Category Archives: Kingdom of God

The Triumph of Good

Edmund Burke once said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” This quote is often cited and paraphrased by people to justify their engagement in and response to the affairs of life such as politics, crime, and other social-cultural issues. So whether it is stopping something as terrifying as a possible terrorist entering a café with a bomb or confronting an issue like systematic racism, something must be done or else evil wins.

Over the years I have heard plenty of Christians express the wisdom of Burke too, though I always wonder what they must think of Jesus hanging on the cross then. After all, in the moment of the Jesus’ crucifixion it appears that Jesus has done nothing and that the triumph of evil is at hand. Of course, given the message preached by the apostle Peter on Pentecost that the God has raised the crucified Jesus from death and exalted him as Lord and Messiah, we believe that God has ultimately − in an eschatological sense − triumphed over evil. So we know that while Jesus may have appeared to be doing nothing to stop evil, God was actually doing much.

That begs of us to think more critically about how we respond to evil. While it may be true in a temporal sense that evil may triumph when good men do nothing, evil may also triumph when good men do the wrong something. So for the church, as followers of Jesus, we must become more discerning about our engagement as a public faith in a world still awaiting the fullness of redemption from evil.

What does it mean to be a good person? What sort of actions does a good person undertake? These questions have to do with virtuous living which is itself a big issue taken up in numerous books, some good and some not so good. At the risk of sounding reductionistic and too simplistic, these questions are answered by the way of life Jesus, whom we follow as believers, lived as described to us in scripture. Thus fighting fire with fire, evil with evil is out of the question. We must instead learn how to practice self-sacrificial love and faith showing mercy and extending grace, offering hospitality and rendering service without discrimination. Our responsibility is not to ask how well self-sacrificial love and faith works but to trust that it does, even if for a time it might seem foolishly inept in the fight against evil.

“While it may be true in a temporal sense that evil may triumph when good men do nothing, evil may also triumph when good men do the wrong something.”

Last week America was shaken by the news of two more fatal police shootings of black men. In one case, the shooting death of an unarmed Terence Crutcher, officer Betty Shelby has been charged with first-degree manslaughter. Not wanting to create a distraction at her church’s worship gathering, Officer Shelby offered to stay home but her church insisted that she join them. After all, whatever the outcome of the charges Officer Shelby is facing and whatever responsibility she bears in the death of Terence Crutcher, she needs as much grace as the rest of us. The response of her church is but one example of what it means to practice self-sacrificial love and faith. Another example is the response of black and white Tulsa residents, many of whom I presume identify as Christians since they live within the Bible-belt, who gathered to pray. Prayer is not an empty act devoid in the pursuit of justice, as it allows us to pause long enough that we may continue trusting in God and hear from God as to how we should respond to the issues of violence, racism, and injustice in our day.

The only response to any form of evil is good and for Christians, what is “good” is known to us in the way of life Jesus teaches us to live and exemplified himself. As we near another major election in America and as our society wrestles with so many challenging issues, we may choose to vote and even protest. However, let us never allow such politics to become a replacement for embodying the good news of Jesus and the kingdom of God. The redemptive mission of God, which has and will triumph over evil, is extended by living in word and deed as faithful witnesses of Jesus. That has always been the case whether Christians have had state political freedom to vote and protest or not.

The way to lose any single battle over evil is not just by doing nothing but also by doing the wrong something. So even if it appears in the temporal sense that evil is winning, do good by practicing the self-sacrificing love and faith of Jesus for the triumph of good! 

Can We Listen to the Protest?

For the last couple of weeks we all have seen the news of football players refusing to stand during the playing of America’s National Anthem. Some people have applauded while many others have condemned. This has all taken place amid a larger conversation about race-relations in America as it has become painfully clear over the last several years that racism is still a problem challenging society. How we respond, especially those of us who are white like me, will either further the divide or open a door for reimagined future where racism begins to lose its grip on society.

I’ve never known what it’s like to suffer oppression but I have experienced suffering of another kind. I’m referring to the death of my son Kenny when he was just three days old. Sixteen months later, my younger brother John died unexpectedly too. I was only twenty-nine then and only seven years removed from when I sat beside my father as he laid in bed and took his last breath, succumbing to cancer. These deaths and the suffering they trigger has had a lasting impact on my personal narrative, the story of my life. Although I have learned to live with such grief and pain, it’s still suffering.

One of the realities of such suffering is dealing with those who think they know how I or someone else who has suffered should handle such tragedy when they have never endured such tragedy themselves. I’ve heard people say things like “just got to let it go and move on” when my life seemed to be emotionally paralyzed with grief and it seemed impossible and even undesirable to move on because the only thing I wanted to do is hold my son one more time. Others said  something like “Don’t think like that… God works in all things for the good of…” (cf. Rom 8:28) when I voiced my anger as I questioned why God did not save son.

Those who have endured great suffering whether it be a serious health crisis such as cancer, the death of someone like a child, divorce, etc… understand what I am talking about. For all the suffering endured there is also the frustration of having someone who has not walked in our shoes telling us how we should handle it. And frustrating it is! That’s also why even though I have never suffered social-political oppression, I believe I can speak up for the oppressed on at least one issue: The frustration of having those who have never been oppressed criticize them and school them in a better response.

…it is utter foolishness for us, who are not oppressed, to think that we can define how those who feel oppressed voice their protest.

Right now in America there are many minorities, and particularly Blacks, who feel as if they are being oppressed. Whether the reality matches their perception does not matter, though I will say that I believe there is always some truth to the perception and that seems true in this case as well. The rest of us are not in any position judge the oppressed, especially if we cannot even take the time to be present with them first in order to listen (= listen to understand) a little. But that’s not what happens these days. Instead the voice of protest is quickly dismissed and criticized by plenty of people. Thus, as certain football players have chosen not to stand for the playing of the National Anthem, choosing to kneel in order to raise a voice of protest over the oppression of blacks and other minorities they see taking place in America, others have been critical as reported here and as we have all seen in our social-media feeds. Of course, if we haven’t ever suffered oppression then we have the privilege of so easily dismissing and criticizing those who do protest since we’re not the one’s suffering, but I digress!

We may dislike the way some football players are choose to kneel during the National Anthem as they protest the oppression they see but we are not the ones to judge. In fact, it is utter foolishness for us, who are not oppressed, to think that we can define how those who feel oppressed voice their protest. The best thing we can do is listen as they voice their protest. Any failure to listen and so critically dismiss such protests is itself a form of oppression. God forgive us for such a sin!

So can we listen? Can we talk to someone who is a minority living “one the other side of the tracks” in town and ask them what struggles they have because they are black, because their first language is Spanish, because they come from somewhere in the Middle-East? If we’ll listen to such people, and hear the ways in which they still struggle because they are a minority and because of some of the injustices that still occur in America, we might just learn to have empathy for their suffering. When that happen we might just discover together ways of cultivating a more civil and just society for all people. And if we’re Christians doing this in the name of Jesus, as we should, we help extend the kingdom of heaven so that the will of God takes place here on earth as it does in heaven!

“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

~ Micah 6:8

Proleptic Vision: Christians, America, and the Upcoming Presidential Election

How should Christians, people who profess to believe in and follow Jesus Christ, live? In one sense that seems like a simple question to answer: Christians must become like Jesus Christ. That’s why the Apostle Paul says, “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Gal 4:19). However, this opens other important questions such as how such life formation shapes the way we act towards the poor, the way we live in marriage, the way we love our enemies, and so on.

Though it has not always been the cast, most of these other questions are a no-brainer. Of course, the life Jesus lived should shape the way we act as husbands or wives, the way we love our enemies (even if we don’t agree on what all that entails). Yet there is one aspect in which Jesus doesn’t seem to have a lot of influence these days and that is how Christians relate to earthly nations in light of history.

The fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians is a well known passage of scripture for its proclamation of the gospel, the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the promise of salvation this gospel offers to those who believe. Consider though, the historical implications of the gospel. Because of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul says in vv. 20-24:

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.

What a huge historical claim this passage makes about the future and end or goal (telos) of history. As Jürgen Moltmann notes, the future and hope is already present to Christians in Christ (Theology of Hope, p. 161). This makes history proleptic whereby the future of history is already known to those who believe, giving the church a proleptic vision. All dominion, authority, and power is and will surrender to the reign of Jesus, who will then hand over the kingdom to God the father.

…Christians must regard all nations and history in light of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ along with that appointed time when the kingdom of God is handed to God the Father and all other kingdoms are destroyed.

Right now, America is engaged in a vitriolic and contentious political campaign that will culminate in the election of a new President of the United States. In varying degrees, Christians in America are for the most part also engaged in this political campaign. Some Christians would even suggest, as one article does, that the future of America is at stake with this election. Should Christians have such a concern? Remember what the passage above from 1 Corinthians already implies for believers: the future of America and every other earthly nation is already known. Whatever claims of sovereignty America and other earthly nations make, Jesus Christ has already defeated such sovereignty which will surrender no later then when the end (telos) of history dawns.

This must change the way Christians live historically in relation to the nations and that includes America. Sine Jesus Christ is already victorious over all dominion and authority, including America and every other earthly nation, then the work of Christians in every local church is the proclamation of this victory (cf. John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, p. 147). Just as I suggest that Christians should read the Bible through the hermeneutical lenses of christology and eschatology, the Christian life and ministry must be christologically-centered and eschatologically-oriented. The doctrines of christology and eschatology should shape the proleptic vision of the church, changing the way Christians should relate to all earthly nations and history. That is, Christians must regard all nations and history in light of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ along with that appointed time when the kingdom of God is handed to God the Father and all other kingdoms are destroyed. The Christian witness then involves letting the world know of this victory. All earthly nations, including America, must know that they are neither eternal nor sovereign because God has already established his eternal kingdom through the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord, Jesus Christ.

Lest I be misunderstood or even falsely accused, I do not hate America. Problems notwithstanding, America has and will most likely continue to be a good nation to live among. So please, if you’ve read this far, do not think of me as an anti-American hater, because I’m not. I just believe that Jesus is Lord and that my allegiance is therefore due to Jesus and his kingdom.

So how should Christians in America relate to earthly nations in light of history, particularly as it pertains to the upcoming election? As November 8th approaches, it does seem that Christians have good reason for concern (though neither fear nor anxiety). Whoever is elected as the next President of the United States or whoever becomes a Mayor among any number of American cities does matter. Those holding such such offices should be people who will serve by seeking the relative good of all people. However, Christians must not be misled into thinking that the future of America is really what matters. What matters is that Jesus Christ is the crucified and resurrected Lord! What a failure it is for Christians to become so entangled in the business of who wins an election that the gospel takes a back seat, resulting in a diminished and compromised Christian witness.

For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, let them see and hear!

A Christian Hermeneutic: Until Christ Is Formed In You

Anyone can pick up a Bible, read it and quote it. But that doesn’t mean they’ll read it right and begin living the life the Bible points to, revealed to us by Jesus. In fact, remember when Jesus was led into the wilderness and tested by the devil? Well, the devil even quoted scripture and I’m quite sure his use of scripture was not what God had in mind.

I’ve been busy finishing a thesis proposal for my Doctor of Ministry degree in Contextual Theology at Northern Seminary. My interest and the focus of my research is on missional hermeneutics and how a church reads the Bible in order to live as participants in the mission of God. It’s an important issue as churches navigate new challenges brought on by rapid changes in their local communities. It’s also an important issue because not every Christian/church reads the Bible well. Reading the Bible to simply protect the status quo of tradition in your church, to legitimize the American way of life, to promote the  “name it, claim it” prosperity gospel, and so on. Bad reading!

How we read our Bible matters also as we are faced with new moral and ethical challenges. With great advances in technology, new discoveries in science, the availability of a plethora of information at the click of a mouse, and the onset of globalization, we have reason to inquire about what is right and wrong or how we should act and respond to this or that issue. Racism, homosexuality, gun violence and terrorism, abortion, marriage and divorce, materialism and charity… to name a few of the issues.

Some of the issues may seem to have an easy answer where it seems clear as to what the will of God is and therefore how Christians should believe and act. For some Christians it is but for others it’s not as clear cut. In fact, there are Christians, who love Jesus and desire to follow him as much as you, who have come to some different conclusions than you. Whose right and whose wrong isn’t the point. What matters is that we recognize that facing the difficult challenges and finding answers to the questions they raise, if that’s possible since that is not always the case, is more than just a matter of asking what does the Bible say?

I don’t want to be misunderstood though. Asking what the Bible says is a good question but it is always a matter of interpretation and our interpretation is always based on a hermeneutic. Everyone has a hermeneutic whether they know it or not, the real question is whether it is a good hermeneutic or a bad hermeneutic. One person’s hermeneutic might be happiness and so long as it makes a person happy or brings them joy, then nothings wrong. Another person’s hermeneutic might be the virtue of “do no harm” and so an action permissible as long as it doesn’t result in injury to anyone else.

For Christians and churches, our hermeneutic is anchored in Jesus Christ. In a blog post, there is only say so much that one can say which may (hopefully) raise more questions than it answers and that is my hope here. But let me try explaining what I mean by Jesus Christ as our hermeneutic by quoting one passage of scripture from the Apostle Paul:

“My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you (Gal 4:19)

This is one of the classic passages when talking about spiritual formation and it seems clear that Paul ministry sought to form the church in the way of Jesus Christ. How Jesus lived, becoming a crucified servant, and the purpose for which he lived, the kingdom of God, must become our way and purpose for how we live. This is the hermeneutic we must read the Bible through, which I believe is shaped by the dual lenses of christology (the life Jesus lived) and eschatology (the goal for which Jesus lived).

To describe this Christian hermeneutic another way, this hermeneutic is christologically-centered and eschatologically oriented. Reading the Bible through this hermeneutical lens is not likely to make the challenging issues and questions faced by churches any easier in addressing. However, it provides a beginning point that for determine right and wrong not based on happiness or lacking any injury but on whether our actions are Christ likeness in perspective and direction.

And if the church, the Christian life, isn’t Christ likeness… Well, you know!

Got Faith?

Willmar TornadoThe picture you see to the right was the tornado that touched down a third of a mile from my house on July 11, 2008. My family and I had just moved to Willmar, Minnesota and I had just returned from a stop at the nearby Best Buy where I overheard there was a confirmed tornado touch down in Kandiyohi County. I didn’t make much of it because the skies were still bright but five minutes later, while retrieving a flashlight from the trunk of our car, I noticed that the branches on the trees looked like a vacuum cleaner was sweeping them up. In what seemed like minutes but really was a couple of seconds, I heard what sounded like a jet approaching and noticed my ears were beginning to pop as I looked up at the sky to see the twister approaching.

As soon as I realized that a tornado was coming, I ran back into house screaming for my wife to get the children and get into the basement immediately. Fortunately for us, the tornado made a slight turn in direction and we, along with the other residents on the south side of Willmar were spared a direct hit. Damage was minimal, with only two injuries and some property damage nearby (including three homes that were leveled).

Fear and Faith On A Stormy Sea

I have a fascination with storms, especially tornadoes but on that particular occasion, I was scared. So when I read Mark 4:35-41 where the disciples are become frightened on a boat as a storm comes along, I can identify with them. In fact, I really want to speak out in their defense. These were seasoned fisherman who were used to the seas but this storm was big enough to scare them. In fact the storm was strong enough to cause the waves to break over the boat. So if the boat should capsize, they all are probably going to drown and they know that. That’s why disciples wake Jesus up and frantically ask him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”

Well, if you’ve read this story then you know Jesus rebukes the storm and silences it, saying “Peace, be still” (KJV). But then Jesus turns to his disciples and says to them, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

Can we have enough faith so that our natural impulse of fear does not become our master? 

I used to think that Jesus was rebuking his disciples for their lack of faith which is why it seemed like Jesus was being a little unfair. However, the text never says that Jesus is rebuking his disciples per se. So what is Jesus doing? Perhaps his question about fear and faith is not so much a rebuke as it is a teacher challenging his learners (which is what a disciple is). After all, I think Jesus, as a human, can understand why a storm provokes fear and let’s not forget that fear is a normal reaction too. But Jesus has also began to demonstrate the inbreaking of the kingdom of God by healing diseases, driving out demons, and teaching with authority that was unlike any of the other religious authorities. Then, according to the Gospel of Mark, in chapter four Jesus has taught a series of parables about the potency of faith. So it seems that Jesus is taking advantage of the opportunity to point out their fear and remind them that they need to have faith.

Faith, of course, is important and necessary. Jesus knows that his disciples will face more danger, more unnerving encounters, and challenges bigger than this storm. And for that, they will need to have faith. Not just intellectual assent that confesses belief in Jesus, but a living faith that is willing to follow Jesus even to the point of death on the cross. Can the disciples have such faith? But the more important question: Can we have such faith?

Assuming you’re a Christian like I am, can we have enough faith so our natural impulse of fear does not become our master? 

Faith and The Way of Jesus

Right now we live in a volatile society that is rupturing quickly. I’m not one for doom and gloom but there’s hardly a day that goes by without the report of another terrorist attack somewhere and sometimes that somewhere is here in America. Political extremism, racism, and violence are spending like cancer and regardless of who’s to blame, such evil is a danger to everyone. Those without faith think the problem will be solved by more of the same, matching one extremism with another extreme or trying to solve violence with more violence. But as the late Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

The only way of peace is the way of Jesus, the way of the cross. That is, the kingdom of God breaks upon the wold as we, the disciples of Jesus, his church, embody his self-sacrificial life and emulate his character as a witness to the rest of society. Some Christians don’t get this. Even though they proclaim the cross as God’s victory over evil, they’ll reason (utilitarianism) as to why God’s power of the cross must be set aside for the power of the sword in one form or another. But how can we live under the cross as follower of Jesus and set aside the cross. As Leonard Allen writes, “The church that lives under the cross will consist of people possessing cruciform values, that is, the character traits and virtues necessary to follow the way of the cross” (The Cruciform Church, p. 187).

According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus calls us to follow him all the way to the cross. With a hindsight faith, we believe that even though Jesus was crucified and buried in a tomb, the tomb is now empty and Jesus is alive. Sin and death have been defeated and the kingdom of God is appearing. It is our calling to live as witnesses and show the world the way of peace, where hatred is replace with love, where the light drives out the darkness of racism, violence and any other malady. But this is not an easy call. It never was and never will be. It takes faith.

Fear is a natural response to any storm, whether it be a literal storm like a tornado or a metaphorical storm in the form of racism and terrorism. But here is Jesus saying to his church, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

Overcoming Racism: The Pursuit of Reconciliation

Like most others, I am saddened by the violent loss of human life. Whether it is the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile or the deaths of the five police officers, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Brent Thompson, and Patrick Zamarripa, there are now seven different families that are grieving the loss of someone they loved. As a follower of Jesus and a minister of the gospel, I am grieved because I don’t like seeing and hearing of others suffering. I am also  frustrated because I believe the church of Jesus Christ in America should be an example of reconciliation but isn’t. But as a Christian, as a follower of Jesus, I believe we must!

On television and social-media, the vitriol and anger is so palpable that it can be cut with a knife. Some want to point fingers, but don’t! Blaming others for flaming the current racial divide only stokes the fire more. The truth is that racism and inequality has always been a problem in America but those who have suffered as a result of such hatred, particularly blacks, are tired and are crying out to those of us with ears to hear and eyes to see. Some seem to think that violence will help but it won’t. It never has and never will. In fact, violence only begets violence which only begets more anger and hatred which only begets more violence which only… you get my point.

But there is an alternative to blaming others and killing one another, an alternative that seeks true peace and reconciliation. As a praxis, peace and reconciliation begin with a conversation that’s possible because Jesus has died on the cross, exposing the darkness and rendering it powerless (cf. Col 2:15). On the cross, Jesus extends true love and forgiveness. In turn, we are free to love each other with enough humility to hear the pain of the other, repent as necessary (whether it’s injustice or just indifference and apathy), forgive each other, learn to speak truthfully with each other and serve with each other for the sake of justice.

What we need is a conversation where we come around the table with enough humility to listen with empathy to others, especially to people of different skin colors. Overcoming racial and social differences requires that we engage others, listening with empathy for the struggles of the other. Love demands that we engage others, listening with empathy to their struggles of being hated and discriminated against. The pursuit of reconciliation demands that we are willing to repent where necessary, forgive one another, and stand with the oppressed in their desire for justice.

The place for such conversations should be our churches and that means becoming intentional about creating and cultivating space for such conversations. Our pursuit of reconciliation is the outworking of the gospel we profess and our currency that gives visible substance to our gospel, so that our proclamation of the gospel is a living tradition rather than dead traditionalism. But for far too long churches have been on the wrong side of the fence either because we were engaged in unjust practices of racism or because our we remained indifferent, pursuing other issues we deemed more important. This has to change! If we believe that it is the gospel of Jesus Christ and not Democrat or Republican politics that offers true peace and reconciliation then it must change and that change must be us. So let’s open space for others of different color at the table, just as Jesus has done for us, that we may pursue reconciliation with them.

The Gospel According To Us

“Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary use words.” This famous quote is often attributed to the twelfth century Catholic Friar, St. Francis of Assisi, though as far as we know he never actually made such a statement. Christians often share this quote as a reminder that the life of Christians should be a proclamation of the gospel itself and that the gospel proclaimed in spoken word is insufficient. Of course, this quote attributed to St. Francis has also come under criticism in an attempt preserve the necessity of preaching the gospel in words. Ed Stetzer goes so far as to say that “the quote is not biblical.”

Is it really unbiblical to suggest that we should preach the gospel and only use words as necessary? Stetzer thinks so and makes his case by appealing to the Apostle Paul, particularly what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8:

The Apostle Paul summarized the gospel as the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ… The gospel is not habit, but history. The gospel is the declaration of something that actually happened. And since the gospel is the saving work of Jesus, it isn’t something we can do, but it is something we must announce. We do live out its implications, but if we are to make the gospel known, we will do so through words.

The problem with this is that while it’s fair to describe what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15 about the gospel as a summary, we must remember that it’s just a summary. As with any summary, there is much more detail to what the gospel of Jesus Christ is and that is found in the larger biblical narrative which is why Paul says that the death of Christ is “according to the Scriptures” (v. 4). Beyond the mere facts of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, there is a kingdom with a particular end (telos) that cannot be separated from the gospel. Even more so, behind the historical facts of the gospel is the actually life which Jesus lived and called us to follow him in living too. We read of this life in the four canonical Gospels, the Gospel According to Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John. As Scot McKnight points out, these four books are called “Gospels” because they each are witnesses to the storied life that Jesus lived (The King Jesus Gospel, pp. 81-82). That’s important because Jesus himself proclaimed the gospel in both word and deed. Put another way, Jesus both demonstrated and declared the gospel, the good news of the kingdom of God.

Unequivocally then, the gospel is preached in both word and deed, and therefore something which is both seen and heard. So rather than making a dichotomy between preaching the gospel in word and deed, turning this into an either/or issue, let’s treat preaching the gospel in word and deed as a both/and issue. If someone thinks the gospel only needs to be lived and never proclaimed in word, then Ed Stetzer has a valid reason for concern and I join with him in voicing such concern. However, I suspect that some Christians regard the gospel demonstrated as less important that the gospel declared. I don’t know of a Christian who would admit such devaluing of the demonstrated gospel but when we look at what is done, there are reasons for such suspicions.

“Jesus both demonstrated and declared the gospel, the good news of the kingdom of God.”

Last week after various evangelical leaders met with Presidential Candidate Donald Trump, James Dobson of Focus on the Family declared that Trump had accepted Jesus Christ and therefore was now a Christian. Regardless of Trump’s political views, there is good reason for raising questions about Trump’s alleged conversion when months ago Trump said that he has never even asked God for forgiveness and did not have any need of repentance. However, as one article recently said, this is not about Trump:

But I think these things are less the failure of Trump’s Christian infancy as much as they are a microcosm of the underlying problem with much of America’s evangelical movement — we actually have no idea what it means to be Christian. We lack a meaningful understanding of faith and belief.

That’s right, the issue is really a problem for Christians.

However, I believe such confusion about what it means to be a Christian flows from a misunderstanding of the gospel itself. If we think that demonstrating the gospel is somehow less important than declaring the gospel with the spoken word then it’s easy to define a Christian based on what they say, such as claiming to have accepted Jesus Christ. Identifying a Christian has less or even little to do with the transformed living that comes from the Spirit at work as we repent and receive our baptism into Christ.

While we all, as Christians, including myself, struggle in someway to live congruently with the faith we profess, our faith in Jesus is intended to become an embodied life as much as it is a confession. Yet one only needs to open up the status feed on social-media to see that what Christians often believe in, value, and advocate for is far removed from Jesus… Like when a woman’s right to choice or a person’s right to bear arms eclipses all consideration of the thousands of unborn children or the numerous civilians who are being slaughtered by gun violence across America… Like when fear of terrorism, Muslim refugees, and undocumented immigrants justifies an expedient exemption from love our neighbors as ourselves and even loving our enemies… Like when the need to either be politically correct or politically offensive allows the demonization of either the police or the #BlackLivesMatter movement, depending on what side one falls on, or despise the LBGTQ community…. Like when sounds more like an echo chamber of Bill Maher or Bill O’Reilly than Jesus and the Bible that bears witness to Jesus. And like I said, one only needs to turn to social-media to see what I’m getting at.

“…our faith in Jesus is intended to become an embodied life as much as it is a confession.”

The only way forward begins with a better understanding of the gospel, which includes understanding the gospel as an embodied way of life rooted in the mission of God. I’ve just finished reading Michael J. Gorman’s book Becoming The Gospel which summarizes this saying:

From Paul’s perspective the gospel itself is a powerful word of transformation, its content being given voice not merely in words but also, and inseparably, in actions. This does not eliminate the need for, or the importance of, words, but it does imply that the words have meaning and power only in action. God did something in Christ; Christ did something in becoming human and giving himself for us; the Spirit does something to and through the people who believe the good news of this divine activity.

     Furthermore, the content of the gospel Paul preaches is so thoroughly rooted both in the peculiar Christological shape of this divine activity — the life and teaching, and especially the death and resurrection, of Jesus — and in the Scriptures of Israel, with their promises of the Spirit and of shalom, that people who believe such good news are ineluctably drawn into its strange Christ-shaped and Scripture-shaped reality. So if the gospel has to do with a faithful God, a Suffering Servant who inaugurates God’s shalom, and a prophetically promised indwelling Spirit, then the individuals and communities who believe in that good news will be shaped in their minds and bodies, their thinking and their living, into Godlike, Christlike, Spirit-enabled people who in some real, if imperfect, way instantiate the message they believe (p. 298).

This connection between the gospel as historical reality and embodied life is what seems lacking, in varying degrees, among many Christians and local churches.

I’ve talked with more than a few churches over my years as a minister. Most are experiencing some decline and seeking renewal, desiring both spiritual and numerical growth. That’s good but we must understand that renewal is the work of God which sprouts from the gospel as it is believed in word and embodied in deed. So I would like to suggest that we must give as much, if not more, attention to demonstrating the gospel in the way we live as we give to declaring the gospel with words — without drawing a sharp distinction between word and deed since what we believe, value, and advocate for with spoken words reflects and impacts how we live.

How we demonstrate the gospel matters more than ever if we are to have any credible gospel witness. In fact, in our post-Christendom society where our Christian voice is increasingly marginalized, how we demonstrate the gospel becomes a currency of sorts for gaining a hearing. Without demonstrating the gospel, we lose the audience of those who may be open to the declared gospel. Stated in the positive, demonstrating the gospel as our embodied way of life gives us the credibility for declaring the gospel and “preaching the word” then becomes an explanation of what is seen rather than just an argumentation for what we profess. After all, the only gospel of Jesus Christ others are going to see and hear is, as the picture above suggest, the gospel according to us… the gospel we embody in word and deed. So to invoke the alleged wisdom of St. Francis of Assisi again, “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary use words.”