the need for a social gospel

Aware of this, Jesus withdrew from that place. A large crowd followed him, and he healed all who were ill. He warned them not to tell others about him. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

“Here is my servant whom I have chosen,
the one I love, in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
He will not quarrel or cry out;
no one will hear his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,
till he has brought justice through to victory.
In his name the nations will put their hope.”

Matthew 12:15-21

Christian scholarship in the past few decades has helped us see more clearly the ramifications of God’s kingdom comes to earth in Jesus, now seen primarily in the church. For example what resistance to the principalities and powers involves. It is not only about life in the hereafter, as if this life doesn’t matter. Though the promise of resurrection and new creation is central in this “hope” or as we followers of Christ might want to say, “blessed assurance.” It certainly involves feet on the ground, living in the real world, hands getting dirty, and we doing all we can to help in this life.

It’s probably something like when we get our vision tested. If need be the optometrist gives us a focus by which we can both read and see clearly afar. 20/20, or sometimes better. We need correct focus when we consider God’s kingdom come in this world, and salvation present in Jesus. It’s about following Jesus in relationship to him through faith and baptism. And it’s for advocating justice in God’s love for all in the here and now.

Back to the vision analogy, maybe it’s more easy to understand how we might be wrong if we consider God’s salvation in Christ to be only about the life to come after this life. It does begin now with God’s present working of salvation in us, working to change us more and more into the likeness of Jesus. And it also clearly exposes the darkness around us, wherever it might be, advocating for the good of others. And above all, helping others to find the true and perfect good which is found in and through Jesus.

what John “the elder” and beloved apostle of our Lord might say to us now from 1 John 4:1-6

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.

You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit[j] of truth and the spirit of falsehood.

1 John 4:1-6

My dear friends, don’t believe everything you hear. Carefully weigh and examine what people tell you. Not everyone who talks about God comes from God. There are a lot of lying preachers loose in the world.

Here’s how you test for the genuine Spirit of God. Everyone who confesses openly his faith in Jesus Christ—the Son of God, who came as an actual flesh-and-blood person—comes from God and belongs to God. And everyone who refuses to confess faith in Jesus has nothing in common with God. This is the spirit of antichrist that you heard was coming. Well, here it is, sooner than we thought!

My dear children, you come from God and belong to God. You have already won a big victory over those false teachers, for the Spirit in you is far stronger than anything in the world. These people belong to the Christ-denying world. They talk the world’s language and the world eats it up. But we come from God and belong to God. Anyone who knows God understands us and listens. The person who has nothing to do with God will, of course, not listen to us. This is another test for telling the Spirit of Truth from the spirit of deception.

1 John 4:1-6; MSG

If John were here today he might say we have a problem. The problem being that so much out there which is not of God and therefore not of Jesus is accepted as though it is, or at least as on a par with God’s message. Of course here what we mean accepted by professing, yes, even genuine Christians. This is a warning to us all, that none of us are above and beyond deception. And what’s needed is yes, discernment for ourselves, and especially together with other believers. The Spirit directs not just one of us, but one and all. The Greek is plural. So that yes, while we as individuals are included, and each and every one of us need discernment from God, this is really addressed to the whole, to all of us, worked out in our gatherings together.

The confession of Christ coming in the flesh should be enough. Nothing more is needed. We don’t need that and something more. Today those who actually make this confession, but then add something more are essentially lying out of their teeth, or probably more accurately, speaking lies. Deceived and deceiving. What I’m referring to here is not just about our salvation, but ultimately the salvation of the world. And in terms not just of our life of faith and our church life, but all of life. Politics should never be excluded, because, after all, the gospel of the kingdom in King Jesus is political, touching each and every part of life. Consider “the Lord’s prayer” (Matthew 6:9-13).

John would likely not only caution us against special claims put in the same breath with what Scripture says, with the gospel, or as if being the fulfillment or correct interpretation of Scripture and the gospel. He would slam the door shut on all such claims. Instead John would point us to the life of Christ and what that life means to the world in terms of God’s grace and kingdom coming in Jesus. And at the heart of this for John as we see from this letter is to know God, be with others in the fellowship of the Father and the Son, and to be assured that one has the eternal life found in the Son. 

John might especially lean on historians as well as those who have lived through these times, or if he would have lived through them himself. Well, it’s really hard to imagine all of this in a way. None of us can stand outside of the time in which we live and imagine ourselves an objective observer. We’re all people of our times, for better and for worse. Which is why we need the Spirit of God to help and direct us, and that together.

But I imagine that John might possibly say that the growing deception among Christians today didn’t start a few years ago, but has gone on for decades, and in a sense throughout the entire American experience. That is not to deny the good here, nor to think we’re unique in having that problem since the same spirit pervades every nation and experience of this life. It is present with us, and we have to deal with it, whether we like it or not. And none of us like it, that’s for sure. But it’s half the battle to simply accept reality. Then, and only then, we can deal with it.

Whatever adds to Jesus and is not in sync with Jesus’s teaching of God’s kingdom, as well as not in line with Jesus’s life and death is definitely not of God, but is actually opposed to God. Not the Spirit of Christ, but the spirit of the antichrist. And just as John tells us in the letter, they’re a dime a dozen; many of them out there. And none of us should ever think we’re above escaping their influence. Something to always be aware and wary of. In and through Jesus.

 

what John “the elder” and beloved apostle of our Lord might say to us now from 1 John 2:15-17

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.

1 John 2:15-17

Don’t love the world’s ways. Don’t love the world’s goods. Love of the world squeezes out love for the Father. Practically everything that goes on in the world—wanting your own way, wanting everything for yourself, wanting to appear important—has nothing to do with the Father. It just isolates you from him. The world and all its wanting, wanting, wanting is on the way out—but whoever does what God wants is set for eternity.

1 John 2:15-17; MSG

John would likely warn us in no uncertain terms that to play by the world’s ways is opposite and in fact in opposition to following Jesus. And that it shouldn’t be about our wanting, but about doing God’s will. This can be especially poignant when considering the political sphere. What are Christians advocating for and why? All of that needs to be examined in the light of Christ, who he is and his coming. Of course also what he has done and what that means for us both in terms of believing and doing.

When John is speaking of the world here, he is referring to the world system, the ways of the world. John describes what he means: “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes,…the pride of life.” It’s centered around us, what we/I want, self-centered. It’s not about loving God, or loving our neighbor as ourselves.

John might tell us that Christians ought to advocate for others, be present for others, and not be concerned about ourselves. To seek to live in God’s will which would involve seeking the good of all, and the good of God’s good world. And that both God’s special revelation given to us in Scripture and the gospel, and God’s general revelation in creation worked out in some fashion in science and in other ways should be front and center in this.

We accept the good gifts and abilities God has given us and humankind, while we reject all that which is opposed to God’s will. But that rejection only in the way of Jesus, mostly in terms of what we actually accept and are all about: God’s grace and kingdom come and present in and through Jesus.

for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: the politics of the good news

When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:

“Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people living in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.”

From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Mark 4:12-17

This Isaiah-prophesied revelation came to life in Galilee the moment Jesus started preaching. He picked up where John left off: “Change your life. God’s kingdom is here.”

Mark 4:17; MSG

Jesus’s message and proclamation was “the good news of the kingdom” (Matthew 4:23). The gospel is actually political through and through. Of course it’s about our individual salvation as well, but it includes so much more, really everything within God’s creation and human culture. God’s kingdom in King Jesus was coming in, but not in the way that people would naturally anticipate. They wanted in one way or another for God to end Rome’s rule over them. But God saw a much bigger picture, and really an altogether different one. Yes, it was about fulfilling God’s prior promises to them, but in the ways of a costly love which would break down all barriers, creating one new humanity, a beautifully woven mosaic of people groups together (Ephesians 2:11-22).

During this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, let’s take time to pray and ask God to show us where we are blind and resistant to what God has done, is doing, and will complete in and through King Jesus. And what works God has for us in what God is doing now in this regard (Ephesians 2:10; MSG). In and through Jesus.

finding common ground

He makes the creatures; the creatures don’t make him. Starting from scratch, he made the entire human race and made the earth hospitable, with plenty of time and space for living so we could seek after God, and not just grope around in the dark but actually find him. He doesn’t play hide-and-seek with us. He’s not remote; he’s near. We live and move in him, can’t get away from him! One of your poets said it well: ‘We’re the God-created.’

Acts 17:25b-28; MSG

The longer Paul waited in Athens for Silas and Timothy, the angrier he got—all those idols! The city was a junkyard of idols.

Acts 17:16b; MSG

We see part of Paul’s response to the Athenians, particularly those who did what so many Athenians did at that time, philosophize and listen to philosophy with whatever large and small talk that was done. But what stood out to Paul was just how wrong and how lost they were in their concept of God, or lack thereof, including their pantheon of gods of their own making. When you read Scripture you’ll find that along with idolatry comes not only the loss of loving God, but also not loving one’s neighbor. All is dependent on the latest thoughts floating around.

And we see something of this in our world today. People living in fear for this or that reason with maybe some legitimacy. We all have deep concerns today, no matter who we are and where our disagreements lie. And there are some things which for the follower of Christ are non-negotiables. We can’t set aside love for our neighbor which goes hand in hand with our love for God. And followers of Jesus even include love for our enemies.

Paul looked for common ground, but that which could ultimately undermine and replace the idolatry all around him. Instead of attacking them and their gods, he appealed to the altar of “THE GOD NOBODY KNOWS” (Acts 17:23; MSG).

Trying to translate this today in the mess we’re currently in is no small challenge. Maybe just the thought here can help us imagine ways this might be achievable to some extent. I think of our common humanity which I believe comes from our common origin, yes through evolution, but ultimately by the hand of God. And in that, being made in God’s image. We are all made in God’s image, regardless of our beliefs, or how we see life. We need to start there.

And then we need to inquire and search for just who this god might be. For some of us it may seem mostly a stretch to imagine such. For others, we were raised in that tradition, and have hardly ever had a doubt. Regardless, it’s good to begin to understand at least the uniqueness of us as a human species, and then wonder why, where that uniqueness came from. 

What we’re referring to now should be more basic to us than anything else. But out of that will come a shaping of our thoughts in every way conceivable. For us who are followers of Jesus, that is shaped by Scripture, and ultimately Jesus and his fulfillment of it. And only in Jesus do we see God.

We will continue throughout this life to have our different perspectives, and won’t see eye to eye on everything. After all, it is said that even we Jesus followers see through a glass dimly and only know in part (1 Corinthians 13). What we do end up with is something of the sacredness of human beings. We need to appeal to the best, what’s good and beautiful. And find unity in that. 

Yes, through the good news in Jesus, and his death, all division is ultimately broken. Humanity becomes one in him. But we’re not there yet, though that’s supposed to be becoming evident in the church, and ultimately that’s true in what actually is church. We in Jesus want that grace to touch us and everyone. In the meantime we are thankful for God’s common grace which can help us live respectfully together in spite of whatever differences we have.

For us Jesus followers, we’re going to have to take the way of the cross. In sacrificial love finding what is most basic, what should center all of life. And living together with other Jesus followers in that. Always honoring the oneness we have as human beings in creation. As we live in the new creation in and through Jesus. 

 

find the fight

And that about wraps it up. God is strong, and he wants you strong. So take everything the Master has set out for you, well-made weapons of the best materials. And put them to use so you will be able to stand up to everything the Devil throws your way. This is no afternoon athletic contest that we’ll walk away from and forget about in a couple of hours. This is for keeps, a life-or-death fight to the finish against the Devil and all his angels.

Be prepared. You’re up against far more than you can handle on your own. Take all the help you can get, every weapon God has issued, so that when it’s all over but the shouting you’ll still be on your feet. Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation are more than words. Learn how to apply them. You’ll need them throughout your life. God’s Word is an indispensable weapon. In the same way, prayer is essential in this ongoing warfare. Pray hard and long. Pray for your brothers and sisters. Keep your eyes open. Keep each other’s spirits up so that no one falls behind or drops out.

Ephesians 6:10-18; MSG

Fight-or-flight. Yes, it does seem like it’s either one or the other. Either we’re shuddering in fear, paralyzed in that, or we’re waking up to resist that, to fight.

Paul reminds us toward the end of Ephesians that we indeed are in a battle, a spiritual one. This is the case, not something we have to pass through once, or may avoid altogether like playing the board in Monopoly. No, it’s ongoing, even every day, though some times are especially intense. It is what it is, and we’re halfway where we need to be if we simply accept that.

As rendered above, the battle involves application of basics of the gospel into the substance of our lives, our day to day circumstances, our imaginations and thoughts. It certainly takes the Spirit of God to make this real, and make it matter to us. We must press on so that when it’s all said and done, we’ll still be standing.

And we can’t forget prayer, ongoing prayer for each other. That makes a needed difference. I think one basic reason it is so easy for us to get slack and let up in prayer is that the enemy knows all too well just how powerful true prayer is. Nothing fancy, not some mystical experience we wait for, though if that happens now and then, once in a great while, or even just a sense of that, that’s fine. But the hard work of prayer, of just simply praying. Not letting up in our prayers. Remembering who we are in Christ, what the gospel, the good news means for us and others. And refusing to be moved from that. In and through Jesus.

back to basics

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Matthew 4:1-4

Over and over again I have to remind myself of what I regularly do, or want to do. That’s be in Scripture. Just doing that makes a world of difference for me.

After his baptism with the experience of the Spirit coming down on him like a dove, and a voice from heaven saying that he was God’s much loved Son, Jesus was driven out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. This world is like the wilderness to us, and the devil does indeed tempt us. Yes, Jesus meets this temptation in a sense to shield us from the worst of what the tempter can do through the cross and the good news that brings. But also as our example. When you click the above link you’ll see that Jesus meets each of the tempter’s suggestions with Scripture. Jesus was little known until that time. Almost thirty years in relative seclusion, surely taking in daily Scripture. Exactly what we need to do day in and day out. 

We need to keep seeking out God’s wisdom, listening to God’s voice, looking for God’s transformation of our lives over time. The needed change will occur as we seek to become and remain grounded in Scripture, especially in the gospel we find in it, the main point of it. Along with all the wisdom we find. In and through Jesus.

the Anabaptist (Mennonite) difference

Dirk.willems.rescue.ncs

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 5:3-12

For some time on my spiritual journey, really beginning around 2000 or so, I’ve been nudged back toward my Anabaptist, specifically Mennonite roots. Now no church or denomination or tradition has got it all right, in fact I prefer to insist on the thought that none is better than another. And that we’re all in this together, for better or for worse. But the Anabaptist tradition has a history to appreciate, and I would like to say, a difference, too. Not unique to itself in that it has never existed elsewhere. But stamped all over its origins.

Back at the time when the church and the state were essentially one in the “old country,” Anabaptists and especially their leaders were persecuted, specifically, executed either by drowning, or being burned at the stake (or even racked, I read) by both Catholics and Lutherans. Yes, it was a different time, and this was the punishment then for “heretics.” The Anabaptists learned the wisdom of being explicit about their acceptance of the creeds of the church. But the hot button issue was their refusal to submit to the baptism of babies. All who lived in a nation then had to submit to that, at least for the most part. And the Anabaptists would not fit an exception to the rule.

The picture above is that of Dirk Willems, a Dutchman who escaped prison, but rescued the one chasing him who had fallen through ice, only to be tortured and executed. This epitomizes the heart of Anabaptism in the best sense of its tradition: Seeking to follow the way of Jesus come what may. As some like to say, not just the religion about Jesus, but the religion of Jesus. With an emphasis on the way of the cross, love for one’s enemies, love for all.

So I’m getting back to my roots: Mennonite. Yes, it’s not exactly the Mennonite I was raised in the first seventeen or so years of my life. But probably with more of an emphasis at being distinctly Anabaptist in a Sermon on the Mount kind of way especially with the distinctives of love for one’s enemies, and never resorting to violence. As well as seeking to be peacemakers. But minus the emphasis on rules of what was thought to be literal obedience to Scripture such as distinctive dress. And more, I’m sure. I have some catching up, and actual learning ahead.

Certainly on many things we are in agreement with the Church. That our salvation is through Jesus in his incarnation, life and teachings, death and resurrection, ascension, and promised return. The promise of the kingdom of God in the new creation. Whatever tradition, through faith and baptism we are all one body in Christ. We’re in this together, in spite of what differences we have.

I’m thankful for my upbringing, and now would like to end there. In that expression within the full body of Christ. In and through Jesus.

dig in (and deeper)

Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about cleansing rites, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And God permitting, we will do so.

It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned.

Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are convinced of better things in your case—the things that have to do with salvation. God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them. We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, so that what you hope for may be fully realized. We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.

Hebrews 6:1-12

This book is attempting to both encourage and warn Christians who were in danger, not only flagging and beginning to falter in their faith, but possibly abandoning it altogether. It can begin with a drift as we see earlier in the letter.

We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For since the message spoken through angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.

Hebrews 2:1-4

Yes, their very faith was at stake. And drifting is cited here as a present and real danger. They needed to make sure they were well grounded in the gospel which is Jesus, and God in him in his Incarnation, life and teachings, death and resurrection, ascension and promise of his return when everything is completed and the full dynamic of the new world is in place.

Those professing believers were to press on into the ramifications of their faith, all that is involved, what we find in Scripture, and especially from Jesus’s teachings with all that follows. Best to begin though, since we’re in this book, with a thorough reading of this letter, Hebrews. It is evident that he was appealing to Jesus as better than what preceded him, indeed the fulfillment of that.

Are we grounded in the faith, settled, and learning to live and grow and mature in that, with good works of love for others? Or are we questioning our faith, even the faith? More likely, are we just drifting away, with hardly a realization of that until it’s too late and we no longer care?

Faith is not just a matter of assenting to a creedal expression of it, no matter how accurate that may be. We may be going through the motions, but our heart simply not in it, or more like our heart elsewhere. We have to work at this, as the writer to the Hebrews makes clear. To really begin to dig, even if it’s hard. And dig deeper. Into the life God has for us together. In and through Jesus.

the necessary resistance

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities,against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.

Ephesians 6:10-18

I have often gone to this passage in my personal life as a believer, and also on this blog. And I believe what I’ve said carries some weight and truth. What I have failed to factor in is I think a more balanced view tied to both second temple Judaism and passages in Isaiah which help us understand the context and understanding of the original writing. Here’s some good work from scholarship by Kurt Willems to give us a much needed balance on the spiritual warfare passage in Ephesians 6. Not only personal, but systemic. Not only defensive in resisting, but offensive in readiness for the victory of Christ. Not individualistic, but necessarily the entire church involved.

We’ve got to be awakened to the work of the demonic powers, yes in our personal lives and the lives of others, but also in systems, in structures, wherever these forces of evil intrude, yes even through earthly rulers, to oppress people, what empire necessarily does to be empire. But not relegated to that, but including everywhere where such tyranny is practiced, not only in governments, but in any institutions. What is referred to here is not only individual evil, but also systemic evil. Both surely work hand in hand. For example there was a Hitler. But there was also a system in place through the narrative of the Third Reich and the fascist governing of Nazism.

The necessary resistance will be to the structures and powers which are antithetical to God, to God’s reign in Christ, to the shalom which God intends and brings through God’s kingdom in Christ. And this resistance is from the church as a whole. Not only this letter, Ephesians, but this passage is addressed not just to individuals, but to people, to the church. The church should be aware of not only the nature of the battle it’s in, but also its scope. While at the same time holding to the gospel of Christ as the church’s God-given remedy to the ills afflicting individuals, people, society. And seeing victory manifest to change both individuals and systems.

This battle is ongoing. There will be no completion of it before Christ returns. The evil powers are restless. So we too, together must be alert and ready, realizing the battle we’re in. Ready to resist and see the victory of God in Christ make inroads to change individuals and influence societies for good. In and through Jesus.