Monday, May 21, 2007

A Renewed Gospel

Jesus came to "save" people. It seems quite natural to understand this as saving us "from" our sins. Everyone is lost and doomed to spend eternity in Hell, therefore Jesus came to "save" us by dying on the cross for our sins. I had heard this for so long that anything else seemed unnatural. What more could there be than this?

I have recently discovered something interesting. The language that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John use for Jesus healing is not always therapeuo or iaomai. These two words both mean to "heal" or to "cure." Often times, the Gospels will use these words to refer to the healings that Jesus performed. However, the Gospels also use the word, sozo, "to save," for the healings and miracles of Christ. (Mt 9:21-22; Mk 3:4; Mk 5:23, 28, 34; 6:56; 10:52; Lk 6:9; 7:50; 8:36, 48, 50; 17:19; 18:42; Jn 11:12; Acts 4:9; 14:9)! Some English Bibles render this verb "made whole, made well, healed," or something like that, which obscures that this is the same word, "save." Here are some examples:

"… for she was saying to herself, 'If I only touch His garment, I will get well.' But Jesus turning and seeing her said, 'Daughter, take courage; your faith has made you well (Greek: from sozo, 'saved you').' At once the woman was made well" (Mk 9:21-22).

"And answering him, Jesus said, 'What do you want Me to do for you?' And the blind man said to Him, 'Rabboni, I want to regain my sight!' And Jesus said to him, 'Go; your faith has made you well (Greek: from sozo, 'saved you').' Immediately he regained his sight and began following Him on the road" (Mk 10:51-52).

"When the herdsmen saw what had happened, they ran away and reported it in the city and out in the country. The people went out to see what had happened; and they came to Jesus, and found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting down at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind; and they became frightened. Those who had seen it reported to them how the man who was demon-possessed had been made well (Greek: from sozo, 'been saved')" (Lk 8:34-36).

The passage could have said "you are healed," using one of the Greek words for healing or cure, rather than a word that means, "to save." This suggests that saving someone from sin or physical ailment was part of the same package. There was no tension between the two. Jesus did not come merely to deal with what will happen to us after we die. He was not merely interested in our souls as a disembodied entity separate from our bodies. He was interested in us as a whole person.

The way Jesus conducts his ministry from the very beginning seems to bear this out. When Jesus first announces that the Kingdom was near in both Matthew and Mark, he begins an assault on evil, sickness, demon oppression, religious oppression, and everything related to sin and oppression.

In Matthew, Jesus begins his ministry preaching that the Kingdom of Heaven was near and began preaching the Gospel, or "good news" of the Kingdom (Mt 4:17). Then he calls his first disciples and begins an all out assault on oppression from sickness, disease, and demonization (Mt 4:23-25). He continued his assault, even attacking religious oppression at the hands of people such as the Pharisees. One thing that often goes unnoticed in this passage is that his ministry also included gentiles.

Mark follows the same pattern. Jesus begins by announcing that the Kingdom of God was near and that people must repent and believe the Gospel, or "good news (Mk 1:14-15)." For the next several chapters, he begins an assault on the oppressive strongholds by healing the sick, casting out demons, and befriending tax collectors and sinners, people whom the religious elite saw as unfit for the kingdom.

In Luke's account Jesus begins his ministry with a quotation from Isaiah 61.

"And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read. And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book and found the place where it was written, THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME, BECAUSE HE ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR. HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES, AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND, TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED, TO PROCLAIM THE FAVORABLE YEAR OF THE LORD" (Lk 4:16-19).

Jesus begins to do this after he leaves the synagogue that day. He engages in ministries of compassion by healing and befriending hurting and broken people. He brought freedom, dignity, hope, and joy to those who had been oppressed and downcast.

He was anointed not only to announce the good news to the poor, but also to free the captives and the oppressed, which he begins to do after leaving the synagogue that day. Jesus preaches the "Good News of the Kingdom" with ministries of compassion, healing the sick and the demonized, feeding hungry people, touching the outcasts, and getting involved in the lives of the marginalized. The purposes of his miracles appear to be much more than merely confirming his message. He could have done wondrous feats, such as making the temple disappear and reappear, but he didn't. He was demonstrating what the Good News of the Reign of God was all about. God was bringing wholeness to broken people. His holistic ministry incorporated a fractured people into a beautiful patchwork that he called the body of Christ. Jesus establishes a group of disparate people that are fiercely devoted to each other out of their devotion to God. This is why some pagans made comments about the church such as, "see how the love each other" or "there is not a beggar among them" or "they along know the right way to live." This is a testimony to the healing, compassionate, holistic ministry of Christ.

This ministry does not end with Jesus. He commissions the 12, and latter 70 to do what he had been demonstrating. In Luke 9, Jesus commissions the twelve to go out with healing ministries, proclaiming the Kingdom of God. Later, in Luke 10, he commissions seventy people to go out and do the same. The central message was the Kingdom of God. It is in the kingdom where there are no beggars. It is in the kingdom where there is healing. It is in the kingdom where wholeness can be found. In the end, Jesus sends out his disciples into the entire world to do as he has done (Mt 28:19-20), to engage people with the Gospel (Mark 16:15), which will involve ministries of compassion. Of course, the model for how this is to be done is found in ministry as Jesus demonstrated it. Jesus was training his disciples and leaving us a model to follow. This is why he says, "As the father has sent me, so also I send you (Jn 20:21). Jesus is our model.

This demonstrates that there is a clear social dimension to the Gospel. In years past, the term "Social Gospel" has received criticism from evangelicals. Some of the criticism of is warranted, especially in the cases where social concern is not rooted in the character and mission of God. However, this does not mean that God is not socially conscious. It does not mean that God is not concerned about the poor, the outcasts, the marginalized, and the oppressed. Jesus confronted oppressive powers and principalities not with a worldly revolution of power and coercion, but with a revolution of the heart. An apt image as to how Christianity confronts the world is the image of leaven (Mt 13:33). Jesus said the Kingdom of Heaven is like leaven. It is hidden in the dough and works from the inside out. As kingdom people, are to be engaged so that we can be that leavening influence.

The Good News of the Kingdom is proclaimed not merely by profession, but by practice. It is to do as Jesus did, and get involved. It is to walk as he walked, and be willing to get our hands dirty. It is to act as he acted, and be willing to take risks. Jesus does not call us to something "safe." He made in clear in Luke 10 that we are sent as sheep in the midst of wolves. But the image of the slain lamb that rose from the dead and was exalted in Revelation 4-5 gives us strength, because in God's kingdom, sheep are stronger than the wolves and are victorious.

As Jesus was engaged, so to the church, the Body of Christ must be engaged as leaven with ministries of compassion, proclaiming the Gospel both in words and in practice, which gives credibility to our message.

From the wall of the Children’s Home in Calcutta of the Missionaries of Charity,
the Order of Mother Teresa

People are unreasonable, illogical and self-centred

Love them anyway

If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives

Do good anyway

If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies

Succeed anyway

The good you do will be forgotten tomorrow

Do good anyway

Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable

Be honest and frank anyway

What you spent years building may be destroyed overnight

Build anyway

People really need help but may attack you if you help them

Help people anyway

Give the world the best you have
and you’ll get kicked in the teeth
Give the world the best you’ve got anyway

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

On Principalities and the Spirit of the Age: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Caring Ministries

"In our day and time it is the language of the market that governs the way of the world in Paul's sense of that term. The vocabulary of commerce and the syntax of consumption not only distort our relationship with God and thus with each other, they also miscast the church in the role of retail vendor, trading in spiritual goods and services. Thus the market conforms the member's of Christ's body to its ways precisely at the point where the risen Lord summons them to be transformed." [1]

As I read and ponder this quotation, I am reminded just how subtle culture is. Unless we are on the outside looking into our culture, values and assumptions of the culture will usually go unnoticed. I used to be disturbed by some of the language I used to read in evangelism material and in church growth literature of the 1980's. I had trouble articulating why it bothered me so much, it didn't seem quite right. Terms such as "marketing" the church or "closing the study" or finding "prospects" to have an evangelistic Bible study with all sounded too similar to what salesmen who came to my door did. It had a sales and business feel to it. What could be wrong with that? I remember hearing preachers say we need to learn from the business world. Many businessmen built successful organizations and there is much we can learn from this.

I agree that there are things we can learn from outsiders. However, it can become a problem when kingdom people who are not of this realm uncritically adopt methods and ways of doing things their cultural context. The fundamental problem lies in the values, assumptions, and worldview that underlie the structures and activities that exist in the culture.

The underlying values and assumptions in our culture are connected to individualism and consumerism.

Americans are often called "consumers." We no longer consume to live, but live to consume. Our culture seems to accept this as the way things are without questioning it.

Individualism assumes that people are basically autonomous. The focus in life is on self-actualization or personal fulfillment. Therefore, people will look for ways to improve their lives, raise their self-esteem, and find some sort of meaning in life. This should result in happiness and fulfillment.

On the surface, there seems to be nothing really wrong with any of this. However, it is very self-centered. It seems that individualism and consumerism can have a tendency to turn everything into a commodity, even human relationships and God!

Since the Kingdom of God is not of this realm, then it seems that kingdom people would cease to be kingdom people if they buy into individualism and consumerism. Rather than seeing themselves as part of God's church and inherently as agents of God's mission to engage the world selflessly, Christians may see the church as a place to "meet their needs, whether it is esteem needs, physical needs, or self-actualization. The church becomes the vendor and the people become the consumers. The church becomes an institution to attract people to their products and services, and the people become a means to build the organization.

If this is the paradigm, it is any wonder that many people cannot find happiness even in church? Some "shop around" for churches, until they find the one that suits their needs. A particular church may have better social activities. It might have a better children's program. It may have better singing, or more interesting preaching. And the list goes on and on. As consumers, some church members begin to look to other sources that provide similar services for them to consume. Sometimes it may be a civic organization, a club, or something else. As a vendor, the church works to satisfy its customers. It tries to compete with other churches or organizations. The church as a vendor has a hard time competing in the market with other organizations that provide better entertainment, a wider array of social activities, and greater expertise at what they do.

Is it any wonder that the Church Growth phase is now shriveling? Fuller Theological Seminary, once known for its education in Church Growth principles, has recognized many of the shortcomings in the Church Growth movement and has been transitioning to what people are calling a "Missional" model. Many folks like those at Fuller have recognized the weaknesses of the Church Growth model in our changing culture. The success stories associated with the Church Growth model obscured some of its theological shortcomings that stemmed from a blending of some of the underlying assumptions of the times with Christian faith. But that is another story.

I reflect on all of this as a reminder of the pitfalls of engaging the people around us. We want to meet their needs in the way Christ did, not in the way our consumerist culture does. Our mission is not to vend spiritual goods and services, but to engage the hurting and the broken with the holistic good news of Christ, and invite them into the Reign of God. We do not invite them to become customers or consumers, but to be formed into the image of Christ. It is not really about self-actualization. In fact, the whole concept of self-actualization is a fallacy. Theologically, there is only "God-Actualization," if you can call it that. God-Actualization comes not from individualism, but from communion. It doesn't come from consuming, but from giving. It comes from transformation into the image of Christ and participating in his mission from the same motive and heart as God.

I think that if I understand this, then I will be able to do what I can for the sake of the mission of Christ, for the kingdom without worrying about if it benefits my particular congregations directly. I will not be disheartened when I expend energies and resources to help people and there appears to be little "success." I can be free from high-pressure tactics of evangelism and love people in the way Christ did. I can recognize that being socially conscious and being faithful to the Gospel of the kingdom go hand in hand. Perhaps we would eventually be able to shed the opinion by outsiders that all we are interested is "getting me into your church," and that like God, we are interested in them personally. I believe that understanding God's heart and how it is in conflict with the spirit of the age, I can be free to love authentically and have a credible witness.


[1] James V. Brownson and others, StormFront: The Good News of God, The Gospel and Our Culture Series (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 29.