DELIVERED ONLINE 26 JULY 2020 FOR REVOLUTION ANNAPOLIS, IN THE 20TH WEEK OF COVID-19 QUARANTINE
This week, we are going to be talking about a topic that is perhaps nearer to my own heart than any other in this series: The Church of Individualized Faith. That title may seem a bit clunky, so it might be worth saying that in its earliest drafts, the title of this message was “The Church of a Personal Relationship with Jesus.” But…I decided that was a bit too spicy. It’s also not entirely accurate: although, as we will soon talk about, I think the idea of our faith being anchored in a “personal” relationship with Jesus has done quite a bit of harm to the church as a whole, there is real truth to it that I don’t want to minimize. I believe that I do have a “personal relationship” with God, in that I believe I am cherished by God and I am known by the risen Jesus. Which is a crazy thing to believe! I think God knows me and cares for me. Getting this idea through my head has been a major lesson for me this year!
However, my religion is not and cannot be personal alone, and more importantly, my salvation (to use a very churchy word) is absolutely not individual or personal. Rather, my hope is found in the family I have been adopted into. If you’re a note-taking sort, that’s the thing to write down today:
My hope is found in the family I have been adopted into.
So, to go back a bit and work our way forward to this point, the story I want to tell today is again an old one, and again an American one. It begins, in its own right, in the year 1734 in the town of Northampton, Massachusetts. But its roots actually go back a bit further and require some introduction.
The story of American Christianity in general and American evangelicalism in particular can only make sense in light of two competing worldviews, or sets of governing philosophical beliefs about the way the world is. You might be thinking, “Philosophy, Kenny?! Again?!” Yes! But trust me here:
The first of these worldviews is one we introduced last week, and it manifested in the Puritan communities of New England. As we talked about, American Puritanism is built around the belief that truly Godly, Christian communities can function as “lighthouses” of a sort for the rest of the world. If a town or city is able to genuinely and truly manifest the kind of government and life that Jesus teaches, those communities will be so distinct and so perfect that others will take notice. But the danger, as we saw, was that such communities had to be aggressively self-policing in order to maintain the appearance of purity even above its sincerity. Judgment, excommunication, and fear end up woven into the fabric of things. And in New England, this problem culminates some 70 years after the Pilgrims show up in the tragedy of the Salem Witch Trials. After the Trials end, the religious communities of the Puritans begin to collapse, and a generally-American, religiously-ambivalent spirit of pragmatic capitalism spreads throughout the colony in its place. So, worldview #1: the reason we are on this planet is to pursue purity…but this is really, really hard to do together.
The second worldview begins to take root in America right around the same time the Puritan society is collapsing in the 1690s, and it is an offshoot of the European Enlightenment. You probably know that word, but to boil it down into a sentence, the Enlightenment is the spreading belief that the best way to live in the world is to put your trust primarily in your own capacity for reason. You are the only person or thing you can ever truly know or trust, and your mind can function in a logical and rational way which can lead you, eventually, to a full and trustworthy understanding of a natural world which is also logical and reasonable. The Enlightenment does wonderful things for science and medicine, but it does terrible things for us as individuals, because it changes the story of all of human history, which has previously revolved around communities where the ideal is for the individual’s interests to be secondary to that of their neighbors, to one where the individual comes first: if you are kind, it must be because such kindness ultimately benefits you. If you aren’t convinced something is true, you have a scientific obligation to disbelieve it. The Enlightenment works by teaching us that we are neutral observers, who choose intentionally to “step in” when we actually believe in something.
Whew! That’s lots of backstory. But to recap: Worldview 1 comes from the Puritans, and it teaches that purity is what God wants most from us. Worldview 2 comes from the Enlightenment, and it teaches that the individual is the center of his or her own life.
So, to go back to Northampton, Massachusetts in 1734:
The people of New England have become complacent about religion. Church attendance is down. Folks are mainly interested in making money, raising families, and staying generally out of trouble. And pastors in the area have an epiphany about a new way to reframe Puritanism for a new and largely indifferent generation of New Englanders. This idea can be summed up like this: it marries the two worldviews to teach an individualized purity. What if the “city on a hill” is actually a sinking ship? And the most reasonable thing for you to do is get off it as fast as possible?
Into this conversation steps a man named Jonathan Edwards, who will perhaps become the most important pastor in the history of this country. He’s a quiet man, and he’s somebody I can really relate to, as he famously manuscripted all of his sermons (like I do!) and read them in a deliberate, unemotional, monotone way (just like me!). He said he didn’t want to “play on emotions” and instead trusted the words to speak for themselves. I’ll let you be the judge.
In 1741, 7 years into a revival movement which became known as The First Great Awakening, Edwards wrote,
The God that holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a Spider, or some loathsome Insect, over the Fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his Wrath towards you burns like Fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but
to be cast into the Fire; he is of purer Eyes than to bear to have you in his Sight; you are ten thousand Times so abominable in his Eyes as the most hateful venomous Serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn Rebel did his Prince: and yet ‘tis nothing but his Hand that holds you from falling into the Fire every Moment: ‘Tis to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to Hell the last Night; that you was suffer’d to awake again in this World, after you closed your Eyes to sleep: and there is no other Reason to be given why you have not dropped into Hell since you arose in the Morning, but that God’s Hand has held you up […] Therefore let everyone that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the Wrath to come. The Wrath of almighty GOD is now undoubtedly hanging over a great Part of this Congregation: Let everyone fly out of Sodom: Haste and escape for your Lives, look not behind you, escape to the Mountain, lest you be consumed. (Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” 1741)
So, what is Edwards’ approach to the problem of the decline of the New England church? He says that the New England Church isn’t actually what you should be worried about. You should be worried about you: you are currently in sin; you are facing the ever present danger of hell; you are the object of God’s judgment and wrath…and you have the opportunity to escape that wrath by clinging to Christ, who can carry you to safety.
These kinds of sermons become known as “fire and brimstone” sermons because of their focus on hell and their eagerness to stoke the fears of those who are listening. But it’s important to set them in their context: the ministers who wrote and delivered these words did so because they believed the only future for the church of New England was one which recentered salvation on the individual instead of on the community. And this strategy worked. Churches grew, Edwards spoke all over the 13 colonies, and American Christianity became a Christianity of a one-on-one, personal relationship with Jesus, whose purpose was to rescue us from Hell.
So what was lost? Is this not a thing we also say, some 280 years later? Is it untrue that Jesus’s death on the cross pays the price for our sinfulness and rebellion? Is it not true that Jesus saves…and if not “from Hell,” then from what?
I think the problem isn’t that Edwards and others’ theology was wrong–it wasn’t!–it was their worldview. Because the story the Bible tells isn’t one that centers on the individual. It centers on the community.
Interestingly, the apostle Paul wrestled with similar confusions all the way back in the first century. As we have talked about many times, the chief issue facing the early church was the “adoption” of non-Jews or Gentiles into what was initially a Jewish order: Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, redeeming the Jews to their mission and purpose as God’s chosen people. Gentiles might be able to worship alongside Jews, and they might be able to profess the same beliefs about Jesus’s resurrection, but could they really be a part of the family of God? At stake here was where the community was centered: was it on the Jews themselves, who were God’s chosen people in the world? Or was the center–the worldview–now rooted instead in the Church, who were God’s messengers for the Gospel? To this controversy, Paul writes in his letter to the Christians in Rome,
For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.
In brief, Paul says the center isn’t Israel or the Church: it is the person of Jesus. What is happening here, when we become Christians, is that we are putting on the identity of Jesus himself. That’s what the word means: a “Christian” is a person whose identity is found in the life and example of Christ, in the same way that a “Canadian” is a person whose identity is found in their citizenship in Canada. And so, if “Christians” are sharing in Christ’s identity, who then is Christ? Paul says what Jesus said, which is that he was the son of God himself. So, by extension, Christians are not “new-Jews,” nor are they merely members of a Church: they are adopted sons of God. We can call him “Abba, Father”–an intimate title and name. And even more, our adoption has made us co-heirs with Jesus as well! And what is our inheritance? It is the same resurrected life Jesus lives. It is sharing in Jesus’s glory.
To put this in conversation with Edwards and the First Great Awakening, Paul centers Christian identity not in what I need to do in order to keep out of the flames but in what Jesus has done and is now offering to share with me. I’m being drawn in to an identity as a member of God’s family. I’m being adopted.
As you all know, my family is intimately familiar with adoption. I don’t want to sensationalize that right now, or co-opt someone else’s story to serve my own. But I will say this, as I think it relates: adoption isn’t about anyone “giving anyone up.” It is about welcoming people in.
As Christians, our identity–our hope–is found in the family we have been adopted into. It’s about where we are being freely invited to belong, and the values and loving generosity that belonging generates in us and which we then pour out for others. It’s about being so overwhelmingly grateful for what we are being given that it becomes important for us to make sure that everyone else knows it is being offered to them, too. Paul puts these ideas into the very same words Jonathan Edwards will later use ironically to emphasize individual salvation alone. Paul writes,
What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory— even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles? As he says in Hosea:
“I will call them ‘my people’ who are not my people; and I will call her ‘my loved one’ who is not my loved one”
Paul heads Edwards off at the pass, so to speak, some 1700 years earlier: he says that God’s patience with sin isn’t about the individual but the desire–which has always been at the center of God’s heart–to expand the community. To call those “my people” who are “not my people.” To call her “my loved one” who is “not my loved one.”
To nail this point down, here’s what I’m getting at: when you or I fixate on a relationship with Jesus that is not anchored to the broader community of God’s family, we are missing out. We are missing out on real relationships with our brothers and sisters. We are missing out on a chance to see and experience the expansive reach of God’s love. And we are missing out on the fullness of our inheritance, which is experiencing and sharing the life God’s love makes possible for us. Don’t make that trade. Don’t choose a private faith over a communal one…as messy as community can be.
If I can pivot here to ways we can live this out this week, I have a few ideas I want to share:
First, don’t detach from Revolution. Don’t take this seemingly never ending season of quarantine as a sign that you can or should be “doing your faith” on your own. God wants more than that for you. I want more than that for you! And I also want more from you: I want to hear your stories and read and study Scripture alongside you. I want to pray for you. And I want you to pour what you are learning back out into the lives of others here in our community. We need each other. So don’t detach: email me, call a friend, come to the Sunday picnic (if you feel safe), join an online group, and help lead this church!
Second, serve with somebody. Last week, I challenged you to listen to the stories of your neighbors, who live with you in the mission field of your neighborhood. I hope you did that. And if so, what did you learn? What needs are there? How can people help one another? This week, step in to meet a need…and refuse to do that alone. Invite someone to serve with you. Or, if you don’t know where to serve, come serve alongside us! We are still partnering with Heritage Baptist’s food pantry on Tuesday mornings and another pantry at Mills-Parole on Saturdays: come join with others and serve!
And third, let’s be intentional about looking beyond Revolution, too. The Church is bigger than us! One way we can do that is by using the opportunities this season is providing for us to participate in joint services and activities with other congregations. I am participating in a multi-church service on Wednesday nights at Heritage Baptist, and my hope is that you will join me, and more and more churches will collaborate. It’s a different kind of service than what we might be used to, but it is God’s church, worshipping together. I want to be a part of that! So come out: let’s lean in to the community we belong to!
To close this morning, I want to sum things up like this: Christian faith is communal. It draws us together. And this isn’t an accidental byproduct: Jesus came to this world for just this purpose, embodying God’s own love for his creation and then dying on the cross so that the people God loves can see and feel and understand God’s compassion for them. The Good News of the Bible is that you don’t have to be alone. In a time when isolation is everywhere, I want you all to hear dthis–especially any of you who might be listening and who haven’t claimed an identity as a Christian yet: you are being pulled into a relationship with God through what Jesus has done. You are the 1 he has left the 99 to go find! But the point of that illustration is for the 99 to become the 100. So walk with us. Take that first, big leap of faith to trust that the God who is reaching out to you has your interest at heart. And then discover that that interest is belonging in a family of brothers and sisters who all share the same eternal inheritance. We are a church, together. Let us believe that…and then embody it in the season to come.