Friday, December 19, 2014

To Hell In A Handbasket: How To Live In A Post-Christian Society

"The world is going to Hell in a handbasket!"

How many times have you heard that phrase in your life, especially as it relates to the culture where you live? There is no doubt that American society is changing and in many ways, there are some really big differences in things like morality. Movies, music, and other artistic mediums have definitely changed over the past 50 years, no denying it. There is also a growing hostility towards Christianity as a whole. It's not too serious as I'll later point out, but it is growing. Government has also been on the move, with some very unique things such as the mayor of Houston requiring several major churches to submit their sermons for review (there was a good deal more to this story then most saw, but also, these subpoenas were squashed). 

But, one of my main problems that use the phrase above is the presupposition that our society has ever been in heaven in the first place. It has not. It will not. It can not. But, I'm not sure this the worst news in the world for the church. In fact, there may be a lot of good that can come even when society is dark. How we respond to these changes and live as the bride of Christ in this unique and interesting world will be incredibly crucial in the coming years. So, while I don't see our society as ever having been Christian (something my title infers), I do see us moving away from even making the claim. 

Ever since sin entered the world, the world has been a fallen place and actually has been "going to hell in a handbasket." The exception to this is God's people, first represented by Israel and now represented by the church.  

So first, let's debunk something. As a church, let's put to rest the myth that our country was truly founded as a Christian nation or even because of solid Christian principles and we just need to get back to our roots. We say this all the time, I know there are many Christian principles that were acknowledged in founding our country, but hear me out. One of the #1 reasons America broke off from British rule was for freedom from high taxation. That's completely contrary to Christ's teachings, however. The situation in Israel was the exact same - foreign power, foreign rule, steep foreign taxation. When asked about this though, Jesus says "render to Caesar what is Caesar's" (Matthew 22:21). He doesn't say "dump the tea in the harbor." It's easy to associate revolution or war with a noble cause, it's very difficult to associate either of them with the principles of Jesus. 

But religious freedom is worth fighting for right? Nope. But what about when there are groups persecuting your group? Nope. 

Peter wrote to Christian "exiles" in his first epistle who were experiencing political oppression because of their belief and worship of Christ. 

"Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name." (1 Peter 4:12-16)

Now, these people weren't experiencing people taking Christ out of Christmas (which isn't even true because X is a shorthand Χρίστος [Christos - Messiah or Christ]) or getting cut off during an interview on CNN (just google it). They were being fed to lions and executed in any number of atrocious ways. Peter says that they shouldn't be surprised by this. They shouldn't be surprised by government and others taking their very lives

So, whenever people want to take "In God We Trust" off of money (which has always been a societal lie, especially when it comes to the paper it's printed on), take the Ten Commandments out of court rooms, take prayer out of schools, and a number of other things that we often cite as the end of times, Peter looks at us and says "Do Not Be Surprised.

The main reason this should not surprise us is because social institutions and God's kingdom are simply incompatible. Jesus said "my kingdom is not of this world" and He was referring to the social systems and institutions of this world, because he clarifies the statement with "if my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting" (John 18:36).

Imagine Jesus as president - would the world really want a president who's foreign policy is enemy love? Would our capitalistic society truly jive with the idea of giving to others and helping the poor until it begins to hurt? 

These two worlds just don't mesh. The church has a different way of doing things completely. The kingdom of God has a different politic than the world in every single way imaginable. This is why Peter says that we shouldn't be surprised. He was writing about this very thing. 

But not being surprised is only the first part. The rest of how we are to live in a Post-Christian society is surmised by the commandment to participate in the sufferings of Christ. This is about loving others even when they are treating you in the worst ways. 

It's not that we are putting our stamp of approval on society. Not in the least. The church has a duty to remain true to the teachings of Christ set forth in Scripture no matter what the environment is. If Christianity is made illegal, American church numbers will go down DRASTICALLY...but it does not reduce the necessity for Christian community or the worship of the Almighty One. The early church met in homes and however else they needed to in order to praise God, even though their society was hunting them down. 

In all this, I hope you can see how the church definitely challenges culture and society at large, but changing culture and society are not our primary goals. We should instead be always seeking to make the church more Christlike. But we should obviously not be surprised when society, culture, and government are not Christlike. We help in changing the hearts of individuals and families, not institutions. 

So, the formula for living in a Post-Christian society? Do not be surprised, endure whatever comes peacefully, focus on the church, and love extravagantly as Jesus did to His persecutors when He hung on a cross and prayed for God to "forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34).  

Saturday, December 6, 2014

"What Must I Do To Be Saved?"

Pretty classic question. People have been arguing over that one for hundreds of years. I have been asked that question by people who were Christians because we can't figure it out. 

We have a lot of different answers. Growing up in more conservative Churches of Christ, one of the more classic ways that we have answered that is summarized in five steps: Hear, Believe, Repent, Confess, and be Baptized. We have usually put a pretty heavy emphasis on the last one there, and there is pretty good reason for it. After all, it is pretty symbolic of dying to self, being washed with the blood of Christ, and being raised up in newness of life. 

But then you get other people that say "all I have to do is believe" in order to be saved. To them, there is obviously a need for baptism as a form of obedience, but the point of salvation comes when you believe that Jesus is Lord of all and at that point He saves you. There are those within this line of thought that use The Sinner's Prayer to "accept Jesus into their hearts" and the like. Hear me, there ain't a single thing wrong with accepting Jesus into one's heart...but the Sinner's Prayer isn't really biblical (just saying). 

For others still, there is a huge connection to salvation and acting out gifts of the Holy Spirit such as speaking in tongues and the like. These are thought to be the visible sign that the Holy Spirit has come upon one's life and so this is the point of salvation. 

I could probably go on with examples of how people are thought to be saved by Christ, but I am really becoming disenchanted with all of them. There are three reasons for this. The first reason is that the emphasis is put on us in some way or another. So, while Churches of Christ may get dogged on pretty hard for thinking that salvation comes  through a "work" like baptism, everybody pretty much thinks that there is something that we do that brings salvation, whether it's saying a prayer, believing in Jesus, or accepting Him into our hearts. All of that is what we do, and salvation is something that God does. Baptism may be something that I decide to do (it's actually quite passive when you think about it, confirmed by usually being a passive verb in Greek), but saving is something Jesus does. 

The second reason that I'm disenchanted with these things is because we are trying to designate the "point" of salvation. Now, it makes sense why we want this to happen - we want to know when we are safe from the fires of hell. That's pretty understandable in all reality, but being scared of hell is not at all what Jesus wanted us to do in comparison to hoping for heaven. 

The third reason is because all of this stuff is kind of prideful, "I know exactly what's going on with this topic," and really divisive towards the church as a whole and has been for a long dang time. So, I have something to propose that perhaps could bring some unity to our various Christian movements. Note though, this is me thinking out loud, and I'm certainly not abandoning my personal tradition. I would love to hear other opinions on how we can find more unity and read scripture better on this.

Perhaps the most memorable time that this question was asked (at least in my mind) was when the rich young ruler comes to Jesus (Matthew 19:16-22). He asks Jesus what good thing he must do to be have eternal life and Jesus answers in a very peculiar way. He actually seems to kind of dodge the question, which is funny, when He says "Why do you ask me what is good? There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments." I'll do some more unpacking of that idea in a minute, but what's interesting is that Jesus takes the focus away from what good thing the man must do and puts the focus on the only One who is truly good (God). Jesus then just says to keep the commandments. 

This isn't enough for the young ruler though, and so he asks Jesus "which ones?" This guy really wants to stamp his "saved" card and go to sleep in peace. Jesus of course lists off some good commandments and the young ruler feels pretty good because he's been doing all of those things since he was just a kid and asks what he still lacks (I personally doubt he was expecting a reply other than "dude, you're totally good then, go in peace"). This is when Jesus drops the ever so infamous line - "If you want to be complete, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." 

This devastates the young man because Jesus asks for the one thing that he is unwilling to give up. Jesus knew what this guy was hanging on to. But I think we need to look at the dialogue as a whole and put ourselves in the man's place. 

Firstly, Jesus says to keep the commands. The young ruler thought he was doing that, but he wasn't. If we were there, we might reply "which ones" and get a plethora of responses from "hear, believe, repent, confess, be baptized, accept Jesus in your heart, say a prayer, speak in tongues" and then expect to be good. It is at this point that Jesus would look us in the eye and tell us to follow Him.

When Jesus says to keep the commands, I think He is saying that we need to submit ourselves fully to Him. We want to clarify exactly what this is and that is when the very thing we want to hold onto most is what Jesus says to give away so that we can follow Him whole heartedly. 

What if we started looked at salvation as no single action done on our part but as the process of submitting our entire life to Christ and the following of Him while living in His constant forgiveness? Note: salvation is something God does, so I'm not suggesting this is how we save ourselves.

I know very few people in Churches of Christ that think if a person has decided to submit their life to Christ and got in a car accident on their way to the baptistry that they are messed over. I know very few people who, although they don't see baptism as a necessary task of salvation, do not think that baptism is a command that should be followed in order to be obedient to God and His will. I also know of no one that thinks a person could go through any of these steps, then walk away completely from the life of discipleship and those steps mean anything at all. 

Some of the most committed followers of Jesus that I know have come from faith traditions that are unlike mine. We have disagreed on certain things from time to time, but at the end of the day, they are a disciple and it shows in their lives. These people truly give God everything that they have, but maybe read scripture just a little differently than I do. 

If we submit to God, we will keep the commandments - we will believe He is Lord, we will repent of our sins and confess Jesus is the only way for us to be saved, we will be baptized so that we can partake in His death and be cleansed by His blood, and we will live by the Spirit while walking in newness of life as a disciple that must follow Christ down the darkest of roads for the rest of our lives. All of these things are part of submitting to God. So, what happens if along the way of submitting we die? I tend to think that we are good...don't you?

Why do we label things as necessary and not necessary when all are clearly part of the process God wants for us? Why do we try to mark salvation as if it were some end point instead of the beginning of new life that it truly is? Salvation is entering into newness of life, and that starts by submitting ourselves to God and His will and then living in that for the rest of our days.

Does that mean we won't goof up along the way as we are submitting? Of course not. We gonna mess up all the dang time. But, living in a state of submission means that despite my shortcomings which are ever so present, I am giving that to Jesus and following the commands just like Jesus told the young ruler to do. It is also going to mean that I will constantly be checking my life for material things that I am beginning to become too fond of. But when I live a life of submission, those things are submitted to Christ before they ever even poke their sneaky little head up in my life. Jesus. Wants. Everything.

I am done arguing about the point of salvation and what is necessary and not necessary. I am instead about submitting the entirety of my life to Christ so that He can be glorified through it all. Might this be the way that we are able to find unity amongst ourselves? We are slowly getting over the fact that we all do worship a little differently from place to place. This is the one thing that we seem to hang onto and want to divide over. 

I ask you to join me in this submission. It's a humbling experience. It certainly isn't very American like to give up all our rights for the sake of the cross. But I do believe that it is the answer to the question - "What must I do to be saved?"