Beyond The Pale

Thoughts on Kingdom, Grace, Culture, and Church

Beyond The Pale - Thoughts on Kingdom, Grace, Culture, and Church

5 Reasons “Sinners” Enter The Kingdom Of God Ahead Of Christians

Jesus-Friend-of-Sinners

Jesus knew how to tick off religious folk.  Imagine for a moment going into a modern day Christian conference.  You know, one of those shiny camp meetings advertised in a flashy Christian magazine or the like. In the midst of all the powerful teaching, anointed worship, and prophetic proclamations you walk down to meet with the pastors and church leaders only to give them a message that the homosexuals, foreigners, and non-Christians were entering the Kingdom of Heaven before they were.

Ka-boom!

One would probably find themselves crucified (if today, thankfully, only figuratively)

But thats exactly what Jesus did in Matthew Ch. 21.  He enters the temple courts and starts talking with the senior religious leaders there.  He tells them this parable:

“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’

“ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.

“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

“The first,” they answered.  (Matthew 21: 28-31)

See, common sense told them the right answer.  But in the religious leaders real faith they instead prefer the man who says the right thing despite ignoring the father’s intent over the one who does God’s will but does it outside the proper framework or with the right words…so to speak.

Then Jesus drops the bomb on them just so there is NO misunderstanding:

Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.

Can you imagine?  Jesus wasn’t just trying to make a point in order to get the pastors and elders to “up there game” so to speak.  He was actually telling them that people who sold their bodies for sex as well as their fellow countrymen that were working against Jewish nationalism to collaborate with the Roman imperialists were seeing, understanding, and entering the Kingdom of God ahead of the morally pure church leaders.

Huh??

So, with Jesus’ words in mind here are 5 reasons I believe “sinners” are often out in front of  Christians when it comes to entering the Kingdom of God.

1) The “sinners” are not bound by religious conditioning

When someone has been told from a young age that in order to:

* go to heaven

* have God’s favour and / or protection

* avoid God’s wrath and /or hell

* make God happy!

you must do things, say things, attend things, and avoid things in a certain way it is VERY hard to get them to see past that “conditioning” to the Kingdom Jesus came to announce.  Jesus comes to affirm the outcast, the foreigner, the broken, the seeking to which the “sinner” (often) says, “Hey, that’s really cool, that’s Good News.  I like what this Jesus says” but to which the Christian often counters, “Yes, thats truuuue, but…”   

2) The “sinners” see whole sections of God’s Kingdom religious leaders are blind to.

I was recently in England where I had the opportunity to catch up with a pastor friend of mine.  We are roughly the same age with similar ministry backgrounds and we both found ourselves asking why, after all these years in Christian ministry, are we only now starting to SEE what Jesus was really talking about.  It’s as if this clearer revelation of who Christ is was not the result of having studied or learned something new.

No…

Instead it seemed to be the result of scales falling from our eyes so the “kingdom” became clearer.  Like cataracts being lasered out, suddenly I was seeing colors and hues in what Christ was saying that I had never saw before.  I guess sometimes you are so immersed in a system you can only see it for what it is once you have stepped out of it for a bit and see it from a different angle..

blind

Jesus admonishes the religious leaders in Matthew 23  as well as John 9 that their biggest obstacle to what he has to say to them is that they are blind and they are actually leading people away from the Life he came to bring:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.

“Woe to you, blind guides!- Matthew 23: 13-16

Often it seems the “world” sees sections of God’s Kingdom that remains invisible to large portions of the church

3) The “sinners” were receptive to the Kingdom’s ambassadors (John & Jesus)

John the Baptist came preparing people’s hearts to receive  Jesus’  announcement that God was reshaping society.  The sick, the poor, the powerless, the marginalised and others on the fringes were hearing that the current way society was ordered, a system of power being reenforced through violence, was being replaced by a society of compassion reenforced by mercy and forgiveness.  Then the Good News got even more good.  This new way of ordering society was open everyone.  It was not open only to rich or the powerful.  It was not to be exclusive to a particular nationality or ethnicity.  There no moral litmus tests to be passed in order to gain entry.

No…

In order to participate in this new Kingdom, you simply had to be “born again” so you could “see” the Kingdom.   The religious leaders of Jesus’ time however were to vested in the current system to entertain notions of a new one…especially a system that offered a place to people they despised.

In the end, those “Men of God” chose to reject the messages of both John and Jesus

The “sinners” on the other hand where much more enthusiastic and receptive to real Good News…

…and the same goes for today!

4) The “sinners” often produce more Kingdom “fruit” than the religious leaders.

The parable Jesus confronts the Pharisees with in Matthew 21 presents a conundrum for many Christians today.  How do we respond to

* a Muslim helping to end human trafficking?

* an atheist couple who are addressing poverty needs in their community?

* a person perceived to be “immoral” who volunteers their time to help the handicapped?

These “brothers” may not be saying all the right things (Matthew 21:29) yet they are doing what the Father has asked.  This is in contrast to the person who says all the right “Jesus” stuff on their lips and speaks the “Christian lingo” but actually do nothing to really heal the world and advance that Kingdom defined by compassion.

In Matthew 25 when Jesus rewards his followers for the works of compassion they did for others, they are surprised that it was Jesus who was receiving those works of compassion all along.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,  I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?  When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?  When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.

I think one day we will all be shocked by who Jesus says was really doing what he taught!

5) The “sinners” saw the Kingdom as a gift God was offering to them now without condition rather than a reward later for good moral behaviour or “correct” belief.

More than 25 years of Christian ministry has shown me that most Christians see the Kingdom of God as a place we go when we die.  Sure we can, through God’s grace, experience glimpses of it here and now at times, but mainly are job on Earth is to get people “saved” so that when they die they can go to heaven.

morpheus

When Jesus though is asked by a Pharisee when God’s Kingdom is coming Jesus answers:

 “The Kingdom of God can’t be detected by visible signs. You won’t be able to say, ‘Here it is!’ or ‘It’s over there!’ For the Kingdom of God is already among you! 

Luke 17:20

But cosigning the Kingdom of Heaven to the afterlife rather than the “here and now” offers the present religious establishment some tempting options.  It allows them to:

* dangle heaven’s entry as a carrot enticement for good behaviour and / or         “correct” belief to the church’s congregations.

* invest themselves into the present power systems economically, nationalistically, politically, and socially without the guilt that they are in any way in conflict with God’s Kingdom

* ignore humankind’s original mandate to govern this planet in a way that reflects God’s image on it.  Christians can treat the Earth like a motel room we are in for just a few nights and not care to much if it gets a little trashed.

In contrast, the “sinners” have a great interest in a “Heaven” that we can bring to Earth now.  That we can choose to bring healing to ourselves, our communities, our cultures, and our planet now is a message that they are much more open to.

Conclusion

When Jesus said the prostitutes and tax collectors were entering the Kingdom of Heaven AHEAD of the chief priests and faith leaders he meant it.  He knew those folk often could see God’s Kingdom, longed for God’s Kingdom, desired God’s Kingdom and were open to God’s Kingdom in a way that the church leaders of that day couldn’t even understand.

But things are changing.  As C.S. Lewis is fond of saying, “Aslan is on the move.” 

Peace,

Steve

Monster God or Monster Man? Michael Brown & Brian Zahnd Debate The Cross

monstergod

If you grew up in a Western style evangelical or charismatic church circles you probably view how Christ took away our sins on the cross in a certain way. That God required a payment, a sacrifice, for our sins against him.  We were not worthy to pay that debt so Christ, in his love for us, goes to the cross and experiences shame, torture, and ultimately death on our behalf.  He does this to cover and remove our sin so that when the Father sees us, he really sees his Son Jesus and his wrath is no longer on us.

This “theory” of atonement (how Jesus removed our sins) is called Penal Substitutionary Atonement.  There was a legal punishment that was meant for us and Jesus “substituted” himself on our behalf allowing us to go free.

For me this kinda made sense since it was pretty much the only story we had. And generally the narrative is told with a focus on the incredible love Christ had for us and little emphasis was paid to the requirement of the Father.

But is it really “Good News”?  What does it reveal about the nature of God? Does God really require violence to satiate his wrath?

Recently Pastor Brian Zahnd debated theologian Michael Brown on this very issue.  The debate was entitled “Monster God or Monster Man” and explores whether the Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) theory many of us came to Christ through in fact gives us a distorted picture of God.  Michael Brown to his credit gives a strong argument defending PSA and although I disagree with him the discussion is a wonderful example of two brothers wrestling over a very sensitive issue with respect for one another.






Jesus Riding A Donkey Was The Moment Everything Changed!

jesusjerusalem

I think it was C.S. Lewis who noted that the trouble of a childhood Sunday School education is that as adults a childlike version of Bible stories remains in our head.  Noah is a sweet old man that God used to save the animals in a really cool boat and the Walls of Jericho came crashing down to the sound of faithful musicians.  Simple and sweet, generations of children have left church with a child appropriate Bible story on their lips, a moral lesson for their heart, and the obligatory sticker affixed somewhere on their forehead.

I really value my Sunday School experience but at times I still see even events like Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey through the lens of a Sunday school lesson.  “Oh look, there is Jesus riding triumphantly into the city on a donkey.  See, he’s teaching us humility…now who wants to be humble like Jesus and get a sticker?” 

Yes, of course he was being humble in that moment…but he was doing so much more.

Jesus was beginning the final leg of his earthly mission, which would culminate with his crucifixion and resurrection, of shaming and embarrassing the systems of this world.

All sins forgiven, the slate wiped clean, that old arrest warrant canceled and nailed to Christ’s cross. He stripped all the spiritual tyrants in the universe of their sham authority at the Cross and marched them naked through the streets.

Colossians 2:15

Jesus was very intentionally exposing the governance of human history for what it is…

… a sham!

Brian Zahnd notes in his brilliant book A Farewell to Mars that history has been shaped by empires that feel they have the right to do so through their power and might.  One empire after another rises, shapes history, declines, and then fades.

The Apostle John weeps in Revelation 5 because one beast (empire) after another comes up out of the sea to wage war on the earth and no one seems able to break the cycle.  That is until an angel tells John not to weep because Jesus has broke (and is breaking) the cycle:

I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll (break the cycle) and its seven seals.” Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne,

Revelation 5: 4-6

Jesus riding on a donkey into Jerusalem was not just a Sunday School lesson in humility.

No…

Jesus was putting the “way it’s always been done” power and violence mentality on notice that there was a new sheriff in town and all the rules were about to change.

See, if Jesus had come riding a stallion and leading an army, the “powers of this world” would have been quite content.  It’s what they know and understand; power reinforced through violence! If Jesus wants to be King for a while he can; he can be just another beast who comes up out of the sea to make war on the Earth and cause John to weep.

But instead he comes riding on a donkey to adoring crowds who shout his praise.

That had to scare the crap out of the devil!

Game-Over-ASA-UK-Bans-Dungeon-Keeper-Mobile-Ad

You know that point in a sporting event when the game is over before the clock has run out?  When you see who the winner is going to be even though there is still 10 minutes left to play?

The “powers of this world” knew at this moment, when he saw Jesus riding a humble donkey through the Jerusalem streets, that it was “Game Over”!

The crucifixion and resurrection sealed the deal but it was Jesus coming

* not with an army but as a sacrifice

* not with power but with compassion

* not on a victory war horse but on a mule

that the cycle was broken!

So as Easter approaches and you begin to see images of Jesus riding a humble donkey remember, this isn’t a nice Sunday School lesson,  this was the moment when everything changed!

Peace,

Steve

Why I’m Not A Universalist: And How Rob Bell Helped Change My Focus from “Getting There” to “Staying Here”

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Rob Bell is always getting me in trouble!  For every person who thanks me for introducing them to Rob’s books or teachings there is another who reminds me that he is a heretic leading people astray.

Yesterday I shared an excellent article about how Rob Bell is a better evangelical than the evangelicals.

And then I got into trouble…

See in 2011 Bell wrote a book called Love Wins and it sold about 100 kajillion copies.  But what drove evangelical pastors crazy, besides selling more books than they, was that Bell suggested that there may be no hell.

Yes, he dared to suggest that maybe…just maybe…Jesus wasn’t operating some eternal torture chamber for those who chose not to dance with him.

The evangelical leadership around the world (well…ok, mostly just in America) went crazy.

* Christian book stores refused to sell the book

* Evangelical heavyweight John Piper famously tweeted, “Farewell, Rob Bell”

* Francis Chan quickly made a video telling us not to worry, there indeed was a hell!

Farewell-Rob-Bell 

In the end, Rob Bell became accused of being a “Universalist” and being a universalist (The Big “U”) is the Scarlet Letter of the evangelical world.

It didn’t matter that:

* He believed Jesus Christ was the son of God and through his life, death, and resurrection God had restored, and was restoring, creation back to its original intent

* That thousands, if not millions, have been introduced to a God who loves them through Christ and have had their lives radically impacted through Bell’s messages.

* He hadn’t actually affirmed anything he was accused of 

No,  like an adulteress woman in times passed, Bell had a “U” metaphorically attached by the tribal leaders as he was ushered to the gate of the evangelical village to live in exile.

Then much to the chagrin of those self same evangelical leaders…

Rob Bell  got even bigger!

And there was weeping and gnashing of teeth :)

Why Bell (or I) am not a Universalist

Rob Bell has been very influential in helping me shift my focus from “out there” to Earth.  His talk on Beginning in the Beginning  (see below) I have watched no less than 10 times and it has helped me immensely to understand what God is actually focused on.

There seems to be a gulf in the understanding between traditional evangelical theology, and some of the theological direction taken by Rob Bell and others such as N.T. Wright, Brian Zahnd, and Greg Boyd to name a few.

In an exchange I had yesterday a friend noted something that is the root of the difference.  He noted a view I hear a lot which is essentially, “Hey, I wish God would just save everyone…that we would all get there (Heaven) in the end”

See, in traditional evangelical culture we are trying to get people saved so that they can go to heaven, and not hell, when they die.

The focus is always “out there” someday…one day.

Yet the Bible seems focused on Earth.  Even in Revelation 22 when we finally get to “heaven” the whole narrative takes place as “heaven” descends to Earth.

Which was what Jesus prayed…

Everything about Jesus’ message, work, and life was about redeeming people so they could be rebooted as citizens of a new country, and then bring the culture of that new country to the world!

Jesus is Lord…and Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, and Xi Xiping are not!

Yet we Christians seem to focused on clinging tightly to our earthly national identities until one day when we finally die and “go to heaven” if we were members of the correct tribe…

…or to hell if we were not.

The problem I have with universalism is twofold:

* it still focuses salvation as something that ultimately happens “later, someday” (heaven) rather than “right here, right now” (heaven)”

* it suggests that God, who has been diligently guarding our ability to make our own choices (despite the misery and havoc it has caused), will suddenly ignore everyone’s free will and swoop us all into his presence whether we want it or not.

Love has to be freely given or it’s not love.

Rob Bell dared to suggest that maybe, just maybe, love wins in the end.

Oh, the heresy! :)

Peace,

Steve

PS: You can read more of my thoughts on heaven & hell here

 

Old Testament Wrath or New Testament Mercy? What is God Really Like

what-is-god-like-570x320

In Hong Kong we have two official languages; Chinese and English. Because of this it is quite common to see information in the city displayed in both languages.  Many times however legal documentation will have a clause that reads something like; When a discrepancy between the English & Chinese translation occurs, the Chinese (or English) translation will take precedent.

In principal the legal documentation should say the same thing but in reality sometimes the nuances of language makes what should be the same appear different.  In cases like that the proper lens for interpretation must be applied.

The Old Testament and the New Testament operate in a very similar manner.   God is portrayed in both but sometimes in vastly different ways.  In the Old Testament he can be seen as merciful one minute and wrathful the next. Confusingly showing forgiveness for large crimes but dealing out wrath and death for far smaller.

In the New Testament however, Jesus displays God in a much more consistent way.  He confirms the merciful acts and compassion of God we see in the Old Testament but seemingly shuns the violence and  judgement.

For this reason there is sometimes a huge gulf in understanding God whereby he can seem to order the wholesale slaughter of children in one testament but proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven is made up of ones such as these in the next.

So people have been rightly asking for thousands of years,

What is God Really like?

And so God answered…

He is like Jesus

No human eye has ever seen God: the only Son, who is in the Father’s bosom–He has made Him known.

John 1:18

Or

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being,

Hebrews 1

Basically before Christ came, many prophets explained God to humanity in many different ways…some good, some not so good.

Sometimes they got what God is like right

Sometimes they got what God is like wrong

So God clears away the confusion…

…He sends his Son!

The exact representation of who God is and what God is like!

Philip said to Him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father  ”Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, but the Father abiding in Me does His works.…

John 14: 9

So now like the legal example earlier,  when a discrepancy exists in the understanding of God between the Old & New Testament the Jesus interpretation will take precedent.

jesus_puzzle___m

Jesus as the Lens

There is a great story in Luke 9 that illustrates why Jesus MUST to be the lens by which we understand God.  In the story Jesus is not well received at a particular village and his disciples want to bring out some good ol’ Testament wrath and judgement!

And as they went, they entered a village of the Samaritans, to prepare for Him (Jesus).  But they did not receive Him, because His face was set for the journey to Jerusalem.  And when His disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?”

James and John knew what God was like…or they thought they did.  They had read the scriptures and now wanted to do what what the great prophets of old like Elijah did when they were representing God.

“Let’s kill these unbelievers”

But Jesus is appalled at this suggestion

 But He turned and rebuked them (translation, “Are you two crazy or something?”), and said, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.” And they went to another village.

Jesus says that James and John don’t even know what they are talking about.  They had viewed the scriptures (The Bible) through the wrong lens and thought they understood God and what he would want..

but by viewing God through Elijah and the prophets instead of Jesus they got Him all wrong!

Jesus confirms he is here to SAVE people, not destroy them!  If someone doesn’t want to receive us, we simply move on to the next group who does…

…and no one has to die in a fireball from heaven!

Everytime Jesus has the opportunity to clarify whether God is compassionate and merciful OR wrathful and judgmental he ALWAYS comes down on the side of compassion and mercy.

Everytime!

The Old Testament and New Testament have the SAME God but where there is a discrepancy between the two versions, the Jesus language will take precedent! 

As my oft mentioned Brian Zahnd quote states:

God is like Jesus.  God has ALWAYS been like Jesus!  There has NEVER been a time when God was not like Jesus.  We haven’t always known that…

…but now we do!

Peace,

Steve

 

3 Things To Consider Before Inviting Your Friend To See Left Behind

LeftBehind_poster_webIn a couple weeks time the Left Behind movie will open in cinemas around the world.  As someone who got “onboard” the Left Behind evangelistic bandwagon 14 years ago when the original version with Kirk Cameron came out (yes I rented out the big screen at a clubhouse and invited many unsaved friends hoping that by watching it they may become “saved”) can I offer 3 things to consider before getting evangelistically excited about the new Left Behind?

Take it as the voice of experience…

 

Left Behind Theology is Bad Theology

News Flash: The Rapture – Tribulation – Anti-Christ theology of the Left Behind series is only about 200 years old!

Theologians are still pondering how the musings and theories of 19th century Plymouth Brethren minister John Darby became the eschatological underpinning of millions of evangelical and charismatic Christians.

But it did…

I was one of them.

Darby’s theology ( later propagated through Biblical translations like Scofield’s Reference Bible)  fostered an escapist attitude among the church that focused the Bride’s attention on escaping the earth rather than renewing it.

Fast forward 200 years to when many Christians increasingly cast themselves in the role of persecuted victim, a theology where Jesus comes back and proclaims we were “right” after all and proceeds to kill everyone else has a certain attractiveness.

The problem is (to paraphrase Brian Zahnd) Jesus is not like that.  Jesus has never been like that.  There has never been a time when Jesus was remotely like that.  Many Christians don’t realize that…but they should.

Summed up, Left Behind theology is bad theology for a number of reasons but chief among them is that it just makes Jesus look bad.

And I don’t care much for that…

 

People won’t get saved watching Left Behind

I was perusing the Left Behind facebook page and one thread had over 30,000 comments talking a lot about the movie being used as a tool for salvation.

Comments such as:

* Can’t wait to see this movie! Hope this movie brings the unsaved to Christ so they don’t get left behind.

* I pray that many get out to see this, to realize what is ahead of they aren’t ready for the coming of Christ.

*  I can’t wait. I am dragging my husband (agnostic) to this so he can SEE what he will be facing someday..

I appreciate the sentiments (hey, I was there once) but seeing a movie doesn’t “save” anyone.  And when fear is used as the tool, that’s about as far away from the salvation Jesus brings as you can get.

And that’s what Left Behind sells.  It sells fear!  As if Jesus can’t woo his bride to himself through unconditional love, he instead has to put a shotgun to people’s head and threaten them with all sorts of catastrophe if they don’t “accept” him.

I’m not saying books, film, and art can’t be used to help reveal who Jesus is to people…

…I’m just saying the Left Behind film doesn’t reveal who Jesus is.

 

Left Behind is about money

Christians are simply being marketed as a group and used to make a number of people a LOT of money.  As a film lover myself I have no issue spending my hard earned cash at the cinema or for a download on iTunes knowing that while I am purchasing a couple hours of entertainment and storytelling some producers and actors are raking it in.

But…

* no one is trying to convince me to bring my friend to see Iron Man 3 because their eternal salvation is at stake.

* no one is trying to sell me a ministry resource kit so I can do a church small group study on Guardians of the Galaxy

* no one is urging me to see the latest disaster movie because it’s all in the Bible and going to come true one day

EVENT-KIT

No, movie producers know that there is a huge market now for Christians who will not only pay to watch movies where they are cast as the persecuted victim who is finally vindicated  (God is Not Dead) but movies where they can be convinced that it is their moral duty to bring as many friends as possible.

The sound you hear is Jesus turning over tables in the market place… 

To sum up

My transition from evangelistic promoter of Left Behind in 2000 to vocal critic in 2014 doesn’t come from deep theological discussions or eschatological arguments.

Not in the slightest…

It’s because I see who Jesus is just a little clearer now than I did then.

I see now that the prince of peace really is The Prince of Peace

Why do I feel so strongly about Left Behind?

Because Jesus deserves so much better…

A Farewell To Mars: Brian Zahnd Announces Christ’s Kingdom To American Christians (but are they willing to join it?)

a-farewell-to-marsIn his new book A Farewell to Mars author Brian Zahnd  indirectly offers the reader a decision  to make straight out of The Matrix;

“Take the Red Pill and you wake up back in your nice little church world believing whatever it is you want to believe” 

or

“Take the Blue Pill and I’ll show you how far down this rabbit hole really goes.”

And this rabbit hole goes deep!

Starting with Cain slaying his brother Abel , Zahnd  pulls back the curtain on the ancient system of this world.

A system built on power and sustained through violence.

A system founded on being “my brother’s murderer” rather than “my brother’s keeper”

A system that lies to itself that such killing is needed in order to advance freedom.

A system that is in constant need of “the other”, a scapegoat , that can be sacrificed to bring unity to the group, tribe, or nation.

A system that will ridicule, persecute, and ultimately sacrifice anyone who refuses to participate in the system.

A system to which the American church is fully complicit.

A World Without Christ

What would society be like today if Jesus had never lived?  What would we consider normal or just the way it is?  How would people view and treat each other?

Zahnd argues that the incarnation of Christ began the process of providing an alternative way of ordering society in opposition to the entrenched power system of the world:

If God can become human, then we must reconsider how we treat other humans.  The incarnation has, without question, made the world a more humane place by raising the dignity of every individual.

Of course I can hear the skeptics howl!  They will point out that the world has seen plenty of atrocities since the advent of Christ.  Indeed.  But what skeptics often fail to realize is that it is precisely because of Calvary that we call these things atrocities  and not normalcy.  Without the life of Christ, would we call massacres and genocide atrocities, or would we call them just the way things are?

Brian Zahnd – A Farewell to Mars,  Loc 545

Because of the life and death that Christ demonstrated we can now look at the  injustices, poverty, and horrors this world produces and say, “That is not the way it is supposed to be.”

Zahnd suggests that there is now, through Jesus,  an alternative way of looking at the world.  An alternative that is an antidote to the empires and power structures that seek to shape humanity and culture to their will.

God Bless America?

In interviews Brian Zahnd has admitted this is a deeply personal book for him to write.  He confesses and chronicles his own history as a church pastor complicit in the system of scapegoating and violence.

bible-american-flag1

Zahnd admits to cringing now at some of the sermons he preached after 9/11. Sermons which galvanized his flock with talk about America’s enemy…the other…the scapegoat!

The brothers we are obliged to slay in order to defend freedom!

Zahnd writes:

a few years later when I encountered Jesus in a fresh way, when I began to take the “words in red” seriously, when I repented for my war prayers and war sermons, when I began preaching peace sermons, then the criticism came…People left the church over my “new direction.”

My new direction was that I began to take the Sermon on the Mount seriously.  My new direction was that I began to see the Kingdom of Christ as God’s alternative society.  My new direction was to believe that peacemakers are the children of God.  And I learned a bitter lesson.  I learned it was much easier to unite people around a Jesus who hates our enemies and blesses our wars than it is to unite people around a Jesus who calls us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us…Believing in a war waging Messiah is easy.  Believing in the Prince of Peace is hard.

Brian Zahnd- A Farewell to Mars,  Loc 1058

For American Christians these are hard words.  Our churches are adorned with  flags, patriotism, and chants of God Bless America!  Honestly, how many of us are able to “pledge allegiance to flag of the United States of America”, because deep down we don’t really believe the Kingdom of God actually exists.

What do you do though on that day you realize that Christ’s Kingdom does exist and it is founded on, and advancing, a system in direct opposition to the one you just pledged allegiance to?

Zahnd has a suggestion…and it’s Jesus!

A t this point you may be thinking I can’t do this.  I can’t re-think everything I’ve ever believed about patriotism and war, and freedom, and manifest destiny and “God Bless America.” …it may not be easy, but it’s not that hard either-as long as you are willing to reexamine everything in the light of Christ.  Once you extricate Jesus from the subservience to a nationalistic agenda, you can rethink everything…

Brian Zahnd- A Farewell to Mars Loc 255

Hard words that fly in the face of almost everything we’ve been taught.  Words I still wrestle with.  Words that I wish I didn’t have to face because if I’m honest… a portion of me still wants the war raging Messiah…the Avenging Christ!

Peace through the sword!

It’s all I’ve ever known.

red-pill-blue-pill

But Jesus promises a better “way” and its to him and that system that I make my allegiance.

In A Farewell to Mars Brian Zahnd stands with hands extended offering two options.  You can

*  ignore what you have read, go back to your church world, and continue to be a cheerleader and chaplain to a system that has wrecked havoc on humanity since Cain slew Abel

or

*  begin to take the words of Jesus seriously and be a part of an alternative system that Christ established with his birth, death, and resurrection.  A system of compassion reenforced by mercy and forgiveness which stands in opposition to the ancient system of this world which is power established through violence.

The decision is yours!

Peace,

Steve

5 Theological Topics Making (Some) Christians Very Nervous

Hot-Under-the-Collar-1It’s a general rule of thumb that in mixed company it’s best not to talk about religion or politics.  On the religion side it’s also best to keep your theological discussions for Sunday mornings or during weeknight Bible studies where you can find yourself surrounded with the faithful and like minded.

But not so much anymore…

Positions on a number of theological topics that had once seemed ironclad can now no longer be assumed.  Here are 5 hot topic theological issues facing Western Christianity whose reexamining is making (some) Christians “hot under the collar”:

1. Hell

Could a loving God really send people to hell?  Put another way could a God who identifies himself as love itself cosign a segment of his creation to an eternity of conscious torment?

“Yes!” says much of Christianity, “because he isn’t just love.  He’s also

Holy

Just

Righteous

“Besides, God doesn’t send us to hell…we send ourselves by not accepting Jesus”

…so says the argument.

But a new theological debate has exploded on the scene in recent years challenging those notions and suggesting a number of kinder, gentler alternatives. Books like Rob Bell’s Love Wins and documentaries like Kevin Miller’s Hellbound dare to suggest that God might be even more wonderful, and what Jesus accomplished on the cross more beautiful, than we had first imagined.

…and that is making (some) Christians nervous.

Theological Warning: Suggesting God is “over the top loving” is hazardous to one’s ministerial status and may get the user labeled a “heretic”. Use with caution!

 

2. Rapture / Eschatology

As a kid I had a T-shirt that said, In Case Of Rapture This T-Shirt Will Be Empty.  Cheesy I admit yet it captured the essence of the theological reality many Evangelical / Charismatic Christians adhere to:

The world is doomed and soon Jesus will return to snatch his faithful away just before everything on Earth goes to “hell in a hand basket”.

rapture

With that theology however the gospel message is weakened and wrongly viewed as a lifeboat to rescue people off a sinking ship…with the ship being destroyed in the end.

But theologians like N.T. Wright, writing in  Surprised by Hope , suggests that “end times” theology has distorted the Good News that we are meant to announce.  Wright’s claim is that God is in the business of creating and restoring…not destroying.  Everything that needed to be destroyed (i.e. the work of the devil) was accomplished at the Cross by Jesus Christ 2000 years ago.

Now we get to be part of the restoration plan in preparation for Christ’s return as sovereign and King.

…and that is making (some) Christians nervous.

Theological Side affects:  Adoption of this theology may free the user from any more church sponsored Left Behind movie nights.  Apply generously! 

 

3. Women in Leadership

Women are the engine of church life!  Ask any pastor and they are sure to respond that it’s the females in their churches that tend to keep things afloat.  And yet the pastor you ask that question of will undoubtedly be male.

The glass ceiling in the corporate world pales in comparison to the glass ceiling in the church.

In many Christian circles women are either forbidden to preach or have a number of restrictions placed on them which males do not.  I was once asked to attend an womans Bible study luncheon.  Strangely I was not invited to speak to the group;  I was only invited to be in attendance and provide the male “spiritual covering” for the woman who was intended to speak.

Ouch!

Fortunately not only are progressive female Christian leaders like Nadia Bolz-Weber and Rachel Held Evans helping us re-think  gender theology, but even men from more conservative circles like Charisma magazine editor J. Lee Grady are trumpeting that;

“in Christ there is neither male nor female”

…and that is making (some) Christians nervous.

Theological Warning: Absolutely none!  (At least none that I’m willing to suggest with my wife standing behind me)

 

4. Biblical Infallibility

For Roman Catholics the Pope has always been deemed infallible!  When Protestants dumped the Pope however, they needed a new infallible to replace him.

They found it in the Bible.

Sola Scriptura!

Now not only was scripture  God inspired and “useful for teaching, correcting, rebuking, and training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16)

it was elevated to be “the Word” and  synonymous with Jesus himself!

bible2

But a lot of theologians are giving this a re-think and this position is articulated beautifully by Pastor Brian Zahnd in his post Scripture As Witness To The Word:

The Bible is the word of God that bears witness to the Word of God — Jesus Christ.

The Logos-Word became flesh — not a book.

Jesus is God. The Bible is not.

The Bible did not create the Heavens and Earth — the Word (Christ) did.

We worship Jesus; we do not worship the Bible.

The Bible is not a member of the Trinity.

The Bible is not God. Jesus is God.

The Bible is not perfect. (There are parts of it we now regard as obsolete; e.g. Levitical codes.)

Christ is the perfection of God as a human being.

What the Bible does infallibly is point us to Jesus Christ.

There is one mediator between God and man…and it’s not the Bible.

The Bible is the inspired witness to the true Word of God who is Jesus Christ.

…and that is making (some) Christians nervous.

Warning: Adoption of this theology into your Christian faith may cause others to view you as more sane.  Use liberally! 

 

5. Homosexuality

Is there a more polarizing theological shift happening in the church today than the issue of homosexuality and gay marriage?

There is not…

For to long though our gay Christian brothers and sisters have had to hide in the shadows of their church circles,  smiling weakly as they were forced to endure homophobic jokes and rants in silence.

Those that didn’t remain silent were either shuttled off to ministries focused on “praying away the gay” or left the church altogether feeling there was no place for them there.

But there is an undercurrent of theological change focused on affirmation and inclusion.  More and more pastors and Christian leaders no longer wish to be a stumbling block to gay believers relationship to Jesus Christ.

AlanChambersExodusViaExodus

Even Alan Chambers who led the “Pray away the Gay” Exodus Ministries publicly apologized last year to the gay community and admitted that the techniques of their “gay” rehabilitation were manipulative and destructive.

It’s a difficult issue for many Christians but if a choice is to be made let it be made on the side of grace and compassion and not judgement and exile.

I believe that is the choice Jesus would have us make…

…and that is making (some) Christians nervous.

Warning: Application of this theology may cause a sudden drop in speaking engagement invitations.  Consultation with your spouse and financial planner is advised!

Well there you have it.  Five theological topics that are guaranteed to have a number of your Christian friends getting hot under the collar.

Advisory: When sharing this post, be gracious and compassionate

Peace,

Steve

 

The “Cloud” Is Moving But Is The Church Ready To Move With It?

In 22 years of marriage my wife Tammy and I have lived in 8moving-house2 different locations. We have moved from Hong Kong, to Colorado, to China, and then back to Hong Kong. In the process we have learned not to accumulate too much unnecessary “stuff” in our lives and can be surprisingly brutal when it comes to parting with “treasures” at those times that we find ourselves on the move again.

And we will move again…

 

Israel on the Move

In the book of Numbers the Israelites were in a similar lifestyle arrangement.

They were constantly on the move…

Having been delivered from captivity in Egypt they found themselves following the presence of God in the form of a cloud out in the desert.

 When the Cloud lifted above the Tent, the People of Israel marched out; and when the Cloud descended the people camped…As long as the Cloud was over The Dwelling, they camped. Even when the Cloud hovered over The Dwelling for many days, they honored God’s command and wouldn’t march. They stayed in camp, obedient to God’s command, as long as the Cloud was over The Dwelling, but the moment God issued orders they marched.

If the Cloud stayed only from sunset to daybreak and then lifted at daybreak, they marched. Night or day, it made no difference—when the Cloud lifted, they marched. It made no difference whether the Cloud hovered over The Dwelling for two days or a month or a year, as long as the Cloud was there, they were there. And when the Cloud went up, they got up and marched. They camped at God’s command and they marched at God’s command.

Numbers 9:17-23 (The Message Bible)

cloud_over_tabernacle

Now I can imagine if you only camped a night and the cloud moved you’d be ready to go right away.  You wouldn’t have even really unpacked at all.

But what if the cloud hadn’t moved for a month?

By then you’d have figured out where the good watering holes are.  You’d figured where to set your chair at a certain time of day not to get too hot or cold. You would have begun to get comfortable…

What if the cloud hadn’t moved in a year?

By then you would have made that temporary dwelling tent a little more permanent.  Maybe an extra room added on?  You would have perhaps built a hammock to catch the cool breeze you know always picks up at a certain time in the afternoon or taught your child how to fish in the pond near your tent.

You would have built a home…

And then the cloud suddenly lifts …

…God is moving!

And you have a decision to make.  Do you stay…or do you go?

Do you break down the semi-permanent structures you erected while you were camped in order to follow God? Do you give away that big comfy chair that you loved so much while bivouacked but would be totally dead weight while on the move?

Do you give up:

* familiarity

* security

* comfort

in order to be led by God?

Do you stay…or do you go?

 

The Cloud is still Moving

We may not have a physical cloud to follow but God’s presence is moving today every bit as much as it did for the Israelites all those years ago. I’d like to think that when God’s cloud moved back then there had been a lot of excitement.

I imagine there was…

…I can also imagine there were a lot of groans!

“Are you kidding me! I finally got everything settled just the way I like it and now God decides to move? What’s wrong with this place?  God led us herehere seems good enough?  Look at all the good things we have and all that we have accomplished here.

I don’t want to move!

I could see a lot of agitation by those who were settled in the present arrangement towards those that we excited about moving on. People who are enthusiastically packing their bags and willing to follow where God is leading can be very irritating to those sitting in a big religious comfy chair!

woman-moving-abroad

Pastor Brian Zahnd echos this “fork in the road” decision that is looming for the church in a recent article :

Western Christianity is at a critical juncture. Those who care deeply about the church are aware of this. Things are not as they once were. Things are changing. Dramatically so. Even if we don’t understand what is happening, we can certainly feel it…

…There is a sense in which we have come to the end of the line—not the end of the line for Christianity, but the end of the line for the track we have been on. We are like people on a subway who have taken a particular train as far as it will go. We now find ourselves sitting in the terminus. We have two choices. We can sit on a train that is going nowhere, or we can disembark and find our way through the confusing labyrinth of the terminus and locate the proper platform to catch the train which will take us farther down the line.

Brian Zahnd- “End of the Line”

 

Conclusion

I love the place I am currently living.  We have lived in our little 1000 sq. foot Hong Kong apartment now for 4 years, 3 months and 6 days. We have good friends and a tight knit community.   I have a small balcony on the 21st floor where I can sit in the evenings and watch the large ocean container ships stream by across the channel below. Its relaxing and I love it!

But I know I will not always have it.

At some point the cloud will move and it will be time for us to pack again.  Knowing this makes me all the more appreciative of what I have now.  And it makes me realize what is really important.

See, when we move, stuff will get thrown out!  So I try not to get to attached to “stuff” because that “stuff” may have to go.  The only guaranteed thing that remains during a move is my family.

Our relationship…

Our togetherness…

Yes, there is stress during a move and tempers can flare.  There has never been for us a “stress-free” move!  What we have come to realize though is the more “stuff” that has to be jettisoned, the more stress.

Likewise a “move” is coming for the church; and it’s causing a bit of stress!  A lot of people are clinging to semi-permanant structures and stuff that won’t be able to come with

…and its causing some strife and stress.

What we have to remember though is its the family that is important!

The world will know we are Christ’s disciples by the love we have for each other.

As we make this “move” let’s remember to have grace for all our family members;

both those who are excited about the next leg of the journey…and those who aren’t!

When the “Good News” Becomes “Good” Again!

Paper Fortune Teller

Two years ago I had a paradigm shift in my faith when I read Brian Zahnd’s Beauty Will Save The World.  As I wrote then “I suddenly had my ‘spiritual mojo’ back!”  In hindsight now I realize that for years my theology was often times at odds with my faith.  It created a dissonance in my Christian walk which made me quite happy to remain sitting quiet in the back of a church service as opposed to up front teaching.

But Zahnd’s book was quickly followed by as slew of  other like minded writers; N.T Wright, Greg Boyd, Rob Bell, Peter Rollins, Paul Ellis, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Jay Bakker, Mike Lloyd.  These teachers, and a handful of others, helped me to see God’s plan for his sons, daughters, and this world were far bigger and better than my previous theology had perceived.

Suddenly “Mediocre News” became “Good News” again!

 

The Political Church

I realized much of the American Christian model, when everything is stripped away, is sharing pretty mediocre news with people… and, understandably, getting pretty mediocre results.  In America, by and large, the church sacrificed its prophetic voice years ago for political influence and in the process  successfully alienated a generation of young people on the horizon.

faith

We bemoaned the secularization of society blaming the atheists, humanists, and gays for it when in fact, the greatest catalyst for America’s turn from Christianity has been the behavior of it’s church.

* The church saw Jesus as a culture to be defended rather than a love to be shared

* The church chose a political team to support rather than supporting the duly elected

* The church became the behavior referees better known for calling a “foul” than announcing “Good News”

And as the church increasingly becomes more irrelevant and ignored by the average American, we are now becoming experts in claiming “persecution” and “victim” status.  Our “rights” are suddenly being violated.

Think for a moment where we would be if Jesus had started claiming his rights were being violated?  Hard to even imagine…

Instead when Christ was offered political power by the devil (in the wilderness) or by the people (to make him King) he rejected it both times.

Sadly the church has not!

 

Theology, Faith…and Hell

Then there is hell.  There is a funny meme going around Facebook showing Jesus at the door knocking.  It says:

Knock Knock…Jesus5

Who’s there?

It’s Jesus, let me in!

Why?

I have to save you…

From what?

From what I’m going to do to you if you don’t let me in.

—————————————————————–

Now, that is a little cheeky but it highlights the underpinning of mainstream evangelical Christianity;  the threat of eternal damnation.  What better sales motivation is there than “If you don’t buy our product…you’ll burn in hell!”

How many people have “received” Jesus with a metaphorical shotgun to their head?  How can we share an unconditional love that is rooted in fear?

I can’t!

Because then it isn’t love…

Conclusion

So you can see my dilemma.  My mouth couldn’t speak anymore. I suspected my “good news” wasn’t all together that good.  When I got asked to speak somewhere I made a polite excuse why I was unavailable.  I preferred instead to hang out in the back row of Sunday service remaining incognito.

Now…you can’t shut me up.  I have GOOD NEWS to share again.

God loves you…you are his child, and you don’t have to be afraid!

I speak anywhere…anytime.  If I’m on vacation and get asked to speak…I speak.  Just this week I got asked to share at a young adults event.  I don’t know anything about it but I just said, “Yes!”  What I do know is there will be people there that need to know how much God loves them.

Funny how I changed when the “Good News” became “Good” again!