Are you just loving the Olympic Games or what? It is a magical experience full of remarkable stories of dedication, recovery, redemption, perseverance and the testing of the human mind, body, and spirit. It is a respite from our political battles and a unifying force sometimes wrapped up in 4’8” packages. I’m not sure about your household, but my household watches the swimming and the sand volleyball and the gymnastics a bit like Aly Raisman’s parents.1 Aly is one of the amazing gymnasts on our U.S. Gymnastics team – The Final Five, as they are called. Just like the Raisman’s, our family feels every stroke, every spike, and every landing with our entire being. Watching the Olympics seems to change your own sense of what you think you’re capable of as well. You don’t just go to the mailbox anymore. You attempt a cartwheel on the way. You float your hands around on the curb like you’re on the balance beam. I could relate to this guy who has totally changed his approach to swimming after a week of watching inspired swimmers at the Olympics.2 The bottom line? Watching the Olympic Games and following the incredible stories of dedication and obstacles overcome inspire so many to work hard and overcome obstacles in their own lives. That is what we’re getting to as we wrap up this six-week series today called “The Next Christians.”3
We’ve noted the major shifts of the Christian movement that have come every five hundred years since the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Move five hundred years from the empty tomb and we see the fall of the Roman Empire and with it, Constantinian Christianity. Five hundred more years – the Great Schism of 1054 dividing Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox Church. Then in 1517, the Reformation gave rise to Protestant Christianity. You do some quick math, add five hundred years, carry the two, and ‘Boom!’ – 2017. Are we on the verge, or even in the middle of, the next major shift of the Christian faith? Research of the Barna Group and Gabe Lyons, author of the book that has inspired this series, suggest we are living such a monumental shift right now. It’s not clean. There are no clear lines or agreement that all of Christianity has decided to have a huge rummage sale to make room for this shift but there is plenty in the air that suggests we’re living into a new season as people of The Way. Time will tell how history portrays the movement we are living through how, but Lyons suggest the next movement could be called ‘The Great Restoration.’ It’s got to be great. ‘The Mediocre Restoration’ doesn’t make the history books. His description of the next Christians as restorers includes a group of committed disciples who are provoked to engage the needs of the world as opposed to being offended by what they encounter. They are eager to create beauty with other people of all shapes, sizes, colors, and creeds, as opposed to being arm-chair critics from a distance. They seek integration of their work and their values – placing a sense of being called over simply being employed. Restorers take spiritual disciplines seriously; deepening their spirits like they do cross-fit training for their bodies and philosophical reading for their minds. They live a sense of communal salvation ahead of a personal and private salvation alone. They live faith in the midst of community, both locally and on a global scale – accepting that our well-being (physically, emotionally, and spiritually) is wrapped up in the well-being of all. This brings us to the final characteristic of our consideration in this series. Restorer Christians are a counterculture for the common good. What does that mean?
The word, “counterculture,” has some baggage, right? For some it is high-horse terminology for being able to be “in the world but not of the world.” We talk about that Pauline concept sometimes. Some think of communities like our Amish brothers and sisters who demonstrate some great virtues but take more of a separatist mentality that is counter to the movement of Restorers. Others picture Disney boycotts, a muddy Woodstock, anti-capitalist anarchists or some other vision of an anti-mainstream movement. It’s not a Xerox of what is perceived to be hip or something to appeal to consumer wishes either. It’s not marginalizing discipleship or deep life transformation. Countercultures that point out a problem but offer nothing as a solution tend to result in mission failure and collapse.
“In contrast to countercultures that separate, antagonize, or copy culture, the next Christians seem to be a counterculture for the common good that is centered and immoveable. They don’t concern themselves with popularity, what they can achieve for themselves, or whether the masses are following. Instead, they boldly lead.”4 Think of it like Jesus thinks about salt. Salt doesn’t preserve anything by itself. It must attach itself to something in order to provide its life-sustaining and preservative value. Salt is only useful when it’s active and engaged – doing what it’s supposed to do where it’s supposed to be. Salt’s no good in the pantry – it’s got to get to the table to be in the mix – to make a difference. Restorer Christians buy into the prophet Jeremiah’s word: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you.” (Jeremiah 29:7). It’s not salt only at church. It’s not salt only for those who believe the same way. It’s salt that is out there, in the mix, being a flavor of human among other humans that expresses the authentic spirit of the love of God turned flesh. Restorers operate under the notion that those unchurched, de-churhced, underchurched or badly churched aren’t likely to be reached through persuasive argument but instead through first experiencing an authentic Christian; someone who’s willing to roll up his or her sleeves and restore alongside of them without the rigidness of having to have everything their way. It can be a tough road but ease has ruined far more people than trouble ever did. So we’re talking about a way of existing in our everyday lives that engages people where they are, brings salt and light, and clearly inspires a pause for another to ask, “Have you found a new way to be human?”
We jump into the car with Dr. Luke to hear him tell about the Gospel ride as he tells it. Luke was all about the thin places of life – places where the ordinary rubbed shoulders with the divine and created beautiful, filter-free life moments. As Jesus is offering what is referred to in Luke’s work as “Blessings and Woes” (which could serve as an album name from anyone like Simon and Garfunkel to Fifty Cent). Luke looks at you in the passenger seat and says, “Check out this track.” He hits play and you hear Jesus say, “Blessed are the poor for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who weep now for you will soon be laughing.” It gets weirder yet: “If you’re rejected for my sake, leap for joy.” And then the shadow side: “Woe to you who laugh, who are rich, who are respected by religious types…” Woe to you? Really? This is hard stuff – sort of gives you #PhelpsFace – like when you’re craving ChickFilA, tell your kids you can go there, and then you remember it’s Sunday and THEY’RE NOT OPEN ON SUNDAY! #PhelpsFace. “Woe to you… and woe to you… and woe to you…” It’s like a Rage Against the Machine song. And it’s like Woe to you if you are basically enjoying life, minding your own business, and more or less respected in the community. What in the world?!!!?
But then we get into the passage of our focus today which describes this inverted way God’s economy works. It runs counter to the instinctual values of the world. When someone betrays your trust or stabs you in the back, your natural inclination is to make him or her pay. When someone attacks your character, you’re inclined to attack back. But Jesus says, “Nope. Forgive ‘em. Turn the other cheek. ‘May I have another, please!?’ A friend was sharing with me this week about a way another friend had betrayed them in a serious sort of way. We’re talking legal implications and everything. But she’s a Christian woman trying to live a Luke six response to this situation but is desperately struggling – “How can I love through this?” It is a fair question. But the daughters of these two people are close and she’s thinking of the generational implications of taking legal action. Can she try another way? What do we do? Eugene Peterson says about Jesus, “We follow a very different leader, one who in virtually every detail guides us in a way of living that is counter to that of the world.” And so all of this turn the other cheek nonsense and walking around shirtless because you’re always giving your shirt away can’t be the way, can it?
Even the whole “Do unto others” bit. We debated the concept at staff meeting this week getting caught on the nuances, important nuances actually, of “Some people wouldn’t want me to do unto them as I’d like them to do unto me” noting how we respond and are motivated by different things. Touché. Kevin and I will be leading a class on the Enneagram on Wednesday evenings. We start in ten days. Can’t wait. We will include some dialogue around why we respond differently based on our personality-types and the plethora of ways we represent the image of God. Selfish plug. Truly fascinating though – hope you’ll join us for the class. We can nit-pick the nuances but the reality is, we get what Jesus is saying. If you act in countercultural ways when connecting with the world, people will wonder why you do what you do. And to run the matter deeper yet, Jesus goes into a whole motif about “Loving our enemies.” The Christian ethic is based on the extra thing. Jesus described how easy it is to love people who love you or are kind to you or flatter you. But then he dismisses that thought with the question, “What special grace is in that?” Where’s the challenge in that? Where is the growth that comes in that? None. We are to love our enemies – the ones we feel are hindering the life we want, expect, or desire.
A man in a prominent position in our city shared his own story about a change in his family. He’s a mid-life man from a sizeable family. His mother died a few years back and a year later, his father was in a dating relationship with another woman. This man and his siblings were struggling with this new reality… they couldn’t come to grips with how to love this new person in their father’s life. They were struggling with the ease it seemed their father had in loving her himself. And so the family Thanksgiving gathering came and the tension was palpable but no one was speaking about it until the father sets down, with significant force, his iced tea saying, “Alright guys, just say it. Say what it is you need to say. Clearly something is eating at you. I want to hear it and address it.” These middle aged men looked at each other and then at their father. One by one they’d say, “It’s her, dad.” “It’s awkward.” “We struggle with your relationship with her.” “You get her roses every month and you never did that for mom.” And so on and so on and the dad listens and responds with compassion for his kids. “I know it’s hard,” he says. “I miss your mom every day and thank God for every moment of every year we were given to share together.” “Dana feels the same way about her husband who passed away. But we’re also grateful to have found each other. I send her roses more often because I know we have much less time together than your mom and I had. And our faith never says to us, “Lessen your love.” Our faith says, “Take your love to a higher level.” It was another moment with generational implications. Would we pass on a Christ-like concept of love – a love that rises to a higher level or would we say, “Nope. When things are hard or when we see someone as an enemy, go for hate over love.” Their dad died just a couple of years later and for Christmas that year they all got this sign that held the quote from their dad that one Thanksgiving that made them re-think love.
If Jesus is anything, he is a re-thinker of Love. Those of us who follow him have to wrestle with it too. This will often put us at odds with each other and with the world before it brings us into harmony. Will Willimon said, “Whenever a people are bound together in loyalty to a story that includes something as strange as the Sermon on the Mount, we are put at odds with the world.” This sort of agape love of Christ will do this to us. Agape love, the Greek term for the deepest kind of love that defies all boundaries, is very different from the love we talk about falling into. Agape love is the hard kind of love… you might say you trip into this kind of love because it is often like climbing the stair climber at the gym at full speed. It’s hard. The next Christians are willing to wrestle with a re-thought love. “They don’t always get it right, but they are seeking to follow the way of Jesus wherever they show up. And as they try to faithfully live in this way, they paint a picture to a curious world of an alternative way of living. Their lives are pointing to a better way forward for those inquisitive enough to notice. And seeing this kind of commitment to the faith in action can be quite appealing for the average onlooker.”5
Friends – I think we are about this as a church. I sense it. I feel it. You’re describing it through the stories you are living and telling and I couldn’t be more humbled and honored to be on this journey with you. It won’t be easy. But we’re not looking for easy, are we. We’re looking for meaning and purpose and spirit. A Roman scholar, Diognetus, wrote centuries ago during a time when Christians were being persecuted terribly how amazed he was at their ongoing presence in their community. “To put it simply,” he writes, “What the soul is in the body, the Christians are in the world.” Christianity grew by some 40% in each decade during the first three centuries after Christ. These Christians were involved in the fabric of society, constantly restoring and demonstrating a better way to live, taking love to a higher level. The movement is shifting us toward that effort again. You in? I’m game. It’s a life with all of the challenges and overcoming and triumph of an Olympic gold-medal story. Jesus balanced the beam for us and tagged us in. None of us are too young or too old. Shane Claiborne said, “Remember, we are as young as our dreams and as old as our cynicism.” We are a dreaming church. The time is now. We are the called. Game on, friends. Game on.
3 Info concerning the synopsis of series all based in the book which is supplying the greatest resource for this series. The Next Christians: How a New Generation is Restoring the Faith. Gabe Lyons. Doubleday. New York. 2010.
4 Ibid. From chapter “Countercultural, Not “Relevant”.