The Church’s Alternative Culture

After the events in Charlottesville, VA last week, I, like many others, have been brought face to face with American culture. It seems certain now that it is not just the professional politicians who are biased, partisan, and self seeking. In short: our society is divided. With individuals of the “left” and “right” ideologies becoming more firmly entrenched and defensive of their own views, it is harder to maintain hope of compromise and cooperation. People from all schools of thought are playing the “blame game,” much like Adam and Eve did after God confronted them about eating the forbidden fruit (Gen 3:8-13). On of the most common critiques I have seen about our president is his failure to blame the right people. While people in error always need to take responsibility, spending too much time looking for culprits can blind us to finding a solution to the deeper causes of problems.

This blaming is actually hiding the fact that our society is actually united–by mutual hatred. Many today are driven more by what they oppose than what they favor. This played out in a big way in the recent presidential election. I know numerous individuals who voted not for a certain candidate, but in opposition to the other party. If our oppositions are to be what defines us, how will we reach cooperation? The church has a crucial role to play in this enterprise.

There was a letter written in the second century C.E. to a certain Diogenes that contains a wonderful description of what it means to be a Christian. The letter-writer claims that although Christians are “residents at home in their own countries, their behaviour is more like that of transients [i.e. resident aliens] . . . their days are passed on earth, but their citizenship is above in the heavens” (Ep. to Diog. 5). In other words, authentic Christians are like foreigners, even in their own cultures and nationalities. The church is called to be counter-cultural, which, concretely, means it is to be counter-American. This is more than a call to be oppositional, though, such as in ways that churches stand up in opposition to abortion or other issues (although these things are important). The church must avoid the temptation to define itself solely by what aspects of American culture it rejects. Rather, it must transcend this tendency and become a truly alternative Christian culture.

The church is called to be a society united by mutual love–as opposed to mutual opposition, or even hatred. The church, gathered together by God, is the people who have heeded Jesus’ call to repentance. It is not a collection of like-minded individuals, as an alternative group rather than “leftists” or the “alt-right.” To the extent that the church splits into factions that reflect political loyalties, it fails to fulfill its prophetic call. The church must reflect the group of original apostles who gathered around Jesus. These men came from all social and economic strata of their society, and widely differed in political views. The group even included Zealots–those who were willing to commit acts of violence for their views. Jesus transformed all of these people into proclaimers of God’s kingdom. To quote Paul, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).

Yes, it is difficult to love those who stand for hatred, but this is where Jesus’ call to love our enemies really matters. When the world sees the church seeking to understand and love–as well as call to repentance and transformation–those most difficult to love, it will be clear that God is very much active in the world. The church is where individuals are united despite and above their political and social views. Everyone in it is humbled before God and on a mutual journey to imitate Christ. To reach a nation united in hate, Christians must publicly and authentically demonstrate an alternative kind of culture–one united in love, mutual concern, and compassion.

 

On Solid Ground

Recently I read a passage in St. Augustine in which he claimed that the Ten Commandments were written for the Israelites on tablets of stone “to typify the hardness of their hearts because they were not to fulfill the law” (First Catechetical Instruction 20.35). This is creative, but probably goes further than the scriptures should be stretched. However, it got me thinking about an image to open up the richness of the gospel.

Let us say, instead, that the Ten Commandments were engraved in stone to symbolize that, like God’s own self, they are a firm foundation on which to stand. The prophet Isaiah says, “Trust in the LORD forever, for in the LORD GOD you have an everlasting rock” (Isa 26:4). The Ten Commandments were and continue to be a revelation of God’s character and nature so the people of Israel could experience the firm foundation of God through obedience to God’s Law. As Moses tells the Israelites in the book of Deuteronomy: “’For what other great nation has a god so near it as the LORD our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law?’” (4:8-9).

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus upholds and even intensifies the Hebrew Law (Matt 5:17), revealing the character of God even further. On the other hand, Jesus asserts that it is now his own teaching that is the firmest foundation: “’Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock’” (Matt 7:24). For all who listen to Jesus and seek to obey his teachings, they will be on solid ground, unable to be shaken by any storm of life.

Painting the Saints

Do you ever feel discouraged, or like you will never live up to the kind of life Jesus expects of his followers? If you do, the Bible offers a word of encouragement. First, I would like to share a poem by Robert W. Service called “My Madonna.” Here is the poem:

I hailed me a woman from the street,

Shameless, but, oh, so fair!

I bade her sit in the model’s seat

And I painted her sitting there.

 

I hid all trace of her heart unclean;

I painted a babe at her breast;

I painted her as she might have been

If the Worst had been the Best.

 

She laughed at my picture and went away.

Then came, with a knowing nod,

A connoisseur, and I heard him say;

“’Tis Mary, the Mother of God.”

 

So I painted a halo round her hair,

And I sold her and took my fee,

And she hangs in the church of Saint Hillaire,

Where you and all may see.

 

Why is this relevant here? This poem, although strange and a bit irreverent, with certain interpretation, expresses a great theological truth. While Service may aiming for the humor in the irony of a loose woman being the model for a portrait of the Mother of God, this irony is central to the Christian faith. Behind every icon or stained glass window displaying a saint lies a historical figure. None of these individuals were perfect, and many “saints,” like Augustine of Hippo and the apostle Peter, were deeply flawed. St. Paul even persecuted Christians before he himself joined the church. In this respect, the woman in the poem is in no way out of place.

What made every saint saintly was not that they lived a perfect and holy life in every respect, but the grace of God working in them. Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence made these people saints. Every image of a saint is not a testament to a perfect life, but a life that responded to God’s grace and ever sought to deepen its relationship with God.

Imagine that the painter in this poem is really God the Father. Because Christ died for you, God looks at you as holy, no matter what flaws you may perceive yourself to have. If God were to paint your picture, you would look like a saint too! St. Peter describes the identity of Christians like this: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Pet 2:9a). We are chosen, royal, and holy, belonging to God.

All followers of Christ are called to be saints (Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:2), and as the Holy Spirit guides us to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, our actual lives will one day match the way God already sees us. As Paul says, “May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely. . . The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this” (1 Thess 23a, 24). Take heart, because you are beautiful in God’s eyes.

God is With Us

As a new father—my son is about to turn four months old, hooray!—one of the difficult new facts of life I have discovered is that no matter how much his mama and I shower him with love and affection, we cannot prevent him from experiencing distress, even at his tender age. One of the more upsetting things about a young baby’s cries of distress is how it can cause him to lose contact with reality. If our baby was burdened with hunger for too long, his cries could make him oblivious to the world around him, even if food—that for which he longs—is directly in front of him and within reach. Before we could meet his needs, we needed to first swaddle and shush and comfort him, reminding him that his parents are present and that he has nothing to fear. Only then will he relax and be present so we can take care of his needs.

As Christians, we can be tempted to do this to our heavenly Father as well. Have you ever been so caught up in the cares of life that you are oblivious to the love and affection God is showering upon you? I have certainly been there. If we are weighed down by anxiety and worldly concerns, God may desperately be trying to reach us and meet our needs, but just like my hungry baby, we are oblivious. Sometimes we need to be reminded that God is with us.

We lose sight of God for perfectly legitimate reasons, of course. Life offers all sorts of burdens, sicknesses, difficulties, frustrations, tragedies, and a whole slew of other problems that make our hearts heavy. Maybe we sometimes feel like the Israelites in Egyptian captivity. After Moses proclaimed to the Israelites the coming salvation and liberation by the LORD, the scriptures comment: “[The Israelites] would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery” (Ex 6:9). If you feel enslaved by the cares of life so that even the promises of God are hard to believe, remember that the LORD was faithful and did free the Israelites, even though they disbelieved Moses’s word.

Maybe we feel like Martha, the sister of Mary and Lazarus. Recall the story involving her in Luke 10:38-42. Martha is distracted from Jesus because of all of her chores and duties as hostess, which she found to be so important. She even passive-aggressively tries to make Jesus chide her sister Mary for not helping with the chores. But instead he turns the situation on its head and commends Mary for sitting at his feet and listening to his teaching. Is doing the laundry or the dishes—or whatever—so consuming that it distracts from listening to God’s voice? Is having our affairs in order such a priority, even out of reverence for God, that they blind us to what God wants us to see?

Whatever the cause, there may be times in life when God is seeking to speak to us, seeking to meet our needs, but we are oblivious. This is a hopeful thought! If you are burdened by cares of life and God seems far away, take heart. Our Father and our Lord is quite present and ready to shower us with love and affection, if only we take a moment to stop screaming like a baby and open our eyes. Let us learn from Mary, and take time to sit at our Lord’s feet and simply listen. What does he say? “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20b). However we feel, no matter what we are experiencing, good or bad, we are never alone. Our Father is holding us in his strong arms, and Christ is our constant companion. We have nothing to fear.

Let us take to heart the apostle Peter’s words: “Cast all your anxiety on [God], because he cares for you . . . And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Pet 5:7, 10).

The Family of God

If you are familiar with the Gospels, you know that Jesus does some rather unexpected things in them, like throwing moneychangers out of the temple in Jerusalem and allowing strange women to anoint him with expensive oil. One of these things, you may have noticed, is actually something that he does not do: get married and have children. Why is this significant?

The very first thing that God says to humans (Adam and Eve) after creating them is to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”(Gen. 1:28). Essentially, God is commanding humanity to procreate, to bring forth new life. This command is then reaffirmed after Noah and his family emerge from the ark after the great flood (Gen. 8:13-19). This task to “be fruitful” is integral to human identity, being given to us even before the revelation of the Law to Moses. It is part of our purpose.

If Jesus perfectly fulfilled God’s will, why does he seem to have not fulfilled this command? Surely he could not have just disregarded it? A hint may be found in Mark where Jesus radically redefines the meaning of family, saying, “Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother”(Mk. 3:35). If true family is not defined by blood ties but mutual obedience to God, maybe Jesus also fulfilled the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply” in a new way. How exactly did he do this?

Speaking of his coming crucifixion in the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself”(Jn. 12:32). In his ministry and saving death, Jesus drew in people to fulfill God’s will by faith. Those who are gathered to Jesus make up the family of the children of God (Jn. 1:12-13). There is a powerful concrete moment of how this redefinition of family works while Jesus is on the cross itself: “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home”(Jn. 19:26-27). Jesus’ mother was losing her beloved son before her very eyes, and Christ’s disciple was losing his beloved teacher, but they were given a new bond with each other through the very crucifixion they were witnessing. These two, not related by blood, but among the first to be gathered to Christ, experienced the fruits of the mutual love that comes from being in the family of those who do the will of God.

Jesus certainly fulfilled the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply” by gathering the family of the saints, greater than all others since it will receive the inheritance of eternal life. This family, which we know as the church, is spread all over the earth, and continues to grow as Christ reigns in heaven and continues to gather God’s children to himself.

When we encounter our fellow believers then, it benefits us to remember that we do not simply share some common beliefs, but we share in something even more binding than family ties: the blood of Christ himself. The very life of us all is bound up in the mercy of our heavenly Father and the saving death and resurrection of Christ. When we consider our brothers and sisters in the faith in this way, as our siblings in the faith, how much love and forgiveness will we be able to extend to them! We are truly blessed to have God as our Father, who we may enjoy forever with the entire family of God.