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The Bible and Following Jesus (Pt. 2)

My conviction is that the church has received scripture as the word of God to us so that we may learn how to live as followers of Jesus who embody the gospel as participants in the mission of God. That is what I shared in The Bible and Following Jesus (Pt. 1) which requires, for many Christians and the churches they serve among, a new way of reading scripture. Such a reading involves a new hermeneutic that is Christ-Centered (Christology) and Kingdom-Oriented (eschatology). It matters because we, or at least I, want to see Christians and the churches they serve among faithfully embodying the gospel in a manner that is contextual appropriate for the circumstances they face.

i283445314525658362-_szw480h1280_So as people striving to follow Jesus, we must read the Bible as instruction for learning how to live as followers of Jesus. This matters all the more because in our ever-changing society we are facing new questions for which there are not always easy answers. I’m talking about questions surrounding realities like racism and reconciliation, peace-making in a violent society, gender dysphoria and sexual orientation, and escalating social displacement, to name a few. In order to discern what it means to embody the gospel as we face these questions, we must first read the Bible with the right hermeneutical question in mind.

Here’s what I mean. In recent months I have read a couple of articles asking the question of what does the Bible say about transgenderism and transgender-people. Now in one sense I want to say that this is a misleading question because the Bible says absolutely nothing about transgenderism and transgender-people. We know this because those words are never even mentioned in the Bible, so how could the Bible ever speak about something not even mentioned in the pages of scripture? Well, that’s easy. Indirectly, the Bible surely may speak to the questions we have on this subject just as it does so indirectly on a host of other subjects (e.g., firearms, vaccinations, climate change, etc…). So perhaps if we ask what does the Bible say about transgenderism and transgender-people, we might get an answer.

Not. So. Fast.

If we open the Bible asking this question first, we begin reading the Bible with a utilitarian goal in mind. My hunch is that most people, more traditional or progressive, who begin here in their reading of the Bible will simply discover that the Bible says exactly what they came expecting the Bible to say. That’s because such utilitarian objectives usually begin with a conclusion in mind.

As I have suggested, if we believe we are called to follow Jesus then we must read the Bible as instruction in learning how to live as followers of Jesus. This is why Paul says, “Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good” (2 Tim 3:16-17). Scripture is neither given to us to condemn or vindicate others. That is God’s job, not our. We have received scripture to teach us, correct our mistakes and develop our character so that we are able to do good works, that is embody the gospel.

So instead of beginning with a question that asks what the Bible says about _______, I believe we should open the Bible to ask how this word from God is instructing us to live as followers of Jesus. Then we are equipped for discerning together as a church what the scripture says and what it means to follow Jesus and embody the gospel to transgender-people, or people who are living in social displacement, or people who have endured racism throughout their lives.

     “The church has received scripture as the word of God to us so that we may learn how to live as followers of Jesus who embody the gospel as participants in the mission of God.”

A Word To The Church

The church has a problem with discipleship. But that’s nothing new. Most of the pastors I know are aware of the discipleship problem facing Christianity in America. What some may not realize is that the problem isn’t unique to us. Peek behind the curtains of the church from any time and place in history and I think we’ll see that discipleship was a challenge then just as it is now. Even in the New Testament this challenge existed, just go reread the apostle Paul’s letters we call Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, and Galatians.

youth-group-lessons-on-discipleship

Why is this important? It matters because it seems easy, perhaps even en vogue, to romanticize churches from other locations or periods of history as material for comparison against the worst problems of church in America. This is one of the major complaints I have regarding Francis Chan’s latest book Letters To The Church, 2018. Throughout the book Chan compares the attractional megachurch model in America with the cell-church or house-church models he has encountered in other countries, particularly throughout Asia. The problem is the idealism with which he paints the later so that he can contrast the seemingly worst characteristics of the attractional megachurch model in America with his romanticized view of the cell-church or house-church models.

Comparing the best against the worst of another is hardly fair but Chan also does so with little more than anecdotal evidence and an ad hoc (perhaps even post hoc) use of scripture. The result seems to suggest that if Christianity in America would just change, embracing the idealistic picture of the cell-church model, that churches would be making and forming disciples again. Now Chan, to his credit, seems to warn against reading his book like this (pp. 199-200) but it’s difficult to imagine how else we might read the book.

I’m not upset with Chan. I love his commitment to following Jesus which also, in his case, has meant a commitment to serving as a pastor. As a pastor myself, I know how trying this commitment can get at times. So my hat is off to Chan. I also agree with him that discipleship is a real challenging issue right now for Christianity in America. Consumerism, individualism, relativism, and probably a few other isms are a hinderance to following Jesus and we all, myself included,  struggle with these obstacles.

So what’s the solution? How do we face this challenge so that we might take more serious the call to live not just as church-going believers but as believers who are learning to follow Jesus on a daily basis?

Well, I don’t think we can just wipe the slate clean, so to speak, and start over. That is a myth inherited from the Enlightenment but no matter how much we try, we will still be shaped by the circumstances of our particular context. So although the Newark Church of Christ, whom I love serving as a pastor, is far from being the attractional-megachurch, it is still a more traditional church that gathers on Sunday’s in a worship space and then finds other opportunities for gathering together in prayer, community service, etc… And that’s okay! Could we do better? Of course, but God is still at work in this church through his Spirit, so I can’t just write off what God has done and is still doing.

Here’s what I can do and what you can do where you’re at, with the churches we participate among. Begin by observing how God has been at work and share those observations with a few others while considering what God might doing now and how the present work of God connects with the past for the hope of the future. In pastoral theology, this is called Appreciative Inquiry (recommendation: Mark Lau Branson, Memories, Hopes, and Conversations, 2004). When we begin to have a bigger sense of what God is doing among our church and where we sense that might be leading, consider how we might participate in that work as followers of Jesus and invite those others to join us on this journey. Let this journey be filled with prayer and scripture but let it also begin with where we’re at instead of succumbing to the apathy that gives up on our churches, writing them off as a hopeless cause. The apostle Paul never did that and neither should we.

I know what I’ve just suggested isn’t any quick-fix solution to the challenges we see in our churches and other churches. That’s because there aren’t any easy quick-fix solutions. The challenge of discipleship is great and requires more than just another simple step 1, 2, and 3 solution. I can’t promise that the road ahead will be easy because it probably won’t be but it is the way forward and the way of taking control over the one thing that God gives us the control over: our own decision to follow Jesus. So live as a follower of Jesus, serving as a pastor or whatever vocation God has called us to serve in, and as we invite others to come along the journey with us, they will come. Then we’ll be surprised at what the Lord has done in us!

Repentance and Baptism: More Than Fire Insurance

Every evangelistic tract I have ever laid eyes upon focused on answering a question about salvation. Namely, how does a person get saved from sin and God’s eternal judgment? Now if a person has never committed their life to Jesus and is experiencing an existential crisis due to some moral failure, the question might address their crisis. The problem is that this view of salvation  is too narrow.

In Acts, the apostles were not thinking about how they would be saved from sin and judgment. They wanted to know when Jesus was going to restore the kingdom to Israel (1:8). So it seems that when the pious Israelites at Pentecost realized that the Jesus they helped crucify had been raised from death by God and exalted as Lord and Messiah, their question about what they must do (2:37) was a kingdom question. That is, they weren’t just asking how could they now be forgiven and spared from God’s judgment but now that God is restoring his kingdom in Jesus the Messiah, how could they participate in the kingdom?

The question of how do we participate in the kingdom is much broader than just how do we get saved from sin and judgment. Yes, such participation includes salvation from sin and judgment but the question of salvation is as much about the life we are being saved to rather than just what we are saved from. The point is that salvation is so much more than just escaping eternal damnation! So here the summons to repentance and baptism again:

“Change your hearts and lives [repentance]. Each one of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” – Acts 2:38

Now despite the countless debates about the meaning of “for the forgiveness of sins” and when is a person “saved” in relation to baptism, such a focus is too narrow. What makes this summons to repentance and baptism different is that it is 1) in the name of Jesus Christ, and 2) associated with the promise of receiving the Holy Spirit. That makes sense because the entire Pentecost sermon was a declaration that God is now pouring his Spirit out on all people now that he has raised Jesus from death and exalted him as the Lord and Messiah.

The question we must ask in Acts chapter two is how do we participate in the kingdom that God is restoring? The answer is repentance and baptism because in doing so — in turning away from the old life that is passing and to the new life as we learn to live as followers of Jesus [repentance] and surrender our lives in submission to King Jesus [baptism] — we are immersed into a new life where we live under the kingdom-reign of God where we are then formed and animated by the Spirit to live as the church of Jesus Christ. This is the way we are summoned to participate because neither repentance nor baptism is a one-and-done transaction but an immersion into a transformative life as the people of God.

I’m going to be blunt here but it’s something that needs to be said. Repentance and baptism is about so much more than “fire insurance” to escape whatever hell we think awaits. If we truly want to participate in the eternal kingdom of God, then we must learn what it means to live a life of repentance and baptism. And if we don’t, we really haven’t repented and the baptism we received has become nothing more than a cleansing bath.

God is restoring the kingdom. That’s why he has poured out the Spirit and exalted Jesus to his right side as the Lord and Messiah but the kingdom is not appearing in some magical hocus-pocus manner. The kingdom appears as we, who profess our faith in Jesus as Lord and Messiah, live a life that is form by the Spirit as an embodiment of cruciform-character and kingdom-oriented life Jesus lived. So our summons to repentance and baptism is an invitation to receive the Spirit and be transformed in the way of Jesus as we live under his reign.

God’s Artwork: The Convergence of Beauty and Mission

A couple of years ago my family and I visited the Smithsonian Museum of Art in Washington D.C. I’m almost ashamed to admit it but here I was, in my early forties visiting an art museum for the very first time. I always thought it would be a boring way to spend my day but as I gazed upon so many fascinating pieces of craftsmanship, I realized that I could spend my entire day and then some.

That’s what good art does. Whether it’s a painting, a song, or else, beauty commands our attention. We are mesmerized, smitten with a sense of appreciation and even curiosity. The particular work may even cause us to think and reflect upon life in some particular manner, and it may also inspire us to participate in some capacity. Who hasn’t found themselves humming or even singing a catchy tune heard on the radio? As a guitar player who loves the blues, every time I hear the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, who I consider to be one of the best blues players to ever pick a guitar, I want to play my guitar — not that I am anywhere close to the caliber of SRV.

A lot of Christians may not realize this but the church, both in its universal and local expression, is understood as artwork. Ephesians 2:10 says,

Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.

The English word “accomplishment” is a translation of the word poiēma which other Bible translations render as “handiwork” (NIV), “masterpiece” (NLT), or “workmanship” (KJV). The word poiēma is a word for art and it is where English words like “poetry” and “poem” derive from, which makes sense because poetry is a form of art. Because of artisan meaning of this word, Ephesians 2:10 in the New Jerusalem Bible reads “We are God’s work of art…”

Though this is only one passage of scripture, the imagery of the church as artwork seems important and needs more consideration among Christianity in America. Understanding the capacity of art to speak is relevant to how local churches understand what it means to live as witnesses of Jesus and the kingdom as well as making disciples. Bryan Stone writes:

A faith born out of a response to beauty inclines organically, naturally, and perhaps even necessarily toward sharing. If Christians do not share their faith or seek to inspire it in other, perhaps the solution is not to berate, cajole, or otherwise ‘fire up’ luke-warm believers so they will go forth knocking on doors, button-holing passengers sitting next to them on a plane, or passing out tracts at the neighborhood grocery store. Perhaps the Christian faith has become unimaginative and unattractive and somehow disconnected from beauty. When faith is solely preoccupied with truth so that evangelism is aimed at securing belief understood as mental assent, perhaps it is no wonder that the average Christian has little interest in going about evangelism when it means convincing people to believe certain things. (Evangelism After Pluralism, pp 120-121).

As local churches embody the gospel as their way of life, evangelism happens naturally or organically. While there is a place for apologetics where there are intellectual questions about the credibility of believing in Jesus, the church as God’s artwork is a beautiful portrayal of the gospel and so preaching involves more explaining rather than debating about what is true and believable. Also, the commitment necessary for people to follow Jesus happens naturally because they are inspired and even compelled to do so based on the beauty that is seen in this living artwork known as the church. Just as person who loves to cook naturally wants to share a good recipe, the new disciple that has found the beauty of the gospel embodied among a local church will naturally want to share this discovery with others.

So this past year the Newark Church of Christ began making efforts to be more engaged and hospitable to our neighbors living in a nearby apartment complex. Most of the residents living in these apartments have endured plenty of struggles in life and seemingly have plenty of reasons for any skepticism. However, last year after one of the women who lives in the apartments was baptized, I asked her about starting up a Bible-study in her apartment that others living in the apartment complex could join. She agreed without hesitation and then without any suggestion or coaching on my part, she made up some flyers with details about the Bible study and posted them around the apartment complex.

Participating in the mission of God as a local church happens quite naturally when our imagination is captivated by the beautiful artistry of what God is doing among us.

Grace and Peace,

K. Rex Butts