We took an evening church history tour in Edinburgh Scotland this week. It reminded me of the deplorable reputation the church has earned by its wars, lust for power, territorialism, and torture. You don’t need to know all the details of the history to understand why one friend said, “All the ‘isms’ of our world have, on the whole, done more harm than good – and that’s why I’m not interested in Christianity” Indeed, one can see a proportional relationship between the rise of Christianity’s power and wealth, and the rise of her misrepresentations of Christ’s humility and servanthood. Stories of Rome’s conquest and assimilation of Celtic faith expressions, and the deplorable bloodbath of the Covenanters are reason enough to disdain organized religion, but there’s o so much more that is ugly, in all centuries, on all continents, and all of it done in Jesus name.
There’s the good too, of course. Free education. Health care for more than just wealthy of a society. Advocacy for justice, and the roots of democracy – all of it stems from the world view that humans are created in the image of God, and that the story God is writing in the world is a better story; a story of hope triumphing over despair, and light over darkness. Friends who want nothing to do with the faith are quick to point out the church’s failing and perhaps blind to her goodness.
While there’s surely been the real presence of Christ manifest down through the ages, there’s been enough tragedy carried out in Jesus name, right down to this very day, to create a sad caricature of what it means to know and follow Christ. The result is that people who are interested in loving their neighbors, serving the poor, and knowing peace in our world are often, sadly, looking everywhere except the church to find expressions of such values.
For a long time my reaction was to distance myself from the vocabulary of the faith. Not wanting to be known as a bigot, hater, colonizer, or power hungry religionist, I’d tell people that was “a teacher” when asked about my vocation, rather than a pastor; partly true, but intended to hide my church ties in order to avoid guilt by association. It’s time to come clean.
Jesus is the one who warned us that we’d be tempted to hide the light – put the candle of hope that is Christ in the closet so that we’ll not be confused with all the posers carrying out nonsense in Jesus name. In order to live into our calling as light bearers, several things need to happen:
1. Believe that we have the light – When Jesus tells his people, “You are the light of the world” it isn’t some sort of mystical metaphor. Jesus is saying the presence of Christ, who is life, hope, healing, wisdom, justice, strength, beauty, the capacity to love even our enemies without condition, resides in us. Paul would later use the phrase “Christ in you, the hope of glory” to define this mystery. I need to ask myself on a regular basis whether I really believe this, or have just become good at saying the words. The problem, of course, is that I know myself, both too well and not well enough. I know my sins too well and fall prey to the condemnation of believing that I’m worthless, that God can’t use the likes of me to bless our world, that I’d best stay quiet and alone. I know my strengths too well also, and so am prone to pride and a sense that I don’t really need the presence of Christ to live with joy, impart hope, serve others. I’ve got what it takes.
And so I alternate between condemnation and pride, both of which are the death blow to authentic, vibrant, Christ filled life. When I’m saturated with the scripture, though, I see that God uses the likes of Abraham the fearful; Jacob the deceiver; David the adulterer; Peter the arrogant… and eventually it begins to sink in that God can use the likes of me. These men also remind me that God has drawn a target on my pride and is intent on destroying it, knowing full well the power of its poison.
At our best, we wake in the morning and pray something like this: “thank you God for the promise that Christ lives in me and wants to express life through me today – I give you all that I am, inviting that expression to come to life. Amen” Coming to the point of fully and consistently believing this truth is a lifetime journey, but to the extent that we succeed, what awaits us is nothing less than the life of Christ expressed uniquely through each of us. That’s when life becomes the adventure God intended.
2. Follow the light ourselves – Real light bearers take Jesus’ example and ethics seriously. When this happens, Christ followers are characterized by a generosity of spirit, joy, hospitality, and a servanthood that is otherworldly. This why real Christianity results in an outbreak of hospitals, parties, care for people on the margins, peacemaking, and standing against all forms of oppression and degradation. Sadly, though the church is known for these things, they’re known more for racism, lust for power, territorialism, torture of heretics, and and more recently, sexual scandals. None of this could possibly happen if people were taking the ethics of Jesus seriously. But these things did happen, and do happen still… in Jesus name.
That’s why I’m obsessed with Jesus’ example. I need to wrestle with what it means to be the presence of Christ in the world today by looking to Christ’s values and choices for guidance. Such wrestling brings everything under the spotlight, from my use of words, to my ambitions, my treatment of gay friends to my response to the government spying on me.
3. Let the light shine – without apology. History is filled with Christ followers whose display of faith in unapologetically robust. They believe that Christ is hope, not just for someday when we die, but for now, while we live; not just for our spirits and our private piety, but for our minds, our artistic expressions, our sexuality, our friendships, our love of beauty; not just for ourselves but for our neighbors, rich and poor, intellectual and practical, strong and weak. I believe this too, with all my being.
At our best, we’re throwing parties, serving people, meeting in pubs and cafes for robust conversations, loving neighbors, getting involved in our communities, nurturing friendships, raising families, making art, cooking food, climbing mountains – all with joy, for the love and glory of God. This is life at its best.
This is the gospel. Good news indeed.