October 20, 2017

Tim Gombis on Evangelical Resistance to the Gospels

Note from CM: On Fridays we have been reflecting on Timothy Gombis’s excellent book on Ephesians. I’ve been looking at some of the other things he has been writing, and I’m impressed. Tim is a fellow Chicagoan and Cubs fan (poor guy), and he teaches New Testament at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. Just the other day, he wrote an amazing post on his blog about how evangelicals resist hearing the real message of the Gospels. I asked Tim if I could share it with our IM community, and he was glad to pass it on. So, without further ado…

UPDATE: At first posting, I unintentionally neglected linking to Tim’s blog. The title is now linked to the article, and you can access Tim’s blog anytime via the Blogroll.

• • •

Evangelical Resistance to the Gospels: How & Why
by Timothy Gombis, 4/26/2012

A few days ago, I wrote that Christian people, evangelicals included, have developed the terribly unfortunate habit of misreading the Gospels.

It goes beyond unintentionally cultivated habits.  I think that reading the Gospels for what they’re really saying threatens to upset and destabilize our church community dynamics that have become predictable and comfortable.  Contemporary Christians—evangelicals included—are too threatened by the Gospels to read them for what they’re actually saying.

Resistance to the Gospels takes many forms and happens for various reasons.  We’ve noted in the comments some of the forms resistance takes over the last few days (e.g., older premillennial dispensationalism, some forms of a Law/Gospel contrast).

Here are a few more.

I can recall our Gospels-resistance reading strategies from Bible studies in high school and college.  We would encounter a challenging statement of Jesus, such as that in Luke 14:12-15:

Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Realizing that Jesus very clearly says to invite the poor and those of shameful social status, we would fall silent and then ask, “what do you think Jesus means by this?”

Inevitably, someone would say, “I think Jesus is referring to our hearts—that we should have willing hearts in case we’re ever called to serve.”

This is a familiar strategy, one I’ve encountered (and used myself) many times.  We stare at the clear words of Jesus that challenge our well-established social patterns and community dynamics, and we flinch.  We relegate Jesus’ commands to motive-purification, ignoring that he’s calling for purposeful transformation of actual social practices.

N. T. Wright is dead-on when he says that evangelicals are Bultmannian when it comes to the Gospels (How God Became King, pp. 22-23).  Bultmann sought to strip away the “husk” of the historical details of the Gospels in order to get to the “kernel” of theological truth the Gospels writers were really communicating.

We strip away the “husk” of Jesus’ clear words to find the spiritual “kernel” that we apply to our hearts and motives.

This is a reading strategy whereby we keep Jesus safely tucked away in our hearts, self-satisfied with our piety.  But we intentionally avoid doing what he says with our bodies, social practices, and community dynamics.

It’s too threatening.  If we actually did the things Jesus says to do, we’d have to change, and we just don’t want to.

Another example, not so much of why Gospel-resistance happens, but how.  Several years ago, a senior colleague confronted me angrily about something I had written.  He quoted to me the following passage from a paper I had presented on racial reconciliation:

[The gospel is] the announcement of the arrival of the long-awaited kingdom of God—the announcement that God has come in Jesus to begin his work of reclaiming and redeeming the world, which begins with a redeemed people—a holy people who will manifest, in their social practices, the very life of God on earth.

He demanded to know where I could have gotten such a statement.  I thought he was joking.  He wasn’t.

I told him I got it from reading the Gospels.  He brushed that aside, insisting that this was a sign that I was “emergent.”

I’ve had a number of conversations like that more recently.  I spoke to one person about the church embodying Kingdom life through transforming corporate practices.  He told me that was the “social gospel,” a distraction from the mission of the church.

I said to another that based on a certain text in Mark, Jesus calls the church to take uncomfortable steps of faith—to go beyond what is familiar—in order to enact the Kingdom of God.  He asked me for a few examples, so I suggested that he and a few of his friends initiate a church-based urban mentoring program, looking after some junior high boys who don’t have fathers.

He told me that “sounded emergent.”

I asked him if he thought a more effective demonstration of faith would be getting together with his friends and praying for impossible things.  He nodded.

After a brief pause, he smiled and said that he may have been speaking out of his theological conditioning, admitting that he doesn’t want to be pushed out of his comfort zone.

We could go on for quite some time giving examples from a variety of theological perspectives and Christian traditions of ways we manage to resist hearing what the Gospels are saying.  My sense is that many of us feel deep-down that there’s too much at stake–our comfort, the predictability of our church community life, our positions of influence, our entrenched interests.

All of those are threatened by taking the Gospels seriously and letting them radically sift, reorder, and transform the community dynamics and social patterns of our churches.

It’s easier to relegate their clear message to the “safe zone” of our hearts and label calls to actually obey them as “liberal,” “emergent,” or “social gospel.”

Or, here’s a new one: “That’s something N. T. Wright would say.”

Comments

  1. Michael Spencer wrote a very similar post in 2005 entitled Read It Again and Don’t Skip the Hard Parts.

    He wrote :

    We are getting a lot wrong. Our ministry should look like the ministry of Jesus. Our “Christianity” should grow right out of those first chapters of Mark. Our goal should be lives that embrace what Jesus shows us during those months in the dusty, desperate villages of Galilee. We need to return to the Gospels believing they matter, and quit avoiding the tensions created by Jesus as he lived the ultimate “purpose-driven” life in the real world.

  2. How can anybody call this gospel?

    ‘[The gospel is] the announcement of the arrival of the long-awaited kingdom of God—the announcement that God has come in Jesus to begin his work of reclaiming and redeeming the world, which begins with a redeemed people—a holy people who will manifest, in their social practices, the very life of God on earth.”

    When in history has there been among Christians a “holy people who manifest in their social practices the very life of God on earth?” Never. All this stuff about Christians living as in the world as a holy people is pure law. If you believe this is the gospel you’ll die in despair. You won’t find it. the church is full of imperfect people, always has been and always will be.

    • Therefore…. what? Stay home, quote Luther, and be thankful for grace?

      • Aidan Clevinger says:

        I don’t think he’s saying this is ALL we should do – he’s just saying you have to have a good understanding of the Gospel before you can move on to the question of Christian service.

        • flatrocker says:

          And with any luck we can spend a life time studying.
          And so can all those pesky widows, orphans and prison folk too.
          Can’t wait to meet them all for the first time and compare notes on the other side.

      • “Stay home, quote Luther and be thankful for grace” would actually be a very good start, yes.

        As for the widows, orphans and prisoners, the Socail services of the State do a great job, and I am glad to pay my taxes, thank you!!

        • Tom, that last sentence is sarcasm, right? It’s tough to tell without a facial expression or vocal inflection to go along with it. Because I’m pretty sure Luther has something to say about Christian living that involves more than paying taxes so someone else can serve the poor, the widows, orphans and prisoners. Dickens did, too, but I’m not sure he’s authoritative.

          • BCKemp, Dickens works for me:

            “At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

            “Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

            “Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

            “And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

            “They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”

            “The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.

            “Both very busy, sir.”

            “Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”

        • Elizabeth says:

          Yes, please say that was sarcasm – the scriptures never say ‘pay unto Caesar and let him care of the widows and orphans’ but rather it’s very clear in James that doing that ourselves is ‘true religion’.

        • David Cornwell says:

          “As for the widows, orphans and prisoners, the Socail services of the State do a great job,”

          Except when we need to cut spending, then food stamps are the obvious place to start.

        • Adrienne says:

          Tom ~ I sure do hope that was sarcasm. I am a widow and how grateful I am that good neighbors and friends don’t take that attitude. The State doesn’t help me with yard work or listen when I am really having a bad day or pray for/with me. I’m not looking for handouts, I work hard and I volunteer in my community doing what I can do. If that was not sarcasm it scares me.

          • AnonyMouse says:

            I think the two churches I have been an active member of since my husband died 25 years ago skip over the Gospels and the book of James. I was widowed in my early 40s and never, never has anyone from the Baptist or Lutheran churches come to me and asked if I needed help, physical or emotional or spiritual. Widows, in the church are seen as elderly ladies with canes and walkers, not 40somethings with children still to raise. Now as I am in my senior years with major health problems, I am in situations where I definitely need help. I have given up on church because it’s just too painful to sit in the pew and be ignored. My family lives several hours away, so these days I struggle to find drivers to get to medical appointments and tests, sometimes relying on neighbors and friends but mostly forcing myself to get there by myself. How I wish that someone would say, “If you need a ride, call me. If I can’t take you, I’ll find someone who can.” Instead I am on my own and face the reality and stress of being turned down by church members who are busy, working, or going on vacation. The community I thought I had just isn’t there.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Therefore…. what? Stay home, quote Luther, and be thankful for grace?

        Too easy to slip into sit at home, do nothing, study your Bible, pray your prayers, and be Justified by FAITH FAITH FAITH FAITH FAITH. While your late pastor’s widow has to eat out of a dumpster.

    • Boaz, I see where you’re coming from but I’m not sure that “a redeemed people – a holy people” necessarily implies perfection.

      The Gospel surely is the announcement that in Jesus God is among His people, reclaiming and redeeming the world – and more than that, for us in these latter days, the knowledge that He has done so through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Are you saying that we should have no response to that, flawed and sinful though we be? I’m right there with you that there is nothing we can do to earn salvation or that our living is ever 100% pleasing to God. That doesn’t mean that the Gospel doesn’t demand a response from us or that God doesn’t have expectations of us. Isn’t that why Luther spends so much time on the Old Adam, renewing baptism daily, and the response to God’s commandments in the catechisms?

    • Boaz, this all reminds me of the wrist bands and the going on the last few years about “What would Jesus Do?” Now we all know in our hearts that we would have a difficult time doing what Jesus would do. In reality we all know that we can’t do all the things Jesus would do. Not the way he did them. Peter Gomes really hit the point when he wrote that the real question isn’t what Jesus would do, it’s “What would Jesus have us do?” The verse Tm Gombis centers his post around is exactly what Jesus would have us to to.

      The problem is that we have no intention, no desire, to do what Jesus told us to do if it means we might dirty our hands, or expose ourselves to a dangerous situation, or suffer social embarrassment. And, because we do not, we’ve formulated a gospel that allows us to outright deny the Lord’s desires for us. That’s the problem.

      We know we can never be perfect in this world, or even live in a way that we would not be condemned except for the work of our Lord. It’s not possible in the body we all live in. Paul pointed that out in Romans 7 very nicely. He also pointed out that it’s not about what this body does, good or bad. It’s what we desire in hearts to do.

      • Perhaps this is why many Christians avoid the following situations:

        1. Get to know that single mother working a couple of jobs eeking by with welfare support from the state.
        2. Get to know that successful buisnessmen who’s also homosexual. Why? Knowing that he may go to a bathhouse or use Craigslist for a sexual hook up is too uncomfortable for most fundys.
        3. Get to know the angry atheist who hates being an atheist but can’t see eye to eye like many fundys do…
        4. Get to know that alcoholic that has about 10 DUIs, multiple court situations in court all the while the alcoholic rages on and he’s drinking himself to death.
        5. Get to know that businessmen who is quite secular. He’s successful, has a good career, good girlfriend he’s living with and is comfortable. The trick is he’s miserable and wants more but doens’t know how and the few Christians he’s met scare the shit out of him because they are weird.
        6. Get to know the drug addict who is addicted to methampetamines. Yes its tough…they sold all their belongings and while homeless break into their family’s house to find more goods that can be liquidated for drugs.
        7. Get to know that female who had an abortion and is living with the shame. Get to know that many Christians when they found out turned their back on her and asked, “How could you kill a child?” When in reality she was just scared and didn’t think she would get pregnant.
        8. Get to know the middle aged homosexual infected with AIDS who is wasting away in a hospice facility in a major metropolitian area. The fact that he has AIDS and how he got it however will probably spook most people.
        9. Get to know the person that is dealing with mental illness. Yes he’s dealing with deep depression and yes he doens’t see a reason to live. And yes they tried killing themself twice now..both suicide attempts failed.

        There are many things that fundagelicals can do. The question is this….will they leave their mega chruch or chruch environment in the upper white, middle class suburb? Or is that too comfortable?

        • Kerri in AK says:

          Eagle, I think you can swap out “fundy” for practically any church going type. I certainly wouldn’t expect any (or many) of the Anglican church I attended in England to actively engage with those you listed. If it were someone they knew personally in their small community, yes, a helping hand would be extended but to look beyond that? And to keep on looking outward? Less and less likely, unfortunately.

          It’s a socio-economic thing as I see it. And I see it in myself; this reluctance to come with open hands and an open heart to those who are different from me. I was raised in a solidly middle class, college educated family in a neighborhood of similar families. But having lived two years in an English community that gave a safe place for the losers of the world to try to get their lives back in order was an eye-opener. That and being attracted to St. Francis and his wacky, crazy literalism has been the smack upside the head I needed. It’s what we all need, really, on both sides of the Atlantic.

        • Or the lesbian couple down the street who adopted a sibling set of three out of foster care and are struggling to heal severly traumatized children – you could offer to mow the lawn since that’s probably low on the list of priorities comparied to getting a 2, 3 and 6 year old to trust that they are not going to be abandoned again.

          Or how about doing busness the single, secular business woman who is quite happy with her life, loves being self-employed, and volunteers her time reading to kids and sets up a regular donation of 2% of her busness profits to a food shelf.

          Or work with a Mosque during Ramadan on a food drive. Whichever congregation, the Mosque or the Church, which brings in the least food has a free car wash for the other congregation.

          Or is seeing a non-Christian lead moral, happy, fully human lives too far out of your comfort zone?

          Just a thought.

          • You make some really good points. There are others who also need help who many fundys would avoid becuase its too messy.

            Others to consider…

            1. Veterans from Iraq or Afghanistan who have been maimed or physically hurt by an IED.
            2. Current war veterans dealing with PTSD or other mental diseases…
            3. The man unemployed for 2 years who has given up on trying to find a job.
            4. The Buddhist temple looking for volunteers for a food drive.
            5. The local synogogue doing a blood drive and needing help.
            6. The local gay part of the city doing an HIV testing push that needs volunteers. How many fundys would step up to the plate for that…? Hmmmmmmmmmmmmm…..

          • Hilary,

            Are you suggesting that Lesbians can not mow their grass b/c they are women? How insulting. Also are you saying that being adopted by two people who are openly sticking a finger in the eye of the basic building block of society and who are trying to promote as normal behavior that which was considered abberhant and a pyschological disfunction until the Medical community caved to political correctness is not going to just further traumatize these poor hypothetical children?

            I thought the left has been telling us for years now that single moms/gay couples could not only be adequate parents and “family units” but they could do it even better and with more gusto than us poor old boring traditionalist.

    • I think it’s the Gospel simply because the church is full of imperfect people. That’s the point. God chooses to work in our midst despite us, not because of us. I don’t think the author is making a case for work-based salvation at all. All he’s saying that people who claim to be Christ followers, should, well, follow Jesus. Was Jesus asking the disciples to save themselves when He asked them to follow Him? Certainly not. But He was saying that His presence in their midst demanded a response.

    • Richard Hershberger says:

      This is a good illustration of why the LCMS does not tempt me, despite its having some other virtues and despite the ELCA having its share of faults. This isn’t to suggest that this attitude is universal in the LCMS, but the mere fact that it can be expressed with a straight face is a problem.

      To address the argument that what was expressed is not Gospel at all, but actually Law, is that it is only Law when it is the answer to the question “What must I do to be saved?” When Jesus told the rich man to sell everything he owned and give it to the poor, he was ironically commanding the rich man to do something beyond his ability. The point Jesus makes over and over is that there is nothing we can do to be saved. So “What must I do to be saved?” is the wrong question. A better question is “What ought I do, knowing that my salvation has been given to me?”

      I never thought about it before, but I suspect that the LCMS is not a fan of Bonhoeffer, what with his ecumenical leanings. This is a pity, as he wrote one of the classics of modern Christian literature, “The Cost of Discipleship” in which he discusses just this question, and rejects what he calls “cheap grace”.

    • humanslug says:

      I don’t think Gombis’ definition of the Kingdom can be so easily dismissed as legalism.
      And maybe one reason we’ve so often failed to reflect the Kingdom in the way we conduct ourselves in society is because we’ve too often boxed in Christ’s message and example as the exclusive domain of theology and ecclesiology and somehow detached from the “real” world.
      But on those historic occasions when we do get it in our heads to actually “do” something, we can shake the world. Take, for example, the abolition of slavery and the slave trade.
      We can either look at Jesus’ social teachings as impossible bars that grace excuses us from even trying to jump, or we can see it as an invitation into a healthier, more active faith and love, which rather than weighing us down with feelings of guilt or inadequacy, should serve to liberate us from the chains of apathy, selfishness, and the fear of change.
      So what if we fall short? We will fall short — you can bet on it. But He can take our few loaves and fishes (as long as we’re willing to part with them) and do miraculous things in the real world.
      I think fear of legalism can be used to justify the fact that we would rather keep our fat backsides planted on the couch of comfortable religion, rather than getting up, getting out, exploring the Kingdom He has called us into, and getting the kind of exercise that yields eternal benefit.

    • I don’t know ask Jesus. He’s the one who called it the “Gospel of the Kingdom.”

      The “social practices” part may be construed as narrowing things a bit too much. I might give some reference to new creation. But the book of Acts certainly seems to suggest there was some serious social re-ordering going on.

      Lots of folks wimp out big time on things like “sharing everything in common” and assuming that the poor are going to be the first recipients of the Gospel, but there they are. Jesus died and rose to establish a Kingdom, and that’s what it looks like. There is a social and political dynamic there. This is not social law-keeping, it’s a defining character. To call this legalism is like saying it’s legalism to assert that blue light has a longer wavelength than red.

  3. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    I’ve had a number of conversations like that more recently. I spoke to one person about the church embodying Kingdom life through transforming corporate practices. He told me that was the “social gospel,” a distraction from the mission of the church.

    That’s the reaction you get from an Altar Call Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation. Anything else — justice, arts, Tikkun Olam? “It’s All Gonna Burn…”

  4. Aidan Clevinger says:

    I will, however, immediately hasten to add that the New Testament says several times that we are and are called to be holy people; first because we have the holiness of Christ through Baptism, and second because we need to live out good and holy lives in the midst of the world so as to be faithful to God and witnesses to Christ. That last part may not be Gospel, but it IS just as much a part of the Word. You can hold to that necessity while not compromising the idea that we’re still inherently sinful and always need the grace of God; it’s all over the Confessions.

  5. It’s easy to talk about this, and laugh and complain at the poor sobs who don’t pay attention to the Sermon on the Mount, but…”give to all who ask”? (Really?!) “Take no thought for the morrow…”? Or how about “Go and sell all that you have, and give it to the poor”? Turning the other cheek looks easy by comparison!

    If we were being more honest with ourselves, we would rip out those verses and flush them down the toilet. And turn out backs to the altar, saying “I don’t need you anymore.” And change the Lord’s Prayer to “MY will be done.” (I read an Orthodox story in which a priest commanded a couple he was confessing to really do this.) On the other hand, the nay-sayers are right–Jesus really IS being impractical here, and there is no way around it. Maybe it’s more of an ideal than a direct command.

    • I just thought of Danny Wallace’s memoir “Yes Man” (which has almost nothing to do with the Jim Carrey movie version). Wallace basically committed to say yes to…whatever anybody asked of him. Although this isn’t quite what the Sermon on the Mount says, the level of radicalism seems comparable. You’d think it would be a disaster, but to hear him tell it, it opened up his life in an almost magical way. For one thing, he met a woman during this experiment, and when she asked him to come live in Australia with her… (They are now married.) So maybe giving away all our possessions would be like that. (Not that I will ever know, tightwad that I am…)

    • Good point, but the “sell your stuff and give the money to the poor” thing was a specific command to one dude, not a universal mandate. It kind of bothers me when people get these two types of Jesus’ teachings mixed up.

      • You’re right, but in view of Jesus’s general radicalism (“give to all who ask”), it would be just like him to want everybody to give 100 %. After all, we’re not that different from that “dude.” Good thing he’s not around to make us feel guilty!

  6. Yes, I do believe that Jesus was telling people how to actually live their lives, not just giving ideas that they could turn into spiritual allegories. BUT, in the “Go and sell all that you have, and give it to the poor”…I don’t know that he intends for everyone to do that. He dined in the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. He dined at the home of Peter’s mother-in-law. He allowed people of means to attend to his daily needs. There is no indication that he thought these people should sell their homes or give away their money.

    Even with the disciples he chose to follow him most closely…they are STILL out fishing in their boats. We know that because at times he was with them in those boats. So when he asked those disciples to follow him, they did, but at least some of them still kept their boats and were still fishing.

    If everyone who had anything gave everything away to the poor, then THEY would become the poor and they would need the help. In the case of the man who Jesus said this to, the man may have been so identified with his wealth that it kept him from seeing his own spiritual needs. And I do think that many of us have so many possessions (stuff!) that we are burdened by the things instead of supported by the things. I know I have too much stuff and our goal this summer is to rid ourselves of some of the stuff.

    I like what Timothy Gombis has to say.

    • I agree with you Joanie- I’ve thought long and hard about the “sell all you have verse” and came to a similar conclusion. I was also reading something by Tim Keller about the early church community in Acts- he was saying with 3,000 plus converts, they could not have literally lived in some type of commune, rather those with means would sell some of their possessions and give to the apostles to distribute to the poor so that every one had enough.
      I’ve tried to be more aware of what I do with money in the past two years….and I’ve tried to be way more intentional to consistently giving to people/places that work to eradicate poverty. That being said, I look at my shoe collection- (and it really is a collection of sorts) and I do feel bad about it. The general gist of what Gombis is saying is something that I agree with- but here is what I would love- rather than pointing out the problem (and there is a place for that, not mad a Gombis) I would love for people to honestly and humbly communicate how they have tried to close the gap between what Jesus said and how they now live there lives- I feel like that is so often missing.

      • humanslug says:

        I think we can proceed on the general premise that anything we do out of love for our fellow humans is better than doing nothing. Jesus said that even something as simple and seemingly insignificant as giving a thirsty person a drink of water would be recognized and rewarded by God. As long as we view this as God’s invitation to participate in His world-changing work (which is as much to our own benefit as anyone else’s) —rather than some kind of performance test on which we will be strictly graded — and as long as we avoid grading ourselves by comparison (either with other Christians or even with Jesus Himself), then we’re free to do good things (either big or small) as free children of God.

    • Great thoughts JoanieD. Reminds me of Acts 5:4 “before you sold it, was it not yours?”
      We definitely have to be more holistic and contextual in our reading of the bible.

  7. I appreciate the author’s point but he does his point a disservice by “3 Stooging” (coined by me right here and now with permission for all to use without credit seeing I want my reward in heaven:) ) those who hold to other views. There are some robust theological views which embrave the Gospels quite readily but not with his results. The “you’re bad I’m good” method he uses is not convincing nor does it find as thorough a prescription as he might wish. EX: The lesson on footwashing by our Lord which was not about footwashing at all but forgiveness. Finally, even if the author is right he is wrong in elevating his preference for racial reconciliation over a myriad of other like considerations. He comes off rather self-righteous in this manner. But still he does bring about a point albeit in an uncoordinated fashion.

  8. “Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

    Wow. It’s so easy to breeze by a passage like this and boil it down to a simple, “Be nice to everyone, even if they are a little beneath you.” But if we’re to do what Jesus commands here, that means we first have to meet the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. Then we have to get to know them. Then we have to become friends with them. Then we have to put on a banquet for them, even if they can’t invite us to their house.

    What would that be like? Could we do that with warmth and joy? I have a feeling such a fresh approach would become a blessing upon blessing.

    When will I start?

    • Tokah Fang says:

      Actually, as one of the crippled, in our modern context meeting us where we are and coming to our house or taking us to a restaurant might be more helpful. I have been married about five years, and only gotten to perhaps 6 of my husband’s family’s events, because too many were are inaccessible houses. I like his family fine, they seem to like me, but I don’t really know them. The people who have gotten to know me, walk through life with me, have had to come to my accessible apartment, no matter how dingy it is or how bad a host I am. It also means limiting some of our social plans to things I can actually do. My limitations become the group’s limitations.

  9. Clay Knick says:

    We don’t want Jesus to disturb us so we make everything so spiritual. I’ve said it more than once that when the kingdom comes Jesus is going to look at Western Christians & say, “You didn’t get that stuff about affluence, did you?” I get stares when I’ve said this in Bible studies. No one says anything.

  10. Josh in FW says:

    Those red letter passages are definitely the most difficult ones for me.

    • I agree Josh, but they are my favorites.
      On the other hand, read Romans 13 and line that up with the Obama hating Christians. It can’t be done. My step father told me yesterday that a man in his church said “Somebody needs to kill Obama”.

  11. sowarrior says:

    “The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.”

    Soren Kierkegaard

    • +1 …when you become aware of the Truth, you also become responsible for it. Cold, hard fact.

    • I love that Kierkegaard quote! Reminds me of the Kasemann quote: “The history of Pauline scholarship is the account of the church’s domestication of the Apostle.”

  12. This is something N.T. Wright would post.

  13. David Cornwell says:

    The words of Jesus are not the tame words of social conformity and preservation of the status quo. The gospel of the Kingdom is quite radical in the response of it demands upon us. And it does not fit comfortably into the dogma of the left or the right. Jesus is the King, and we are to pray for the fulfillment of that Kingdom. And somehow we need to live in the present fullness of its meaning.

    It’s upsetting, isn’t it?

  14. Understanding the honor/shame cultural value explains the passage about who you invite to your parties. In Jesus’ time, people of high-status (like he was talking to) would throw parties as ways to accrue honor and increase their reputation in the community. While it is undoubtedly nice to do good things for poor and misfortunate people, I think Jesus’ real point was to encourage his wealthy audience to behave in a way that would benefit other people and increase their treasure in heaven rather than their own earthly honor – hence the comment about those who could pay their hosts back.

    This is a lot different from our society because we don’t usually throw parties with the same motivations or cultural assumptions as Jesus’ first-century audience. We don’t usually get much repayment or more than breaking even from out party guests. And disclaimer, I don’t throw parties at all, or even go to them very often, so I have no personal stake in this. While Jesus does present many challenges to us, understand the cultural values of his original audience sheds a lot of light and clarifies some of his challenging teachings that are sometimes less straightforward than they appear.

    That being said, I totally agree with this gist of this post and think the church likes to skip past what Jesus said and just read Paul – which, while important, isn’t the whole picture.

    “That’s something N. T. Wright would say.”

    I lol’d. I can’t wait for someone to tell me this in a disapproving tone.

  15. The Gospels point to what a gracious God does, and what He demands of us, also.

    There’s not a one on us who is up to it. There’s not a one of us who isn’t bound by the self-centeredness of our sin.

    So…maybe we need a Savior.

    What then should we do? What do you want to do? Because of Christ, you are free. So go and do what you will and know that you are forgiven for even the best that you do. Even in that your deeds will be tainted in some way of self-motivation.

    __

    The real trouble with much of Evangelicalism is that it is too cotton-pickin’ religious. Always placing the ‘self’ at the center of everything, instead of Christ Jesus and His pure gospel for the forgiveness of sins.

    • Joseph (the original) says:

      James 1:27
      Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

      i am assuming then that there is religious expression, or lifestyle that God does approve of…

      but what abou that pesky passages in both Matthew 5 & 18 where Jesus says gouging out an eye or cutting off a foo/hand that causes you to sin. and Jesus further explains it is really out of the heart that sin resides. but then He implies it is not the organs or limbs of our physical body that is the repository of sin, but it is indeed a spiritual condition…

      no need to cut out your heart to avoid being thrown into hell/eternal fire (is this Ghenna in the greek?)…

      i do think there is much cultural nuance in Jesus’ sayings when preaching to the common folk vs. the religious leaders. the common folk understood the weighty ‘religious’ stuff they had to do to be a good Jew, but that did not make them the elite. much religious observation, but it was not expressed to their fellow man, but to the religious institution that required their participation…

      there are things Jesus said that were going to be understood as a new ‘religious’ practice or expression that was not based on priestly ordinances & sacrifices & jumping thru hoops to impress the religious organization of the day. no need to go to the Temple to do the works of the kingdom. simple hospitality taken to the nth degree as Jesus is used to doing in making His point. radical in its application & effective in exposing the heart of the hearer(s)…

      • “but what abou that pesky passages in both Matthew 5 & 18 where Jesus says gouging out an eye or cutting off a foo/hand that causes you to sin. and Jesus further explains it is really out of the heart that sin resides. ”

        Yes, Joseph (the original), that is a problem.

        So Jesus bids us to “die”. And He wants it so much, that He even does it for us. In Romans 6 we see that in our baptisms we are put to death, along with Christ. But He doesn’t leave us dead…He raises us to brand new life in that same baptism (also Romans 6).

      • I’d recommending reading Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy for a good treatment of the Sermon on the Mount. Willard takes the position that the sermon has a trajectory, showing how Christ-followers will be transformed. It’s not that the things Jesus is talking are things that we must to do to enter the Kingdom, but rather they are things that people in the Kingdom will do. As far as gouging out eyes and cutting off limbs, it seems pretty clear to me that Jesus is engaging the the timed-honored tradition in Middle Eastern speech of hyperbole. After all, it’s not the fact that we have eyes and limbs that causes us to sin. It the fact that our hearts are unchanged.

  16. My we are defensive, are we not?

    Peter thought people should be donating literally all they had in Acts 5. It seems to me to be one of those moments when he gets way ahead of himself. I think the incident in John 21 must have occurred after that, when the Eleven’s original implementation of the gospel for the poor and Peter’s triumphalism, collapsed under its own weight. Jesus reiterates, “If you love me, feed my lambs.” Food is always food, but it is also nourishment of another kind: the Body of Christ. The Knowledge of Good and Evil. Money is what you render to Caesar. I believe Jesus told the rich young man, let go of gaining and having and spread your treasure – recall that he followed the Law and Jesus loved him for it – among those who don’t have it.

    We were Hippies once, and young; we tried to live all things in common, but it didn’t work out the way we expected. Jesus was the *cornerstone* of the new temple, not the *capstone*. There is work for us to do before the Kingdom is assembled, laboring under God’s direction. We do what Jesus commanded when we try our best to detach from ownership and pride of place and seek to make our society more just, more loving, more caring as He cared.

    • David Cornwell says:

      And we forget that all we are asked to pray for is our daily bread. There is not much about the accumulation of great riches or power. Modern heresy can be subtle.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      We were Hippies once, and young; we tried to live all things in common, but it didn’t work out the way we expected.

      And the Hippies of the 1960s became the Yuppies of the 1980s, Power Suits, Arbitrage Deals, Conspicuous Consumption and all.

      • That Other Jean says:

        Only some of them, HUG, but the ones who did gave the rest of us a reputation for selling out.

  17. It is interesting that irreligious forces are telling Christians to keep their beliefs to themselves – in their homes and churches, but the opposite side – the Randian/Glenn Beck forces are saying the same thing in their attacks on the “social gospel”. Both sides are reducing the faith to internal pietism. I recall the quote of Kant when he said a man should be ashamed to be caught praying.

    But I also recall the days of James Snyder and “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. There is a real extreme to be avoided, a left-wing doppleganger of the conservative cultural war dominion theology.

  18. I suspect Gombis is a hypocrit since by the picture he still has both eyes. I can’t see his hands, but I’m assuming he still has two of those as well.

  19. It is the cross which we most wish to avoid. It is the dissolution of our current comfortable state and not one of us goes happily toward it.

  20. Great Awakening revivalists were very social conscious. They did many good things, from fighting against slavery and child labor and fighting for humane working conditions, women suffrage, etc. But it still turned holiness into social action apart from ones personal life. That is why, despite earlier comments dogging Luther, that the Lutheran view of vocation and being a neighbor are probably more line with the gospel without throwing grace out the window. One can lobby for an end of poverty in regions far away while driving by ones neighbor’s house day-after-day with no idea of the quiet desperation inside. One can lobby for justice for the poor while at the same time defrauding his or her employer or customers. I’m all for social justice and believe much of he good that the revivalists accomplished are now being erased by the actions of conservatives engaged in the cultural war. But the sinful nature is deceptive beyond comprehension. The sinful nature loves to appear pious through participation in social consciousness while secretly destroying those nearest and dearest. The John Edwards fiasco comes to mind.

    Any goal of making a great or greater society are code words for disaster. The Prohibition is a case study of how the road to utopia can quickly become the highway to hell.

  21. Tim, could you point me to a couple of Scripture passages which speak of the Gospel being that Jesus came to “redeem the world’ . All I can come up with speak of people being redeemed. Thanks.

    • Hi Carter,
      Summing up many OT promises in the prophets, Revelation 21 depicts a new heavens and new earth (better, “renewed heavens and earth”), which are cleansed of corrupted elements. The Creator God doesn’t abandon his creation after the fall, but sets out to reclaim it–along with people! Romans 8 gets at this, to some extent, which seems to depicts creation groaning for humanity’s redemption so that humanity can once again play its rightful role of causing creation to flourish.

      • Why make the case on Revelation? Why not John 3:17? “For He sent His Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.”. It is also worth noting that the Greek for world here is Kosmon, “the whole world” or “all that exists.” That’s reasonably all encompassing I think.

      • Are not renewal and reclaiming totally different than redemption? It seems that the Scriptures teach that people are redeemed by Christ and creation is going to be renewed for the Redeemed Ones. Am I missing something?

        • Well, Creation is being redeemed to its creator. As Paul says in Colossians, “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”

          The renewal of humanity and the renewal of the earth go hand in hand. After all, we are the stewards of the earth, so renewed stewards will actively participate with God in the renewing of Creation. That doesn’t mean we do it through our own effort, though. It’s the Spirit working through us.

          • I’m still missing it. I don’t see redemption. Are you trying to make reconciliation and redemption as synonyms? Renewal and redemption as synonyms?

          • Essentially, yes, I am making all those words synonymous in some respect. They don’t exactly mean the same thing, but they are used somewhat interchangeably to describe what is happening in the world. Redemption has undertones of being bought back or released from slavery. We and all of creation was sold into slavery of death, but because of Christ’s work on the cross, that is being undone. We are being brought back to the original good purposes of creation.

            What exactly do you think the issue with putting it in these terms?

          • My thinking is that if the Scriptures never speak of Creation being “redeemed” and only of people being redeemed, then it may be unwise for us to do so lest we communicate things about the world which God is not seeking to communicate.

            We do know that God cursed creation when our first parents sinned and consequently groans under that curse. We do know that there will be a new heaven and a new earth. My present thinking on this is that broken people need to live in a broken world to “help” bring us to Christ and to yearn for a “world” which is yet to come and when we are again made whole (fully redeemed) at the return of Christ, God will give us a whole (renewed) world in which to live.

      • Isaac (or possibly Obed) says:

        We’ve also got that passage in Romans 8 that discusses how the whole of creation has been “groaning together in the pains of childbirth” as it eagerly awaits the time when it will “be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” The passage ties our redemption and salvation to the restoration of the rest of creation. It’s probably one of my favorite chapters.

  22. If Tim can’t do so seeing that he may not read this blog, Mike perhaps you can provide some for me since you are quoting from his book.

  23. Can we just be done with the fear of “works salvation”, worry less about saving ourselves, but instead just surrender and follow Jesus… who cares if it looks “emergent” or “faithless” or like “works”. I just want to live in a world where the fruits of following Jesus abound (love, peace, selflessness, humility, beauty, etc) and that’s never going to happen unless people do tangible, physical things – works of faith. I second Gombis’s points and I’m tired of christians (including myself) keeping Jesus tucked safely away in only their hearts, endlessly fussing about motives and what’s going on in their hearts and “you can never work your way to heaven…” For God’s sake, get up and do something! Over and over again I read in the NT where Jesus or an apostle tell us to obey, do things, act – as the way to love Him and draw near to Him. I go to church and I hear everyone saying the opposite…get your heart right first, develop a relationship with God so you can then go do good things… I fear for us western christians…when the holy accounting is done, we are going to be in trouble.

    • Isaac (or possibly Obed) says:

      It’s easy to slip into various extremes. On the one hand, you’ve got folks that are so obsessed with personal piety and moralism that they REALLY need to be assured of grace. My default position is rather Pharisaical, so I need to constantly be reminded that there’s nothing I can do or not do that will make God like me better. On the other hand, I’ve also got a tendency to be lazy and selfish and thus need to be reminded of Jesus’ boots-on-the-ground teachings.

  24. First, I think it is unfair for N. T. Wright (according to Gombis) to apparently confuse legitimate “centering” on the core of gospel with the sort of historical raping of the gospel that Rudoph Bultman advocated.
    Second, Gombis accuses Evangelicals in rather sweeping fashion of relegating Jesus’ commands to motive-purification, ignoring that he’s calling for purposeful transformation of actual social practices. I have lived a long time (57 years) and the reality from my perspective is a mixed bag with Evangelicals addressing both heart transformation AND actual social needs better than any other group of people I know of. See, it is actually possible to generalize about Evangelicals in positive ways too.

  25. I couldn’t read this article and not share it. This is the sort of message that needs to be spread. We have grown way to comfortable as a church. We are a people pleasing, seeker sensitive, feel good congregation. I’m talking about the church as a whole, and not any specific congregation. We are so afraid that a real gospel message would scare away possible church members, or even current ones, that we have stopped telling the truth.

  26. It was pointed out in something I read (wish I could remember what) that Jesus says explicitly exactly what to do to get into heaven/avoid hell (well, to be welcomed into Kingdom/avoid the eternal fire, but we tend to think of those as the same thing). Matthew 25:31-46. As far as I know in the Gospels, no where else does Jesus say what needs to be done to enter heaven.

    I know this falls into works-based salvation which is up there with communism and eating puppies in terms of how quickly American Christians will recoil from it. The recipe is simple: feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, help shelter the homeless and visit the sick and the imprisoned. As much as I disliked Colson, I do give him credit for actually following this part of the Gospel.

    I think this ties into the other discussion today about the primacy of the Gospel vs. the primacy of the Epistles. The Gospel demands some truly radical and difficult things in stark and plain language. The Epistles demand less in terms of societal action and more in terms of personal, internal action (at least as far as I am aware, although I do have to admit not knowing all the Epistles well at all).

  27. I don’t have patience to read all the comments. I simply wanted to say thank you . This needs to be said and loudly. Jesus was fairly radical and his gospel was … powerful. Yes, much of that is lost in the church today.

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