Jesus never described the gospel as an escape hatch, whereby we can exchange his current world for a spiritual retreat far away. Never. Rather, his gospel was: “God’s kingdom is here! It is now! Heaven has come to earth!” So when Jesus invited his first disciples to “Follow me,” he was inviting them to get in on the world-redeeming, evil-conquering, status-reversing, life-transforming movement of God that had invaded planet Earth.
Jesus was inviting his followers to live out (not just pray) the words, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Christ invited us, not to abandon our world that needs restoration, but to become catalysts and conduits of the gracious movement of God in today’s world.
Lately I’ve been using an old Yiddish story from Peter Frost to illustrate this: There was a baker named Morris who had always lived in the same little village. He awoke one morning bored and disgusted with his life. He looked over at his sleeping wife and asked himself, “Why her?”
Rising from bed, he peeped into his children’s bedroom. “Why them?” he muttered and walked out of the house. Looking back at his old tumbledown house from the walkway he was overcome with gloom again. “Why that?” As Morris walked to the village his mood grew darker still: “I’ll never be able to fix up that old house. My wife never gives me a moment’s peace. My children are selfish and foolish. I barely make a living baking bread.”
Then Morris remembered something his rabbi said. “Someday we will all go to heaven,” the old man said, “and there everyone will be happy, content and no one will know trouble or pain again.”
“When will I get to go to heaven?” wondered Morris. Suddenly, he answered his own question: “Now! I will go now to find heaven!” So, instead of walking to the bakery, Morris started off in the opposite direction, the direction the old rabbi pointed whenever he talked about heaven. Off Morris went toward the horizon.
As night fell, Morris took off his boots and pointed them in the direction he was walking, so that when he awoke, he would know which direction to go. He then collapsed into a deep sleep. While Morris slept, an angel came along the same path. The angel stood over the sleeping baker, listening to him snore.
Then the angel noticed Morris’ boots pointing toward heaven and gave a quiet chuckle. He realized Morris’ intentions, and acting mischievously, turned Morris’ boots back toward home and then faded into the night. Morris awoke with the morning sun, put on his boots and started off in the direction they were pointing.
As Morris walked, he noticed that the path looked oddly familiar, especially when he came to an old wooden gate that seemed to be an entrance to heaven. He was surprised it wasn’t made of gold or expensive wood. Still, he lifted the latch and went into the yard. This heavenly yard looked so much like his yard back home. The door to the heavenly house also looked familiar.
He entered the house and sat down at the table, the smells of heavenly food making his mouth water and his stomach rumble. A woman, so very like his wife, served him a large steaming bowl of soup and a fat roll. He ate everything put before him.
Meanwhile, two young children danced into the kitchen and smiled up at him. These children in heaven were so nice, quiet and friendly that Morris had to sigh with happiness. “Yes,” he thought, “it is exactly as the rabbi said. I have found heaven, and it is simply wonderful.”
This old Yiddish tale is more than a quaint story. It is the truth of the gospel. For when we ask the question, “How far is heaven?” we never have to look beyond the world in which we live. Jesus, with a clever smile on his face, has pointed our boots back to the place we know best.
It all began in 1980 when the executives of the one of the largest companies in the world, secretly commissioned a scheme named “Project Kansas.” The commission had the most daunting task any group of business people could be given: Re-engineer a product, re-package it, and successfully market it to re-gain the falling market share of the last thirty years.
So the commission got to work. They completely redesigned their product and its packaging, conducted field tests, focus groups, sample marketing, and extensive surveys. And the results were strong.
The new product was favored by consumers, over the old one, nine to one. So, with great anticipation, on April 23, 1985, the company stopped production of its older, now antiquated product and unveiled to the world its new creation: New Coke.
Now, I grew up a couple of hours from the Atlanta headquarters of Coca-Cola. The company and drink have been so influential in that neck of the woods that every carbonated drink on the market is simply referred to as “a Coke.” It’s not “pop.” It’s not “soda.” It’s not “cola.” It’s not root beer, Sprite, Pepsi, or Dr. Pepper. It is Coke. The flavors of the Coke are secondary. But not in 1985.
New Coke was a disaster, especially in the southeast. That 10% minority that didn’t like the new product, not only didn’t like it, they felt betrayed. Lobbing organizations were formed, public protests were staged, Coke had to hire additional staff to respond to complaints, Coke signs were booed at major sporting events; even Fidel Castro complained.
Three months after its launch, the company made the announcement that old coke, “Coca-Cola Classic,” would return to the market place; an announcement so important that Peter Jennings interrupted General Hospital to tell the nation. And by the end of the year, just eight months after the fiasco had begun, the Classic formula was outselling every cola product on the market, a position it has not given up to this day.
Coca-Cola’s continued success is due largely to the fact that its leadership had the courage to admit it had the wrong product, returned to its original formula. They succeeded, not because of product innovation, but because of product restoration. They went back, in order to go forward. Maybe the church should do the same.
See, a lot has changed in the church over the years. There have been renewals, schisms, reformations, changes in style, music, and architecture. Many of these changes have been cosmetic and cultural. But some of these changes have been a reformulation of the “original formula” so to speak.
We admire, love, and quote Jesus, our originator, but we look, sound, and preach so very different than he did. We often speak of the good news of the gospel as a way of getting healthier, wealthier, and wiser; or as a therapeutic device to help us with our anxieties; or as a means of escaping this present world – taste tests prove this is what consumers like.
But the gospel that Jesus preached was that the good news that the kingdom of God had arrived. This kingdom wasn’t for our personal comfort. It wasn’t a disembodied place on a cloud with halos and golden harps. This kingdom wasn’t a spiritual ticket that guaranteed a seat on the glory train to heaven upon death.
Rather, Jesus’ message was that the rule of God had been brought to bear in the present world: “God has moved into the neighborhood,” to use Eugene Peterson’s vivid phrase. Jesus did not come to live in your heart like an imaginary friend. He came to bring you into thekingdomofGodthat you might be a part of God’s ministry of justice, compassion, and mercy.
He came, not to give you peace about the afterlife per se, though he will, but he came to revolutionize the life you live today. The objective, according to Jesus, was not to get people into heaven, but to get heaven inside of people. That is a formula that can change the world.
“God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.” This slogan is one of today’s all too common bumper sticker defenses of the Bible. The phrase is sometimes amended to read, “God said it…and that settles it,” to reflect that personal belief is inconsequential in the matter. Proponents of this view caricaturize the Bible as a divinely dictated book of statutes whose truth is crystal clear to anyone who has sense enough to simply read. Of course they fail to clarify that what they call the “truth” is their view of the truth, shaped by their unique set of circumstances, experiences, and presuppositions.
I often encounter fervent, sincere, Bible-believing people who say things like, “We need more of the Bible around here.” I don’t disagree, but the sense I get is that what some people really want are for their interpretations of the Bible to be upheld, validated, and shouted at everyone else in the room. They want the preacher to hit all the hot buttons on all the hot issues – and hit these buttons with some zing – so that they can shout “Hallelujah, we are right and everybody else is wrong!” Then they can continue with business as usual, celebrating their own spiritual beauty and criticizing the ugliness of those with whom they disagree.
Thus, “believing the Bible” can create hard-hearted, judgmental, graceless religionists who patrol society with their personalized weapons of rigidity and arrogance. In such cases, both belief and the Bible have been misappropriated. Christians can become “settled” for sure, but are simultaneously nothing like their namesake, Jesus Christ.
I think there is a more principled approach to dealing with the Scriptures (even if my suggestion is shaped by my own unique set of assumptions): What if we begin to read the Bible descriptively rather than just prescriptively? That is, what if the Bible describes the human search for the Holy – and the Holy’s interaction with the human – rather than simply prescribing religious behavior?
Such a change would allow us to be set free from stagnant dogma that “settles it,” and instead put us on a journey of faithful exploration. We could then read the Scriptures, not to confirm our righteousness and others’ wrongness, but looking for clues to how we can better know God. After all, that’s what I believe the Bible is all about: God spoke through the lives, experiences, and writing of those who went before us, so we could know him. And he is best known in the person of Jesus. Everything before Jesus is prelude, everything we read about him is gospel, and everything we read after him is reflection.
So we can see that the goal of the Scriptures is not to give us ideas about religion; not to help us form sharper or better doctrinal statements; or to build theological armaments against those who believe differently than we do, or to answer all of our questions. It is to bring us face to face with Christ, and to become like him.
Consequently, we must be cautious not to fall more in love with the statues of the Scriptures than the actual Subject of the Scripture. We must guard against being more committed to our presuppositions about God than the Person who came to show us who God is and who we can become. We cannot be more smitten with the Bible than we are with Jesus, as strange as that may sound, for that is nothing less than a subtle form of idolatry.
Our faith isn’t built on the Bible. It is built on a Person. There is only one foundation for Christian faith (the Bible says as much!), and that foundation is Jesus Christ. Upon him our faith rests, upon him the church is built, and he is what the Bible is about. I’m not advocating setting the Bible aside, but to actually embrace it, and see to whom it points. This may be an unsettling way to approach the Scriptures, but being “settled” isn’t the point; knowing and becoming like Jesus is.