This is a transcript portion of my message delivered on April 21, 2021 in the chapel service at Oklahoma Baptist University.
The Christian life is seen by many as an attempt to earn the favor of a reluctant rule keeper. And only by doing better and trying harder will we ever earn the right to be admitted to the congregation of the saved.
As it turns out, my attempts to manipulate the church system in order to impress others and garner favor was nothing new, in fact it was something the Apostle Paul had to address and correct repeatedly. One such passage where he does so is found in Galatians 1: 6-10,
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.”
Paul goes on to point out that he had invested his life in religion, checking off every conceivable box of good works and religious commitment, so much so that he far exceeded anyone. He was the best of the best, the elite of the elite, the cream of the crop, and this pursuit of perfection led him inevitably to persecute those who believed differently than he did and even kill them if necessary. We shouldn’t dismiss this fanaticism as simply something that manifest itself in religions other than are own. Sadly, we are living in a time when many are convinced that it is ok to hate in the name of Christianity. And for a lot of my life I was also consumed with a dogmatic certainty that fueled a misplaced zeal in my own ability to keep commandments instead of recognizing my need for Jesus.
For far too long I saw the commandments of God as aspirational, a goal to be achieved instead of what they were, an indictment of my helplessness without a Savior. It turns out I ended up breaking all the commandments, especially when you factor in the sermon on the mount where Jesus raised the standard to address motivations as well as actions. So like those in his original audience I am left without hope and am devastated when He says, “Be perfect like my Father is perfect.” How’s that being perfect thing working out for y’all? Yeah me too. The pursuit of perfection doesn’t make you holy. It just makes you tired.
The answer isn’t the pursuit of perfection but in recognizing that perfection in the form of Jesus Christ relentlessly pursues us. This is the gospel. That Greek word “Evengelion” that means good news, and in the ancient world had political and cultural overtones and implications and not just spiritual implications that refered to the afterlife. What if we embraced this gospel in all of its implications that impact our Earth and time in the here and now and not just the hearafter? What would that look like?
By his own testimony, Paul spent much of his life defining his relationship to God through the lens of Judaism, which was both an identity as well as a religion. Paul’s view of God was conflated with his view of himself as a member of a particular nation and people.
But when his life was transformed by the gospel, he dismissed all of that as he was given a new identity in Christ. And from that new identity flowed activity in the preaching of the gospel and planting of churches that resulted in changed lives and a changed world. Too often we get this reversed. We think that by virtue of our activity our identity is secured in Christ. Activity doesn’t produce a new identity, but a new identity will always result in powerful and transformative activities.
Consider the difference that if as Christians we defined our experience not in a nationalistic way that is conflated with our limited views as Americans, but in an understanding that we are loved and valued in Christ so we should extend this love and value to everyone, and not just to those who agree with us, or look like us, or behave in ways that our consistent with our perspective.
It was in Galatians that Paul made it clear that the Christian community shouldn’t be defined by cultural constructs but rather by our shared identity in Christ. Galatians 3:23 declares “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” For far too long in efforts that reinforced our sense of entitlement as white communities we have defined the American church experience to the extent that the Sunday morning gathering continues to be the most segregated hour in America. What if in light of the gospel of Christ we just stopped doing this? And if instead we started listening to our Black and Brown brothers and sisters in Christ and believing them when they share their stories of unequal treatment?
Imagine how different things would be if our churches embraced the radical nature of New Testament Christianity as embodied in the life of Jesus and redefined America, rather than continuing to allow America to define our churches and our Christianity.
What if we accepted the implications of the gospel of Jesus in how we relate to one another and treat one another as wholistic creations of God’s glory. Unfortunately, for a lot of our history we’ve gotten this wrong in the institutions that bear the name of Jesus. Too many people have been hurt or otherwise abused by those who embrace the label Christian and the churches they attend.
Statistically in the United States one in four women and one in six men will be sexually abused before turning 18. According to a study produced by Lifeway Christian Resources, 10 percent of Protestant churchgoers under 35 have previously left a church because they felt sexual misconduct was not taken seriously. Among the younger demographic, 9 percent said they have stopped attending a former congregation because they personally did not feel safe from misconduct. 14 percent of those ages 18 to 34 say that sexual advances from people at church have led them to attend less frequently. These statistics reveal that it is likely that many of you listening to this message today have been hurt or otherwise abused by people you trusted. If that is the case, I want you to know that you are seen, that you are loved, and that you are valued.
Sometimes it’s in addition to real abuse that happens at the hands of people, there is additional harm that is perpetuated by well intentioned programs. I was one of those young people that was caught up in a system that convinced me that if I did everything right that the resulting life would be one of clarity and happiness. I endeavored to keep all the rules, but keeping those rules didn’t protect me from abuse. When I was a teenager I was assaulted by a pastor, there were reports that he did far worse to others in the youth group, some three decades later I’m still working through the general confusion and resulting trauma caused by those unwelcomed advances. I share this story, because I want those of you who perhaps suffered something similar that you aren’t alone. And as difficult as it may be, you don’t have to give up on Jesus because you’ve been hurt or abused by some in his church.
Don’t give up on Jesus, because I guarantee you that He doesn’t give up on you. Stop working so hard to convince God to love you and simply accept the fact that He does love you. You are his child and you will be transformed by that relationship. As 2 Corinthians 5:17 reads, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation, the old has passed away and the new has come.” And Ephesians 5:1 is a helpful reminder that our activity (Be imitators) flows from our identity (As beloved children.) “Be imitators of God, as beloved Children.”
The gospel of Jesus transforms lives. It is my prayer that all of you will rejoice in the transformative power of his love. You aren’t required to earn your keep by vacuuming the floors in God’s house, you are welcomed at his table as a beloved child to feast in his grace.
I want to conclude today with this beautiful piece of poetry by George Herbert;
Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So, I did sit and eat.