Preaching An Offensive Gospel, Without Being Offensive

Yesterday I bemoaned the fact that I sometimes get much healthier instruction and encouragement from authors outside of my faith community than I do from authors who share my specific theological convictions. I do not rejoice in that particular experience. I find it distressing, to say the very least. But, it leads to a question: What is it about their writings that I find so encouraging, that I find lacking in authors/preachers from within the Churches of Christ? It is a fair question.

The issue I mentioned yesterday was that they make an unflinching defense of the gospel of Christ to confront not only their culture – but primarily of their own church community. Dietrich Bonhoeffer did not begin his journey by attacking Adolf Hitler – he was initially only interested in purging National Socialism from the German church (although, confronting Hitler directly was close behind). Lesslie Newbigin did not set out to attack the political system of England – he wanted to wake his church up to the idolatry that it had absorbed (although, you cannot attack idolatry without attacking the idol that inspires it). Os Guinness does not want to re-write the Constitution, he writes primarily to Christians in order to get them to follow the gospel of Christ (although, in so doing, we do have to take a serious look at the humanistic nature of the Constitution).

All three of these authors touch on and hover around a central theme – the gospel of Christ is at its core an offensive gospel. Not hateful, mind you, but offensive, yes.

The gospel is offensive to the modern, western, and in particular, American, culture. In our world the center is the self, the individual. Everything we do magnifies the individual. Life is all about ME! If I want it, I get it, no matter what it costs or how it deprives others of what they want. My personal happiness and my personal welfare eclipses every other concern. I can destroy the earth, I can ruin reputations, I can use derogatory and repugnant language, I can kill the unborn child in my womb, I can even change my biological birth gender – all because I am the king of my life and I can do whatever I want to do that makes me happy and self-fulfilled. To deny me that freedom is the worst crime that a person or a society can commit – it is a denial of my personal, individual, reign over my life.

Contrast that with the gospel. In the kingdom of God the community – the church – is the most important organism, and the individual only gains importance through that community. In the kingdom of God the other comes first, not the self. In the kingdom of God we die to ourselves and live for the other, and in particular, we live for Christ. In the kingdom of God the most important right we own is the right to relinquish all of our rights for the benefit and the promotion of the community. In the kingdom of God responsibility is as critical, if not more critical, than any supposed rights. In the kingdom of God no truths are considered “self-evident” – that is a fiction of the enlightenment. The only way we know truth is through the revelation of God himself. In the kingdom of God the most important symbol is not a flag or a gun or a piece of paper – it is a cross, the symbol of hatred on one side and divine love on the other. In the kingdom of God the only way to win is to lose, and the only way to live is to die. We ascend by climbing lower.

Bonhoeffer, Newbigin and Guinness all preach this gospel. They all make the same point, albeit in different ways and even though their message has been intended for vastly different audiences. It is only through this offensive gospel that a human can know his or her value, and it is only through this gospel that a bent and broken world can be healed. It is tough medicine – in a sense it is a medicine that actually kills the patient before it can restore the patient to a new life.

Exactly what the gospel proclaims in the pages of the New Testament.

So how is what I hear from authors/preachers within the Churches of Christ any different? What do I hear from our spiritual leaders?

  • We cannot tell the millennial generation to grow up and value the body of Christ as the preeminent reality because it might hurt their sense of individuality, and they might leave and go elsewhere.
  • We cannot tell the sexually degenerate or confused that there is one, single immutable truth about sexuality because it might scare them away from the church.
  • We cannot confront a hyper left-leaning or right-leaning political constituency with the reality that they have replaced their faith in God with an idolatrous belief in human reason for fear that they consider us crazed lunatics – or even worse, rabid fundamentalists.
  • We cannot confront an aging group of baby-boomers (and I am one) with the thought that the way in which they have used and abused the earth’s resources is in direct contradiction to the mandate in Genesis to husband the earth for fear that they might withdraw their necessary contributions to the church.
  • We cannot confront either Democrat or Republican with the gospel call to forsake all idolatrous nationalism for fear that we might be viewed as being unpatriotic.
  • We cannot preach the exclusive message of the gospel for fear that we will be considered hateful and prejudiced.
  • We cannot preach that there is one way, and one way only, to God and that is through the death of Christ. We cannot preach believer’s baptism because that is simply a dogma and is narrow minded. We cannot preach that there is only one church because that is sectarian.
  • On the other hand, we must preach inclusiveness, praise individuality, and above all, maintain the liturgy of the Church of the American Myth.

In short, what we need to preach is the insipid, watered down, meaningless pablum that we hear from every other religious organization that has swallowed Satan’s bait – hook, line and sinker. Oh, we will be popular, and I can list a number of congregations that are just busting out of their buildings to the point they have to have “multiple campuses” to demonstrate their popularity.

But, if I read the book of Revelation correctly, these are not of the church of Christ, even if they wear the name Church of Christ.

In preaching this gospel we cannot afford to be hateful, mean-spirited, ungracious. It is a command, not a mere suggestion, that we “speak the truth in love.” But is is simply un-loving to change the gospel into something that it is not. The apostle Paul had no hesitancy to know and to teach that the gospel is repugnant to a wide range of audiences – it is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks. The early martyrs, from Stephen on down, were not killed because they told everyone that they were quite all right. To Americans the gospel is “hate speech.” Because it challenges each and every one of us to die to ourselves and our selfishness, the gospel is deeply offensive.

To be sure, I have only painted one side of the picture. The other side is that the gospel is profoundly beautiful and loving. It is the picture of a God who so loved his (rebellious and fallen) creation that he became a part of that creation in order to redeem it. It is a picture of a God who so wants to totally redeem all of that creation that he has entrusted those who believe in him with the blessed task of sharing in that redemptive story. I do not want to ever lose sight of this side of the story. But just as the gospel story recounts, you cannot get to the resurrection without first going through the cross. No one objects to Easter. Gethsemane and Calvary are preposterously offensive, however, and it is exactly Gethsemane and Calvary that we are called to bear.

As our culture falls ever more deeply into a moral abyss, it is absolutely critical that someone, or a bunch of someones, preaches this offensive gospel, so that the cross of Christ will be effective and powerful to draw men and women to God.

The question is, who is going to preach it?

Some Reflections on Recent Readings

What do Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Lesslie Newbigin, and Os Guinness have in common? Hmm. Not nationality. Not ecclesiastical connection. Not profession. Not currently alive. Seemingly, not much. There is, however, one thing that unites these three outwardly disparate characters.

All three make an unflinching, and in their own way, extraordinary defense of the gospel of Christ. How I became interested in each of the authors would require a separate post, but suffice it to say that my reading list takes me in strange, and in some cases, indefinable, directions.

This year my reading list has included a number of works from Guinness and Newbigin. I have read deeply and broadly on Bonhoeffer. That one characteristic that I noted above keeps coming back to me again and again. Bonhoeffer, Newbigin, and Guinness are all driven, in their own unique circumstance, back to the core of the gospel of Christ to confront their respective churches and cultures.

Some people may think it sad that I praise such men so highly. They each represent strains of theological convictions that I ultimately find to be lacking. Why read them? And, if I read them, why not critique them and discuss their flaws instead of praising them? Quite on the contrary, I think it is sad that I have to resort to reading Bonhoeffer, Newbigin, and Guinness to find such a courageous and counter-cultural approach to issues confronting the church today.

I may just be swimming in the wrong pond, but I find it singularly distressing that I just cannot find any author from my faith community, the Churches of Christ, who is taking such an unpopular, and convicting, stance against the idolatry of our western, and primarily, American, culture. There are those who rail against gross distortions of biblical morality, but it does not take too much of a scratch to discover that their Christianity is more related to “churchianty” than the gospel of Christ.

If there are such authors or preachers, please let me know, I would love to read/hear what they are saying. And, please, do not suggest such men as are leading the “mega” churches of our fellowship in Texas or Tennessee. I know the difference between healthy theology and pablum, and believe me, I know it when I see it. As Forrest Gump once said, that is all I’m going to say about that.

I am trying, in my own inept and halting way, to be what I hear Bonhoeffer, Newbigin, and Guinness calling me to be. I know they are imperfect, that each of them has said, or written, things about which I would strongly disagree. I know they are fallen human beings, and I am a fallen human being.

It’s just that I am deeply humbled, troubled even, with the depth of their commitment to, and defense of, the gospel of Christ to challenge all of the principalities and powers of the world that they see (or saw). I find myself too comfortable bowing down to the idols they refused to submit to. I find myself too fearful to preach against the idolatry they fearlessly  attacked.

I hope to do better. I think, in order to be faithful to my calling, I have to be better.

Seminars/Workshops to Grow and Inspire

Growing up in the Churches of Christ, spring and summer meant “gospel meetings.” The meetings were always evangelistic in nature, sometimes lasting a week. Previous generations had “protracted meetings” which could last a couple of weeks or even longer if the field was “white unto harvest.” As I got older the meetings shrank from a week to either Sunday through Wednesday, or sometimes even Friday through Sunday. The emphasis shifted from evangelism to “meeting needs,” primarily marriage enrichment type of meetings.

Now, I find it rare to see or hear of a congregation hosting an evangelistic meeting, although some “felt needs” kind of meetings are still held. I think this is a huge loss for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that congregations are exposed to fewer and fewer preachers and topics. Congregations have fewer opportunities to interact with each other, and the sense of “brotherhood” is suffering.

Where I am currently ministering (the San Luis Valley Church of Christ in Alamosa, Colorado) we recently hosted two amazing seminars/workshops. I want to describe each very briefly to encourage anyone who is looking for options to serve their community or to grow and inspire their congregations.

The Widowhood Workshop with Dean Miller. This is a workshop designed to (a) educate the congregation about the needs and ministry opportunities both for and by the widows and widowers in your community, and (b) empower a congregation to begin a ministry to its widows and widowers. Dean Miller is a widower himself, and is currently preaching in Maury City, Tennessee. This workshop is designed for three days (Sunday through Wednesday night) and is equal parts message to the congregation and outreach to community members. A separate presentation is available during one of the days (Monday, preferably) for Bro. Miller to speak to a community group and to encourage community members to attend the Monday-Wednesday night meetings. As Bro. Miller points out, the odds of both husband and wife dying at the exact same moment are just astronomically small. So, at some point in time virtually every marriage will end with either a wife or husband being widowed. Bro. Miller begins with a survey of biblical material documenting just how critical ministry to the widowed is in God’s revelation. He then explores the needs and feelings of the widowed, the various issues confronting the widowed, and even includes a special session on the question of remarriage and blending families. As a result of this workshop, a young couple has assumed the responsibility of creating a ministry to the widowed in our community, and I am firmly convinced that over time this outreach will have a significant impact on our community. I do highly recommend Bro. Miller and his workshop. More information is available at double-u double-u double-u dot widowhoodworkshop dot org. (spelled out to keep spam bots from attacking!)

Church Inside Out with Tim Archer. Tim is the Spanish ministries director at the Herald of Truth in Abilene, Texas. He has been a missionary in Argentina and has made numerous trips to assist the churches in Cuba. Tim has an incredible heart for evangelism, and through the years has developed a keen eye and a scholar’s pen to share what he has learned. What I love so much about Tim’s approach is that it is (a) thoroughly biblical, and (b) psychologically sound. Much of what I abhor about evangelistic programs, materials, and methodologies is that they hang a target on the back of a “lost soul,” and then force the “evangelist” to follow a prescribed methodology that is inflexible and domineering. A teacher is given a notebook (sometimes hundreds of pages long) and told to follow a rigid set of questions and then hold a Bible study using a set of chain references designed to convince the “lost soul” how to be a Christian in “X” number of sessions. If they have not been converted by the end of session 3 or 5 or whatever, give up and move on. One common aspect of these “follow the bouncing Scripture” methods is that the student is never, never, ever allowed to ask a question. If they do, the proper response is to divert their attention back to the chain reference of Scriptures and move them toward baptism.

Exactly what the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh Day Adventists teach their door-knocking missionaries.

Tim’s approach is much more student oriented. I cannot explain (nor do I want to) the entire process in this little post, but Tim begins with the student and his or her relationship to God, and then works with them to draw them closer to God. With some people that means what we do is pray for them, that God will “plow the field.” With other students that may mean listening to them (and YES, even allowing them to ask questions!!), with others that may mean we sit down and work through the gospel story (focusing on just one passage of Scripture, not a “follow the bouncing chain reference” approach). The goal for Tim is not just baptism (although he makes clear that is critical) – it is the creation of a disciple of Christ.

If your congregation is serious about creating disciples who can then create disciples, I highly recommend Tim’s seminar. You can contact Tim at double-u double-u double-u dot HearaldofTruth dot org.

One Body with Matt Carter. I learned of Matt’s seminar quite serendipitously through Tim Archers blog, the Kitchen of Half Baked Thoughts (a must if you want to be challenged in your thinking). Matt just recently completed a Doctor of Ministry degree from the Harding School of Theology, where he serves as the Director of Admissions. Matt also serves as a worship minister for the Church of Christ at White Station in Memphis, Tennessee. Matt’s doctoral project/dissertation was focused on the so called “gifts of the Spirit,” and he overwhelmingly demonstrates that we have almost universally misunderstood what those gifts are. I know that is a radical statement, but his study and defense of this proposition is conclusive to me. Once again, I do not want to attempt to explain the entire workshop in just a couple of paragraphs, but suffice it to say that the “gift” is not some miraculous manifestation of the Spirit that takes days, if not months or years, to discover. Rather, God prepares each Christian through a number of ways to be a “gift” to the local congregation, using the power of the Spirit. He begins with a thorough examination of the pertinent passages of Scripture, and then concludes with a session of personal reflection and communal affirmation, usually around a meal. This workshop was just unbelievably powerful for me, and I cannot wait to see how his message will transform our congregation. Contact Matt at double-u  double-u double-u dot onebodyworkshop dot com.

I was profoundly lucky enough to be able to combine Tim Archer’s and Matt Carter’s workshops into one extended workshop on one Saturday. Matt can conduct his workshop on a Sunday (Bible class, worship, and communal meal), and Tim’s workshop takes anywhere from 4-5 hours, depending on the congregation’s needs and Tim’s schedule. We were also fortunate enough to keep both Tim and Matt over until Sunday when they each presented an additional lesson.

All told, this little congregation received about a million dollars worth of information, encouragement, and blessings over the past two months. I am sitting here just in awe of the material we received – and attempting to process how we are going to put it all into practice.

If your congregation is looking for a message – or messages – that will empower and inspire your family to outreach and growth, I highly encourage you to contact these men to see if they can serve you in the near future. Tim’s and Matt’s schedules are full to overflowing, and Dean’s schedule will fill up quickly after word of his workshop is spread around. I suggest you contact these men quickly to arrange for a meeting with your congregation.

Ascending Lower and Confronting Blatant Sin

Being a minister, an “amateur” theologian, and a sometimes keen observer of current events, I have come to an incontrovertible conclusion:

Our culture is not getting better, in fact, it is deteriorating by the day.

It was not all that long ago that a group of evangelicals were touting themselves as the “moral majority.” Just by reading the headlines, the “moral” is anything but, and the “majority”? – Pssshaw.

Throughout the life of this blog I have tried to emphasize that Christians win by losing, that we are stronger in our weakness, that the way up is by climbing lower. It is counter-intuitive, but it is the way of the cross. That is what Paul meant when he said the cross was foolishness and a stumbling block. It is just upside-down and inside-out.

But  am vexed with a problem – how then do we confront blatant sin? How are those who empty themselves as Christ emptied himself (Philippians 2) supposed to act when the world hurls so much garbage at our feet? I can think of a couple of ways that ascending lower does not mean.

First, it does not mean that we become so attached to the sinner that we fail to name the sin. I am becoming increasingly put-off by the so-called peacemakers who are so afraid of offending certain people that they refuse to call sin, sin. Particularly in regard to LGBTQ issues, the progressive Left has become so powerful that to even suggest that homosexuals or transgendered individuals might be sinners is to commit an unforgivable sin.

It is even worse outside the church.

Yes, I am suggesting that even, or especially, within the church the progressive mantra of “no offense” has so permeated our language that we cannot label sin as sin. How horrible that Paul could label some of the Corinthian Christians as formerly sexually immoral, homosexuals, idolaters, adulterers, thieves, greedy, drunkards and swindlers. (I Cor. 6:9-11)

You cannot be a former adulterer unless at one time you had been an active adulterer. You cannot have been a former homosexual unless at one time you had been a practicing homosexual. You cannot have been a former drunkard unless at one time you were an active, practicing drunkard.

You see, some people take the idea of “ascending lower” to mean that we cannot pass judgment on anyone, no matter how much in defiance they are living their life before God. That is NOT ascending lower. That is moral cowardice. That is cheap grace, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. That is abdicating our commission to preach the gospel, whether people want to hear it or not.

But, second, ascending lower does not mean that we “lower” ourselves to behave in ways that are actually beneath that of our contemporary culture. The apostle Paul became “all things to all people” (1 Cor. 9:22), but never in the negative sense. Jesus emptied himself – but never to fill himself with negativity. Paul followed in the footsteps of his master to empty himself in order to lift others up. We cannot do that by using the very methods our enemies are using against us.

When I say we are to confront blatant sin and yet to do so by “ascending lower” what I mean is that we label sin and confront the sinner for the purpose of having that sinful person redeemed by the blood of Christ. I will use a simple image, but one that I hope is illuminative.

My best teachers were not the ones who praised my work effusively and who told me that I was perfect and had nothing to improve upon. Well, in fact, none of my teachers said anything of the sort, but my best teachers were the ones who noted what was positive about my work, and then with the skill of a surgeon, reduced the rest to mere shreds. They did not excuse misspellings just because of my intent, they did not pass over poor English grammar because I was a quiet kid, they did not forgive obvious transgressions of logic and argumentation just because of my last name. They labeled each infraction with painful detail. And, then they taught me how to keep from making those mistakes again. And again. And again.

We do not serve the kingdom of God by excusing sin, whether it be closet racism or open homosexuality. We do not further the kingdom of God by tsk, tsking, when open confrontation is called for. We do not glorify God by minimizing the rejection of God’s revealed will. We cannot become more Christian by accepting behavior that directly violates the nature of God. We cannot lead people to the cross by telling them that all is quite well with their lives.

Every day I am confronted with the reality that this world in 2019 is not the world in which I reached my adulthood. In the immortal realization, if not the exact words of Dorothy, “We are not in Kansas, anymore.” That world, that life, that way of comprehending reality disappeared a long time ago.

What has not changed is our commission – our outreach to the world. We have to be smarter than we were 30-40 years ago. We have to lighter on our feet and quicker with our response. We have to be more sincere, more honest, and more confessional. We have to be more humble and more self-aware. That is what I mean by ascending lower.

Let us, then, fearlessly proclaim the truth even as we bend over to wash a pair of dirty feet.

You’re Going to Fail – Preach Anyway

I awoke this morning to a splendid question from an old friend, the crux of which was the latter part of 1 Peter 2:8, “They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.” My friend was having difficulty with the word translated “destined.” Neither he nor I ascribe to the Augustinian/Calvinistic school of predestination, and he was justifiably perplexed. This is a text that, if one so desired, one could make a mountain out of a mole hill and reach for predestination. Anyway, I’m not sure if I answered his question in a helpful way, but it got me to thinking about the subject. Then, almost as if it had been preordained (pun intended), I read John 8:47 in my daily Bible reading schedule, “Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.”

Let me say at this point that I am absolutely convinced of the truth of biblical predestination – one would have to be a ninny to read Romans 5-9 among other passages and not accept the idea of predestination – and my mama did not raise no ninny. But there is a catch – and it is a big one. The Bible nowhere speaks of individual predestination in the manner in which Calvin (in particular) built his theology. The context in Romans 5-9 is always plural – it is a group of people who are predestined – the church! The Bible only speaks of an individual being “predestined” in the rarest of cases – I can think of Pharaoh on the one hand and Cyrus on the other. That God chose or appointed or anointed other prophets and the apostles has no bearing on the Calvinistic concept of predestination at all – that is comparing apples to oranges.

So – how can Peter so blithely speak about persons being destined to disobey? Because Peter stood in a long line of preachers who were told their work was going to be largely (or sometimes completely) in vain – yet they were told to preach anyway.

Isaiah was told that his message would be largely ignored or rejected. He was told to preach anyway. Jeremiah was told that most of his words would either be ignored or ridiculed. He was told to preach anyway. Ezekiel was told that he was preaching to a church of people whose foreheads were like bronze – he was told to preach anyway. Jesus himself picked up on Isaiah’s words and used them against the Pharisees who were devout in rejecting his preaching (Isaiah 6:9-10, see Matt. 13:14-15; also Acts 28:26-27). Why all the rejection? Why did God keep telling his prophets, and even his own Son, to keep preaching when their words were to be of no avail?

Because God does not want anyone to spend eternity outside of his presence, and even if it means some will reject his word, he still wants every man, woman, and child, to hear his gospel! (Ezekiel 18:23, 32; 33:11; 2 Peter 3:9)

Let’s go back to John 8:47. Why did Jesus tell the Pharisees that they could not hear the words of God? Because they did not have God or God’s will in their hearts. It was not that God predestined them to reject his will or his words. They did that on their own. They had rejected God as the King of their lives and in so doing made it impossible for them to hear his word. Who was it that could hear? The poor, the blind, the lame, the prostitutes, the tax collectors – in other words, those who realized that they were spiritually destitute. They could hear. They would listen.

A professor explained it to me simply one time – it is perhaps too simple, but it gets the idea across. He drew three pictures on the black-board (yes, it was that long ago!). One was a slab of butter. One was a lump of clay. One was an ice cube. Then he put a great big sun up in the sky. What would happen to each of the three materials? The butter would melt and become gooey. The clay would harden. The ice would melt and eventually evaporate. The sun was the same source of heat for all three – but it was the inner makeup of the individual materials that dictated the result – not the heat.

Jesus’s parable of the soil is instructive here. The same seed is thrown on multiple types of soil. The eventual result for the farmer does not depend on the seed, his method of broadcasting the seed, whether he prayed for the seed, whether he used the proper technology to apply the seed, or how the crop would later be harvested. The success or failure of the crop depended upon what type of soil the seed landed. Now – don’t push a parable beyond it’s immediate application. Yes, it matters whether we pray and how carefully we speak to our neighbors. But, ultimately, the choice of discipleship depends upon the heart of the hearer, not the voice of the preacher.

So, why preach if the overwhelming majority of your preaching is going to be rejected, ridiculed, or just plain ignored?

Because God said success or failure was not up to us. Yes, we are going to fail. Preach anyway.

Book Review: Faith Formation in a Secular Age – Andrew Root (pt.3)

Sometimes really smart people do strange things. And then, because they are smart, other people follow them in that strangeness. Pretty soon you have a whole bunch of really smart people doing strange things, not because they really want to, or even because they have really thought about it, but because following the first really smart person seemed so, well, smart. It is called “group think,” and sometimes that strange thing that the first person thought up is just simply innocent and inconsequential, and sometimes it can be malevolent and have some really nasty results.

For years now, maybe even generations, people have been asking the question, “how do we instill faith in our children, indeed, how can we instill faith in anyone?” Over the past few years that question has reached a fever pitch because of the (almost) incessant reporting of how many young people are leaving the church, and how many people now report that their religious affiliation is “none.” They claim to be spiritual, but just not religious. Devoted church members are right to be concerned, and the providing answers to stop the exodus of these individuals is a growth industry within Christian journalism.

But, have you noticed something deeply troubling about all the answers? I did not – until I read Andrew Root’s book, Faith Formation in a Secular Age.

No one asks the question, What is faith?

Here we have a massive group think going on because some smart person, actually many smart persons, thought up a solution to why people are losing their faith, and dozens of others have chimed in about why it is occurring and what can be done about it.

And no one, at least to my knowledge, has bothered to sit down and ask that very simple, and fundamental, question. It seems that if we are going to try to form something, we had better be certain of what it is that we are trying to form.

This is why I think Root’s book is so critical at this time, and agree with him or not, at least he has gone back to the core issue. If we do not have a certain grasp on what we are trying to accomplish, I dare say we are never going to be very successful in accomplishing it.

In my own experience, whenever faith is discussed there is an automatic, almost knee-jerk, response to quote Hebrews 11:1 as the definitive answer to the definition of faith, and then move on without much deeper thought. That is, faith is an mental assent, an agreement to a concept or a doctrine. We can’t see it or touch it or taste it, but we believe it, therefore we have faith. While not ever specifically addressing Hebrews 11:1, Root basically identifies this understanding as actually being part of the problem – not that the text is a problem, but our secular understanding of Hebrews 11:1 is the problem.

I am going to simplify tremendously here – and summarize in just a few words what Root does in several chapters – but Root proposes that the core issue we have in forming faith is that all we attempt to do, and all we do if we are successful, is convince people to accept a doctrine or set of doctrines; we really do not form faith. I see this so clearly within the Churches of Christ. We teach someone to accept a set of beliefs about the church, or certain practices of the church, and if they agree with us we baptize them and assert that they have been “converted” from denominationalism or from the world or from whatever, and a few years later they are gone. We shrug our shoulders and say, “well, something must have happened to have made them lose their faith.” No – they had their minds changed, just like we changed their minds before we baptized them. We did not form faith in them, we just made them to be “Church of Christers” for a brief period of time (and, I hate that moniker with a passion that approaches psychosis).

I heard it expressed like this years ago – and the truth of this aphorism is damning – “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”

After a thorough and rather ruthless examination of our secular age (and what has created it) in chapters 1-6, and after a transition in chapter 7 (which, by the way, is critical to understanding the rest of the book), Root goes on in chapters 8-11 to unpack this fundamental question – what is faith? He does not resort to proof-texting Hebrews 11:1, but rather turns to the apostle Paul and Paul’s pregnant phrase, “in Christ.”

In the briefest of summary – Root’s exploration and explanation of faith is thoroughly Pauline. The core of Root’s understanding of faith is found in Acts 9 – the story of Saul of Tarsus conversion to Christ. From that event Root goes on to examine Paul’s ministry, and through that ministry to define the terminology that Paul uses in his letters. (Aside here – his discussion of Philippians 2:5-11 blew me away – and opened up an entirely new vision of the self-emptying of Christ.) Now, as I did in my first review, I will warn you that Root uses technical theological terminology that many may not be familiar with, and if not, will find confusing (kenosis, hypostasis, theosis, among others). Root demonstrates that faith is formed  through experiencing death, and allowing the death of Christ to transform that death into a new life – a life of service and ministry. Faith is formed when someone (or maybe many someones) minister the death of Christ to us, so that, by our death we become “little Christs” through the death of Christ, and as a result we minister that death to others.

As I have said before – it is a deep argument, skillfully presented, and worthy of serious study and reflection. I cannot – and I probably should not have even attempted – to summarize it in one paragraph. You may not agree with it. But I will say this with the seriousness of a broken leg (something I know about all too well) – if you disagree with Root you had better have your “i’s” dotted and your “t’s” crossed, because Root’s argument is serious, and at least in my humble opinion, 99% correct. I will save my major quibble with Root for tomorrow.

As I have done in each of these “reviews,” I urge you to purchase, to read, and to study this book. It has reminded me of some things that I have been taught in the past (although not put together in the package that Root does), it provides a philosophical understanding of our “secular age” that I found to be gripping, and his presentation of what it means to have faith, and therefore to form faith, was convicting, and to be perfectly honest, embarrassing.

The Gospel of the Second Touch – Jesus in Mark 6:31 – 8:30

Over the past few weeks (and ultimately into January) I am preaching a series of lessons on the question, “Who is Jesus?” I am basically following the outline of the gospel of Mark presented by Richard Peace in his book, Conversion in the New Testament: Paul and the Twelve. Dr. Peace was one of my instructors in my Doctor of Ministry program, and is one of the very few individuals in a position of power/authority who ever genuinely complimented any of my work – so, that little bit of personal attachment must be taken into  consideration. The following is a synopsis of my sermon this past Sunday (11/25/18), and is based on the third of what Dr. Peace views as a major section of the gospel of Mark. However much I have gained from Dr. Peace, some of the following is my own observation/deductions, and so don’t blame Dr. Peace for any/all of the mistakes you may discover.

Dr. Peace points out that in the section 6:31-8:30 in Mark’s gospel there are two cycles of stories. This is an illustration of the beauty of Mark’s gospel, and, from my perspective, just another indication that the gospel writers were not the red-neck, hayseed, fishermen that so many preachers want to make them out to be. But I digress.

Both cycles of stories begin with a miraculous feeding of the multitudes (6:30-44 and 8:1-9); those accounts are followed up with a trip on the sea of Galilee, in which a discussion of the miraculous feedings reveals that the disciples do not understand what the miracle was meant to teach (6:45-52 and 8:13-21). Both cycles contain a record of a dispute with the Pharisees (7:1-23 and 8:10-12, which is slightly out of sequence). Significantly, in the first cycle there is another miracle healing that is not duplicated in the second cycle – a point that I suggested in my sermon that screams out for further investigation (7:24-30). Both cycles then end with another healing, the details of which are remarkable similar and, likewise, scream out for further study (7:31-37 and 8:22-26). This major section then concludes with Jesus querying the disciples about his identity, which is then climaxed by Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah (8:29).

So often we are in such a hurry to get to Peter’s confession that we miss the beauty, and therefore the punch, of how Mark has constructed this section of his gospel. I know I have, and until I worked through this section more closely I simply missed what Mark was doing.

In the interest of time, let’s just look at the concluding miracle story in each cycle (equal time needs to be given to the opening miracle in each cycle, but I am not writing a book here). Note that in each of the healing stories Jesus is either in Gentile territory or a border city (yeah, I know that Bethsaida was in Jewish territory, but it bordered the Decapolis, and probably had a strong Gentile presence). Second, the men who would be healed are brought to Jesus by a group of people – a curious fact Mark seems to emphasize. Third, and this is truly something that Mark is intent on his readers seeing, Jesus takes the men away from the crowds. Fourth, Jesus heals both men with a physical touch – and in a manner that would offend most Jewish sensibilities (Matthew would NEVER describe a healing in such unhygienic fashion, and likewise would never suggest that Jesus would have to expend a second effort to heal someone!) Finally, Jesus commands both men not to speak, and in the second case, not even to re-enter his village.

Do you not think that Mark was trying to tell us something here?

Immediately following the second healing, Jesus pulls his disciples away from the curious crowds, elicits from them the profound truth that he is the Messiah, and then immediately and curiously commands that they withhold this information!

The point, convincingly made by Dr. Peace, is that the disciples can only see this truth incompletely, or in the language of the second healing, only in a blurry fashion. It is going to take a second touch by Jesus for their eyes to be fully open, and in the language of the first healing, for their tongues to be fully loosed. That second touch comes in the second half of the book, as Mark beautifully explains what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah.

If you are curious – buy Dr. Peace’s book. I do not accept all of Dr. Peace’s conclusions (especially that the gospel ends at 16:8, but he complimented my work, so I am going to promote his!), but Dr. Peace has opened the gospel of Mark up to me in a way that is deeply touching.

My point in my sermon was this – the gospel of Mark is in many ways the gospel of the second touch, of second chances. Mark illustrates how the disciples were repeatedly given the truth of who Jesus was, but it is not until the very end of Jesus’s life – and only from the Roman centurion – that we hear the confession that Jesus is the Son of God come from the lips of a mortal human being.

Reckon why that was?

Maybe, just maybe, because Mark wanted us to know that however obstinate and hard headed we might be, that Jesus is still calling us to him, still extending his hand out to us, still willing to heal us however uncouth that healing might be.

The gospel of second chances – the gospel of the second touch. I love that. I need to hear that. I need to preach that. I need to live that.

May we all learn to be willing to extend the second touch to those who are too confused, or are unable for whatever reason, to receive it the first time.