07 December 2009

Irony of the Day

A while ago someone asked me whether I thought that the church I attended was a little too "worldly."
"Worldly?" I asked. "What do you mean by that?"
"Well," they began, "Your band plays some pretty rocky music that the rest of the world listens to, and everyone, including your pastor, dresses casually, like everyone else in the world. How will they know that you are different if you look and act like them at church?"

I almost couldn't keep myself from laughing a little. In other words, if we can't be holy or set apart by mimicking God's character traits, such as love and peace, shouldn't we at least be weird?

We expect people in our faith community to uphold certain religious doctrine. We expect people to attend our weekly worship services, to pray regularly, to support the church financially, to read the Bible, to avoid sin. And yet, we do not expect people to progressively become more and more like Jesus. We do not expect that people will become more compassionate, more joyful, more generous, more gracious. We might even be surprised if they did.

Instead, we settle for being weird.

In Romans 9-11, Paul confronts his Jewish brothers about a similar attitude that they had. The Jewish Romans were still convinced that the only way that they could obtain righteousness was by observing the law. This made them despise the Gentile Christians, who Paul claimed had been given "grace" by God. Why should they be given a free pass to righteousness when they had worked so hard for it?Paul presents many arguments to convince the Jews otherwise, utilizing the traditional rabbinical interpretation skills he had learned through his studies. In Romans 10:5-8, Paul makes the following argument:
Moses describes in this way the righteousness that is by the law: "The man who does these things will live by them." But the righteousness that is by faith says: "Do not say in your heart,
'Who will ascend into heaven?'" (that is, to bring Christ down) "or 'Who will descend into the deep?'" (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).
But what does it say? "The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart," that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming."

Paul, in this passage, insists that Scripture has always affirmed that justification is through faith and not through observing the law. God has always accepted people on the basis of faith; this was not a radical, new idea. He uses two Scriptural passages to contrast the righteousness by law and the righteousness by faith. Christians today understand the law of righteounsess to mean that the Jews did not take the law seriously enough. They fell short of observing it faultlessly. Because of their failure to uphold it completely, they needed a Savior to redeem them and perfect the law. This viewpoint about the law is the product of our own "Christianise" view on atonement, where we were not good enough so God sent us Jesus. Yes. And no.
The law itself was never invented with the intention of it leading to salvation. The law’s purpose was to point the Israelites to God’s character and nature. When it was properly observed the Jewish people would realize God’s grace. But did they? The Jewish people unfortunately did not realize that the law was the direction to salvation, not salvation itself. Instead of pursuing a right relationship with Yahweh and as a result being transformed into His likeness, the Jewish people resorted to legalism in order to gain God’s favor. Christ, then, did not replace an old way of obtaining salvation. Christ is salvation.

And yet somehow we find ourselves as Christians, who have been given what Paul calls the "word of faith," still trying to be holy people through other means.
Jesus tried time and time again to convince the religious teachers of the law that righteousness was cloaked in giving to the poor, being compassionate to the outcasts of society, forgiving others of their wrongdoing. Righteousness is cloaked in love, peace, and justice, not circumcision, dietary laws, and observance of the Sabbath. The first century Jews had equated all of those practices with their identity and had come to recognize those practices as the dividing difference between them as the "children of God" and the pagans that Jesus was not just challenging their actions. He was challenging their identity and their understanding that they were people of God.

We have our own boundaries today. We do this, but they do that. We have come to understand our identity as God's people, both consciously and, in most cases, unconsciously, based on the "Christian" things we do. Here's the great irony of Jesus' day: The "righteous" were becoming more damaged by their "righteousness" than the sinners were becoming damaged by their sin.
What would it look like if Christians today clothed themselves in love? In justice? In shalom?
What would it look like if Christians found themselves being transformed into the image of Christ instead of being conformed outwardly into the image of Christian culture?

Perhaps Christians would be better Christians if they spent less time in church and more time becoming the people that reflects Christ's character.

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