Posts tagged ‘Christ’

More Than a Memorial

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Today is Memorial Day. Today’s observances continue a tradition that began on May 5, 1868, when General John A. Logan called for a nationwide day of remembrance at the end of that month for those lost in the Civil war:

The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land.

Because General Logan called for the decorating of graves, his observance was called “Decoration Day.” Over time, Decoration Day came to be known as Memorial Day and was moved to the last Monday in May by an act of Congress in 1968 and has been celebrated on this Monday ever since 1971.

As Memorial Day encourages us to do, remembering those we have lost is critical. And like its predecessor, Decoration Day, reminds us, using physical objects – from crosses to pictures to flowers to flags – to help us remember can be healing.

The night before Jesus goes to the cross, He gathers His disciples to celebrate a final meal with them. As in Decoration Day, Jesus presents His disciples with some physical objects:

Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and gave it to His disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is My body.” Then He took a cup, and when He had given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:26-28)

And as in Memorial Day, Jesus also encourages His disciples to remember Him:

“Do this in remembrance of Me.” (Luke 22:19)

But this meal is more than simply a memorial with some tokens that help us remember a person we have lost. The apostle Paul writes that, when we partake of this meal with its objects of bread and wine, we are not only remembering with Christ, but communing with Christ here and now:

Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? (1 Corinthians 10:16)

But how do we commune with Christ – indeed, even with His very blood and body – here and now?

If Christ had shared this meal with His disciples before He died and then remained dead, this meal would simply be a memorial. But He did not stay dead. Three days later, He rose. So we do not just remember Christ with bread and wine, we truly commune with Christ in the meal He has given us. He is our risen and living host.

Paul also writes:

We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in Him. For the Lord Himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. (1 Thessalonians 4:14, 16-17)

Paul reminds us that Jesus’ resurrection is only the beginning of something even bigger. Because Christ has risen, those who die in Christ will rise, too. And we will all be together again. Children who have lost parents in battle, parents who have lost children, husbands who have lost wives, and wives who have lost husbands will all be reunited. And Memorial Day will be needed no more. For on the day Christ returns, we will not just remember our lost loved ones, we will commune with them – and with Christ.

Today, let us take a moment to remember those who have given their lives in battle to protect and defend this nation. But let us also hope for the day when we will need to remember no more because we will be able to see those we have lost face-to-face. The headstones we visit today will one day give way to hugs we enjoy forever.

That’s a promise worth remembering.

May 31, 2021 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Stinky Sacrifices and Sweet Offerings

When God is giving Moses instructions for the tabernacle, one of the things He instructs him to build is an incense altar:

Make an altar of acacia wood for burning incense. Aaron must burn fragrant incense on the altar every morning when he tends the lamps. He must burn incense again when he lights the lamps at twilight so incense will burn regularly before the LORD for the generations to come. (Exodus 30:1, 7-8)

This incense altar served a couple of different purposes. On the one hand, it was used in worship. When the father of John the Baptist, Zechariah, famously receives word from the angel Gabriel that he will soon be a father, even though he is well past his child-rearing years, he is stationed at the altar of incense while “all the assembled worshipers were praying outside” (Luke 1:10). On the other hand, this altar served a much cruder purpose. With all the sacrifices that were made at the tabernacle and later at the temple, the fetor from the dead animals would have been overwhelming. The incense helped cover the stench of death.

The stench of death, as offensive as it may have been, was a reminder to the Israelites that sin came with a cost. As the apostle Paul explains: “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). The question was: is there anything that can stem the stench of sin and death?

In Ephesians 5, Paul writes about a unique sacrifice:

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 5:1-2)

Sacrifices were stinky! But when Christ gave Himself up as a sacrifice, it was “fragrant.” Why? Because Christ was both an “offering and sacrifice.” He was the sacrificial “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29) as well as “an aroma that brings life” (2 Corinthians 2:16). He was slaughtered as a sacrifice and sweet-smelling like incense, all at the same time.

I’ve had more than one person tell me that life stinks right now. Nationally, culturally, and personally, we have our share of struggles thanks to sin. And yet, the fragrance of Christ can still overwhelm and overcome the sin of this world. This is the hope we have. And this is the message we are called to share:

Thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of Him everywhere. (2 Corinthians 2:14)

May we spread Christ’s aroma and make someone’s life sweeter with Him.

January 11, 2021 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Sunshine & Branches

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Credit: Pixabay.com

When an elderly priest named Zechariah is chosen by lot to burn incense at the temple in Jerusalem, it marks a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for him. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, there were around 20,000 priests serving at the temple in the first century. Many of them never got to bring such an offering before God. So, Zechariah, when his lot is drawn, is obviously overwhelmed by the magnitude of the moment. But an already overwhelming moment becomes even more potent when, in the middle of Zechariah’s liturgical service, an angel appears to him, telling him that he and his wife Elizabeth, both of whom could have easily qualified to be members-in-good-standing of the AARP by this point in their lives, will have a child who will, in fulfillment of ancient prophecy, “prepare the way for the Lord” (Isaiah 40:3). At first, Zechariah is skeptical of this angelic announcement, but his suspicion quickly melts into praise and hope, both at the promise that he and his wife will have a child and that his child will prepare the way for the arrival of God’s salvation. At the end of a song of celebration, he muses:

You, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for Him, to give His people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heavento shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace. (Luke 1:76-79)

In his song, Zechariah celebrates both his child and God’s Messiah. He describes the Messiah as “the rising sun” who will come “to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death.”

This picture of light was a common metaphor for the Messiah among the prophets:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined. (Isaiah 9:2)

And:

For you who revere My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. (Malachi 4:2)

In a world full of the darkness of sin, the Messiah would bring the light of righteousness.

When Zechariah speaks of the coming Messiah as “the rising sun,” the Greek word Luke employs is anatole, a word which refers to the east, the place from which the sun rises. What is fascinating about this word is that it can also be translated as “branch,” as it is when God speaks through the prophet Zechariah, who lived over 500 years before the priest Zechariah did:

I am going to bring My servant, the Branch. (Zechariah 3:8)

God calls the Messiah “the Branch,” the Greek word for which is anatole. In a world full of death, the Messiah would be like a tree that sprouts and brings life.

This one little word speaks to who the Messiah is in multiple ways. He sheds light in the darkness of sin and he branches out from death with life. Though Zechariah, more than likely, did not understand the fullness of who the Messiah would be and what He would accomplish when he sang his song, we live in what the apostle Paul once called “the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4). In other words, we have the benefit of historical retrospection to understand more fully how Jesus changed the world – and how Jesus still changes lives. And because of this, we, like Zechariah, can have praise to offer and hope to hold this Christmas.

December 21, 2020 at 5:15 am 3 comments

Losing to Win

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A couple of weekends ago, we sat down as a family to play games. At this stage in my kids’ lives, the games are simple – Go Fish, Old Maid, and Crazy Eights were the chosen fare for our fun. But in the middle of some family frivolity, an unexpected display of the dark side of human nature broke out. As my kids were playing Old Maid, they both became determined to make sure they would not be the one holding that final, dreaded card. So, they engaged in peaking and grabbing and even a bit of fighting in an attempt to emerge victorious. There’s just something in human nature that loves to conquer someone else. There’s just something in human nature that loves to win.

In the final book of the Bible, John has a vision of Christ who sends seven letters to seven churches all over ancient Asia Minor. In these letters, Jesus makes promises to those who conquer and win against the forces of evil:

To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God. (Revelation 2:7)

The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death. (Revelation 2:11)

To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna. (Revelation 2:17)

The one who conquers and who keeps My works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations. (Revelation 2:26)

The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God. (Revelation 3:12)

The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with Me on My throne, as I also conquered and sat down with My Father on His throne. (Revelation 3:21)

Jesus celebrates those who win. The obvious question, then, is: how do you win? Later in his vision, John hears a voice from heaven declaring victory over the devil. And this is how God’s people have conquered him:

They have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. (Revelation 12:11)

It turns out that winning, in this instance, involves losing. John hears of a lamb who loses His blood – who sacrifices His life – to vanquish Satan. And, as followers of Jesus, we are called to be willing to lose in order to win, too – loving not our lives even unto death.

Are we willing to fight our battles and gain our victories against darkness by losing? In the world – and to the world – winning by losing may be derided as naïve and ineffective. But in a world where usual victories prove fleeting and the usual way of winning always seems to give way to losing, perhaps it’s time to see if it works the other way around – if a loss can actually give way to a win. That’s the story of Good Friday and Easter Sunday – a loss of life gave way to victory over death. Let’s make that story our stories, too.

November 30, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

A More Perfect Union

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Credit: Snapwire / Pexels

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union… 

These words, from the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States, have inspired millions over the past 232 years. But as we celebrated our nation’s independence two days ago, they’re also cause for reflection.

A more perfect union…

It certainly doesn’t feel more perfect. We have a political system that is broken. We have a pandemic that is raging. We have nagging questions about racism that are perplexing. And we have plenty of anger and distrust that is disheartening. 2020 does not seem to be the year to talk about a more perfect union. Just last week, the Pew Research Center released the results of a poll on Americans’ satisfaction level with how things are going in our nation. The results seem to indicate that most people think our union is becoming “less perfect” rather than “more perfect.”

Moreover, this same survey found that only 17% of respondents feel proud of the state of our nation, while 71% feel angry and 66% feel fearful.

Our dream of a “more perfect union” seems to be dimming.

Of course, a “more perfect union” has always been framed as a receding goal. The founders wisely realized that though human beings might desire perfection, they can never achieve it. They may work toward “a more perfect union,” but they can never arrive at simply “a perfect union.” Human aspiration is always thwarted by human depravity. The very people who can dream of perfection are too sinful and broken to achieve it.

This is why, ultimately, our hope for perfection cannot be found in something that we form, but in what Christ gives. If we desire perfection, we must fix “our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:2).

This does not mean that the Constitution’s aspiration is a bad one. Quite the contrary: it is a very noble and good one. But it is also a convicting one. There is still plenty of work yet to be done in our union even as there is much to be thankful for about our union, which is what Independence Day is all about. Our union may have plenty of room to grow, but our union is also free. For this, we can – and should – be thankful. We should also be thankful that even if our union is not perfect, Christ is. And ultimately, our union with Him is what matters most.

If we have been united with Christ in a death like His, we will certainly also be united with Him in a resurrection like His. (Romans 6:5)

July 6, 2020 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Casting Your COVID Anxiety on Christ

As states, cities, and businesses begin what will likely be a long, slow, and uncertain process of reopening as the COVID-19 pandemic begins to show signs of receding, a new normal is sure to emerge. Social distancing will likely continue for some time. Face masks will likely be commonplace. E-commerce will almost certainly dominate. And we will be encouraged to sanitize, sanitize, and sanitize.

For some, the transition out of staying at home will be exciting. They are ready to go. Others I have talked to are experiencing a fair amount of anxiety over re-entering workplaces and public spaces. There is, after all, still a lot uncertainty surrounding how far this virus will continue to spread and how much more damage this virus will continue to do.

In the early 60s of the first century, one of Jesus’ followers, Peter, was living under a lot of uncertainty. The ruler at this time was a Roman Emperor named Nero, who became a famed persecutor of early Christianity. When Peter writes his first letter to the church-at-large, though he does not quite yet know the future holds, he knows he has to encourage Christians to be ready for potential trials and persecution to come:

You greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. (1 Peter 1:6)

Even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” (1 Peter 3:14)

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you … If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. (1 Peter 4:12, 16)

Such looming trials, understandably, caused a lot of anxiety among many in the early church because they did not know where, when, or if they were going to suffer and be persecuted.

Peter, however, does not want these Christians to be trapped by their anxiety. So, he writes these famous words:

Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you. (1 Peter 5:7)

Peter knows that anxiety often arises because of circumstances that are beyond our control. In order to deal with anxiety, Peter instructs us to give what we can’t control to the One who is in control. And He assures us that what we can’t control is safe with Him, because “He cares for you.”

When Peter invites us to cast all our anxiety on the Lord, the word “cast,” in Greek, is a participle – “casting.” This verse, therefore, can be translated as a phrase that piggybacks on the verse that comes before it:

Humble yourselves…under God’s mighty hand, that He may lift you up in due time, casting all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you. (1 Peter 5:6-7)

It turns out that casting our anxiety on the Lord not only helps us feel better, it helps us learn humility, because it reminds us that we are not masters of our own destinies and captains of our own ships. Our calling is not to be in control, but to humbly submit ourselves to God’s control – to live under His mighty hand, which, Peter promises, will take care of our problems, even when our problems are as thorny as how to re-enter workplaces and public spaces in the midst of a still-very-ominous pandemic.

As anyone who has dealt with intense anxiety knows, anxiety is not an emotion one can simply “turn off” or “un-feel.” It bubbles up inside of us, often when we least expect it. But even if we cannot stop it, we can confront it. Clinically, we can receive help for it. And spiritually, we can cast it on Christ. He’s strong enough to take care of it. And He’s compassionate enough to take care of us.

May 4, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Resurrection Hope

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Credit: Burne Jones, 1890 / Picture by Martin Beek / Flickr

Christ is risen! These words are needed now more than ever in our world. As the death toll continues to climb from COVID-19 and the virus continues to spread, although thankfully at a slower pace than it has, we need to be reminded that no affliction or adversity, no trial or torture can put Christ back in the grave. The grave is empty and, because it is, our hope is secure.

In one of the most famous chapters in the Bible, the apostle Paul speaks about the hope we have because of Easter:

If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.  If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.  But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. (1 Corinthians 15:17-20)

Paul refers to Christ’s resurrection as “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” In other words, those who have died or will die in Christ have the assurance that they too will one day be raised to live with Christ forever. Christ’s resurrection on Easter is a preview of our easters when He returns.

Martin Luther, in a series of seventeen sermons he preached in 1533 on 1 Corinthians 15, offers these comments on Paul’s words:

Because Christ is risen and gives us His resurrection against our sin, death, and hell, we must advance to where we also learn to say: “O death, where is thy sting?” [1 Corinthians 15:55] although we at present see only the reverse, namely, that we have nothing but the perishable hanging about our neck, that we lead a wretched filthy life, that we are subject to all sorts of distress and danger, and that nothing but death awaits us in the end.

But the faith that clings to Christ is able to engender far different thoughts. It can envisage a new existence.  It can form an image and gain sight of a condition where this perishable, wretched form is erased entirely and replaced by a pure and celestial essence.  For since faith is certain of this doctrine that Christ’s resurrection is our resurrection, it must follow that this resurrection is just as effective in us as it was for Him – except that He is a different person, namely, true God.  And faith must bring it about that this body’s frail and mortal being is discarded and removed and a different, immortal being is put on, with a body that can no longer be touched by filth, sickness, mishap, misery, or death but is perfectly pure, healthy, strong, and beautiful …

God did not create man that he should sin and die, but that he should live.  But the devil inflicted so much shameful filth and so many blemishes on nature that man must bear so much sickness, stench, and misfortune about his neck because he sinned.  But now that sin is removed through Christ, we shall be rid of all of that too.  All will be pure, and nothing that is evil or loathsome will be felt any longer on earth. (AE 28 202-203)

Luther’s final words beautifully summarize the hope of Easter: “All will be pure, and nothing that is evil or loathsome will be felt any longer on the earth.” As we continue to struggle through these evil and loathsome days of pandemic, I’m looking forward to that day!

Christ is risen! Nothing can change that and no pandemic can outlast that.

April 13, 2020 at 5:15 am 1 comment

In a World Full of Much News, Christmas is Good News

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Credit: Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

Christmas is almost here. As many of us go on last-minute buying binges while we search and shop for the perfect presents for all our special someones, it is worth remembering that what makes Christmas special is not everything we do for this holiday, but what we are called to focus on in this holiday.

The first Christmas was a birthday punctuated by an angelic announcement to some shepherds who were in close proximity to a historically incomparable infant. An angel said to these shepherds:

“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10-12)

Here, in this angel’s message, we find a sort of executive summary of what not only Christmas, but Christianity, is all about. The angel explains that a Savior has been born who is “good news.”

This two-word phrase – “good news” – is the echocardiogram by which the heartbeat of the Christian faith is measured. If this phrase permeates Christianity, the Christian faith is alive and well. If it does not, the Christian faith is doomed to anemia and obsolescence. Here’s why.

Culturally, two types of religion are prevalent. In more traditional cultures, religion that demands “good behavior” reigns. This version of religion promises that if you do what you should do and don’t do what you shouldn’t do, God will be pleased with you. This version of religion rewards one who walks the straight and narrow and lives as a straight arrow. Conversely, in more progressive cultures, religion that focuses on “good feelings” carries the day. This version of religion eschews what it sees as the needlessly constrictive and primitive commands of traditional religion and instead seeks the supernatural in what makes you feel good. Creeds of this religion include, “You do you,” “If it feels good do it,” and, “God wouldn’t want me to be unhappy.” Interestingly, though these two religions sound different, at their core, they share the same assumption: the onus for spiritual fulfillment is on you because religion is about you. You are the one who is responsible for your spirituality – either by your behavior or in your emotional state.

Christianity is utterly different. Christianity is not about you. Instead, Christianity is for you. And there is a world of difference between these two.

Christianity is about Christ – His birth that an angel announces to some shepherds, His ministry that He carries out in front of a myriad of eyewitnesses, His death that He dies in place of sinners, and His resurrection by which He conquers death. This is why the angel calls Christ’s birth “news.” News is about what someone else from somewhere else has done. Christ is someone else from somewhere else – from heaven itself. And He has done for us what we cannot do for ourselves. He has lived the life we cannot live, died the death we deserved to die, and offered the penalty for sin we cannot pay. Christianity is news about Christ. But it is not just “news,” it is “good news.” Why? Because, as the angel says, even though Christianity is about Christ, it is “for all the people.” And “all the people” includes you. What Christ has done, then, He has done for you.

Christianity promises that responsibility for spiritual fulfillment does not rest on you. Instead, it rests on the One who lies in a manger, dies on a cross, and empties a tomb. Jesus has done all the work necessary to procure the ultimate spiritual fulfillment of salvation for you. That’s the news the angel offers these shepherds. And I, for one, happen to think that news is quite good.

My prayer for you, this Christmas, is that you think it’s good, too. And that you believe that this news is for you. For it is this news that makes Christmas merry and hope real.

December 23, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The Rebuilding of Notre Dame and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ

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The world watched in horror as a medieval Gothic treasure was wrecked last Monday when flames ripped through Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.  Parts of the building, the construction of which began in 1163, still stand.  But much of the roof, which was made out of timber and original to the structure, along with the cathedral’s grand spire, also made out of wood and iron and rebuilt in 1844, is no more.

Reports indicate that many of the cathedral’s priceless relics, including what is claimed to have been the crown of thorns Jesus wore during His crucifixion, were rescued from the blaze.  Other relics, like a supposed piece of Jesus’ cross, may not have been so fortunate.  Its status is still unknown.  Parisians, Catholics, Protestants, and countless others across the world are still coming to terms with how a landmark as staid and majestic as Notre Dame – which withstood everything from the French Revolution and its virulently anti-Theist cult of reason to Hitler’s invasion of Paris and his order, thankfully disobeyed by one of his generals, to trigger explosives placed inside the grand façade – could come crashing down due to an accidental fire, likely triggered by an electrical short circuit.

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, vowed to rebuild the cathedral under an ambitious timeline. “We will rebuild Notre Dame even more beautifully and I want it to be completed in five years,” the president said in an address last Tuesday.  This is indeed a highly aggressive timeline and one of which many experts are skeptical, suspecting that the rebuilding may take decades instead of years.  When the structure was first built, it took 182 years to complete.

Jesus, as He began His public ministry, gazed upon the temple in Jerusalem, which would have been the ancient Jewish version of Notre Dame, and declared, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:19).  Apparently, President Macron’s ambitious building timeline has nothing on Jesus.  The temple had already been rebuilt once after being destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC.  Herod the Great had begun a restoration and expansion of the temple in 20 BC, which continued into Jesus’ day.  So, you can imagine the incredulity of those listening when Jesus declared that He could rebuild the temple from the ground up in three days.  This is why the people responded, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and You are going to raise it in three days” (John 2:20)?  But, of course, there’s a secret that the people listening to Jesus do not yet know or understand that John happily lets us in on: “The temple He had spoken about was His body” (John 2:21).

Yesterday, Christians all over the world celebrated the truth that Jesus’ building project was a stunning success.  He did at the end of His public ministry precisely what He said He would do at the beginning of His public ministry.  His body was crushed on a cross.  But in three days, He was not only rebuilt, He was resurrected.  Because of Him, even as the storied nave of Notre Dame sat sadly empty yesterday as a house of worship, hearts across the world were full of joy in celebration of the One who is to be worshiped.

When Notre Dame burned, the world lost a precious space.  But Christians did not lose their Christ.  And Christ did not lose His Church.  In the words of the old hymn:

Built on the Rock the Church doth stand,
Even when steeples are falling;
Crumbled have spires in every land,
Bells still are chiming and calling,
Calling the young and old to rest,
But above all the soul distressed,
Longing for rest everlasting.

Work on Notre Dame began 856 years ago because of this promise.  May work begin again on this grand old lady for this same reason.

April 22, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Christ, Culture, and Witness

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A perennial question of Christianity asks:  How should a Christian relate to and interact with broader culture?  In his classic work, Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr outlines what has become the premier taxonomy of the relationship between the two as he explores five different ways that, historically, Christ and culture have corresponded:

  • Christ against culture: In this view, Christianity and broader culture are incompatible and Christianity will inevitably be at odds with and should retreat from the rest of the world.
  • Christ of culture: In this view, Christianity and broader culture are well suited for each other, and Jesus becomes the fulfiller of society’s hopes and dreams.
  • Christ above culture: In this view, broader culture is not bad per se, but it needs to be augmented and perfected by biblical revelation and the Church, with Christ as the head.
  • Christ and culture in paradox: In this view, culture is not all bad because it is, after all, created by God, but it has been corrupted by sin.  Therefore, there will always be a tension between the potential of culture and its reality as well as between the brokenness of culture and the perfection of Christ.
  • Christ the transformer of culture: In this view, because Christ desires to ultimately redeem culture, Christians should work to transform culture.

The categories Niebuhr outlines and the tensions he teases out in his taxonomy are just as salient today as they were when he first posed them in 1951.  Indeed, they are perhaps even more so as America slides into what many have christened a “post-Christian age.”

In my view, the first two categories won’t do.  To pit Christ against culture, as the first view tries to do, overlooks the fact that there is much good in culture.  It can also easily lead Christians into a self-righteousness that spends so much time trying to fight culture that it forgets that Christians are part of the problem in culture, for they too are sinners.

Conversely, to team Christ with culture and to use Christ to endorse your zeitgeist of choice also will not do.  As Ross Douthat explains, when this happens:

Traditional churches are supplanted by self-help gurus and spiritual-political entrepreneurs. These figures cobble together pieces of the old orthodoxies, take out the inconvenient bits and pitch them to mass audiences that want part of the old-time religion but nothing too unsettling or challenging or ascetic. The result is a nation where Protestant awakenings have given way to post-Protestant wokeness, where Reinhold Niebuhr and Fulton Sheen have ceded pulpits to Joel Osteen and Oprah Winfrey, where the prosperity gospel and Christian nationalism rule the right and a social gospel denuded of theological content rules the left.

Though I would take issue with Douthat’s characterization of Reinhold Niebuhr and Fulton Sheen as torchbearers for Christian orthodoxy, his broader point about what happens when Christ is made to mindlessly cater to culture is absolutely true.  Culture, it turns out, is a much better line dancer than it is a two-stepper.  It likes to dance alone and will humor Christ only as long as it needs to until it can find a way to leave Him behind and strike out on its own.

In my view, Niebuhr’s category of “Christ and culture in paradox” best explains the difficult realities of the Church’s interaction with culture and the biblical understanding of how to relate to culture.  In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul opens by writing:

When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.  For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.  I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. (1 Corinthians 2:1-3)

The Corinthians prided themselves on being enlightened and educated.  Paul sardonically jibes the Corinthians for their arrogance, teasing, “We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong!  You are honored, we are dishonored” (1 Corinthians 4:10).  To a church that prided itself in being intellectually and socially elitist, rather than engaging in rhetorical and philosophical acrobatics to impress the Corinthians when he proclaimed the gospel to them, Paul came to them with the rather unimpressive, as he put it, “foolish” message of Christ and Him crucified.  Paul cut against the culture of Corinth.

And yet, at the same time he cut against the culture of Corinth, he also declared his love for broader culture and even embedded himself into broader culture in an effort to proclaim the gospel:

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.  To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews.  To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. (1 Corinthians 9:19-22)

Paul was not afraid to appropriate culture in service to the declaration and proclamation of the gospel so that as many people as possible might be saved.

So there you have it.  Paul eschews cultural sensibilities at the same time he employs them.  Because Paul knows that Christ and culture live in paradox with one another.

We would do well to follow in Paul’s footsteps.  As Christians, we must not be afraid to cut against culture’s sinfulness and brokenness.  But at the same time, we must also not be afraid to embrace culture’s creativity and respect its sensibilities as often as we possibly can.  And we must have the wisdom to know when to do what.  Otherwise, we will only wind up losing the truth to culture or losing the opportunity to share the truth with culture.  And we can afford to lose neither.

Let us pray that we would faithfully keep both in 2019.

January 7, 2019 at 5:15 am 2 comments

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