Bringing the Gospel to the present with great flexibility
Welcome to my new blog! It’s just the same as the old one, but with a new URL. I also changed the title of the blog to “Contents and Containers” and I wanted to write a little bit about that change.
One of my favorite sayings in Circle of Hope is “We bring the Gospel to the present with great flexibility.” It informs how we help to make Jesus relevant to 21st Century people in the Delaware River Watershed, and also around the country. What this means in practice is that we try to discern what the content of our faith is, and try to place it in new containers. I think a lot of the time Christians end up arguing about the container instead of discerning and discipling the content of the faith. That is, we might argue about the color of the church carpet, or the style of our worship, or what to wear on Sundays, or what time the meeting starts. We all know that those issues aren’t the most important parts of our faith, but they give us an idea of what a container might be like.
I’ve written something a little more technical on the subject here, and use the Martin Scorcese movie Silence as a launch point in that paper, so feel free to read that if you like. But I think our project is to discern the things that are actually the container of our faith that we mistake for the content.
Now before I keep going, I want to emphasize that our faith needs a container or it won’t survive. Just like water needs a container to be useful, or a plant needs something to root in for it to grow (more on that here). And so the communities and the traditions we find ourselves in are those containers. They aren’t bad, they just are malleable. They help express our faith and they should always serve our faith, but they shouldn’t impede its growth. We shouldn’t be afraid to put our faith in new containers, too. So containers are necessary, but they aren’t the core of our faith; they simply help give it a form.
Without a container, our faith would lack contours that would make it really alive. So while the container is flexible, it isn’t immaterial. It still matters. So we shouldn’t simply discard it because it gives our content a home, and I for one need the content of my faith to have a place to reside. I think most of us do, too.
Jesus on dishware, fig trees, and how you know he’s really the Messiah
Jesus talks about the difference between the content and container of his faith when he visits the Pharisees. From Luke 11:37-43:
While he was speaking, a Pharisee invited him to dine with him; so he went in and took his place at the table. The Pharisee was amazed to see that he did not first wash before dinner. Then the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? So give for alms those things that are within; and see, everything will be clean for you.
“But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others. Woe to you Pharisees! For you love to have the seat of honor in the synagogues and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces.
Jesus lampoons the Pharisees here for focusing on the containers of their faith—the law—instead of the content, the fruit of the faith. Jesus says it rather plainly. They are concerned with his ceremonial washing, but they aren’t clean on the inside themselves. And how does he know? Because he names the fruit they bear: greed and wickedness, instead of alms to the poor. He says they tithe “mint and rue and herbs,” but they “neglect justice and the love of God.” To Jesus, the outcome of authentic faith, of the real content of our faith, is care for the poor and justice. That isn’t a “container” for our faith, but how our faith looks when it is really expressed. Jesus doesn’t say the container isn’t valuable, but rather that it should match the content. Jesus even says if your content is pure, your container will be too. And that’s good news for Christians. It doesn’t matter what the container of your faith is. What matters is what the outcomes of your faith are, since that will make your container also pure.
In Matthew 11, when John the Baptist, who is in jail, hears of the miracles and works of Jesus, he sends his disciples to find out if Jesus is the liberator they’ve been waiting for. In Matthew 11:4-6, Jesus answers them:
Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
What is Jesus saying? You will know that he is the true Messiah, and in turn that we are true followers of his by the outcomes, the fruit of our faith. When good things follow our work, then you will know that our container is pure. We stress so much about the container of our faith, and sometimes its doctrine, even, that we forget the important matters of the faith.
The Apostle Paul calls those important matters: faith, hope, and love. He says in Galatians, that “the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” James will follow him and name religion that is pure as: “to care for orphans and widows in their distress.”
The outcomes of our faith reflect its content, and containers must aid that, or they should be discarded. If our content and our fruit is faithful, then we can rest assured that our containers are too.
In Mark 11, we see Jesus cursing a fig tree because its containers doesn’t match its content. Here’s the passage from Mark 11:12-14:
On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.
Jesus is hungry and he sees a fig tree that has the appearance of giving fruit—it was full of leaves—but when he approached it, he saw that it had no fruit. It appeared like it did, but it didn’t. This is an illustration for us of why it’s more important that we produce results and outcomes—faith, hope, love as Paul puts it; justice and alms, as Jesus puts it; care for the orphans and widows as James put it—if we want our faith to be real.
Letting go of our precious memories
Bringing the Gospel into the present means letting go of the precious memories of the church we had in the past and preparing to move it into what’s next. That doesn’t mean letting go of tradition entirely, but holding it loosely. It can be useful to some people in some contexts, but to make the deal breaker of our faith traditional doctrine rather than authentic outcomes misses the point. I used the New Testament here, but this is a theme that runs throughout the Bible. The Prophets of the Old Testament specialize in naming when content doesn’t match containers. From Micah 6:8:
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
Jesus summarizes the entire law in loving God and loving others. So as a church, as a Christian, and on this blog, my intention is to emphasize the plain matters of our faith and adapt them to our present context. Let’s challenge our containers when they need to be challenged, even if they feel precious to us. God is asking us to let go of our past in order to bring the Gospel to the present moment. You’ll see me challenging tradition, but not throwing it out, because that treasure trove of experience is worth pondering and considering because it will surely be relevant for bringing the Gospel to the present, because the people we think of as traditionalists did that very thing in their lives too.
Ecclesia semper reformanda est! The church must always be reformed!
I will try to hold on to the best of the past and bring us to try to pioneer where our faith is moving next. And everyone is invited along for the ride; no container should exclude you, whether you are a racial or sexual minority, or just someone who hasn’t felt at home in the church. We’re making a way for you too.
I hope you keep following along and subscribe! Let’s have an adventure together.