19th April , 2009
NILS VON KALM
In many of today's churches, Christians of all persuasions are feeling the pressure to conform to a certain 'way of being'. Much of our Christian experience has told us that we need to be a certain type of person to be a Christian, and if we do not conform, we are not 'in'. When this happens to us, we are, in a subtle way, not being accepted as a true Christian.
Such a form of Christianity breeds a lack of freedom to express your love for Christ in a way that reflects the person whom God made you to be. In essence, it breeds a faith that lacks reality. Yet, in many of these same churches, the word 'real' is thrown around as an expression that describes the type of Christianity that is being lived out.
CONFORMITY? Nils von Kalm says that much of a Christian's experience has told us that we need to be a certain type of person to be a Christian and that if we don't conform, we are not 'in'. Yet such as a view is at odds with Jesus' teachings. PICTURE: Alex Nikada (www.istockphoto.com)
"Jesus accepted people the way they were. He did not require them to be a particular type of person before they were accepted."
This way of living contradicts the very core of how Jesus lived his life. Jesus accepted people the way they were. He did not require them to be a particular type of person before they were accepted. As Christian community worker and writer Dave Andrews said at a course last year, "if Jesus followed the form of Christianity that is so prevalent in our churches, none of his disciples would have been Christians".
Distinct from other rabbis and teachers of His day, Jesus chose His followers rather than people coming up to Him asking to be considered worthy of following Him . The 12 disciples followed Jesus - He chose them - before they fully realised who He was. All throughout their time with Him, the Gospels record that they just didn't get it. They expected a Messiah who would overthrow the oppressive Roman regime. In 1st century Palestine, true Messiahs didn't get themselves killed by the Romans. So, when Jesus was crucified, their hopes were dashed and they were completely disillusioned. To the Twelve, Jesus was now just another failed Messiah, when they thought that "He was the one to redeem Israel" (Luke 24: 21).
Even after His resurrection, many of them found it hard to believe. It wasn't just Thomas who was the doubter. When the women came back from the tomb saying He had risen, the Gospels record that some thought it was just an idle tale (Luke 24:11). After all, the word of women didn't count for anything in those days. Women were second class citizens, if that, and as such anything they said should be taken with a grain of salt.
In contrast to this, look at the example of Jesus. It is the women to whom He first appears, and during His ministry over the previous three years, his 12 disciples consist of a tax collector, ordinary fishermen and a zealot - today's equivalent of an Al Qaida terrorist! Hardly a respectable bunch to associate yourself with. Yet He accepted them, not just for who they were, but despite what they believed. And it was 11 of these 12 (remembering that Judas betrayed Jesus in his hour of greatest need) who later turned the Roman Empire upside down with their radical new way of living.
As well as the Twelve, we must also remember the type of people Jesus associated with during his ministry. It was the tax collectors and sinners, or, as Brent Lyons Lee, from Urban Seed in Melbourne, has said, “debt collectors and those in debt” with whom He regularly ate and socialised with. In an echo of Isaiah 65, they all sat at table together. This passage from the Old Testament prophet describes the kingdom of God breaking in, where the lion and the lamb lie down together. By associating with the debt collectors and those in debt, all together, Jesus is demonstrating the breaking in, indeed the invasion, of the kingdom of God into history.
We need to remember that, with Jesus, the principle was 'acceptance before repentance'. In many of today's churches people receive the opposite message, however subtle it might be. It is imperative that our lives point to Jesus rather than to Christianity or a particular form of it. To quote Dave Andrews again, “what you're converted through is what you're converted to” .
As a result of the conversion to Christianity that pervades our church culture, there is division over the very nature of the Gospel. While much of the church has 'spiritualised' the Gospel, another part of the church can tend to overly politicise the Gospel. In the latter interpretation, everything Jesus said has a political meaning and can only be read in a political way. Such debate over the interpretation of the Scriptures has been rife in Christianity for hundreds of years. The effect that this has had is that those proclaiming a social Gospel often do not place enough emphasis on personal morality, whilst those who proclaim an individualised Gospel pronouncing only personal salvation, often do not place enough emphasis on social justice. The Gospel is not either of these, it is both.
It is our Western individualised culture that has separated what Jesus proclaimed and lived as one message. It has sadly become what author Steve Chalke describes as "the lost message of Jesus". A classic example of Christianity making itself captive to the culture of the day, is in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus affirms the poor as being blessed. Much of the Western church has taken the meaning of this from Matthew's Gospel where Jesus proclaims “blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5: 3). They have then implied that it follows that Luke's version, which simply says “blessed are the poor” (Luke 6: 20), clearly still means 'poor in spirit' because otherwise the Bible would be contradicting itself. To read the Bible in such a way is to misinterpret the message of Jesus and to disregard the intended audience that each author of the Gospels had in mind. God speaks to people where they are at. Sojourners founder Jim Wallis has said that we are to come to the Scriptures, not with our own opinions, but seeking to have our opinions shaped by Scripture.
It is important that we learn to recognise and ask God to help us to listen to what He is saying to us every time we come to the Bible. We must ask him to give us ears to hear, eyes to see, and an open heart to receive what He has to say to us as we come to His Word. We all come to the Scriptures with our own filters, whether we want to or not. All of us have been conditioned to view life in a certain way. Our view of the world is determined by where we stand. If we stand with the comfortable on the mountain top we will tend to spiritualise the Gospel message. However, if we sit in the valley with the poor and vulnerable, we will see the oppression that they suffer and will see that 'blessed are the poor' means something totally different than it does to a middle class suburban Westerner. We must always look at the Scriptures in the context in which they were written, and more importantly when reading the Gospels, at what Jesus meant when he spoke of the 'poor' as being blessed.
Jim Wallis, in The Great Awakening, says that the two biggest hungers in the world today are a spiritual hunger and a hunger for social justice. Jesus came to deal with both. We can never escape the fact that we look at life through our own cultural lens. We are each a product of our environment. And, while it may shock some, even Jesus was a product of his own environment. That is why He spoke to the people in language they could understand. He told stories about lost sheep, about workers in vineyards, and yeast spreading through a whole batch of dough. If Jesus were physically present with us today, the type of stories He may tell might be about labourers on building sites, or lost money on the share market, or computer viruses spreading throughout the global computer network.
"Are we the submissive servants of the Christ of the Bible, or are we the bound slaves of our own Christian culture, a culture in which we are not accepted if we do not conform to a certain set of beliefs and behaviour?"
To whom have we been converted? Are we the submissive servants of the Christ of the Bible, or are we the bound slaves of our own Christian culture, a culture in which we are not accepted if we do not conform to a certain set of beliefs and behaviour? If we attend a large, conservative middle class church in the suburbs and we say that we have no problem with Darwin's theory of evolution, will we still be accepted? Or if we attend a poor inner-city church wearing a suit, will people look us up and down as if we are nothing more than one of those rich yuppies who only cares about how their shares are going? Or will we be like the Jesus of the Gospels, no matter which church we attend? Will our lives be a message of good news for the poor, as well as good news for the rich?
The Gospel of Jesus is all of these things. It is good news if we accept it. To the poor, it is the message that you are accepted regardless of your status in society and no matter how marginalised you may be by a culture that constantly tells us that we must 'have' to be important. To the rich, the Gospel is the message that your riches are not all there is to life, and that there is so much more than 'having'. It is the message that giving is so much more satisfying, and that life is about communication and collaboration, not competition and confrontation. Jesus' message is a message of inclusion. No one is left out of the party, if only they accept the invitation. The banquet feast has been prepared for all.
During his ministry, Jesus constantly spoke of the Kingdom of God. Nobody who spent time with Jesus came away the same person. He cut a swathe through all the games we play. Mark's Gospel tells us a number of times that the people were constantly amazed at His words and deeds. The poor and oppressed knew they were loved by Him, if by no one else. And the rich, such as Zaccheus, were freed from the clutches of their addiction to wealth. Jesus brought salvation to both. It has been said that salvation is the restoration of the image of God in human beings. Zaccheus experienced exactly that - “today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9) - and the poor and oppressed were told that the kingdom of God belonged to them.
To whom are we converted? If we are converted to our Christian culture where there is a set way of doing life and anyone who doesn't follow it is 'not right with God', then it is we who need converting to Christ. Conversion to the Christ of the Gospels will free us to love the unlovely, bring hope to the hopeless, and bring rest to the restless who find no peace in a materialistic way of life. The good news is for all. No one is excluded. As Larry Crabb has said in his book Understanding People, the good news is “shattering, transforming, crippling, renewing, devastating, strengthening - but [the good news] is life. Apart from God, life must be distorted to be endured. With God, life can be faced in all its ugliness and potential - and we can become 'more than conquerors,' a people whose fellowship with Christ enables us to love him and others as we were designed to do” .
A life of surrender to Christ will free us from our captivity to a 'Christian' culture that Jesus of Nazareth would never claim as his own. It is a life in which we reflect him more and more, both individually and in community. This is the hope that a weary world longs for. This is true conversion.
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