Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Gospel or Relationship: You've Lost that Lovin' Feelin'

Lutherans are about as warm and fuzzy as Statler and Waldorf. In case these names are not familiar, they are the theater critics/hecklers from the Muppet Show who like nothing and criticize everything.  While light hearted comedy would take place on the Muppet stage these two stiffs sat in the balcony pointing and laughing at the ridiculous frivolity.

Sound Lutheran?   Maybe clich├ęd Lutheran.  But perhaps there is a kinder, gentler Lutheran that doesn’t get the same recognition that your stereotypical Statler & Waldorfian Lutherans receive.

Perhaps the caricature is rooted in the contrast.  After all, Lutheran Christians are not usually thought of as “touchy-feely”.  They are thought to be cold and aloof, especially when compared to what you might find in your average American Evangelical worship center.  What you might find there is most likely to be categorized as what I like to call a Gospel of Relationship.

So what is the Gospel of Relationship? 

It is not the Gospel – or at least not the Biblical or Christ-centered, cross-focused Gospel.  That Gospel is all about Jesus.  It is about what Jesus has done to save sinners from sin, death, and Satan.  The Biblical Gospel is about God’s gift of His Son to die for us on the cross so that we might receive God’s gift of eternal salvation and avoid our much deserved punishment in hell.  The Biblical Gospel is about that gift delivered to you through God’s Word and His Sacraments.

The Gospel of Relationship is about your relationship with God.  Now this is tricky, because the Christian does have a relationship with God.  That relationship involves emotions such as love, joy, excitement, and even elation.  These emotions are good and they are a natural response to God’s love for us.   But that is what they are, a response.  The emotions are not the sum and substance of the relationship; likewise the relationship is not the sum and substance of the Gospel.  In the Gospel of Relationship, instead of proclaiming the Christ centered, cross focused Gospel of Scripture the proclamation is all about relationships. 

There is a view of relationships popular in the secular world today that teaches us that relationships are all about feelings.  Making a marriage work is all about romance.  Romance is all about an emotional experience. The emotional experience is all about intimacy and openness and vulnerability and chemistry.  If you have those things with another person, then you have romance, then you have a relationship that will supposedly last and stand the test of time. 

As one who has been married for 15 years, romance and chemistry and intimacy and openness are great.  They are an exciting aspect to a relationship with another person.  But as great as those things are, you can’t build a lasting relationship on them.  After 15 years most of my mojo has worn off and my wife has heard all of my best jokes.  While I might think my jokes are still funny, they are hardly enough to keep our marriage intact; especially when it comes time to get up in the middle of the night because the 3 year old has nightmares or the 8 year old has a tummy ache.   Likewise, my mojo won’t cut it when it comes time to pay medical bills or taxes.  There has to be something more, a stronger glue that holds us together than just simply an emotional spark.  If human relationships based on feelings are shaky, how much more so will be that relationship with God?

Relational Worship
If you want to see this gospel of relationship in action, the best place to find it is in the worship service.  After all faith is as worship does (lex orandi lex credendi).   The Gospel of Relationship is on full display in the worship service of those evangelical churches.  If relationships are all about intimacy and feelings, then the relationship with God must also be about intimacy and feelings.

Consider the music.  Much of today’s Contemporary Christian Music can be categorized as love ballads to Jesus.  Cartman from South Park has observed that you can take a love ballad, remove the name of your girlfriend, swap in the name Jesus and it would work as a contemporary worship song. The formula works in reverse as well.  Take Jesus out of your favorite contemporary worship song and insert the name of your girlfriend and the song probably works just as well.   Consider the lyrics to this song by Casting Crowns:

Your love is extravagant
Your friendship, it is intimate
I feel like moving to the rhythm of Your grace
Your fragrance is intoxicating in our secret place
Your love is extravagant

Spread wide in the arms of Christ is the love that covers sin
No greater love have I ever known You considered me a friend
Capture my heart again

Spread wide in the arms of Christ is the love that covers sin
No greater love have I ever known; You considered me a friend

Capture my heart again
Your love is extravagant
Your friendship, it is intimate

The song contains a weak allusion to the cross with the mention of sin.  But even if I left that in all I would have to do is replace Christ with the name of my wife and the rest could stay the same.

The Gospel of Relationship is also apparent in the person who is leading the worship service, that is to say the pastor or worship leader.  Having the right guy is absolutely important.  He has to have the right personality, the right wit and humor, the ability to work the crowd and make them feel at ease and welcome.  He has to be the poster boy family man (or woman) who has his (or her) family life all together.  The family has to look picture perfect, like a JC Penny catalog.  If this seems too cynical, picture an frumpy, overweight, middle aged balding guy with a dull personality and jokes that fall flat filling the role of pastor or worship leader in a mega church.  It wouldn’t ever work.  The pastor has  to be the model for the relationship.  He has to look and act and be the part.

Sometimes the Gospel of Relationship also gets shoehorned into the liturgy, and with disastrous results.  The liturgy is adapted to fit this new theology.  Custom creeds and confessions of sin are home baked to reflect this relational gospel. 

Take the creeds.  The ecumenical creeds don't quite fit so new ones are written.  They reflect a new gospel.  In this new gospel it is less important what God does and more important how we relate to what god does or how we relate to each other.    

We believe in God, Creator of the world; and in Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of creation. We believe in the Holy Spirit, through whom we acknowledge God’s gifts, and we repent of our sin in misusing these gifts to idolatrous ends.

We affirm the natural world as God’s handiwork and dedicate ourselves to its preservation, enhancement, and faithful use by humankind.

We joyfully receive for ourselves and others the blessings of community, sexuality, marriage, and the family.

We commit ourselves to the rights of men, women, children, youth, young adults, the aging, and people with disabilities; to improvement of the quality of life; and to the rights and dignity of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities.

We commit ourselves to the rights of men, women, children, youth, young adults, the aging, and people with disabilities; to improvement of the quality of life; and to the rights and dignity of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities.

We believe in the right and duty of persons to work for the glory of God and the good of themselves and others and in the protection of their welfare in so doing; in the rights to property as a trust from God, collective bargaining, and responsible consumption; and in the elimination of economic and social distress.

We dedicate ourselves to peace throughout the world, to the rule of justice and law among nations, and to individual freedom for all people of the world.

We believe in the present and final triumph of God’s Word in human affairs and gladly accept our commission to manifest the life of the gospel in the world. Amen.

There are definitely a number of different theological dynamics in that creed.  But you can't help but notice that much of its underpinnings have to do with the relationships of men, women, children, youth... community, sexuality, and so on and so forth.

If relationship is found in the way we define the faith, then it certainly has an impact on those thing we do that interfere with that faith.  It has an impact on the way we understand sin.  When there is a confession of sins, those confessions are less about Biblical themes of  iniquity contrasted with God's sacrifice and propitiation.  They more about hurts we have caused, journey’s we have taken, things we feel in our hearts.  While it is true that sin interrupts relationships and takes away closeness in those relationships, that is hardly the most necessary thing to confess when we are face to face with God.  Our biggest problem is not that someone has been hurt or disrespected or treated poorly.  Our biggest problem is that we have disobeyed the commands of the Almighty God.

An important thing to take notice of is that the solution for human hurts to human relationships is always a man made restoration.  If my biggest sin is that I was selfish with my wife, then I can restore that relationship by buying her flowers or writing her a card or saying "I'm sorry."  The false assumption is that we have the power to create Christian Fellowship through our love and our forgiveness.  That's not how the Bible says it works.  The parable of the Unforgiving Servant from Matthew 18 demonstrates that our forgiveness is always and only fueled by the forgiveness we have received.  Our restoration with each other only truly happens when we have been restored to Christ.  It is as we keep our focus on what Christ has done and the debt that he has cancelled that we are able to be restored to each other.  This relationship Gospel makes it all about you and me (and Jesus might get an Oscar for a supporting role).

The historic, Christ-centered, Cross-focused Gospel is a different gospel.  It is a better gospel.  It's better because it is all about what God has done and does for you in Christ. God himself in all his power and majesty and holiness and faithfulness shows up every Lord’s Day to care for, protect, serve, and love his very own people.  This Gospel is sacramental  and therefore it is sure and objective.  Christians have a rock solid sign and guarantee of God's love every Sunday regardless of the feelings.  It is Christ centered worship.  It may or may not be “intimate” or relational. 

This is why Historic Christ centered Cross focused Lutheranism is truly the Gospel of Relationship.  The Gospel of Christ crucified for sinners is the only way to a truly restored relationship first with God and then with one another.  It is in the gospel that we have community and fellowship (koinonia)  and love (agape).  Jesus fixes our relationship with him by way of the cross and then by the outward signs of the Gospel found in the means of grace.  With the Jesus Gospel there is no doubting fellowship with God.  It is there in the supper.  There is no doubting God's forgiveness it is there in Baptism.  There is no fear that perhaps some of our sins have not been forgiven because when you privately confess them to your pastor he has attached Christ's forgiveness directly to them in the absolution.  The forgiveness that Christ gives for sure undoes the lies of the Devil and then drives away your bad conscience that used to have you living in fear of your guilt and sin.  You can approach God's throne of Grace in confidence and then you can approach your neighbor in love.  When your neighbor sins against you, you can truly forgive him because as much as it hurts you can look to the cross and see your own forgiveness and then pass that on to your neighbor.  Without this, the relationships we might build are just a dim or hollow or a complete sham.  Without this gospel we are left scrambling to find other ways to make them work with things like Love Dares or Sexperiments.  

The true Gospel doesn't need these any gimics.  It doesn't rely on personal enchantment or chemistry or wit or fresh thinking.  It doesn't need a 40 day long program to make it work.  The Gospel does what it does because God says it does it.  It makes us alive.  It refreshes us with God's love and then it creates in us love for our neighbor.  The true Gospel is a gospel of relationship but it is God's work and God's effort and God guarantee.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. I can't believe what the Methodists have decided to use as a creed. They have fallen further than I could've imagined. (I was baptized in a Methodist church.) The creed mentions "rights" 4 times. They dedicate themselves to the preservation of the natural world. And as an entire church body, believe in collective bargaining and the elimination of social distress (does this include feelings of awkwardness in social situations?). I guess these are the things that they think Jesus hung, bled, and died on the cross for. I can hardly breathe. So tragic and sad.