Pastor’s Perspective – March 2021
Traditional Christian faith and discipleship gives ultimate value to the life and work of Jesus Christ. We have been, as Paul proclaims, bought with a price; saved by the blood of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Most High God. His death and resurrection provide for our salvation and shows us the first fruits of eternal life. The Church is nearly unanimous in our agreement about the efficacy and importance of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It is in our response to the work of Jesus Christ that things get tricky. As we try to follow the path of Jesus Christ, we can become trapped as one who only receives the grace of God and thereby rests in that promise, or as one who seeks to provide for the salvation of others by our own heroic actions. Neither choice is fruitful or biblical.
Yet Jesus asks us to carry our own crosses in response to the life and work of Jesus the Christ. Jesus does not want us passive in our faith. God in Jesus Christ calls us to follow His way, adhere to his truth, and abide in his life. We know this. We quote this. But how might we do this?
In her book, “Entering The Passion of Jesus,” Amy Jill Levine helps us to discover the way forward in faith. Instead of framing the life and work of Jesus by actions we can or should embrace, she frames the work of Jesus’ life in terms of risk. Each of the six chapters embrace the risks that Jesus and His disciples take on the road to Calvary and redemption. Levine speaks of risking reputation, rejection, and the loss of friends. In doing so, Levine frames the sacrifice of Jesus in a manner that transcends the divine nature of Jesus and invites me to follow. I cannot give my life as a sacrifice for the sins of my neighbors and friends, but I can risk rejection by standing up for the oppressed or the maligned.
Most Christians frame the gospels in terms of winning and losing, gain or loss. In our results-oriented culture leaders and followers want metrics to determine whether their donations are achieving a result, or whether their time has been well spent. Christian curricula attempt to minimize risk and maximize success and victories. Church consultants sell themselves based on how many church clients have found success and growth. Much of what we consume and read as Christians is tailored toward our interest in guaranteeing a particular result, meeting a goal, or attracting a client or community. Even our books about predictive prophecy attempt to eliminate the mystery of faith and reveal what is knowable and certain.
The problem with this, of course, is that risk and mystery is a part of faith. Some might say that faith demands that we act before we know, which is in fact what it means to risk. If as Paul wrote, ‘faith is the evidence of things that are unseen,’ then faith is a journey into the unknowable, the unforeseen, the incomplete. To walk by faith is to walk with Jesus into an uncertain future. It is to walk in risk. To relinquish control and embrace mystery and uncertainty in Christ.
Lent calls us into the mystery of the faith. It seeks to inspire us to relinquish our control over our lives in a way that allows us to risk for the sake of the gospel. To risk who we are in order to become who God desires us to be. To risk what we know in our path toward seeking what God will reveal to us; about ourselves, our neighbors, and God.
For years I have framed faith as the distinction between obedience and disobedience, placing it all in the providence of control. If faith is about what I do through personal will power, then faith was something I could do and accomplish alone. This led me to seek to control my thoughts, control my environment, control my words and actions. And while self-control is never a vice, it can become a poor substitute for true faithfulness. When faith is about controlling myself then I become risk averse. I become resistant to the working of the Holy Spirit. I become stiff and immoveable instead of moldable clay in the hands of the heavenly potter. Worse yet I become passionless and afraid.
The more that I seek to avoid risk, the less passion I experience in my life. The more I try to control my life the more afraid I become. What would happen if I lost control of myself? What would happen if my fears and anxieties were exposed and people discovered that my stoicism and long suffering were inspired not by love but by a fear of rejection? Risk averse Christians and Churches (which, let us be honest, is most if not all of us) are often passionless, frightened groups of worshippers. We do all of the right things but cannot for the life of us figure out why we don’t have the power of God with us.
It is my opinion that Covid-19 put the final nail into the coffin of the risk averse Church. With the advent of the 21st Century’s first contagious outbreak, the only way to be safe was to simply stop doing the one thing that the risk averse Church knew how to do. We worshipped. With organs, voices, bands, and crowds. We lifted holy hands, shouted the name of Jesus, and embraced our brothers and sisters in Christ with holy hugs and brotherly kisses. Suddenly these actions were risky behaviors. Out of bounds. Offensive to those who sought to preserve life and keep us safe. Now the priests of safety and salvation were faced with a problem; how do we safely communicate salvation in the midst of an epidemic and creeping death?
The deeper I reflect on COVID during our second Lenten cycle under shut-down, the more I realize that our salvation was never intended to be delivered safely. Salvation only makes sense to those who are living amidst risk and danger. Salvation was never intended to exempt us from life or allow us to escape the challenges and difficulties that life presents. Salvation was given to us in Jesus Christ as a way to live boldly in crisis. To live in a world that calls us into risk every time we leave our home, talk to our neighbors, or engage with our government.
This concept of risk is incredibly important to our Lenten reflections and practice. To risk is not contingent on an outcome. Risking one’s life is not the same as dying for a cause. To risk is not to surrender or to achieve but to strive. Most people will risk for the sake of a child or spouse in a way that they would not for a bystander or a stranger. Imagine a community that would risk and love those who were strangers, widows, outsiders, and sinners. The world would see them as heroic and divinely inspired. If the Church would be willing to live in the risk of the Kingdom of God, then the world would indeed see Jesus once again in the lives and work of the body of Christ.
If we can acknowledge that the call of Jesus Christ is a call to risk for the sake of God and neighbor, then we do not need a special education or ordination in order to follow Jesus. Risk as a covenantal and everyday expectation of the gospel that anyone can enter. Each person can start where they live and where they are. One does not need to risk things that are ultimate or essential in order to grow into the faithfulness that God calls us. We can all start in small ways and by taking minor risks. I can risk my good name by attaching it to a petition seeking workplace equality or by supporting my co-workers right to freely exercise their faith or political opinions. I can risk my finances by donating money to a worthy charitable cause or faithful endeavor. I can risk my time by spending time with a sick friend or teaching a young person how to read. I can risk my heart by taking the time to call a friend or lift-up a suffering family member. None of this demands that I sacrifice anything but the personal resources that are easily accessible to most healthy people.
It is time for the Church to engage in the world of risk. It is time for us to answer God’s call. To enter the world of mystery and possibility. The places where life is lived, community is experienced, and love is shared.
Let us live boldly, love generously, and risk courageously as we follow Jesus together.