Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Tag: romans 7

The Gospel Must Begin with Love

Where does your gospel start?

The gospel does not begin with condemnation. It begins with God’s love. Why then do I know so many people who really want me to condemn them and the people they know? I have been accused as a pastor of not enforcing the rules effectively. They tell me I let people get away with a lot of stuff. As a pastor I do want to help people see their sins but I do not believe this is my primary purpose as an evangelist. In fact, I think the over emphasis on condemnation among Christians is one of my biggest challenges as an evangelist. Ask an average American who doesn’t regularly attend church what they think of Christians and “condemnation” tops the list. I’ve heard that Christianity’s main tenets are 1) hatred of gay people, 2) hypocrisy and 3) condemnation. Christians make people feel bad way too often (and they take pride in it). Why did we decide it was our job to tell people they are wrong? I take a more, shall we say, patient approach. Like the Mississippi, start small, it’s all downhill to the Gulf of Mexico, if you’ve started flowing with the Spirit. We are going to make it. God is going to move. And that’s not up to us.

Why is it gospel (Good News) that I am bad?

There is a strong segment of the Church that spends most of their time being barely saved from their sins. The sweetness of their salvation is mostly confined to Christ’s gruesome death on the cross as their atoning sacrifice. They are unworthy of such a gift, and they are happy that God gave it to them anyway. No falsehood in that narrative — Romans 5:8 “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” But why must we sing about it ad nauseum every week? Why is it gospel (Good News) that I am bad?

I think we find perverse comfort in being incapable. I understand this personally. I really thrive when I’m given an assignment. The threat of a bad grade (now given only in my imagination) motivates me more than I would like. My internal motivation ascends as my need for external confirmation and reassurance descends. Do you feel me on this? Isn’t it comfortable not to have any agency? Wouldn’t it be nice to be a kid again and just do what you’re told? In the Church, when it comes to spiritual matters, this often happens. We are encouraged to get in line behind someone else and think the way he (it’s usually a he) does. Some rebels resist this for their own gratification, but I say we must resist it so we can actually enjoy God.

We don’t have to to be so weak that the best we can do is not go to hell.

Some theologians codified it as “utter depravity.” Even after I have a life altering experience with Jesus and decide to follow him, I cannot help but do evil. Sticking in Romans, Paul describes his experience with sin in Chapter 7. He knows what he really wants to do, but there are other desires in him that also have pull. He is aware of the struggle and spends much of his time in all of his letters trying to help his people turn to their deepest desire to follow Jesus — to live as a new creation, to live out of your love for God.

I think Paul believes that we can do this (with God’s help of course). He does not end his argument in chapter 7. “O wretched man that I am (Romans 7:24) is not the end. Only a few verses later in Romans 8:1-2, he takes it a step further saying “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.” Paul notices the duality inside himself, as I am sure many of you have noticed inside yourselves, but then goes on to declare that one side of the duality has surely won. Christ has the victory inside you, over your sin and death.

It’s bigger than just that one verse

We have a problem with how we often read the Bible. We might pluck out Romans 7:24 to support our argument for feeling bad about ourselves, when in fact Romans 1-8 is one sweeping argument that culminates in the final verses (which you ought to memorize)

“In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” — Romans 8:37-39

Through Him who loved us

My Gospel starts with God’s love. Yes, I am a sinner, but I am also a saint. Jesus is winning inside of me. I’m getting better. I am not stuck. When I mess up, my friends and partners forgive me and God makes something good out of the best we can muster together. My approach as a pastor is to get people into a relationship with Jesus so he can win in them too. And I trust that he will, as I have seen him do it before, many times! Get into the Body, be with God’s people, use the faith you have and Jesus will help you figure out what to do. I don’t want to be another man you get behind to escape your God given capacity. You can choose what’s best as you listen to the Holy Spirit. I do not want to control your behavior. I want to create an environment in which we have a common project of transformation, and behavior control will inevitably come with that. I give you what I’ve got, my love, and a community that I help keep together which is founded on that love.



The Popacalypse, Canon Law and Belonging to Jesus

The Pope is coming to town here in Philadelphia and with it he is bringing a bunch of speculation on canon law and whether the Catholic church will change to reflect our evolving cultural values. Recently he announced a year of mercy that extended the capacity to absolve women of the sin of abortion from bishops and their special designees to all priests all over the world. The media heard the word “abortion” and put it on blast. They thought maybe the Pope was going to come out in favor of Roe v. Wade. In actuality this was a technical expansion of the rights of priests to extend the absolution of God to people more conveniently. Without this measure women still marked with ritual uncleanliness would have to submit a claim of sorts to the bishop whom they didn’t even know. What the what?

As far as Popes go, Francis is a great one. But he is still head of the Catholic church which is built on a system that adjudicates the absolution of people based on 1752 canon laws. The media likes the Pope. They like the frenzy of 4 million people in Philly, but they treat his faith as an artifact. And why shouldn’t they? Whatever piety the pontiff has is shrouded in that system of laws that undermines the gospel which inspires it. Building and maintaining a system of laws make’s what Paul says in Romans 7 sound ridiculous. “So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God.” Do we belong to Jesus, the other who was raised form the dead, or do we belong to the law? I think Francis belongs to Jesus. I think many Catholics do too, but I think the church is built on an anti-gospel law that breeds a lot of law abiding citizens who never get to belong to Jesus.

On Monday night at the cell leader training, Jonny Rashid, one of our pastors, reminded us of Circle of Hope’s proverb, “One doesn’t need to be smart or completely trained to be a fulfilled Christian.” We need to say this a lot more because we all seem to be idealists who cannot live up to our own expectations. I certainly am prone to an “all or nothing” mentality that is self-defeating a lot of the time. So hear it again in a different way: We don’t need to live up to a perfect law to belong to Jesus. We need to say this a lot because the Catholics aren’t the only ones who are producing law abiding citizens. My “all or nothing” mentality is another law that often stands in opposition to belonging to Jesus.

My “all or nothing” process isn’t unique either. I don’t know how often I hear my friends say that they are uncomfortable telling someone about their belonging to Jesus because they fear that they don’t live up to Jesus’ standards. I think they don’t live up to their own vague ideas of what they think Jesus might be thinking of them. The legacy of canon law mixes in our collective understanding with all the other laws of the land- from Roe v. Wade, to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders. There are so many laws and rules and regulations! A result of this is what our pastor, Rod White, described in his dissertation as “The Great Other.” We all live an atmosphere dominated by huge unknown forces that seem to demand huge responses. There is a glut of information about the calamities of our age, and the shortcomings of the church and its leaders over the years. Many individual Christians take this collection of sins on the chin. Everyone knows how much you suck and the “Great Other” threatens to highlight that fact yet again. One of the patent responses to the hugeness of this problem is staying in your lane and finding very specific places in which we can claim some level of expertise. For example I might say, “I can’t deal with all that big stuff, but if you want to know about 21st century cat memes I have a blog about them and I think I’ve seen all the ones that have legitimately achieved viral status.”

The problem is that Jesus is not interested in expertise. We can’t use that method of security. Expertise is just another law that is thrown in the mix. But one does not become an expert in Jesus. One can become an expert on canon law which is why it is so comforting for so many people. It is manageable. It stands up to the vagueness that plagues us. But Jesus wants us to belong to him. Our faith is not quantifiable. It is story. It is heart song. It is relationship. It doesn’t match up to the law that many people use to protect themselves from this big threat that we have internalized and live by without really knowing it. Jesus, save us from the power of that law. I’m praying that Francis’ big show awakens the region to Jesus despite the interwoven law and that many people end up belonging to Jesus anyway, and hopefully partnering with Circle of Hope.