cunning engagement

On the issues where Christians agree with society, engagement is easy. But when there is a difference of opinion, Christians can, it seems, go to two extremes in their engagement.

At one extreme, they can stomp, scream and shout about how bad and wrong the world is, telling non-Christians just how un-Christian they are. The other extreme, perhaps, is to retreat into Christian huddles that have no involvement with – and thus no effect on – the outside world.

Jesus seemed to point the way to a middle path. He taught us to be ‘cunning as serpents and innocent as doves’. Wisdom and restraint, free of complicity or compromise. Jesus didn’t march to Rome and attempt a take-over, but he was uncompromising in his Abrahamic monotheism. He believed in holiness, but taught that this was not to be given unwisely to ‘dogs’ who would only be incited to ‘turn and tear you to pieces’. He valued the pearl of faith, but taught that we should not cast pearls to ‘swine’ who would only trample them. How much of our engagement on issue of sexuality, politics and the like amounts to giving what is holy to dogs?

Two scenes from Acts, both involving Paul, show us this middle way in action. One has been long recognised: Paul at Athens in Acts 17. He is incredibly charitable in his engagement with the pagan thinkers and worshippers, although within himself he was ‘greatly distressed’. Here we see Paul having a public opportunity to speak. He begins with common ground and complimenting the principles he had in common with them, even quoting a pagan Hymn to Zeus.

But he went on to offer a critique of gods that live in man-made buildings and needing humans to serve them. It seems like he was reading the crowd and going as far as he thought wise. The result was mixed and he left it there. He didn’t clamour for more microphone time. He was as kind (cunning as serpents) and as honest (innocent as doves) as possible and trusted God with the result.

The next scene is Paul in Acts 24 before the Roman governor Felix. It’s less well known. One observation is that Jews knew how to talk respectfully to Romans. Observe the comments of Tertullus (serving as a kind of prosecuting attorney):

We have enjoyed a long period of peace under you, and your foresight has brought about reforms in this nation. Everywhere and in every way, most excellent Felix, we acknowledge this with profound gratitude. But in order not to weary you further, I would request that you be kind enough to hear us briefly.

Acts 24:2-4

Paul echoes this tactful speech in his defense:

“I know that for a number of years you have been a judge over this nation; so I gladly make my defense.

Acts 24:10

Paul goes on to defend himself against the accusation of stirring up riots, and manages along the way to share some details of his faith:

However, I admit that I worship the God of our ancestors as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets, and I have the same hope in God as these men themselves have, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.

Acts 24:14-16

Paul was again saying as much as he thought would be helpful. And no more. Note that he is not criticizing the beliefs of Romans in general or Felix in particular, but sharing his own allegiance, belief, hope and lifestyle. Felix, who had a Jewish wife (Drusilla), knew enough about the Christians to be intrigued, and to meet privately with him. We are told that Paul, in this more intimate setting seems to go further than he did in public. He talked “about faith in Christ Jesus”, even going so far as to discuss “righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come.

Felix’s immediate response may make us think that Paul pushed it too far. Felix was afraid and said, “That’s enough for now! You may leave. When I find it convenient, I will send for you.” However, he continued to regularly talk with him.

I want to imitate this way of engaging with those who have a different faith from me. I want to be as non-confrontational and generous as I can be, even celebrating their beliefs when that is authentic to do so. And I want to be able to be as honest as I can without doing harm to them or the relationship.

full gospel

Some presentations and presenters of Christianity are, in my view, overly obsessed with the Death of Jesus such that they over-emphasise it, and end up marginalising the Incarnation of Jesus, the Ministry of Jesus, the Resurrection of Jesus, the Ascension of Jesus and the giving of the Spirit of Jesus.  It probably wouldn’t be fair to use any label for the flavour of Christianity I inherited in my early years as a Christian.  Whatever label is used, this version of Christianity is too prevalent.

In this version I inherited, the only reason Jesus was born was to die for our sins.  His ministry seemed like just some time-filling activity before he died.  The Resurrection is like icing on the cake after the ‘main event’, his Atoning death.  The Ascension is basically ignored altogether.  And the gift of the Spirit is basically about empowering people to tell others that Jesus died for their sins.  The New Testament, and the study and explanation of it over Church History, however, contains a Gospel that is much fuller than this version I inherited (and which most of our modern and quite a few of our older worship songs tend to focus on).

The Incarnation of Jesus is not a mere stepping stone to the Cross (though it is not less than that).  It is the Creator entering and uniting to the Creation in general, and human nature in particular.  This, the Eastern Orthodox rightly emphasise, is itself a saving act.  All creation participates in the salvation that Christ effects.

The Ministry of Jesus does not merely fill time until the Cross.  Jesus life and ministry is an enactment and fulfillment of genuine humanness.  Everything that humans were meant to be and do, which was focused in the call of Abraham and his people ‘Israel’, Jesus achieved and demonstrated in his life.  He finishes the race we could not.  This is a saving act.

The Resurrection of Jesus is not a mere happy ending to the Cross.  Whereas the Cross entails Jesus taking Death (and Evil and Sin) onto himself and extinguishing it, the bodily transformation and translation of Jesus, the Resurrection, enacts and achieves the defeat of Death (and Evil and Sin).  It also achieves a kind of ‘beachhead’ (or ‘first-fruits’) into New Creation, the ultimate destiny and intended goal for all Creation.  This is a saving act – for all creation – including humans.

The Ascension of Jesus is not an undoing of the Incarnation (which would be a huge heresy), where the Son of God strips off his humanity and reports back to the Father that the atoning death was accomplished (and thus the body no longer needed!).  It is about the enthronement of Jesus to the place of ultimate authority – which among other things, entails a denial of any other entities claiming such ultimate authority.  This is a saving act, saving us from false authorities.

The Giving of the Spirit of Jesus is not simply a bit of personal motivation to tell people about Jesus dying for us (though it is not less than that!).  It is the gift of the ongoing personal spiritual presence of Jesus, enabling us, correcting us, leading us, empowering us, shaping us to become more like Jesus.  It’s not just about ‘evangelism’ (or exciting private experiences), but about becoming more human – more like the true human, Jesus.  The Spirit of the true human, Jesus, makes us truly human.  This ‘humanisation’ (or ‘re-humanisation’) is a saving act; it’s what salvation is all about.

And that’s the “full gospel” that the New Testament communicates.

similarities and differences

I’ve been so much enjoying my chats with a young Muslim man who’s been attending church for the last few weeks.  He expressed a keen interest to learn more about the Christian religion.  He is doing very well learning English, and having to use simple terms has been a very, very, very good exercise for me – if you know me you’ll know what I’m talking about!

Far from taking an “Islam/Qur’an/Muhammed = wrong | Christianity/Bible/Jesus = right” approach, we’ve explored many similarities between our faith.  When discussing differences, I’ve tried to be very respectful and patient.  But today he emphasized (he’d indicated it less strongly before) that he really enjoys “direct”-ness.  So he thanked me for being able to say, “I think the Qur’an is wrong about Jesus.”  (In the Qur’an (4:157), Jesus does not die on the cross, but rather another person who was made to look like Jesus did.)  It was a bit of a reminder how PC-ism can keep people from having conversations that are wanted by both people.  This guy wants me to be “direct” and tell him where I think his religion is wrong, and not constantly talk about similarities and common ground.  I look forward to future chats with him!

the gospel blimp: a review

I’ve just finished a book called, “The Gospel Blimp, by Joseph Bayly.” It was published in 1960, but it’s amazingly relevant to Christians today.

The story begins with a group of typical, white, middle-class, protestant Americans having a get-together in one of their back yards. The discussion turns to evangelism, and after some time, an idea is floated that would change their lives for the next few years: a Gospel Blimp. The proposed Blimp would be visible to the whole city and would carry a simple Christian message. They look across the fence and notice the neighbors smoking and drinking beer as usual. This all-too-familiar sight provides the necessary motivation and soon all agree to commit to making the Blimp everything it needs to be to evangelise their city. They especially pray that the next door neighbors would be the first to be saved through the blimp.

Over the next few years, the group sees International Gospel Blimps, Incorporated (I.G.B.I) grow and develop far further than they ever expected it to grow, finding support from many Christians. Prayer meetings, publicity personnel, PA systems, lighted signs, the works. The I.G.B.I. committee experiences ups and downs, family trouble, interior conflict and resolution, sacrifice, success, tragedy and a host of other twists and turns. Possibly the worst of these is that the couple with the next door neighbors eventually leave the committee altogether. That doesn’t hinder the commitment of the rest of the committee. They press on.

Eventually, the story closes when the couple that had left invites the committee over to their house again for a BBQ. Also invited to the BBQ were the next-door neighbors. Only they had become Christians. The various committee members are eager to hear the long-awaited story of how God used the Blimp to touch their hearts and draw them to faith. The committee is shocked when the neighbors said that God hadn’t used the Blimp to save them. They instead had been deeply moved by their neighbors recently increased involvement in their lives. Their love and care for them through some tough times had been a huge witness to the love of Christ. Toward the end of the BBQ, one of the committee members thinks he will take this golden opportunity to invite the new Christian husband to the Blimp hangar the next morning to help others with their work on the Blimp. The neighbor has to decline because he has plans with a couple of his neighbors to go bowling.

I recommend reading this book in it’s entirety, because I think it vividly portrays how many sincere, genuine Christians can be a bit misguided in their efforts. An essential ingredient for Christian witness has always been and will always be love. Selfless love. Even if you have to miss a few Gospel Blimp prayer meetings, or not be involved altogether.

-Dale

god’s toolbox

“Behold, I am sending you out like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be as cunning as serpents and as innocent as doves . . . When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say. You will be given, at that moment, what you are to say. For it will not be you, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” (Matthew 10:16,19)

God has a big toolbox. Contrary to popular Christian tradition, his tools are people. The verse above says that He is sending ‘you.’ We commonly refer to organisations, programmes or church meetings as tools. Sure, God can and does use these, but He still chooses to create these through people. The people are His tools. We are His hands and feet.

Even though most every Christian realises this, we still often tend to rely on human inventions rather than on God and His Spirit working through us. Allow the following illustration:

Concerning evangelism, we have a mindset that says we are to lure our non-Christian acquaintances to various church services or ‘gospel meetings’ so that they can encounter the gospel, be confronted with the message of Jesus and hopefully place their faith and trust in Him.

This IS a valid method of evangelism, but it is ONLY ONE method! Thankfully, God has a LOT more ways to reach people than just gospel ‘meetings.’ And to be completely honest, there is somewhat of a large contrast between this method of evangelism and Jesus’ method, which is not gospel meetings, but gospel lifestyles.

Jesus tells US to GO. He wants US to share the Gospel with the world and teach them about Christ. We cannot and MUST not rely on ‘the preacher’ to tell our non-Christians about Jesus. 1 Peter 3:15 says,

“But in your hearts, set apart Christ as Lord, and always be ready to give a defense for the hope that is within you whenever someone asks, with gentleness and respect.”

Like it or not, if you are not prepared to share the Gospel with your friends, you are in disobedience to Christ.

And by the way, we MUST share the Gospel with much more than only WORDS. As a popular author has said, we must share the testimony of our LIFE and LOVE, and earn the right to share the testimony of our LIPS.

Will we make ourselves ready to be used by God, or will we continue to stay buried in the bottom of the toolbox?

Dale

painting with no canvas

Evangelism, evangelism and more evangelism.

This is the desperate cry of many churches around the world (or at least in the wealthy, comfortable, ‘established’ parts of the world). We are losing members fast, and we want to get them back. So, we launch ourselves into much activity to bring about the desired result. Books are written, strategies are implemented. Seminars are given. At least two groups arise out of the activity.

1. Individuals who are oblivious to the lack of ‘evangelism health’ and are not moved to action.
2. Individuals who are obsessed with need for evangelism, and feel the need to force the others to action.

Evangelism is a commandment of Jesus, but to emphasize the Great Commission while forgetting the 1st and 2nd Commandments is a grave error. The purpose of the Church is not merely to evangelise, but firstly to bring honour and glory to God. It’s not the first Good Idea, it’s the first and Greatest Commandment! That means it cannot be excluded! If we are just trying to do all right things without doing them out of devotion to Him, then we are just contestants in a rather large morality contest.

An over emphasis on Evangelism often reveals a mis-placed priority on the number of people in our churches. Do we want to reach people because we love our Master or because we love the idea of being “spiritually successful?” Let’s consider this analogy:

If we’re building a house, the order of progression goes something like: foundation, floor, walls, roof, wall-board, many other things, and finally… paint. If we use this analogy to represent evangelism, let me say that I think we are standing around during the entire project holding a brush and a paint can. We’re not really interested in the ‘foundations’ and ‘floors’ and ‘walls’ of the Gospel, love and self-lessness. This is lazy evangelism. The fact is, you might have to actually CARE about the person you are trying to reach. If you do care about them, you might start doing some radical things like… oh, I don’t know… making time for them, investing in their lives, meeting their needs and the like.

“I am the vine, you are the branches. Apart from me, you can do nothing.” – Jesus

-Dale