Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Non-Application Gospel

There is a form of Christianity, a close relative of mine, like an awkward kissing cousin, what I guess I'd call conservative mainstream Protestantism, that puzzles me. I experience it like a nested set of Matryoshka dolls, fascinating because you can keep peeling back layers, but vacuous because in the end there is no "there" there, it's all the same all the way down with no content.

It goes something like this:

What is the gospel? Jesus.
Who is Jesus? The gospel.
Why proclaim the gospel? To make disciples.
What are disciples? People who have heard the gospel.
What is the gospel? Jesus.
Who is Jesus? The gospel.
What did Jesus do? He proclaimed the gospel.
What does the gospel do? It teaches us about Jesus our Savior.
What's a Savior? Jesus.
Who follows Jesus? The Church.
What is the Church? It's the community that embodies Jesus in the world.
What does Jesus embodied in the world look like? The gospel.
What is the gospel? The gospel is the gospel.
What's the mission of the church? To proclaim the gospel.
What's the gospel? Jesus.
Who is Jesus for? Everybody.
What difference does Jesus make for everybody? He's good news.


This form of Christianity believes it is apolitical, perhaps counter-cultural, not conforming to the world because it keeps "the main thing the main thing." It might be that it believes it isn't political because it isn't liberal, much the same way Fox News believes it is fair and balanced because it isn't liberal.

Many of these types of Christians consider me an apostate. I wouldn't go that far in reverse. I wouldn't call this version of Christianity apostate--although it's damnably close. It's just that it lacks incarnation. It's perhaps neo-gnostic.

Here's an example in the concrete, from a recent newsletter article by the bishop of the North American Lutheran Church:
"We have been entrusted with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Nothing is more urgent in our day than a Church that believes the Gospel and makes it the fundamental starting point and directing power for its life. This Church must stand firm in its assertion that the Gospel is true — universally true — for everyone in all parts of the world in every point in history. 
The NALC must stand over and against the rampant relativism espoused by those who claim to be the Church, yet reject the Gospel in favor of the cheap manmade substitutes of universalism, arbitrary acceptance, and inclusivity. 
The very thought that we could redesign and improve God’s grace in favor of our own version of what it means to be gracious is apostasy. The grace of Jesus Christ, His life-giving love and salvation through His atoning sacrifice and death on the cross is the only and all-sufficient grace of the Church — the only saving grace and the only Gospel we proclaim. 
Then if that Gospel is true, if it tells us where all of history is headed, then mission must follow! If the Gospel is true, then the story must be made known. Jesus didn’t write a book, but He left behind a community that would make known the Gospel — the Good News of the Kingdom of God — by embodying that Gospel in its life and in its deeds and announcing it in its words. Jesus left behind a community of His disciples. 
He charged His disciples, His Church, with the mission we have before us: “Go and make disciples of all nations!” This time between His first coming and His second coming is the time for the witness of His Church. Mission is not optional but an essential part of redemptive history. The Gospel is true and must be shared universally. This is the nature of making disciples: to lead others to faith in Jesus, to teach the one holy catholic and apostolic faith, to live the faith in our various vocations and to equip all the faithful to pass on this faith and guide others in living the faith. When those we teach and equip are able to disciple others we know our teaching and example of living the faith is firmly rooted in their lives."
Now, I do agree that we are called as Christians to make the gospel the fundamental starting point of our lives. I also think many Christians confuse grace with other things. So in this sense we align.

But, here's my concern. The gospel of Jesus Christ, if it is anything at all, is incarnational. It's the intersection of God and humanity, God made flesh, God made manifest, which means it has radical implications for our life in the world. Jesus didn't die on the cross because he proclaimed a milquetoast message. He died because he was perceived as a threat to the governing authorities, to current economic realities, to vested cultural realities.

I'm afraid what much of this Christianity labels relativism, Jesus would label solidarity with the poor. What this form of Christianity calls universalism, Jesus Christ illustrates in his person as power over sin, death, and the devil. What this community calls inclusivity, Jesus calls eating with people.

Ultimately, the problem with this kind of Christianity is that it rejects Jesus Christ in the flesh as the Incarnate one, and selects instead their own Jesus, a Gumby Jesus, bendable and conformable to their own politics and culture, politics and culture, I might add, of which they're largely unaware because they believe, strangely, that there is somehow a way to live above and beyond the culture, politics, and economy of this world in some abstracted Jesus Gumby space.

But Jesus is the least Gumby kind of guy I know. He was a rock.

He was in the trenches, questioning the use of Roman currency, operating like a political partisan at odds with the traditional partisans, revolutionizing relationships between rich and poor, healthy and sick, male and female.

Try this out:

What is the gospel? It is the good news of Jesus Christ.
Who is Jesus Christ? A political revolutionary with a preferential option for the poor.
Why proclaim the gospel? Because it lifts up those who are oppressed, and brings down the haughty.
What are disciples? Those following Jesus into the trenches giving their lives away for the neighbor.
What is the gospel? Good news for the poor.
Who is Jesus? A poor man for the poor, a Jewish man of Palestine. Also, Son of God.
What did Jesus do? Lived apart from the Roman cash economy.
What does the gospel do? Tells us how we might have life in God because God shares life with us.
What's a Savior? Someone who is bringing about an alternative kingdom and economy.
Who follows Jesus? Not very many of us. We're all trying and failing.
What is the church? An outpost of the kingdom of God in the world, a weak one.
What does Jesus embodied in the world look like? The martyrs, most recently the Charleston Nine.
What is the gospel? #blacklivesmatter
What's the mission of the church? Accompanying the lost, lonely, and least.
Who is Jesus for? Everybody.
What difference does Jesus make for everybody? He wakes us up to now, and here.


  1. I suppose I have two quibbles:

    Jesus as political revolutionary is a difficult hypothesis, because his politics are God's politics, which makes his political theology vastly different than much that we ever encounter in that realm. It's a radical political theology that is only grasped in relationship with God, one another, and the marginalized.

    The Gospel is indeed incarnational, but I'm not sure that Jesus died merely because he was political revolutionary, though he might have been, or a prophet, or zealot or whatever. It seems to me that Jesus dies at the intersection of power and rejection of grace in our midst, an argument that Gerhard Forde made in the 80's.

    Also, not all of us who aren't as universalist as you would consider you an apostate. wink emoticon

  2. I don't disagree with you, actually. I wouldn't argue that he was a political revolutionary per se, but that is life and actions and message "land" as a politics.

  3. Maybe it's because I haven't studied theology or maybe it's because I'm not sure if I'm capable of studying theology, but at this point in my life, I think I've decided to focus on Jesus's actions as much as his words (which are so difficult sometimes!).

    I spent too much of my youth trying to figure out how to live up to my version of God's expectations and I regret that wasted time. I was raised in a Lutheran church, and I'm not sure why or how I didn't internalize Martin Luther's amazing and powerful message of GRACE. (I'll say it again because that word is so powerful to me and I wish that it would echo in my ear every minute of every day - GRACE GRACE GRACE).

    I have spent time with evangelical and fundamentalist groups who made me question my own purity, and I wish that I had used that time better to study Jesus and observe what he was trying to DO. (What he was trying to *say* is also important, but I'm not sure that my mind is always equipped to understand that, so I'll focus on the *do* for now.)

    You mentioned this above, Clint. Jesus sat and ate with "sinners". I wish the NALC would stop worrying about judging the merits of certain people/groups and would focus on loving and including people. I have wasted too much of my life judging people (mostly/especially myself), and I am determined to use that energy now to work on loving and including people.

    Thanks for this powerful reminder of the incarnational Jesus.

  4. Best ever. I love this.

  5. Clint, you're on target here. The religion which you take to task is ahistorical. Press it hard and this kind of ahistoricism is the last gasp of a hyper-individualism that finds itself alienated from any kind of collective identity.