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.)

The Compelling Man. Is Jesus Evidence that Christianity is True?

Who is Jesus and why should we care? Some would say that we should consider Jesus apart from any religious ideas, without asking the “God question.” Let us do so for a moment. Before we ask whether God exists, or, if Jesus has anything to do with said God, what can we say about Jesus? Here are some things:

  • Jesus was a man of compelling activity. He went about doing good. Life changing miracles are ascribed to him, but even if your worldview is not open to miracles, you can at least say that the earliest witnesses knew him to be a man of good works for many people.
  • Jesus was a man of compelling teaching. He is described as teaching “with authority” and “not like the teachers of the law” (see Mark 1:22). He was not educated, yet was recognized as having better teaching than the educated and sophisticated teachers.
  • Jesus was a man of compelling ethics. His vision for behaviour was focused on love long before the Beatles sang “all you need is love.” In contrast to the religious leaders of the day, Jesus pointed out that the divine rules existed for the sake of humans, rather than humans existing for the sake of the rules (see, for example, Mark 2:27).
  • Jesus had a compelling presence. He was known as a friend to sinners (see Matthew 11:16-19). Despite his profound teaching and capability, things which can often make people inaccessible, he was a man of the people. People enjoyed and longed for his presence.
  • Jesus issued a compelling challenge. Whether telling the woman caught in adultery to “go and sin no more” (see John 8:11) or, as happened far more often, challenging the religious leaders, the status quo had no chance.
  • Jesus issued a compelling life-changing and world-changing call. Where it was expected, even hoped for, that Jesus would call people to pick up a sword and fight the Romans, instead he called people to pick up a cross and follow (see Matthew 16:24-26). His call was to the way of  understanding, love, grace, and forgiveness.
  • Jesus had and continues to have a compelling impact. Even if you do not believe in God, or that Jesus is God, you cannot deny that Jesus has had a huge positive impact in the lives of individuals, in entire societies, indeed upon the world. Yes, Christians at times have a negative impact, but the impact of Jesus has been profoundly positive and enduring.

Seeing all that is compelling about Jesus, it is no surprise that Jesus can be fairly described as the most compelling person in the history of the world. We have not even considered the “God question” yet.  Let us now do so.

In Mark 8:27-30 Jesus asked the disciples “Who do people say that I am?”, followed with “who do you say that I am?”. This is perhaps the most important question ever asked. Peter answers “You are the Messiah,” which shows that Peter was beginning to recognize that Jesus was from God in some special way.

We can also ask “who does Jesus say he is?”. Consider;

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven” John 6:51
“I am the light of the world” John 8:12
“You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world.” John 8:23
“If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now I am here. I did not come on my own, but he sent me.” John 8:42
“Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” John 8:58
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” John 10:11
“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live,” John 11:25
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” John 14:6-7

In case there is any doubt that Jesus had a very high opinion of himself:

For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God. John 5:18

In case we think that John is putting words in Jesus’ mouth, let us consider that the “high Christology” of Jesus is consistent with all the New Testament witnesses. That is, all the New Testament writers affirm, or are in tune with the belief that, Jesus is God the Son. Take for example the opening of the Gospel of Mark, which is the most “down to earth” of the four Gospels;

1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’ ” Mark 1:1-3

This reference to Old Testament prophecy in Mark is not in mere anticipation of a Messiah, a man anointed by God to rescue the people from oppressors. That is not what the prophecy in Isaiah is about. This is anticipation of God, Himself, coming. The Gospel of Mark is about God coming to us, it is about Jesus.

Jesus taught that he was from God, that He came from God in a special way which could not be said of anyone else. But do we believe him? If a person we considered evil, like Stalin, said the kind of things about himself that Jesus said about himself, would we believe him? Given his life, you’d say “Nope!”. Likewise, if you said the kinds of things about yourself that Jesus said about himself, would anyone believe you? Again, “Nope!”. But when Jesus says it, with his compelling activity, teaching, ethics, presence, challenge, call, and impact, plus the eyewitness testimony of people saying “he was dead but lives!”, well that is different.

Consider also, if God were to come to us as one of us, if He were to become incarnate,  especially the kind of promise-making-and-keeping God we find in the Old Testament, what would He be like? We would expect Him to have compelling activity, teaching, ethics, presence, challenge, call, and impact. Because He is love, we would expect a rescue. Because He is powerful we would expect victory over death. Jesus fits!

Who Jesus was, who people experienced him to be, adds weight to who he said he is. Of course Jesus is the most compelling person in history. We would expect that from someone who is “God with us” (see Matthew 1:23), “Lord” (see Romans 10:9), and the “Lamb who takes away the sin of the world” (see John 1:29). He is the great God solution to the great human problem of sin and death.

Jesus is the most compelling person in the history of the world, even without the God question. Add in the God question, and the God answer to the human problem, Jesus is even more compelling! Jesus is compelling evidence that God is, and that God is love. Being a compelling man, Jesus is yet more compelling evidence that Christianity is true.

(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. All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV.)

Compelling Evidence (Science & Christianity)

Should Christians be afraid of science? Should scientists be afraid of Christianity? We Canadians can tend to be more science-focused than Bible-focused, including those of us who call ourselves Christians. When we fall ill, do we follow James 5:14 and call the elders of the church, or do we call the doctor? As a pastor, I would be pleased to come and pray with you, but I will likely also encourage you to call the doctor if you have not already done so!

There can be a sense of conflict for a Christian. Do we learn from the Bible or science? Do we lean on the Bible or science? Do we lean into the Bible or science? Are we to choose between Christianity and science?

With this apparent conflict, what are we to think?

First, we should be aware that Christianity has provided a good foundation for science to flourish. Belief in a God Who has ordered the universe, creating laws that govern how things work, inspires the investigation of how it all works. Christians were, and still very much are, involved in science.

Second, we appreciate science for what it is, and what it is not. Science is the expectation that things operate according to patterns and laws which are predictable and discoverable. There is no argument with Christianity there. Science is therefore done without explicit reference to God, even by Christian scientists. Let us consider a simple example of how science works. In this past week my youngest son baked a rather large batch of very good peanut-butter cookies. I could run an experiment where I eat twenty cookies a day until they are all eaten, then step on the scales to observe the effect of eating the cookies. If the rest of my eating patterns remained unchanged, we could predict a weight gain. What we will not do is ask how God will intervene in my life based on my cookie consumption. To do so would be to hold a “God of the gaps” kind of theology. The experiment is not about finding God, but finding out how things work.

Science is the belief things operate according to laws, however, it is not the belief that there is no God. As Christians we would say that science is the discovery of how God made things to work. A Christian doing science does the same thing as an atheist doing science. Both are discovering how things operate, but one thinks of the laws of nature, however they came about, the other of God’s Creation operating according to His design. Science is a methodology which does not seek God in the workings. However, to say there is no God is not science, but scientism.

Third, we appreciate what the Bible for what it is, and what it is not. The Bible is God’s revelation of Himself within history with each part written to different people at different times using different genres. The Bible is not a science textbook written to science-minded westerners. Of the many genres used in the Bible, one genre you will not find is a lab report.

It is helpful to remember that the Bible was written for you, but it was not written to you. In Bible studies I often ask “what do you find striking in this passage?”. We really should ask how the passage would have struck the first readers and hearers. What were the original readers meant to learn, or what were they likely to learn? To give an example, the prevalent worldview when the Book of Genesis was taking shape held that there were multiple gods who had complicated relationships with each other, the world, and humanity. The original hearers/keepers of the passages in Genesis would have been struck by the fact there is only one God worthy of consideration, that He is a God of order, He is the Creator of everything, and He wants a relationship with all people, which will be worked out in some way through one particular group of people, the people descendant from Israel. No one would have questioned whether the universe really did come into existence fully formed in six literal 24 hour periods. That is a question we ask today when we fail to appreciate the theological poetry of Genesis 1.

Fourth, we learn to navigate the relationship between science and Christianity as we follow the evidence. If our science and theology do not fit together, then our understanding of theology is correct and our understanding of science is wrong, or, our understanding of science is correct and our understanding of theology is wrong, or a wee bit of both. Scientists are not infallible, their interpretations of, and inferences from, the data can be off. We believe the Bible to be infallible, meaning it is exactly what God wanted it to be. However, our interpretations of the Bible are not infallible. With humility in our understanding of both science and theology we follow the evidence.

Consider John chapter 9. A blind man healed by Jesus is willing to follow the evidence. He was blind but is healed, therefore the evidence leads him to the conclusion that Jesus is someone special. The Pharisees are also trying to follow the evidence in figuring out how the blind man was healed. However, they have prior assumptions which affect their conclusions:

 The Jews didn’t believe it, didn’t believe the man was blind to begin with. So they called the parents of the man now bright-eyed with sight. 19 They asked them, “Is this your son, the one you say was born blind? So how is it that he now sees?”
20 His parents said, “We know he is our son, and we know he was born blind. 21 But we don’t know how he came to see—haven’t a clue about who opened his eyes. Why don’t you ask him? He’s a grown man and can speak for himself.” 22 (His parents were talking like this because they were intimidated by the Jewish leaders, who had already decided that anyone who took a stand that this was the Messiah would be kicked out of the meeting place. 23 That’s why his parents said, “Ask him. He’s a grown man.”)
24 They called the man back a second time—the man who had been blind—and told him, “Give credit to God. We know this man is an impostor.” John 9:18-24 (The Message, emphasis added)

The blind man does not begin with assumptions:

He replied, “I know nothing about that one way or the other. But I know one thing for sure: I was blind . . . I now see.” John 9:25 (The Message)

Operating with different assumptions, the healed man comes to a very different conclusion about the identity of Jesus!

Science-minded people may come to an investigation of Jesus and the Bible with assumptions, and so miss the truth. They may have already decided that miracles cannot happen and therefore they have already concluded, before their investigation, like the Pharisees did, who they think Jesus is. In doing so they can miss an amazing opportunity for relationship with God.

The shoe can be on the other foot, however. Notice that in John 9, it is the religious leaders who are the ones with the assumptions. The Christian may also hold assumptions about science and/or the Bible and miss truth. In doing so we can miss opportunities for growth, and importantly, opportunities for witness. The man born-blind follows the evidence and it leads him to worship Jesus:

Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and went and found him. He asked him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
36 The man said, “Point him out to me, sir, so that I can believe in him.”
37 Jesus said, “You’re looking right at him. Don’t you recognize my voice?”
38 “Master, I believe,” the man said, and worshiped him. John 9:35-38 (The Message)

One of our goals as Christians is to help others come to know Jesus. If we hold to the view that science and the Bible are at odds, then we may be creating a stumbling block for others. Are we willing to follow the evidence? Do we give the freedom to others to do the same? I believe that if we send our youth off to university with the belief that they need to choose between science and Christianity, we have failed them. Do we give them the tools to follow the evidence?

Do we need to pick between Christianity and science? Far from being in conflict, there is a good relationship between science and Christianity. One can follow the scientific evidence and still be a Christian. In fact many people come to Christianity because of the evidence provided by science. Many religions have fallen by the wayside, some would say thanks to science. However, the fact that science and Christianity can enjoy a good relationship is another reason Christianity 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.)