Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Demands of Love

As the congressional elections approach in November it is not surprising that each political party plans to base part of its platform on religious convictions which, in America where Christianity is the predominant religion, invoke Jesus.

But Jesus has always been an uncooperative political prop. Liberals appeal to his humanitarian deeds; conservatives appeal to the personal moral demands articulated in the New Testament epistles. Both are right but wrong.

As Garry Wills notes in a recent essay (“The politics Jesus wouldn’t do: The Gospel truth is that Christ is on no one party’s side”; Houston Chronicle, 4/23), “If it is politics, it cannot be Christian.” Wills notes that Jesus told Pontius Pilate, “My reign is not of this world” (John 18:36). He reminds us that, “The Jesus of the Gospels is not a great ethical teacher like Socrates, our leading humanitarian. He is an apocalyptic figure who steps outside the boundaries of normal morality to signal that the Father’s judgment is breaking into history… The Gospels are scary, dark and demanding. It is not surprising that people want to tame them, dilute them, make them into generic encouragements to be loving and peaceful and fair. If that is all they are, then we may as well make Socrates our redeemer.”

What really struck me about Wills’ observations is his assertion that in trying to politically or institutionally package, if you will, Jesus’ agenda, we invariably neuter it. “The state cannot indulge in self-sacrifice. If it is to treat the poor well, it must do so on grounds of justice, appealing to arguments that will convince people who are not followers of Jesus or of any other religion. The norms of justice will fall short of the demands of love that Jesus imposes (italics mine)… To claim that the state’s burden of justice … is actually what Jesus wills (is to) substitute some lesser and false religion for what Jesus brought from the Father.”

I wrote last week about “churchianity” versus Christianity. The issue of politicizing Jesus is a facet of that larger question, to wit: if we think we are able to legislate Jesus’ agenda, then we will shift responsibility from our individual and communal response to God’s kingdom purpose to “society’s” or “the government’s” response, thus furthering what the 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kirkegaard derisively referred to as “Christendom,” a society in which there is a veneer of “Christian values” but not many people follow Jesus.

Thus, for instance, when the United States’ Blue Laws were rescinded in the 1950’s and 1960’s and theatres, retail stores, golf courses, restaurants, etc. were allowed to open on Sundays, it was a blow to “Christian values,” but it was a boon to Christ-followers, because now Christians actually were challenged to choose between assembling for worship or shopping for a couch, whereas before they had no choice.

All of this is simply to remind us that following Jesus is a response to the higher “demands of love” that his life and ministry, death and resurrection model for us and that our baptism commissions us to. Lest we “gain the whole world and forfeit our soul.” Jesus said that, not Congress.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Tough Questions (Part I)

I am reading a challenging book that the ministry staff and I will be working through and discussing in the next few months. It is called The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church, by Reggie McNeal. Periodically I will be sharing in this space some of what I feel is worth ruminating about with you.

The first tough question is this: Are you practicing (and if you are a church leader, promoting) “Churchianity” or Christianity? McNeal asserts that, “In North America the invitation to become a Christian has become largely an invitation to convert to the church. The assumption is that anyone serious about being a Christian will order their lives around the church, shift their life and work rhythms around the church schedule, channel their charitable giving through the church, and serve in some church ministry; in other words, serve the church and become a fervent marketer to bring others into the church to do the same.”

The point is not that Christians shouldn’t be active in the church or even “order their lives” around the church. The point is that this is not an end in itself; it is a means to join God in his redemptive mission to the world. Worship, Bible classes, and prayer groups are not the end but are a means of strengthening and sharpening us to be Christ-followers in and to the world.

The bad/good news is that most “unchurched” or irreligious people aren’t hungering to be part of the church; they are hungering for God. Thus, our efforts to point them to the church as a solution to their hunger are not working very well. But our efforts to point them to Christ will.

As McNeal puts it, “Many church members feel they have been sold a bill of goods. They were promised that if they would be a good church member, if they would discover their gifts, or join a small group, sign up for a church ministry, give to the building program, attend this or that, they would experience a full and meaningful life.”

Thus, the right answer to the wrong question is whatever strategy is aimed at helping us “do church” better. The right question is, what builds believers into strong and mature Christ-followers whose lives bear fruit for God’s kingdom in the world? And of course, a congregation developing these kinds of people is “doing” church well.

It is no secret that the church in North America has lost much of its influence. McNeal (and many others) suggest that it has lost its influence because it has lost its identity. And it has lost its identity because it has lost its mission, which is to join God in his redemptive efforts to save the world.

I don’t know about you, but this challenge to be the church in the world instead of doing church is a positive and exciting one for me. Instead of recruiting churchgoers, let’s connect people to Christ and join God in transforming lives for the sake of the world.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006


Every year around Easter something sensational about Christianity seems to pop up in the news. As every good marketer knows, sensationalism sells (see “Nick and Jessica”). This year the news item was the “discovery” (it was actually discovered in the 1970’s) of a “Gospel of Judas”, a new translation of which purported to “shed new light” on the ministry of Jesus, to wit, that Jesus told Judas to betray him so that Jesus’ spirit could escape his mortal flesh.

This is old news spit-shined to look new. The Gospel of Judas was the creation of a sect known as the Gnostics (there were actually many strains of this sect, so that it appropriately could be called a “philosophy”), whose teaching claimed that the material universe was evil, and who denied that Jesus was both human and divine (hence Jesus wanting to “escape his body”). The teaching promised its adherents special, secret knowledge and spiritual fulfillment, was denounced by mainstream Christian leaders, most notably Irenaeus around 180 A.D., and over time faded out of history (though it persists in bits and pieces in numerous modern philosophies).

Here is my take on this, since you asked. The story of Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection has lost its “luster” in America, in the sense that most people (though an increasingly fewer percentage) are familiar with its basic contours. In that sense we are a “Christianized” nation. For Christianity’s cultured detractors, anything that can “shed new light” and perhaps cast doubt about the ancient story is newsworthy in America (e.g., the Jesus Seminar [remember them?], the Da Vinci Code with its assorted “assertions”, et al.).

In the meantime, the simple, powerful story of God sending his Son into the world (“and the Word became flesh” – John 1:14) to live among us, to reveal God to us, to teach us and enact for us the Kingdom of God, to die for our sins on the Cross so we could be forgiven and redeemed into a new kind of life, to be raised from the dead to reign with God as “judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42) and through his Spirit to empower and guide his followers to advance God’s redemptive work in the world; this simple story continues to change tens of millions of lives each year. It continues to break addictions, to heal wounds, to reconcile enemies, to give hope and meaning in an often fickle and harsh world. It continues to assure people their lives are not an accident, that God loves them enormously, that he has a purpose for them, that he wants them to be with him in heaven after this life, and that there is joy and peace through Him now.

It is called in one song Christians sing “the old, old story” and indeed it is. But it is also fresh and new, because “God’s steadfast love and mercy are new every morning (Lamentations 3:23).”

It changed my life twenty-three years ago and it continues to change and sustain anyone who will adopt the story as his own. Nothing sensational necessary. Just Good News. Happy Easter. He is risen.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006


I have decided this year to make the week of Easter different and special. It has become not enough for me simply to participate in a special worship service on Sunday morning. I want more. I am speaking personally and do not expect or imply that people should agree with me or follow my example. But if my thoughts encourage you to try something different, I will be happy to have been helpful.

In my third decade as a follower of Jesus I am finding myself drawn more and more to the idea of “consecration.” To consecrate something is to dedicate it to God, to make or declare something sacred. And I want to be more aware of and intentional about sacredness. The opposite of sacred is “common,” and I have plenty of that. My life is full of common, which is fine. Common is necessary. But it’s not sacred. I talked last week about “carving time” in our day for God, about creating and/or being on the alert for sacred time. That is what I want to do with my Easter week.

It just seems a little strange to me to come to church on Easter morning to celebrate one of the two most significant events in the Christian faith (the other being Christ’s birth) having done nothing in the days before to “prepare” for it, to consecrate it.

So this year I am going to consecrate the week before Easter. I am going to simplify my routines considerably so there is more time to be still. No television, no newspaper reading, no shopping. I enjoy all these very much, but I want this week to be special. It’s only one week out of fifty-two. I’ll survive (probably thrive)

I’m glad we are offering a showing of “The Passion of the Christ” on Friday evening at West Houston. It has always bothered me a bit to “skip ahead” to a celebration of the Resurrection without spending much time at the Cross. I know this powerful movie will help me to reflect, remember, and give thanks for Jesus’ willingness to suffer for my sins. My message today on Jesus’ struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane fits this timeline.

Saturday will be a still day for me. I’ll probably call the folks I invited to Easter services and affirm how much I hope they will come. Then I’ll rest. I’m not saying I’ll lie in a fetal position all day in the dark; just that I will try to engage with what a still, dark day this was for Jesus’ followers. It’s just one day; it won’t kill me.

On Sunday morning I’ll get up early, of course, to preach the sunrise service in the chapel. I’ll think about what it has meant to me to follow a risen Savior for the last twenty-three years. It is the single most important and significant element of my life. Then I’ll celebrate Jesus’ triumph over death and all that means to his followers, and rejoice in the great gift of salvation God has given me by his grace. Yeah, I’ll miss watching Boston Legal and the 3rd round of the Masters, reading the Chronicle editorials each morning, shopping at Barnes & Noble. But maybe not that much. I have plenty of common in my life. And it’s only a week. I want more sacredness.