The Lima Bean Gospel
In the Christian Vision Project's third and final year, we turn our attention to another "big question." It's the simplest yet perhaps the most important question we've asked: Is our gospel too small? This question prompts reflection on the gospel itself: Are our fiercest critics right, that the Christian gospel is narrow and exclusionary? It also prompts us to ask: Do our techniques for spreading the gospel tend to make it narrower than it really is?
In his recent book, The Dangerous Act of Worship, Mark Labberton asks whether our worship has become too smallwhether it has become disconnected from God's great passion for justice and righteousness. Members of his church, First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, California, rub shoulders every day with a culture that often considers the Christian gospel to be not so much threatening as simply irrelevant. In this opening response to our "big question," Labberton asks a question of his own, and we expect it's the beginning of a year of lively conversation about just how good our Good News really is.
Why does the gospel look to so many like a bowl of lima beans?
For those who find the grace and truth of Jesus Christ convincing and compelling, such a question may seem absurd, if not blasphemous. But compared to the spiciness of the cultural concoctions that swirl around us in our globalized world, Jesus can seem like bland fare. Many have the impression that the gospel is small, smooth, and tasteless. They have a culturally conditioned disdain for any homogeneous answer to a heterogeneous world. And they have seen too little evidence to the contrary.
How could it be, some believers might balk, that "the hope of the world," the One given "the name above every name," could ever seem bland? Well, because often the church is bland. Pale. Gullible. Pasty. Just there. The fruit of this vine appears to be lima beans. If bland is the flavor of the church, then it is presumed to be the flavor of the One the church calls Lord.
This anemic image of Jesus has many adherents, both in and outside the church. Their innocuous Jesus is the result of social, political, economic, and spiritual accommodation. Who needs more from Jesus than some simple stories of a loving example? To go further would be zealous, and to be religiously zealous is definitely not a current cultural ideal. Those in the church who stand out are often seen as intolerant and intolerable. Better the disdainfully bland than the dangerously zealous.
It's a misstep, some would say, to take Jesushis example and his teachingtoo seriously. To do so is to get too close to all those details that hound religious specialists, breed religious acrimony, and cause war. Jesus from 10,000 feet away is close enough. The Google Earth view of Jesus identifies only the most prominent features of his life and teachings, bringing nothing too close and taking nothing too seriously. Such a Jesus may be vaguely interesting, but he is consigned to blandness and faint praise.
Jesus Christ, the Lord of Creation, Redemption, and Fulfillment, calls the church the salt and light of the world. Jesus seems to have had in mind a community engaged in vigorous, self-sacrificing mission that goes to great lengths to enact costly love, that inconveniences itself regularly to seek justice for the oppressed, that creatively serves the forgotten, all to portray that the kingdom of God is at hand.
Depending on where we look in the world, however, that church seems to have gone missing.