Romans 6:23 - "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."
I've noticed something in my work as a campus pastor and mission redeveloper, something that disturbs me. Many so-called evangelists, though they're hardly worthy of such a title that means "messenger of good news," tend to tell half of the story. What do I mean?
Consider the Romans passage above. Whenever I hear this, it's almost exclusively quoted as "the wages of sin is death," and the second part of the sentence, the God focused part of the sentence, is left off. We tell only half the story! We focus on sin and death and guilt and shame when the message of God in Christ Jesus is the free gift of life abundant. Why would we do such a thing?
As I interact with millennials, those typically (but not exclusively) younger adults whose digital savvy and hipster trends make me feel quite at home, I've noticed something else. We don't need to be reminded of our sin. We are, in fact, quite aware of our imperfections, our faults, our failures to be the kind of people we ought to be. We don't need to be reminded of the wages of sin, because we see the effects of death in our every day lives. Personal death in relationship. Corporate death in the environmental crisis. Political death in the gridlock of Congress and the wars that embroil our the headlines, our tax dollars, and most importantly, our peers, friends, and family members who chose to enter the military. The effects of sin are inescapably everywhere.
As a pastor, this makes tons of sense to me. If our focus is solely on sin, then we in no way communicate a commitment to salvation. Even if we give heavy weight to sin and share the good news of Christ's compassion as an ancillary second part, we've relegated the Gospel to a hiding place under the Law.
What we need is the whole story, the one that tells us of deliverance, of a free gift of God, of life eternal on the other side of death. In a culture of scarcity, share with us words of abundance. We can acknowledge sin and have real, substantive conversations about the work of sin in our lives, but we must emphasize the trajectory of liberation available in Jesus. We must give weight to the promise that sin does not define us or our future, We must tell the whole story, one that is truly good news, an act that makes us all evangelists.
What this means is that we can actually address sin robustly from an insider's perspective. We all know the wages of sin, and so in that shared brokenness, we may talk about the shared gift of freedom in Christ. This isn't a justification to ignore sin. It's an encouragement to contextualize sin in light of the cross, where sin has lost it's power and death has lost it's sting.
As we witness to the work of Christ, be sure that we're sharing the whole story. We may have to forsake pithy one liners, but isn't the full content much, much better? A free gift of eternal life in Christ Jesus, all despite our sin, is precisely the good news the church is called to share in every age. Especially this one.
We're on the precipice today.
As a region, we're on the precipice of summer, ready to tumble into the school year and, soon after, fall weather.
As a country, we're on the precipice of a presidency as we roll into the primary debates for 2016 candidates.
As a planet, we're on the precipice of an environmental shift, likely a crisis. Though we don't know exactly what's next, none of it seems good.
On the precipice is precisely where we need guidance. I recently met with my mentor and my first words were, "I'm not sure if I'm looking for you to push me off the cliff or pull me back." By the end, he responded, "If you were looking for someone to pull you back, you came to the wrong person." With his guidance, he pushed me off the precipice of that particular situation.
That's the thing about the precipice of any situation in life. As you stare over the cliff, there's an attraction to what's next. To the thrill of the jump. To the wind in your hair. To the cool water as you dive in. But if you just jump in, you have no idea where you're going.
One time, while traveling Europe on the cheap with my brother, we went canyoning in Interlaken, Switzerland. In other words, we put on helmets and wet suits and jumped off of twenty foot waterfalls into glacial pools. It was incredible! We were safe because, at every precipice, we had a guide point to where we should aim. Once, I went juts a bit right of the target and my leg bounced off of a submerged boulder. The guide knew what he was talking about and pointed us to safety.
That's a great guide, one who maximizes joy but ensures security. Some guides might have told us it was too dangerous to jump. Others might have ignored us entirely. But our guide loved the joy we exhibited and showed us the way to magnify that experience without truly risking injury. As you look for guidance in your life, look for the guides who will have this kind of attentiveness to you. Who will stand with you, share your joy, and point you to a path that is thrilling without risking your destruction.
As we stand on the precipice of another school year with Highlander Lutherans, that's how I see my role as a campus pastor. How do I maximize the kind of joy that this time of life has to offer while also providing sound advice that leads to a thriving life rather than destructive habits. Pointing to a fun community and exciting opportunities while fostering an atmosphere that values the educational and preparational aspects of university life. Pointing to Jesus Christ as the trajectory of the jump off the precipice, where the wind will blow in our faces, the fall will be thrilling, and the love of the universe will catch us in crucified arms every time.
Every time we come to a precipice in life, my prayer is that we are ready for guidance and seeking it actively. And every time we're asked, I pray we're attentive guides that help people to seek exciting, life-giving opportunities, all in the name of Jesus.
While I was at Duke Divinity School, the term “traditioned innovation” was all the rage. It arose as an attempt to find a middle way for the church between rigid traditionalism and unfettered pursuits of relevance. In short, as God transforms the church for the future, we remain connected with our traditions even as we innovate for ministry in this new age.
Similarly, I’ve found a deep joy in structured flexibility within congregational ministry. Like traditioned innovation, structured flexibility also seeks to provide a middle way, but this is between inflexible structuralism and chaotic spontaneity. Some people thrive in these poles, but as a leader, I find much more potential for success somewhere in the middle of this spectrum.
For instance, for our Sunday worship service, we choose our songs and write the call to worship for each service as many as six weeks out. This allows us to do is cast a vision for a consistent trajectory of worship, sometimes around a common theme or toward a particular end. Yet, as we get closer to the day, we also reevaluate the choices we made weeks ago to see if something else has arisen in the life of the community that necessitates a reshaping of our worship time. There’s flexibility within the structure.
One wonderful example of how this worked well for us happened on Sunday. For Across the Spectrum, our special needs outreach ministry, we developed a yearlong plan with themes for every service. On Sunday, we focused on rest and calm. Come to find out, one of our regular attendees who lives in a group home had a visit from a family after a long absence, and our sister was distraught when she couldn’t return home with them. She needed rest, even more than we had planned, so we allowed some space for her to cry and share her laments. We also know that these loves to sing, so to boost her spirits, at the end of the service, we invited her and some friends to sing for us to help foster rest in her own soul. In these moments, our structure allowed for a needed flexibility not only to meet the needs of this one sister, but for others to experience how vital times of rest can truly be for our lives of faith.
Structured flexibility is quickly becoming a core element of ministry for us at CLC and for my identity as a pastor. This is most surprising to people who know me well because they know I tend toward spontaneity and procrastination. I didn’t truly appreciate the gift of structure until I saw the fruit it bore when combined with a healthy dose of flexibility. If you find yourself unsure how to respond to particular needs in your community, consider whether an increase in structure or an allowance for more flexibility may help you to respond to those areas of need.
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.