gospel in culture and history

I raised some important questions in my last post summed up with this: if we have a gospel that is more modern than biblical, what should Christians do?

Well for starters, I think we need to know the influence of culture and history on our beliefs, especially when it comes to something as central as the gospel.

One of my favorite Bible verses is Hebrews 13:8 - “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”  It expresses the timeless reality of Jesus, the center of the gospel.

Yet so often in our attempts to be faithful in how we understand the timeless reality of Jesus Christ, our present understanding of Jesus and the gospel - our theology - is made out to be “the same yesterday and today and forever.”

If we look at history and culture there are several examples of genuine personal renewal in faith, especially related to personal salvation (e.g. Martin Luther, John Wesley, and Mennonite Brethren). Situations in history and culture led to these important moments in these individuals and the Christian faith. To varying degrees, their influence is still felt. Whether it was Luther’s reaction against a rigid Catholic hierarchy in 16th Century, or Wesley’s personal renewal from a stagnant faith - his “heart strangely warmed” - or the Mennonite Brethren pietistic revival amidst colony life in Russia, the personal experience of salvation has been rightly reasserted again and again.

But what happens when these radical examples go from counter-cultural expressions of the gospel, to reflecting norms in broader society? What happens when the gospel becomes normal? Or easy and straightforward? What happens, again, when the gospel becomes modern?

To be brief (I could say WAY more), in our modern culture the salvation-only gospel is incomplete. It’s simplistic, impersonal, too easy, too free, individualistic, and lacking a complete picture of Jesus. The gospel in this manner can end up mirroring what we want, not what the Bible actually says.

And so we need to recognize just how influential culture and history are. A gospel once freeing and transformational, risks becoming an easy formula for a discipleship-less gospel. History and culture changes; how we understand the gospel needs to as well.

But this does not mean every claim to truth about Jesus is relative - Hebrews 13:8 is as true as ever. We just need to know our biases and realize just how influential modern values (positively and negatively) are on Christian faith and practice. And then we need to realize that the timeless truths of Jesus need to be communicated for every age. Indeed, "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever." But how Jesus Christ is understood changes from age to age.

Next question: what is the gospel for today?


**This set of posts emerged from a sermon I preached, “Salvation-only Gospel.” You can listen here.**

salvation-only gospel


Our church has recently been asking the question, “What is the gospel?”

And if we take Paul’s words seriously that the unity of the gospel is of utmost importance (Gal. 1-2), how we answer this question is crucial.

In my sermon this past week I took a look at the “salvation-only gospel” (you can listen here).

Now, I’ve already talked about some of this recently (see here and here). Essentially, when the gospel (“good news”) of Jesus Christ gets boiled down to personal salvation - a transaction between us and God - we end up with a gospel that is more modern than biblical.

Like I said in reference to cliches, we read passages like John 3:16 through a individualistic grid (“what’s in it for me?”). All one has to do is make a decision - “invite Jesus into your heart” as it’s typically communicated. Personal salvation - “eternal life” in the future sense - is the gospel. Christian identity hinges on internal belief in Jesus as saviour. Everything else (e.g. following Jesus) is additional or extra. Or worse, everything else is optional. We risk settling for internal assurance at the expense of whole-life transformation. We have belief without action (discipleship). We believe in Jesus but struggle to (or just don’t) follow him.

For a North.American evangelical church so entrenched in a salvation-only gospel, there are some key questions that need asking:

Isn’t this the main message of Christianity? Isn’t personal salvation the gospel?
Isn’t critiquing the personal salvation gospel just succumbing to postmodern skepticism?
Does this mean salvation is about works?
Maybe people who struggle to believe and follow don’t really grasp their salvation (i.e. they were never really saved)?
Shouldn’t we just preach personal salvation more?
And then teach and model discipleship better?

Essentially, if we do have a gospel that is more modern than biblical, what should Christians do? 
More to come...

cliché christianity

I’ve talked about clichés before (it’s actually one of my most viewed posts - because I talk about hockey!). But I want to consider the definition of cliché a little more.

Cliché: a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse.

Despite this negative definition, clichés often still play a prominent role in our everyday lives. We use them all the time, whether it's to one another or to ourselves.
  • Kids wearing you out? Have patience...
  • Feeling negative? Focus on the positives in life...
  • Uncertain about the future? Weigh all your options...
  • Tired of ‘boring’ everyday life? Find your passions...
On and on and on we go. Cliché after cliché.

The thing is, all these clichés are still truth. They’ve just become shallow truth - motivational statements to provide a sort-of therapeutic comfort in the face of struggle or uncertainty.

For Christians, there is a common tendency to turn our faith into cliché, especially familiar parts of the Bible. Take John 3:16 for example:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
Consider how is this verse often viewed: God loves you - look at Jesus! Now just believe.

Becoming a Christian is simple: believe.

Believe. Believe. Believe. Believe. Believe. Believe. Believe...

Believe and you can be a Christian and “have eternal life.” Having doubts? Just believe!
Oversimplifications aside, I’m worried that Christians don’t always realize the impact or breadth of influence clichés have on our faith. For John 3:16, I wonder:
  • Has John 3:16 become cliché?
  • Is it possible, through the constant repetition of this famous verse and concept, that believing itself has become cliché?
  • Has narrowing Christian identity down to this one verse resulted in a loss of “originality, ingenuity, and impact” for the Christian gospel?
And so, if "yes" is even a potential answer to these questions, I think Christians need to become self-aware for how we approach our most common beliefs lest we lose all meaning for what we profess is so important. I don't think anyone wants cliché Christianity.

Essentially, we’d do well to always have this question in our minds: Has our faith become cliché?


CHRISTIAN art

What comes to mind with the phrase, “Christian art”? Especially contemporary Christian art.

Be honest.

Or, what do you think of this picture?In my experience, whether it’s pictures, paintings, music, or movies, modern Christian art can more often than not be summarized as mediocre art with an explicit Christian message. Or more plainly, CHRISTIAN art. Somehow, for the message to clear enough the medium needs to be less-than-enough. We wouldn’t want good art to distract from the message after all!

Well, as one who tends to communicate with the aid of images and artwork, and who most often speaks to Christian themes and idea, I find this state of Christian art very frustrating.

But that’s changing...

There are some artists creatively exploring how to make good Christian art, without accepting mediocrity as an option. Instead of starting with the Christian message artists attempt to creatively reflect, embody, and translate the Christian message in a variety of different ways. For example, I find this picture (right) far more truthful of Jesus and the cross - called “Passion” by Chidi Okoye - than the one above.

So here’s a few places I’ve recently come across that give access to good quality Christian ART:

Please share more if you have other sources...

resurrection and reconciliation

I’ve been reflecting a lot on the relational implications of Easter ever since my post from last week, “the offense of the cross.”

The New Testament is full of radical teaching and admonition for a new era of relationships - the relationship between God and humanity as well as relationships between humans themselves (and you could add all of creation).

Galatians 3:28 is one of the most incisive of these radical teachings: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

But we don’t often think of these passages in relation to Easter - this time to focus on Jesus’ death and resurrection. Most often, and rightly so, Easter leads us to simply stand in awe at God’s great love for humanity displayed on the cross.

Yet such response is hard to sustain. We attempt to devoutly love Jesus simply for “Jesus’ sake” all the while realizing such a commitment detaches ourselves - the very object of God’s love - from the equation (My friend Ryan recently offered some helpful thoughts that influenced this post). Resurrection is all about God’s work, indeed, but a work for us.

What does Jesus’ death and resurrection mean for us?

Looking at the contrasts in Genesis 2-3 is one place to start. The unity between God and humans in Genesis 2 describes a situation where love simply is - God and humans in full harmony. Contrast this with the fear and shame of the post-fruit God-human relationship of Genesis 3 and we can’t help but want – in fact need – something from God. To be full image bearers united with God (Gen. 2) we need to overcome the absence of unity (Gen. 3). We call this the problem of sin. But note how right from the beginning the problem is relational - division contrasts God’s original intention of unity. As history reveals - and likely our personal lives to varying degrees - our most basic human need is to repair this division.

We need reconciliation.

Jesus’ witness on Palm Sunday and Good Friday reveals how subversive and costly fulfillment of this need is. Unity cannot come through coercion as only God truly knows. And then resurrection Sunday speaks to the beauty and breadth of new life, humanity united once again with God. Without Easter, we wouldn’t be capable of loving God or each other – “We love because he first loved us” (1 Jn. 4:19).

In this sense, Easter is all about reconciliation - reconciliation with God and one another. Resurrection presumes a return of relationship, not just a cosmic stamp of approval that guarantees our entry into heaven (as the benefits of Easter are too often communicated). Nor is resurrection merely an intellectual concept for consideration. And we definitely aren’t passive recipients of God’s love when it comes to resurrection. With the reconciliation of the resurrection comes our full participation - “fellowship” - with God in all we do (1 Jn. 1:3).

And so we hear Paul assert we are “all one in Christ”; we read stories of transformation and growth in the early church; we look at the sustained love and witness of Christians throughout the ages; and we remember all this is based on the tangible reconciling work of Jesus' death and resurrection - death to life, disunity to unity.
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 (Col 1:19-20)

everyday resurrection - paska!

He is risen!

He is risen indeed!

So goes the familiar resurrection Sunday greeting, spoken around the world to commemorate that Friday’s suffering and Saturday’s waiting do not tell the whole story of Easter. Jesus, buried in the tomb, is dead no more.

For Christians, we believe this historical event some 2000 years ago was more than mere legend and more even than bizarre miracle in one man’s life. As the Apostle Paul reflects, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith...your faith is futile” (1 Cor. 15:14,17).

Resurrection is everything.

What does this mean for me? For us? For the world?

Resurrection is not just an intellectual concept we choose to accept or reject. Resurrection is a reality - the death-to-life path of Jesus becomes the death-to-life pattern of human existence. The suffering and death before our eyes does not tell the whole story.

I’ll be honest, it’s easy to forget this resurrection reality. It’s hard to maintain hope.

So we have symbols. The empty cross. Poems and songs. Prayers and celebrations. But these are mostly religious symbols - important, no doubt, but perhaps giving the impression that resurrection is only a religious reality.

But if resurrection is God’s ideal for all of reality, then we need to see resurrection as an everyday reality beyond religious ritual.

Where do you see resurrection in everyday life?

Which brings me to Paska - my favorite everyday symbol of resurrection.

A loaf of bread, layered in creamy sugary icing incites my senses in sight, smell, touch, and of course, taste. For me eating paska is a taste of heaven (“eschatological goody”), an encounter with the goodness that life - new life - has to offer. No wonder it’s called resurrection bread. It’s a tangible symbol of resurrection.

If you’re fortunate enough to eat paska this Easter, be thankful for resurrection in the everyday. Or find another everyday symbol for the reality of resurrection. And know this while you indulge and enjoy:

He is risen!

He is risen indeed!

the way of suffering

Remembrance on the way, as I reflected on yesterday, leads us to consider what exactly is this way?

For Jesus, very clearly, the way is suffering and ultimately death. Jesus’ words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (quoting Psalm 22) are only the beginning:

“…scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads...
“[laying] in the dust of death.
Dogs surround me,
a pack of villains encircles me;
they pierce my hands and my feet.
All my bones are on display;
people stare and gloat over me.
They divide my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment.” (Ps. 22:6-7, 16-18)

And this suffering is not just social rejection, but life rejection – death. As the book of Revelation reminds over and over, Jesus is indeed the “Lamb who was slain” (5:12).

On the cross Jesus takes our suffering – sin and death – onto himself. His suffering is an expression of God’s deep love for a wayward humanity. And yet suffering not as pointless or even abusive violence, but God’s very giving up of himself. As I read one comment this week, “The Cross is not the Big Father God pounding the Smaller Son God to death. It is the One God–Father, Son, and Spirit–who suffers in the Cross-event.” In Jesus, we have a god who suffers with us and for us.

Thank Jesus we are not alone in suffering. Thank Jesus, he not only suffers with us, but has suffered for us.

Yet in our thanksgiving for Jesus’ suffering on our behalf, we should still sense the tension. Suffering and death, we know, was not God’s original plan. Suffering and death are a result of sin and rebellion.

For Jesus, and for us as his followers, suffering is not simply for suffering’s sake. Suffering is not right. Behind the way of suffering and death there is a hope for the way of life – sin and death turned into freedom and resurrection. Yet with Jesus’ death, suffering seems to win. Today we see the suffering and ask, “Is this all there is?” We hope for more. We need more. We desperately long for more.

But all we see is suffering and death. Even God in the flesh – Jesus, the slain Lamb – suffers and dies.

Here on Friday, then, we are confronted with this uncertainty of suffering. And we wait. We ask. We ponder. We cry out. We acknowledge our suffering. We sense God’s presence as he suffers with us all the while wondering if his death is really the victory he promised it to be. We still suffer, after all.

Will suffering and death define us? In many ways, if we’re honest on this Friday of all Fridays, then yes, suffering and death does define us.

Seeing suffering and experiencing suffering, we wait.

Jesus, our hope, has suffered and died.

We wait on the way of suffering...

remembrance on the way

A Holy Thursday reflection:

“Do this in the remembrance of me” (Lk. 22:19).

As 21st Century Christians, we hear these words knowing how the rest of the account goes. We know it literally is the last supper as it’s so often called. For the disciples, they knew something was afoot, no doubt. Jesus had talked about his imminent departure enough for there to be a growing concern. But they didn’t know all the details. Peter exemplifies naive optimism in his commitment to follow Jesus even in death. But this only reveals how Peter and the disciples didn’t really know what lay before them.

And so Jesus’ invitation to remember is a bit puzzling – it comes in a place and at a time of uncertainty. In a sense, the disciples were invited to participate with Jesus while they were still on the way so to speak.

For us, while we know Jesus’ path led to the cross, this last supper calls us to recognize we also follow Jesus from places of uncertainty. While we can confidently place our hope in the promises that Sunday and resurrection bring – unlike the disciples at the actual last supper – much of our experience still relates to a pre-resurrection reality. Uncertainty – characterized here in the last supper and Jesus’ impending death – still occupies much of our experience:

Struggles with health.
Struggles with sin.
Struggles with personal direction and purpose.
Struggles with perseverance in our faith.
Struggles with relationships.
Struggles…

We see through the naivety of Peter’s commitment and question, “Really God? Follow you to the cross? There is too much uncertainty!”

But it’s right in this place of uncertainty that Jesus offers his invitation: “This is my body…this is my blood of the new covenant…eat and drink in remembrance of me.”

Remembrance – commitment to following Jesus as his first disciples did – happens in the midst of our uncertainty, not in spite of or only with our overcoming it.

The first last supper reminds us that we participate – fellowship, commune – with Jesus from this place of uncertainty – an uncertainty that extends into Good Friday and the cross. Like the first disciples, we respond to Jesus not once we have it all together, but on the way. Ours is a remembrance on the way...

the offense of the cross

On Friday Christians around the world will mark the death of Jesus. The cross, much more than symbol, carries with it much of the core of Christian belief. Yet the cross - the death of Jesus - remains one of the most difficult to understand and accept aspects of Christian belief. Even those within the Christian community debate and argue how exactly the cross is significant.

What is it about the cross that is controversial? Or, what’s “the offense of the cross” as Paul puts it?

I recently heard a pastor exhort Christians to not “underestimate how serious Paul was when it comes to the offensiveness of the cross.” We need to hammer this point home as preachers. Don’t back down from cultural pressure to dilute the offense of the Christian gospel. Interestingly, I also heard a different pastor say that was the most they’d been “yelled” at in a long time.

And so I've been reflecting: what is the offense of the cross?

There are a few spots that the apostle Paul talks about the offense or foolishness of the cross:
Gal. 5:11: “Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished.”

1 Cor. 1:18: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

1 Cor 1:23: “But we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”
Is the offense the cross itself? Is the offense that God, in Jesus, took unto himself the sins of the world, enduring a brutal death? Is Paul’s intention - writing to a group of squabbling Christians, let’s remember - to emphasize just how vicarious Jesus’ physical death was?

While no doubt offensive - God dying!?! - I’m not sure the details of Jesus physical death is the main offense. Sorry Mel Gibson. For Paul, a major component to the offense is actually the effect of the cross: uniting all people under God. The cross is foolishness in its claim of inclusion in a divided world. All sinners can be saved. Not just Jews. Not just Greeks. Not just individuals. Not just me... (Gal. 3:28)

We know Paul wrote to Christians who weren’t getting along. There was disunity that ran contrary to their beliefs and commitment to Jesus. Jewish Christians were excluding non-Jewish Christians (Gentiles). If Paul had agreed with these divisions (ie. circumcision of all men) people wouldn’t have been mad at him. There would be no offense in the cross if it didn’t challenge people’s concept of in and out, belonging and exclusion.

In a world as divided as ours and in a Christian faith as divided as ours, perhaps we need more of the “offense of the cross.” Let’s just be sure we get the right offensiveness, declaring and reflecting the “foolishness” of God’s love revealed in the cross.

Palm Sunday and April Fools

In a way, Palm Sunday and April Fools go well together - Jesus' triumphal entry, full of peoples' high expectations for their king, quickly turns to conflict and eventually the death of the king. "Hosanna!" turns to "crucify him!" in a matter of days. Palm Sunday is all about things not being what they seem. Kind of like April Fools.

This video from The Work of People illustrates the Palm Sunday-April Fools connection well: