Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Putting the Scandal Back in the Gospel

The Problem

The Gospel is a scandal. It has been since the very beginning of its unfolding in history. The world finds the notion offensive that God called one particular man, Abraham, to be the father of one particular nation, Israel, through whom He intended to bless the whole world. And what a people to choose! An obscure, desert-dwelling, nomadic, tribal people who should have been forgotten in the annals of history.

Yet, even God's own people, Israel, found its particular God to be a scandal. “Why not be like all the other peoples who have many gods? The Divine cannot be exhausted by such a particular One. And what is this that God has a specific name? The gods of the other peoples are known by many names. And this God is such a particular fellow. Why does he demand of us such strict behaviors and mark out such a specific path that we are to follow in order to approach him? Our neighbors have many gods and many ways to get to those gods.”

It was that God should come to them in one specific Man, however, that most scandalized Israel. And such a man! A poor, stinking peasant carpenter of humble parentage from Galilee. "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" Perhaps it would have been easier if Jesus had come in glory as a rich, privileged potentate bearing all the symbols of earthly grandeur, but he didn't. In the words of the popular song from the 90’s, he was "just a slob like one of us. Just a stranger on a bus, trying to make his way home.” And those people he hangs out with! Peasants and prostitutes and tax collectors and the poor and even Gentiles—the riffraff of society.

And of course, he had the same aggravating sense of particularity about himself as the Father he claimed to represent, claiming to be the "I Am," the "Son of God," and "the way and the truth and the life, the only way to the Father.” The worst thing, though, is that he went and got himself killed. “Surely, if he were the Son of God, he would not have been condemned as a criminal, to be put to open shame by such a brutal and humiliating death on a cross of wood.”

Even death, however, could not put to rest the scandal of particularity surrounding Jesus. The rumor began circulating that he rose bodily from the grave and ascended into heaven. His followers began to preach a message that was "a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Greeks" (1 Corinthians 1:23). To Jews, it was a stumbling block because the Apostles asserted that "In him the fullness of the Deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9). The Gentile criticism was twofold. The Gnostics rejected the Apostles’ and Church Fathers' assertions that the God of the Bible, whom they viewed as carnal and bloodthirsty, was the God they approached in their philosophy, that he had created the "evil” material world, that he works in history, and that he had taken on flesh and blood in Jesus of Nazareth. The pagans were offended by the notion that God had acted decisively for the whole world in the singular path of salvation through Jesus.

The objections to the Gospel put forward in Jesus’ and the early Church's day have not changed much. The world still finds the message repugnant that God has acted to bring salvation to sinners through the singular path of Christ's death for our sins and his resurrection for our justification. The objections are basically the following: “It's just too exclusive. There are many paths to God. God cannot possibly be such a particular and choosy God. It's just not fair. God cannot possibly have become one particular man. God could not possibly be angry at me for my sins or condemn me for them. God could not possibly allow an innocent man to die for my sins. They cannot possibly be so bad that he should require such an awful satisfaction for them.”

I do not find the world's objections to be that unreasonable. Should we not expect for the world to object? What I do find strange, however, is that the people today who most visibly and ardently preach the message of salvation in Christ have also fallen prey to the scandal of particularity surrounding the Gospel. The people I am speaking of are ourselves—American Protestant evangelicals. We find the idea blasphemous and offensive that God should continue to use communal, earthly, and particular means to save us. In this we have divorced ourselves from historic Christianity and the faith of the God of the Bible. In our efforts to market the Gospel in an individualistic society and make it palatable and readily available to all, we have conceptually and in far too many cases practically eliminated the earthly, communal, and particular elements that have been so central to historic Judeo-Christian faith and witness.

I am speaking of our rejection of any great theological significance attached to the earthly Church, the social aspect of the Gospel, and the Sacraments. In this rejection, we have made the uniquely historical and communal faith of Christianity an almost entirely ahistorical, individualistic, otherworldly faith that seems to only promise real blessings away from Earth and thus has no bearing on life in the real world. Perhaps this would explain the fact that America is one of the most religious nations on Earth but one of the nations in which religion appears all but irrelevant to the ways people live their lives.

The reality of this can be deceiving. As evangelical Protestants, most of us do not miss historic Christian orthodoxy by much, but the ways in which we subtly and not so subtly miss the mark are important. Of course, we teach that Christians must go to church, that we must meet the needs of "the least of these," that we should be baptized and look forward to Communion as a special time of worship, and that we should have objective certainty of our salvation, but, by our individualistic and radically anti-materialistic theological assumptions and religious practice, we do not allow these things the possibility of being sufficiently realized in the real world. The result is that a wide gulf separates the contemporary American evangelical Church from the historic Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Church.

For instance, let's consider our understanding of the Church. We accept all the orthodox imagery—the Church as the Body of Christ and the Bride of Christ—but we take it in a direction that is unthinkable in historic Christian orthodoxy. Rather than the Church as a whole being the Body of Christ (Romans 12: 4-5; 1 Corinthians 12:12-27) and the Bride of Christ (Ephesians 5:22-32; Revelation 21:2, 9), we have the individual united directly to Christ as his Bride, not the individual united to the other members of the Body and thereby to the Head and Husband, Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:22-23; 5:23, 29-30; Colossians 1:18).

These are corporate images. There is no connection to the Head of the Body unless one is united with the other members. We are not brides of Christ individually but one Bride of Christ corporately. This, of course, does not exclude the necessity of having a personal relationship with Jesus, but, it does mean that this relationship must be understood in light of the Christian community. It is only by our incorporation into his Body (his Temple) that each of us is animated by the Holy Spirit and enabled together to be his ongoing physical presence in the world (Ephesians 2:17-22). If we separate ourselves from the Body, we shrivel up and decay just as amputated limbs do when separated from physical bodies.

Theology has practical consequences. A deviation from orthodoxy always results in a deviation from orthopraxy. The loss of a communal emphasis in our theology has meant a loss of community in our churches. Whereas Christ tells us, "By this all men will know you are my disciples, if you love one another" (John 13:35), our churches all too often seem to be run-of-the-mill voluntary associations of like-minded individuals, like, for instance, the Elks Club or the Moose Lodge. Instead of a family, “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Peter 2:9), members of the same congregation frequently exhibit only the loosest of connections to one another, particularly if they come from different socioeconomic backgrounds.

Due to the alliance that has historically existed between individualized evangelical Calvinism and capitalism, the evangelical church today consists primarily of upwardly mobile middle-class whites and represents their particular interests. With the loss of a theology that emphasizes communal rather than individual election and the real spiritual need that Christians have for one another, private Christians feel no responsibility for the salvation of their brothers and sisters, much less their physical and social needs. Christian charity and love are replaced with Christian civility, or worse, Christian snobbery. The transformative power of the Gospel no longer has the force to break down the barriers that exist between middle-class and working-class Christians, much less between rich and poor, white and black, respectable and not-so respectable, important and not-so important. In our churches today, the Pharisees are warmly embraced, but the kinds of people that Jesus hung out with are far too often only coolly tolerated or outright rejected.

As Philip J. Lee notes in Against the Protestant Gnostics, "What is undeniable is that American Protestantism still accepts and practices a social exclusivism on behalf of the privileged and that the lower strata of society have been psychologically, intellectually, and ethically excluded from the fellowship." So much for "as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me" (Matthew 25:40) and "Whoever causes one of my little ones to stumble, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6; Mark 9:42; Luke 17:2).

For "the least of these," it appears that the opinion of Henry Ward Beecher and his ilk that "churches are largely for the mutual insurance of prosperous families, and not for the upbuilding of the great underclass of humanity” is the norm for evangelical churches. The observation of fellow Boston clergyman Rev. Charles Wood that "the poor are not provided for, nor are they wanted as a part of the congregations which worship in the majority of our city churches" is as relevant today as it was in 1874. When sincere Christians from economically or socially disadvantaged backgrounds are rejected by more affluent church members, the result is invariably that they become discouraged in their faith and disillusioned by the hypocrisy of their congregations. Despairing of finding the warm Christian community that is essential for genuine discipleship, many leave the Church altogether, taking their much-needed presence and perspectives with them. When the poor are out of sight in the Church, they all too frequently are out of mind as well.

Nevertheless, evangelical churches do work for the poor. That is undeniable. But the truth is that we do not do enough, and rarely do we welcome with open arms into our churches the individuals we help. Evangelical churches may meet the physical needs of disadvantaged persons on an individual basis and get them to make professions of faith, but, beyond this, only the most superficial attention is paid to their spiritual and social needs.

We see this in evangelical politics as well. Conservative evangelical political action focuses almost exclusively on the improvement of individual morality as the sole source of social change, ignoring the social structures and realities that perpetuate poverty, crime, and addiction. Disadvantaged individuals are entirely responsible for overcoming their difficult circumstances; it is not society or government's place to help facilitate change.

Additionally, the unbalanced otherworldliness that characterizes American evangelical faith means that the physical circumstances of life are devalued. Changing the world for the benefit of embodied human existence is far less important than saving souls. Social justice, the environment, and the building of meaningful and universally satisfying Christian community therefore all take a back seat to evangelism.

Evangelical rejection of the communal, the earthly, and the particular and its deleterious consequences for orthopraxy is also evident in the evangelical rejection of the Sacraments. Baptism and the Lord's Supper have been supremely devalued as means of grace in the name of universalizing and individualizing the offer of salvation in Christ. Subjective experience has become the sole marker of authentic Christian faith, whereas historically the marks of a Christian have been doctrine, discipline, and incorporation into and participation in the Church through the Sacraments. Being a follower of Jesus Christ and having present faith in Jesus for salvation as well as having the objective, communal testimonies to salvation of Church, Bible, baptism, and Eucharist once blunted the existential force of the doctrine of election. Now, however, that the emphasis in evangelicalism has shifted from communal election to individual election and the objective testimonies have been completely replaced by the subjective conversion experience, those unfortunate individuals who do not have the hubristic confidence in their own sincerity at the moment of conversion or in their memories of that experience to dispel all the clouds of doubt bear the full force of the question of their eternal destiny all alone.

Describing the experience of the late Puritans, the first group in North America to take grace out of the Church, Lee writes, "Left with no definite means of grace, no certitude or even comfort, the Protestant individual found the Calvinistic doctrine of election to be a monstrous threat. The sinner was left to the caprice of the infinite God who despises finite means." God had become "a God who refuses to put His heart into His creation and who leaves His creatures alone and without access to Himself." This remains as relevant for today's American evangelical Protestants as it was for our Puritan forebears. Those not given to great emotionality find themselves without God in the world and the Church. They also find themselves without their brothers and sisters in Christ in a loosely associated, purely voluntaristic Church.

The Solution

We must reject the new particularities of the individual, the middle-class, and subjective experience that American evangelical Protestantism has chosen in favor of the particularities of the Church, the poor, and the Sacraments—the particularities that the Bible and the historic witness of the Christian Church call us to embrace. When it comes to re-sanctifying the particularity of the Church, our preaching must move from a pep talk addressed to private Christians who stand alone before God to an edifying message addressed to the members of the Body, who stand shoulder to shoulder before God, encouraging, disciplining, and urging one another on in the Faith. It must not focus on the works of God done purely in individual lives but on the great historic works of God done in plain sight for the Church and the world to behold. Through this type of message, individuals find encouragement not just in what God is doing in their own lives but in what God is doing in the lives of others, in the life of the Church, and in the life of the world. The individual has the sense of belonging to something that is bigger than just his or her own life and relationship with God. Not only do we have our Lord Christ to live for but we have our brothers and sisters in Him and the world that needs his message to live for.

Our preaching and teaching must also emphasize the fact that the flesh and blood gathering together of believers has great theological significance. We must speak more about how Christ is among us in the Church, working through us to do his work in the world. Going to church and taking the sacraments brings us into communion with Christ and one another in ways that are distinct from the spiritual union believers always have with Christ. In Christ's physical absence, we only meet the Word as he was made flesh in the Church.

In light of the reality of Christ fully formed in his Body, then, individualistic metaphors for the Church must be exchanged for communal metaphors. The Church must no longer be thought of as a mere collection of individuals but as a loving and cohesive family, a tribe, a nation. It must therefore have a patriotism of its own based on its mission. Out of many, the Church is one for the sake of Christ crucified and the sake of seeing his Kingdom reign and rule on Earth as it is in Heaven.

In the Church, the barriers that separate people in the world must be dismantled. The Christian Church is the new humanity, in which "there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28). God-given differences in the Church must then be viewed not as a reason for our separation but as the basis for our union, for "if the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell?" (1 Corinthians 12:17).

As we preach and teach the ideal of the Church as a community formed counter to the principles of the world—a community formed of people the world separates according to race, ethnicity, nationality, language, class, and wealth—we would hope that this ideal would become a reality. However, without diligence and courage this vision will not be realized, for "faith without works is dead" (James 2:17). We must reclaim the Christian Church as a movement of ordinary people—the foolish, the weak, the "low and the despised in the world" (1 Corinthians 1:27-28). Congregations must take special care to welcome the poor, the homeless, the working-class, minorities, the disabled, those who have been in prison, and those struggling with addiction. Churches must follow-up with visitors not in spite of the fact but especially if they come from socioeconomic backgrounds different from the majority of the members in the congregation.

This must be an ongoing ministry. Pastors, elders, deacons, and the laity must be especially diligent in helping to keep members from segments of society especially prone to isolation within congregations connected to the life of the community. Compassionate and caring lay persons must take the initiative to come alongside of individuals who often fall by the wayside, inviting them into their homes and lives and likewise accepting these individuals' invitations into their homes and lives. Establishing fellowship groups of church members from a variety of backgrounds is one practical step that could lead to greater cohesiveness between poor and rich, black, white, Hispanic, and Asian, working-class and middle-class within congregations. These fellowship groups must occur in homes, not in church buildings or at the places of elite society.

The pressure to conform churches to the biblical model of community must continue to be applied from the pulpit, both in a general sense and in response to particular instances of individuals and congregations failing to exemplify real Christian hospitality. Pastors must fearlessly and courageously hold their congregations to task, preaching often, if need be, from hard portions of Scripture, from James' fearless denunciation of favoritism to Jesus' sobering parable of the sheep and goats. Of course, these messages must not be framed in terms of individuals' discipleship but in terms of the spiritual damage done to brothers and sisters in Christ and of bringing reproach upon the name of Christ for all the world to see.

The particularity of the poor must also be focused on by the American evangelical Church in its social action. No longer must evangelical Christian political discourse be framed exclusively in terms of private morality and the protection of the single-family home. The truly pro-life and pro-family agenda is one that not only protects the unborn but is fully committed to seeing life flourish in abundance from womb to tomb. Politically-minded and active evangelicals must take up the fight against poverty in terms of society's responsibility and not exclusively in terms of the individual's. Tax cuts and increased defense spending must be denounced when it means cuts to health care and welfare benefits to children, the elderly, the disabled, and the working poor. Evangelicals must take to task those in Washington and in state capitals who claim to represent their interests but fail to exemplify Christ's Gospel ministry to "the least of these."

American evangelicals must also reclaim the American Protestant tradition of social reform. The work of the abolitionists, the Social Gospellers, the Civil Rights Movement, the Sojourners network, and the emerging church must be brought to fruition. White middle-class evangelical Protestants must give up a good deal of the privilege they have traditionally held in education and employment for the sake of their African-American and Hispanic compatriots and brothers and sisters by supporting affirmative action programs and urban renewal projects. American evangelicals should be at the forefront of efforts to establish a fair policy on immigration, embracing all people in Christian love who have come to our country for the sake of liberty and economic opportunity. Furthermore, evangelicals must be more charitable and gracious to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered community, promoting their full civil rights while yet striving to maintain biblical morality and the traditional definition of marriage.

In regard to the social mission of the American evangelical Church, the particularity of America and the American way of life must be moderated by genuine concern for the rest of the world. America is not the world's last best hope but the Kingdom of God as it is already being expressed in the Church of Jesus Christ. No longer must particularly American economic interests be advanced to the detriment of the economic interests of the Third World. The only good trade is fair trade. America must quit playing the hypocrite when it comes to international debt. In light of our own fiscal crisis, we must forgive Third World debt. We must also step up our global efforts to fight AIDS, poverty, and hunger. Considering that the U.S. is responsible for producing the greatest amount of greenhouse gases and carbon emissions, the United States must take the lead in combating global warming. We must not sacrifice the ecological future of the world to our appetite for oil and money. Finally, America must seek an increasingly demilitarized foreign-policy, seeking diplomatic solutions to international issues and abandoning policies of preemptive strike. We must also eschew the use of torture in interrogating terror suspects. The American evangelical Church has been silent long enough on these issues. We must step to the forefront in helping to steer our nation in the right direction when it comes to our relations with the rest of the world.

Finally, we must grapple with the consequences of the Incarnation, embracing the logical conclusion of Jesus Christ taking on flesh, his ongoing redemption of the whole of creation and human life, and of his working out of that redemption through the Holy Spirit-empowered flesh of the Church. That conclusion is that God continues to use finite means to communicate his infinite love and grace to us. If this sounds strange, we must consider that the words and speech that we use to convey the propositional truths of the Gospel and Holy Scripture are things as well. In some sense, even the unfailing message of the Bible and the Gospel is a humiliation of infinite, spiritual truth because it is communicated through the limited “earthen vessels" of language—both the written word and speech—and of thought. We must therefore put aside our superstitious Protestant fear of things and embrace the Sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper as finite means of grace. We should listen to the good British common sense of C. S. Lewis on this matter:
There is no good trying to be more spiritual than God. God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why He uses material things like bread and wine [and water] to put the new life into us. We may think this rather crude and unspiritual. God does not: He invented eating. He likes matter. He invented it.
The first thing we must do to reclaim the Sacraments is to get our teaching on them right. Baptism and the Lord's Supper are a sharing in the cross of Christ, in his body and blood. They work and we need them. We need baptism once and only once and Christ's Supper often.

Early in the book of Acts, the Jerusalem church is shown taking Communion daily (Acts 2:42, 46). According to the normative instructions Paul gives us in 1 Corinthians, the Supper is a weekly celebration. In that light, all of us must begin to celebrate it more often. Four times a year is simply not consistent with Christ's command that we continually "feed” on his flesh and blood (John 6:53-56) or with the Reformers' efforts to reclaim the cup for the laity. (It is ironic that Luther and Calvin's spiritual children have now taken both cup and bread from the laity by having Communion so infrequently.) If we wish to see the full effectiveness and value of this sacrament restored in our contemporary thought and practice, nothing less than a weekly celebration will do.

And in this weekly celebration, we must do away with unbreadly bread and unwinely wine. How can this sacrament help us make Christ more relevant to our everyday lives if it is nothing like the food and drink we share at our own tables? On this note, we should also bring back the love feasts of the ancient Church. Taking the Supper in the context of a real meal shared by everyone in church communities would do a great deal to strengthen the communal bond in churches and emphasize the necessity of fellowship in the Body of Christ. Furthermore, in accordance with the Protestant understanding of the priesthood of the believer, I see no reason why families cannot share the Supper in their own homes, especially if their churches will not give it to them but on rare occasions. Furthermore, we must pay great attention to the ministry of the Supper to the elderly and the sick. We must share Christ with those whom it would be easy for us to forget.

I do not wish to wade into the controversies surrounding baptism, but our contemporary practice of this sacrament must change as well. Baptisms must begin to be viewed as crowning moments in the lives of local churches—events that are not merely symbolic but that have real spiritual significance for their participants. We should also use lots of water, and, with rare exceptions, baptism must occur in communal contexts before a "great cloud of witnesses" (Hebrews 12:1). Re-baptisms must be neglected altogether because baptism is a gift from Christ and not a work we must do to please God.

Let us reclaim the scandal of the Gospel. Our Lord deigned to become one of us, thereby sanctifying human life and all of creation. Jesus continues to make his incarnational presence known to us through his Body—the Church, through the poor and downtrodden he bids us care for, and through the Sacraments. A Christianity that once again values the particularities of life as God's people, God's works in history, of embodied existence, and of the humble things in the world cannot help but put us right where we need to be—a place where our feet are planted firmly on the ground and our eyes are fixed heavenward.

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

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