A small gospel can be a beautiful thing.
Is our gospel too small? From what Jesus says, I think that God likes small. Small and hidden, actually.
The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. It is like yeast. It is like a perfect pearl. It is like finding just one lost sheep. Or just one lost coin. It belongs to little children and others who were "small" in the estimation of Jesus' contemporaries.
God likes small beginnings. He likes to work in hidden ways that are easily overlooked. He loves any lost individual, even when he has 99 percent of the others safely under his care. He passionately cares for the socially unimportant whom others trample as they rush toward worldly prominence.
In 2008, the third and final series of Christian Vision Project essays challenged the smallness of our gospel. But that doesn't mean that small is necessarily bad. Small doesn't mean "insignificant" or "of no consequence." Indeed, the Good News of Jesus Christ is the most consequential news bulletin in the history of the world. And the individuals for whom he died are, as the old Sunday school song says, his "precious jewels."
Last January, Mark Labberton began this final series of Christian Vision Project essays by comparing the gospel many of us live by to a bland bowl of lima beans. "Many have the impression," he wrote, "that the gospel is small, smooth, and tasteless."
When I re-read Labberton's essay, I began to think of a different kind of "small" food. I thought of tapas, the small portions of intensely flavored dishes that have long served as appetizers in Spain. Over the last quarter century they have become an entire cuisine in some American restaurants. The first time friends invited me to a tapas restaurant, I was not intrigued. It was the 1980s, and American culture still celebrated the all-you-can-eat buffet. The idea of going to a restaurant to eat small portions didn't seem special to me. But my first tapas bites were a revelation. An epiphany. The intense tastes of garlic or cumin or chilies brought such a rush of flavor that it reoriented my whole approach to eating. This was food that could not be wolfed down unthinkingly, like the 1950s American cuisine of my youth: tuna noodle casserole, Jell-O salad, mashed potatoes. These little dishes demanded that I nibble slowly, chew thoughtfully, and savor.
Hear the parable of the tapas menu. God offered us something that could have been small, obscure, and forgettable. He didn't offer us some grand universal principle. His gift was the life and death (and resurrection!) of just one person in a small country repeatedly crushed and occupied by foreign powers. He does not give us love or peace or brotherhood. He gives us Jesus, who died like a common criminal.
But when we pay attention to the small thing God gives us, it changes our entire approach to life. We see the world differently. What had seemed insignificant now demands our full attention. What had seemed ordinary now seems interesting. What had seemed a dead end now promises great potentialthe redemption of the whole world.
Keep It Extravagant
In the gospel, there is always a paradoxical tension between the small and the great, between the local and the universal, between the tightly closed bud and the open bloom. But we should never act as if the smallness of the gospel justifies small-mindedness or a miserly spirit. Labberton wrote: "When prominent Christian voices call for protests and boycotts over things like our freedom to say 'Merry Christmas,' the gospel seems very small indeed."
In his April article for the Christian Vision Project, Richard Mouw asked us to consider Kosuke Koyama's challenge: "We all have to decide whether we have a generous God or a stingy God." But generosity of spirit does not always mean big, and stingy does not always mean small.
Before I ate tapas, the idea of small servings seemed stingy. After I tasted tapas, these exquisitely crafted dishes seemed extravagant. I know that God can work in small ways and at the same time be extravagantly generous. And I know that bigness (certain totalitarian regimes come to mind) can be stingy.
Indeed, in this life we need God to be generous with us in small ways. It can be disastrous to our health to say "Supersize me" at the fast-food restaurant. The annals of those who win large sums in the state lottery are a record of greed, poor planning, and the indulgence of ne'er-do-well friends. Similarly, God's outsized blessings would be too much for most of us to handle this side of entire sanctification.
But, as Mouw wrote, we must expect God to be generous to people and in situations where we would not be so inclined. One insight from the "Loving God and Neighbor Together" dialogue between Muslims and Christians held this July at Yale University was the difference between our understandings of love, compassion, and mercy.
The Christian participants had been taught by Jesus that love should be indiscriminatejust as the mercy shown by the Good Samaritan was conditioned on nothing other than the wounded man's need. That may not be the way we generally behave, but it is the way we have learned to think of ourselves. It is the standard against which we measure ourselves.
The Muslim participants startled us Christians by talking about the limits their religion brought to their compassion. Orphans, widows, and others in need through no fault of their own deserve compassion, they said. But in Islamic ethics, there was no obligation to help the person whose drunkenness or gambling or otherwise unwise behavior put them in difficulty.
Reflecting on what I heard those Muslim leaders say, the tension was not between a generous God and a stingy God, as Koyama puts it, but between mercy that was defined and conditioned by justice (the Muslim view) and justice that was conditioned and defined by mercy (the Christian view).
Keep It Simple
To ask, "Is our gospel too small?" begs for a writer to say, yes, it has been too small and we need to stretch it. It was a surprise, therefore, when I read David Fitch's September Christian Vision Project essay, "Missional Misstep." Fitch told a cautionary tale about the dangers of having too big a gospel, about packing the gospel with so much good news that it is hard to remember what the headline is. The gospel touches every dimension of life, every sphere of existence. It has implications for family life, for political life, and for economic life, both personal and societal. It has implications for the way we relate both to well-adjusted friends and to the suffering masses around the world. But if we confuse the implications with the core message, we can easily forget what the story is about. And if we compensate for past sins of reductionism by offering theologically unlearned individuals greater complexity than they can grasp, we will be witnessing only to ourselves.
Fitch wrote that his congregation "had successfully preached the life of Christ and his mission," but "in the process" had "made church members timid in the actual task of leading people to Christ." Fitch called for a new evangelistic tool that would not be reductionistic. It would have to be simple to succeed, but it would also need to "lead the new believer in the back-and-forth motion between the bigness of God's salvation for the world and what he wants to do 'for us': forgive our sins and shape us in the image of his Son." It would also have to "function from within the context of the community's life, because it is only here that the words and pictures we share take on flesh and make sense."
James Choung's four-circles diagram (see his Christian Vision Project interview in the July issue) attempts to do that. It presents the bigness of God's salvific plan for the whole world and not just the message of salvation for an individual. It inspires potential converts by calling them to a mission at the same time it calls them to salvation. It lets the potential convert know that he is buying into something bigger than a repentance-for-forgiveness transaction, and that the forgiven life requires a commitment to God's mission.
But Choung's evangelistic tool (like others before it) has emerged in the context of university ministry. Careful attention must be given to cultivating similar efforts in congregational contexts. It is primarily through congregations that Christians are called to live the life of mission.
It's Not about You and Me
Fitch and Choung are right to want to simplify (that is, to focus) the gospel message without being reductionistic. But as we balance the bigness of God's purpose with the smallness of his chosen means, we should not forget the cultural context in which the events of God's Good News played out.
When we say that the eternal Son of God became a Palestinian Jew from Nazareth, who lived and died near the end of the Second Temple period, we recognize that God chose to speak his central Word of revelation in the context of a previously revealed system of wisdom and worship. The Jewish context of Jesus' life and death is not inconsequential. Jesus could not have just as easily been a Roman or an ancient Briton. As recent New Testament scholarship has taught us (especially that of N. T. Wright), Jesus' mission and message was as the Messiah of Israel. Near the beginning of his public ministry, the prophet John the Baptist announced Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. This cannot be understood apart from the revelation of God in Israel's system of sin sacrifices. Also at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus proclaimed the arrival of God's rule. This, too, cannot be understood apart from prophetic promises made to Israel.
At Christianity Today, we sometimes worry about evangelical slippage on what have been the key identifying beliefs of the movement. Part of that slippage has been a growing tendency to play down Jesus' embodiment of the sacrifices that foreshadowed him. Early Christianity made much of the correspondence between Jesus, the sacrifices, and the promises of redemption through the prophets. When we proclaim Jesus' death and resurrection apart from those Jewish foreshadowings, it can seem almost anti-Semitic. Jesus himself did not do so. He began with the house of Israel. The early church struggled to discover the right balance of continuity and discontinuity with its Israelite heritage. When a teacher like Marcion tried to purge the Scriptures of references to that legacy, the church treated him as a heretic. Marcion de-Judaized the gospel for philosophical reasons. We are tempted instead to ignore the divinely revealed frame of Jesus' gift to us because the sacrificial theme is culturally distasteful. Are we less culpable than Marcion?
Others set aside the talk of sacrifice because the imagery seems overly familiar and they want to give renewed attention to other legitimate dimensions of the gospel, such as Jesus' proclamation of the kingdom or the equally central message of Jesus' resurrection and his victory over death. Still others associate the sacrificial language with the individualistic emphasis it has been giventhe Lamb who takes away the sins of you and me rather than the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world.
Your gospel is too small if it is always about you. My gospel is too small if it is always about me. We must grasp the universal character of "one man's" redeeming sacrifice, just as we grasp the cosmic repercussions of the Resurrection. Charles Wesley almost held it all together. The bulk of his enduring hymn, "Christ the Lord Is Risen Today," focuses on Christ's triumph over death and the grave and his consequent heavenly rule. He devoted several couplets, however, to pain, blood, suffering, redeeming work, and a salvation "procured" by his pain. "But the pains that he endured / Our salvation have procured / Who did once upon the cross / Suffer to redeem our loss. / Love's redeeming work is done, / Fought the fight, the battle won, / Lo! the Sun's eclipse is over / Lo! He sets in blood no more, Alleluia!"
In the theological vision of Charles Wesley, small intersects large because he knows Jesus to be our "head" in whom we also die, rise, and reign. "Soar we now where Christ hath led, / Following our exalted Head, / Made like him, like him we rise, / Ours the cross, the grave, the skies. "
The Wesleys had a large-and-small gospel. They had no difficulty connecting Christ's universal triumph with the particular events of Good Friday and Easter, and no difficulty connecting the redemption of the world with the redemption and transformation of individuals. And while the reformation of society didn't make it into a famous Wesley hymn, it was a crucial part of the evangelical revival that blossomed from their ministry.
God has a small-and-large gospel. We must always let the largeness be God's. His grand story makes our individual stories bigger as they take on meaning in his kingdom. Our efforts at evangelization must always build his kingdom, not ours. Our plans for church growth must always follow his yeasty patterns of growth, not the driven growth of corporate-style goal setting. God's mission must always enlarge our vision, but we must be content to be part of the small things he is always doing.
David Neff is editor in chief of the Christianity Today media group.
| Posted on December 16, 2008 | TrackBack