Yesterday, in our discussion about James, Rocky asked some good questions about distinctions that are sometimes made between Christians and non-Christians and how that doesn’t always make sense to him. Christians are called to do “good works,” but many non-Christians do those same works, and it is hard sometimes to know what is supposed to be distinctive about Christianity. Here is part of what he said:
…Charles also hits on something closely related, namely: what is unique about the “Christian Life”? I’ve already hinted that I’m not convinced it is ethics, and I’m not convinced that it is salvation or what happens in the afterlife. Those are the two major answers given most often. But if not those, what? Simply a shared belief in the idea that a certain historical event (namely, the Resurrection of Jesus) actually happened? Maybe….and shared beliefs about history can be powerful in their own right….but I’d like to think something more is happening here.
What is unique about the “Christian Life”?
I’ll be the first to say I don’t have the definitive “answer” to that question, but I do have some ideas to share and discuss today.
(1) My first response may be surprising, but it’s something I have tried to emphasize ever since I started writing here at Internet Monk. It has to do with one of the most important reasons I left the world of evangelicalism and entered the “post-evangelical wilderness.”
Here it is: there is nothing unique about the “Christian” life.
This came up in a conversation I had with Damaris once, and I remember we came to agreement that the “Christian” life is just life, lived Christianly. Life. Ordinary, human life. In all its dailiness. Through all its various seasons and circumstances. For better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. Getting up each day and putting our pants on one leg at a time just like everyone else.
The separatist nature of some religious traditions tries to deny this. When listening to Christians talk, I sometimes get the idea that we hover a foot or two above other human beings.
- We promote gnostic tendencies toward insider-ism and elitism that imagine Christians are in a special category, a “members only” club, dialed-in to special knowledge and privileges to which our neighbors don’t have access.
- We maintain docetic tendencies among us. We elevate “souls” and “spirituality” over day-to-day living by embodied persons who live in communities in relationship with others. “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through” is our song, and we devalue the mundane and the ordinary in favor of the esoteric and “spiritual.”
- We harbor many modernist prejudices, rationalizing, categorizing and generally thinking that what is most important is the world of ideas and theological systems. We imagine that success for Christianity means winning arguments and making sure all of our doctrinal “i’s” are dotted and “t’s” crossed.
- We imagine a moral superiority that sets us above “sinners,” and we set up our lives and institutions to avoid meaningful and equal relationships with them.
Folks, we’re all in this together. Fellow human beings. If we don’t get this and learn the true humility that comes from realizing we are no different than anyone else, we will never truly see our neighbors as “neighbors,” akin to us and beside us in this thing we call life. We will always look down on others instead, in one way or another. We will take up the role of judges rather than friends and companions. We will imagine that we have privileges and advantages others don’t have and will build walls rather than bridges in our relationships with them.
(2) However, there is one thing that makes being a Christian special, and that’s Jesus.
And the outline of what is particularly significant about Jesus is that he became incarnate, announced the dawning of God’s rule, died, was buried, rose again, and ascended into heaven to be crowned Lord of all.
Yesterday, Scot McKnight ran a post about what it means to do evangelism if you believe that the gospel is the “King Jesus gospel” rather than the “soterian gospel” of modern evangelicalism.
In the “soterian” model, evangelism is all about defending the truth, and persuading and convincing others to embrace it so that they can be saved from God’s judgment and gain the hope of heaven. Its focus is on them, on drawing the contrast between us and them, on convincing them that they need to change.
By contrast, in the “King Jesus gospel” approach we simply witness to Jesus. We tell his story. We announce that, by his life, death, resurrection and ascension, Jesus has been crowned Messiah, Lord, Savior, and King of all. “We want to stir an interest in Jesus. We are not trying first to stir interest in our church, or in someone’s sins or in some kind of theological debate,” McKnight writes.
We are witnesses. First and foremost we are witness to and about Jesus. Our calling is to draw attention to Jesus and to call folks’ attention to Jesus. The Story of Jesus awakens faith and in that context the summons to repent, to be believe and to be baptized can be given.
The focus is not on what people get if they accept Jesus; the focus is Jesus. He’ll give them what he wants.
This is essentially the focus of N.T. Wright’s newer perspective on Jesus, Paul, and the new community which has been created in Christ. In a review of one of Wright’s books, Bruce Epperly summarizes it well:
N. T. Wright sees the heart of Paul’s theology as involving his experience and expression of God’s new creation, brought about by God’s action in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. Although Christ as Messiah is profoundly Jewish – you cannot find any foundation for anti-Judaism in the authentic Pauline literature – he sees Jesus Christ as embodying and inviting us to live in God’s new age of Shalom. Accordingly, Pauline theology is profoundly concrete. He is a preacher-theologian: his thinking is ultimately practical. Paul believes that the theological is transformational. The message of the Gospel and God’s new creation, the heart of Paul’s message, is transformational and invites us to become transformed persons, living in transformed communities, and working toward a transformed world order.
…The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ brings about new creation in the here and now and the spirit of Jewish monotheism, this new creation is cosmological, ethical, and soteriological – we are new people, experiencing a transformed universe, touched by the healing Christ, and living by the values of God’s realm “on earth as it is in heaven.” Our vision of God’s faithfulness throughout history and in all creation nurtures the confidence that transforms behavior and beliefs.
…Paul’s letters to emerging congregations are invitations to live in God’s realm of Shalom right now.
…Dynamic in nature, the lively, inspired body of Christ can become God’s embodied vision of Shalom – of new creation – in this very moment of time.
…God is truly in Christ reconciling the world, and we are intended to be companions in God’s ministry of reconciliation. We are intended to be a microcosm, a foretaste, of the world to come, participating in God’s new creation and becoming God’s temple making sacred the world.
There’s a lot of highfalutin’ language in there, but what it all boils down to is this:
- In Jesus, God began to implement his end-times rule in the world (“the kingdom of heaven has drawn near”).
- The ultimate goal of this rule is God bringing about a new creation of justice and peace (“on earth as it is in heaven”).
- The process of implementing God’s rule involves him creating a community of people who are called to witness to Jesus the King and the new creation to come (“you are the salt of the earth; the light of the world).
- This involves us living among our neighbors, pointing them to Jesus by our attitudes, words, and actions (which includes acknowledging our imperfections and failures). Christians and Christian communities are called to be signs and examples of the new creation to come as we live our ordinary human lives through all the seasons and circumstances of life. In other words, Christians are simply to live in this world and this life with genuine humanity.
This means we don’t worry so much about “setting ourselves apart” from those around us or emphasizing our “distinctiveness.” We eagerly embrace our common humanity with others. We live in community with them. There are moral and ethical boundaries we maintain, but this fact is part of our common humanity, for all human groups do this and part of living in community with those who differ is to negotiate how we are going to live together while maintaining different values and perspectives. We are also free to participate with our neighbors in good works of love to mend the world’s broken places and plant seeds of goodness that will come to fruition in the new creation. As we live in the world, we constantly give credit to Jesus our King, who is making all things new.
As Epperly says, “God is truly in Christ reconciling the world, and we are intended to be companions in God’s ministry of reconciliation.”