The Kingdom: Rolling out the “Welcome Mat”

This past Sunday, October 8, 2017, I had the privilege of going to four church services in the city of London: Catholic Mass at St. George Cathedral, morning worship at Metropolitan Tabernacle (the Baptist church of the famous 19th century preacher Charles Spurgeon), Anglican Evensong at St. Paul’s Cathedral, and an evening worship service at Hillsong London.

Each of the services had elements that appealed to me — that spoke to my soul, and each of them had elements that I wished would have been done differently. Most of these differences were simply a matter of preferences, but some of the rub I felt came from deep theological differences.

As a Baptist one would expect that this rub would have been felt most in the Catholic or at least the Anglican service, but it was not. As a proponent of traditional hymns along side contemporary worship music and multigenerational ministry, one might think the “rub” was felt most in the LOUD “epilepsy inducing” light show service at Hillsong, but it was not.

The most severe rub was at the Baptist service, and it wasn’t the music, or the prayers, or the liturgy, or whether or not I was welcomed. The rub was the heart of the Baptist service — the sermon, and it chaffed me to the point of wanting to stand up and yell, “STOP IT!”

Now, I have to be honest. I’ve been chaffed by other sermons. Most of the time it’s a good thing. It’s the Holy Spirit convicting me of my sin, making me uncomfortable in the tepid Christianity in which I have taken comfort. At these times, as well, I want to yell, “STOP IT!” like the man having the lizard torn from his back in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. I am familiar with this rub; I do not like how it feels; but I know it gives life, abundant life. The sermon at Metropolitan Tabernacle was NOT that rub. It was a rub, a chaffing, that comes from knowing that something is not quite right.

The message was from 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10. It was going well enough I guess until point two taken from verse 10, “…to wait for His Son from heaven.” His point was that the Christian objective is to “wait” — to wait for Jesus. Now I’m all for a good sermon on being ready for the return of Christ, of living lives of holiness, on focusing on telling others about Christ, but in order that we wouldn’t miss his point the preacher went on:

Note, dear friends, that our aim is not to reform the world. Now Christian people are a people of compassion, and if people are suffering, we should have hearts that want to help. And God will raise up from time to time people with special opportunities (here examples of Christians fighting child exploitation during the Victorian period are offered as an example)…. But they knew that no sooner would they repair one problem that another one would turn up because of the fall of man, and because of the sinfulness of man, and the wretchedness of the human hearts. They knew that you can’t really reform this world; you can only do some good as you go along; you can only give relief as you can. But today there are some Christian people, even some evangelical and reformed people, who have fallen into the old trap that our chief business is to reform the world. And there are quite a number of books and well known names like Tim Keller, and, not such a well known name, but, Paul Trip, and others, who are telling you that your purpose of being here is to reform the world to repair the broken down house of this world. It isn’t, friends. It is a doomed world. It is a world under the judgement of God…. That old heresy of social restoration is being promoted once again.

This is the rub. Can we really separate the preaching of the Gospel with the living of the Gospel? And so I wonder…

  • I wonder if we are no longer under the obligation of being stewards of this earth (Genesis 2:15)?
  • I wonder if God no longer requires us to do justice and to love mercy (Micah 6:8)?
  • I wonder what the prayer taught us by Jesus himself, “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” means (Matthew 6:10)?
  • I wonder what it means for the first and second commandment — our love of God and our love of our neighbor — to be of the same substance (Matthew 22:37-40)?
  • I wonder what it means to have pure religion if not to care for the orphan and the widow (James 1:27)?
  • I wonder why those extended an invitation to eternity with the Father is dependent upon food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, welcome to the stranger, clothes for the naked, care for the sick, visits to the imprisoned (Matthew 25:31-46)?

I suppose the argument would be that these (and the numerous other texts that could have been listed) are simply secondary concerns to “waiting,” to “preaching the gospel,” to “winning souls” — to welcoming people into the Kingdom of God.

But it just seems to me that if we are going to roll out the welcome mat of the Kingdom, we better make sure that we actually are living in the Kingdom.

And living the Kingdom means restoring the brokenness of a world that God loves — that God sent his son not to stand in judgment of but to love and to save (John 3:17)! Living the Kingdom is fighting against injustice, it’s about binding up wounds, it’s about caring for the least of these! That is the Gospel. That is the Good News! We cannot separate the preaching and the living of the Gospel!

That is a Kingdom worth living in!

That is a Kingdom worth inviting others into!

That is a Kingdom for which it is worth rolling out the welcome mat!

If you’re looking for that kind of Kingdom, I’ll tell you there isn’t a better choice you could ever make, and I would love to have the privilege to welcome you into that Kingdom.

But if your kingdom, if your “gospel,” is anything less than that, then I’m afraid it’s not the Gospel of Jesus, or Paul, or Spurgeon for that matter, and it may be a good idea to make sure your kingdom even has a welcome mat at all.

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Scattered and Distressed: Wednesdays with Walter: Day 8

This week, as I observed the reactions to a recent statement regarding human sexuality by a group of Evangelical Christian leaders, my thoughts have been scattered and distressed. As a matter of fact, these two words — SCATTERED and DISTRESSED — pretty much sum up my thoughts and feelings regarding my standing within the traditions of Christianity and Evangelicalism along with my response from within these two traditions to the broader culture. These feelings of “scattered” and “distressed” are further exasperated by the response to Evangelicals from my brothers and sisters on my left.

I confess that too often the traditions that I call home have acted poorly, unpastorally, and unlovingly. I confess that leaders within my traditions have made strange bedfellows with politicians for short-term “political” gains while losing sight of the long-term goals of the Kingdom. I confess that their sin is my sin even if it is only through my silence. I confess that we have lost our voice because of our own screaming about the sins of others.

I also confess, however, that these sins of mine — some by action and some by inaction — keep me from speaking the Truth with love. I feel guilty. I feel angry — at myself and others. I feel scared that my hypocrisy will be pointed out. I feel scattered. I feel distressed.

A fuller examination of these feelings is probably a post for another day — maybe even its own series. In the meantime, I look and listen to those whom I believe God has placed in my path to provide discipleship and ultimately healing for my confusion, my “scattered” thoughts, my “distressed” feelings. For me, Walter Rauschenbusch has become one of those voices.

Today, I was struck by Walter Raushenbusch’s writing concerning the Church as a product of Jesus’ compassion or social feeling. I realize that I may move beyond Walter’s initial take on this passage, but like usual, he challenged me; I hope it does the same for you.

From The Social Principles of Jesus by Walter Rauschenbusch. Chapter 3, “Standing with the People.” Page 33.

THIRD DAY: The Church, a Product of Social Feeling

And Jesus went about all the cities and the villages, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of disease and all manner of sickness. But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion for them, because they were distressed and scattered, as sheep not having a shepherd. Then saith he unto his disciples, The harvest indeed is plenteous, but the laborers are few. Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he send forth laborers into his harvest. And he called unto him his twelve disciples, and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all manner of disease and all manner of sickness. –Matt. 9:35-10:1

The selection of the Twelve, their grouping by twos, and their employment as independent messengers, was the most important organizing act of Jesus. Out of it ultimately grew the Christian Church. Now note what motives led to it. Jesus was relieving social misery. He was oppressed by the sense of it. The Greek verbs are very inadequately rendered by “distressed and scattered.” the first means “skinned, harried”; the second means “flung down, prostrate.” The people were like a flock of sheep after the wolves are through with them. There was dearth of leaders. So Jesus took the material he had and organized the apostolate — for what? The Church grew out of the social feeling of Jesus for the sufferings of the common people.

To what extent, in your judgment, does the Church today share the feeling of Jesus about the condition of the people and fulfill the purpose for which he organized the apostolate? Or has the condition of the people changed so that their social needs are less urgent?

Jesus’ response to the pain of the sheep was not to attack the wolves — the sheep didn’t need to be saved from the wolves. they needed to be saved from their condition, from their evil spirits, and ultimately from their sin.

It was the mistake of the first century to think that the Messiah was coming to save the people of God from external oppressors — from the Romans or even the religious leaders. And it would be the mistake of the twenty-first century to think that the Messiah came to save the people from external oppressors — liberal or conservative — political or theological.

Jesus came and sent the Church into the World to save us from our own sin. In so doing the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are made whole, the deaf hear, and the Good News is preached to the poor and oppressed!

This is the message of the gospel — the social gospel or otherwise. The comfort brought to the sheep is through the rod and the staff (Psalm 23) not through allowing the sheep to go their own way further into darkness and danger.

Let me put this as plainly as I can in a way that I hope will not offend anyone (but possibly may offend everyone):

I do NOT need Jesus to save me from someone else’s definition of marriage (regardless of the definition); I need Jesus to save my marriage from my own selfishness, my own pride, my own sin.

I do NOT need Jesus to save me from someone else’s restrictive or progressive sexual ethic; I need Jesus to save me from my own lust, my own wandering eye, my own sin.

I do NOT need Jesus to save me from fundamentalist or liberal theologians (or politicians); I need Jesus to save me from my own nature, from my own unclean spirits, from my own sin.

It is wrong to speak the Truth without love. It is also wrong to speak love without the Truth. And I am thankful for the many men and women in my life (some in person and others through their writings) that have acted pastorally by pointing out my innate sin nature and have challenged me by speaking the Truth into my life with love! I hope that through their example — through their voices of love speaking the Truth — God will bring this scattered and distressed sheep closer to Him, and may He chastise me with His rod and His staff if a I stray or if — and God forbid — I ever run with the wolves!

  • How do we challenge the notion that the Gospel can be separated from the social concerns of the world?
  • How do we challenge the notion that one can have a Social Gospel separated from the transformational power of the Gospel to change the internal and external life of the sinner?
  • To what extent do you feel that Church leaders (and members) are wolves rather than sheep? And how does this happen on either side of the left/right divide in the Church?
  • How do we discern that we are not running with a wolf pack even when we think we are one of the sheep?

Prayer – huh – yeah! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing! Wednesdays with Walter: Day 6

Screen Shot 2017-08-23 at 7.57.23 AMLast week the words of Rauschenbusch urged us to pray — a prayer of confession, not only for the sins that we commit but also for the sins of our fathers and the social constructs of which we are a part.  This week, however, we want to ask the question, “What is prayer really good for?”  Let’s go back to The Social Principles of Jesus, section III, of the chapter “Solidarity of the Human Family” to explore this question:

Does religion create social unity or neutralize it.  Does prayer isolate or connect?  Has the force of religion in human history done more to divide or to consolidate men?

 

Evidently religion may work both ways, and all who are interested in it must see to it that their religion does not escape control and wreck fraternity.  Even mystic prayer and contemplation, which is commonly regarded as the flower of religious life, may make men indifferent to their fellows.

 

It is worth noting that the prayer experiences of Jesus were not ascetic or unsocial.  They prepared him for action….  When he went out from Capernaum to pray “a great while before day, ” it was to launch his aggressive missionary campaign among the Galilean villages….  Prayer is Christian only if it makes us realize our fellows more keenly and affectionately.  (emphasis added)

Religion, even the “flower of religious life” — prayer, is good for absolutely nothing if it does not lead to action.  Why?  Because for Rauschenbusch, and I believe he is correct here, prayer isn’t prayer — or at least not Christian prayer — if it does not lead to view our fellow humanity “more keenly and affectionately.”  It is NOT Christian prayer if it does not lead to action.

When our children were young and we would ask them to apologize for something they had done wrong, they would say, “I’m sorry.”  Then we would ask them, “What does ‘I’m sorry mean?'”  Their taught response was, “I won’t do it again.”  Of course, by the time our son was five he had changed it to, “I’ll try to not do it again.”  He knew the limits of his own humanity!  Regardless, it was a confession that was intended to lead to change of behavior.

As Christians, it is good for us to pray for social justice, for racial unity, and to participate in confession of personal and corporate sins against “fraternity.”  However, if these prayers do not lead to action then they are NOT Christian — they are not prayers at all. These prayers are good for absolutely nothing!

I AM NOT suggesting that prayer is not important!

I AM NOT suggesting that we shouldn’t pray!

I AM SUGGESTING THE EXACT OPPOSITE!  True Christian prayer is essential!

I AM AFFIRMING the scriptural truth that prayer, that religion, that a relationship with Jesus Christ, should — must — change us and our actions!  May we not forget that prayer like faith without works is dead (James 2:14-26).

At the end of Matthew chapter 9, Jesus called his disciples to pray for workers to go into the world.  He pleads with them to pray that God would send messengers into a dark world with the light of the Good News.  And what do Jesus and his disciples do at the beginning of chapter 10?

“Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.”  Matthew 10:1

Jesus calls his followers to pray.  And then he calls them to answer that prayer!

God is calling us to pray for justice, to pray for righteousness, to bring the light of the Good News into the darkness of the world.  And God is calling us to be that light, that righteousness, that justice.

I know the limits of my own humanity, however.  I know that it would be naive for me to say, “I won’t do it again — I won’t ignore the plight of my fellow humans.”  But I want to do better.  I want to try to not do it again — to not ignore justice, to not ignore righteousness, to not bear the light of God’s Good News for all humanity.   And so I pray.  And I change a bit.  And I fail.  And so I pray.  And I change a bit more.

Too often we are afraid of others taking away our right to pray.  It’s time for us to be concerned that our prayers are ineffectual because we do nothing about them!

  • How can you bring God’s light into the darkness around you?
  • How can you bring God’s light, righteousness, and justice to your Facebook feed?
  • How can you be the answer to the prayer of healing and fraternity in your country, in your neighborhood, in your home?

The Force Awakens: Wednesdays with Walter: Day 3

 

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“Doubtless the objection has arisen in our minds that it is not in the interest of the future of the race that religious pity shall coddle and multiply the weak, or put them in control of society” (The Social Principles of Jesus, p. 13).

To conclude his section on “The Value of Life,” Rauschenbusch raises the question above that he believes would be in the minds of his readers.  And it is a concern that has been in the minds of countless individuals for nearly 2000 years.

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Marcus Cornelius Fronto

One of the earliest criticisms of Christianity was that it was a religion for the weak — widows, old men, prostitutes, gullible women — according to Marcus Cornelius Fronto, a tutor for the Emperor Marcus Aurelius — a religion that consisted of the “dregs of society” (Late Ancient Christianity, Virginia Burrus, p. 216).

Rauschenbusch continues in his conclusion to this section by saying, “But did Jesus want the weak to way weak?”  The implied answer is a resounding “NO!”

“[Jesus] was an emancipator, a creator of strong [individuals]….  [T]he spirit of Jesus is an awakening force.”

I fear that modern Christianity errs on either side of this biblical truth.  It seems that Christianity has either become a bastion of earthly power with no room for the poor, the orphan, the refugee.  Or Christianity has become a religion of “settling” with no expectation of awakening the good within each person with the transformational power of Jesus Christ.

Is there room within Christendom for a Faith that loves and reaches out to all regardless of race, gender, political party, sexual orientation, etc., but still calls each adherent to the Faith to the high life giving standard of Christ through His Spirit?

The point of the Social Gospel wasn’t to ignore personal piety but that Christ’s awakening force would transform the individual sinner into a saint and the broken social constructs into the Kingdom of God.  It is impossible to have one without the other!

How does your faith welcome all?

How does your faith call each to an awakening force in Christ?