Thursday, October 24, 2013

Ramblings on Astonishment and Acceptance

“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel …” (Galatians 1:6, NRSV)

You know how Paul usually begins his letters? He usually says something along the lines of “I thank God every day for you in my prayers” or “I have heard of your faithfulness in Christ” or some such compliment.

Not this time. He leads with, “I am astonished!” and it doesn’t get much better from there.

I wonder how it went over …

“Hey look! We got a letter from Paul!”

“Oh sweet! The big kahuna himself! I wonder what he wants?”

“You know, probably wants to give thanks to God for our faithfulness or something. Heh heh.”

“ … ”

“What? What is it?”

“Um … you might want to sit down for this.”

Yeah, it also makes me wonder about us. Today’s church. If we got a letter from Paul, would it start with “I thank God …” or “I am astonished …” ?

I am astonished that people go hungry and homeless in your town while you build multi-million dollar buildings and package it as God’s “blessing.”

I am astonished that you rigidly define who is “in” and who is “out” based on the shallow whims of your own understanding of the ultimately unknowable love of God.

I am astonished that you allow trivial matters to cloud the greater divine purpose to which you are called.

I am astonished that you feel as though being “nice” is all that it takes to be a follower of Jesus.

I am astonished …

I betcha we say and do a lot of stuff that would astonish Paul these days. Take the whole idea of “accepting Christ into your life,” for example.

When it comes to Jesus, scripture talks about hearing and following and loving and confessing and believing. Scripture talks about being given a gift, being liberated from sin, being adopted as a child. But scripture never says, “Hey, it’s really up to you. Jesus isn’t gonna just save you without you chipping in your bit. It’s your life, after all. Feel free to invite Jesus into it, or not.”

I believe that Jesus is already “in your life” way before you accept him. In fact, Jesus is “in your life” before you are even aware of it. Such is the character of grace. To be sure, grace is resistible, but it does not rely on our accepting it in order to be at work in us.

Actually I rarely use the word “accept” when it comes to grace; I more often use the word “realize.” Grace does not require our acceptance in order to work. Upon our realization of what grace is doing, we then choose either to cooperate with it or to resist it. Continued cooperation with grace is what Methodist theology calls the process of “sanctification.”

At a recent Bible Study, we were asking the “so what” questions - the questions that lead us to practical application of the passage we had studied. One person there said, “I guess this passage teaches us that we need to be more accepting of people who have accepted Jesus into their lives.”

The passage (Galatians 3:23-4:7) hadn’t really said anything about people accepting Jesus into their lives. But so pervasive is that phrase, it has almost become the filter through which every scripture is strained.

I replied, “I think this passage does instruct us to be more accepting. But not of people who have ‘accepted Jesus.’ I think this passage instructs us to be more accepting of people whom Jesus has accepted. And there’s a pretty big distinction there.”

“Yeah,” commented another person, “That’s just about ... everybody, isn’t it?”

Yeah, pretty much.

I think Paul would be “astonished” by a lot of things that the church says and does in the guise of the gospel. Galatians was written in order to counteract some false teaching being spread around. That teaching was divisive, legalistic, and contrary to the gospel. And what’s worse, the false teaching was being offered as the gospel. It’s one thing to spread a false teaching; it’s another altogether to claim that false teaching is the gospel.

What do you think? Would Paul write your church a letter of astonishment, or one of praise and thanksgiving? Is your church living the gospel? Are you?

1 comment:

Kory Wilcox said...

RE: Accepting Jesus into your heart... It's funny; I was just part of a "God Panel" at a local ministry to young single mothers last night, and the very first request was a "what must I do to be saved?" kind of question. I found myself suddenly frustrated with the whole thing (I'd much rather kick it off with "why do bad things happen to good people" or "why are there so many denominations") because, after all these years, I have come to believe that it's just not going to be adequately answered in just a few seconds. But there I was, needing to respond to it without selling out the panel and also without having a two hour discourse on grace (and how it's nothing we really do at all, anyways.) My quick answer sounded like a page from the Christianese Guidebook, something about asking Jesus to dwell within you and be the Lord of your life. Sure. I trailed by saying that it's notably more complicated than that, and the next panelist picked up there and ran with it admirably, touching a bit on "being saved" versus "getting saved" and gently verbalizing the rhythm of sanctification, but I felt like my words were ultimately rote and uninspired. To the room full of girls who are obviously eager to hear God's voice, I am not really sure if I said anything. I've come to understand salvation as such a wonderfully complex and mysterious motion. And I'm sure I'll never really get it. But, now it's got me replaying the moment and thinking: when left with a mere shallow breath to answer a staged "how do I get saved" question, what DO you say? What do YOU say, preach? Love from KY. Thanks for provoking us.