Friday, April 30, 2010

Guilt? Leave it out!

Someone said to me recently, 'Isn't religion just driven by guilt?'

It got me thinking (not for the first time) about the whole topic of guilt - and in particular how, as Christians, we communicate our faith.

I think evangelicals generally are far too inclined to use guilt as the starting point for their message. (I call this the 'bad news first, good news good' approach.) It's driven by the central place evangelical theology gives to penal substitution ('Jesus died to take the punishment for our sins'). For many evangelicals this simply is the gospel.

It's not that there isn't truth here; but it's not the whole picture. A lot more happened at the cross. Jesus overcame violence with love. God demonstrated His enormous will to forgive. Satanic and systemic evil was unmasked, exhausted and undone. The great story of God and His people came to its climax and turning point. (And don't forget the resurrection!)

But there's another thing about guilt - the distinction between guilt as an article of theology (i.e. 'we all stand guilty before a holy God') and guilt as a feeling.

Which brings us to what is perhaps the biggest problem with the old school evangelical 'guilt first' approach: our society just simply doesn't feel guilty anymore. (Possibly because of the retreat of religion in public consciousness - how's that for chicken and egg?) Some evangelicals just shout louder about guilt - witness the hysteria-tinged outcries from the Christian right recently.

But I think there's a better way. Start with a call to belong. Emphasise church as friends, as brotherhood and shared lives. Make it open to all. Proclaim God's crazy grace. And live it out, joyfully, unpredictably: no prejudice, church for all. Guilt? - Leave it out!

As people come and belong, they will discover, bit by bit, the wildly loving God who is behind it all (and through and within and over and under it all). In time - and I say it with care - the right kind of guilt will come: the desire to be deeply reconciled with God, to know Him, to live clean.

That's when baptism comes into its own. A bath and a door into the family - all in one.

'Twill be grace that teaches our hearts to fear, and grace our fears relieves.

But let's not start with a browbeating. People find it hard enough to believe in a man raised from death who also happens to be God without us having to place in their way something even more difficult to believe: their own guilt.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

No racism please, we're British

Some old friends who live in Leeds put up a notice by their front door letterbox. This is what it said:

Please put racist leaflets straight in the green bin. We welcome refugees. Put God’s world before the ‘rights’ of the British. If you’d like to discuss it, please knock on the side door. Thanks. The Marlows.

I thought this was so excellent I wanted to pass it on.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Body builders

When Paul wrote to the Corinthians he called them something awesome: “You are the body of Christ”. This group of not-very-perfect people in big, bad Corinth expressed Christ all on their own – fully.

But maybe you want to correct Paul: “Hang on there, Mr Apostle: they are part of the body of Christ – don’t forget those Christians up in Thessalonica or over the bay in Ephesus? Not to mention further afield?”

Most Christians know “the body of Christ” means the church – but they get twitchy about any one church being “the body of Christ”. “Part of the body” of the body seems more correct, not so OTT – safer.

Yet the body of Christ is most powerfully real where people are joined together in day-to-day life. “I’m a part of the whole body of Christ across the world” may be true enough (and wonderful in its way), but if you don’t actually belong to specific people it’s dangerously airy-fairy.

The more you belong to the brothers and sisters you’re actually with, the more you belong to the body of Christ. The whole body was at Corinth. The whole body was at Thessalonica. And Ephesus. The whole body is a reality in any church where there is lasting commitment to God and to each other. God has not scattered limbs and organs across the world. Whenever even two or three gather – commit to each other, lay down their lives – Christ is there [Matt.18:20].
Then – and only then – a big bogeyman is given the death sentence: independence .

Independence – so prized by the world’s spirit! – is the big enemy of “body of Christ” reality.
And independence often wears a devout mask: “I’ll go where the Lord calls me!” (Translated: “I’ll go where I like and never limit my options.”) In the New Testament, people weren’t “called” – if by “called” you mean getting a personal “phone call from God”. Even Paul, who certainly was “called to be an apostle”, only set off apostling when God spoke to his church, in Antioch [Acts 13:1-3].

Relationships in this kind of body go very deep. “We are members of one another”; “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice” [Rom.12:5, 1Cor.12:26]

But we won’t get it on the cheap. How about total loyalty to the body you belong to? Never leave unless you’re commissioned and sent.

Be the body of Christ: deal the death-blow to your independence.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Inspiration and perspiration

From time to time I get sent reports about Jesus Army evangelism efforts from round the nation. (I edit our magazine – helps to keep my ear to the ground.) Recently I was sent one that was a little different to the norm:

Six people went to evangelise in the city centre. It was cold and clashed with a youth event elsewhere, hence the small team. Generally a pants evening. Bless you.

I loved this report enough to reproduce it here. Not only does the grim “bless you” at the end make me smile, but this is a disarmingly honest report. Because the fact is that for all our characteristically Jesus Army gung-ho positivity, sometimes the work of building the church can be cold, hard slog.

Photo by nazreth of sxu.huTake another, different, example: we’ve just held our annual Easter weekend “Alive Festival”. After it was over someone asked me how I got on. I thought for a moment and then replied, “80% perspiration, 20% inspiration.”

It wasn’t that it wasn’t an excellent time; it was – inspiring talks from some of the Jesus Army’s main leaders; powerful encounters in times of prayer; energetic singing and worship. But I found it hard work, too (as did my good lady wife). Small children to manage; food to be transported, dished out, cleared up; muddy buggy wheels, shoes, toddlers; driving, driving, more driving... There were times when aching limbs and numbed brains congealed into cold questions like “Is it really worth the effort?”

And of course, the answer is yes. It is well worth the effort. But it is also – effort.

At the end of what is possibly the greatest theological work ever penned, Paul wrote these apparently rather mundane words:

Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you... Greet Urbanus, our fellow worker in Christ... Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord... Timothy, my fellow worker, greets you... (from Romans 16)

Can you spot the theme?

It’s hard work being and building the church.

But it’s worth every drop of sweat.