Are these things evil?

He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come — sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” (Mark 7:20-23)

Here is my question today: Are these things evil or not?

I’m not interested in whether we would say these things are imprudent or potentially contrary to our own interests.

Are they, as Jesus says, evil?

Here comes the judge

How a sinner may be justified before God, the Lord and Judge of all, is a question of no common importance to every child of man. It contains the foundation of all our hope, inasmuch as while we are at enmity with God, there can be no true peace, no solid joy, either in time or in eternity.

— John Wesley, “Justification by Faith

I was preaching this morning from Mark 8:38, where Jesus warns that if we are ashamed of him during our time on Earth, he will be ashamed of us when he comes in glory. During my preparation during the week and in the sermon itself, I was deeply aware of the stark moment that lies before us all.

It is something we gloss over in the Apostles’ Creed when we say “he will come to judge the living and the dead.”

We breeze right past it.

He will come to judge.

It is what Paul writes about in Romans 14. It is preached over and over again in Acts. It is a core truth of Christianity that Jesus Christ will judge each and every one of us. We will stand before him, and there will be one of two verdicts offered — the Bible suggests no third or middle way here. It will either be “well done my faithful servant” or “I never knew you.”

In much of the church, if this is acknowledged at all, it is received with the assurance that we are innocent until proven guilty. The benefit of the doubt is on our side, and if we are not a gross and extravagant sinner — which is to say if we are good at covering up and putting up a good front — we expect to get a gold star when the Book of Life is read.

But this is not Christianity.

Our faith begins with the understanding that we are sinners in need of a savior. We are guilty before God. Yes, God created us and loves us, but that truth only deepens our guilt. We have been given every blessing and the greatest gift imaginable — life itself — and we have squandered that gift like the prodigal son.

The day of judgment comes. The judge approaches.

To write such things or to preach such things is to be held up as a “fire and brimstone” preacher — a term that is never ever used as a term of praise. But how can we recite our creeds or read our bibles and not have our attention fixed on this truth?

What sorrow awaits you who say, “If only the day of the Lord were here!” You have no idea what you are wishing for. That day will bring darkness, not light. In that day you will be like a man who runs from a lion — only to meet a bear. Escaping from the bear, he leans his hand against a wall in his house — and he’s bitten by a snake. Yes, the day of the Lord will be dark and hopeless, without a ray of joy or hope. (Amos 5:18-20)

No need of redemption?

Over at the United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy blog — a long title on a blog worthy of attention — you can find a discussion of the meaning and significance of the UM doctrine regarding Jesus Christ.

It is a good post and a helpful summary that makes a point of getting down to the “so what?” questions.

One part of it, though, did get me thinking about some of our trials in the UMC.

Why is it important to believe that Jesus is fully divine and fully human? Actually, our very salvation stands or falls on this question. If Jesus were not fully divine, could he redeem us (that is, would he still have the power to redeem us)? If he were not fully human, could he redeem us (that is, could his saving power be applied to us mere mortals)? As nothing less than true God in human flesh, Jesus identifies fully with us and is like us in every way except that he is without sin—precisely in order to save us from our sins.

Reading this, I am reminded that many of our brothers and sisters do not believe we need divine intervention to redeem us. They are not troubled by the problems that require God to be both fully human and fully divine. Whether it is the lingering effect of liberal Protestantism discarding of the supernatural or a latent Pelagianism, lots of people do not really believe in their bones that we are in need of a redeemer. A helper, yes. A role model, sure. An encourager and example, absolutely. But not a redeemer.

Many of us are not people who believe the verb redeem describes anything of which we are in need. Or we believe we are the ones who will do our own redeeming.

This is a fundamental problem. It makes Jesus Christ — as understood in our doctrine — unnecessary.

I’m not sure how to respond to that situation as a pastor. People who are not thirsty never seek out the source of living water, no matter how well it is packaged and sold.

Bad way to get good news?

“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15)

What was the gospel that Jesus preached?

As far back as Irenaeus, Christians have suggested that the best way to interpret scripture is by finding other passages or verses that fill in the blanks or clarify the confusing bits.

By such a method, we might wonder what the “good news” is that Jesus preached and go looking through the New Testament for more elaborate explanations of the gospel. Doing so would likely bring us to 1 Corinthians 15, which Paul helpfully labels as the good news.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (1 Cor 15:3-8)

By the principle of scripture interpreting scripture, we might conclude that what Jesus meant by “the gospel” in Mark 1 was some version of what Paul described as the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15. It is a story, but it is a story most centrally about Jesus dying for our sins and being raised to life.

Such a definition of the good news seems to inform what John Wesley does in a sermon such as “The Way to the Kingdom.” When he comes to describe the gospel, he casts in terms of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The gospel, (that is, good tidings, good news for guilty, helpless sinners,) in the largest sense of the word, means, the whole revelation made to men by Jesus Christ; and sometimes the whole account of what our Lord did and suffered while he tabernacled among men. The substance of all is, “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners;” or, “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end we might not perish, but have everlasting life;” or, “He was bruised for our transgressions, he was wounded for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.”

Believe this and the kingdom is yours, Wesley preached. In preaching this, Wesley understood the gospel through the lens of Pietism. In the same sermon, he tells us that the “kingdom” is an inner experience of peace, righteousness, and joy in the Holy Spirit. Here again he uses scripture to explain scripture. He finds the definition of the word “kingdom” — as Jesus used it — in the words of Paul, in this case from Romans 14.

In our day, this kind of preaching would get low marks in a New Testament class. The professor would point out, no doubt, that Jesus’ audience in Mark 1 could not have possibly understood the call to believe the good news as a call to believe that Jesus — who was very much not yet crucified — was going to die for their sins.

These kinds of observations lead people ask whether Jesus and Paul preached the same gospel. Those who say they did not preach the same gospel — or at least that the word “gospel” in Mark 1:15 does not mean that Jesus died for our sins — tend to argue that the good news means to Jesus the declaration that kingdom is now present in Jesus himself. (See N.T. Wright or Scot McKnight for more on this.)

And so, I wonder if that means we should discard Wesley’s sermon on Mark 1:15 as a case of bad exegesis. Or is there some way that the “gospel” of Mark 1:15 is both what it meant to Jesus and the first readers of Mark and what it means to us as we read in light of what Paul and Peter and others have taught us.

Can we do bad historical-critical exegesis and yet still do good biblical theology?

At the bottom of it all

I was listening to an Andy Stanley podcast yesterday in which Stanley presented the bedrock of Christian faith as resting on an event – the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

His point was that if you were going to start from scratch to build a Christian faith — throwing out everything you’ve learned or been taught up to now — you would start with this one event and build from there.

I’ve been wondering a bit about that.

I think if John Wesley were to go back to a single bedrock, it would not be Easter but Calvary. Wesley often taught that faith itself is the belief that Jesus Christ died for our sins so we might be pardoned. This is not surprising. That kind of focus on the cross is the hallmark of evangelicalism of the Great Awakenings that influenced Wesley and were influenced by him.

I think Wesley would say Easter confirmed who Jesus was but that the cross is the foundation upon which our faith is built.

I’m not sure what the implications of this contrast are.

When I put the focus on Easter — maybe this is just me — I am tempted to start talking about hope. Easter is God’s way of telling us that death does not win. It is a sign to us that whatever darkness we are in, dawn is coming. And so on.

When I turn my gaze upon the cross, I am moved more to talk about Jesus and what would compel him to suffer that way. I want to speak more about love than hope, I suppose.

Perhaps this mental exercise illustrates that Stanley is on to something important but also leaving something out. Perhaps we cannot reduce it all to one single event, because the work of Christ is more than any one of those things.

Perhaps when you reduce it all down to its foundation, we are not called to believe in an event but a person.

Believe in Christmas

Someone can always come up with a reason not to believe. We can always cook up a story that does not need God in it. We’ve been doing that from the start, but one of my favorite illustrations of this is in Matthew 28:

While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.

Indeed, the story is still circulated today. Some of our best-selling Christian authors even peddle the myth concocted to debunk Easter.

It happens because we want an explanation that does not depend on God. We like to run the world as if none of its truths depend on God being God. And so we set our sharp little minds to crafting godless stories and our greedy little hearts to believing them.

The lies about Easter get some traction in the church.

The lies about Christmas are in some quarters almost dogma.

They are taught to the wise ones in the pews as secret knowledge. The truth is dismissed as fairy tale and Sunday School pabulum. It is okay for the children’s pageant but not for adults. All this stuff about the virgin birth and going to Bethlehem and angels and shepherds and wise men catches in the throat of too many of our pastors who tell these stories with their fingers crossed behind their backs.

I don’t understand that.

If we believe Jesus died and rose on the third day, why is it so hard to believe he was born of a virgin?

Sure, people can dream up stories that explain the orthodox teaching away. There are lots of garden guardians eager to take the gold coins from the elders. But we have the testimony of the Spirit and the cloud of witness.

They say, “Believe.”

We say, “Amen.”