Communion means Communion

Every Sunday (ideally) we who believe in Jesus Christ gather together to take His Supper. This meal we often call “Communion.” Yet it seems personally that too often we forget the significance of that name. There is a reason that we call Communion “Communion.” In this post I want to briefly explore that reason and offer some suggestions about how we can better honor it.

The word “Communion” reflects two aspects of the Lord’s Supper. On the one hand, it refers to the way that we commune with Christ by taking His body and blood. When we eat the bread and drink the wine through faith, the Holy Spirit ushers us into the presence of God in heaven through Jesus Christ, whose body and blood given for us gain us entrance into the divine glory. On the flip side of that, you could say that when we take the bread and wine the Holy Spirit brings Jesus Himself, His atoning body and blood, to us in a supernatural way. In Communion then we commune with Jesus, having sweet fellowship with God in Christ by the death which reconciles us to Him, represented in the real-symbol of bread and wine. On the Cross Jesus gave Himself for us, and we when recall that sacrifice in Communion He gives Himself to us.

That said, the aspect of communion with Christ the Supper is not my main focus in this post. For the most part, we are quick to pick up on at least something along these lines, and the way that we tend to do Communion shows that. But most of the time it seems to me that this is the only dimension of Communion we adequately capture. There is another, often neglected side, too. In Communion, we don’t just commune with Christ. We also commune with each other as His body. As we eat of Christ’s body in the Supper, we as the Church are formed into His one body ourselves.

Biblically, the Lord’s Supper is a meal which we share with each other in Christ. This meaning is the whole point of Paul’s criticisms of the Corinthian church in 1 Cor. 11. He starts off by referring to their taking Communion as when they “come together” (something I also think supports weekly Communion). Then he immediately starts condemning their internal divisions. When he says that they aren’t truly eating the Lord’s Supper, he says it is because “each one eats his own supper ahead of others.” And when he tells them what to do about it, he says they must “wait for one another.” The running theme is that the way the Corinthians were celebrating Communion was divided and individualistic, but it was supposed to be a unified meal of a single body. Communion is meant to be something the members of the church do together as one people.

This dimension is also seen later in the same letter, when in chapter 10 Paul warns against participating in meals for worshipping idols. He draws this view idea of double communion—communing with the god in question and with the other people present—as applying in those cases. Here is what he says:

Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I am speaking as to wise people. Judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we give thanks for, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for all of us share that one bread. Look at the people of Israel. Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in what is offered on the altar? 

1 Corinthians 10:14-18

Pay close attention to what Paul says here. On one hand, he tells us that eating a meal in the context of idol worship is a participation in that idol worship itself, just as Communion is a participation in the body and blood of Christ. This reflects the vertical aspect of the Supper, our Communion with God in Jesus Christ. Yet he also adds that “we who are many are one body, for all of us share that one bread.” This is the horizontal dimension I am highlighting. When we partake of a meal in worship of Jesus together, we are united as His one body. We are His one body because we share the one bread of His body.

This is something that the early Christians understood well. The Didache, one of the earliest Christian writings after the New Testament, contains this Communion prayer:

We thank you, our Father, for the life and knowledge which you made known to us through Jesus your servant. To you be the glory forever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom. To you is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever.

They got it. Communion is communion, both with Jesus and with each other. Our shared identity as those “in Christ” is bound up with our shared reception of His gift of Himself in His body and blood offered for us on the Cross and to us in Communion. We are people-who-receive-Jesus-together.

Now, this is all well and good to know, but I want to add something. It is not enough just to think of Communion as involving the unity of God’s people. We must also be sure to do Communion that way. So often in so many churches Communion is done otherwise. The focus in on individuals as they introspectively examine themselves and their personal relationship with Jesus before taking the bread and wine on their own. In some cases the focus is on families as they partake one group at a time. Yet this is a shared experience for all the Church, not just the local but the universal. We must be sure to remember that, and so when we do Communion, however the details, we should do it in a way that we can tell, feel, and know that we are in this together. One body receiving one body from one Lord. Amen.

Communion means Communion

Jesus Lived for Us: The Vicarious Humanity of Christ

Another sermon manuscript, one that I preached this morning. This was actually meant to lead into Communion, which you will see that it does.


His Whole Life Matters

This morning, I want to start by asking a simple question. In fact, it’s a good little church question which a bunch of church people should have a pretty easy time answering. So here’s the question: what are some things that Jesus did for us?

One thing which I did not hear anyone say: that Jesus lived for us. And the fact that I didn’t hear this, and didn’t really expect to, is exactly why I want to preach about this topic. Jesus did not only die for us, but lived for us as well, and this is what I want to look at today.

See, I know two great short slogans which can summarize the Gospel. One of them is “Jesus in our place.” That is pretty great, isn’t it? The other is “God in Christ for us.” Both of these are, I think, very good ways to sum up the Gospel in only a couple words. But what’s something they both have in common? Neither one is only about Jesus’ death. The whole Jesus—life, death, and resurrection—is in our place, and God is and was in the whole Christ for us.

Now, the specific way that Jesus lived for us which I want to talk about today is a doctrine with a ridiculously technical sounding name, but it’s not as crazy as it sounds. It’s called the vicarious humanity of Christ. I realize it sounds a bit much, but it’s pretty straightforward. The Christ part is obviously just Jesus, the humanity is of course His being human, and we know as well what vicarious means. It’s one person or thing in place of someone else. In this case it is Jesus, as a human, being a human in our place.

How Jesus Lived for Us

But what exactly does that mean? And what impact should it have on our lives? I want to look at the whole thing in two parts, and so I don’t get carried away I’ll only mention them one at a time. The first part is, as I just mentioned, that Jesus lived for us. From the beginning to the end, from Christmas to Easter, every moment of Jesus’ life was something He did to save us. It didn’t just start counting when He got baptized and began His ministry. It didn’t wait to be meaningful for Him to ride on a donkey into Jerusalem. And it didn’t just start when He was led to the Cross. What Jesus was doing as a human being to save us started when the virgin conceived, and it’s still going.

But how does that work? What does everything Jesus did besides the Cross do for us? To answer this question, I want to look into the concept of the covenant. The basic idea here is that God created a covenant relationship with mankind, where God promised to be our God and He called us to be His people. But from Adam onward, humans have consistently failed to keep up our end. But God is faithful, and He is not willing to let us go so easily. Since we couldn’t seem to manage a right response to God, God Himself became one of us in Jesus Christ, and as a human being fulfilled the human side of the covenant. He gave a saving call to us, and then He answered that call as one of us for all of us. By doing this He created an actual, reconciled relationship between God and man. And that is eternal life.

Now, I’ve said all of this without referencing too much straight from the Bible, so I want to dive in a bit deeper. First, we can see the pattern of God calling us into a relationship with Himself, especially a covenant relationship, throughout Scripture. Some people see this in the Garden of Eden, though not everyone agrees with that. But after that, it just keeps coming. God makes a covenant with Noah in Genesis 9 to never destroy the world with a flood and kill everything in it again, which hints at more grace in the future. Next God makes a covenant with Abraham, promising both to bless his descendants and to bless the entire world through them. Then from Exodus through Deuteronomy we see God making a covenant with Israel, a people which Deuteronomy 9:4-5 tell us were no better than anyone else, to be their God, give them a land, and save them from all their enemies. And of course, after this King David receives a covenant from God for an eternal dynasty.

But the problem is that there’s another theme running right alongside this. God keeps making covenants to bless us and bring us to Himself, but we’ve been resisting and breaking them since day one. In Genesis 3, there’s the Fall as the first instance of man just resisting God’s grace to do his own thing. Then in Genesis 9, right after God makes a covenant with Noah and blesses him, Noah gets drunk and passes out naked, leading to a curse on a whole body of his descendants. Then Abraham is given a promise for a son and for a land, but in both cases he takes serious missteps, relying on human help like maidservants and Egyptian surpluses when in need. And of course, once we get to Israel we are all too familiar with their repeated history of God showing mercy, and them falling right back into the same sins. And David, well, we all know how far he fell and how this ultimately led to his kingdom divided two generations later. This whole pattern gets worse and worse until eventually God’s people lost it all in exile.

But what’s great is that right at this point, when it is clear that Israel is a failure and God’s plan to bless the world looks doomed, Jesus shows us. He appears at the center of all these circles and covenants. And at this point we have to combine the idea of representation with substitution. Jesus, by being in the center of all this, represented as soon as He came on the scene all the world in Himself. How does this work?

Let’s go back and trace these lines. God created everything, and then He made man at the top, the pinnacle of creation. So man, by being steward over creation, also stands as the representative at the top of creation. Then comes Israel. They were, as I mentioned before, just one nation out of many. Deuteronomy 9:4-6 says:

When the Lord your God thrusts them out before you, do not say to yourself, “It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to occupy this land”; it is rather because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is dispossessing them before you. It is not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart that you are going in to occupy their land; but because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is dispossessing them before you, in order to fulfill the promise that the Lord made on oath to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. Know, then, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to occupy because of your righteousness; for you are a stubborn people.

They were just like everyone else, but were called to bless the world. So now there’s another layer of Israel standing before God as a microcosm of all humanity. But next come the priests and the kings. The priests minister before God constantly on Israel’s behalf, and once a year the High Priest himself represents all Israel when he goes to make atonement in the Holy of Holies. Same goes for the kings, who God treated as a representative of the whole nation, something you can see among other places in how God handled David’s sinful census at the end of Numbers.

Now Jesus sits right in the middle of each of these circles and layers. He is our High Priest, as Hebrews tells us, and the King of Israel, as the Gospels tell us. He is the Son of Man, a man born of a woman. He is, as Colossians 1:15 says, the firstborn over all creation. Basically, as the King and Priest He represents and substitutes for all Israel. As Israel He represents and substitutes for all the rest of humanity, who are no different. And as humanity, He represents and substitutes for all creation. This one man, Jesus of Nazareth, lived as the center of all creation, as the representative and substitute of everyone everywhere. So He lived in our place and for us. He gave God the perfect response of human faith and obedience which He called us to give, and since He was doing that in our place, He won salvation for us all. Saint Irenaeus, who was actually a disciple of a disciple of John, said this:

He [Jesus] fought and conquered…He was the man who struggled for his fathers and through his obedience cancelled their disobedience.

And of course, this obedience had to lead to the Cross, too. If Jesus was going to identify Himself as this representative, He had to face our doomed fate and die with our weakness. But even then, He rose from the dead. So while being our representative and substitute, He came back from death. This was the how the whole thing was completed. He came out victorious, and He came out in our place. All this added up to giving us eternal life, which Jesus Himself defined as a fellowship between God and man when He said in John 17:3, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

Finally, before I move on to my next point, I just want to read Hebrews 5:7-10 and then quote Gregory of Nazianzus. Hebrews 5:7-10 says:

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

And here’s what Saint Gregory has to say about all this:

For that which he has not assumed [that is, taken on Himself as a human] he has not healed; but that which is united to his Godhead is also saved.

How We Live from Jesus

Wow. As far as I’m concerned, this stuff alone is awesome enough, and is probably worth at least a year’s worth of preaching. But, I want to go ahead and move on to my second part. As if it weren’t enough that Jesus lived for us in such an awesome way, I want to add a second, following point. Jesus lived for us, and now we live from Him. What’s that mean? It means that none of our human faith and obedience started in us. It all started in Him.

The key passage for this is Galatians 2:19b-20. Unlike what I usually do, I’m going to read this one in the KJV, and I’ll explain why in a minute.

I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.

What I especially want to point out is the phrase, “the faith of the Son of God.” If you don’t have a KJV, it probably says “faith in the Son of God.” This is because of the funny Greek behind it, which could in theory be translated in four major possible ways:

“faith of the Son of God”

“faithfulness of the Son of God”

“faith in the Son of God”

“faithfulness to the Son of God”

Now, obviously the biggest difference is that the first two are about something Jesus has, whereas the second two are about something we have towards Jesus. What is interesting to note is that while most translations since the KJV have picked “faith in the Son of God,” many modern scholars have been moving back to agree with the KJV on one of the first two options, the faith or faithfulness of the Son of God. This fits what the rest of the passage is saying. Yes, we believe. Yes, we obey. But even though it is us, it’s also not really us but Jesus living in us. It’s not just our faith, but faith rooted in Jesus’ careful trust of the Father during His earthly life. It’s not our faithfulness, but Jesus’ faithful obedience to His Father. We only share in these because we are, like Paul, in Christ. We died with Him to sin, and have been raised with Him to a new life, His own life.

Possibly, though, some of you may be wondering what I mean by Jesus’ faith, and how for that matter we can live from it. So I’ll go back a bit. Jesus, as I said before, lived the perfect human life in relation to God as our substitute and representative. He did everything for us that God wants us to do. He had faith in His Father, as Hebrews 12:2 says that He is the author and perfecter of our faith who pushed forward faithfully to obey God. And if “faith of Christ” is the correct reading from before, then in Scripture we have several good references to Jesus’ faith and its role in saving us, such as Romans 3:22, Galatians 3:22, and Philippians 3:9.

Jesus also repented for us. Now I realize that sounds weird. How can Jesus repent from sin if He didn’t have any sin? See, the basic point of “repent” is to turn away from something. So Jesus never sinned, but He was constantly turning away from sin when it reared its ugly head to tempt Him. We can see a great example of Jesus doing that in both Matthew and Luke 4, where He resisted all the temptations Satan put before Him and came out victorious. This vicarious repentance is exactly what makes it possible for us to repent, even when we’ve already sinned.

Another thing Jesus did for us was good works. I would give some Scripture to prove that, except for the fact that it is probably pretty obvious. Jesus healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, forgave poor sinners, fed the hungry, and throughout His whole ministry did act after act of compassion and mercy. These good works of Jesus are, again, the source of our good works. Whenever we do mercy or show love to people who need it, we’re participating in what Jesus Himself did, connected to Him by the Spirit.

Finally, of course, Jesus died for us. This is another one that is too obvious to need any specific verses references. In our place, as our representative and substitute, Jesus faced the death due to us sinners. By doing this He killed our old man, the flesh, and then rose again and created for us the new man.

Now, all of this that Jesus did is the ground for our Christian life. When we, as Paul says, walk according to the Spirit, what is happening is that the Holy Spirit is pouring into us the very faith, repentance, good works, death, and resurrection of Jesus Himself from His human life. Because He was man, the sanctified, set-apart life that He lived has become the source of our sanctified lives, something that again ties into Hebrews 5:9.

So because of all this, everything that we do as a Christian, not our fleshly works but our spiritual ones, comes straight from Jesus. It is us, but not us, but Christ living in us. We live by the faith of the Son of God, and the end result of this transformation worked out by the Holy Spirit is fellowship with God the Father through Jesus Christ His Son. And that, in my humble opinion, is altogether wonderful.

Abiding in Christ

So what is the application here? How should this truth, the vicarious humanity of Christ, the fact that Jesus lived for us and we live from Him, impact us? I can think of two major things.

The first is that this doctrine should give us more assurance than ever. Our salvation in every last part is of Christ, not of ourselves. And if it is not of ourselves, our own weaknesses and failures can’t hurt it. There is nothing left to trust in ourselves for. If we believe, that’s from Jesus, who believed perfectly. Even if we don’t believe enough, Jesus did for us. If we do good works, that’s from Jesus, who did the most good of anyone ever. If we don’t do enough good works, Jesus did for us. Like Romans 8:1 says, there is no condemnation because we are in Christ Jesus. We are secure in His arms.

This ties into the second application, though. If every part of our new life comes from Jesus, then we have no choice but to abide in Him if we want to live. John 15:4-5 says it well:

Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.

These verses show that we have to rely on Jesus for everything. We have to stay connected with Him to live. So how do we do that? How can we abide in Christ and stay connected? I’ll finish with just a few examples.

Prayer is the first key. In prayer we communicate with God Himself, mediated by Christ our High Priest, with the help of the Spirit’s intercession. This keeps us connected to Christ and gives us His strength.

Scripture is also vital. When we read Scripture with the help of the Spirit, we see Jesus more and more clearly. He said Himself that all the Scriptures testify of Him, so when we read them we grow to know Him even more.

Another important part of abiding in Christ is being a part of His church. The church is His body, a called out community of people bound by His Spirit to each other for service and worship. We cannot abide in Christ without abiding in His body.

Then there’s what most call sacraments, but Baptists usually call ordinances. The first of course is baptism. Anyone not baptized ought to be, because in baptism the Holy Spirit grips us with the visible act and says, “Look! You have died and risen with Christ! You are a new creation!” We can think back on baptism and just remember what a perfect picture it is of what Jesus has done for and with us.

Finally, though, there’s also Communion, which we’ll be practicing today. Baptism is the one time sign of our union with Jesus, but Communion is the ongoing one. When we have Communion, we get to experience a spiritual reminder of how we depend on Christ for our life. Just as we need food and drink, the bread and the cup, to survive physically, so spiritually we rely completely on the life of Jesus which was given for us. Having Communion pushes our hearts towards that reality and remind us that our life comes only from Christ, because He chose to live for us. I’ll finish with a quote from T. F. Torrance and then turn it over:

As one summoned to the Holy Table [the Christian] is commanded by the Word of God to live only in such a way that he feeds upon Christ, not in such a way that he feeds upon his own activities or lives out of his own capital of alleged spirituality. He lives from week to week, by drawing his life and strength from the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, nourished by the body and blood of Christ, and in the strength of that communion he must live and work until Christ comes again. As often as he partakes of the Eucharist he partakes of the self-consecration of Jesus Christ who sanctified Himself for our sakes that we might be sanctified in reality and be presented to the Father as those whom He has redeemed and perfected (or consecrated) together with Himself in one. Here He is called to lift up his heart to the ascended Lord, and to look forward to the day when the full reality of his new being in Christ will be unveiled, making Scripture and Sacrament no longer necessary.

Jesus Lived for Us: The Vicarious Humanity of Christ

Being Christians: Marked Out as God’s People

My current reading project is The New Testament and the People of God by N. T. Wright. I hope one day to finish the entire series of which this is the first book, namely Christian Origins and the Question of God (for that matter, so does Wright). It’s been a very interesting study so far, covering the nature of literature and history, epistemology, Jewish history, the first century Jewish worldview, Christian history, and now the worldview of the first century Christians. An important part of studying worldviews is the study of praxis, what people in a group (in this case people within the mainstream first generation Church) do.

According to Wright, the distinctive elements of early Christian praxis could be summed up in a few major categories: mission, sacrament, worship, ethics, sacrifice, and martyrdom. In each of these areas, Christians were noticeably different from the rest of the world, which consisted basically of pagans and Jews. The gist of the differences is as follows:

  • Mission:
    The early church had evangelistic fervor. Unlike the pagans, the Christians spread their teachings with enthusiasm and love. They used their lives instead of legal decree to lead people to the truth. Unlike the Jews, who mostly kept their religion to themselves and frowned upon Gentiles, the Christians felt themselves compelled to persistently offer their good news to all the world.
  • Sacrament:
    The early Christians took baptism and Communion for granted. Every new convert was hastily baptized, and they regarded their baptisms as having significance to new creation and union with Christ. Every time they met (or nearly so) they partook of the Lord’s Supper together. No pagan rituals were anything like this. The Jews’ closest equivalents were baptizing Gentiles converts to Judaism, though it was never given the significance of Christian baptism, and Passover, which was a far more elaborate (and legally binding) ritual than the simple sharing of bread and wine.
  • Worship:
    The worship of Christians is perhaps the most distinctive point. The pagans worshipped very many gods and goddesses, one for almost every part of the natural and supernatural worlds. They also were legally obligated to worship Caesar. Jews, of course, worshipped only one God, Yahweh, and believed all other gods to be shams. Christians continued the Jewish tradition of worshipping one God alone, contrary to the pagans, but in a manner strange and scandalous to Jews included Jesus, a crucified carpenter/prophet from Nazareth, in the worship of their God, though at this time they didn’t explain exactly why or how that worked.
  • Ethics:
    Even secular historians who thought poorly of Christianity were astounded at the virtuous lives of the early Christians. They did not, like the pagans, engage in any kind of sexual immorality. They refused to lie or cheat or steal. Unlike many Jews, they demonstrated love, hospitality, and grace to people of every kind, even the worst of sinners or the lowest members of society. Any accusations made against Christians could only be against rumors of what they might do in secret, or against their dangerous doctrines. They character was generally impeccable.
  • Sacrifice:
    Possibly the strangest way that Christians were different for a religious group was how they handled sacrifice. Unlike both pagans and Jews, they never performed sacrifices, easily one of the most basic elements of religion at the time. They felt a need neither to satisfy pagan gods nor to continue participating in the Levitical priestly system. Instead, if they spoke of sacrifice at all, it was in reference to their Jesus dying for them, or of their own suffering for Him.
  • Martyrdom:
    Pagans saw no need to die for their faith. If anything, they worshipped their gods in order to be saved from death. The Jews had martyrs, but never so many as the Christians, who at times died almost daily. The Christians were noticed for the way they seemed to spit in death’s face, as though it had already been defeated.

In these ways, the Christians stood out blatantly from the rest of the world. They were nothing like the pagans, and their new message directly undermined mainstream Judaism. Indeed, their differences were so striking that they were by some classified as a totally new kind of people or race. You had Greeks, Jews, barbarians, and now Christians. 

This, of course, was right to be the case. We all know as Christians that God has called us to a new and different life than that of the world. We are holy, that is, set apart. We are the ekklesia, the called out ones. In a world of Gentile sinners and unbelieving Jews, we are the true Israel, the true humanity. God has redeemed the human race, and we are the firstfruits in Christ. The overlap between the kingdom of God and this present age is found in the Church. Therefore we ought to be different in very notable ways from those who are still in Adam, who have yet to experience God’s new life created in Jesus and applied by the Holy Spirit.

So what is my point now? Upon reading the section on early Christian praxis in The New Testament and the People of God, I started thinking of ways that we can today still stand out in each of these categories. We are still God’s people, and still as such should be set apart. But how? I’d like to quickly run through some ideas based on what I’ve mentioned about the early church. We can, like our spiritual ancestors, be different in these ways:

  • Mission:
    The world today has many causes and missions. But your average people don’t think much about them. You don’t expect to meet any random person and find them on a mission to convince someone of this or accomplish that. When you do, it’s an exception, and usually thought of as weird. That last thing our culture condones is any kind of mission in personal, day-to-day interactions which says in any absolute terms, “What I have to say is for everyone, period. It’s not a matter of opinion. You won’t get away with ignoring or rejecting it.” Yet we are called to tell the whole world that Jesus is Lord, that He died and was raised for the sins of all people, and that He will return to right every wrong and heal the world with new creation. If we do this in our everyday lives and interactions, and yet also do it with love and grace instead of the stereotypical condemnation or Hellfire scare, we will stand out and people will notice that we have a unique message with a unique method.
  • Sacrament:
    If you ask people what they associate with church, you will rarely hear anything about baptism or Communion. Yet these rituals were defining for the early Christians, so much so that on the basis of their secret Communion meetings people accused them of cannibalism. We must learn to make baptism a big deal, so that no one will think of becoming a Christian apart from in Christ dying to sin and rising to Spirit-led life. To demand with the utmost seriousness a physical act of identification and commitment as the first step of a religion that’s actually not a cult will raise eyebrows and get noticed in our culture. With Communion, as well, if we make it our constant and weekly practice, investing it with both its proper sanctity and its vitality, then we will find that all church visitors or seekers will be confronted every time they come: you need Jesus’ body and blood, but you can’t share in these while you deny Him with word and/or deed. The need to repent and enter the loving community of those who do feast on Christ’s benefits will be evident and, again, strange to a world that’s all about including everyone.
  • Worship:
    As it stands, formal worship is not a part of the lives of most people in the world, so participating in Christian worship at all stands out some. Yet people expect this for churchgoers. What is required to actually stand out in worship is two-fold: we must let worship flood the rest of our lives, so that praise for the Creator and gratitude to our Redeemer is evident in all we say and do. We must also be different in what we refuse to worship: we cannot let politicians, musicians, actors, speakers, authors, government, business, or anything or anyone else own our allegiance or affections.
  • Ethics:
    To stand out in ethics, we have a lot to do. The world thinks of itself as good. Part of what we must do as God’s restored humanity is live our lives so blamelessly and virtuously that we prove them wrong. This will mostly take the form of everyday details. While of course on larger matters like abortion and homosexuality, we stand out, these are not what make us stand apart in ways that are really valuable. The ways which count most are small. Don’t gossip at the water cooler. Don’t try to cheat anyone, or lie about all the things people think it’s okay to lie about. Don’t flatter to the face or curse behind the back. Don’t speak in vulgar ways. Don’t try to get any revenge, or hold grudges, or even just mention that you hope someone “gets what’s coming to them.” If you disagree with someone, make sure any discussion includes clarity and charity. Don’t accuse people who disagree with you of anything without doing research from their side. Don’t demonize people. Be hospitable. Welcome strangers into your home (that one in particular stands out these days). Love everyone all the time. Participate in culture while refusing to take part in the sins involved. All these little differences add up and can make us a peculiar people.
  • Sacrifice:
    Nowadays, in mainstream society no one performs animal sacrifices. So how do we stand out? Two ways come to mind. First, our society believes that we must make personal sacrifices, doing special good, to atone for our sins. We must sacrifice for forgiveness. That people believe this is clear enough if you watch any TV. We must respond with a resounding “No!” and proclaim that forgiveness is accomplished exclusively through Jesus. The other point is that people of the world offer lots of sacrifices in their daily lives which we must not take part in. People sacrifice all the time with their families to make money. When they get the money, they sacrifice their means of blessing others on the altars of the gods Technology and Luxury. Some people sacrifice their children to the goddess Fame by passing them through the fire of the entertainment industry. They sacrifice their marriages for the sake of personal fulfillment. To appease the wrathful god of Sexual Liberation, they sacrifice their bodies and hearts to people they know should not have them. All of these sacrifices, and more, made in worship of money, the American Dream, education, progress, autonomy, sex, or self-expression—we must refuse to participate in any such rituals. When we do, we will be noticed. Indeed, our society still worships the same gods as the Greeks did; they just call them by their normal names—sex, alcohol, wealth, etc.—instead of Aphrodite, Dionysus, or Plutus. And just like the Greeks did, people today think it is awfully strange when others don’t worship them as well.
  • Martyrdom:
    Martyrdom has always been unusual, so it remains one of the most powerful ways to stand out. Yet American Christians do not usually show the same spite of death that the early Christians were known for. Most still take great pains to make sure they stay healthy and whole. And to some extent this makes sense. We don’t live where you can be persecuted just for being a Christian. Yet our victory over death in Jesus must still be made known, because the watching world deals with death every day. So what we need are Christians willing to risk their lives and bodies by going on dangerous foreign missions, or even just living in dangerous parts of our own society. Christians who penetrate both hostile nations and American ghettos, who risk their lives both to take Bibles to Koreans and to help inner city youth escape crime and gangs. Those of us who are guaranteed a good resurrection by the Spirit must take advantage of this hope to accomplish the most risky ministries, and help everyone in need. Both in the evangelistic and in the socially beneficial, we ought to stick out our necks. Hanging out with people with serious, contagious diseases so they can know love and grace? That should be our work. Taking down violent criminal organizations and leaders? Who better to do that than men whose God told them to seek justice and then promised to raise them from the dead?

I hope by this point I’ve said at least something you may find helpful (goodness knows I’ve written quite a bit). If I’ve learned anything by studying the early church, it’s that Christians stood out like bright lights in dark places. Yet most modern American Christians (myself included more or less) seem to fit in well enough with our culture, sitting in the tidy little box of what the wider world thinks Christians are allowed to look like. I pray we will not stay this way, but that God by His Spirit will lead us all on to new things, so that we may be the light of the world as He has called us to. In Jesus name, amen.

 

Being Christians: Marked Out as God’s People