“Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you.” (Mt. 28:18-20, MSG)
“I am Jesus, the One you’re hunting down. I want you to get up and enter the city. In the city you’ll be told what to do next.” (Acts 9:6)
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My pastor and I were talking the other day about the persistent tendency among Christians, pastors, and churches to use law to try and bring structure and order to people’s lives. Together we agreed that our job as ministers in particular is to proclaim the Gospel through Word and Sacrament, not practice behavior modification.
However, as we were talking, it occurred to me that I am now in a church tradition that practices what might be termed a structured Gospel. The Gospel that brings forgiveness and freedom to obey comes to us through ordered means that provide clarity for the life of faith through disciplined practices. These are not “works” that achieve anything about which we may boast before God or others. Rather, they are “means” that the Spirit uses to communicate grace to us and form us in Christ.
Let me give an example that I formerly did not appreciate in the free-form evangelical world in which I used to live and serve. In revivalistic religion, few stories are more powerful than that of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9 (see also Acts 22, and Acts 26). When reading these texts, the revivalist tradition emphasizes the personal encounter Saul had with Jesus. And this is certainly dramatic.
Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.
The resurrected Lord appeared to Saul (1Cor. 15:8), spoke to him, and revealed his identity to him. He literally stopped the persecuting Pharisee in his tracks, knocked him to the ground, and blinded him. Jesus confronted him with the charge that Saul was actually fighting against God rather than serving him.
Let’s stop there for a moment.
Though this personal encounter with Jesus literally turned Paul around, it forms only the beginning of his conversion story. There is no word here about forgiveness. No good news was proclaimed. No “decision” was made. Paul did not pray a “sinner’s prayer,” confess his sins, or profess his faith. He did not simply pick up and go on his way rejoicing as a converted and transformed individual.
If I may put it this boldly, what happened on the road to Damascus was not enough to “save” Paul.
- Jesus instructed Paul to go into the city where he would be told what to do. Notice, he did not just tell him to “ask the Savior into his heart” or “pray silently” — he commanded Paul to go somewhere where he would have to do something.
- The stricken man had three days of preparation and silence in the city. He fasted. Presumably he prayed. He waited.
- A Christian named Ananias came into the picture and did specific acts with regard to Paul: he laid his hands on him, he proclaimed good news of Christ and God’s calling on Paul’s life and prayed that he would receive the Spirit. Paul regained his sight.
- Ananias instructed Paul to be baptized in order to “have his sins washed away” (a strong text on the sacramental nature of baptism) as he called on Jesus’ name in faith (Acts 22:16).
- Paul stayed with the congregation in Damascus for a time and took opportunity to witness to who Jesus was and what he had done for him.
You see, Jesus did not just “save” Paul directly through a personal spiritual encounter, a “born again experience,” a private conversion. It was not Paul’s “Damascus Road” experience that did the trick. It was what happened there plus what happened when Paul went into Damascus. On the road, Jesus got Paul’s attention in a dramatic fashion, introduced himself to him, and then sent him to the Church. There, through such practices as fasting, solitude, prayer, the laying on of hands, baptism, and public witness, Paul became a thoroughly converted, changed man.
As Cyprian of Carthage famously said, “He cannot have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother.” In today’s world of free floating spirituality and narcissistic consumer-oriented religion, wouldn’t it make sense for the Church in all traditions to make things clearer and more definite for people by presenting them with a structured Gospel rather than the nebulous “personal commitment” we so often hear being recommended?
Again, this is not to be confused with legalism. To paraphrase what someone said in one of our comment threads last week, when you sign up to be a Marine, you enter their world and take up practices that are demanding and life-forming. You don’t get to define the structure of Marine life. It is made clear to you from the start.
Jesus’ Gospel call contains this element too. Not only did he say, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” He went on to make matters clear: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me” (Matthew 11:28-29).
Rest. And a yoke. I know, the two sound incompatible. We usually associate being put under a yoke with the law. But apparently there is a Gospel yoke — signifying a structured, embodied practice that issues forth from the announcement of Good News. There are means of grace to receive, a path of grace to follow, and a community of grace in which to dwell.