A Cross-like Church

Facebook has finally figured out what I do. For years my profile cryptically stated that I worked at “DF” and that my role was “keeping the chaos at a manageable level”. But in the last six months they have discovered that I work in the “religious industry” and I have begun receiving targeted ads related to my “profession”. These would be humorous if not such a depressing insight into the hollowed out state of Christianity in America.

The obvious pitches promise proven plans to increase end of year giving, techniques to extract more money from the faithful, and ways to make my teaching more engaging. But it gets worse. Another ad touted technology as a way to engage members and guests. It warned against having a volunteer named “Martha” manning an information desk in the foyer, and instead promoted kiosks and software so guests and members could take “next steps” such as sign up for a small group, join a ministry, or request baptism. Request baptism? Why not have the kiosk administer the baptism as well, a diffuser to mist people with a little holy water while they click on a statement of belief.

Additionally, I have been informed that all successful churches know how to use social media for effective marketing. Examples involved using geofencing to target young mothers waiting in school carpool with ads for the services we offer for children and families. After all, those are the people we are going for and you know they are looking at social media while they wait. There was no suggestion that we use geofencing to target those at the unemployment office, the homeless shelter, or at the courthouse. I am sure that those sitting with a court appointed attorney while waiting to appear before the judge are browsing social media as well, but they are not the right “customers” for our religious product. 

Jesus told Pilate that “my kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), but some apparently think his statement is a lament. They have been working tirelessly to rectify Jesus’ failure. If only we can reshape the church in our time according to the dictates of the best practices of the corporate world, the attention grabbing techniques of the entertainment industry, and brand building skills of top marketing professionals, then we will be more successful than Jesus ever was. 

I am not being critical of any of these practices per se. The aforementioned are helpful and necessary for businesses and enterprises, but they can be downright destructive to the church. The false assumption is that the people of God, the Body of Christ, ought to be managed, structured, funded, and otherwise conformed to a business model. However good these practices might be for a business venture, they are no more appropriate for for the shaping of a community of love and mutual support which seeks to imitate the way of Jesus than as the guiding principles for the healthy nurturing of one’s own family. Dad, mom, and the children will suffer irreparable harm if branded, marketed, monetized, and managed as a corporation. The church is much more like an extended family than a corporation.

The legitimate business objective of producing a quality product or service cannot be likened to the ministry of the church. A business cannot afford to hire unqualified people while a church actively seeks unqualified people. For a church to act as a business, and too often they do, it would not seek out the marginal and hopeless sinners of the world but look for those who can bring their competence and resources for the continued “success” of the religious enterprise.

On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 1 Corinthians 12:22-25

No competent business owner can afford to do what Paul is saying, to keep employees who are not productive, much less actively hire them. However, in the church we should spend inordinate energy on those who may never “be productive.” To do otherwise is to reject Paul’s teaching and neglect the weak and struggling for the progress of the institution. A church for sinners will fail in worldly measures as surely as being nailed to a cross was a glorious insanity.

But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. Romans 6:8

For a church pursuing material metrics of success, incrementalism toward glorying in the cross is not possible. Only abject and dismal disappointment and failure will be the medicine of renewal. Overturning the money changers’ tables and declaring the imminent doom of the corrupted version of God’s house is appropriate. We will weep over Jerusalem as it lurches toward destruction. A necessary death, then resurrection.

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Saved Through Sanctification

Two weeks ago I wrote about expanding our understanding of salvation so that we think not only of a single point at which one is saved but also the process of healing and rescue. We can say we have been saved because of the grace of God extended to us through the passion of Christ, and also that we are being saved through the practices of the church in which the Spirit transforms us.

Have you experienced that once something is pointed out to you, suddenly you start to see it everywhere? If you are thinking of buying a particular type of vehicle, you begin to notice them constantly. Sometimes this happens with scripture too.

But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth. 2 Thessalonians 2:13

Salvation is through sanctification, Paul says clearly, which is a grace and work of the Spirit. We have often heard that justification is when God declares us righteous, making us righteous even though we are not, and sanctification is the process of becoming holy, learning to actually be righteous. This formula is helpful, but sometimes we can start to associate salvation with justification alone. We think we are saved, and then we grow in holiness, rather than sanctification being, according to scripture, truly part of what it means to be saved.

Let me also anticipate how we might too narrowly read Paul’s words when he mentions “faith in the truth.” With the focus and interpretive lens many of us have, we immediately think of belief in Jesus as the Son of God. This is again making us think of salvation as the single event of “getting” saved by acknowledging Jesus as Savior without the process of being saved.

If we imagine faith as the on-going trust in the truth, that which can set us free (John 8:32) from sin and death (John 8:24), then this faith in the truth is not a singular event of belief but a trusting in the way of sanctification which we are being taught. Since Paul says that the church is the pillar and foundation of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15) we readily see why we can say that salvation is found in the life of the church, because the life taught and practiced in the church is the true way of Jesus through which the Spirit sanctifies us.

In twelve step programs people are reminded to ‘work the program’. The way of living that is being suggested can lead to sobriety and life, but one has to work the program. This is what Paul is talking about. Salvation is in the process of sanctification that the Spirit empowers. We have to trust the truth what we are being told about the process, because many times we do not see the relevance of certain spiritual practices. The rich young man goes away sorrowful because he did not want to give up his possessions, but perhaps also because he saw no link between what Jesus was telling him to do and the life of God he was seeking (Matthew 19:16-22). He had no faith in the true program of sanctification that Jesus was suggesting to him.

Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified. John 17:17-19

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Eternal Love

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. His love endures forever.    Psalm 136:1

When we say that the love of God is eternal, that it lasts forever, we are saying more than how it extends for an infinite span of time. The eternal nature of the love of God also means that divine love lacks a culminating end, a finishing point where it will be done. In most everything we hope to arrive at some end, the goal we set out to achieve when we began. Our ordinary daily tasks, or even our attempts to grow in virtue and other such spiritual matters, are hardly conceivable except in terms of a purpose. We are always hoping for something gained, achieved, furthered, experienced, or reciprocated. Our love is inevitably offered for some desired goal rather than unending.

The love of God, which is lavished upon us and we want to learn to share with others, is a love without our type of purpose or goal. The love of God is not the means to some end, an objective that God has in mind. Instead, his love is endless selflessness. In this respect, God’s love is senseless, that is, it lacks reasonable logic for its existence. Though it is going nowhere, it is taking us and all of history somewhere. God’s love just is. It is love for the sake of love itself; God simply being God with no ulterior reason or motive.

There is no end to God’s love because God is not loving for a reason other than love itself, or to receive something in return from all he loves. Love is the essence of God’s self and what God does as God. Certainly, the love of God produces many results, such as healing us from our brokenness, but that is a result of love’s work and not the final purpose or end of love. Once we experience healing, the love of God continues for it has not accomplished a goal that now makes its existence irrelevant. Love without purpose, goal, sense, or tactical end is part of what we mean by the eternal love of God. Love is not God’s strategy, but God’s life. 

Such a purposeless love is completely foreign to us and what we mean when we speak of God’s love being unconditional. We may talk constantly about God’s love, and should, but we struggle to grow into or even comprehend it. The eternal love of God, endless in simple selflessness, is profoundly nonsensical. When we keep loving in the face of discomfort, rejection, lack of appreciation, the apathy of others, personal disappointment, or outright hostility, we have an opportunity to take our love beyond the limits of purpose. But this is precisely the point at which we are tempted to give up on love because our love is accomplishing nothing. If we do give up, we were not loving with the love of God but as a strategy for some other objective. We were not loving for love’s sake, or for the sake of God.

Only our experience of hard, rewardless love reveals the love of God as grace. When we start to love with no goal in mind we begin to realize what the gospel proclaims, that God loves us endlessly, and that God’s love for us is not for some gain or advantage on God’s part. Hopefully, we become enthralled with a purposeless love, thoroughly unbelievable, but one which draws us in.

Paul can say confidently that “love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:8). If divine love is trying to get me to love in return, it might indeed fail. I may not reciprocate love. But if the love of God is poured out for it’s own sake, then it cannot fail no matter what I do or do not do. Love is and will be who God is. This endless radiant selflessness is paradoxically accomplishing everything with no final goal other than being love. 

When all things in heaven and earth are united in Christ (Ephesians 1:10) no end has come. The consummation of love’s unwounding of creation does not mean love has completed some purpose and is now finished. Instead, in that union of all creation the divine love will be even more pronounced, not finished. The nature of the purposeless, and therefore endless, love of God is that it cannot cease but only increase as more and more is brought into conformity with itself. This is the nature of divine love . . . and truly the love we need.

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Being Saved

When it comes to salvation, most of us immediately think about the promise of eternity with God which is ours by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. While definitely true, this definition of salvation exclusively points to what happens in the life to come. Such a view is too limited and narrow for how salvation is discussed in scripture. The biblical concept of salvation also describes a present reality which involves the on-going work of God.

Note the emphasis in these two instances where Paul speaks about being saved as a process happening now, as taken from the English Standard Version which translates this well.

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1 Corinthians 1:18

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. 1 Corinthians 15:1-2

If we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus as the Son of God, and therefore are forgiven, justified, and reconciled to God, in what sense is this a continuing process? The answer lies in the Greek word for “salvation”, means to be “rescued from certain death” or “healed of serious illness”. Indeed, one part of this rescue is from the death of separation from God which is immediately resolved by grace through faith, but the healing of the problem of sinfulness is not nearly as sudden. Justification is part of salvation, restoring our relationship with God, but sanctification, becoming holy, is also part of salvation. In a day to day sense, we are only as saved as we are free from the slavery to sin. We may no longer be estranged from God, but we are not fully healed of the problem yet. We have been saved and we are being saved.

If the emphasis on salvation as a future abiding with God is taken too far, it may end up becoming an idolatry of eternity which neglects the spiritual significance of our present reality. Fortunately, the biblical meaning of salvation does not make it only about a future abode, but also a present experience of being changed, which is what Paul was describing.

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Philippians 2:12-13

I like to say that eternity, what is coming next, will take care of itself if we tend to salvation here and now. Transformation of a person’s day to day life in this world, which can only happen in Christ by grace, sets one on an eternal course. Thinking about salvation in the present is not simply knowing now that I am guaranteed of heaven later, but experiencing daily healing and rescue from disordered thinking, behavior, desires, and will.

All the needed changes to how I think, the course and direction of inner desires, my patterns of behavior, and emotional scars, are not healed simply by the gift of reconciliation through the cross. The older Christian traditions speak about salvation being only in the church. We ought to hear them saying that our transformation from sinful brokenness to becoming a healed follower of Jesus occurs through the community, practices, sacraments, and training within the life of the church. Rather than hearing them as if they are denying the justification which is in Christ, or suggesting something other than that justification, these older churches are speaking of the day to day reality of being saved. This does happen in and through the church as the body of Christ. Those who are being saved are finding that healing in the way of Christ as taught and practiced within Christ.

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God’s Will and Jesus’ Death

We know Jesus’ statement of submission to his Father’s will, “not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). Because of this verse and many similar ones we are correct to say that it was the Father’s will that Jesus die. But I believe it is also very easy to misunderstand what we mean about the will of God in this matter. We are speaking about God’s will regarding a response and not the situation itself. Let me illustrate the distinction using an example from the teaching of Jesus.

Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Luke 6:28-29

Does Jesus want his disciples to be cursed? Does he want us to be slapped on the cheek, or someone to take our coat? Surely not! The will of Jesus is not that his followers are in a situation where they are mistreated or that would make Jesus a sadistic master indeed. The will of Jesus is that we turn the other cheek in response, but it is not his will that we are slapped on the cheek in the first place. Jesus is not willing the situation but telling us what he wills for us to do in response to such situations.

In the same way, when we say that it was God’s will that Jesus die, or affirm that he was sent for this very purpose, we are not saying that God desired for people to torture and kill Jesus. God’s will was that when faced with a cruel and unjust death, Jesus would suffer rather than fight back, which is exactly what the Father would do. When faced with wickedness he would forgive. When cursed he would bless. So we correctly say that it was the Father’s will that Jesus die on the cross. The will of God for Jesus, and for Christians always, is that we respond to evil and mistreatment with grace and the willingness to suffer rather than inflict suffering. We are to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).

However, one might think if it was God’s will that Jesus die did not God have to plan and orchestrate that death to “make sure” it would happen? Could God really count on us to kill Jesus if he wasn’t himself causing it? If you think that apart from God’s prompting we might not have killed Jesus you have a naive hope in human goodness. Even Plato, nearly 400 years before Jesus, knew enough to make the following statement about the fate of a truly righteous man.

The just man, then, as we have pictured him, will be scourged, tortured, and imprisoned, his eyes will be put out, and after enduring every humiliation he will be crucified, and learn at last that in the world as it is we should want not to be, but to seem, just. – Plato’s Republic

The death of Jesus is only pleasing to God as the righteous response to evil. The killing itself was an evil act against a righteous man. We should not imagine that God in any fashion wills the death of anyone, much less his Son. Death is what God is defeating on the cross, not wanting to occur.

As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11). 

Since God is not pleased with the death of a wicked person, to say God willed the death of Jesus is not to speak of death itself, but the willingness to die selflessly. When we say the cross was the will of God we must remember that we are speaking of it as the response to evil that God desires, and we are not saying that God ever actually desires any death that evil causes, spiritual or physical. The torture and murder of Jesus shows the extent of abuse God is willing to endure at human hands so that he might defeat death and sin, while loving and saving us. 

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Judgment And Salvation

For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. John 3:17

John is very clear in the beginning of his gospel that Jesus came to save and not judge, that is, to rescue and not to condemn to destruction. However, we may be puzzled why John quotes Jesus shortly thereafter saying this:

He who rejects Me and does not receive My sayings, has one who judges him; the word I spoke is what will judge him at the last day. John 12:48

Is John saying that while Jesus was not sent to judge, or as some translations read, condemn, his words will do just that? If this is the case, then it is a stretch for John to claim that Jesus did not come to judge when his very words do judge. Are we to think that Jesus ends up doing the very thing he was not sent to do, that is, judge/condemn the world?

To make sense of this we must recognize that we can speak of judgment in two ways, which is why the word is sometimes translated condemn and other times simply judge. One meaning of judgment is the pronouncement of destruction. Another meaning is the act of distinguishing between two things. In this second, judgment is part of the process which is transformative. One type of judgment is to condemn utterly, while the other is to clarify things so as to ultimately help us.

We have often misunderstood, and in fact feared, that the judgment of God is only about the former. Actually, God’s judgment that brings destruction is for sin, death, darkness, and evil. What God judges so that he might destroy is all that has ruined his good creation. This is what Paul means when he says Jesus came to “judge sin in the flesh” (Romans 8:3).

The kind of judgment that God brings on us is always for our good and salvation, and not meant to simply destroy us. So, as John says, Jesus did not come into the world to judge it (destroy everything), but the words which Jesus spoke will be what judges us for the ultimate purpose of freeing us from our captivity to sin. In the end, his words are the judgment we need.

This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. John 3:19

Sin is condemned, and our participation in it shown for what it is. The judgment that shows us that our deeds are of darkness is what must happen so that we might repent of them and be rescued from them. God has always been doing this judging that helps.

He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore. Isaiah 2:4

God judges and what is destroyed? War and violence! What is the result of God’s judgment of the nations? Peace! God does not judge the nations to destroy them, but to save them from their hatred toward one another which is the source of the destruction they experience. God judges people to teach them and this is part of rescuing them.

For when the earth experiences Your judgments
The inhabitants of the world learn righteousness. Isaiah 26:9

Only through the judgment of God can we learn what is righteous and what is evil. We need to be taught to know good from evil, and the judgment of God is this necessary and helpful work. Jesus is saying the same about his own words. In the end, what he says teaches us righteousness. Our actions will be seen for what they are in light of his teaching.

There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy. James 4:12

We tend to hear James as saying that God can either save or destroy, as if we will receive one or the other from God. Instead, he says that God is able to save and destroy. To save us, God must destroy what is killing us, that is, sin. No doctor can heal a sick person without eradicating the disease. God will save and destroy.

James also reminds us that “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:4). Mercy has the last word. Judgment does condemn a behavior or attitude as sinful, which is a prelude to its destruction and our healing. God’s judgment is a needed remedy but very hard on us, especially the more stubborn we are. Fortunately, we hope in the mercy that is even expressed in the judgment itself, which will free us from all that ruins us.

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The spiritual life is not what we expect, or even what we are looking for. Neither is God. We want results, the outcomes that we desire, and a God who will make it so. Who would not want their idea of “good” brought about by their God? Isn’t that what gods are for?

To me, the Christian faith is clearly not a human invention precisely because it is centered on the cross. No one would ever think to base everything on a dead God. On the cross God is shown to be utterly powerless in any conventional sense. He is not fixing what is wrong with the world, but becoming a victim of all that hurts me. I want a champion who will defeat my enemies, not end up defeated by them. We all tend to worship power, and if we cannot have it ourselves, we want someone on our side who has it. Blessed are the winners.

This is what Paul calls the “scandal” of the cross. The word translated “stumbling block” (skandalon) is where we get our word.

We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  1 Corinthians 1:23-24

For Paul, the crucified Christ is both power and wisdom, but admittedly a form of power and wisdom that seems the opposite of our normal definitions. We may want to skirt the absurdity and insist the language of the cross implies his resurrection, but we miss the point if we do this. The resurrection is more about God affirming the cross rather than to taking our focus off of it. We are to take up our cross, not an empty tomb.

I should aspire to what the cross means in my own life, while I hope in the resurrection. There is nothing for me to emulate about the empty tomb, but to live a cross-shaped, cruciform, life is the essence of the spiritual life. Being raised with Christ is what happens when I die with him (Romans 6:5). The spiritual life is working on the dying while trusting in the raising. 

The cross is the eminent Christian symbol, not an empty tomb. Jesus is the lamb slain from the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8), not the lamb healed from the beginning. The cross may be the epitome of the ludicrous view of a powerless God, but the incarnation is one with it. God becoming human is a descent from power to powerlessness, and the course remains constant until Jesus is dead and buried. 

Jesus knew his way was narrow and few would find it precisely because we are not looking for it. What we are looking for is not a cross but the power to crucify everything we do not like or want. The life of faith and transformation is very difficult because it necessitates going against our instincts toward power and control. If we do start to recognize that we must abandon our preconceived ideas and belief in what is ultimately good and desirable, to find true goodness, this is the work of grace. We would not do this of our own accord. 

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