Friday, October 21, 2016

The Only Point of the Church is the Gospel

 A World Undone?

These past few months seem to be strange times for our church and Christians in general.   As write this we are in the midst of a national election that is bringing up powerful emotions in everybody.   Some of us fear a Clinton presidency will bring about the end of all that they hold dear.   Others of us fear a Trump presidency will bring about a police state to our county that will be complete disaster.  Indeed, others of us lament the loss of civility and the possible ending of relationships if people knew how we really feel.  No wonder mental health professionals are speaking of “election anxiety”.    Like the emotions generated by 9-11 and the economic meltdown of 2008, this anxiety seems to be affecting large numbers of us. 

What is a Christian to do?

Lots of voices in the culture are crying for me to as a pastor speak out.  The caveat is that this is only if it is for their particular side, other opinions are greeted with disdain and if I disagree any legitimacy I may have is automatically called in to question. In North Carolina during the past few weeks both Franklin Graham of Samaritan’s purse who supports Donald Trump and ELCA Bishop Timothy Smith who criticizes Trump’s views on women, immigrants, and Muslims used the following quote to argue for supporting their respective views.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
                                                                                                           -Martin Niemoeller

You know it gets serious when people quote a pastor who spent World War II in a concentration camp, worked with Dietrich Bonhoeffer to make a place a for Christians who refused to belong to a church that accepted the “Aryan Laws” and spent the postwar years trying to get Germany to grapple with how their society went so wrong.   Both of these pastors from North Carolina are telling us Christians to be engaged and to speak out, but what should we actually speak?

I will answer with another quote, this one from missionary and theologian Leslie Newbigin:

The business of the church is to tell and to embody a story, the story of God’s mighty acts in creation and redemption, and of God’s promises concerning what will be the end.   The church affirms the truth of this story by celebrating it, interpreting it, and enacting it in the life of the contemporary world.”[1]

In short, we exist for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  

As scripture will tell us, this is whether the times are favorable or unfavorable.   If Hillary Clinton wins the election and Donald Trump loses, we live out the gospel and help a wounded society.  If Donald Trump somehow pulls out a surprise victory, we witness Jesus and work as Christ's ambassadors to a broken world.  In addition to telling the Gospel story, Newbigin uses the word embody so the gospel does not devolve into a mere ideology.   The actions he describes should look familiar to those who walk on the path of discipleship.   Celebrating as when we gather for worship or fellowship in what the bible calls koinonia, it is God’s people gathering to live out the truth that we are one common humanity in relation to God.    Interpreting, such as when we read the Bible and show how God’s story meets our story and the world we live in, and we grapple with how best to navigate all these relationships.   Finally, he speaks of enacting the Gospel in today’s world, which means small acts of love which add up to become grace for the afflicted.

This is not just a Spiritual Thing about the Next Life

When we embody the Gospel, we start to live as if the Kingdom of God is already here.   We welcome those world deems as unclean, we feed the hungry, visit the sick and those imprisoned sharing words of hope and deeds of love that bring spiritual, emotional, physical and intellectual comfort.  We do this because this is what Jesus did in the story of our sacred Scripture and because this is what Christ does today through those inspired by the Holy Spirit who serve their neighbors and world.

Because the Gospel is holistic it will always be political.   Jesus was political; handed over to the Romans and executed with a sign in three languages saying “the king of the Jews”.   His interrogation in John 19 is all about politics, “so you are a king” replies Pilate.  

There will be those extreme secularists who will argue we have no voice or are just a voice among voices.   Fundamentalists will say that we have nothing to say outside of those who already belong to their tribe.  Only if one becomes indoctrinated into their rigid culture and adheres to their litmus tests of purity is one given a voice.  Christ will call us to a different situation outlined in Scripture in such places such as Matthew 25.   Our razor to cut to the heart of the matter will be to ask questions such as how does the politics of the world affect God’s children?  It asks also questions like, who has the most authority? Or, who is most vulnerable?

In Christ Alone

The real heart of the matter in this toxic emotional environment engendered by the power politics of today is to ask the question where does my loyalty as a follower of Jesus Christ ultimately lie?   The biblical witness, and the witness of the faithful agree; it is to Christ.   Faithfulness to Christ is not synonymous with patriotism, and is certainly not synonymous with loyalty to a political party.   Conservative Evangelical leaders who have made political party loyalty a litmus test for authentic Christianity have created a pernicious heresy completely antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Liberal or progressive Christians who castigate those who espouse conservative views conform to the same worldly attitude.   The prevalent attitude of our culture was captured succinctly by journalist Matt Taibbi.

Lie No. 1 is that there are only two political ideas in the world, Republican and Democrat. Lie No. 2 is that the parties are violent ideological opposites, and that during campaign season we can only speak about the areas where they differ (abortion, guns, etc.) and never the areas where there's typically consensus (defense spending, surveillance, torture, trade, and so on). Lie No. 3, a corollary to No. 2, is that all problems are the fault of one party or the other, and never both. Assuming you watch the right channels, everything is always someone else's fault. Lie No. 4, the reason America in campaign seasons looks like a place where everyone has great teeth and $1,000 haircuts, is that elections are about political personalities, not voters.” [2]  

This is not the way of Jesus Christ; we are called to stand against such thinking. A person who has as their ultimate concern the furtherance of the Gospel will see the world differently than many.  This person will also realize that my faith relationship with Jesus Christ may lead me to have different concerns than they do and that we can disagree in love.  As I once heard Shane Claiborne say, it is how we disagree as Christians that really matters.  

The world may not view this perspective as legitimate, but I have met many Christians who hold views that cross firm party lines.   One can find a follower of Christ, who opposes abortion and the death penalty, who cares about the empowerment of women and worries that our jobs are going overseas, who is ready to welcome the refugee but worries about the size of government.  In fact, if as a disciple of Jesus Christ your views conform perfectly to a candidate’s or political party's, I would ask you to go back to your Bible and think about things a bit more.

Hope for the World

My hope is that like the group that gathered around Jesus our church will have people across the political spectrum who will work together for the love of God, neighbor and world.  If you will vote for Trump, we invite you to be with us.  If you will vote for Clinton we ask you to join us.  If you are frustrated with the process, we really want to include you in our walk with God.  We have no choice but to do this because we exist only for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

Be blessed

Pastor Knecht

[1] Newbigin, Leslie, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (1995, Grand Rapids MI Eerdmans) 76.  Emphasis added
[2] Taibbi,Matt “The Fury and Failure of Donald Trump” accessed 10-20-2016.