In an earlier piece, I reflected upon N.T. Wright’s newest book, The Day the Revolution Began. More specifically, I pondered the question, how am I, as a pastor of a local congregation, to 'translate' the message of this important book for the people in my church?
As I continued reading I found additional concepts, insights, and thoughts from Professor Wright worthy of translation. Again, in doing so, the goal is not to make concepts simplistic, but instead to make them simple in order to be clear. And so, I continue with Part 2 of the translation efforts in order to make Wright’s book accessible to the “ordinary” people in my congregation – and hopefully in yours as well.
1. Address—and contrast—the popular view of the cross with its original context.
Just as we need to help people unlearn—and then relearn—the gospel, we also need to help people unlearn—and relearn—what the meaning and weight of the cross actually is.
No doubt, the symbol of the cross is en vogue. In a postmodern everything-goes society, it’s somewhat ironic that the cross has somehow become cool. Look closely at the bulging shoulders of NBA athletes next time SportsCenter is on. Notice what’s dangling around the neck of a famous musical artist next time they are featured in a magazine at the checkout line at the grocery store or a Buzzfeed article online. Look above the mantle next time you pop in for a quick visit at your neighbor’s house. You’ll notice them everywhere—even in the places you’d least expect it.
The cultural attitude toward crosses, and its presence in fashion, sports, and interior decoration, has been widely unaddressed; and yet, it remains in many corners of our culture - hidden in plain sight. This is not inherently bad, but it does need to be further addressed. This can be a bridge to meaningful discussion.
Contrast the current cultural posture of the symbol of the cross with the gruesome reality of people in the first century. As Wright points out, it was so horrific and offensive that the cross and the act of crucifixion were hardly talked about in public in any capacity. To see a crucifixion in process could lead anyone with a weak stomach to throw up. Brutal. Barbaric. Inhumane.
So, how does this translate? On a practical level, help people understand the nature of the cross through this cultural contrast. Paint the fashionable treatment of the cross today in contrast to the first century reality.
It would be like an NBA power forward revealing a large tattoo of an electric chair on his forearm or a musician wearing a small diamond encrusted noose on a chain around her neck or a neighbor displaying a beautiful outline of a large syringe symbolizing lethal injection on the dining room wall flippantly stating, 'Yeah, I got that piece on sale last week'.
It would shock us, confuse us, disturb us, and possibly make us ponder the mental state of these athletes, musicians, and neighbors. And yet, that’s the power and the horror of the cross in the first century.
Simply pointing these facts out to those in our congregation can healthily jolt us into the reality of the gruesome nature of crucifixion that God’s son, Jesus, participated in voluntarily in the outlandishly loving act to rescue the entire human race. It’s through this love demonstrated on the stomach-churning execution instrument that the revolution of Jesus actually began.
2. Communicate the radical nature of discipleship
A clear picture of the horrific and gruesome nature of the cross, then, leads us naturally to talk about the nature and the weightiness of the path of a Jesus follower.
The onus is on us as pastors to communicate to people that picking up one’s cross, denying oneself, and following Jesus is not fun, appealing, or simply 'a plausible option'. It is much more radical, significant, and countercultural (even offensive) than we think. Wright states 'suffering and dying is the way by which the world is changed' (368).
This is not a message the world is used to hearing. In fact, in a culture drowning in convenience and consumerism, this message is bound to raise objection and receive pushback. Really? people might think. Are you sure? Is that how it works? Is it really supposed to be that radical and all encompassing?
In short: yes. Yes, it is.
To teach the radical, countercultural, and oftentimes unpopular journey of voluntarily picking up our execution device and denying ourselves is a non-negotiable element of worshiping and following King Jesus. We live in a culture that discourages any denial of ourselves. In fact, it encourages—demands, even—that we pursue what we believe as our own personal fulfillment and self satisfaction.
No wonder in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said this was the narrow path that few actually find. While not wildly popular, this is, in fact, the true message of Jesus to anyone who wishes to follow in his ways. To preach a gospel of personal fulfillment is to preach something other than the good news of Jesus.
3. Rethink our understanding of sin
As pastors, we often assume people know what we mean when we talk about sin. These assumptions are terribly misguided. It’s imperative that we are extremely clear with people when we talk about sin; we are in need not just of clarity, but also in rethinking the nature of sin itself.
Initially, this statement may lead some to believe a suggestion for a softer view of sin as a mere 'shortcoming' or 'small mistake'. (This softening of sin’s sharp edge and provokes devastating consequences in our relationship with God is also en vogue.) But this certainly isn’t what Wright suggests in his book. In fact, Wright refocused sin in a way that helps us understand just how deeply damaging it is to God’s desire for his people to participate in his mission.
Here are Wright’s words, which are more articulate than my own:
The normal Greek word for ‘sin’ namely hamartia, means ‘missing the mark’: shooting at a target and failing to hit it. This is subtly but importantly different from being given a long and fussy list of things you must and mustn’t do and failing to observe them all.
A bit farther down he continues:
In this story the Bible is telling, humans were created for a purpose, and Israel was called for a purpose, and the purpose was not simply ‘to keep the rules’, ‘to be with God’, or ‘to go to heaven’, as you might suppose from innumerable books, sermons, hymns, and prayers. Humans were made to be 'image-bearers', to reflect the praises of creation back to the Creator and to reflect the Creator’s wise and loving stewardship into the world. Israel was called to be the royal priesthood, to worship God, and to reflect his rescuing wisdom into the world.
Wright defines sin as a failure of worship. Scripture reveals that humans are created in order to live as worshiping stewards. 'When humans sin', he writes, 'they hand to non-divine forces a power and authority that those forces were never supposed to have'. This doesn’t dilute or soften the nature of sin. In fact, quite the opposite; it makes sin even more consequential and damaging to God’s ultimate desire for his people to participate in his mission. On a personal level, Wright’s definition of sin put the wheels of my mind and my heart into motion for several days after reading it.
Our sacred calling is to lead people to embracing and participating in relationship with God and his mission as worshipers of the Creator. Part of that charge is helping people grasp, embrace and believe in their marrow that sin is the single greatest break of our worship of God.
4. Preach to people’s idols, which are almost entirely found in the forms of money, sex, and power.
If we teach sin as a failure of worship by human beings, then this has implications on how we preach about people’s idols. Wright shares that our idols (anything that eclipses our participation as God-worshipers) are found in three primary areas: money, sex, and power.
Practically speaking, consider challenging people to drill down further into their personal idols. Challenge them to see if they can find an idol in their lives that cannot be tied directly back to one of these three areas. (They’d be hard pressed to find one). As people find clarity in their areas of idolatry, we challenge people to repentance. Repentance, of course, is the act of pulling a U-turn of our failed worship direction and pointing the vehicle of our hearts rightly in the direction of true worship of the King.
If we can help people understand the damaging effects of misdirected motivations of these three areas we will help people recognize the break in their worship, which naturally leads us to repentance. It certainly is important to help people realize that money, sex, and power can be stewarded appropriately and in ways that honor God. But equally important is to help people see that when handled inappropriately, it causes immense damage and desolation in the world – and in our own hearts.
'What is required', Wright explains, 'for God’s new world and for renewed humans within it is for the power of the idols to be broken'. This is the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
5. Preach and teach the Bible in such a way that people see the biblical story as their own
The stories that humans find most powerful, the ones that impact us most deeply, are the stories where we are invited to participate in them directly.
As pastors, our sacred calling involves helping 'ordinary' people realize that God’s story is not simply an ethereal story 'out there in the heavens' for us to grasp solely on an intellectual level. God’s story is the story not simply to be understood, but also to participate in directly. And God’s story is not the story that is 'out there' or to participate in at a later point in time; it is open to participation by anyone in the here and now.
The gospels invite us to make this story our own, to live within the narrative in all its twists and turns, to see ourselves among the crowds following Jesus and witness his kingdom-bringing work, to see ourselves also in the long-range continuation of that narrative that we call, in fear and trembling, the life of the church.
Our sacred calling as pastors also includes helping people grasp that the good news is not my story in which I invite God to participate; instead, it is God’s story of which he lovingly, graciously, and redemptively invites us to participate in. This is not mere nuance; this has radical implications in how the good news of Jesus Christ is explained, embraced, and lived.
Our job is to passionately, clearly and compellingly tell of this wondrous God who throws his arms out wide and says, 'Join me!' For that is the nature of participation as worshiping stewards in his mission.