain exactly how they see you and you would not let them out of the conversation until everything that needed to be said could be said?

Who knows… an interesting revelation about the nature of our faith could be realized.

Who knows… maybe we’d experience this amazing opportunity of conversion and repentance.

Just add Eucharist and everything will be ok.

Let’s start chatting, people.


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