Sunday, August 19, 2012

Whither Evangelism in 2012?

For some time now I have been pondering what the presentation of the gospel to the world might look like in light of some of the changes in biblical and systematic theology over last several decades. I don’t intend to rehearse those changes here. Others can and have done that better than I ever could.

However, how to articulate the gospel as an evangelistic message in light of these changes has received less and more piecemeal attention. I will attempt here to draft a sample of what such proclamation might look like today. Most of us realize that simple formulaic approaches to sharing the gospel (e.g., The Four Spiritual Laws, The Romans Road) no longer suffice (for a variety of reasons I’ll also forgo exploring here). Theology has made a decisive turn to a narrative or dramatic mode, and evangelistic proclamation must follow suit. Biblical theology has reshaped our understanding of the “story” the Bible tells in its many moods and modes. Thus, the evangelistic message must retell that “story” as the narrative of our lives in 2012.

I imagine myself invited to explain the biblical message for a group of interested seekers open to hearing a fresh rendition of the gospel. I would tell that story like this:

I’m no fortune teller or the son of a fortune teller, but I do know who you – each of you – are intended to be! And that’s the story the Bible tells us.

Before I start with that, though, I’d like to apologize for all the ways Christians like myself have made it difficult for you to hear the truly good news of the Bible because of our missteps and misdeeds. Our profession has so often been undermined by our practice. We’ve made it hard for you to hear with a straight face our claims of God’s love for everyone. And I am very sorry for that! All we can do is acknowledge what has been and try to make a different future. Part of that starts with getting the Bible’s story straight and that’s what I’m trying to do here.

The Bible’s story begins with God creating a world he intends to be a temple palace. That’s right, a temple palace. A temple is a place for God, the King, to dwell with his people. That’s what this world was, and is to be.

If this world is a temple, somebody has to be the priests, even royal priests, because we children of the King. Priests are the folks who staff the temple and perform its two major tasks: representing God to the people and representing the people to God. Who are these priests? You guessed it! Adam and Eve - who in the story are the symbols of the human race to whom God has given the extraordinary dignity and calling to serve him as priests in his garden temple. When the Bible says we’re created in God’s “image,” this is what it means.

You may never have thought of yourself as a priest. Priest may even be a negative image for you depending on your experience. Yet, try to see it in terms of the Bible’s story we’re exploring. God created you, man or woman, to together reflect his will and way to the world and protect and nurture this creation to its full flourishing.

That’s who you are – your primal dignity – and what your life is all about – your vocation.

Adam and Eve (us!) rejected this dignity and calling, choosing instead to tell God to buzz off with words I hear my two year-old granddaughter say: “You’re not the boss of me!” This inexplicable, irrational, and heinous rejection of our royal priesthood in favor of wanting to be ourselves “God” turned out to be a bad deal – a really bad deal. You see, we’re just not up to the job.

Before you know it, God’s creation came apart at the seams. Things just didn’t hold together after we started to act as “gods” instead of God’s royal priests. We are no longer at one with ourselves, with each other, or with the creation itself. Everything now is fight and struggle, compete and conquer, a zero-sum game of scarcity and hoarding. In short, the exact opposite of what God offers to us as his royal priests!

But God does not give in, give up, or give out in working to make his world the way he intended it. He doesn’t clear the decks and start completely over again (though he was sorely tempted by this option in the Flood story in Genesis!). He doesn’t change his plans and opt for a different result (that we live with him in heaven forever as “spiritual” beings while the earth and our earthly lives disappear, disapproved of in judgment). No, God plugs on with renewed determination and creativity to have his creation as he envisioned it no matter the obstacles or cost to him of doing so.

God chooses Abraham and Sarah, nobodies from nowhere, and calls them to parent the people God will claim as his own, and gift and equip to show the world how things are supposed to be and invite all other peoples to join Israel as God’s royal priests in building God’s temple-palace all over the globe.

Israel too, like Adam and Eve failed to be faithful royal priests. Finally God did what he had intended to do all along – become a human being like us. He too became a royal priest! Instead of coming in flesh just to deepen and enjoy fellowship and communion with his creatures in the most intimate way possible, his agenda was now more complicated. In addition to leading us in reflecting God’s character in ever clearer ways and nurturing the creation toward its fullest flourishing, Jesus had also to renew and reestablish humanity’s relationship to God as its very source of life.

From the side of God (the eternal Son), Jesus lived out God’s love seeking his erstwhile royal priests no matter what the cost (to cross); from the side of humanity (the Incarnate Son), Jesus offers to God the life of utter fidelity and indefectible loyalty he desired from his royal priests (leading again, to the cross).

God raised Jesus from the dead. This act was God’s great “Yes” to the way Jesus lived and died and signaled God’s triumph over all that hindered and opposed his will and way in the world. The risen Jesus means “God wins!” Jesus had come as one of us, lived as one of us, lived faithful and loyal as God’s royal priest as none of us had, died and was raised for us so that through him God could reclaim us (by forgiving us and reconciling us to God) and restore us to our primal dignity and vocation as royal priests.

Thus we can begin anew (for the first time) to use our talents, gifts, and resources to reflect God’s character and shape the creation as the royal temple-palace God always intended it to be.

Indeed, that’s just where the biblical story ends! Though we cannot build this royal temple-palace by our own resources, we can use the gifts and abilities God has given us to do the best we can, assured that what of our work is done out of genuine love for God and humanity as faithful royal priests will be purified and preserved by God as part of his finished glorious temple palace! The Bible’s image of the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven to God’s new creation pictures this reality. This new city covers the globe and – surprise of surprises! – the city itself is not a building but the whole of this new world covered by faithful royal priests in unhindered fellowship with their great royal priest – Jesus, and through him, with God himself. And the very last word the Bible says about human life and destiny is this: “Night will be no more. They won’t need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will shine on them, and they will rule forever and always” (Rev.22:5).

Basking in the light of God and “ruling” forever – that’s what God always wanted. And that’s what God through Jesus has gotten - a whole host of royal priests caring for one another and the creation around them. A second century theologian described it well: “The glory of God is humanity fully alive, and life is beholding God.”

Well, that’s the story as I understand it. I realize it’s perhaps a good bit different than what you’ve heard or experienced. That’s why I wanted to share it with you. In a sentence, God dearly loves us, created us to be his representatives in protecting and caring for this world, and has done all that love could do to reclaim and restore us as his royal priests.

Notice how “secular” or non-religious all this is! It has nothing to do with a “spiritual” realm apart from the physical, material world or an “inner” life distinct from our life in the world. Living as royal priests is not a matter of going somewhere to do “religious” things nor of a set of practices to do in a certain way or at a set time. Rather, it is a matter of living life in the world in God’s way, that is, by people-keeping and creation-keeping out of love and gratitude to God for the gift of life. Nothing more or less than that!

I hope we can keep on talking about any of this that piques your interest. I do believe that this is the true story of why we here and what our lives are all about. And maybe through my telling the story in this way, you’ll discover that and embrace it as your story too!

There’s my attempt to tell the Christian story in today’s North American setting. This is what I would say to a “naked lady.” Doubtless it has many flaws and needs much refining or correcting. But it is a start to try and articulate the gospel in light of the some recent developments and gains in understanding the Bible and of the situation of the church in our culture today. I’d appreciate to hear what you think!

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