Beyond the Gospel of Us

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Would our pews be emptier if we talked more about God and less about what God can do for us?

Note: This is the third post in a 10-part series, drawn from Connecting the Mind, Body and Spirit: Reflections on Health, produced by the Clergy Health Initiative and distributed at the 2010 United Methodist Annual Conferences in North Carolina.  Each reflection is tied to the lectionary; we will publish each reflection a week in advance of the Sunday to which it is tied.

July 18, 2010
Colossians 1:15-28 • He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

 
The Christ of whom we sing gives us “stuff.” Intangible stuff like love, joy, peace, and hope. Tangible stuff like family, friends, food, and shelter. I do not disparage these good and necessary gifts, nor the gracious giver, but much of what I hear (and often say) about Christ sounds transactional. Christ seems to be praised and worshiped because of what we get from Christ. Churches grow because Christ provides us with well-behaved children, prosperity, and decent parking and seating to first-time visitors. We preach of Christ’s Visa-like ability to be “everywhere you want to be.” Stretched beyond the boundaries of any interpretive charity, this can seem like a plain and simple quid pro quo.

Would our pews be emptier if we talked more about God and less about what God can do for us? Should we begin our God-talk by stating plainly that God’s past performance is not indicative of God’s future results? Must we always be at the center?

I was talking not long ago with a leader of a faithful, prosperous congregation. This congregation has a children’s ministry that is second to none. Its facilities for the young are Disneyesque. The teachers are well trained. There is always a waiting list for the ministry’s activities. The leader told me that she was accosted one day by some parents complaining about the ministry’s deficiencies. The leader was taken aback. She had heard only glowing reviews about the ministry in the past. But she was confident that the ministry could be enriched and improved. When she met with the parents she asked if there were problems with curricula, with biblical concepts, with formation. The answer – an emphatic no! The problem? A church not far away had better technology for their children’s ministry, and the parents wanted to know when they could expect an upgrade in the ministry’s technological infrastructure. Their children could not do Jesus 2.0 in a Jesus 3.0 world!

The hymn in this passage seems to say, “Lift up your heads!” Lift your heads above what you want and what you can get, and focus on Christ and what he embodies. Songs and speech begin and end in Christ. The work of Christ begins and ends in God. This Christ hymn does not begin with the needs of the Colossians, although the author is both aware of those needs and concerned about them. Rather, it implies that the best way for the Colossians (and for us) to live “with all the strength that comes from his glorious power (1:11)” is to look into the mystery of the Triune God and to worship. Not to mold mystery into a formula that is easily understood and so domesticated that it can carry none of the power that prepares us “to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father (1:11-12),” but to experience it in its wildness.

Christ is the image of the invisible God. All things, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, were created through him and for him. He is before all things and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn of the dead. In him, in his body, all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. Through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, by making peace through the blood of his cross. Could it be that the early church was on to something by grounding speech and act in the reality of God in Christ?

So what to do with all of this Christ-talk, all of this God-talk in today’s church, with its focus on “what can God do for you”?

We must proclaim that to see Christ in a brother or sister is to see God. We must proclaim that no power, principality, or ruler exists who was not created through Christ and for Christ. We must proclaim that Christ is before all things – nation, race, political party, and socioeconomic status. We must proclaim that Christ holds all things together – the Haitian earthquake, the Gulf oil spill, the war-torn lands of the earth, the disease and infirmity and stress and fatigue that plague our health and the well-being of those around us. We must proclaim that Christ is the head of the church, especially when it appears that we, the church’s leaders, have lost our way. We must proclaim that in Christ’s incarnate body the fullness of God is pleased to dwell.

Imagine song and speech in our churches where Christ is subject. The needs of our bodies and hearts are subsumed in his body and sacred heart. Proclaiming the justice and joy that Christ brings is proclaiming what we need. This proclamation, and this proclamation alone, alerts the world that “through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things.”

That is good news.

 

The Rev. William H. Lamar IV is managing director at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity and an itinerant elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.


Questions to Consider

  • In our liturgy for the Eucharist, we proclaim as Christian community “the mystery of faith,” which is, “Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.” How often in our ministries do we preach and teach mystery as central to the faith? When God is projected as a cosmic ATM and faith as purely transactional, could the theological problem be a loss of mystery?
  • Jesus told Nicodemus that, unless he was born from above, he would not see the Kingdom of God. What we see is not only physical, but also spiritual. When we cannot discern Christ in a brother or sister and in that discernment see God, is that symptomatic of our spiritual unhealthiness? Is spiritual wellness prerequisite to seeing the Kingdom of God?

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