I’ve been thinking lately about the bigness, richness, and deepness of the gospel—its profundity and capacity to meet any and every moment. Sometimes the gospel talks about forgiveness and sometimes community transformation. Sometimes it rebukes and sometimes it comforts. God transformed history’s darkest and most unjust moment into the birth of the new world in the death and resurrection of Jesus. There is no situation, therefore, that God can’t overwhelm and transform in Christ by the power of his Spirit.
But let’s get practical. How does this work? It’s tough to talk about abstract principles without the specifics of a situation, but here are some thoughts.
First, the necessity of a community oriented by Scripture’s story. It seems to me that the New Testament assumes the constant rehearsal of the story of Scripture in order to shape the identity of God’s people. We get to know God and his ways with his people as we have our imaginations shaped by the narrative of Scripture. That’s the resurrection-powered world we inhabit, with all its possibilities, its dynamics, and its causes and effects.
Second, the confidence in God’s capacity to overwhelm and transform a situation, and to deliver it back to us with greater promise and more hopeful ways forward than we can now imagine. I guess I’d call this “faith.” The actual challenges that people or church communities face often don’t feel like “textbook” trials. They typically feel way worse, a whole lot more complicated, and far messier. They’re usually very painful in ways that diminish the imagination, extinguishing hope. We become like Fred Sanford—“this is the big one!” It’s easy to think that this is the situation that will end friendships and break up this commumity.
Third, God works in power only through communities of the cross. God unleashes resurrection power only among cruciform communities of humility and weakness. God’s people, therefore, can adopt postures of humility toward one another and call out to God for wisdom to find a way forward through any challenge. They then put their heads together and commit to the hard work of discussing and listening to one another in order to creatively come up with a way to deal with whatever challenge they face.
It seems to me that here is where churches sometimes fail. They imagine that the problem is the problem. After all, churches aren’t supposed to have problems or challenges, just as individual Christians are supposed to have perfect lives. If there’s something wrong, then there’s something wrong!
I hate Christian clichés, but I’ve never forgotten this one: “the end is the process.”
The goal is not simply to get rid of the problem or to get past the obstacle as quickly as possible. The goal is to go through the hard work of discussing and listening in order to strengthen the bonds of community through that whole messy process. Get people involved, let people give advice and counsel. Cultivate openness, honesty, and vulnerability. Giving people opportunities just might allow them to discover their gifts and capacities to contribute to a community. It will allow a church to actually do the “one-anothers” of church life.
People will grow impatient and need to confess that and be forgiven. Others will show compassion and contribute to meet needs. But when you go through a challenge as a community, you just might discover that you’ve got . . . a community, shaped and upheld by the power of God.
Too often, however, our churches are dominated by the spirit of the age in the form of efficiency that we don’t take the time to grow through challenges as communities.
Fourth, you only lose when you try to win. God has already pledged his allegiance to us in Jesus, so we can’t lose. We’re already loved by God despite our failures, sins, and shameful pasts, so there’s no way we can fail. If working through a difficulty as a community takes more time than we thought, that’s okay. If we think we’re going to miss out on great opportunities because we’re doing the hard work of making sure everyone is unified, that’s okay, too. Like I said, the whole point is the process, and we win when we remain unified and grow in love for one another.
This is the practical side of justification by faith. We don’t have to coerce God to love us. He’s already pledged his allegiance to us in Jesus, so we can relax! We’re set free to go the way of the cross, unconcerned about our inadequacies and awesome capacities for failure. We’re released to enjoy God’s love, to truly love and be loved by one another.
We only lose if we try to short-cut the process in order to come out on top, either as individuals or as a community. God wins through losing. He triumphs through defeat, and unleashes resurrection life through death. Because of that, we need to go the way of the cross as communities and see triumphalism as a fatal temptation.
Well, there are a thousand other things to say about embodying the gospel as communities and this is all a bit abstract, anyway. Other thoughts about putting this into practice?