Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Following the "Friend of Sinners"

As we continue through John Dickson's book, The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission, we come to the third chapter...a chapter in which many of us will find challenge.  It is the challenge to be a friend of sinners...to have social lives that intersect with Christians.

Jesus stirred strong feelings among the religious elite by His attitude toward "sinners."  Dickson gives a helpful contextual note about the word "sinners."  "'Sinners' were those in Jewish society who lived outside the laws of the Old Testament as interpreted by the rabbis.  They were not all prostitutes and thieves - that would be a caricature.  They could just as easily be wealthy businessmen who neglected going to synagogue and/or did business with the occupying Romans (tax collectors, for instance).  They were, if you like, the 'unreligious' in a strictly religious society.//Social interaction with sinners (and with Gentiles) was religiously prohibited in Jesus' day" (p. 49).

This was especially true when it came to eating a meal together.  When you ate a meal with someone, in that culture, you identified with them and gave acceptance to them.  And yet, this is the very thing that Jesus did...over and over again (cf. Matt. 11:19; Mark 2:15-16; Luke 7:37-39; Luke 15:1-2; Luke 19:1-7).  Why would Jesus do this?  Why doesn't He avoid "those people"? 

The answer is that "Jesus' friendship with sinners gave people a tangible sign of the welcoming grace of God.  His questionable dining habits were not merely and attempt to buck the system of his day; they were an illustration of the fellowship with sinners God so keenly desires...this is the mission to which we are called.  Our entire life, including our social life, should demonstrate the Lord's desire to have fellowship with sinners" (p. 51).

If you are reading the book along with me, then you saw the amazing effect that a woman named Glenda had on John Dickson's life.  As a teenager, he spent Friday afternoons (along with several friends) in her house, eating her food, and hearing her talk about the Lord Jesus.  She was influential in his life, and the book is actually dedicated to her.  Do you have a Glenda in your life?  Is there someone that first opened up their home, their dinner table, their life to you as part of God's plan to save you?  Was there a teacher, a friend, a coach, etc., that holds this kind of place in your heart?  Maybe today's a good day to send that person an encouraging card, letter, or even call him/her.

Going on from Jesus' ministry, we move to the ministry of the apostle Paul, who has the same kind of agenda in his social life.  "Paul, the one-time Pharisee, became (in)famous in Jewish and Christian circles for his scandalously flexible social conduct.  Not only did he preach to pagans, he broke his Pharisaic customs and ate with them as well...[This] was for Paul exactly what it had been for Jesus: an embodiment of the salvation message itself" (p. 53-54). 

Read 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 to get a taste of his attitude in this regard.  After that, we jump down to the end of this section to find out more.  "So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.  Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.  Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ" (1 Cor. 10:31-11:1, emphasis added).

What we find is that Paul is flexible in his social life so that he might embody and share the gospel.  Think about this practically...and basically.  Under God, those who contribute most to the salvation of unbelieving men and women are those who interact with them.  That seems pretty basic.  Dickson writes, "Those who most regularly get into spiritual conversations with others are usually the ones with a wide circle of nonbelieving friends in the first place" (p. 57).

This challenges us to think...how wide is the circle of my unbelieving friends?  Are there enough to form a circle?  Is there even a line?  Have I "bubble-ized" my life so that I never interact on a meaningful level with any nonbelievers?  Is my social life restricted so that these people are shut out?  Let me leave you with two more quotes from the chapter which are meant to challenge us and stimulate us to grow in promoting the gospel.

1. "Following the example of Paul and Jesus does not necessarily mean that we do what they did.  It means that we live by the same flexible ethos, seeking the good of many so that they may be saved.  Every aspect of our lives - including our social lives - can and should be directed toward the glory of God and the salvation of our neighbors" (p. 60).  I would add that they are to be directed to the good of fellow Christians, but you get the point.

2. "Paul is not advocating a specialised adjunct to Christian living called 'mission' or 'evangelism.'  He is asking us to put on what (in my more pretentious moments) I call a 'salvific mind-set,' that is, an outlook on life that cares deeply about the salvation of others" (p. 60).

May God challenge us and change us through the examples of the apostle Paul and our Lord Jesus.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Chapter 2 - The Many and the One

[For several weeks, I will be blogging through John Dickson's The Best Kept Secret in Christian Missions: Promoting the Gospel with More than Our Lips.  Page numbers I cite will all be from this book unless otherwise noted.]

In Colossians 2:8, the apostle Paul writes, "See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ."  One popular philosophy, which is full of empty deceit, can be summed up in the following statement: "All religions are just different paths to the same God."

This is called pluralism, and John Dickson gives a helpful and simple definition on page 39: Pluralism is "the popular belief that spiritual truth (unlike most other truths) appears in mane forms (hence: 'plural'), not just one."  In the first chapter of the book, we thought about the fact that one of the driving forces in God's mission to the world...and ours...is that there is only one God (i.e.- Yahweh), and all men owe their allegiance and worship to that God.

In pluralism, we find a challenge to that belief.  The challenge, however, is a bit complicated because it is not necessarily a denial that there is a God...just that every religion describes a different path to that one God.  So, how do we deal with this?  Very helpfully, Dickson breaks pluralism into two types...popular and sophisticated.  Let's think about them both.

Popular pluralism is the argument you get over coffee with a friend.  It is the notion that among the different religions, "God" just goes by a different name.  Also, your friend says, the basic teachings of these religions are so similar (believing in God, the need to pray, living morally and ethically good lives, etc.) that to exalt one over the other is unnecessary. 

Now, stop for a second, how would you respond to that kind of argument?  This is an important question for us to consider because this line of thought is not uncommon in our culture.  Would you know how to respond to such an argument?  Well, the foundational problem with this line of thinking is that "in trying to affirm all religions, it pays close attention to none of them" (p. 40).  Let me give you some bullet point facts that will help draw some distinctions (taken from p. 40).

Hinduism, the Sikh faith, & Buddhism
  • Hinduism teaches there are many gods (devas) that exist as individual deities.  Each of these gods reflect part of the ultimate reality (Brahman) 
  • One Hindu names Guru Nanak rejected this notion and founded the Sikh faith (pronounced 'seek').  He insisted that there is only one god worthy of worship.
  • Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) rejected Hinduism altogether, rejecting the notion of a God altogether...which is still the belief in classical Buddhism.
  • Can you see the difference?  Many gods vs. one god vs. no god.  "You don't need a degree in mathematics to see fundamental contradictions here."
Christianity, Judaism, and Islam
  • Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the promised Messiah spoken of in the Old Testament.  Without this belief, there is no Christianity!
  • Modern Jews insist Jesus is not the Messiah...Orthodox Jews saying the Messiah is still yet to come.
  • The Islamic faith says that Jesus was neither crucified nor the Son of God.
  • Can you see the difference?
Dickson also explains differences in views of the afterlife, but I'll leave it to these.  Do you see what he means by trying to embrace all religions without paying attention to any of them?  In order to believe that all these religions aim at the same God, you have to disregard much of what distinguishes them.

Sophisticated pluralism is what you find more...to be repetitive...sophisticated.  It is the notion that none of the religions really describes the way to God.  They all just describe human longing to be connected with God.  Here is an analogy Dickson uses to help explain what this means:
"Influential US theologian Marcus Borg...uses the analogy of Communion or the Lord's Supper...The bread and wine convey a sense of Jesus' death and ongoing presence without actually containing those things.  In a similar way, he argues, the beliefs and practices of Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and so on mediate an experience of ultimate Reality without truly describing or laying hold of it." (p. 42)
How does one respond to this?  This is certainly more complicated than just comparing religious beliefs because, after all, the pluralist is here saying that none of the beliefs really matter.  They are just a way into a universal, spiritual experience.  So, what would you say?  Many of us may dismiss this kind of thinking out of hand, but those who believe it take it seriously.  So, we should seriously consider how to respond...how to give an answer.

The answer Dickson gives is simply brilliant and very helpful.  Think about the assumption behind this argument.  If I am saying that every religion is essentially wrong...only mediating an experience of ultimate spiritual reality, what am I assuming?  What am I claiming?  I am claiming that my knowledge far exceeds all those who hold to the tenets of Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, etc.  I am claiming that I actually have a better understanding of spiritual reality than anyone else.  The very thing that pluralists dislike about religions (i.e.- the claim to exclusive spiritual insight) is exactly what they are claiming!

One of the attractions of any form of pluralism is that it seems more tolerant.  The very mention of the word "tolerance" has some Christians ready to pound their fist and form an "anti-tolerance" organization.  The problem, when it comes to tolerance, is not whether we should be tolerant...it is that the meaning of the word has changed.  Today, many use the word "tolerance" to speak of an attitude which considers every perspective on every issue equally true and valid.  What Dickson calls for is a return to true tolerance, and I will close with his words on the subject (emphasis mine):
"True tolerance does not involve accepting every viewpoint as true and valid; it involves treating with love and humility someone whose opinions you believe to be untrue and invalid...[Being] a tolerant Christian does not involve accepting contrary beliefs as valid (as 'vehicles of the sacred'); it involves treating with love those whose views we regard as untrue and invalid.  True tolerance is the ability to treat with grace those with whom you disagree.  And this is a deeply Christian quality, especially since the Lord who is proclaimed in our gospel is the epitome of humility, love and gentleness" (p. 45).

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

The Best Kept Secret, Chapter 1

[I'm blogging my way through John Dickson's book, The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission: Promoting the Gospel with More than our Lips.  Click on the title to order the book for yourself.]

Chapter One: "The One and the Many: Why Get Involved in Mission?"

Near the beginning of this opening chapter, John Dickson asks some helpful questions.  "Why do we reach out to others with the news of Christ?  What ultimately is the driving idea behind God's mission to the world?" (p. 26).  Take a moment and think about your answers to those questions.  Do we reach out because we feel guilty if we don't?  Do we share the gospel because we believe the Great Commission (Mt. 28:18-20) is a command that applies to us?

The fundamental answer that Dickson talks about in this chapter may be surprising to some.  It is the most basic truth found in the Bible, and it is this: there is one God.  The theological word for this is monotheism.  From beginning to end, the Scriptures make it clear that there is only one God, and all other gods are the products of human imagination.  This one God created the world.  This one God reveals Himself in the Bible.  This one God came to save humanity in the person of the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

But why is monotheism so central in the idea of mission?  Dickson's answer is simple: "If there is just one God in the universe, everyone everywhere has a duty to worship that Lord" (p. 27).  Is this a startlingly new concept to you?  Certainly, we are accustomed to sharing the good news about Jesus because He has died for our sin and was raised from the dead.  Jesus will save all who come to Him by faith.  On the last day, Jesus will judge the living and the dead, and we don't want our friends, family, and neighbors to suffer eternal punishment. 

Those are all good and biblical motivations.  Yet, have we ever considered that, at a more fundamental level, there is only one God, and it is the duty of all creation (including human beings) to worship Him?  Man must serve, worship, honor, and glorify God simply because He is the one true God.  Dickson points to both Psalm 96 and Matthew 28 to underscore this truth.

In Psalm 96, the people of God are called on to "Declare his glory among the nations...For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; he is to be feared above all gods" (v. 3, 4).  So, the motivation is that God is great and is to be feared above all other gods.  This is why the message of His glory is to go out to the nations, and the desired result is that the nations would ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name (v. 8).  In other words, "there is just one God in the universe, [and] everyone everywhere has a duty to worship that Lord."

Then, in Matthew 28, as the risen Christ speaks the words of commission to His disciples, He gives them the driving reason why they should go.  He says, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me...therefore..." (v. 18, 19).  The driving force behind the apostles ministry...and ours...is that all authority has been given to Christ.  There is no other divine authority to which man must submit.  It is the one true God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ...He is the "one God in the universe, [and therefore] everyone everywhere has a duty to worship that Lord."  That's why disciples must be made...not to make the Christian religion bigger or better or more popular than any other religion.  Rather, it is because the message of Christ is the message of the one true God!

Let me finish with some sentences from pages 35-36.  Read these words, and be re-energized for God's mission to the world:
Why promote Christ to your atheist friend with a nice car and the self-confidence to match?  Not simply because he would be happier and more fulfilled with Jesus, but because in reality your friend belongs to the one true Lord (revealed in the gospel).  Why take the gospel to cynical retirees with a lifetime of worldly experience and a fat nest egg to enjoy?  Not simply because they will soon face eternity, but because right now they exist for the pleasure of the one true God.  Why reach out to the super-student with the first class honours degree and wardrobe of designer clothes?  Not simply because Christianity will make him more moral or productive in life, but because in reality she is the possession of her one and only King.  Why send out (and support) missionaries to Mongolia and Burkina Faso?  Not only because Asians and Africans need rescuing from God's judgment (as we all do) but because they too are creatures of the one Creator, and he alone deserves their worship.
 The people of the world do, of course, have all sorts of needs of their Creator - it would be strange if it were otherwise - but more fundamental than their felt need of God is the reality of their duty toward him, to "ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name" (Psalm 96:8).  This, above everything else, necessitates God's mission to the world.