Running full speed

This article was originally written in June 2019.

These follower of The Way had to move beyond the borders of Judaism to be who they were called to be…and we must also move beyond the boundaries of our own comfort to be who we are called to be.

Diane LeClerc, in her book Discovering Christian Holiness, points out that as long Christianity was under the umbrella of Judaism rather than a radically new, un-Jewish form of religious faith, it enjoyed “a type of immunity and toleration” (78) with regard to the way it was seen and responded to by the Roman Empire.  The relationship between the Roman Empire and Judaism had a history with established boundaries, regulations, and expectations.  As long this new movement–The Way–kept to itself, didn’t make waves, and stayed within the already established boundaries delineated by the already existing understanding between Rome and Judaism, The Way would have remained relatively safe and unbothered.

People often say that Jesus did not come to earth to start a new religion. Whatever our opinion of that statement, one thing is clear—

Jesus presented such compelling example and demonstration of God’s power, plan, and purpose that those who took it seriously simply could not responsibly stay within the boundaries of Judaism as a religion, nor move forward while staying in the narrow lane of Roman expectations for them as nothing more than a Jewish sect. 

These follower of The Way had to move beyond the borders of Judaism to be who they were called to be.  The result brought about an era of church history in which martyrdom was viewed, according to LeClerc, the highest sign of holiness. That is, the willingness to die for ones faith in Jesus Christ was seen to be highest form of devotion, commitment, and outward evidence of a transformed heart and life.

For much of the history of the church in America, perhaps, it might be said that we have been like The Way, staying within the boundaries established by Rome. That is, perhaps the church has enjoyed the protection, safety, and comfort protection by favorable government regulations (freedom to gather, freedom to worship openly, and tax-deductions) , the safety of a general cultural favorability to basic Christian thought and life (there was a time when parents who didn’t attend church sent their children to Sunday school because it was “good for them”), and the comfort of economic and social well-being and success (large buildings, extensive facilities, land ownership, and large congregations).

At a glance it might seem that the church in America has enjoyed one of the best and most fruitful periods of church history. But it hasn’t come without a price. We’ve been able to enjoy these things as long as we stayed within our own lane.  One example–churches enjoy tax-exempt status and privileges, so long as they abide by certain state-established laws and regulations. The question that needs to be asked, however, is whether this lane–wide and comfortable as it is–has helped or hurt its ability to live out the compelling example of Jesus of God’s power, plan, and purpose.

The followers of The Way they may well-have enjoyed similar protection, safety, and comfort under Rome, if not for an undeniable conviction that their movement called them to so much more. 

In other words, their understanding of their foundational and ultimate purpose would not allow them to remain trapped inside a box—they had to break free, live out their purpose, and follow the example and teachings of Christ regardless of the consequences.  This was the way they must go.

The contemporary situation in America is somewhat different has it has been in the not-so-distant past. The church is being moved out from under the long-established protection, safety, and comfort that came with the cultural, social, economic, and religious favor of popular society. This is not a missional choice by the church, it’s not motivated by a conviction that to live responsible Christian lives the church must renounce the protections it once enjoyed. Instead, these changes are coming by way of a rapidly shifting cultural, economic, social, and religious landscape that is pushing the church out from its once well-respected position in society. As a result, there is this foreboding sense of mourning over what is being lost, anger because it is being lost, and and “all-American” desire to fight back and take back what we believe is rightfully ours, all the while only giving lip service to the overriding theme of holiness that is the ultimate purpose of God the church—full and complete love for God and Christlike love for neighbor.

            

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This article was originally presented in a class and was responded to by other students.  I have reproduced a few of those responses below:

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My Response to K:  You wrote, K — “What if we took our church calendars and examined the events and activities of the church each month or year in light of this statement?  We could do the same with our budgets and our curriculum.  Families and individuals can do the same with their calendars and budgets.” 

This is something I’ve often thought about–how do budgets reflect who we are?  How do we allow budgets to determine the things we do and don’t do?  In my particular ministry, I talk a lot about house churches or “no-designated-church-building” churches.  It’s not an idea that is easy to accept for most of our churches leaders who were taught (to put it very simply) that churches must have buildings.  But there are two great advantages–(1) churches can be planted with virtually no financial investment required, and (2) monies that are given/collected can more easily be used in ways that directly reflect the mission and priorities of the church. May we all score well on the rubric of love!  🙂

Response from G:   I really appreciate the perspective you lend when you write, “We can see the church moving out from under the long-established protection, safety, and comfort that came with the cultural, social, economic, and religious favor of popular society.” As a young up-and-coming Latina American,  I hadn’t really thought of the church as holding a respected position in society until recently. I was kind of rushed into learning about politics in 2016 because it felt like my life depended on it. The divisiveness of that time that continues to protrude into our rhetoric, has proved that half of the population in North America is unhappy with those in power, the church being one of those. I am not sure if this is because of who makes up our churches or because Christianity is what the ideals of the founding father of this nation were but now, the church is definitely facing a loss of its seat in power. People are angry at that. Truly, the “’all-American’ desire to fight back” is real as you said. But at what cost? I guess I am just echoing your thoughts and really appreciate the narrative your perspective shares. It makes sense to me! I think this may be an opportunity for our churches to gracefully respond to the challenges that face it. I hope we respond in love and haven’t lost our footing in the way of holiness

Response from M:   Thanks for your addition to this class! I appreciate what you have to offer to us by way of your perspective living outside the USA. You have the unique opportunity to look at questions of culture and exile and empire through a different lens. It is pretty obvious that the church and Christianity in general are losing their position of spiritual authority and respect amidst a culture that is changing at a rate we cannot keep up with.

I really was struck by what you pulled from our reading about The Way and how they had a certain amount of protection from Rome so long as they did not make waves or push the boundaries. I rather agree that same thing applies to present day Christianity in that we are tolerated so long as we do not make too many waves. We have not been in this place before.  We are coming to a place where we may at some point be called on to step up or step away from the protections we once enjoyed to order to live by our convictions. I was also thinking about another angle on this….I think it comes from “The Screwtape Letters,” where it is suggested that Satan will leave us be so long as we are complacent. Satan has no need to waste his energy on stopping our efforts because we are not accomplishing anything for the Kingdom. 

 

As far as it depends on you
If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone—–Romans 12:18 NIV
During this season when tensions are high, divisions are wide, and uncertainty is around every corner…
  • …as far as it depends on me…
  • …I will make efforts to live peaceably with everyone.
  • …seek to know both sides of the story…
  • …intentionally give people the benefit of the doubt…
  • …not give people unkind labels or unfair names…
  • …seek to view myself humbly and others generously…
  • …see all people–all people–with eyes of compassion, hope, and love.

How is the church to live, move, and breath as as a church in exile?

The Church in Exile

Although exile is a prominent theme throughout the Old Testament, it has not generally been a lens through which the history of the church has been interpreted.  In his book Embracing Exile; Living Faithfully as God’s  Unique People in this World, T. Scott Daniels presents a thesis centered around the idea that the church, particularly the American, church, is in the process of being exiled.  Indeed, he argues, it has been for quite some time.  In this brief reflection I will argue that Daniels is correct—

the church is in a state of exile

—but not in exactly the same way as he envisions in his book. In recognizing the state of exile in which the church exists, there are both dangers and opportunities that must be recognized.

What is Exile?

Daniels explains from the beginning some of the ways in which the metaphor falls apart. These are important to recognize, but there is one additional aspect of this important metaphor that needs to be addressed.  Mainly, exile means that we have left one place—either by force or by choice—and now exist in another. 

The underlying implication is that the place left behind represents what should be, the place where all is right, and that the place of exile is less-than-ideal, the place where what should be is not.

In the same way, to understand that the the church in America is entering a period of exile has two basic implications.  First, that the cultural, political, and religious context of the past, and the way in which the church functioned in this context, was the ideal, the way things ought to be.  Second, the cultural, political, and religious context in which the church is feeling exiled is not ideal, not the way things ought to be.

Madeleine L’Engle wrote, in The Rock That is Higher: Story as Truth, that

…we are all strangers in a strange land, longing for home, but not quite knowing what or where home is. We glimpse it sometimes in our dreams, or as we turn a corner, and suddenly there is a strange, sweet familiarity that vanishes almost as soon as it comes.

The faithful people of God are in exile and always has been.  In Genesis, after God separates, fills, and blesses as described by Daniels in chapter two of Exile, sin enters through the disobedience of humanity.  The perfect paradise of Eden was no longer available. The perfect Shalom between God and humanity, and between Adam and Eve, was broken.  The world was no longer as it should have been, as it was created to be. This is the world in which we live.

Adam and Eve were exiled from the garden and into the less-than-ideal world where sin works to break all that was good.

Their exile is our exile. This is the world in which church exists today, as it always has—as a people of God in exile.

As Peter reminds us,

You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession”

1 Peter 2:9

Therefore, he continues,

I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desire, which wage war against your soul.  Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they may accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

1 Peter 2:10

Past generations were not more perfect or less broken by sin.  The exiled reality of the church was a truth then as it is now.  The difference now is that in the past the prominent and respected place of the church within the cultural, economic, and religious context of America made the reality of exile difficult to see. Comfortable people have a hard time seeing what it really happening all around them. Today, the clouds are clearing, the support systems are crumbling, and the plot of America’s cultural narrative is shifting. 

A new reality is dawning for the church and it feels uncomfortable and frightening…

…but it’s not the reality of exile that is new; rather, the reality of a Christian-friendly cultural milieu is rapidly fading into the past.

The dangers of exile

What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?

Matthew 16:26

The first danger of exile is seen in the church that forfeits itself to the world in which it exists. I have raised my children outside of the American context, so Daniels words regarding the loss of identity make sense–

The book of Daniel recognizes that if the Judeans weren’t careful, at some point their children would cease to be Judeans living in exile in Babylon and would instead become Babylonians who attended the synagogue on occasion

Daniels, Exile, Kindle location 1078

In raising my children, I don’t want them to cease to have any sense of their American identity or their connection to their passport country–that cultural and national identity of their parents, grandparents, and home church.  In the same way,

…the church in exile must not lose sight of its home country—the kingdom of light of which God’s people are citizens. 

The cultural values of this kingdom define who we are, form the foundation of our faith, and inform our practices. We may not see it clearly yet, but the process of discipleship brings us to a deeper understanding of the values and ideals of our “home country” (the heavenly household of God). Yet, our day-to-day existence is lived out in a foreign kingdom of exile. 

For me, that foreign kingdom is my passport country of the United States. Your foreign kingdom might also be your passport country or some other earthly national identity that is most comfortable for you–your “home.” The closer we come to Christ, however, the greater our awareness of the foreignness of our earthly home, our “comfort place,” our God-given national identity.

Just as Jesus was a man very much shaped by his earthly geographic, cultural, economic, and religious context, so we are a product of the context of our particular corner of the globe.  To keep our home country (the new heaven and new earth promised in Scripture) always in sight takes no small amount of effort. As such,

…the first great danger of exile is that we begin to look more and more like the place of exile and less and less like Christ. 

In doing so the church is no longer separate from the world.  As a result, the church then loses its opportunity to fill and be filled by the Spirit and to be a blessing to the nations. In the world of missions this is known as syncretism, a melding together of spiritual truth with cultural and philosophical values to the point where they can no longer be distinguished one from the other.  As an American I was taught to carefully avoid syncretism in overseas ministry, but no one ever mentioned that my passport country, itself, may be one of the best of examples of near perfect syncretism in the world today!

A second danger lies on the opposite end of the spectrum; that is,

…while living in exile, the people of God fail to fill the earth with God’s glory while also failing to be a blessing to the nations,

…not because they identified too closely with world, but rather because they have separated themselves to the point of losing all meaningful impact and influence. N.T. Wright comments about the sort of “fortress mentality” in Surprised by Hope:

First, what is the ultimate Christian hope? Second, what hope is there for change, rescue, transformation, new possibilities within the world in the present?  As long as we see Christian hope in terms of “going to heaven,” of a salvation that is essentially away from this world, the two questions are bound to appear as unrelated.  If the Christian hope is for God’s new creation, for “new heavens and new earth,” and if that hope has already come to life in Jesus of Nazareth, then there is every reason to join the two questions together.  Christian hope is surprisingly different from what they had assumed and that this same hope offers a coherent and energizing basis for work in today’s world.  

In other words, the second danger of exile is that life in this world becomes meaningless; nothing more than separation and withdrawal from the world, in such a way that the life of the church has no meaningful impact or influence in the community. As a result the church loses its ability to be filled with Spirit and to be a blessing to the nations. 

Opportunities in Exile

The great opportunity in exile, from the perspective of Missio Dei (God’s mission and purpose for God’s people) can be seen clearly in the words of Jesus,

Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven”

Matthew 15:16

While the church waits for its return to the home country, there is ample opportunity to bless the world in which we currently live.

In 1 Peter 2:11-12, Peter writes,

Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors. Then even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior, and they will give honor to God when he judges the world.  

Not only is the church expected to “live properly” among the not-yet-believing community in which it exists, but to do so in a way that bring glory to God from the lips of unbelievers. 

The lives of those who are called the church bring glory to God while being appropriately different than the surrounding culture but yet actively and meaningfully engaged at the same time.

Paul, writing to the Colossians, states,

Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; making the most of every opportunity.  Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.

Colossians 2:5-6

Clearly, for Paul, the life of the church in the greater community was of great importance; particularly the way they communicated with outsiders.  The assumption for Paul is that the church will be engaged with the culture and community in which they exist, and in doing so have the opportunity to do good, speak grace, and be, as Jesus taught, the salt of the earth—

…a valuable, meaningful, preserving influence in the world.

Finally, in the fifth chapter of his letter to church in Colossae, Paul adds,

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.”

Colossians 5:9-11 (italics mine)

For Paul, it is not the place of the church to build walls and isolate themselves from the surrounding culture and influence; rather, while living in the world the church must insure that its story remains clear, relevant, unwaveringly full of grace…and filled with love. 

Conclusion

The church has always been in exile—all is not as it should be, hope for return to the home country remains yet unfulfilled, and even in the best of cultural, economic, social, and religious contexts, the church has, is, and will continue to face dangers and uncertainties at every corner.  While the particular state of exile may differ from one village to the next, one nation to the next, or even one continent to the next, all face the same basic dangers–syncretism on one extreme and absolute irrelevance on the other. Each, as well, has within reach the same foundational opportunities–to be the wellspring of grace, hope, and life as they walk the way of Christ while inviting others on the journey.

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Bibiography

Daniels, T. Scott. Embracing Exile: Living Faithfully as God’s Unique People in the World.  Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 2017.

L’Engle, Madeleine.  The Rock That is Higher: Story as Truth.  Chicago: Shaw Books, 2002.

The Holy Bible, New International Version.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984.

Wright, N.T.  Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. New York: Harper Collins, 2008.

 

Scripture

To get the most out of life you must pour yourself out

A comment on my recent post entitled Perfect Plans and Purposes ended with “…living our lives to the fullest for God to our very last breath, whenever that may be.” (Thanks, Beth!) . This got me to thinking.

My response to this comment ended with a short phrase that reflected one of those rare moments when words just fall out onto the floor perfectly arranged with no need for re-wording, re-ordering, or re-thinking:

Living to the fullest means emptying ourselves fully.

Not that I came up with this on my own. Scripture is full of this kind of language, beginning with the well-known image of Christ as the perfect image of God—the one human who could truly and rightly claim to fully display the image of God—emptying himself and humbling himself to take the form of a servant. 

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

—Philippians 2:3-8 (ESV) — emphasis mine

Scripture
Photo by Aaron Burden on Upslash

Matthew and the other writers of the gospels reflect on what Christ did on the cross by also utilizing the image of being poured out. Modern practices of communion have focused on the communal consumption of the bread and juice. Unfortunately, pre-packaged wafers and communion cups do not carry with them the powerful image of the breaking of the bread and the pouring of wine—symbols of humility and sacrificial giving of himself—that are so important to remember and “see” regularly.  The wine (or juice) being poured out is a powerful reminder that we get the most of life when we pour ourselves out, just as Christ did.

And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.

—Matthew 26:27-28 (ESV) — emphasis mine

The only real value in life, according to Luke and others, is in pouring oneself out. We can try to keep milk in our fridge, hoarding it for later, but it ends up going back rather quickly. It’s better to drink it regularly while also continuing to refill continually. The same is true of our lives.  We get the most of life—our short time here on this earth—by being poured out and refilled, poured out and refilled, continually.

For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?

—Luke 9:24-25 (ESV) — emphasis mine

John Wesley reminds us that God not only sees, but “communicates greatness” to, the very smallest of faithful acts of service (whether seen or not by human eyes). The truly happy, he writes, are those who give their lives to doing good and, finally, that oftentimes those who are seen the least (because they are constantly on their knees before the LORD) are among the chief causes of transformation that occurs.  We get the most out of life by doing good to others for the sake of our witness and testimony of Christ.

God is so great, that he communicates greatness to the least thing that is done for his service.

“Happy are they who are sick, yea, or lose their life, for having done a good work.

“God frequently conceals the part which his children have in the conversion of other souls. Yet one may boldly say, that person who long groans before him for the conversion of another, whenever that soul is converted to God, is one of the chief causes of it.

—John Wesley (A Plain Account of Christian Perfection) — emphasis mine

Therefore, we can understand what Paul is saying when he tells us to sacrifice ourselves not through death, but rather by offering our very lives to the service of God and others.  We get the most out of life by not thinking constantly about what life is giving us, but by giving ourselves fully to the lives of those around us.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.

—Romans 12:1 (ESV) — emphasis mine

After all, our goal and purpose is to grow in holiness. The grow in holiness means to be increasingly Christlike. The grow increasingly Christlike means to grow in love for God and for neighbor.  We get the most out of life by living holy lives of love.

He who says he abides in Him [Christ] ought himself also to walk just as He walked.

1 John 2:6 (NKJV) — emphasis mine

 

Followers of the Way

“Jesus Christ—Messiah—Way, Truth, and Life.”

Post 3 of 28

The title Christ has the same meaning as messiah so when we say “Jesus Christ” we are also saying “Jesus, the Messiah” or “Jesus Messiah.”  Messiah is a Hebrew word meaning “anointed one” and could be applied to anyone who was specially designated for a particular task or role, such as a king or priest. 

So, in the Old Testament way of thinking messiah was an adjective — describing certain people and the task they were given — but in the New Testament Messiah comes to be used as a proper noun — “the Messiah” or “the Christ.” — describing the person, the work, and the purpose of Jesus, the anointed one.  In Jesus, the long-held hopes of the Old Testament people of God are realized, even if they didn’t realize it at the time. 

In the book of Psalms alone we see this played out time and time again.

  • Let the light of your face shine on us (Ps 4:6)

    The way, the truth, and the life
    In him is our life when we grow in him.

     

  • Look on me and answer, LORD my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death (Ps 13:3)

  • As for God, his way is perfect; the LORD’s work is flawless; (Ps 18:30)

  • For I have kept the ways of the LORD (Ps 18:21)

  • You, LORD, keep my lamp burning; my God turns my darkness into light. (Ps 18:28)

  • Show me your ways, LORD, teach me your paths, guide me in your truth and teach me (Ps 25:4-5)

  • Send me your light and your faithful care, let them lead me (Ps 43:3)

  • Never take your word of truth from my mouth (Ps 119:43)

  • The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth (Ps 145:18)

Much like the adjective messiah became a proper noun in Jesus, these three “lowercase” nouns describing three things that come from God — way, truth, and life — become “uppercase” proper nouns in Jesus.  

“Jesus Way”

“Jesus Truth”

“Jesus Light”

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See the prayer from which this post was taken here.