September 27, 2014 Leave a comment
I’ve been thinking about why so many people have trouble with getting past things like pattern and organization when it comes to religion, when Jesus stressed changes in heart and life and action. As I thought about this earlier, I was reminded of something a dear friend once said to me. It went something like this, “You people in the church of Christ only pay attention to the letters of Paul. You should be called the church of Paul.”
In a sense, he’s right. We spend more time dealing with the details of Paul’s interactions with and instructions for the early churches who were experiencing specific issues from growing pains, to poverty, to inertia, to misconduct the likes of which was not even tolerated by the pagans of that day.
When we were children, we heard the stories of the great heroes of the Old Testament. Every child in Sunday school knows about Adam and Eve, Noah, Moses, Joseph, Jacob and Esau, Elijah, David, Solomon, Samson, Daniel and the other exciting stories. In the New Testament, children hear about Jesus and the apostles. And this is well and good. But somewhere along the way, we read about needing strong meat, and not milk and we get the idea that the gospel story of Jesus is just milk, maybe because we tell the stories mostly in Sunday school. Paul serves up the meat in the New Testament. All the other stuff is just background. That seems to be the perception, at least. And I was told by a wise dean once that perception becomes reality.
I believe with all my heart that we have gotten things turned around. The gospel message of Jesus is as strong a meat as any in our practice of religion. We need to tear apart every story about Jesus in the gospels, every teaching he presented, and get every bit of truth and meaning from each and every one of them. Jesus is the focus of the gospel message. His life is the one Paul said he was emulating.
So what is the deficiency I am talking about? First off, that was just one of those “made you look” phrases. Writers call them hooks. If you’re reading this far, the hook has been set, and I hope you will continue through the conclusion of the essay.
The deficiency is not so much with the Bible itself, but in our understanding of it. The Christian life, or the Way as it was called in those days after the Crucifixion and that first Pentecost after it is not an organization. It is indeed a Way of Life. It is Jesus, translated into the life-language of every follower.
What did Paul say in Philippians 1.21? “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Contrary to what some seem to think, Paul never said, “To live is church….” So what did he mean? I think he was saying that it was needful for his friends that he not die at that juncture, but carry on and teach and serve and encourage them. To live is to act.
Paul’s writings are rich with truth. Make no mistake. But many of his letters were addressing specific issues experienced by the groups to which he was writing. Personally, I have never been tempted to eat meat sacrificed to idols. I don’t think I would be offended by it if anyone did. I have never known of a case of step-mother/step-son incest in any church with which I have been associated–not that there cannot be such. Certainly, principles applied in dealing with those situations have value and merit and are instructive to us.
But the letters are not histories, either. They tell us precious little about how people lived and what they did. Paul alluded to some of these things throughout his letters, and a rich cache of comments praising the actions of many of Paul’s friends and associates is found at the close of Romans and in other letters.
While there are those who would squeeze the scriptures to find commands and patterns to follow and bind them on all, there is a wealth of examples that we have rarely ever considered, at least not in the light of “living Christ.” So who did “live Christ” in the New Testament? In Acts 9, there is the story of Dorcas, or Tabitha of whom it was said, “…she was always doing good and helping the poor.” Sounds like Jesus to me. In Romans 16, Phoebe is commended as a servant of the church at Cenchreae. Later in the same chapter, Tryphena and Tryphosa and Persis, all were praised as women who had worked or were working hard in the Lord. Rufus’ mother had been a mother to Paul–that takes action, not words. Urbanus was a dear co-worker. Mary worked very hard for the Christians in Rome. Sounds like Jesus to me. What about Paul’s description of Timothy as showing genuine concern for the Philippians’ welfare like no other: it was not just spiritual welfare. It was their physical, temporal well-being, as well. Epaphroditus was commended as one who saw to Paul’s needs, and was distressed for his friends at their concern over him in his recent, near-fatal illness. Sounds like Jesus to me.
In these examples and in many others, the emphasis is on action, not perfect, lock-step conformity. In Matthew 25, at the scene of the great Judgment, the separation of sheep from goats was based on acts of service and mercy, not doctrinal purity and organizational correctness. I am in no wise saying that those things are not important. They are. But they must not be pursued to the exclusion of justice and mercy.
Jesus addressed such issues throughout his ministry. Work on the Sabbath was forbidden by Jewish law, but Jesus and his disciples plucked heads of grain and winnowed the kernels in their hands, working for a bite of sustenance. Jesus gave relief to the suffering on the Sabbath in direct violation of the Law, and made the point that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. In each of these examples, an action was taken to address a physical need. He reminded the Pharisees of the prophecy, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” His brother James reiterates that “mercy triumphs over judgment.” Mercy, in any time and in any culture, carries the connotation of action in service to another.
So to set the record straight, The Bible is not deficient. We are. When we fail to see the shadow of Christ in the merciful actions and service of every disciple mentioned even in passing, we are deficient. When we plow the field searching for shards of buried commands and cover over the precious jewels that are the wonderful characters who lived Christ, we are deficient.
We should always remember Paul’s comment, “To live is Christ.” We should internalize it, and live Christ, too. He is the Way. He is the Truth. He is the Life that leads to a better and unending life. Let the world see Jesus in us, not just Peter, or Paul, or Martin Luther, or Alexander Campbell or any other reformer who tried to light the way back to Jesus.
To live is Christ.
That should certainly give us a lot to think about.
And much more to do.