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“How would we advertise that anyway?”

August 9, 2010

Carol Howard Merritt, a 30-something Presbyterian Pastor who grew up in Florida, offers an honest reflection on how little so many members of her (and my) generation know about what a Christian community can and does offer to its members and the broader world. I’m a little surprised that she’s surprised by how little our generation understands (or is even aware of) what she calls “progressive” churches. But I didn’t grow up in the church myself, so like so many of my generation, I had to discover on my own, as an adult, how wonderful it can be to belong to a parish community.

At one point, she poses a series of questions:

Do people only know our faith by what they see on Fox News? Has church become synonymous with the Religious Right? Has Christianity become known as a “pull yourself up by your boostraps” kind of religion?

Um… Yes. To all three. For those of us who came of age since the late 70’s, Christianity has seemingly stood for closed-mindedness and intolerance–if all you had to go by were newspapers and TV news.

What about our progressive congregations who are serving the poor, caring for the environment, and helping each other out? What about those who love our neighbors, even when they’re going through difficulties? Do people even know we exist?

No. Not really. Or should I say: Not nearly enough. We’ve got to do much more work to get the word out. We’ve got to do much more work to share the message of love of enemies, compassion toward strangers, radical inclusion, and extreme sharing of resources that so many of us see as the fundamental message of the Gospel.

And how would we advertise that anyway?

Great question. I think we’ve got to unabashedly talk about who and what we are as Christians in public–what we believe, what we stand for, what we do. We’ve got to stop hiding our light under a bushel.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Murray permalink
    August 9, 2010 3:39 pm

    “We’ve got to do much more work to share the message of love of enemies, compassion toward strangers, radical inclusion, and extreme sharing of resources that so many of us see as the fundamental message of the Gospel.”

    I just finished reading over 70 passages of Scripture containing the word ‘gospel’ which yielded an entirely different fundamental message.

    The recurring themes that ran through my study were salvation through Christ and the forgiveness of sins. Also, Christ’s death on the cross, his burial and resurrection are mentioned extensively. There is a major discussion of the resurrection in I Corinthians 15 in which it says, “And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! (vs 17) Seems like the resurrection is a major aspect of the gospel. Indispensable even.

    Paul twice warns in Galatians against “preaching any other gospel.” In elaborating, his concern is that the Galatians would be drawn away from the grace of Christ to a different gospel. Paul goes on to discuss being called through God’s grace and having his Son revealed in him and then again later to discuss the grace that had been given to him and how this had been recognized by Peter, James and John.

    Therefore, it seems to me, that the gospel is a message of God’s grace, revealed through Jesus Christ, dispensed through His death on the cross and verified by His resurrection from the dead which we carry around within ourselves. It also seems as though the grace we have received can somehow be recognized by other believers.

    What you said the gospel is and what I just read and reported upon do not seem to be even remotely the same. The view you expressed does not seem to show up in Scripture when the gospel is described or discussed.

    From where do you draw your conclusions?

  2. jamiemcelroy permalink*
    August 9, 2010 4:33 pm

    I’m not sure how or if we disagree. Rather I think we are approaching the question of what the “fundamentals” of the Gospel are from two different directions.

    I like to emphasize how Jesus teaches by word and example how to behave and live in the world. From what you wrote above, I gather that you prefer to emphasize certain beliefs (in Jesus as savior, redeemer of humanity, in Jesus as resurrected son of God, etc.). I share all the beliefs which you argue are fundamentals of the Gospel message. However, I believe that those beliefs call me and lead me to live in a certain way, to do certain things in the world–namely, as I wrote, (and you quote above) to love enemies, show compassion toward the sick and needy, to radically include strangers in our communities, to share our resources with those around us to the utmost.

    I’m confident we can find examples (maybe even 70?) where our scriptures–particular the four Gospels–teach these sorts of behaviors explicitly. I’ll point out a few that occur in two prominent sections of our Gospels: chapters 5 – 7 in the Gospel of Matthew, known as “The Sermon on the Mount,” and chapter 6 of the Gospel of Luke, often called “The Sermon on the Plain.”

    I’m thinking in particular of Matt. 5:7 (“Blessed are the merciful…”), Matt 5:9 (“Blessed are the peacemakers…”), Matt 5:21-26 (“first be reconciled with your brother or sister and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser…), Matt 5:38-42 (“if anyone wants to …take your coat, give your cloak as well; …give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you”), Matt 5:43-48 (“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”), and then there’s Math 6:12 (“forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors…”), Matt 6:24 (“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”); and I’m also thinking of Luke 6:20-26 (“Blessed are you who are poor,for yours is the kingdom of God.Blessed are you who are hungry now,for you will be filled… But woe to you who are rich… Woe to you who are full now…”), Luke 6:27-36 (“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you… If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.”), and finally, there’s Luke 6:37-42 (“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back… Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbour, ‘Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye’, when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye?”)

  3. Murray permalink
    August 9, 2010 6:17 pm

    “However, I believe that those beliefs call me and lead me to live in a certain way….”

    Maybe so, but don’t call those beliefs “the fundamental message of the gospel.” The fundamental message of the gospel is what it is, not what we call it and not how we believe it calls us to live. Even if we totally agreed that the fundamental message of the gospel did call us to live how you say it calls us to live, how we are to live is not the fundamental message but it is instead how that message ideally plays itself out, or how you say it does in any case.

    The fundamental message of the gospel clearly points towards Jesus and the meaning of his coming, his death, his burial and his resurrection and the Father’s loving grace that set those events into motion. If you want to then say that a person who is anchored in these truths will then live a certain way, fine. Just don’t confuse the fundamental message with what you believe to be the intended outcome of hearing that fundamental message.

    At best, what you are doing is short-circuiting the fundamental message of the gospel by going straight to “how then shall we live?” Again, if you want to focus on “how then shall we live?” that’s fine but don’t call it the fundamental message of the gospel.

    For example, you said that love of enemies is an aspect of the fundamental message of the gospel. I couldn’t disagree more strongly. The Scriptures say “We love because He loved us first.” (I John 4:19). The gospel clearly is a message of God’s love towards us, not our love of our enemies. However, once we’ve first heard the gospel and received the love of God into our hearts, we are then compelled to love our enemies as Jesus most certainly commanded us to do. What you are doing might be construed as putting the cart before the horse, if only the horse were in the picture to begin with. As you put things, the horse (gospel) is left entirely out of the picture and the cart is being called the horse and also is somehow supposed to move in the direction of loving one’s enemies on its own. How do we love our enemies as God would have us to do without first having love imparted to us through clear gospel preaching? And, how can the gospel be clearly preached if we preach something else and call it the gospel?

    And finally, at worst, you are preaching another gospel. In a nutshell, the gospel is the good news of God’s grace toward us through and because of Jesus Christ. To have left that out of your definition or to at least not to have alluded to it is to have moved away, most likely unwittingly, from the centrality of the grace of Christ and towards a focus on people and how you think they should act towards one another. Works, in other words.

  4. jamiemcelroy permalink*
    August 9, 2010 7:26 pm

    I appreciate your opinions. I particularly appreciate your point (as I read it above) about how God’s love for us is the fuel by which we are empowered to love others, including (hopefully) our enemies.

    However, I don’t appreciate (and frankly, don’t understand) how you can claim to know with such certainty what is and is not the gospel. Again, I cannot claim to disagree with your opinions. Rather, I would offer a different point of emphasis.

    You wrote: “The fundamental message of the gospel clearly points towards Jesus and the meaning of his coming, his death, his burial and his resurrection and the Father’s loving grace that set those events into motion.” And then you offer a quote from the Gospel of John. My reading of the four Gospels that have been passed down to us over the centuries is that only the Gospel of John focuses as heavily as do you on “the meaning of his coming, his death, his burial and his resurrection and the Father’s loving grace that set those events in motion.”

    Certainly, that interpretation of the fundamental message of the gospel is valid–as I think we can agree that it is an important part of the message of the Gospel of John. However, I would argue that your interpretation is not nearly so important to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, the emphases of which are more in harmony with my interpretative emphasis on, as you put it, the primacy of “works.”

    At the risk of repeating myself, I see that you subscribe to an interpretation of our four Gospels that emphasizes the primacy of belief in Jesus as savior of the world, redeemer, advocate with the Father, resurrected son of God, etc. However, your interpretation is just that: an interpretation, and it’s primarily based–I’m guessing–on one of the four Gospels–the Gospel of John. I subscribe to an interpretation of our four Gospels that emphasizes the primacy of Jesus’ repeated exhortations to live in a certain way and treat each other a certain way and orient ourselves to God and the universe in a certain way–a message that is threaded through all four gospels, and in my reading, is the primary message of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

    Finally, it is my opinion that there is room within our common Christian faith for both of our points of view regarding scripture and gospel and belief and “works.” So I do not wish to “correct” your view and somehow make it conform to mine. Indeed, it is one of the joys of being part of a Christian community to debate these sorts of questions back and forth with other people who necessarily come to God and Christ from other points of view. And so I’d like to continue to discuss all this with you in this forum, assuming you’re still interested in doing so. But I’d ask that you have the humility to acknowledge that you are no more possessing of perfect understanding of the gospel than am I or any other human being.

    As we say every Sunday morning during our worship here at St. Peter’s: “Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God, with all thy heart and all thy soul and all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.'”

  5. Murray permalink
    August 9, 2010 10:36 pm

    “At the risk of repeating myself, I see that you subscribe to an interpretation of our four Gospels that emphasizes the primacy of belief in Jesus as savior of the world, redeemer, advocate with the Father, resurrected son of God, etc.”

    Actually, that is a very, very good down payment on the explanation of the gospel but the gospel is not primarily contained in or discerned from the Gospels but is instead fully explained in Acts and in the Epistles where it is directly mentioned, discussed and described 83 times. I am a bit shocked that your discussion above leaves out these very important books and the specific references to the gospel contained therein. Ironically, there was no gospel preaching per se in the Gospels because it could not be until after Jesus ascended. Therefore, although we call the first four books of the New Testament Gospels, the gospel itself is not fully revealed in them. Obviously, there could be no church, no salvation and no actual Christians until after Pentecost. Therefore, we must look there to see what the Holy Spirit revealed to the early church as to what the gospel actually is.

    Fortunately for us, it did not take long for this question to be answered in a major way. Immediately after being filled with the Holy Spirit, Peter preached a sermon on the first Pentecost that explained the gospel and spoke about the fullness of what Jesus did in retrospect and which resulted in over 3000 conversions.

    I intentionally discussed the book of Galatians extensively two posts ago because it contains a huge double warning about “preaching any other gospel.” One of the clearest markers laid down for us in this regard is when Paul asks the Galatians (and us) the following, ”

    “This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:2-3)

    Although not intended, focusing extensively on the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon On The Mount and elsewhere can often make people feel a demand that they are not spiritually equipped to fulfill and can make them feel condemned if they don’t live up to them. Therefore, even such things as the great love commandment can actually condemn a person. Perhaps this was the intended result.

    How can this be you might ask.

    What if the person hearing that is not a Christian? Does not the ability to live this way come from the Spirit? And even with the Spirit, does anyone actually live this way 365/24/7? Do not all of us fail this commandment sometimes? These are serious questions and should not be sloughed over.

    You do realize of course that some of the things Jesus preached in the Sermon On The Mount were not meant to be followed and were, therefore, preached for a different reason. Have you lusted and not removed an eye? I would assume so. I have both lusted and failed to pluck out one or both eyes. Have we both failed to follow a direct command from the Lord? I don’t know anyone who thinks so.

    Here’s yet another thought. Did Jesus preach under the Old Covenant of law or under the New Covenant of grace? Two answers to that. First of all, how could grace be fully taught and understood until after His passion and after the Holy Spirit was given? Second, it is specifically spelled out as follows, “And for this reason He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance. For where there is a testament, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. For a testament is in force after men are dead, since it has no power at all while the testator lives.” (Hebrews 9:15-17)

    Therefore, as surprising as it seems to some, Jesus taught under the law and the New Covenant did not go into effect until after His death. Yet more evidence that, ironically, the Gospels do not fully contain or explain the gospel and some of what Jesus preached must be looked upon as law. Even the greatest commandment is law as it is given. Although lofty and wonderful, it is also something we are unable to achieve, as is the entirety of the law.

    We understand that the commands to cut off our hands and pluck out our eyes are not to be taken literally but do we understand their purpose can only to be to bring us to the point of despairing of ourselves? Do we realize that the entire Sermon On The Mount is beyond our direct reach? Do we realize how very short we fall of loving God with our whole being and our neighbor as self? And yet we preach and teach these things, albeit somewhat selectively, as if the Lord expects us to fulfill them. Maybe He expected us to fall on our faces. If we were truthful about it, that’s we mostly do. If we think we are good at living the Sermon out or even coming close to loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength, we are greatly deceived. The truth is that we fall well short of the ideals taught by Jesus. We also fall well short of the Ten Commandments. And yet we insist on trying to put ourselves in the position of living up to their standards. Maybe we weren’t meant to.

    Here’s another question, who is it that tries to fulfill external/behavioral standards? Is it our flesh self or our spiritual self? Our spiritual self knows better. This is where the question of Paul’s comes back into play. Do we receive from the Spirit by works of the law? Obviously, no.

    The crux of the Christian life is not how we behave or what we do for the Lord but in believing in Christ and the finished work of the cross and receiving from the Spirit. That is one of the reasons why what you propose as the fundamentals of the gospel cannot be. In fact, what you propose to be the fundamentals of the gospel is its antithesis because, realizing it or not, you are prescribing a form of being made perfect by the flesh as the Galatians were also practicing. I know you do not see that and you think that I cannot know that, but I can know that and I do know that because you are basing nothing on faith in Christ or perhaps you are presumptuously assuming it is there without any of its prerequisites and without preaching anything that would bring it about.

  6. jamiemcelroy permalink*
    August 10, 2010 8:18 am

    Your reading of our scriptures is an interesting one and it helps me to clarify my own reading. I do not feel called to be perfect nor to ever fully fulfill Jesus’ teachings. But I do feel called to try to do what Jesus asks me and all people to do. And in the attempt, I expect to “fall on my face” as you say. That’s why, every week, as part of our Episcopal Church liturgy, we confess that we’ve not lived up to Jesus’ call and we pledge to try again. And I don’t get down on myself for my repeated failures because, as you explain above, I feel the love and support of God in Christ. But if at first I don’t succeed, I try, try again.

    I should add that my reading of scripture is based on my understanding of our scriptures as a collection of writings by multiple authors with multiple agendas peculiar to their time and place, which through prayer and contemplation and study can reveal the word of God, but never completely. I do not view our scriptures as a unified text with one author that has revealed the overwhelming mystery of God.

    To illustrate my approach to scripture, I’ll briefly respond to your assertion that “the gospel is not primarily contained in or discerned from the Gospels but is instead fully explained in Acts and in the Epistles where it is directly mentioned, discussed and described 83 times.” As it so happens, I privilege the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry and death and resurrection above and beyond Acts and the Epistles. Indeed, in so doing, I am merely following in the practice of our Episcopal Church liturgy (which follows the traditions and practices of the Church of England and prior to that the Roman Catholic church) which makes the reading of a passage from one of the four Gospels on of the most important parts of our liturgy. (By contrast, our weekly Epistle reading is not done with nearly the pomp and circumstance.) Also, it’s hard for me to privilege Acts over the Gospel of Luke, since it’s my understanding that they were both written by the same author and originally meant as two parts of the same text. Finally, it’s hard for me to give such weight and significance to that passage from Galatians you cite, which while meaningful, does not necessarily conform to the interpretation you offer, nor does it ring as powerfully alive and true to me as the passages I cited earlier from the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain.

    Thank you for all this. I’ve enjoyed this conversation.

  7. Murray permalink
    August 10, 2010 5:59 pm

    “I privilege the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry and death and resurrection above and beyond Acts and the Epistles.”

    I don’t think it’s a matter of privileging one or the other, Jamie. Besides, the issue is not that you’re privileging the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection above the ones found in Acts and the Epistles but that you’re privileging Jesus’ teachings as found in the Sermon on the Mount, etc, and your take on them (“radical inclusion,” for example) above the core gospel message regardless of from which account you choose from.

    An obvious issue is that the Gospels stop before Pentecost and the Epistles are written from a perspective that was formed after Pentecost, with Acts being the bridge between the two. And, we also live in an age and at a time in which we look back upon Pentecost and in which we also have the benefit of a perspective formed by Pentecost and by the coming of the Holy Spirit like a rushing, mighty wind.

    The Gospel accounts of Jesus are incomplete and at a disadvantage to Acts and the Epistles at least in this one respect. But, in truth, they are complementary and, therefore, I do not believe there needs to be a privilege granted to one or the other. They both contain much of the same basic information about who Jesus was and what He came to do, which is comforting.

    When I was studying in preparation to address you for the first time, I came across the sermon Peter preached on Pentecost, the result of which was that over 3000 people were converted. I have been somewhat captivated by it for the past day or so and keep coming back to it in my thoughts when other things do not demand my attention.

    The more I think about it, the more monumental this sermon was and is. There are so many new thoughts I have had about this sermon today that that I couldn’t go into them all here.

    The predominant thought I have had is that there are many, many things the Holy Spirit might have inspired Peter to say that day but he preached what I believe to be the prototypical gospel message and the result was that the people hearing it were “cut to the heart.” It strikes me that this was one powerful sermon and the lives of the people hearing it were changed dramatically, not by anything they did but by the power of God. Or, to paraphrase Paul in Galatians 3, they received the Spirit by the hearing of faith, not by works.

    As I went through the 83 times the word ‘gospel’ appears in Acts and the Epistles, I see the themes of Peter’s sermon repeated again and again. That Jesus was the Son of God, that He was the fulfillment of prophecy, that He lived on the earth, was crucified, died and was buried and rose from the dead. That God made Him Lord and Christ. That through Him there is remission of sins.

    What I did not see in the early church was a hearkening back to the Sermon on the Mount or an exhortation to live by the teachings of Jesus we find in the Gospels. Peter would have been in a great position to preach on these things, having heard them taught in person, but He was led to talk about Jesus is and what He did, not on what He taught.

    The more I study and reflect on things biblical, the more I see that people badly need saving and that the gospel is the vehicle by which salvation comes. There is in fact a brokenness in man and an estrangement between God and man that can only be remedied through faith in Christ. Mankind is so bad off that there is no repair. The Scripture literally teaches that being in Christ makes us a new creation, that old things are passed away, all things have become new and all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ.

    Therefore, I do not believe that Jesus came primarily to teach us how to live an ethical life, but to transform us into an entirely new person.

    Paul says, “But now we have been delivered from the law, having died to what we were held by, so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter. (Romans 7:6)

    More and more, we will find ourselves being led by the Spirit within and making ethical decisions thereby. More and more, we will find that our decisions are simply correct. Not because we’ve applied ourselves to specific written teachings, whatever their source, but because Jesus Christ has been made unto us wisdom. More and more, we will find that what the Spirit leads us to do, we are well able to do.

    In other words, we will find ourselves acting more and more like Jesus because He is bringing that about as we draw closer to Him. It is not because we set out to be ethical but because He is ethical and He lives in us. A big difference there.

    And, certainly the fact that we our walking a more ethical walk is not the gospel. It is the ultimate result of the gospel but it is not the gospel and it is not directly accessible to us through our trying. It only comes as result of Christ’s work in our lives. In a very real sense, in Christ, we do not pursue an ethical walk. It pursues us. In this way, we get no credit for how we are living. If anybody seems to notice that have done well in this regard, we should be quick to say, “Jesus made me this way.” “I really wasn’t very ethical before He came into my life.” In this way and in this way only will our righteousness exceed that of the Pharisees. Indeed, we are to seek His righteousness and we are promised that we will find it, if that is our true objective.

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