Tag Archives: cultural Christianity

Are You a Sheep or a Goat?

Last week’s July 19 post (“Are Christians Different”) ended witha negative answer as I compared today’s Christians and church  with the early church that was seen as very different from its society. If you don’t catch us in the act of going to church it is difficult to tell who are Christian and who are not by our actions.    As a result of that indictment, I would like to examine the impact of this negative answer on two challenges we face in the U.S. and the world today:  (1) the increasingly lop-sided division in our society and the world society between the very rich and the wealthy corporations that enrich them,   and the poor—with the numbers of the poor vastly outnumbering the small number of the rich; and, (2) the fear of violence that this lopsidedness engenders in our own society and throughout the world.   I’ll take up the first issue in this posting and the second in my next posting.

Jesus, reflecting the Old Testament and especially the prophets, saw the problem of poverty in his day as of great importance.  He defined his ministry at its beginning in the synagogue of Nazareth in terms of the importance of the poor and down-trodden.   He read from the book of Isaiah these words to his “home church”:  “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”  (Luke 4:18-19)

The Old Testament saw poverty as neither an accident nor as a natural occurence,  but rooted in injustice.   The prophets saw poverty as being caused by the rich and not as the fault of the poor (as we now like to do).   For example,  Amos echoed many of the prophets when he thundered this warning to the wealthy women of Samaria:  “Hear this you cows of Bashan, who are in the mountains of Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, ‘Bring, that we may drink!’  The Lord has sworn by his holiness that, behold, the days are coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks….”  (Amos 4;1-2)

Jesus’ views on money and wealth reflect the Old Testament views.  He identified his ministry with the weak, the outcast, the down-trodden.   Jesus warned about the risk of wealth to our spiritual life in these ways:  “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.   Woe to you who are full now, for you shall hunger.  (Lk. 6:24-25)

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. (Matthew 19;24)
“Take heed and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.  (Luke 12:15)

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.   For where your treasure is, there will be your heart also. (Matt. 6;19-21)

In fact, one of every ten verses in the Synoptic Gospels is about the rich and poor; in Luke the ratio is one of seven.   There are more than 500 verses in the New Testament alone about the problem of riches and money.  Money was one of Jesus’ favorite topics in his teachings.

The early church shared Jesus concern about this and made sure to provide goods for the poor and the orphan and the widows who could not support themselves and were poverty-stricken.   The early church was known for these actions by the society that surrounded it.

And yet, as Jim Wallis (who has challenged me with his ideas) points out in quoting sociologist David Moberg, there has been “a great reversal.  Twentieth-century  evangelicalism in the U.S. came to identify thoroughly with the mainstream values of wealth and power.”   As the country became rich and fat, so did evangelicals (the church), who soon replaced the “good news'[ of Christ’s concern for the poor with a personal piety that comfortably supported the status quo.”  (Call to Conversion, p. 55)

Wallis contiues:  “Evangelicals today have not been the ones calling for economic redistribution.  Instead, they have tended to favor tax breaks for the middle class and for the big corporations.  Many usually support increased military spending and budget balancing by cutting the amount of public resources available for the poor.  ….They extol the virtue of wealth and power when most of the world is poor and powerless.  They call for unrestrained economic growth in a world where resources are running out and much of God’s creation is ravaged by industrial exploitation.”  (Call to Conversion, p. 56)

And each day in the U.S. the rich, who also by their wealth control the power of government at national and state levels and see that laws are passed and legislatures elected that will help them to continue to grow even richer, widen the gap even more between the few  rich and the many in poverty—not just in the U.S. but in the world.

What is the church doing about this?   What words do Christians speak in behalf of the poor?   What is the place of the poor among the priorities of Christians today?  Our disregard of the problems of poverty and the widening gap between rich and poor  is not only an economic problem of the highest magnitude, but also a spiritual problem of the highest magnitude.  For in ignoring the poor we are also disregarding some of the most basic teachings of Jesus.

Listen to the words of Jesus found in Matthew 25:   “When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.  Before him will be gathered all the nations , and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left.   Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thisty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”  Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?   And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?   And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?   And the King will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.   Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink.  I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”   They they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?   Then he will answer them, ‘”Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not for me.”  ((Matt. 25:31-46)

Are you a sheep or a goat??

Are Christians different?

Jesus challenged the political, economic and religious establishment of his time with his views and teachings that were radically different.  In my July 17 blog I told how the early followers of Jesus—the early church—were radically different in the way they lived, and how people who knew them observed how radically different their way of life was from the rest of society.

I left you with this question:  Can it be said about today’s Christians that we are different and stand out as Christians in the eyes of our society?

Jesus summed up all the law and the prophets and his own teaching about the way God wants us to live in these words we find in Matthew’s gospel in answer to the question “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?   Jesus replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’,  this is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it:  ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”  (Matthew 22:3-40)

We seldom think how radical that second commandment is—and Jesus places it on an equal basis with the first one!   As Jim Wallis puts it:  “We are asked to care for our neighbor’s as ourselves, and our neighbors children as our children.  This is an ethic that would (and could) transform the world.”   (On God’s Side, p. 6)

Wallis further points out this fundamental teaching flies in the face of the  “selfish personal and political ethics that put myself always before all others; my concerns first, my rights first, my freedoms first, my interest first, my tribe first, and even my country first—ahead of everybody else.   Self-concern is the personal and political ethic that dominates our world today, but the kingdom of God says that our neighbor’s concerns, rights, interests, freedoms, and well-being are as important as our own.

Our inability to live the way these two “great commandments” instruct us is why the question “are we perceived as Christians to be different today?” must be answered negatively.

Listen to what Wallis says of this:  “We live in one of the most self-centered cultures in history.  Our economic system is the social rationalization of personal selfishness.  Self-fulfillment and individual advancement have become our chief goals.   The leading question of the times is, “How can I be happy and satisfied?”

“Not surprisingly, our self-centered culture has produced a self-centered religion.  Preoccupation with self dominates the spirit of the age and shapes the character of religion.   ….The common question in evangelism today is, “What can Jesus do for me?”  In other words, the question is how Jesus can help us make it in the present order, not how we can respond to the new order.   Potential converts are told that Jesus can make them happier, more self-satisfied, better adjusted, and more prosperous.  Jesus quickly becomes the supreme product, attractively packaged and aggressively sold to a consuming public.  Complete with billboards, buttons, and bumper stickers, modern evangelistic campaigns advertise Jesus in a competitive market.  Even better than Coca-Cola, Jesus is ‘the Real Thing'”.

‘The gospel message has been molded to suit an increasingly narcissistic culture.  Conversion is proclaimed as the road to self-realization….the role of religion is presented as a way to help us uncover our human potential—our potential for personal, social, and business success that is.  Modern conversion brings Jesus into our lives rather than bringing us into his…..Conversion is just for ourselves, not for the world.  We ask how Jesus can fulfiill  our lives, not how we might serve his kingdom.”  (Call to Conversion, p. 22-23)

These are strong words?   I wish I could disagree with them, but I can’t—can you?   If so, do so!!

They are words that show a credibility gap between the way of Jesus and the way of our churches today.    We are not living “the way of Jesus”, we are living the “way of the world today.”

I hope to discuss in Part Three some of the results of the above indictment,  as we confront two central challenges we face today:  The increasingly lop-sided  division of our world into rich and poor and the fear of violence this raises.

Jesus was a Radical….are you?

I have been reading a couple of books by Jim Wallis that have challenged me a great deal.   They are The Call to Conversion, 1981 (revised 2005), and On God’s Side, 2013.   In my next several blogs, I would like to pass on to you some of the challenges that these books have made to me.   While these are not new ideas to me and I have preached many a sermon on them, yet the way that Wallis puts it all together is compelling for me and I hope it will be for my readers.

In The Call to Conversion, Wallis begins with the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7; Luke 6) as a description of the core values that Jesus taught his followers about life in the Kingdom of God that he came to inaugurate.   He says that it is “the charter of the new order.  It describes the character, priorities, values, and norms of the New Age that Jesus came to inaugurate.   The early church took it to be basic teaching and used it to instruct new converts in the faith.”  (p.11, Call to Conversion).

In the Sermon on the Mount as with Jesus’ other teachings and actions, Jesus speaks of basic stuff of human existence.   He speaks of money, possessions, power, violence, sexuality, faith and the law, security, true and false religion, treatment of neighbors and treatment of enemies.   As Wallis says:  These are the basic questions that every man and woman must come to terms with and make choices about.”  (p. 12, Call to Conversion.)

The Kingdom of God is pictured as a radical reversal of both Jewish and Roman culture during Jesus’ day and also today.   For Romans popularity, ambition, aggrandizement, competition, wealth, and violence were all key virtues and goals to strive toward.   The Sermon on the Mount turns everything on its head and advocates for just the opposite of Roman and today’s values.

Because early christians strove to follow these teachings and took them to heart, they were viewed by their society as “different” and as a challenge to the power of the status quo.  Therefore, as Wallis says,Early Christians “became well known as a caring, sharing, and open community that was especially sensitive to the poor and the outcast.   Their love for God, for one another, and for the oppressed was central to their reputation.   Their refusal to kill, to recognize racial distinctions, or to bow down before the imperial deities was a matter of public knowledge.”  (Call to Conversion, p. 15)

We see that public knowledge in the description of Christians sent to the Emperor Hadrain by Aristides, a Roman official:   “They love one another.  They never fail to help widows; they save orphans from those who would hurt them.  If they have something they give freely to the man who has nothing; if they see a stranger, they take him home, and are happy as though he were a real brother.  They don’t consider themselves brothers in the usual sense, but brothers instead through the Spirit, in God.”

Early Christians were known in society of their time not just by what they believed but especially by the way they lived.  As Wallis says:  “The message of the kingdom became more than an idea.  A new human society had sprung up, and it looked very much like the new order to which the evangelists pointed.   Here love was given daily expression; reconciliation was actually occurring.  People were no longer divided into Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female.   In this community the weak were protected, the stranger welcomed.  People were healed, and the poor and dispossessed were cared for and found justice.  Everything was shared, joy abounded, and ordinary lives were filled with praise.   Something was happening among these Christians that no one could deny.  it was very exciting.   According to Tertullian (an early christian writer), people looked at the early Christians and exclaimed:  “See how they love one another!”  (Call to Conversion, p. 17)

I leave you with a challenging question:   Can the above be said about our churches today?  Do we stand out as Christians in the eyes of our society?   That will be the subject of my next blog post!

Cultural Christianity

Kay and I had lunch with an old friend from college days recently.   This friend has been a minister all of his working life and now at age eighty is taking on another church to minister to. In the discussion, the term “cultural Christianity” was used by my friend.   I perceived that for him it meant a return to “the roots” of old time Christianity.   While that is possible in the way we continue to worship, as in the past with older people who wish to “go back to the good old days; these people are dying  and are not being replaced by like-minded Christians.   The present generation needs to have the ancient truths addressed in ways that they can understand. It is my view that “old time Christianity” was just as “cultural” as today’s Christianity but reflected a different culture.  Today’s culture has changed.  It is no longer the culture that I grew up in during the 1940’s and 50’s.   Young people who are entering adulthood today have no idea what the culture was like 60 years ago, and frankly could care less.    Christianity has always had to adapt to the culture that it is a part of.   It’s problem is adapting to the culture but not being taken over by the culture.  We must take what is eternal about the message that we bring as Christians—true—-but we must bring that message in terms and ways that the present culture can understand or else the message will be lost. By our attaching our Christian faith to a culture that has passed away we take away from the Christian faith its  ability to function in the present and to remain  a possibility for the future. What do you think?