We’ve been talking about how the Gospel and good works that aren’t the Gospel line up over at the Boar’s Head. With the announcement that St. Francis never said “Preach the Gospel. Use words when necessary,” but the discovery that Peter told wives to win their husbands “without words” in I Peter 3:1-2, it would be good to think about the topic of this essay: the Gospel always applies. (From March of ’07.)
Studying Acts with my students, it’s freshly clear to me that the immediate struggle of the early Christians was not only, or even particularly, theological, but practical.
How do we live out, in the church, family, community and world, the significance of Jesus NOW?
What kind of behavior, actions and community appear in â€œâ€the Kingdom of Godâ€ as Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit create it on earth (and as the church is a “demonstration plot” of the Kingdom?) That is what we’re praying for…right?
What are the relevant issues where the application of the way of Jesus will make an immediate difference?
I heard Mike Goheen say something like this: faithfulness to the gospel and the relevance of the gospel to culture are the same thing. This is deeply true, and pulling them apart damages everything that the church is left on the earth to do. The assumption that “culturally relevat” means skateboard services is ridiculously shallow.
It amazes me that the apostles immediately know- they KNOW- that Christianity has to be applied in ways they had never thought before. Perhaps the story in Acts 10 is a window to how the Holy Spirit stirs us up to get off of the roof and down into a Roman’s house.
The Apostles apply the Gospel broadly. There must be a different kind of economics. There must be a different kind of inclusion around the table and in relationships. There must be prayer, breaking bread, teaching doctrine, but there is more. You cannot leave out the issues of hunger, inclusion, assistance, mercy ministries, economics or even political theology. While you can point out the kinds of issues that weren’t addressed, it’s remarkable what kind of issues are addressed…and how they are addressed.
â€œChristian cultureâ€ is always a counter-culture, not a consumer culture, an entertainment culture or a political lobby. â€œThe Churchâ€ is not just a gathering of people loyal to Jesus who believe certain things, but it is a movement of people who apply the gospel to those issues in their midst that demonstrate the meaning of the Kingdom of God.
There is a lot of scholarly controversy over whether the â€œcommunalâ€ passages in Acts reflect the teaching of Jesus or whether the Apostles are going beyond what Jesus taught and forcing an application of the gospel that Jesus did not require.
This â€œeither/orâ€ may be missing the point. If a particular form of the application of Jesus’ teaching turns out to be a failure on some level- such as the communal experiment of Acts 2 and 4- that does not mean that it was wrong to conclude â€œthe gospel must be applied and practiced, as well as believed.â€ If this is a failed “program,” it is not a wrong application of the Gospel. Jesus leads us to issues of ownership, the lordship of mammon and the meaning of being one body. We may not see the Acts “commune” passages repeated throughout the New Testament, but we do see the relevant questions and hear the relevant applications in most of the New Testament letters.
For example, Paul may not have approached the issue of slavery the way a Justice Mission might today pursue the same issue. But does anyone argue that Paul believes Christ does not transform, undermine and put in motion the eventual end of slavery?
This is why I can commend many Christians for their attempts to put the Kingdom of God into practice even if I disagree deeply with their particular application. I have mixed agreement with many liberals and conservatives, but I commend them for seeing that Jesus has a meaning for politics, relationships, community and culture.
This is the kind of â€œcultural relevanceâ€ that many churches and younger leaders are seeking that is ignored or misunderstood by critics. Caricatures always criticize younger leaders and missional churches for seeking to be â€œcool,â€ but what is to be said to those who are asking these questions:
What are the pressing human needs in the community that surround us, and how can we help meet those needs?
What are we doing to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the widow and visit the prisoner?
What are the ethics of building when the maintenance of facilities takes away substantial support for mercy ministries?
What priority can we give to supporting denominational programs as we seek to use our resources to become a missional congregation?
How do we connect the gospel as proclamation to the application of the gospel?
How can we make our gospel application meaningful to those who see any application of the gospel as capitulation to liberalism?
How can we keep our application of the gospel from manipulation by those with agendas that are not Christ-centered?
How can the teaching of the faith and the application of the faith in proper balance so that the faith confessed and taught is never displaced by works of any kind?
One other thing is sadly clear: there were and will always be people who do not want the Gospel to change things. They want women in their place, economics ordered as best benefits them, politics left to the politicians and “those people” left to suffer since the poor will always be with us. The only widows who should be cared for are the ones they know. People of different color, different beliefs and different religions aren’t our business. We should grow our church by sticking to our own kind.
That kind of sad thinking- untouched by Jesus and the power of the Spirit- will always be around, and those engage in it are usually generous with their views. The application of the Gospel means responding to those kinds of opponents as well. We give an answer, we choose to suffer in order to love, and we keep doing what Jesus would do.