HELPING IN TODAY’S CULTURAL CLIMATE

Helping people in need is imminently biblical. This is not even open for any rational discussion. Nevertheless, at the risk of being completely misunderstood, I want to address a matter of priority that seems to need clarification. I enter this post with caution, trepidation, and uneasiness, yet enter I will.

Though I am usually well behind most folks when trends dawn on me, eventually awareness makes its way into my head. Of late, a shift towards what was once styled the “Social Gospel” strikes me as an emphasis making a comeback. In the company of this return, I also sense a growing ascetic spirit floating around.

I get it that our culture in America is significantly materialistic and I also realize the need to do regular self-analyses to discover if I have become possessed by my possessions. As a Christian, these are not small matters. The Bible has much to say in this area. However, I think I see a baby headed out the window with its bath water in this one.

Maybe I am simply justifying that I have stuff. I have not sold my stuff to feed and house the unfortunate, though I have spent considerable time and money helping people in need. Not only that, I do not believe such a virtual total divesting of my stuff is supposed to be the defining mark of my Christianity. I do not believe Jesus came primarily to feed people and make them well. He could have done both of these things to every person in Judea, Samaria, and Galilee, but He did not. What He did do was preach and teach as many people as He could about matters tied to eternity.

Yes, we should share our blessings. A lack of compassion cannot walk in fellowship with the Good News about Jesus. Yet, the Great Commission is about salvation. Granted, compassion can and will open doors, but only the Gospel can open the doors of Hades to free its captives (Rev. 1:18). Well fed and housed lost people eventually die without Jesus (cf. Jn. 6:49).

I don’t intend to be guilted into a quick fix “Christianity” that either substitutes being kind for speaking a good word for Jesus or liquidating my possessions for proclaiming truth. I reiterate; Jesus saves! Churches are groups of people primarily in the business of growing in Christ-likeness so they may help the lost become saved.

I appreciate congregations, such as the one I attend, which have very well thought out assistance initiatives. But, pardon what may seem to some as mere self-justification, let Christians in their compassionate sharing be known without apology for talking to people about the Christ.

 

THE WAY OF THE CROSS

It has been observed by many that Christianity involves the united concepts of Cross and Kingdom. N. T. Wright, in particular, has had many useful things to say about this inseparable combination. Church history, however,  has often severed the two, much to the detriment of Christianity.

If the Cross becomes a virtual “stand alone,” the life Jesus so powerfully exhibited in the Gospels becomes largely lost to the arena of everyday life. A reductionism sounding something like, “Jesus died and was resurrected and I am saved, hurry up Heaven,” results. People enter a holding-pattern just trying to wait out life so they can get out of here. A life Jesus intended to reflect both His values and the salvation/hope He won come to be hidden to those who most need to see them (Matt. 5:14-16; Jn. 13:34-35; Rom. 8:29).

Conversely, when , for all practical purposes, the Kingdom’s agenda for daily living pushes aside the atonement of the Cross, a form of social gospel develops separated from the power of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Right living as a virtual end in itself then isolates itself from the only true validation for a sanctified life (Rom. 6:20-22; Lk. 17:5-10).

By combining Cross and Kingdom, the full story is revealed. Then, both Jesus’ life and death/resurrection are released to cover the earth with  an influential example of Christ-like values and a manifestation of the power of God for salvation.

Currently, in the culture of the United States, many of those seeking to represent the Christ have, often with an apparent unawareness, fallen into an incomplete portrayal of the fullness of Christianity. Wagons are circled by some as they eagerly examine world events hoping they will testify that the end is near. Such positions often come to make the world an enemy to be avoided more than a group of people wandering like lost sheep in need of rescue. Others who, in principle, develop a similar distorted Kingdom view, largely ignore the world and take comfort in their fortresses of sacraments and religious lists, hoping bad things will somehow just go away if they behave like good people.

Alongside this inadequate, virtual escapism is an equally troubling, unbalanced engagement in repairing our world through primarily temporal “fixes” doomed to gain, at best, limited, inadequate results. The Cross, though mentioned in such expressions, comes to play a secondary role to human involvement. As a for-instance, politics, while an unavoidable aspect of American culture and political involvement certainly being a potentially useful exercise, at the end of the day, politics is not attached to a cross. Kingdom culture can and has thrived amid grossly immoral and unjust political systems. The power of the Kingdom is that, being tied to the Cross, it can triumph even in death. Our light must not be darkened by passions that appear to burn brighter over things destined to perish in the end.

The solution is a Cross-centered, Kingdom life. The Bible instructs and history confirms, when Cross and Kingdom unite in their mutually complimentary, divine partnership, the world has the opportunity to see what is vital to its victory (Jn. 13:34-35; 17:21-23; Gal. 6:14). In  seeing this, there is both a greater hope for more changed hearts in the decisions affecting this life as well as a greater expectation for more souls won for eternity.

The Power of Love

The Power of Love in Speaking a Good Word for Jesus

As we consider how to approach friends and neighbors with the gospel of Christ, let us continually be mindful that we are not trying to win arguments, but rather secure hearts. Of course, we do need to prepare ourselves to present intelligent and compelling answers to their questions. The thing to remember, however, is that we will be distinguished by our love for others, our love for each other, and our love for Jesus (I Cor. 13:1-3; Jn. 13:34-35; 17:21-23).  Isn’t it amazing God saw fit to design a plan of salvation that would be most effectively communicated by the one thing each of us is capable of doing well?  Our ability to love is not limited by our intellect, our wealth, or our social standing; it is limited by our lack of concern for the needs of others.

Paul well understood this reality. He taught this truth arrestingly to the Corinthians who were obsessed with the idea of obtaining status by gaining miraculous gifts.  Today, in different ways, we may also be consumed with secondary pursuits. Such things may seem to be keys to improving our influence for Christ, but as at Corinth, absent our genuine love for people, we are just wasting our time.

While the dynamics governing the human heart may be elusive, they are nonetheless knowable.  Our hearts are not captured by people who are smarter, more athletic, or generally more successful than we are, our hearts are touched by small, sometimes insignificant, acts of kindness. Such things go unnoticed by many, but are treasured by the individuals who receive them.  As we improve our ability to communicate our Lord’s gospel, let’s not forget to continue to work on our ability to love.

“If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing” (I Cor. 13:1-3).

The Savior a Mechanic Could Love

A Certain Mechanic

            My Dad was an automobile mechanic—and a very good one at that. Religion, however, was not his thing. When I wrote him to explain why I was going to become a preacher, he told my cousin that he buried the letter under a rock.

            Why was my Dad like that? You don’t just wake up one day hating religion. Eventually I discovered some answers. First, he was raised in a hyper-strict religious environment; ignorance led to a very harsh, terrifying view of God. As a child my father saw God as an unloving tyrant, eager to send him to hell!

            In addition to this uninviting picture of God, my father grew to feel that Christians were a bunch of hypocrites—especially preachers! After learning this, I felt lucky he didn’t bury me under a rock.

            Obviously all people who claim to be Christians are not fakes. Nevertheless, we all know such “Christians” do exist. A hardened man close to the bottom of the social ladder tends, however, to have a finely tuned “hypocrite detector.” This is one reason I believe Jesus garnered so much attention from common people. They were tired of their hypocritical religious leaders.

            Very surprisingly, the story of my Dad and religion took a very unexpected turn. As time went by, I sent my Dad some books about the Bible. My Dad loved to read. He actually read them and made some positive comments about seeing God in a different light, but then he died. At his funeral, Mr. Shea, the only preacher my father ever respected, called me aside. I was shocked to learn that sometime before he died my Dad asked Mr. Shea to immerse him for the remission of his sins!

            My Dad never “went public.” Nobody but God and Mr. Shea knew about his most improbable religious moment. I wish Daddy had seen more of the real deal. Jesus was the kind of man even a certain poor, uneducated mechanic could love.

JESUS AND EVANGELISM

Unhurried Urgency

            When we look at Jesus and see how He did evangelism, we cannot doubt the urgency He associated with the responsibility. However, at the same time, we must acknowledge that urgency looked different on Him than it often looks on us.  Many times when we do “urgent,” we come off looking panicked, running around in a frenzy trying to dart about in many different directions all at once. Jesus, on the other hand, does not appear harried or rushed, rather, He is always in control, never panicked.

            In fact, there are times when we would never classify His lifestyle as appearing to be driven by urgency.  He sleeps through a seemingly perfect one-on-one teaching opportunity while He and His disciples were alone on a boat (Matt. 8:23-27).  We might be prone to think “If He had crammed in just one more lesson maybe the disciples would not have been so confused about the kingdom.

            By way of appearance, doesn’t He spend way too much time eating meals with people when He could have using time more effectively (Matt 9:9-13, Luke 19:4-10)? You know what they say, “It’s hard to get any effective teaching done in groups.” Or, if it’s groups you want, what about the time when He delayed going to the Feast of Booths?  Those great crowds gathered for that particular feast only once a year. Wouldn’t it have been better to have arrived early and stayed late (John 7:2-9)?

            Jesus did, of course, know what He was doing. He just pursued urgency differently. He never missed an opportunity to tell people what they needed to know so they could take the next step on their eternal journey.  He invited the woman at the well, though He was tired and hungry (John 4:5-26).  He told Simon the Pharisee things he didn’t want to hear. He did this while reclining at the table, instead of waiting for a more socially acceptable moment (Luke 7:36-50).  He taught and fed 5000 after hearing His cousin John had been killed (Matt. 14:13-21).  He said and did what was needed when it was needed. He did not a frantically careening about trying to make up for lost time; He redeemed time.

            With this in mind let’s all commit to living our lives more urgently, truly making the most of every opportunity. If we will do this, when we get to heaven’s gates we will not be anxious about what we have left undone. However, we need “Jesus urgency.” We don’t need to be scurrying about, just consistently living the values and priorities of the Christ.

            “Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity“ Col. 4:5).