I went to bed this morning and woke after a few hours….
I went to bed this morning and woke after a few hours sleep to a reality that has gripped me for the near five years that I have been privileged to call America my home. This great country is sharply divided along ideological, sociological, socio-economic, racial, relational and generational lines. The battle for America is not a battle of the mind but a battle of the heart. I can’t help feeling that its time for the church to wake up to the new reality. For Christ’s sake, it’s time for mission-minded believers to move beyond two-party politics and engage a new reality or risk becoming irrelevant to todays America. The battle is not for the white house. The battle is for the hearts and souls of every person in this nation. A president can’t do that. Only Jesus can and with Jesus its never to late.
My reading this morning led me to a lot of calls for Christians to pray for the president. Rightly so and I have. However, I have also prayed for the church. The church is as divided as the nation. Last week I attended a pastors lunch where Dr. Tony Evans divided the room up along racial lines claiming that race would largely determine the voting actions of most pastors in the room. I don’t doubt his observations. I’m simply saddened that the racial divide outside the church is reflected inside too. Sunday morning is clearly still one of the most segregated periods of the American week. How are we any different?
So this morning having prayed for the President, I prayed for the church in America. I find this type of prayer quite difficult because I know that if prayer is to be my first response, then meditation must be my second and responsive action my third.
See, when Jesus called his disciples to prayer in Matthew 9:35-38 he also offered them thoughts to contemplate (Matthew 10) before calling them to a response. Having challenged them to pray Jesus called them to answer their own prayer (Matthew 10:1-15). When I pray, God challenges me to be the answer.
So this morning I asked God how I should embrace an America that is more driven by choice than duty, by rights than responsibility, by dreams than discipline, by tolerance than truth, by equality than family, by mercy than privilege, by community than individuality, and by diversity than supremacy? These are some of the realities I see being determined last night and today I sense God calling me to be the answer.
But what does that look like? My meditation has led me to five conclusions that I share with all humility.
1. Embrace the holistic Gospel
I know the Gospel addresses all the issues I mention above. However, it’s abundantly clear that the church, by and large, does not. I thank God for the exceptions but in this case the exceptions don’t break the rule because the perception of the church continues to be the reality to so many. While a doctrinal taxonomy (a hierarchy of what’s important) is essential for me, I must preach the whole truth even while prioritizing one aspect over another. While ethics and values may rank higher on my list than mercy I mustn’t abandon the mercy message completely. In many people’s eyes, however, the white, middle-class, male dominated evangelical church I represent has done just that. I am perceived to be heartless, judgmental and out of touch. That perception is a hard reality to face. I have to embrace a holistic Gospel and ask God for wisdom in how I live it out.
2. Live like Jesus
As that reality gripped me I got to thinking about Jesus. What would Jesus do? Of course, I can’t know what Jesus would do unless I know what Jesus did. So what did he do?
Jesus somehow managed to reach those disenfranchised from the religious establishment. The travel-narrative of Luke’s Gospel (Luke 9-19) has Jesus on the road, mingling with those people who would never be seen dead in the synagogue. In the travel narrative, on the road, Jesus deals with the different, the dirty, the distant, the doubting and the dead in such a loving way without ever compromising truth. I need to live like that and when I do I will also be given opportunities to cross the dividing line between the church and the disenfranchised.
3. Embrace different people
The Gospel of Luke is all about movement. The travel narrative begins in Luke 9:51 with these words, “As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.”
The word resolutely literally means, “steadfastly set his face.” Jesus had this goal in front of him and it was with a fixedness of purpose in the face of difficulty and danger that he moved towards Jerusalem.
What is interesting is that even though Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem, it is not until chapter 19 verse 28 that Jesus actually arrives in Jerusalem. So for 11 chapters Jesus is physically on the move. He is moving from the Holy synagogues of Galilee found at Nazareth and Capernaum to the Holy Temple of Jerusalem. These physical movements from one holy place to another are bookends of the Gospel. They hold up what’s in the middle – a point supported by the fact that Luke only explicitly records two fulfilled prophecies – one in the beginning and one at the end.
Christians live life between two bookends: church on Sunday followed by church the following Sunday. The reality of the Christian faith however is determined by what we do in between. This is the observation of Eugene Peterson in his book, Tell it Slant.
Peterson shows how Jesus’ journey is deeper than the physical. His journey portrays a movement away from religious places with its religious language to the common and familiar. We see that with regards to the people he meets and the words he speaks. Jesus, when He is between the holy places of Galilee and Jerusalem, is seen to be out and about with everyday people – the non synagogue going people. What’s interesting is his language. Jesus switches to the vernacular –with everyday people he tells stories of the commonplace; stories and situations with which His non-religious audience would readily have identified.
The theme of God’s love for all people is most evident in this Gospel with Jesus’ concern for social outcasts, sinners and the poor. The message of salvation crosses all racial and social barriers. At the inauguration of his ministry, Jesus enters the Nazareth synagogue and epitomizes his message as good news to the poor (4:16-22). He associates with sinners and tax collectors, and tells parables where a hated Samaritan is the hero (10:25-37) and where a wayward son is graciously received back by his father (15:11-32). The message throughout is that God loves the lost, those who with a contrite and humble heart will return to him. Repeatedly Jesus’ parables reveal the great reversal of fortunes that the kingdom of God will bring: the rich, proud, and mighty will be humbled, while the poor, humble, and oppressed will be exalted (12:13-21; 14:15-24; 16:19-31). Luke also crosses gender barriers, for women play a more prominent role in Luke than in the other Gospels. The birth narrative is told from the perspective of women (Mary, Elizabeth and Anna). Women support Jesus’ ministry financially (8:1-3). Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, learning from him as a disciple (10:38-42). In contrast to the low status of women in Palestinian society, Jesus lifts them up to full participation in the kingdom of God. The gospel of Jesus is for all people. Jesus came to seek and save the outcasts and he leaves the synagogue in order to go show it.
That, simply put, must typify my life too. I have to embrace people very different from me and love them the way Jesus does.
4. Return to the city
This election shows that it was the cities that elected the President. The battle of the faith has always been a battle for the city. Once the church had embraced Gentile mission Paul’s missionary journeys took him to highly populated cities. Two major reasons are given for this strategy. First, and obviously, that’s where the people were. The early church went to the cities because that’s where the people were and people needed to hear the Gospel. If I want to see America changed, I need to embrace the cities. The worst thing I can do is avoid them.
5. Translate the Gospel
The second reason given for the city strategy is that city folk are more open to new ideas. In his book, Evangelism in the Early Church, author Michael Green talks about the process of ‘translating the Gospel’ from the Jewish to the Gentile culture. This process, he says, was fraught with many challenges. Green uses the phrase ‘subapostolic church’ to highlight the shift that was taking place. This was a considerable shift, one that led to the Gentile church seeming like a completely different church to the Jewish church where it all began. Some things, however, simply had to change for the Gospel to reach the world. The Gospel had to be translated culturally.
“The perils of this translation procedure were very real,” Green says. “But the risk was worth taking, even though it was fraught with many disasters. Of course (emphasis his) it was worthwhile, otherwise Gentile Christianity would have perished as Jewish Christianity did” (169-170).
When touring Israel recently a Jewish guide commented to me that Jesus was a man before his time. He foresaw the end of Judaism as people knew it and embraced a mobile, decentralized and accessible faith. Many Christians in America fear that their Christian heritage is perishing. The concerns are understandable and not without merit. But what are we to do? We can either mourn that fact and blame the liberals or we can do something about it.
I have a saying when thinking about vision for tomorrow: “The way forward is always back.” The question for Christians in America is how far back are we willing to go?
I hear many talking about going back to the founding fathers and as understandable as that is I think that doesn’t go far enough (its tempting for me as a British subject to talk about going back to the monarchy and avoiding all the problems, but my humor may be unappreciated!). The Christian church always moves back to the Scriptures. When desiring a vision for tomorrow a Christian is called to return to the Scriptures. When we do, when we examine what both Jesus and Paul did, when we consider that the early church had to respond to the fall of Jerusalem, we will see their commitment to the kingdom of God first and foremost. That’s our calling too. The early church embraced the city and translated the Gospel culturally.
City folk, generally speaking, are more open than their country siblings. It’s rather ironic than the term ‘pagan’ in the Scriptures has its roots with those who lived in the countryside. They were narrow-minded people, unwilling to change. I, for one, want to make sure that I am not counted in that number. Without compromising on truth it is time for me to more effectively translate the Gospel into the emerging culture of today’s America.
I’m sure there’s much that can be said in response to this blog. I’m sure some things aren’t as well stated as they could be. Where that is the case, extend me enough grace to grapple with what I’m trying to say. Rest assured that I will be eagerly at prayer for this nation that God has called me to serve. Something has to change for a divided America to truly become “One Nation Under God” – too which I’d add, “in Christ.” Today I realize more than ever that ‘that something’, is me. I have been given a life-changing message of hope and truth. Now more than ever is the time for me to believe it. God is still on the throne. In more ways than one, nothing has changed.