Wednesday, March 21, 2012

It's all about Jesus. Or is it?


While surfing the net looking for churches, I came across a widely known church's website. Very well done graphics and organization for the most part. Unfortunately, it was difficult to find anything that described what they believed except for an oft-repeated refrain, "It's all about Jesus." Not very helpful really. I mean, that's like motherhood and apple pie, right?

Is it really all about Jesus? I know that at first blush, who could argue with such a statement? And I admit that as far as it goes, it's an OK statement. But not in the absence of any amplifying descriptions. As some of you may have noticed, I get a little concerned when folks want me to believe it's all about anything, and this is no exception.

Let's get the obligatory disclaimers out of the way up front. I am a disciple, I accept Jesus as the divine Son of God and savior of the world. I understand that his coming and death were pre-ordained by God. I understand the expectation that people are called to believe in him.

From a human perspective, the Scriptures we have and pay most attention to certainly make it seem like it's all about Jesus. Paul even says that the Gospel he preaches is Christ, so clearly Jesus plays a pretty big role in whatever is going on. Jesus removed our sins, having remained faithful even through death, and that if we have seen Jesus, we have seen the Father. So far, so good.

Sounds like it might be all about Jesus.

OK, take a breath.

Turn the table around and look at what's going on from God's view. The picture changes considerably. God made you to live in this world and enjoy it; he wants you live in the fullness of your making and being. 

When Paul uses the term Christ, the term is not synomomous with the person Jesus. The title of Christ is heavy with implications and one of those is where this Christ comes in the foreknowledge and plan of God. Knowing that people were going to fail to live with a desire for God, God's intent of sending Jesus to restore all things to their rightful state was always the plan. Messiah is intended as a blessing for people more than a payment for guilt.

When Jesus says he and the Father are one, he does so to make the point that he has revealed God to people. In fact, Jesus' life is an intentional unveiling of God for the benefit of the creation. 

OK, take another breath.

What does history look like from God's side of the table? It looks a whole lot like there is not inconsiderable interest in you. Everything God has done from creation to the sacrifice of Jesus and the sending of the Holy Spirit is for your benefit. God doesn't need you, and he doesn't need to die for you after living a humble and often humiliating life.

But he did.

All of it for you.

Is it about Jesus? Yes; but it's also about you.

Remember, God loves you.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Living in a Dualistic Existence


One more observation from Sunday. I have kept this a separate observation because it's implications are so far reaching. Our speaker Sunday made the observation, I think, or maybe he just recalled this to mind for me, that there is no secular existence. We Christians often get bogged down in church doctrinal discussions because we want to make a distinction between our "regular lives," and our "church lives."

This is a problem because it belies the realization that we don't really buy into this Christian faith as fully as we say we do. You've heard this before, but we seem to forget it when we leave the church property. We live as though there is a difference between our church existence and our weekly existence. We run the risk in making the same mistake that the People of God have made repetitively through history. We forget that we are his people in his creation for his purposes.

We are his people every moment of our lives whether we are at church, at work, or fishing on the pier. There is not a sacred me, and a secular me. A me who does all the right stuff, and a me who can get away with not so nice stuff. There is only a sacred me. All the time.

The world is his world every moment of its existence, whether or not its aligned with Christian values. The world is touched by his hand not only in creation but in his care. If God is there; if God is concerned about it, it is sacred space. There is not a secular world and a sacred world. 

Our work, behaviors, expectations are supposed to be aligned with his purpose every moment and in every manifestion. We must know his purposes and we must be given over to them completely. There are not sacred purposes for the church, and secular allowances for whatever we find to do during the week. We are 
always working sacred purposes, even while digging a trench or being dressed down at work.

The implications of this realization are instructive for church business, and informs our understanding of Scripture and our place in it. Let me use the latest broohaha in my faith community as an example. Some say that women cannot lead or instruct men. And yet they limit that restriction to church because well, that's church. Unfortunately, this approach is guilty of a couple logical fallacies.

The first is that it seeks to establish what we do "in church" as the definition of the People of God as though Sunday morning is the sum total or at least the measure of living the Christian life. It simply isn't. What we know as church is simply a convenience for disciples to meet together, support one another, and worship our God. But it isn't the only time those practices are accomplished and it has no other rules than how we practice during the week as the People of God. Ther is no sacred practice and a looser secular practice.

The second is that it divides our natural lives into two spheres, one church related and the other secular. We miss of course that we argue that God is the God of all people; that his desires are universal, not limited to church life. We argue that women cannot lead or teach men and yet work at jobs where men and women routinely share leadership and instructional roles. If we actually believed there are no secular existences, we could not live with that clear violation at work and in our lives. If it is true that God, from the beginning has decided that women cannot lead or teach men, then we violate our own moral and ethical beliefs by taking a job as a woman where we exercise those prerogatives, or as a man where we would have a woman boss, mentor, or teacher.

We can understand that women in the "secular" world do all sorts of things with our acceptance if not encouragement, but we don't carry that into the "sacred" parts of life, believing that there is a distinction. The problem is that there isn't a distinction, and our speaker was correct in his thrust that there is no secular world.

It would do the church well to realize this simple, sublime, and critical reality about our world, our neighbors, and our religious practice. We really aren't all that Christian as long as we live in a dual world.

More From Sunday


Our speaker on Sunday, aside from what I observed in my previous post, did have some good, positive and on-topic things to say. The most important thing is that salvation has never really been about getting to Heaven. We aren't called to be baptized and then go to church hoping to not sin to the point of being excluded from Paradise. We are called to a salvation life now, right here, right now. Some people refer to this as our baptized life or even living into our baptism, a phrase I like because it parallels the idea of living into the likeness in which we are made. 

If salvation isn't about getting to Heaven, then what is it about? If you read my previous post, you already know that it's about transformation; about coming to actually be the image of God in it's finer details. We take on the character of God as our character; it becomes the warp and woof of our very existence. This is not a mere learning do be nice, although we will be. It isn't about learning to have empathy, although we will. It is about becoming niceness and empathy in our very essence. It isn't so much that pitiful me learns how to be nice while remaining the pitiful me, as though I am separate from my being nice. Niceness and me merge into one.

This is why John tells us that disciples cannot sin. He doesn't mean humans absolutely cannot sin, but that if we so own God, it won't be in us to sin. We don't look to sin. Rather, our focus remains on the transformation of our beings promised by God. When we sin, we move back toward God without fear of punishment.

This last brings up another of our speaker's good observations. While I would not endorse the once-saved-always-saved view of eternal security, I also do not endorse the idea that if I miss verbally repenting of my last commited sin, I'm toast. The tension here is where an appropriate understanding of doctrine and relationship comes in. We are in relationship with God if the major thrust of our lives is toward alignment with God. This is a relationship God welcomes without demanding perfection from beings he knows to be imperfect. This does not trump doctrine but it does trump negative judgment.

God loves you and he wants you to live the fullest, blessed life possible here. This is what salvation is about more so than a ticket to Heaven (which remains available), that we allow God to transform us into his likeness which is the very likeness in which we were made to live. This love isn't a nice, touchy feely sort of love, although that may well be in the mix. It is rather a knowing you inside and out and wanting you to live into that completion; that satisfaction. Not because he has butterflies in his belly, but because he knows it's best for you.

Take him up on it. It will be one of the most frustrating and yet satisfying endeavors you've ever tried.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Relationships and Doctrine


Today we were told that "relationship trumps doctrine," and that "it [the Gospel] is all about relationships." The problem of course, is that neither of those are correct. More correctly, they are both less than complete. I understand that when giving a class, it is often difficult to tie the topic up in a bow in one session, relying on subsequent sessions to clarify and bound the initial "hook."

Unfortunately, our speaker only had today to launch into this discussion. When you are confronted with that challenge, a speaker should figure out a way to bound his statements or pick a topic that is more restrictive and more easily explained. It isn't as though our speaker was rushed for time, he had plenty of opportunity to clarify his statements so that they would represent the whole of Scripture rather than this tiny bit. He simply didn't.

A moment's reflection will reveal that relationship does not in fact trump doctrine in an absolute sense. If it were true, we wouldn't need Jesus; we could do just fine with Facebook. I'm pretty sure the speaker didn't mean that we could overlook doctrine entirely in deference to relationship, but he never said that. He repeatedly stated his premise that relationship is the end all of the Christian life. Quite simply, it isn't.

The Gospel isn't all about relationship. Relationships play a part in the Gospel sure enough. There is our relationship with God, and then our relationships with each other both of which are informed by the Gospel. Jesus makes no bones about people who will not be with him, some of which are going to end up apparently in a pretty bad fix if they don't shape up. Apparently to Jesus, there is something more to Gospel than "relationship."

That something is our transformation fully into the likeness in which we are made. That likeness is described variously by both Jesus and his disciples as character, as being able to put the interests of others in front of yours - even if you don't know them personally. That's the point of the Samaritan story. The Samaritan didn't know the almost dead man, and yet cared for him. No relationship existed prior to their encounter, and it isn't necessary that one existed when the Samaritan came back to pay the bill.

We read of this character in places like Micah 6 and Galatians 5. The character of God, the image of God into which we are to be transformed is one that objectively loves other people because they are other people regardless of whether we have a relationship with them or not, or whether we will ever have one. This is why Jesus castigates the Jewish leaders - they were more interested in themselves than in the down-trodden. They were more interested in their own privilege than in relieving the oppression that they themselves perpetuated. Jesus does not condemn them because they don't have relationships; they had plenty of them. The problem, as we are told, is that their hearts were not aligned with God's.

One further implication from the idea that "it's all about relationships," arises when we consider the reason God made people. If relationship is what it's all about, then do we mean to imply that God was lonely? That somehow the creation of people is about God satisfying his own need for companionship? Clearly this is not the case. A better understanding of God's having made people is that he wanted them to enjoy life. He put them on a planet, not running around Heaven with him. Our creation itself is a blessing and while living we are called to become that image in which we are made.

Let me visit the idea that relationship trumps doctrine one last time, because it might from time to time if we have confused our doctrine. What actually is at play in times when we think relationship trumps doctrine is the correct discernment of doctrine. Within doctrine there are understandings of just what aspects are more important than others. As Jesus said, the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Or again, which one of you wouldn't pull your donkey out of a pit on the Sabbath? This does not mean that stuck donkeys trump doctrine but rather that a mature disciple will know how to apply doctrine in the moment.

We are urged to come to understand what the will of God is through practice and experience. When it comes down to it, doctrine shapes relationships as one aspect of its correct application. Those relationships do not trump the very doctrine which shapes them.

Relationships do play a part in the work of God. Yes we are called back to the Father; yes we are placed in a community - a people - of like calling and faith. And yes, we grow and learn in this community. But relationship isn't what it's all about, and relationship doesn't trump doctrine.

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