Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Center of our Faith

My wife and I recently attended a theology lab for church planters. Even though it was geared for church planters, it was pertinent to anyone involved in any kind of ministry. This theology lab was a good time to re-focus and rejuvenate. My wife and I got a clearer picture of how God is leading us in our ministry. In order for this to happen, we needed to refocus on the center of what Christianity is all about. If we are not centered properly, then peripheral things often can take center stage and crowd out what is supposed to be at the center. Good theology is like a rudder than guides not only church planting ministries, but all of ministry.

What is it all about? There was a time in my early Christian life when I would have said it was all about salvation. The end goal was to be saved. The first person that I had the opportunity to bring to Christ was scared to death of Hell. He did not want to go there. Who does? I certainly did not want to go there. So we sat down together and went over the steps to salvation and the things he needed to do and believe in order to stay out of hell. When we were through, he was eager to do it all as soon as possible. He didn't want to take a chance that if he didn't do it right away, he might not get a change and therefore go to Hell. So, I called up the preacher who opened the building for us so that we could get him into the water. That was the goal, to get as many people in the water as possible so that they can be saved. I have come to realize that salvation is not the end all be all. It is not the ultimate goal. It is a means to the goal.

I had also thought at one point that the ultimate goal was to go to Heaven. Salvation was the means by which we could go to Heaven. It was comforting to know that after we die, that existence doesn't just end. There is so much more awaiting for us after we die. Death for the saved person is merely a transition, a graduation into eternity. We move many places throughout life and live in many places. But the final home will be in Heaven. What is Heaven? Some think of mansions over the hilltop. Others think of streets paved with gold. Some think of a glorious, beautiful garden. The Bible describes a time when the tree of life is restored, and there will be no more death or sickness. I used to think of Heaven as a calm, peaceful place where there was lots of light and everyone wore robes. It was a nice thought, but I have also come to realize that Heaven is still not the ultimate goal. If I understand Heaven merely as a "place" to go to, then I have missed the whole point.

All of life, all of Christianity, all my faith, and my ministry stems and is centered not in salvation, not in Heaven, but in God. The end all be all is fellowship with our creator, our God, our Father. This is the core, or the center of all Christian theology. That may sound strange because I used to like to do theology by "list." I suppose that is a product of my Western, scientific culture in which I love that likes to categorize, describe, and list things. So I wound up with the five points of salvation, or the three points of the Lord's supper, the five acts of worship, the four characteristics of the Holy Spirit and such.

One of the drawbacks in doing theology "lists" is that we tend to make everything on the list of equal importance. There are some things that are more central than others, and then there are some things that are peripheral things. Sometimes doing doctrinal studies by "lists," obscures this fact. Another drawback is it tends to be reductionistic. God didn't reveal himself through lists. The majority of the Bible is narrative, history, or story, which cannot be reduced to lists. These reveal who God is, what he is like, and what the implications for us are.

So, a better way to think of theology is that it has a core, and everything radiates from that core. This is especially necessary when you run into situations that the Bible doesn't directly address. This is necessary when you run into cultural challenges to the way we have always done things. How are we to do ministry? How are we to serve? How are we to "do church?"

As the world changes and challenges our mode of operation, what should we do? There are typically two reactions. One is to get defensive, take an adversarial stance, retreat into a spiritual bunker and protect our traditions. Anyone that deviates from these traditions is suspect at best, or labeled a heretic at worst. Change is a bad word. This is traditionalism.

The other reaction is to look at all of our practices, identify what no longer works, and to adopt practices that work. On the surface, there are those that have tried this and have appeared to be successful. Some famous mega-churches have grown out of this. They have identified what "works," and have done it. This is pragmatism.

Neither one of these is a theologically sound reaction. If we are not theologically grounded, then we slide into a default mode, whether it is traditionalism or pragmatism. Leaders in many of the pragmatic churches have found that they have grown a mile wide and an inch deep. The traditionalist churches are often an inch wide and an inch deep. Neither have much depth to them. For one type of church, the center is tradition. For the other, the center is the ABC's of church - "attendance, buildings, cash." These are just a couple of example of the default mode you can slide into if you are not theologically grounded.

So, what lies at the center and what radiates from it? Go back to the very beginning. What do you have? In the beginning God. It all starts with God. Who is God? What is God? God is not whoever you want him to be. For thousands of years people have tried to make their gods in the image of whatever they wanted, but that is not God.

Let's go back to the beginning. Genesis is such an important document. It introduces us to who God is, what He is like. It introduces us to ourselves, what we are and what we are like. In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the earth. God's Spirit, God's "breath" was hovering above the waters. The "breath" of God is what gives true life. So, God created man in his own image and breathed into him the breath of life. He did this with no other creature. God walked with man in the garden that he prepared for him. Everything was in perfect harmony. There was harmony in the creation. There was harmony between man and God. There was harmony between man and creation. Man had dominion over all the creation and was the keeper of the garden. He could eat from any tree, except one. If they ate of that one, they would die. But they could eat from any of the others. It was all very good. The God who is good created something very good.

One day man came across a serpent. The serpent pointed to the tree that God had told them not to eat. He told them that God had lied. They wouldn't "die" if they ate of the tree. He told them that they would become like God, they would know the difference between good and evil, they would be smarter.

Imagine what might have gone on in the minds of Adam and Eve. Wow! Could it be? Is there more to life than this garden? Is God withholding something from me? I could become greater than I am? I could become more independent. I could become….well, I am not sure, but I sure wouldn't have to be so reliant on God….. But God said not to, that I would die. Maybe the serpent is right…..

So, man ate the fruit. Then came the guilt, the shame. They knew what they had done. Like that serpent said, they really "knew." They had become "smarter," and now they wanted to go hide. Then they heard God walking in the garden. Any other time, they might have run to him like children run to their father when he comes home. Instead, they went the other way. They hid from him. They could hear God calling, "where are you?" Adam, Even, where are you?

Why does God call? Because God is a relational God. The Bible tells us that God is our Father. The Bible tells us that Jesus is God. The Bible also seems to say that the Spirit is God. Bible tells us that God is three in one…one God, three "persons." This is what the word, "trinity" refers to. God is eternally three in one. What this means is that He was already a God of fellowship, a God of love, a relational God even before he created us. He did not NEED us to be relational. He is inherently relational within himself. He didn't create or redeem us because he so needed us, but because he chose to love us. So, God calls to man.

The serpent was wrong…and he was right. They did not die, at least not in the way many think of death. They went on "living," but it wasn't really "life." They suffered the worst kind of death, the death that comes from alienation from God. Instead of harmony, love, peace, security, fellowship, beauty, and all of the things that comes from the very character of God, there was something they never could have quite grasped…until now. Now there is alienation, pride, hate, war, violence, murder, anger, deceit, and other things which are the exact opposite of God. This result of being alienated from God disrupted the beautiful, relational harmony of God's creation.

But the story doesn't end there. God promised to destroy the power of sin and re-unite mankind to himself. God continues to "call" to man. He called to Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Israel, and he calls us. Why? Because God is inherently a relational God.

This really hit home with us at the theology lab. We hit the major mega-themes of the Christian faith. We spent some time trying to identify the core. Stacey and I identified it as our God who is a relational God. This is the core. The makes the Bible a book about relationship. This is why the greatest command is love. This is why the Bible tells us that God is Love. God is a relational God and we see that throughout the Bible. Everything radiates from this and identifies those core, non-negotiable aspects of Christian theology.

Our personal reflection put relational God at the foundation, and scripture as connected to it all, since we would not know much without scripture. From there is Jesus who is God, the incarnation which demonstrates God's relationality, his death and resurrection, atonement and sin. There is baptism with is intimately tied to atonement. These are right next to the core. Jesus said, "unless you believe I am, you will die in your sins," in John 8:24.

There is humanity, made in the image of God. Because we are all made in God's image, all human beings are worthy of the inherent dignity and worth that comes from God. This is why Jesus says that when we serve others, we are serving him.

As humans, we carry the breath of God. All life comes from the breath of God. In the beginning, the breath of God brought life, beauty, and harmony. Sin disrupted that life, but God breathes new life into us. He has given us his spirit, new breath. The flesh profits nothing, but the Spirit, the breath of God is what gives life. What does this mean? All around we see the worse kind of death, the death that came as a result of Adam's sin. We see the hatred, pride, fear, shame, murders, etc. Where do people find the breath of God? We are a temple of the breath of God, a temple of his Spirit. Life….true life exudes from us as we reflect the very life of God in love, peace, mercy, kindness, and goodness. The breath of God, his Spirit, sanctifies us and transforms us. The Spirit renews us and is restoring the image of God in us. The spirit restores harmony, unity, and beauty.

Jesus came to reconcile. He came to restore what was lost. He is God in the flesh. God, because he is relational, came from Heaven to earth. He came alongside us. He became one of us. He experienced our hurts, our temptations, our human nature. He became weak, he poured himself out, he became vulnerable. He had to live by faith as a human. He had to trust that when he was put to death, that God would not abandon him to Hades and would raise him from the dead. I can hardly get my mind around it! God. Crucified as a common criminal. Died. Buried. Forgiveness. Love. Resurrection. Life. Because of the forgivness Jesus offers, we now have the ability to forgive anything no matter how heinous. We have the ability for reconciliation, for unity, for renewed life in him. Jesus died, rose, and gives the Spirit.

But this restoration work is not finished. God's kingdom is near, it is here, but it is also still to come. Jesus said the world is like a field with both wheat and tares mixed together. God has already established his kingdom alongside the kingdom of this world. The kingdom of God overlaps this world. It is a parallel community of justice, peace, and mercy. It is a kingdom of light and salt. It is a kingdom where our whole lives become worship and service to God. God places us alongside the world for a redemptive purpose. As people experience the breath of God, the Spirit of God, true Life of God in us in our love for each other, then the world will know Christ.

The time is coming, when the kingdom of this world will become the kingdom of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever. God will once again walk in the presence of man as in the beginning. That is the goal, fellowship with God.

Since God is inherently relational, that means our relationship with God is not grounded on some "legal" requirement. You see it in Abraham, in Israel, in Job, and in Christ. God cannot be appeased or paid off. That is not who he is. The basis of our relationship with God is the love of God. This is why Jesus became flesh. This is why he went to the cross. This is why he prayed for his enemies.

The strength of this type of theological reflection is that it allows us to allow the "weightier matters" to have weight. Theology by lists have a tendency to treat everything of equal importance. There are things that are close to the core and are non-negotiable items. They stem from the core character of God. These have a strong bearing on the direction and nature of our ministries. These are the values that shape our direction. The chart above visually expresses our theological framework for ministry. I am just now beginning to reflect on how the affects our attitudes and how we are to relate to God, to each other, and to the world. The greatest command is love. It is about love. If you strip this away, if this is not the center or the core, it all tumbles down. It is foundational.

There is so much more that can be said, but this in a nutshell describes where we are. We are seeing this as sort of a new beginning in our ministry. I think all ministry training should begin and end with this type of theological rudder, but it typically does not. There is sort of a default mode even in many of our ministry training schools that needs to be evaluated in light of good, sound, biblical theology.

We are thankful to God for what he is showing us. We are not sure how that will take shape, but we are excited about it.

I have recently felt a certain restlessness, and a certain inadequacy, a longing, but wasn't sure what it was. This theology lab along with other recent classes and workshops have been instrumental in putting some better perspective on myself, on the kingdom, and on ministry. So, we are renewing our commitment to God not to merely slide into a default mode with our faith. It is about relationship, first and foremost with God, and also with others. This includes ALL who are made in the image of God. I need to connect with God, with my brethren and with those who have not yet entered into the Kingdom. This means being more relational. Not only is there reading and praying, but also sharing and encouragement. There is togetherness, joy, and fun! Yes, fun! We need to learn to enjoy the fellowship and togetherness that comes from our relational God.

As the Kingdom, we are living alongside the world for a reason. Jesus didn't bring the kingdom near the world so it can be isolated, but so it could be a kingdom of life. As a temple of the Spirit, we have the breath of God, we have life. I have come to realize that I am most energized when leading people into the Kingdom. So, I am looking to discern how God will accomplish this through us.

This is an exciting sense of new renewal and beginning. I realize that we are always learning, always being formed, and therefore always need to be as clay in the hands of the master.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a great resource!