Saturday, December 31, 2005

The Social Gospel?


I’ve sometimes wondered whether the “emerging church” was turning into a return of the Social Gospel. There is such a high focus on ecology and sociology. Tony Campolo is right in saying that evangelicals have really turned away from the idea of advancing the kingdom of God on earth. He believes this has a lot to do with the loss of vision for the social gospel after two world wars devastated people’s hopes in the potential of humanity. No doubt, this is how I feel. Not because of the two world wars, or the wars to come after them, but simply the smaller battles of everyday life in a fallen world. Recently hearing that someone nearby went into the hospital to deliver three little babies and lost every one of them (two on her birthday). That another woman was recently diagnosed with a rare cancer, already in its third stage. These are just things I heard since yesterday, and we won’t even mention the local or national news.

No doubt then i am guilty of looking ahead to our eschatological future, banking it all on the return of Christ, who alone can redeem this world. Certainly acts of kindness, simply helping people to get by for today, are a big part of my theology and practice. Yet all hopes or intentions of working toward the advancement of the kingdom of God on earth, beyond individual conversion and spiritual growth, have not entered into my practice or thoughts (except that i don’t litter). Mostly because it seems so futile. It seems that every good thing done on earth will become corrupted and eventually pass away. So instead, i focus on the soul and the spirit.

Spiritual growth is a sure buzz word today. No doubt we focus on personal and individual spiritual development. Yet we do not believe that we will complete this work or process within our life times. Still, we see it as vital. We work toward what one-day Christ will make complete. Never do we think we are wasting our time.

After reading Campolo in “Adventures in Missing the Point” i am convicted that I have given up on the advancement of the kingdom of God on earth, as it pertains to the earth and society. The whole world will not be destroyed. Instead, God will purge the earth of all that is worthless. Wouldn’t it be horrible if there was nothing left after the purging? Certainly advancing the kingdom of God on earth, by creating a better society and tending to the earth and her recourses, is just as much a part of God’s plan of salvation as the conversion and transformation of people, since Christ came to redeem the whole creation. Surely we will not complete the work without the return of Christ, but it does not mean that we shouldn’t strive toward completion. We certainly wouldn’t give up on becoming more Christ-like in our personal lives simply because we won’t ever achieve perfection in this life. i believe that becoming more Christ-like includes reclaiming some of the vision of the social gospel which we left behind.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Jesus Visits the Church


In “A Generous Orthodoxy”, McClaren questions what Jesus’ reaction would be to the Church today, if he happened upon it. Would he disassociate himself from the Church? Would he be embarrassed? Would he rebuke it? I passed over this with a bit of thought, but not too much. Of course he would find some problems with the Church today, but hasn’t it always had problems? After all, isn’t he really present and guiding the Church even now. Didn’t he have something to do with the Reformation and the terrible splintering of the Church into churches, and thousands of mini popes? Hasn’t the Church always shown forth its fallen nature, and after all, it is a “hospital for the spiritually sick”. So I thought to myself, “Jesus wouldn’t be very surprised, or upset at all.” Of course the Church is less than perfect and it could do a better job, but why the dramatic questioning? Then I happened up Mark 11, dwelling on the first parts of the chapter.

In the account of Mark 11, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, takes a walk around the temple, and seems to leave abruptly. Of course it was already getting late and the sun was setting. He probably intended to stay at a friend’s house in Bethany, and so he headed off. Why the stop in Jerusalem though, knowing he’d hardly get to look around before he had to take off again? Why all the bells and whistles going into Jerusalem, only to have a disappointing arrival really. Imagine it. He rides atop a donkey, fulfilling a major messianic prophecy, coming into the holy city amidst a crowd of people going before and following after him, shouting “Hosanna”. Then the excitement suddenly crashes. No big welcome really. Gets to Jerusalem and the temple, strolls around a minute, and says, “Oh well, looks like it’s getting late. Better head off to George’s house so I can get some sleep.”

Mark doesn’t give us a hint that Jesus is upset about what he sees. Instead he merely notes that Jesus had a look around the temple and headed out. Next day, he wakes up, stretches out, apparently doesn’t even take time to have breakfast, and heads out of Bethany. Mark doesn’t tell you where he’s going. Instead he abruptly and rather awkwardly introduces the story of the fig tree. Jesus, looking from a distance, sees a fig tree full of leaves. It’s not the season for figs, but since the tree looks like it’s in bloom, Jesus suspects he might find some figs on it. Yet there are no figs, and Jesus curses it, ensuring that it will never produce edible figs again. And we all stop to say, “What the heck.” Mark notes that “his disciples were listening to him”.

Now we find out where Jesus was heading. Mark says they came into Jerusalem, and Jesus entered the temple. This is sounding familiar. Sounds a lot like the night before. The story goes on to speak of the cleansing of the temple.

Surely it is no mistake or whim that Mark sandwiches the story of the cursing of the fig between the two entrees into Jerusalem and the temple. What Jesus had come into Jerusalem expecting to find, was not found. There was not fruit in Jerusalem or the temple, for if there were then people would have celebrated his arrival upon a donkey. And in another gospel they do, but not in this one. Mark leaves out any mention of it. Instead, the night into Jerusalem the night before was brief and uneventful, besides the crowd who had come with him. They got to Jerusalem and the party died out rather quickly. You know, it was getting late and there were other places to be, other things to do. Yet Jesus looked around. He took note, and would be returning in the morning to curse what was going on in the temple. Yet not only in the temple. Surely it was much bigger than that. Yes, he was cursing the whole temple legal system and the priests who were overseeing the spiritual life of the people of Israel, and even the people themselves, who’s following of YHWH had become worthless as that fig tree.

Yes, God is Lord over creation, and He is present everywhere, yet Jesus seems surprised by what is going on in the House of Israel. The center of Yawehism is utterly misfocused and in need of desperate reform, if that is even possible. And if it is possible, when Jesus appears in the flesh, and visits the temple, that he is utterly dismayed, then isn’t it possible that if he were to appear among the Church today, that he may be utterly dismayed?

So I guess I should have given more thought to what McClaren said. Perhaps Jesus would indeed be surprised and disgruntled, maybe even ashamed. Perhaps indeed he would disassociate himself with the Church, even denouncing and rebuking it. Yes we are his body, but wasn’t Israel also his chosen people? Certainly there is much similarity between the Church today and what was going on with the Temple and Israel’s system of worship in their time. Instead of tables of pigeon sellers and money changers, we have tables of doctrinal distinctives and religious practices. We sell these to the people who come to worship, convincing them that these things are “acceptable to God”. We peddle them and hope that people will choose our distinctives over that of the competitions. And so much of Church is now centered around these denominational distinctives and acceptable doctrines. If only we “believe” correctly, we will have the abundant life. After all, what does Christianity have to do with practice?

When our churches are established based upon doctrinal differences rather than Christ like practice, we have certainly misplaced our focus.