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Monday, January 22, 2018

Revealing the love of God

Last post I said that "the church is the means God uses to implement his will for the world." For too many of us, that seems like a weird idea. Why? Isn't that the natural outgrowth of Jesus' death and resurrection? But ... but ... "Church" seems so normal. Mundane.


We read stuff in the Bible that sounds absolutely crazy exciting, and then we go to church and fall asleep. The two just can't be connected.

Two problems for us. First, the Bible uses figurative language -- the Jewish people in Jesus' time were experts at this -- to express everyday realities with huge supernatural meanings behind them. So to casual observers, these things looked just ... well, normal. Second, we have gotten so used to hearing the Bible's language as religious language, meaning there's got to be some wacky CGI-movie supernatural meaning to things. (And there is, but we fail to see it because we haven't trained ourselves that way.)

Here's one concrete example. If you read Jesus telling someone to "repent and believe in me" what would you think? You'd think there needed to be some major heart change, a supernatural religious experience that led to a change of what theologians would call "epistemological structure" in a person's life -- their faith would change, meaning their religious beliefs would change. Probably this involves tears and falling to one's knees in front of a church and "repenting." Now, a real example of what this language, "repent and believe in me" meant when the New Testament was being written. In the first century, a generation after Jesus' death and resurrection, a guy named Josephus was a general of the Jewish army. At that time, a rebel was running around messing with the Roman soldiers that occupied Galilee, which was a Jewish territory. Everybody knew that if guys like this rebel kept doing stuff like that, the Romans would come and wipe out the Jewish people and raze their homeland. The problem wasn't what this rebel believed, but what he was doing. So Josephus, the general of the Jewish army (who at that time had a dicey working relationship with the Roman authorities) went to visit this rebel. What did he tell him? He told him, "Change what you're doing and do things my way." But the words he used to convey that message were exactly the same words in the Greek language that we translate in the New Testament as "repent and believe in me." So what would it sound like to hear Jesus saying, "Change what you're doing and do things my way"?

The third major problem here is, of course, that the church has too often missed her calling to be God's agent in the world, to understand the depth and magnitude of our task and our importance.
We're used to reading things in the Bible that seem like wild, supernatural statements. We assume weird religious meanings when we read stuff in the New Testament. So when, in John 16, Jesus says that the Holy Spirit, when he comes, will convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment, most of us either ignore a difficult passage or we make it somehow about some wild, Holy Spirit thing that happens in the supernatural realm.

What if it's more mundane than that? What if Jesus is referring to the church here?

Let's look at the passage. What Jesus says in John 16 is this:

"When [the Holy Spirit] comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged."

Most of us read this and just shake our heads. But I'm making the argument that this is fulfilled in the church, not because of anything we do intentionally, but by the church just being the church, being what Jesus created us to be. When Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit coming, he's referring to Pentecost (see Acts 2) and what is Pentecost except the birthday of the church? Out of that event, the church of Jesus is born and begins to grow, as described at the end of Acts 2 and following chapters. The church exists to know and proclaim the truth about God in an experiential way, including living in loving community at every level. (It is quite possible that there is nothing in all the world that can change us so profoundly as the experience of being well and truly loved.) At its most basic level, the church is made up of those who believe in Jesus Christ. In John's language, belief is not cognitive assent, it is a life-changing trust that leads to changed actions. Also in John's language, the ultimate sin is unbelief -- refusal to live in a life-changing relationship of trust with Jesus. So the very existence of the church convicts the world of sin by highlighting both the possibility of trust and by shining light on the world's unwillingness to risk that trust. In the decades and even in the first couple centuries following Jesus' death and resurrection, the world was mystified, befuddled and offended by this group of people who believed something so crazy as Jesus' resurrection, and believed it so strongly that it changed their actions and relationships so radically. The existence of the church in its life-changing belief holds up an alternative to the world's stubborn unbelief. It convicts the world of sin.

Similarly, the existence of the church convicts the world of righteousness. Jesus' going to the Father following his death and resurrection includes the idea of him imparting righteousness to those who believe in him. So in the church, we are called not to live out the old, tired system of moralistic shame and reward. Rather, we are called to live in the glorious freedom of those who are welcomed into God's love freely, because of what Jesus has done for us. To bring in more of the New Testament's language, we are forgiven. So often churches make forgiveness about taking away the sin that keeps us from heaven after we die. But what if it's so much more? What if forgiveness opens up a pathway for us to live in love, mercy, and welcome with each other in relationship now? Part of what the world observed in the church was a delighted, self-giving love that transformed lives. "See how they love one another" was one of the reactions non-Christians marveled about this strange movement. The church living out its freedom in Jesus Christ convicts the world of righteousness, because we know we're loved and accepted by God and one another not based on our own goodness but based on the free gift of God's amazing grace in Jesus Christ.

Finally, Jesus says that the Holy Spirit, when he comes, will convict the world of judgment, because the ruler of this world (a pretty standard biblical way of referring to Satan and all the powers, including human powers, that are opposed to God's rule) stands condemned. Again, this seems like something we'd expect to happen in some wild supernatural cosmic judgment hall. However, to see the "ruler of this world" and his works all you have to do is look around, especially if you're standing in the ancient world. See a world based on Machiavellian power structures (might makes right), the corruption that power brings that justifies all our self-indulgent actions, shame based structures that oppress the weak and broken for the benefit of the strong, me-first tribalism and nationalism and abuse of all kinds. That's what a world without Jesus had created. We live today in a world where precisely through centuries of the church's existence, belief in Jesus has transformed the very ways we think. We take the existence and value of hospitals, schools, charities, safety nets, literacy, and so much more for granted -- yet all of these things grow not out of some shared humanistic assumption that we should do what's good for people. Rather, that idea that people are important and we should care for the lost and the least is a direct outgrowth of the church's existence over the centuries. The church, by living out the nature and character of Jesus (all too often in imperfect, partial ways) has indeed transformed the world. In doing so -- in creating societies that value the lives of the weak and broken as well as the strong and capable -- the me-first values of the world (and its ruler) stand condemned, judged.

There is obviously much more to say about this, but now we come to another notoriously difficult passage in the New Testament. In Ephesians 3, Paul writes that his job was to proclaim Christ to the Gentiles, so that he could bring to light a mystery hidden for ages and ages, and that "through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places." In other words, by the church being the church -- worshipping a crucified and risen Lord, treating one another with love and mercy, operating not out of self-interest but self-giving love -- the universe might come to know the character and loving nature of God. For Paul, one of the huge elements of this revealing revolved around God's accepting the Gentiles into his love. Basically, Paul was saying that all the assumptions we had about our tribe (the Jews) being accepted and us being better than everybody else -- which is the natural sinful human way to think -- had been totally blown away by God's plan to send Jesus for the sake of all people, to create a church that lived in love and forgiveness and mercy and righteousness according to the character of a loving God who welcomes all of humanity into his kingdom.

What it comes down to is this: to the extent that the church functions as the church -- living according to the nature of Jesus, not according to the world and its systems -- its very existence bears witness to the world of the reality and love of God, and convicts the unbelieving world of the fact that its values and systems stand opposed to the creator and ruler of the universe. All too often, the church buys into the world's power structures, so we see me-first politics and campaigning and power blocs and shaming and gossip and rumor-mongering carrying the day in the church. But these are not the ways of Jesus, and when those things become our pattern we are no longer living as the church. To the extent that the church can learn to love well, God will use us to reveal himself to the world.

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