What is the core teaching of Jesus?

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A good friend of mine recently handed me an invitation to think through and identify the core belief or doctrine of Christianity.  In pointing me to a recent article in the Huffington Post (see link at the end) I read an apologist for the Episcopal Church attempt to downplay declining membership rolls by pointing to parallel exits from both the Southern Baptist and Catholic churches.

Before I share what the Huffington Post author thinks is the number one teaching of Jesus, I want to explore why I think she is correct in mentioning shrinking church membership.

There comes a point when all of us get tired of being implored to do more.  We get that at both work AND home.  All of us probably can name ways in which we could do more ‘good stuff’.  So when the church preaches the same message as a predominate theme from the pulpit, we reach a point where we ask ourselves, “Why am I choosing to subject myself to this To-Do List week after week?  Where is the good news? ”

The Baptist version of some legalistic churches often comes across this way by asking:

  • How long are your quiet times?
  • Have you joined an accountability group?
  • Which missions’ trips are you going on this year?

The Catholic version sounds like this:

  • How can you be pro-life and support capital punishment?
  • You need to march for anti-capitalistic, environmentally sound policies.
  • Since you can’t know for sure if you are good enough to warrant entry into heaven, DO this or GIVE X amount of money as penance.
  • You better not miss mass and confession; how else will you know if you are ‘good’?

And liberal Protestantism preaches:

  • Feed the poor, reach out to your neighbors, whoever they are.
  • Fight for judgment-free acceptance of all values.
  • Celebrate the many ways to God.

Hear me carefully.  I am NOT saying that Bible study, small group participation, feeding the poor, mindful use of earth’s resources and kindly serving others here and abroad are unworthy activities.  There is a place for these practices.But what is missing and what leaves people weak, thirsty and discouraged is the lack of Good News preached.

What is Christianity’s main teaching or core value?

That Jesus Christ saves sinners

This proposition presupposes that someone needs saving?

The Bible, throughout its 66 books, teaches that life’s ultimate problem looming over every human being is GUILT (and I’m not talking about guilty feelings, although they are sometimes present but actually judicial guilt.)  If you or I were to die right now and face our Creator and Sustainer, Almighty God, He would rightly judge, “Guilty – you deserve Hell.”   We are born sinful (Psalm 51:5), thanks to our first parents Adam and Eve.

And no amount of the Baptist version of good works, or the Catholic version of good works or the liberal protestant version of good works will SAVE US.

We are up a very dangerous creek with no way out.  And God has our attention.  Now we are ready to hear the GOOD NEWS:

– that Jesus came to save sinners by dying in our place, thus satisfying the eternal sentence against us, thereby saving us from HELL

– that Jesus lived the perfect life, thus giving us the gift of un-earned righteousness, thereby gaining entry for us into HEAVEN

What were Jesus’ first words when he burst onto the scene in Galilee?

  • Love everyone and feed the poor!

Nope, Mark records God the Son’s striking command:  The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; Repent and believe in the gospel.  (Mark 1:15)

Later on, in verse 38 of the same opening chapter, Jesus confirms his mission. Let us go somewhere else to the towns nearby, in order that I may preach there also, for this is what I came out for.

Whether conservative or liberal, all of us church-attenders need to hear what God has already done for us, through Jesus.  The more we learn how much God loves us and what motivated Him to die for us,

Jesus…. as author and perfecter of our faith…. for the JOY set before him endured the cross and scorned its shame and … sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:2)

the more we can drop our drivenness.  It’s from that place of not being good enough that come many of our ‘good works’.  “I must be a good-enough Christian if I do…….”

I promised that I would let you in on what the defender of the declining Episcopal Church declares is the core value in Christianity:

Introspective liberal churchgoers returned to the core of the Christian vision: Jesus’ command to “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” As a result, a sort of neo-liberal Christianity has quietly taken root across the old Protestant denominations–a form of faith that cares for one’s neighbor, the common good, and fosters equality, but is, at the same time, a transformative personal faith that is warm, experiential, generous, and thoughtful. This new expression of Christianity maintains the historic liberal passion for serving others but embraces Jesus’ injunction that a vibrant love for God is the basis for a meaningful life. These Christians link spirituality with social justice as a path of peace and biblical faith.

Where do I think good works fit in?  Aren’t we supposed to have a consistent quiet time, go on missions’ trips, and confess our sins one to the other?  Aren’t we supposed to practice neighbor love, feed the poor, discern and proclaim Biblical truth?  Of course, but ‘good works’ come  AFTER  the primary call of REPENT and BELIEVE what Jesus teaches.

Those who are saved are saved in order to do certain work.  And these activities are not ones that we choose in a vacuum; they have been predestined/planned out by God from before the creation of the universe. (Ephesians 2:10)

God’s order of events prevents boasting on our part.  How can He be ‘rich in mercy’ and ‘give us grace’ if we earn our way into heaven? And if we think we can earn enough brownie points so God will HAVE to let us in, we can easily wear out with fatigue and just quit. Any church, not just liberal protestant ones will lose members over time if their pastors do not feed their flocks with rich gospel-saturated food.

Today in church, one of the readings was from Ephesians 4.  The primary role of pastors and church teachers, those whose calling is true spiritual formation is described.  This job description of those who are to feed us regularly is worth reading:

11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

Sufficient and correct content, delivered in love, builds unity and equips the body of believers to do the work God calls them to do.  I am ONLY motivated to do, when I am amazed at what God has first done for me.  Skip that part, the blow-my-mind-He-did-THAT for ME????, and false manipulative guilt will only motivate me so far.

I will leave you with a prayer that really stokes my love for Jesus.  It’s written by pastor and author JD Greear, from his book Gospel: (page 44)

“In Christ, there is nothing I can do that would make You love me more, and nothing I have done that makes you love me less.

Your presence and approval are all I need for everlasting joy.

As you have been to me, so I will be to others.

As I pray, I’ll measure Your compassion by the cross and Your power by the resurrection.”

For the original essay in the Huffington Post, go to:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/diana-butler-bass/can-christianity-be-saved_1_b_1674807.html

 

Forgiveness and freedom from guilt

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The other day I saw a distinction that was new to me.  The word ‘to forgive’ and the French word ‘pardonner’ both have the root or meaning to GIVE (French – donner, like donate).  God gives us a way back to a restored, right relationship with Him after we have violated one of His laws.  It’s 100 % from Him. We do nothing on our own.  Contrariwise, the sacrificial system of the Hebrews was built on the action of the sinner.  You broke God’s law, YOU gave up a valuable, unblemished part of your wealth & sustenance (livestock) and your relationship with God was restored.

Therefore, when God says in the letter to the Hebrews in Chapter 10, “….’their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more’.  And when these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin. Therefore brothers, since we have confidence to enter the most holy place by the blood of Jesus (17-19)….having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience (22b)…”

What does this have to do with how you and I live and what we do with our sin?  If you and I are in Christ, that is, if we are part of those called and offered “….the promised eternal inheritance – now that he(Christ) has died as a ransom to set (us)  free from the sins committed under the first covenant” (Hebr 9:15), then there is nothing left for us to DO.

If we were still under the rules of the Mosaic Covenant, we would have to give up goods and perform sacrifices to cover our sins.  But now, as members of the new covenant, we exercise the privilege of heirs. We still sin, but we claim the covering effect of the paid ransom.  More meaningful to me is the freedom from guilt.

If we accept as FACT what God’s word says, then per verse 22b in Hebrews 10, we have been cleansed from a guilty conscience.  When did that happen?  When the Son was killed as a ransom to set us free from the penalty of all our sins (past, present and future) guilt was also removed.

So how does this work out?  My struggle with guilt comes more often from not living up to my standards for myself.  Over the years, I have come more and more to bring those standards in line with God’s law.  When I overeat, when I break a confidence, when I say something negative about another family member or brother and sister in Christ, when I choose to be selfish instead of following the prompting of the Holy Spirit, I feel guilty.  And I can wallow in guilt which turns me in on myself, away from God, away from others.  But face to face with the truth that my guilt has been removed, it is getting easier to talk to myself and say,

“Maria, you don’t have to stew in guilty feelings.  They are not necessary.  Guilt has been removed. So stop it!  Remember, there is NOW NO condemnation from God because I am an heir of the eternal inheritance along with my older brother Jesus. In fact He suffered so I don’t have to feel guilty.  Are you saying, by wallowing in your self-indulgent guilt, that it wasn’t ENOUGH for your older brother Jesus, son of the Living God, to willingly be punished for you, for THIS sin?”

I do listen to myself.  And the other day, it only took about 2 hours of stewing and self-talk for me to release myself from the prison of artificial guilt.

How about you?  Are you ignoring such a great benefit?  “Oh bless the Lord, O my soul and forget not all His benefits, He forgives all your sins!” (Psalm 103: 1a, 2-3a)

 

Daily C-Rations and Getting the CAR in gear – a metaphor

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I like to simplify doctrine down to mnemonic devices I can easily recall.

The other day I was thinking about what I need to remember, to feed on each morning to reorient myself for the day.  There is something perverse about a night’s sleep.  I tend to lose a correct theology somewhere in the wee hours of the night. I can go to bed being thankful to God and conscious of Him and then wake up in the morning a ‘worldling’ again, living as a functional atheist.  So each morning, I have to RECALL deliberately what is true about God and about me.

The other day, as I was walking and reflecting about how to be more automatic in God-thoughts, the picture of C-rations sprang to mind.  These days, the prepared meals for an Army in the field are called something else, but you know what I mean. I thought about how a soldier might draw his daily C-rats, enough calories and nutrition to provide him with energy for his 24 hour duty period.  Jacob prayed for spiritual C-Rats for his son Asher:

As your days — so shall your strength be.” Deuteronomy 33:26

Being consistent with Moses, I imagined what spiritual C-rations we should draw.  For fun, I came up with lots of C-words to illustrate God’s gifts.  As I ran through some of these God-given daily provisions, I was reminded of what Paul says.

The apostle emphasizes in his letter to the Ephesians that we have been given every spiritual blessing in Christ.  What are some of these daily spiritual ‘C-rats’ issued to us and available for our sustenance?   As His covenantal children, we are entitled to help ourselves to gifts such as Charity, Compassion, Courage, Character, Control over self, Companionship of Christ….you get the idea…think of your own C words.  What is key is that God provides what we will need for the trials and tasks of the day, not more, not less, but just what is necessary.  (Remember how the Hebrews tried to stash some away, “just in case”, but it rotted?)

But life is more than drawing food or getting equipped for the day.  As I was ruminating about my C-rats plan, it dawned on me that there were some daily actions I could embark on first thing in the morning and then with God’s help sustain.  I came up with three and they too begin with the letter C J.  Here’s an acronym – CAR.  C stands for CASTING all my CARES on Jesus, not only as an act of humility (so Peter exhorts us) but also so I don’t have to carry them around.

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due     time.  Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. 1 Pet 5: 6-7

If I heave them onto Jesus, He can handle them, fix them, and imbue them with grace.

The A stands for ABIDE.

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.  I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.  John 15: 4-5

Now I must admit, the How-To of abiding is a challenge.  But I heard Andrée Seu (columnist from World magazine) give a simple tip on how to abide.  She recommends thanking God as a method for keeping one’s mind on Christ.  Now that makes sense.  If all of a sudden I ‘wake up’ and realize I haven’t been abiding in Christ, I can look around and thank Him for something right at hand.

Today, I caught myself not even aware of God while on a walk with my husband.  It was Mike’s birthday AND Memorial Day, so we were out enjoying a 5-mile wooded trail.  When I startled and it dawned on me that I wasn’t abiding in (i.e. thinking about) Christ, I looked at the textured bark on the trees and thanked God for His design and creativity (another C word!)   That one observation led to other delights and all of a sudden I was abiding.  My momentary appreciation and love for God grew.

What about guilt for the hours that had passed without thinking of God?  The 3rd letter of CAR reminds us that we get to REPENT each time we catch ourselves distracted about worldly concerns with no thought toward God.  I’m so grateful for the gift of frequent repentance:

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:9

Now applying the CAR metaphor a bit further, I imagine an engine with pistons that operates on a continuous 3 stroke cycle (we have to S-T-R-E-T-C-H the analogy a bit, I know! My husband has explained that cars have either 2 or 4 cycles).  I cast my cares on Christ, I abide in Him and when I FORGET about Him I come to my senses. Then I get to repent and thank Him for gently bringing me back to my senses. And so it goes.  The car engine won’t function unless the pistons are moving up and down.  Neither will I function well as a Christian unless I am continually Casting, Abiding, and Repenting.

So what’s the plan when you wake up tomorrow morning? We’ll draw our C-Rats for the day and put the CAR in gear.  Let me know what other C blessings make a difference in your day.

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