But What Stays the Same?

(Continued from Monday.)

When I consider the forces that have influenced and continue to affect world Christianity, I am reminded that such developments need not always be negative.  While the dangers of illegitimate religious types-of-theology1combination (i.e. so much mixing or religious syncretism that Christianity adopts practices, outlooks, or beliefs which at heart contradict key aspects of the faith) are real, this is not the only narrative at work.  For inasmuch as Christianity can be derailed from its broadly held orthodoxy it can also be powerfully impacted by cultures, customs, and ideas without losing its path.

Translation is the name of the game here.  As the Church is adapted into other languages, styles, places, and people groups, it by necessity is translated into those contexts in myriad ways.  As Christ is apprehended in such places, He is understood as unchanging Truth by means of new language.  Missionaries have engaged in such work for centuries.  They continue to this day.  Sometimes such work can, far from “polluting” the faith, actually illumine some powerful realities others have forgotten.

And yet: the translation inherent in cross-cultural work brings with it a unique set of challenges.  For while such a process can help newcomers understand what Christianity is all about, the very process of translation almost by necessity changes things.  No two languages or cultures are alike, and different languages have words and nuance that are not replicated in others.  Translation is therefore a “best guess” or approximation of meaning.  Because it is inexact, it leaves, adds, and alters meaning.static1.squarespace.com

Can we accept this?  Well, I submit that we have to.  After all, I’m a beneficiary of such translation (language and culture) as I live out my own Christianity.  I, like you, read the Bible in a language and in a culture drastically different from the world from which it derives.  I’ve studied some Greek and Hebrew, certainly.  But I am far from an expert.  Even then, I do not understand it as a native speaker would in that time and place.  As I read the Bible, my context necessarily alters some of its meaning.  While I trust the divergence is so great that I’m at risk of departing from orthodox Christianity, I would be a fool to deny that my language and culture does not affect my faith.

While most believers’ (myself included) day-to-day interactions with Christianity can be discernibly orthodox, there is always the danger that things could diverge too far.  One of the reasons we need Bible scholars, teachers, and preachers is to help us understand more about the teachings of Scripture–both as connected to the language and culture in which they were written and with regard to their present-day implications.  But even they cannot perform this work perfectly without flaw or limitation.

HolyTrinityWhat I’m talking about here goes beyond culture and language.  I believe that humanity itself–regardless of learning–is simply unable to understand certain divine realities as they actually are.  We are limited and God is infinite.  We are bounded and God is transcendent.

Consider the Trinity–a complex doctrine if there ever was one.  Trying to explain it feels a bit silly at times, always careening between denying distinction in the Godhead, asserting some kind of created Jesus/Holy Spirit, and/or developing a doctrine of three gods.  Because we know from Scripture that God is three in some way while still one, we have developed the idea of the Trinity to explain it.  Does our theology describe exactly how God works?  Almost certainly not.  It is our “best guess”.  I think it is a fair one, but even so is limited.

Translation in language and culture–or at a more basic level from the divine to human–is a part of the tension at work in a faith that is both particular (i.e. Jesus) and universal (evangelistically open to all) at the same time. Such translation can pollute, forcing us to ask real questions about whether or not our perceived faith is close to the heart of God.  Even so, an endless and obsessive search for some Platonic form of Christianity to the detriment of the good and faithful ways it is practiced and embodied the world over is, I think, unfortunate.  Many of these ways are–like our articulation of the Trinity–limited and imperfect, but they are nevertheless representative of our “faith seeking understanding”.  As they remain grounded in Scripture and orthodox tradition and aware of the movement of the Spirit of God in our world, they can be powerful aspects of our shared faith.  light_clouds

Difference can mean heresy, but it need not always.  Sometimes it is just difference.

In the end, Church history helps me by aware of the diversity with Christianity, both in terms of its dangers and potential.  It also reminds me that, from Day One, Christianity has been about translation.  This means I need to be comfortable with it, at least at a certain level.  As missiologist Andrew Walls has written, “God chose translation as his mode of action for the salvation of humanity.  Christian faith rests on a divine act of translation…”

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The Center of Preaching

cells-church-consultants-the-word-of-god1In response to a student question after class yesterday, I crowdsourced the following on Facebook: “Would you agree more with the statement a) that every sermon needs to be about Jesus Christ, or b) that every sermon needs to be gospel?”  The answers were numerous and, in the process, helped me sort through the shape of the question.

I realize, of course, that as posed it creates somewhat of a false dichotomy–as if gospel and Christ can ever be fully separated.  But then the question isn’t about rejecting either one of these things. It is about the way the preacher prefers to describe their homiletic task.

Some of my query comes from reading Timothy Keller’s new book Preaching, wherein he states that there is “one key” toResources-Artwork-Header-Courses-ChristPreach1 “the two tasks of preaching.”  That key?  “Preaching Christ.”  Keller is one of today’s top preachers, and is deserving of respect. But as he says that “preaching Christ” is the one key to the sermon, I wonder if I should take this to mean that every message has to be about Jesus.  Please don’t misunderstand me on this point: I am a Christian and love Jesus Christ.  I believe Jesus is our one and only Savior, fully God and fully man.  But to preach from the standpoint that he is the overt theme of every sermon is not the way that I tend to approach the homiletical task.

I realize, of course, that Keller is not ham-handedly saying that every time you stand behind the pulpit you need to preach about the New Testament, nor that Jesus should be unartfully shoehorned into Old Testament passages as some modern-day deus ex machina.  I have not finished reading his book, but I’m certain he understands things in a much more nuanced way.  For me, though (and I’m stepping away from Keller here), I think that the potential implications of saying one is making every sermon about Jesus are such that I’d prefer to say instead that every sermon should be  gospel.

Preaching-347x280Before I’m deemed a heretic, let me explain.  My understanding of the sermon is that it needs to take the biblical text seriously and expound upon its meaning, both in its original writing and in the way that it connects with the contemporary hearer.  All of this is mediated through the person of the preacher and the work of the Holy Spirit.  Insofar as both my hearers and I are Christ-followers (or at least living in a time following the Advent of Christ) the biblical text must be preached in light of the life, work, and teachings of Christ.  Primary amongst these is what the Scripture calls gospel, or good news: in Christ there is redemption and all things can be made new.

Understood this way, sermons exist in order to help us understand God’s Word to us here and now in light of God’s redemption.  And it is only redemptive because of Christ.  (This, of course, is the part of the discussion that appears to come off as simple semantics and needless dichotomy).  I’m not debating that at all.  woman_preacherWhat I’m asking is whether it is helpful for me to say that every sermon needs to be about Jesus Christ.  You see, at a theological level I understand the truth of what that means, but the bare statement itself could be taken to imply that every sermon needs to be focused on Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John or some theological discussion of Jesus Christ.  Or that every sermon, if it didn’t read Jesus into the passage upon which it was based, had ultimately failed. As a friend of mine stated during yesterday’s Facebook thread, it is possible for a sermon to mention Jesus an awful lot without ever getting around to being a gospel message. You could preach about some obscure historical point of the life of Jesus.  You could use Jesus as a condemning weapon only.  Neither of those would be gospel.  A sermon is not a Christian sermon just because you mention Jesus.  It is a Christian sermon because it is about “the gospel of Jesus Christ” (Mark 1).

I would prefer to say, given the choice between the two statements at the beginning of this post, that every sermon needs to be explicitly gospel/good news–even if it only briefly mentions the name of Jesus.  And what is this good news?  In the words of Jesus “…to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4).  Our brokenness–both physical and spiritual–is met and redeemed in Him.  The gospel points to and embraces this redemption. 

preach-ieSermons, therefore, ought to speak a redeeming word of gospel to the listening community.  And yes, insofar as all gospel is the gospel of Jesus Christ, every sermon is about Jesus.  But sometimes that focus on Jesus can look different depending on the text at hand.  He is always there as we discuss the gospel, even if we’re preaching from Genesis or Song of Songs or Revelation.  Jesus Christ may just not be as overt or directly the focus of the sermon at some points.  But the gospel of Jesus Christ?  It must always be.