Tag Archives: Gospel

It’s Impossible to Speak of the Gospel Apart from Power

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Some Christians speak and write of the Gospel as a purely private matter of deliverance from personal sins and an empowerment to live in holiness. Heck, some just focus on the deliverance from sin and leave things there.

I hear over and over again that we need to be “Gospel-focused” or “Gospel-centered.” It’s often stated as a kind of critique of those dedicated to addressing the seemingly peripheral issues of Christianity.

  • Don’t address the problems with patriarchy… just focus on the Gospel.
  • Don’t talk about political corruption… just focus on the Gospel.
  • Don’t speak of economic inequity… just focus on the Gospel.
  • Don’t call out abuses of power in the church… just focus on the Gospel.

Defining the Gospel has been a sort of ongoing street fight among evangelicals of late. I don’t expect that I can resolve all that much with this blog post, but I want to explore one aspect of the life of Jesus as it relates to defining the Gospel and at least leave everyone with something to chew on.

How Jesus Announced the Arrival of God’s Kingdom

The politically charged message “Jesus is Lord” and even the phrase “Gospel” were appropriated from the Roman Empire. The “gospel” was an announcement from the Roman Emperor, who was known as “the lord.” Jesus took hold of these common phrases used by the powerful and offered a remixing of that word according to his own message.

While Jesus certainly depoliticized these words from their Roman usage, he didn’t necessarily move completely away from the public and political realm. Jesus didn’t launch a political party, but he also wasn’t unconcerned with the issues of his day. He just addressed them through the message of God’s Kingdom coming.

When we speak of God’s Kingdom coming, we’re not just talking about the cross, although it was an essential part of it. The message throughout the New Testament of God’s Kingdom and Jesus as Lord was spoken directly counter to that of the Romans even though the Kingdom of Jesus was different from Rome in just about every way.

The Gospel addressed the powers of our world, but it didn’t address these powers on their own terms.

What This Means for the Gospel

To say that we want to “only” focus on the Gospel and then speak of personal salvation and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ only captures part of the picture. The Gospel literally proclaims freedom to captives, but it’s not a politically organized freedom. There is both a spiritual element to this and a physical reality of freedom.

We can both pass along spiritual and physical freedom to each other, living as if the Kingdom of God is truly present and among us—because it is. We can give generously to one another because God’s Kingdom has come. We can pray for emotional or physical healing because God’s Kingdom has come. We can treat the least as the first because God’s Kingdom has come.

Our opportunities for living in the Kingdom of God and embodying the Gospel’s message, Jesus is Lord, are all around us:

When a single mother encourages an overwhelmed new mother, the Kingdom comes.

When a family delivers a meal to those who can’t provide for themselves, the Kingdom comes.

When a child offers a pile of her clothes to those in need, the Kingdom comes.

When the most fearful and insecure Christian prays with confidence for a friend in a dark place, the Kingdom comes.

The Gospel isn’t about standing around the cross for the rest of our lives.

The Gospel sends us running down a dirt road in the early morning hours to find an empty tomb.

The Gospel fills our rooms with fire and wind, giving us words we would never find on our own.

The Gospel gives us confidence to lay hands on a friend and to pray as if God can actually do something.

The Gospel steadies our minds in a chaotic world because Christ has overcome the world.

The Gospel breaks our hearts for those suffering from the consequences of their pasts.

The Gospel is incarnation, God among us, God broken for us, God risen for us, and God forever in us.

The Gospel is too big to keep it inside of ourselves or to be confined to a dark Friday morning outside of Jerusalem. The Gospel of our Lord started with the arrival of God among us, and it continues every time we live in the freedom and peace that our Lord’s presence brings.

The Gospel is freedom, hope, peace, healing, and salvation. It has everything to do with confronting the powers of our world, whether that’s an abusive church, an abusive government, or an abusive relationship.

Every time we live as if the power of evil has been defeated, every time we mend the broken, every time we tell the powerful they can’t bully the weak, and every time we tell the fearful and lost about our wounded healer, we proclaim the Gospel of Christ’s Lordship over every power in this world.

Note to Readers: Today’s post is the second of a 3-part series covering 3 things that are impossible for evangelicals.

How to Become a Better Faith Blogger: Steal

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There is a time-honored tradition of theft in the writing trade, and Christian writers shouldn’t let the 10 Commandments stop us from joining in. The idea of literary theft isn’t plagiarism. Rather, it resembles an artist in training who “copies” masterpieces in order to learn the basics of mixing colors and the scale of each person or object—provided the artist never tries to pass this work off as his/her own.

Artists don’t begin by drawing or painting objects out of proportion or developing a unique style. They first learn to recreate reality or reproduce another painting and then build on that for their own improvisations as they develop their own style.

There are some basic skills every faith blogger should have, and the way you can develop them is by learning from those who do them best. Once you’ve spent some time examining some basic principles of what works and what doesn’t work, you can add your own spin to the posts you compose for your own blog.

There are plenty of great writing and blogging resources around, but as I put this series together, I thought it would be especially helpful to adopt a Christian blogging angle. Most of us either blog for a Christian audience or communicate to Christians in a variety of settings. There are lessons here for all of us.

Each day of this series, I’m going to pick a blogger who puts a particular blogging/writing trait into practice. This blogger may not be the most successful faith blogger or even the one who has the best results from that particular trait.

This is not a list of the top bloggers.

Perhaps it’s best to think of this as a tour of my little writing community—like a garden tour in a particular neighborhood. Even if the blogs in my writing community aren’t always at the top when it comes to analytics, they have so much to teach us.

I’ll also add that I don’t do everything I’m going to mention in this series. My sense is that no one can do all of these things perfectly, but if you want to become a better faith blogger, putting some of these lessons into practice will certainly help

The series kicks off tomorrow with a lesson from Shawn Smucker.

Belonging: The Gospel Gives Us What We Don’t Want

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I returned to our cozy little neighborhood this afternoon with the relief and gratitude of someone who had just escaped a zombie apocalypse. I didn’t exactly escape a brush with death, but I did face the one thing that Americans hate almost as much missing American Idol: the inconvenience of the suburbs.

While my wife worked on her final papers for grad school, I took over shopping duties and ran about thirty seven errands in the suburban strip. I had to leave my comfortable little bubble in town, venturing to the edge of civilization where engine exhaust makes baby bunnies nested outside condos weep.

It didn’t take long to get angry at people.

There was the lady who didn’t look until after she almost backed her car into me. Some guy in a sporty SUV wouldn’t let me merge onto the highway and then tailed me before roaring around me close enough that I could have lit a cigarette for his passenger.

There was traffic jammed in the parking lots. Lines in every story. People who jumped in front of me in line. People who went back to for one more thing when they should have been paying!

The chicken in the cooler started to warm up. My car started to overheat. The freckle-faced kid at Rita’s told me they didn’t have root beer water ice. The world was out to get me. Inconvenience!!!

When I travel out to the suburbs for these rare shopping trips, it’s like I’ve gone to a different nation where I don’t fit in because my car is over 10 years old and has rust. The hustle and hurry grabs me and I dutifully go along with it, as if I don’t have a choice. As people become obstacles in my way or take risks that put me in danger, I begin to seethe at them. We’re SO different…

Shifting gears from suburban shopper to urban gardener when I returned home, I set to work with clumps of dirt, compost, garden borders, and a few blackberry bushes. When I had a chance to feel like myself, I began to ask, “What just happened to me?”

We could say a lot of things about the suburban shopping experience and what we each bring to it, but today I saw that I’d been looking for reasons to separate myself from people. It’s like I craved conflict. I wanted to be in the right, and in order to tap into that, I had to direct my aggression at the people who crossed me in any way.

By dividing myself from others, I was trying to build myself up or to give myself fulfillment in some twisted way.

Conflict can be a good thing that drives a story forward. However, the right kind of conflict brings liberation and fulfillment—as in that moment at church today when our prayer ministers prayed for those going through tough times. Conflict can be misused to tear people down and it leaves neither us nor anyone else better off. All we get is a conflict buzz from fighting someone a little bit.

The Gospel restores and heals relationships. It accepts that lady in the parking lot who was careless for a moment but who may be the most caring person in her family. That guy in the SUV who almost hit me may live in fear of stopping or of facing who he truly is. So he drives a sporty SUV as fast as legally possible and never stops to ask why he’s taking sleeping pills to fall asleep each night.

The Gospel welcomes these people and many more into our Christian communities—even into my own where I secretly hope aggressive and negligent drivers aren’t allowed. There’s no place for these frivolous divisions in God’s Kingdom.

Even more so, the Gospel welcomes big government liberals and small government conservatives. The Gospel reaches people who like country, alternative rock, and maybe even jazz (does anyone “like” jazz for real?). The Gospel belongs to the hip, the straight-laced, the disheveled.

If it works right, the Gospel should ruin our neat little divisions we create, trashing every us vs. them narrative. Even my suburban angst narrative needs to go.

Rather than permitting me to perpetuate my little farce where I’m the hero who overcomes conflict to get what I want, the Gospel turns God into the hero who wants everyone and who is even willing to overcome conflict with a grumpy urban gardener to reach the people he loves.

What Only God Can Do

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Years of being blessed with a low checking account balance forced me to rethink my approach to Christmas. Those were not easy years as I tried to tell myself that Christmas isn’t all about the presents, while fearing that my family would consider me cheap or inconsiderate.

A budget gift is a budget gift.

In a happy case of irony, my focus on gift-giving lead me back to a better conception of Christmas.

If art thrives on limitation, gift-giving followed suit. If I only had ten dollars to spend on each person, I had to ask very different questions for gift-giving, the most important being: “What would this person never buy for himself/herself?”

This lead to a series of time-consuming projects such as homemade applesauce, unique jams, hot sauce, and framed photographs. Everything was tailored to the specific needs of each person and in most cases kept us within our budget.

The first time I gave my grandmother a jar of homemade applesauce, she opened it right away and burst into tears at the first taste. She hadn’t eaten homemade applesauce since the last time her mother had made it. My mom guards her jar of blueberry jam, while my in-laws don’t miss a meal without their hot sauce.

As we’ve reached greater financial security, we’ve been able to spend more money on gifts, but our question remains the same. Oddly enough, the homemade gifts are still a big hit. In addition, we’ve begun to keep our Christmas spending under control by joining together with family members to buy one large gift that someone would never purchase on his/her.

I organized some pretty epic purchases that both met a relative’s need and ensured a minimum investment—the biggest ticket item being a computer for my wife before she entered graduate school. I’d share some examples from this year, but I don’t want to spoil the surprise for anyone.

Ironically, the more I’ve thought about my gift-giving strategy, the more I’ve been drawn away from focusing on giving gifts and pondering the power of God. Isn’t Christmas all about the power of God to do for us what we could never do for ourselves?

I love the promise that Gabriel made to Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”

God overshadows us. He breaks into our gift-giving madness to remind us that our iPads will one day break, our E-readers will be replaced, our shirts will unravel, and even our jams will go rotten. We can’t beat greed, materialism, and selfishness on our own. We’ll keep thinking that these bits of technology and clothing are what we really need.

God knows that we need to overshadowed. We need him to overcome every competing desire in our life. Only he can overshadow every idol that tries to replace those quiet moments where we sense that the loving touch of God is what we were made to experience, even if we think we’ll be fulfilled by touching what we have made.

There is incredible joy in giving someone a gift that he could never acquire on his own. In fact, meeting a real need is the best kind of gift giving. God knew that when he overshadowed Mary with his power and sent us a Savior as the greatest gift—doing something we could never accomplish on our own.

May we find that joy both in our relationships with God and with one another. May we find what only God can give and meet needs that would otherwise remain.

This post is part of World Vision’s 12 Blogs of Christmas Project about the true spirit of Christmas. In order to learn more real needs that you can meet this Christmas season, check out the World Vision Catalogue.

Do you have your own story about the true spirit of Christmas? Share it today at the World Vision blog.

The Art of Knowing When to Stop: Two Stories about Discipleship

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These two men were responsible. They had business to take care of, and they were not idle in addressing it. One was fixing his nets along the shore of Galilee, the other had to take care of his father’s burial.

Culturally speaking, the man tasked with burying his father was especially living in careful observance of the law. He was in the right place, doing what mattered.

The difference between the two men came when Jesus called, saying, “Follow me.” This wasn’t something that could be delayed. Jesus literally wanted them to drop what they were doing and to reorient their lives around him.

One man knew when to stop, dropping the lower priorities for the person who mattered most.

The other man asked for time so that he could wrap up his obligations and still follow Jesus.

Learning how to stop is difficult, especially when you think you’re doing everything right. Other priorities can interfere when the most important call comes to us.

Can we stop?

Are we cultivating practices that help us stop daily to hear God’s voice?

Are we ready to stop and respond when the call comes?

The Real News That is Actually Good

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The other day I flipped through a bunch of pictures on Facebook that were posted by The Simple Way, a Christian group in the inner city of Philadelphia that ministers alongside the urban poor. Some have called them neo-monastic, but this isn’t a post about labels.

This is a post about serving others.

The crew at the Simple Way put together 500 backpacks loaded up with school supplies and handed them out while throwing a huge block party with juggling, dancing, and who knows what else.

That’s just a small picture of what The Simple Way is up to.

Today I received the following e-mail from a relative whose brother spent a year in India assisting local lawyers in the fight against sex trafficking. Here’s what the e-mail said:

Today I committed to call my Members of Congress as part of International Justice Mission’s National Call-in Day to Pass the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA). Will you join me?

The TVPRA is critical, bi-partisan legislation that supports U.S. anti-trafficking efforts at home and overseas. At the end of September, the bill will expire. Abolitionists around the country are committing to call their elected policy-makers on Thursday, September 8th to urge them to support the bill.

This is yet another picture of Christians working to serve others. It fits with the story of Jesus. His ministry aimed to set captives free, welcomed little children, and served those in need.

These ministries look like the ministry of Jesus. They make sense as part of the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit from the New Testament into today.

Over the past week or so, I haven’t heard too much about Christians committing themselves to helping poor children start the school year on the right foot or demanding that our government renew legislation that will help the most vulnerable. I’ve heard and read a hell of a lot about a few religious leaders from various denominations who feel jilted because they can’t pray at the 9-11 memorial.

If it weren’t so tragic that a non-story has trumped the many good stories about the spread of the Gospel, I could spend an entire post on the delicious irony of religious leaders complaining about “government prejudice” against religion while they freely plan worship services and prayer services in their tax-free churches.

While I don’t want to underemphasize the importance of prayers for peace, for the healing of victims, and for reconciliation with our enemies at this time, I think it’s worth pausing for a moment to look at the many relevant and powerful ways in which God’s Kingdom is spreading. Rather than focusing on the foolishness of denominational leaders at this time of national mourning, I hope that we can focus instead on the many ways that the Gospel is bringing hope, reconciliation, and healing to our world.

The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that starts small and grows without too much notice. There are seeds all around us. We just need to know where to look for them.

I pray that we will seek out the places where God’s Kingdom is growing and jump fully into it with mind, heart, and spirit. May the Good News triumph over the Non News.

One last thing: Here’s a link to the IJM page to support legislation that will help the victims of trafficking.

Does the Book of Acts Go Soft on Hell?

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I learned that the Gospel wasn’t just good news. It was bad news first, then good news, and the good news was so good because the bad news was so bad.

Or something like that.

I used to share the Gospel like this:

“The bad news is that your sin has separated you from God and destined you to eternity separated from him in hell. The good news is that Jesus has paid for your sin with his death and now clears the way for you to go to heaven.”

We could say a lot about this version of the Gospel, and I certainly don’t want to slam it necessarily. Heck, this was how I found Jesus, so it wasn’t all that bad!

However, there’s something about this version of the Gospel that hasn’t been sitting all that well with me: must the bad news come first? I don’t want to go soft on what the Bible says, but I also wasn’t sure about beginning with the bad news. I generally found that the bad news alienated people from the get go, and I never got to the good news, which is sort of counterproductive.

Did the Bible have anything to say about this?

I looked in the book of Acts. Acts documents the mission of the church and the spread of the Gospel, but the word hell doesn’t come into play. Peter mentions the “grave” in Acts 2, which is the word “hades” that is sometimes translated as hell, but otherwise, we don’t have a record in Acts of hell being used as a prompt to believe the Gospel.

While Acts presents a rather abridged version of the Gospel, I’m still shocked to read that something so basic and elemental for my own understanding of the Gospel wasn’t included. The closest we come to a concept of hell is Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill in Acts 7 where he mentions that God will judge all people some day.

The concept of judgment is very well developed in the Bible and consistent between the two testaments. Paul, the author of Hebrews, Peter, and John all mention judgment in their letters. However, the message of judgment isn’t necessarily what the early Christian missionaries used as their “leading point” when sharing the Gospel. They instead explained the person of Jesus in relation to the people they were speaking to and then calling them to repent of their sins and to follow Jesus.

This reveals a tension in the Bible. On one hand, I think folks in my end of the Christian camp, the evangelicals especially, have tended to overemphasize the concept of hell. While we can speak of God’s judgment one day, we don’t actually know what will happen to those who reject God. Hell is a very slippery subject since two different words are used in reference to hell and the passages in the Gospels where they show up aren’t necessarily about the “bad news” of being cast into eternal, conscious torment. It’s just not as clear as we’ve thought.

In addition, any mention of hell in the book of Revelation doesn’t help us all that much, since Christians are notorious for not understanding that book.

We actually don’t know too much about hell. We know that people will most likely be separated from God in some way if they reject his offer of forgiveness and salvation, but the details become murky after that.

Christians have not been unanimous historically about hell, and even some church fathers believed that God would continue to reach out to the unbelievers after death—something based on Bible passages by the way. My handy Christian Theology reader documents several Christian views on hell and punishment in the historic church.

Our task today is to faithfully preach the message of God’s love and saving work without going too far toward the details of hell and avoiding a counter-swing away from any notion of God’s judgment. There will be judgment, but we don’t know too much about the punishment.

Before we run off to preach about God’s judgment though, a word of caution is in order. Many of the warnings of Jesus about hell and judgment were directed at the religious leaders and his own disciples. In fact, just glancing at “Gehenna”in my Greek concordance, I don’t think I see one instance of Jesus reaching out to an unbeliever with a message about hell. He’s speaking to his followers or the Pharisees in each scenario.

I’m not saying we should avoid speaking of God’s judgment. However, we should we wary about letting the message of judgment trump the Good News that is supposed to ring out loud and clear.