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.
Rather than seek the God who spoke from the burning bush, we have decided the real drama is found in debating whether to podcast our services. Rather than encounter the God who sees idolatry as a pervasive, life-threatening temptation, we decorate Pottery Barn lives with our tasteful collections of favored godlings. Rather than follow the God who burns for justice for the needy, we are more likely to ask the Lord to give us our own fair share. A bland God for a bland church, with a mission that is at best innocuous and quaintin a tumultuous world.
Is it hard to explain why many look at the church and see a small bowl of lima beans? Where is the evidence that the reality is otherwise, that the gospel really matters?
The Homogeneous Gospel
Others take a different point of view, and think the gospel is too small because its claims in a multicultural, multireligious world are just too particular. Christian orthodoxy's affirmationthat through a promise to one people fulfilled through one man, the one true God reconciled the world to himselfseems by definition too small because it is just too homogenizing a solution. Too small to be worthy of the Creator of the universe, and too "one-size-fits-all" to be the Good News for our enormously varied world.
Postmoderns are keenly aware that we live in a vastly heterogeneous worldof cultures within cultures, of languages within languages, of religions within religions. They are likely to find it extremely counterintuitive that a single religion or deity could possibly reflect reality. In this world of variety, uniform solutions in politics, economics, and culture are unappealing, undesirable, and unworkable. How can that be any less so when it comes to matters of religion and spirituality?
From a theological point of view, they might go on, how could such particularity be consistent with the Bible's own depiction of God's expansive character and nature? Would such a god deserve to be called God, if it all boils down to one way or no way? How could a God who reputedly created a world with 300 kinds of hummingbirds be the same God who requires religious conformity?
Isn't this alleged particularity of God scandalously less nuanced than the enormously varied created order he is supposed to have made? Further, if those reputedly bearing the image of this God are called to one religious vision, doesn't that diminish their created diversity, homogenizing what God has made varied? If there are over 500 varieties of bananas, how could God offer the world one bowl of lima beans?
The Evidence of Love
The love of Jesus Christ, through whom God is reconciling the whole world to himself, is no lima bean. And the only adequate answer to these objections will require us to consider again that very thing Jesus says is central to God's kingdom, the most life-enlarging and non-homogenizing reality: love.
The primary evidence that the gospel is no lima bean is meant to be the compelling, sacrificial love and justice vividly lived and humbly witnessed to by Christ's body. "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another" (John 13:35). Such love is meant, at the very least, to make our lives more truth-bearing, more soul-enlarging, more justice-evidencing. To give ourselves in love is to devote ourselves to "the more important matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness," rather than fiddling with our "mint and dill and cumin" (Matt. 23:23).
Of course, this does not mean our gospel will be more immediately attractive or more easily accepted. A gospel whose evidence is this kind of love may still be accused of being small, but it will be small like the pearl of great price, not like some cheap imitation of the real gem.
We have to give up the small gospel that simply confirms what C. S. Lewis called "our congenital preference for safe investments and limited liabilities." The freedom of grace grants us many gifts, including that there is "therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 8:1). This assurance of grace is meant to set us on the road of faithful discipleship, not just to assure us of grace at the finish line. Such freedom enables Christ's disciples to love because we have first been loved (1 John 4:19). The grace that settles our account with God is meant to set us free from self-interest for the sake of loving others with abandon.
The apparent smallness of our gospel is directly related to the smallness of the church's love. When prominent Christian voices call for protests and boycotts over things like our freedom to say "Merry Christmas," the gospel seems very small indeed. If, by contrast, such voices called the church in America to give away its Christmas billions to the poor and needy around the worldas an act of incarnational lovethat would leave a very different impression of the faith we profess, and offer a far greater hope for a love-hungry world.
It would be a new day for our testimony to the immensity and scope of the gospel if we lived out persevering, sacrificial love for people near and far, especially for those without power, without money, without education, without food, without sanitation, without safety, without faith. If this counterintuitive, servant love moved us out of our middle-class enclaves, drew the poor to be included in our family values, brought us to worry more about the need for consumption of those who have nothing than the consumptive fantasies of those who have too much, the gospel would be more nearly the life-enlarging gift it is.
The Size of Love
Love is central in responding to the charge of particularity as well. What do we say to those who claim our gospel of one way, one truth, and one life is too small? The biblical argument is that God's very particular actions are precisely what give us the greatest access to the universal scope of God's heart and purposes. When God's work is most intensive, the implications are the most extensive: "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son." God in Jesus Christ does the most particular thing for the most universal end.
We must make the case that the particularity of love is like the proper use of a telescope: through the small end of the telescope (i.e., God was in Christ), we are given a glimpse into the cosmic heart of God (i.e., God is love). Through the particularity of the small lens, we are given a way to see the larger reality. The specificity of the gospel is the way God leads us to see what is universal.
This is obvious in ordinary experience. We come to know the meaning of love by loving and being loved by particular people in particular places and times. We don't come to know love first as a broad category and then as a particular instance. Rather, only if we are loved in particular do we gradually come to love more broadly. The absence of the particular leads most likely to the absence of the general ability.
It is true that being loved in particular does not necessarily lead us to love more widely. Still, the more noteworthy this absence of love in people's lives, the more we suspect a deficit of an experience of being loved. And that is precisely what millions of unchurched people suspect about Christians, and therefore about the gospel we proclaim: without more-evident fruit of self-sacrificing love, not least when we are affirming the God of love, the more our claim of particularity seems corrupt, bankrupt, or worse.
The particularity of our Sun is not a problem, because it shines on the just and on the unjust. So does God's particular love in Christ. The church cannot afford to give the impression that the particularity of the gospel only shines on us. If we love as we have been loved, the immensity and scope of God's intimate and cosmic gospel in Jesus Christ will be more evidently the salt and light of the world. We will be far more like Jesus described ustangy and tangible Good News. And that is no lima bean gospel.
Mark Labberton is senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, and a senior fellow of International Justice Mission.
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