A Compelling Mission.

Does the way in which we engage people outside the church point to the reality of God?

In previous posts we have looked at Christianity as compelling because it is true. This week we begin looking at how Christianity is compelling because it is beautiful.

My boys are now reading Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which I also read in school. In this book and corresponding tv series American society has been ordered, supposedly, according to the teachings of the Bible. However, it is not long before the reader realizes that this is a very ugly society. If that is what Christianity leads to, it is not compelling at all! If Christianity is true, reflecting a good and loving God, we will expect it to bring beauty, not ugliness. Does Christianity lead to beauty or ugliness? Specifically, is the way Christians engage non-Christians beautiful?

First, freedom is beautiful. Imprisonment is always an ugly thing. With Christianity there is to be freedom. When we read the New Testament we find people freely choosing to be followers of Jesus. In the “Great Commission” of Matthew 28, Jesus did not say “go and force everyone to be a Christian,” but “go and make disciples.”

This means that everyone should have freedom to not be a Christian. Some religions and worldviews use power to keep people in. We can think of fundamentalist versions of Islam. In some nations it is illegal to convert from Islam to another faith! My own children have been raised with a strong connection with the church family. But they are free to not be Christians. While my heart’s desire is that all three will follow Jesus, it is not my decision to make. They are free to choose their relationship with Jesus. As they grow into adulthood they will be free to choose their connection with the church family also. Sometimes we as Christians have made it difficult for people to leave the faith. That gets ugly. Freedom is beautiful.

There is also to be freedom for the non-Christian to not have to act like a Christian. Jesus did not say in Matthew 28 “go and make Christian nations, forcing everyone to have Christian morals,” but,

. . . go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. 20 Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:19-20 (NLT emphasis added) 

The New Living Translation goes beyond what is in the original Greek, but captures for us well who is to learn Christ’s ways, namely, His disciples. As a Canadian I am watching the culture war in the States with interest. I see a desire to ‘make America Christian again.’ However, forcing an entire nation to follow Jesus gets ugly. We understand that Christianity is spreading very well in China. I imagine that the Chinese Christians are focused on making disciples, one person at a time, not fighting a culture war, one law at time. That is not to say that Christians should not be involved in politics. But when we are, let us not confuse lawmaking with evangelism.

We Christians have sometimes denied freedom, and sometimes still do. It has been and can get ugly. But we will not deny freedom if we are looking to Jesus, if the New Testament is our guide. Freedom is beautiful, and a Biblical Christianity promotes freedom.

Second, words are a beautiful way to share truth. Forced conversion through violence is ugly. Conversion through force or manipulation is something you will not find happening in the New Testament, nor is it something Jesus told us to do. Instead, we find people sharing what they know to be true about Jesus using words. You will not find a Christian going to war in the New Testament to ‘take the land for Jesus.’ You will find honest sharing. You will find conversations. You will not find warriors. You will find preachers.

We Christians have sometimes resorted to power, and sometimes we still do. It has been and can get ugly. However, we will not use force if we are looking to Jesus, if the New Testament is our guide. Words are beautiful. A Biblical Christianity promotes conversation and sharing through words.

Third, it is a beautiful thing to share good news. Keeping life changing good news to oneself would be ugly. Keeping Jesus for ourselves would be ugly. Keeping quiet about the amazing news of God’s amazing grace would be ugly. Some religions may promote a ‘keep to yourself’ attitude. That might be okay if you are keeping your love for liver and onions to yourself. But imagine finding the cure for cancer. We have learned of the cure for death itself! We have learned that God has a love solution for our separation-from-God problem. Keeping that to ourselves would demonstrate an ugly, ugly lack of love for others. From the very earliest days, Christians have been involved in missions. Because we must in order to get to heaven? Nope! Because sharing good news is a beautiful thing, a natural thing. The good news is too good to keep to ourselves!

The way Christians are to relate with non-Christians is not ugly, but beautiful. Freedom is beautiful, words are a beautiful way to share truth, and it is a beautiful thing to share good news. God’s call for how the Christian should engage with the non-Christian is, just as you would expect from a good God, beautiful. This is yet another aspect of Christianity that is compelling.

(This post is part of a series called “Compelling” which begins here. The full sermon can be heard on the podcast which is found here.)

Freedom of Religion & Ezekiel

You can make a case that God given values as taught in the Bible are great values to build a society upon. In fact you can make the case that Western society has been positively influenced by these values, though increasingly not so much. Therefore, should we be compelling all Canadians to hold Christian values? Should we be forcing the Christian viewpoint on everyone?

God’s calling of Ezekiel to prophesy to His people in captivity provides an interesting parallel for us to consider. God’s people of Israel have rebelled against God and the time has come for something to be done about it. Is Ezekiel called as a prophet to enforce the law? Will his role be to crack down on the lawbreakers by force? Let’s take a look:

16 At the end of seven days, the word of the Lord came to me:17 Mortal, I have made you a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. (Ezekiel 3:16-17 emphasis mine)

Ezekiel is called, not to be a “religious policeman,” nor a “ruler,” but a “sentinel,” or as some translations have it, a “watchman.” While we normally think today of defending a nation, back in antiquity they thought rather of defending each individual city. Part of a city’s defence was to have watchmen who would stand on tall towers or walls watching out for an approaching enemy. The role of a watchman was to make the leaders and people aware of the facts. What happened after that was up to the leaders and the people. In calling Ezekiel in his role as prophet to be a watchman, God was calling him to state the facts: “you shall give them warning from me.” Ezekiel was required to do no more, nor no less. This responsibility is made clear in the verses that follow, for example:

18 If I say to the wicked, “You shall surely die,” and you give them no warning, or speak to warn the wicked from their wicked way, in order to save their life, those wicked persons shall die for their iniquity; but their blood I will require at your hand. 19 But if you warn the wicked, and they do not turn from their wickedness, or from their wicked way, they shall die for their iniquity; but you will have saved your life. (Ezekiel 3:18-19 emphasis mine)

Ezekiel was called to warn, to state the facts, but not to force or enforce.

When we look at the apostles in the New Testament we see them acting like watchmen. We see this in Peter in his first sermon on the Day of Pentecost: “With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation’.” (Acts 2:40 NIV) As we read through the New Testament we find that the early Christians were never interested in arranging a political coup. They were not looking to create a political entity or to seize power from the current political entities. If anything, there was a call to pray for and respect the prevailing civic powers. Christians instead were calling individuals to repentance, giving warning about the consequences of a broken relationship with God and making the invitation to be reconciled to God through the grace of Christ. They were stating the facts, very important facts, and with great urgency, like any good watchman would do.

We can note here that the beginnings of Christianity with an implicit separation of Church and State is quite different from the beginnings of Islam. Muhammad claimed to be a prophet, but he became in fact a political leader and a military commander which has had implications for what fundamentalist versions of Islam look like today. The leaders of the early Church were neither political nor military leaders. Many people hoped Jesus would become a political and military leader in hopes that he would lead a revolt against Rome. Rather than pick up a sword, Jesus picked up a cross. The followers of Jesus were committed to following the example of Jesus and the “Great Commission” of Jesus:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28: 18-20)

Jesus said “make disciples”, not laws. Jesus said “make disciples”, not Christian nations. The early Church in new Testament times kept its focus on making disciples without any thought to armed action. We must admit, however, that a clean division between Church and State has not been kept through every era of Church history and in every place. We must also point out that the separation of Church and State also does not mean that Christians cannot have a voice in politics. The Bible does point us, however, toward being sensitive in our politics to the fundamental human right of freedom of religion.

That Ezekiel is to give warning and not force a decision is further highlighted in the concluding verse of the chapter:

But when I speak with you, I will open your mouth, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God’; let those who will hear, hear; and let those who refuse to hear, refuse; for they are a rebellious house. (Ezekiel 3:27 emphasis mine)

Ezekiel is to give free space for response: “let those who will hear, hear; and let those who refuse to hear, refuse”. The response is not Ezekiel’s responsibility. A watchman gives the facts. What people do with the facts after that is not the watchman’s responsibility. As the people of God we are not called to force the hand, we are called to direct the eye. The watchman says “Look,I see the enemy army over there!” The Christian says “Look, we see signs confirming that God is real”, and “Look at how far you are from God because of sin and rebellion”, and “Look, you can see clearly God’s love and grace at the cross, reconciliation and life with God is possible through Jesus.” We do not force people to accept our viewpoint, we point people to the truth and invite them to see for themselves.

So should we be forcing Christian values and beliefs on everyone? We respect the freedom of people to make up their own minds; but remember, they are not free to do so until they have all the facts. The leaders and people of a city are not free to make good decisions until the watchman shares what he knows. People do not have the freedom of religion until we share the facts. That means sharing Jesus!

(All scripture references are taken from the NRSV unless stated otherwise)