Or…a Gospel Mission for a Band of Brothers
“He who risks and fails can be forgiven. He who never risks and never fails is a failure in his whole being,” wrote Paul Tillich. Does it sound a bit familiar? If so, it may be that it echoes the words of Jesus from the parable of the talents; the master rewarded those who risked what they’d been given to give their master the profit and took his gift from the one who chose to do nothing with his. More and more, I realize that Jesus’ warning applies to much of today’s American church.
People typically perceive religion as primarily a matter of two burdensome duties: one is to abide by a list of prohibitions, and the second is dutifully to fulfill a list of obligations. In other words, all religions are filled with “dos” and “don’ts.” Many live under the weight of fearful effort, always striving to be “good enough” to appease a demanding god, but never sure of their success. That is the nature of religion, even if it goes by the name “Christian.” I suppose failing to satisfy these religious requirements might be regarded as risky if such demands came from God.
Two groups of people suffer under the weight of this idea of religion. One accepts the verdict that science has proven that God doesn’t exist and that religious duty is useless. This group lacks the scientific knowledge and skills to prove or disprove this claim but feels that something is missing. Many turn to even more arcane pursuits like astrology or eastern thought with its reincarnation to find some kind of hope; others seek solace in mindless activities through television or the Internet or even through addictive habits to cover their feelings of emptiness.
The second group of people are religious, perhaps even Christian. In varying degrees, they seek to live up to the religious obligations they have learned, some with sincere faith but lacking the joy they desire, some with little real hope but stuck in a culture that is familiar and easier to stick with than to abandon. Among this second group are those who enjoy the bonds of religious duty and obedience as tools to gain power and control others, whether it be a petty, small-minded minister of a static church or a mullah in charge of a mosque; a few of these may even rise to great prominence as an accepted leader or gain a following through a bizarre cult. In all cases, the nature of religious obligation takes power from the follower, gives instead a measure of joyless false security, but little genuine hope.
Faith in Christ is totally different from religion, as I use the word, enough so that I avoid referring to my faith relationship with God as religion. This defining uniqueness1 has shaped my life from my teens, when I first read Ephesians 2:8-9: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” This distinctive alternative is that God saves sinners; sinners do not save themselves. Further, saved sinners do not keep themselves saved; good works contribute nothing to salvation2. Saving, keeping, maturing, and perfecting are all God’s business and God’s work; our only obligation is to bring glory to God and derive personal satisfaction from doing so.
Tim Tebow and Jeremy Lin are excellent examples of this principle. In contrast to the common notion that a “religious vocation” is where dedicated Christians pray, preach, or serve the poor, these two turn their gifts and efforts into a religious vocation; or, to put it another way, they glorify God through fulfilling the purpose for which they were gifted, in their cases, to play football and basketball. Like the Christian life is supposed to be, their lives are dedicated to the team in which they shine as “little Christs.” Theirs is a model we all might follow.
First, we must recognize our individual purpose and gifts. The world tries to reduce us to statistics of no individual value. In that system, uniqueness is generally ignored; being a member of some class of people is preferred—the poor, a minority, LGBT, women, the Right or the Left, etc. Even those who seem to deny this equivocation often fall into it; Christian congregations rarely encourage individuality because it interferes with “the program,” whatever its leaders determine to be “God’s will.” Some are reluctant to foster an environment where individuals shine, thinking it will lead to “pride,” that is, taking pleasure in one’s accomplishments. So, instead of hundreds and thousands of Tebows and Lins, we have a few who rise to the top and then take the heat for being so rare!
Which athlete is the better? Shall we praise the virtues of Tim Tebow or extol the accomplishments of Jeremy Lin? If we asked them, what would they say? Mohammad Ali said, “I’m the greatest.” In this world of forced sameness, the few who dare to achieve often brag on themselves. Tebow and Lin, despite their evident successes, do not; they encourage their teammates or spend leisure time with unlikely fans who can do nothing for their careers. In a community of grace-filled and gifted achievers, while the individual may well be respected for his or her labors, the total benefits the community, reaches out to those beyond the community seeking to draw them in, and glorifies their God, the source of their gifts, their strengths, their love, and their wisdom. Beyond words, their actions, activities, their creative endeavors, and their accomplishments speak of the Savior whom they honor in all they do.
Secondly, while each person has individual gifts and calling, they exercise their gifts as a team, in a community where each gifted individual contributes to the whole, just as the various parts of a body contribute to the whole person. I Corinthians 12 is clear in discouraging individual boasting or seeing one member as less important than another. Far from rejecting individual accomplishment, the text strongly implies that each should thrive in its assigned task. For us, practically speaking, this means that every gift has its place—athletic, artistic, intellectual, compassionate, blue-collar, or mundane. Do you find pleasure in growing things—plants, animals, or children? Is the simple repeated task one that feels good and right to you? Can you spend hours trying to understand some obscure idea? Are you the most joy-filled when you’re making music? Is training your body for a physical task almost blissful?
This list is nearly endless. Notice I included none of the church jobs, not because they should be excluded, but because serving God in the community of faith is far more than those few jobs. In part, this means that we may glorify God in a pasture or a police academy as well as a pulpit (and sometimes better!). It is not only the missionary, trained in language and technique, who may take the gospel to far away places; so may the musician or the miler preparing for the Olympics. We learned a great deal from our seminary professors, but one of my seminary friends was an unbelieving Episcopal priest who came to Christ through the influence of his church’s janitor! Music can provide a great enhancement to our worship, but so can art and drama; newer music may inspire the energies of youth, but older music reinforces our connection to truth, maturity, and even to history.
Thirdly, to gifted individuals and the diversely gifted community, God adds purpose and adventure. I hope that the Tebows and Lins of today are connected to and part of a vital church community; but, more than that, I would like to see their hearts multiplied by the hundreds and thousands and more, venturing forth into the often hostile world with the light of Jesus Christ shining forth from them. I was cringe when I hear someone say they were “raised in the church.” I get their meaning, but I still cringe! That building and the activities that generally occur there on Sundays are not and should not be the primary focus of our spiritual lives; at most, it should an oasis for rest, refreshment, and re-energizing; all, among others like ourselves, are to be engaged in the mission of God, beyond the walls of that building! Without that external, real world engagement, what remains is of little substance or value and likely to become the dull, lifeless thing it often already is today.
In my earliest years of ministry, I have always taught that we believers gather to worship God for his salvation and grace and to be prepared and equipped for service; then we scatter, going forth from our time of preparation to love our neighbors as ourselves, to serve, and to do the work of the gospel. Over recent years, I’ve grown in my appreciation for that latter part. I’ve pondered how to reach people around me with which I feel very little connection. I’ve come to realize that it takes more than the promise of a future heaven to attract the interest of many. I’ve observed the hunger for love, not self-involved sex, but something that touches the alienated heart. I puzzle over a on-line culture that calls hundreds or even thousands of casual contacts “friends.” Right now, I’m reading “The Faith of Leap,” by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, that persuasively describes a “theology of risk, adventure, and courage,” and I find their arguments compelling (Look for a review, here, one of these days).
Once we join the fellowship of all believers, the universal Church of Jesus Christ from all ages and nations, we never really separate from it, nor should we. Indeed, we should not even imagine we are separate entities on some sort of solitary hero quest. No age until ours has so great a potential for the community of Christ to stay connected, even when we are physically apart. Many of us enjoy “buddy movies” and tales of a group sharing an adventure. Personally, some of my favorite books have been of that sort, too. Why are we drawn to such tales? Our seemingly safe, secure, prosperous lives lack something; people use alcohol, drugs, sex, and electronic images to numb the sense of loss without really knowing something is amiss. Neither individual salvation nor the community of faith are ends in themselves; those are the foundations of a life of mission, service, adventure whether we find it in “Judea, Samaria, or the uttermost parts of the earth!”
“Do this, don’t do that” is unappealing, uninviting, yet many settle for duty. Sitting in a meeting, even with good music and good preaching (which are rare enough!), is hardly exciting; even at my age, after a lifetime of ministry, I would prefer a bit more zing! As much as I enjoy good food, I crave more from fellowship than potluck suppers. I’ve been blessed to be able to enjoy activities that reflect my gifts, but I must also confess to wishing for greater fruitfulness. I believe that all of this and more God designed to come together in a community of gifted individuals sharing an adventurous commitment to living “Jesus lives” where the world, our neighbors, will see. The gospel, more yes than no, isn’t a message to turn us into “pew potatoes;” the mission isn’t to hang out in a safe place and have coffee with Jesus. Rather, the gospel offers saved sinners the task of rescuing others from the same storms of life from which they were delivered; the mission isn’t the safety of the sanctuary, except to be re-energized, but the dangers of trials and turmoil where the prince of darkness yet holds sway. As we carry out this gospel mission, we come to know, as we will never know in the safe sanctuary or in the solitary quest, the one who not only rescued us but leads us in this truly awesome quest.
I thought “an army of one” was a phenomenally stupid slogan for recruiting soldiers, and it is no better for a soldier of Christ. We do have a mission: “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” For us to successfully carry out this mission, we need every gifted individual, working together as a diversely capable but single-minded (as in the mind of Christ), team marching forth together on the most important but also the most exciting quest given to humankind, winning the battle for the hearts of men and turning them to the one and only Savior, Jesus Christ!
When Christians hear the call to outreach or missions, I fear the common response is “no!” because the call has been isolated from its place in Christ’s community, as if it said, “Hey, you go on into the storm. We’ll be back here where it’s safe, and we’ll pray for you…when we remember.” Instead, the call should go forth, “Come, join us in this great adventure entrusted to us by God himself. We’re in this work together; we’ll share both the victories and the set-backs, yet never defeated but advancing as we do the kingdom’s work under the wise and loving leadership of the King himself.” In the end, as at the beginning, this has little to do with religious obligation; instead, we truly become a “band of brothers” who know, love, and trust each other and the One who leads us.
1At this stage of my discussion, I would not suggest my ideas are original or new, although I am trying to describe them in a somewhat fresh and distinctive way; however, I intend to show that, despite the existence of this message, many still remain stuck in the “religious” way of thinking.
2Both James (James 2:14-26) and Paul (Ephesians 2:8-10) remind us that genuine faith, however, is inseparable from works because genuine faith in God leads inevitably to a changed life that cares for other people; in this sense, works show the presence of faith but are of no value without faith. Work-less faith and faith-less works are equally love-less and equally worthless.