2007-12-23

Christian history in a nutshell?

Recently on a discussion board I came across this quote which is both inaccurate and annoying:

"Christianity began as a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. When it went to Athens, it became a philosophy. When it went to Rome, it became an organization. When it went to Europe, it became a culture. When it came to America, it became a business."

I know this quote is posted up all over the internet. It is an attempt to sum up Christian history in a very convenient, very protestant, very individualistic nutshell. Hopefully this blog will be read by someone to put this lie to rest:

1. "Personal" in our culture means "my very own, depending on no other". The Bible knows NOTHING of a "personal relationship" with Christ. True, we have a RELATIONSHIP with Christ, but it is always a family relationship: Never alone in an un-attached, individualistic Christianity. We depend on the entire Church, filled with God's Holy Spirit, to nourish and grow us in Christ. An un-attached Christian is a spiritually dead Christian, because to LOVE God means to LOVE His family (cf. 1John 4).

2. Christianity NEVER became a philosophy. We are called to Love God with all our heart, strength, and MIND (cf. Mat 22.37-40). Loving God with our MIND means developing a comprehensive worldview that is Christ-centered. To do that, Christians of all ages- from the Greek Apologists of the 2nd century to American Theologians of the 21st century- have used the terminology of the best thinking available. Sometimes that thinking is called "philosophy", sometimes it is "science", and sometimes it is called "wisdom". Paul used Greek philosophy to communicate the Gospel in Acts 17. We simply HAVE to express our Christian worldview in some type of language, unless we are going to limit our entire vocabulary to Biblical Greek and Hebrew.

3. The Church was ALWAYS organized as a family system. Jesus appointed Apostles to lead as fathers (and mothers!) in the faith. The Apostles appointed bishops to oversee, ordain, and teach (cf. Titus, Timothy). By 107 AD Bishop Ignatius of Antioch said "Where the bishop is, there the Church gathers". There is no such thing as a non-organized individualistic Christianity. The Church has always had "patriarchs" (in our overseers and bishops), "fathers" and "mothers" (in our elders and priests), and "elder siblings" (in our deacons and ministers). There is no such thing as a leaderless Church.

4. The only part that is true is that in America selling God became a business. And God is only able to be sold because we have deconstructed the Church, and individualized the faith, so that you can sell people ANYTHING in God's name! People who are not aware of their past are doomed to repeat it. A nice, neat way to get people to repeat their past is to simply not teach it, or teach it as clichés which deny, delete, and distort the facts.

The fact is that by the Apostolic era, the faith had definitely reached from the Middle East to Rome (just read Acts!). If you believe there is substance to early Church history (as I do) it is more probable that Christianity reached from Spain to India to China to Africa by the time the last apostle died. As it went, the apostles (and the bishops they appointed) communicated the Gospel in the languages and "philosophical constructs" of the societies they went to. Everywhere they went, they formed Christian COMMUNITIES- families of faith- in which Christians were nurtured.

So, by the end of the apostolic era you find a Church that is NOT merely "personal" but a family; NOT disorganized and autonomous, but organized as a family system; NOT reduced simply to a philosophy, but communicating the Gospel using philosophy.

Perhaps the quote should be this instead:

"In America, Christianity has become big business. To do that, the Church has allowed people to lapse into religion without history, faith without substance, and piety without community. We have substituted Love with convenience, discipleship with entertainment, and service with consumption. The result is a Christian who is perfectly suited to be sold anything in the name of God, because they think Christ only exists to serve them with blessings in this life, and heaven in the hereafter."

Yes, I my quote much better.

2007-12-09

FINDING YOUR STORY IN HIS STORY

A Sermon For Year A, Second Advent
Copyright © 2007 Nathan L. Bostian

Isa. 11:1-10; Rom. 15:4-13; Mat. 3:1-12; Psa. 72With special thanks to CS Lewis, NT Wright, and Brian McLaren

What is your favorite story? I'm not looking for the Sunday school answer. But really: What story captures your imagination so that you read it, or see it, or listen to it, time and time again? What story gives shape to the narrative of your life?

I know that for some, your favorite stories are 19th century romances. For others it may be mysteries. For others it may be science fiction, fantasy, thrillers, biography, or historical fiction. And, for a few of you it may be animation.

But we all have stories that shape us and guide us and form us into the type of people we are. We see ourselves in the characters. We even become FRIENDS with the characters.

My favorite genre of story is probably the dystopian apocalypse. Dystopia is the opposite of utopia: It is a world where everything has gone wrong. Despite our God-like technology, and super-human knowledge, things have somehow gone horribly wrong. If you have read Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, or 1984 you know the genre. If you have seen the Matrix, Terminator, or Blade Runner, you know what I am talking about.

I guess I feel drawn to that genre because in it, the protagonist (you really can't call them a hero) is faced with an overwhelmingly messed up system that has usually been destroyed by the best of human intentions. Things seem hopeless, well-beyond repair. And all of the promises of a human utopia built by human goodness and scientific skill have been revealed as empty and illusory.

The protagonist is drawn, often unwillingly, to be the savior of a group of people. The story is spent detailing how the protagonist and his or her little band of subversives work to overthrow the system, or at least bring people to a place uncorrupted by the dystopia. The ending is usually ambiguous: Did the unwitting hero save everyone, or is the cycle doomed to start again?

I guess I love such stories because I see myself in them. Like Neo in the Matrix, I have grown up in a culture where I was always aware that something is wrong at a deep, systemic level. Despite being one of the wealthiest societies in History, we are very unhappy, very unsatisfied, and very violent.

I never set out to try and fix anything. I was quite happy being part of the problem, to be honest. And then Jesus dragged me kicking and screaming to him, and I have never been the same. I have somehow become part of his band of subversives... and most days I am not sure quite what that means, or how to live it out... But I try.

And I know Him who is heading the subversion of the powers and principalities of our culture which dehumanize and destroy...

And I trust Him to lead me, no matter where His road goes.

My life reads to me like a dystopian novel.

And many of you could say the same. Maybe not in a dystopian way. But, you see your life shaped by a central narrative, a central Plot that guides you. For some of you, this gives you great hope. It gives you a reason to wake up every morning.

For others, it is a source of despair. You feel like you are trapped in a story of failure, doomed to repeat what your parents have done, or doomed to live out the label that has been placed on you by society.

And for yet others, you are trying to find your Plot. In fact, some of the hardest times in our lives are when we "loose the plot", and forget the Story that gives our life meaning. You realize you have no idea what your Story is, and it gnaws at you somewhere in the depths of your soul: What is MY story? What does MY life mean?

But, whether we like our story, or hate it, or are still looking for it: Isn't it amazing that stories seem to shape the very fabric of our existence?

And, no matter what the genre of the Story is, it seems like all good stories have a similar shape:

First, you set the stage and populate it with characters. You introduce who everyone is, and put them in context.

Then, a crisis comes. Everything is set off-kilter. The enemy invades, or love is lost, or a tragedy happens.

Next you spend most of the story trying to fix the problem. One lover searches for another until they are found. A small band of friends try to solve the mystery. The good guys struggle against all of the odds to defeat the darkness.

And this leads to the climax. The final showdown. The last hurrah. The tangled web of intrigue and deception and heartache and struggle leads at a fever pitch to this one last event. It could not have been any other way.

Finally, the plot is resolved. Everyone gets their just desserts. The good are sent away happy, the bad are dispatched to destruction. And everyone lives "Happily ever after".

Now, I know that not every story winds up like this. Some end in dystopia. But even the dystopias end without hope for a reason: So that we will learn, and think, and perhaps avoid the bleak future they predict. They end in dystopia in the hope that they will help us to find true utopia.

And no matter what culture you go to, you find good stories, stories that are central to the very identity of that culture, which follow the same pattern: Setting the stage; Introducing the crisis; Struggling to overcome; The great climax; and the resolution.

It's almost like this universal yearning of humanity for great stories points to Something or Someone greater than all of us: A huge overarching Story that we ALL find ourselves in.

This is nothing like a proof, and I am not arguing that we can "prove" God's existence by the universal yearning of humanity for stories of a certain type. But, I am saying that it is awfully coincidental, don't you think?

In fact, it seems like our human existence, with all of the beauty and pain that goes with it, is EXACTLY the kind of world you would expect to find if we were all part of some cosmic Story.

Our yearning for the final resolution, our struggle to find ourselves, and our insistent desire for a Plot to make sense of it all, is EXACTLY what you would find if there was an Author who was writing us all into His Story.

And, if you will go this far with me, let me suggest something else: Let me suggest that the Grand Plot you find animating the Story of Scripture is precisely the Story that makes sense of all of our stories. It is the Plot that all of our personal stories fit into.

And, if we looked at Scripture as an Epic Story, I think the Plot would look something like this:

The first chapter is "The Creation": The stage is set. The Author of the play creates a universe of freedom in which real actors can act freely in His Story. Then the stage is populated with these actors, with flesh and blood humans, and magical creatures of the spiritual realm who work behind the scenes.

The second chapter is "The Crisis": Something goes wrong, very wrong. It seems to have started somewhere off stage, but it has now started to destroy the stage itself, and every actor and actress on it. A silent enemy has snuck in and taken over. All of those who the Author loves have now turned their back on Him.

The third chapter is "The Calling": The Author calls His beloved back himself through ages and stages, in the voices of poets and princes and prophets and sages. He sends messenger after messenger, tries sign after wonder after sign after wonder. But to no avail. The Enemy has too strong of a grip.

The fourth chapter is "The Champion": In utter desperation, the Author writes Himself into His own Story. The Plot becomes a person of flesh and blood, just like us. As Isaiah says, when our Champion finally comes "The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD."

And, just like us, this real historical person suffers, and dies, and goes to the utmost depths- to hell itself- to rescue His beloved. Then, in the first great victory that turns the tide of the War, the Champion, Jesus Christ, defeats evil, suffering, and death by coming back from the dead.

The fifth chapter is "The Community": This is our chapter. In this chapter the Champion recruits subversives to help Him undermine the powers that are destroying and dehumanizing His beloved. Following his example of radical Love and forgiveness, and living in the power of His Holy Spirit, we become His Body reaching out to heal His world.

The sixth chapter will be "The Climax": At some point in the future, evil will make its last stand. Darkness will try in vain to extinguish the light. The enemy will try to make the Love of Christ's Body grow cold.

And just when the Community is trying most valiantly, against all odds, to bring light to the darkness, and love to the loveless, then the Champion will come again to complete our salvation. What He began with his resurrection will eventually triumph over all forms of death, and he alone will be victorious over all.

On that day, as Isaiah says, the Champion will judge and liberate all peoples from their bondage. "With righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth". Those who have been bowed down will be lifted up, and those who lifted themselves up shall be brought low.

"He shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth" and finally, once and for all, put an end to the pollution and degradation of his world. Our passage from Isaiah goes as far as to say that "with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked".

But, the translation here is a little deceptive. Because what it really means is that he shall slay wickedness itself. He will not destroy wicked people, only to allow the disease of evil to still exist and infect others. No, Christ, our Champion, will destroy wickedness itself, so that nothing will ever infect His Beloved people ever again.

And then will come the final chapter, "The Consummation": Finally, the utopia we have been yearning for will be present in all of its fullness. We will finally be at peace with God, others, and ourselves, in complete wholeness and health and joy and love.

This is what Isaiah is speaking of when he says "The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den."

I do not think that God is literally going to change carnivorous animals into herbivores (although, God has done more amazing things!). You see, wolves and leopards and bears are all symbols of wrath and judgment in Scripture. When people are ripped apart by sin and evil, the picture that is used is one of these carnivores ripping apart its prey.

Lambs and cows and oxen are all creatures that were sacrificed in Temple offerings. They were destroyed to make atonement for sins, and to wash the slate clean with God.

Snakes are, of course, symbols of temptation and evil and distrust (remember the incident in the Garden?). And little children are symbols of innocence and purity: Of people in a pure, loving, humble relationship with God their Father.

So, Isaiah is giving us a picture of the ultimate Consummation of peace, brought about by the Ultimate Champion of the world. In this world, no one will be ripped apart by sin and evil. In this world, no one else will be sacrificed and destroyed for their sins. In this world, the Tempter will no longer deceive God's children and lead them into lies.

Face to face with God our Father, we will all share that pure, undefiled, innocent Love that children have for their parents. This will be God's world. God's Kingdom. And at long last "they will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea."

That is the Story we find ourselves in. That is the Story that gives all our stories meaning. That is the Story of The Creation, The Crisis, The Calling, The Champion, The Community, The Climax, and the Consummation.

And that is why Paul says that "whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope".

Scripture is a book of hope. A book that says that whatever Story you feel stuck in is NOT the end of the road. You can find a new Story. You can be joined to HIS Story: The Story of our Champion, Jesus Christ.

You can join him in the Cosmic Love Story to bring his beloved back to himself. You can fight with Him in the Epic Struggle of defeating the powers of darkness. You can search with Him to solve the mystery of how to find God at work in everyone's story.

Just as Christ welcomed me over a decade ago into His Story, so now I welcome you. Join me, and all of God's characters across History, in the Story of Redemption. I can guarantee you, it is well worth the price of admission! Amen+

2007-12-03

HOW TO WIN THE CHRISTMAS WARS


A Sermon For Year A, Advent 1

Copyright © 2007 Nathan L. Bostian

Based on Romans 13.8-14

Ahhh! Advent! The beginning of our Church year. The time when Christians all over the world begin to prepare themselves spiritually for the arrival of our Lord.

In the Church, our color is purple. Purple is the color of Royalty. The color of Kings. The color for King Jesus, the God who became human. Our candles are lit awaiting his arrival.

Outside of the Church, the color is green and red. It is the color of ancient pagan revelry, the celebration of winter solstice.

Our garlands are wrapped, our trees are trimmed, our credit cards are getting maxed out.

You know what time it is: It is time for the cultural Christmas wars!

CHRISTARCHY


A Sermon For Christ the King Sunday, Year C
Copyright © 2007 Nathan L. Bostian
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Based on Jeremiah 23:1-6, Colossians 1:11-20, Luke 23:35-43
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Not so long ago, in a suburb not so far away, there lived skater-punk, who rode around on his well worn skateboard, with hair in his eyes, a concert t-shirt, ripped up jeans, half destroyed converse shoes, and something between a smirk and a sneer constantly glued on his face.

And if you looked close at his skateboard, or his shoes, or his jeans, or his notebooks, or the back of his hand, you would see scrawled a circle with an "A" in the middle of it:

The international punk rock sign for ANARCHY.

And I can tell you so much about this skater-punk kid because he was, of course, me. And I loved the idea of "anarchy"! No religion, no rules... No master. No one to tell me what to do. Nothing to "conform to".

My motto was sung by Sid Vicious of the infamous band the "Sex Pistols" in their hit song "Anarchy in the U.K.":

"I am an antichrist! I am an anarchist!
Don't know what I want but... I know how to get it!
How many ways to get what you want...
I use the best, I use the rest"

And then, quite to my surprise, I noticed something: That cool haircut I had was the same as all my friends. And those hip, trendy, ripped up clothes were exactly like what all the skaters in the magazines wore. And there was evidently enough interest in my subversive punk-rock underground music that it kept whole record stores and record labels in business.

In short, I was, to use a phrase of Pink Floyd, "just another brick in the wall". All of us anarchist non-conformist skater kids were just affluent suburbanites conforming to the same non-conformity... which was ruled by an invisible consumerism.

Our own prophet Bob Dylan summed it up like this (using words incredibly similar to Saint Paul in Romans):

"You're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody."

There really is no such thing as anarchy. There is never even such a thing as non-conformity. Even when we react against something, we are allowing what we dislike to form us and shape us by making us the opposite, mirror image of itself.

We may think we are serving ourselves, and living for ourselves, but that is not even true either. We were made to need things. We were made to worship Something. What we choose as our object of ultimate value is in fact what becomes our God, our Master, and our King.

If we think we are serving ourselves, by choosing to do whatever gives us pleasure and makes us feel good, then we soon find that we are addicted to that which we need for pleasure. What used to make us happy is no longer enough. We need more, different, and better "stuff" to be happy... Until the very thing that made us feel good becomes the thing we hate.

If we think we are serving ourselves, by choosing to do whatever makes us a success, then we soon find that we are enslaved to the very conditions of success we have defined for ourselves. Perhaps we are enslaved to the people we want to impress, or to the money and lifestyle that goes with success. Soon we find ourselves ruled by fear: Abject fear that we will loose what we have gained, and we must protect ourselves at all costs.

These are just two ways we enslave ourselves in the foolish attempt to be our own masters. I could count hundred more. We enslave ourselves by wanting to be wanted, and needing to be needed. We enslave ourselves to our lifestyle. We enslave ourselves to our pride, our prejudice and our fear.

We enslave ourselves to what we worship, to what we place as our ultimate value in life. Because we BECOME what we WORSHIP.

So we find ourselves back at the visionary words of prophet Bob:

"You're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody."

So, who are you gonna serve?

Who are you gonna worship?

What is your object of ultimate value?

What do you want to become?

Instead of celebrating anarchy, or any of the powers and prince-palities that masquerade behind the illusion of self-centered anarchy, to deny, distort, demean, and destroy our lives, Today the Church celebrates a totally different kind of "archy".

Today, we celebrate "Christarchy". We celebrate the Kingship, rule, and dominion of the ONLY King that truly sets us free: Christ the King.

That is why today is called "Christ the King" Sunday.

What is a King? A King is One who has authority in a Kingdom.

The word King in American ears has imperial overtones. It reminds us of iron-fisted dictators who march armies into war to conquer and enslave helpless people. But we forget that in our own day, it is iron-fisted western consumerism that has, in the name of freedom, enslaved far more people, and steam-rolled far more cultures, than any national King ever has.

But Jesus deconstructs and reconstructs the whole idea of what it means to be a King, what it means to hold authority, and what it means to have a Kingdom.

FIRST, JESUS IS A DIFFERENT KIND OF KING. We are used to Kings who rule by taking the first place, protecting themselves, and clearly delineating who goes where in the power structure.

Yet, Jesus rules not by putting Himself over all as a Master, but under all as a slave... [ALLOW THE SPIRIT TO SPEAK]

SECOND, JESUS HOLDS A DIFFERENT KIND OF AUTHORITY. We are used to authority coming from the raw use of power to coerce people into making them do what you want. It may be the power of legislation that will send the police to stop what is frowned upon, or it may be the power of economics to withhold money until someone does what you want them to.

Yet, Jesus holds authority on the basis of his perfect Love, not powerful coercion... [ALLOW THE SPIRIT TO SPEAK]

THIRD, JESUS HAS A DIFFERENT KIND OF KINGDOM. We are used to Kingdoms having clearly defined boundaries, and clearly delineated structures, with clear signs that say who is in and who is out.

Yet, Jesus does not rule over a place, but IN a people... [ALLOW THE SPIRIT TO SPEAK]

Listen to what Saint Paul says about Christarchy, about the rule and dominion of Christ the King, in our reading today:

He says that through Jesus, God has "rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins."

Our old addictions and bondages no longer have to rule over us. We no longer have to worship and serve that which brings death and darkness. Instead, we are forgiven and released from all of this, by giving us a new Lord to rule us: King Jesus.

Paul says that Christ is "the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers-- all things have been created through him and for him."

In Christ, the invisible God and Ruler of all became visible. In Christ the untouchable Lord of Creation was able to be touched... And hugged, and kissed, and slapped, and beaten, and crucified, and killed...

And brought back from the dead!

In Christ, God took upon Godself all that it means to be human, with all of the consequences, weaknesses, and suffering that goes along with it. He did not enter into life with us in some abstract way, one step removed from our humanity, only mentally aware of our pain.

No, He took on the fullness of all the joy, and all the pain, of creation into Himself. Then He showed that He alone can rule, control, tame, and transform all of it: Because He rose from the dead, and defeated death by His unstoppable life.

He alone is the King who rules death with life, pain with joy, and darkness with light. And He alone is qualified to be King of all things, and at the Core of all of Reality.

As Paul says "He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together."

King Jesus is Hub around which all the universe revolves.

King Jesus is the Plot which guides all History to be HIS Story.

King Jesus is the Reason which gives all of life Meaning.

King Jesus is the Score which directs the music of our lives.

It all holds together in Him, by Him, and for Him. In Him it is as if the Painter painted Himself into His own picture. It is as if the Author wrote Herself as a character into Her own book. It is as if the Composer became His own music.

It is "as if" because IT IS. Paul goes on to say: "He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross."

Whether or not we admit it or understand it, we are living in the middle of Christarchy. We are living in the middle of an Epic Drama of a King who has faced down the powers of darkness to restore unto Himself the people He loves.

And the secret is that THIS KING is not only trying to save us, but He is inviting us to join Him in the Epic Struggle as members of His own Body.

So, that is the invitation. Will you join the REAL King, or keep serving (and being enslaved by) false kings? Will you choose anarchy, which is really bondage, or Chrstarchy, which is true freedom?

"You're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody."

So, I leave the choice with you. Who are you gonna serve? AMEN+
This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.