Friday, October 05, 2012

The Wrong Gospel Answers The Wrong Question

I’m reflecting on the encounter between Jesus and the rich young man, Mark 10:17-31.  Essentially, Jesus says “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” is the wrong question - the right question is, am I prepared to follow him in his creating a new humanity?  How did we come to make the wrong question THE question, and the right question at best an optional extra?

The good news we are to proclaim is not personal salvation. The good news is this: that God has made Jesus, who was crucified, both Lord and Christ (as Peter proclaims in Acts 2:36; or, the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God, as Stephen puts it in Acts 7:56; or the man God has appointed to judge the world with justice, having raised him from the dead, as Paul puts it in Acts 17:31; or the one through whom the Gentiles will be rescued from the power of Satan, receive forgiveness of sins, and be given a place among those set apart, as Paul puts it in Acts 26:18).  This is good news because Jesus has broken the power of death, of physical decay, of accusation, of sin, of division...good news made manifest contextually through those who mourn being comforted, the sick being healed, the oppressed experiencing deliverance, the hungry fed, the widow and orphan finding family, and all this (opposed at every turn) as a foretaste of what is yet to be (yet to be resolved).

And it asks of us, will you follow?  Not, here is how you can cheat death, but, here is something, someone, worth dying for.

The personal salvation question puts me at the centre.  The Jesus made Lord and Christ question puts the vision of all things that have been made being reconciled – to one another as created beings and to our Creator – by and in and through Jesus at the centre.

The personal salvation question sets me on a quest to save my life; a quest whose end, according to Jesus, is that we lose our life.  The Jesus made Lord and Christ question invites me to follow him on a journey where I will lose my life, and having lost it, will receive it back again a hundred-fold.

In fact, pursuing the personal salvation question ironically results in my removing God entirely – as Jesus’ silence on the first four commandments weightily implies that the rich young man has done, most likely quite unintentionally.

Whatever personal salvation means (and I don’t think there is much in the story of Scripture to support the average western understanding, whether of those who attend church faithfully or those who would never think to do so), it is to be found in participating in a community that re-imagines and embodies a new way of constructing wealth (neither capitalism nor communism but meeting one another’s needs) and home (rest on the way, Sabbath in the week) and family (wider than, and at times in conflict with, kinship) and place (not local v global, but glo-cal), by dying to the false image of these good gifts (and embracing persecution for doing so). That is costly, and in the short-term and even the medium-term it is hardly worth embarking on - which is perhaps why so many become discouraged and walk away, while so many more settle for something so much less.  But this, too, is good news, for those who have been shut-out from our god- and neighbour-forsaking cultural constructions of wealth and home and family and place, which are being shaken by God and found wanting, quite inadequate in their foundations. Take, for example, Generation Y.  Generation X (my generation) watched their parents’ generation’s marriages (not necessarily their own parents’ marriage) collapse like viewing the Twin Towers implode over and over in slow-mo, and vowed they would not go there, substituting family for friends and commitment for passing relationships.  Generation Y, while recognising the importance of friends, sees through the hurt-reflex of rejecting family, the inadequacy of my generation’s refugee camp, and are seeking to rebuild permanent structures, in human-scale community.

Such a vision requires all that we bring we are and all that we have, holding nothing back.  In the church, it confronts both the poverty spirit that entices us to believe that we have not enough and must at all costs hold on to what we still have, and the prosperity spirit that entices us to believe that we are rich and have all we need (these two apparently contradictory spirits tend to co-habit quite happily).  At the margin of the church, it disturbs the belief that observing Christendom rituals benefits us in any way.  Outside the church, it exposes the emptiness of being spiritual-but-not-religious, and the poverty of any New Atheist vision for humanity...

With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.


  1. making me think, er, repent and be saved seems to me to be the central message of the scripture. I.e. YOU! Repent and be saved. Accountability for response always rests on the individual. Fruit of repentance is Kingdom life - or at least it should be...not saying you're wrong but... Shalom!

  2. Thanks for the push back. Dialogue is good. Here are some questions/thoughts for you:

    I wonder whether you conflate "Repent and believe!" and "Call on the name of the Lord and be saved!" - and whether that is a 'legitimate' move?

    It seems to me that the idea of the 'individual' is a western philosophical construct that attempts to determine the self in isolation, and is in fact quite different from the biblical idea of the 'person' which always determines the self in community, in relation to others. So, yes, the gospel demands a personal response, but that doesn't mean that the gospel can be understood as something private between me and God - which is how it is generally presented in the west, and very often where westerners enter other cultural contexts.

    I also suspect that our (western) understanding of what it means to be saved (primarily an individual matter rather than a social one) is badly skewed by the way we have presented salvation as benefit rather than discipleship as cost. It seems to me that this move is the equivalent of selling refrigerators on the basis of convenience, only to later discover that all these fridges were kicking out CFCs that were making a great big hole in the ozone layer and resulting in global warming that was causing famine in some parts and flooding in others...

    It is not that personal salvation does not have a place within the bigger picture. It is simply that it is not the ultimate concern we have made it, and is only found indirectly.


  3. Good stuff Andrew, thanks. I'm starting to wonder if thr personal salvation stuff only really makes sense as one lose ones self, rights, etc in God's big story. So maybe we get to be saved and save the world (or at least be part of saving the world) all at once.

    Have you come across much stuff from Simon Walket/undefended leader btw? It strikes me as similar. Example that also examines the rich young ruler here:

  4. Thanks, Ben. I think the problem with personal salvation is that when we (westerners) use that term, we actually mean 'individual salvation' which - if Jesus is reconciling all things - is an oxymoron.

    I have come across Simon Walker, but haven't taken as close or long a look at his thoughts as perhaps I should have - thanks for the reminder...