Who is Easter for? The Woeful Exchange

Cross of ChristDespite the cultural forces that persistently sideline the celebration Easter in favour of Christmas, for most Christians Easter has retained its significance in their lives and faith. However, in my admittedly limited experience and therefore tentative opinion, many churches work against the church’s historical, traditional and deeply biblical emphasis on Easter weekend. How is this done? In South Africa some hangovers of Christianity remain, in even the most secular societies. Because of this, with some certainty, churches can predict unusually large numbers in attendance over Easter weekend. Those making their annual pilgrimage are – rightly or wrongly – deemed non-Christians. So Easter is considered an “evangelistic highpoint” or “mission focal point” in the year—and is treated as such. This ungainly pragmatism masked as evangelistic mindedness is almost as trite as it is tragic. It is, as the title of this post suggests, ‘the woeful exchange’. 

Some readers will be familiar with the similar phrase, which I am playing on, ‘the wonderful exchange.’ Though that exact phrase is not found in the New Testament the truth of it is plain throughout. One of my favourite occurrences is in 1 Peter 2:24, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” You could spend an entire sermon unpacking the glorious truth wrapped up in that short verse, along with its context: Christ’s crucifixion is for our sins, in that he bears the punishment for rebellion against God even though he was only ever righteous. The purpose of his death was that we might become righteous, as we die to the self-destructive patterns of sin and live a life patterned after Christ’s. The effect of Christ’s death is healing, being made well or whole, restored to the image God originally created us in. Other verses are clearer that in the exchange we are credited with Christ’s righteousness (Romans 1-3). But this post is unfortunately about the woeful rather than the wonderful exchange.

It is Good Friday, the morning service at your church – kudos if you have any evening services over Easter – and the auditorium is packed, the stewards are frantically waving to each other in search of empty spaces or more chairs. The atmosphere is electric as the band does a final check on stage before your most energetic service (or worship) leader steps forward to start the show—I mean- church gathering. The vibe steadily grows as people speak over each other and compete against the carefully selected ‘outsider friendly’ playlist pouring from the speakers. It is almost time. This is it: ‘go big or go home’. Once the almost unrecognisably bare liturgy is out of the way we come to the Bible reading. But it is when the preacher stands up that the woeful exchange is at its ugliest. Instead of holding out the gloriously rich treasures millennia of Christians have celebrated at this point in the year the gathered church is told that Jesus died for our sins. In fact, the gathered church, probably making up the majority of those present, are forgotten entirely in order to present a lazily rehashed sermon about the cross. The woeful exchange leaves believers with almost nothing to reflect on because they were not even considered.

At this point some readers will be hastily offering a retort: ‘The same gospel saves non-Christians and transforms believers.’ True, if reductionistic. For example, if all that was needed to nourish Christian faith and mature believers was the cross why did God provide us with a gospel tapestry of 66 books? Why did he present his character and love in a range of genres, through a host of unique human voices and emphases? I mean, if it is the same gospel – i.e. the cross – why do we ever wander outside of the four passion narratives found in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? If we affirm that all of Scripture finds its centre in the person and work of Christ then why do we retreat to a simple passion text and sermon on Good Friday? I have become convinced that the answer to my last question – the only one that was not rhetorical – is that many churches are guilty of the woeful exchange. Perhaps if we spent more energy in presenting the splendid riches of Christ’s work at Easter rather than offering the same old tired and predictable gospel presentations those visitors would be gripped by God’s truth. Do not ignore the fact that those in your church desperately need Easter themselves. Hold out the wonders of the gospel. Do not pragmatically trade it in this Easter.

This post fits roughly with a short series on the work of Christ. The first challenged the overly narrow view of Christ’s death as a legal event, highlighting for Christians the love of God. The second explored other aspects of the atonement, reminding Christians that God’s work is much richer than Christ in our place (the wonderful exchange), for faith is deeply transformative. Both posts bemoaned presentations of Christ’s work as merely external; it is rather the unparalleled evidence of God’s love that is effective in making us those who love like him.

Why the Rainbow Nation is Good for the Gospel

The Rainbow Nation BridgeThere are plenty of things that can be said in favour of our Rainbow Nation here in South Africa and I don’t think what you are about to read is even most poignant. What I would like to focus on does, however, cut to the heart of the sacred/secular divide that Western culture seems bent on inflicting on our societies.

Why The Rainbow?

Let’s consider, for a moment, the intent behind calling ourselves a “Rainbow Nation”. Desmond Tutu is credited with the term which “intended to encapsulate the unity of multi-culturalism and the coming-together of people of many different nations, in a country once identified with the strict division of white and black” (thanks wikipedia).

The significance is partly in what it does not mean: we are not a group of people that come together and lose our diversity and multi-culturalism. When I had the misfortune of attempting to mix paints, irrespective of my objective, I somehow always managed to produce an unusable colour I affectionately remember as “vomit brown”. This kind of mix into a homogenous mass is not what it means to be a rainbow nation. We retain our colours, cultures and creeds and we find a way to live with all those in harmony.

Vomit Brown PaintIn America, diversity becomes vomit brown – everyone wants in on the American dream and so the diversity that once existed is slowly eroded as everyone succumbs to the demands of the dream or is crushed under its weight. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that America wants a secular public sphere – what better way to harmonise our differences than deny them and pretend none of us have any convictions at all?

In an article I read recently Richard Neuhaus is remembered as “almost single-handedly” challenging that idea – the idea to reduce “religious belief to private worship”. In essence he argued,

Separation of church and state could never mean the separation of religion from public life. The most deeply held beliefs and values of American citizens could not and should not be quarantined from the life of the contemporary polis.

That sounds great but in America it has been far from successful. The lack of success is because diversity in America means anyone can come but you have to conform. In South Africa, however, when secularism raises its vomit-brown head, we can cry “rainbow nation” – a term that means my Christianity is an essential part of my identity and not something I will cover up when in public like some embarassing tattoo.

Colourful FaceThe “Rainbow Nation” means we have to learn to live with each other – a potentially perilous task – but it also means that my convictions don’t have to be swallowed up into the amorphous mass of cultural uncertainty; they are colour in the rainbow. More importantly, rather than being a mere band of colour passively reflecting the light thrown onto us, Christians wearing their Christianity in public are themselves light in a dark world. This Rainbow Nation opens the door to light, hopefully as Christians we will not forego the opportunity to shine.

Andrew Heard’s Challenging Points from Generate

EV Church & Geneva PushA few weeks ago I attended Generate, a church planting conference for leaders and pastors in South Africa. Our speaker was Andrew Heard, senior minister of EV Church and the founding director of Geneva Push, an Australian church-planting network. The conference was very stimulating and challenged our approach, both practically and in principle, to ministry. Over the 4 days that I listened to Andrew he made many provocative yet warranted points. In this post I will unfortunately only have space to review a few that struck me, and which I believe are an important corrective to how we think about ministry in South Africa, especially in my own church culture.

1. An exposition of Revelation

Revelation 5:9 reads: “They sang a new song.” It is so easy to overlook the adjective, “new.” But Andrew argued that it carries a weight few of us ever realise, and many of us resist. This new chorus, which rings throughout the heavens, marks one of the most significant turns in the biblical storyline. Andrew suggested that the very fabric of eternity is broken, by the Lamb’s death to ransom sinners. A new song is sung in the throne room of heaven, the old song celebrating creation is in some ways relegated. We tend to forget the implications of this heavenly shift, as our lives are cluttered with the marvels of the created world. The challenge for Christians is not to ‘keep the cross central,’ as if our ignorance could dethrone the glorified Lamb, but we are tasked with remembering that Christ’s work eclipses everything and therefore proclaiming it until his coming. Jesus’ death is the subject of heaven’s praise and we must repent where we have forgotten the new song, which we are also invited to sing. 

2. The very real tension between God’s sovereignty and our responsibility

Many times in ministry I have been comforted by the words, ‘God does the growing, just be faithful,’ or something along those lines. Andrew challenged these sentiments by calling the church to be responsible, to take ownership of our role in the advance of God’s kingdom, as well as our failings. With a rankling turn of phrase Andrew warned us against, “drinking too deeply of the sovereignty of God.” He also said that the attribution of floundering ministries to God’s sovereignty is blend of myth and hyper-Calvinism, which we summon so that we can sleep better at night. But maybe we should not sleep easily at night; for we should be consumed with what Andrew called “godly discontentment” that longs to reach more people with the gospel, causing them to become mature disciples of Christ (Colossians 1:28). We need to ask if we have settled too quickly into excusing failure by retreating into the doctrine of God’s sovereignty. Have we settled for merely remaining faithful? If we have then we need to repent of being so apathetic towards the many who have not yet come to Christ and received eternal life. We should toil, struggling with all of God’s energy that he powerfully works within us (Colossians 1:29).

3. A dangerous but indispensable desire for growth

Chris Koelle

Lastly, Andrew called us to cultivate a healthy desire for church growth. His qualification of healthy growth was made because, while most ministers have a passion to see their churches grow, some have fallen into the associated traps of seeking to liked, respectable, friendly and inoffensive; this is too often achieved by sitting lightly on the truth. This is not to advocate pietistic hostility but rather to remain true to our Lord, whose gospel is inherently confrontational. N.T. Wright often speaks about the strikingly subversive meaning contained in the words “Jesus is Lord.” Not only was it an affront to the Imperial cult but it also says to each of us today, ‘Bend your knee for Jesus is your Lord.’ Thus a healthy desire for growth will not be seen in the city and the church sharing a hug, holding hands and walking off into the sunset. We might need to repent of desiring the friendship of the world above the friendship of God our Father. Or perhaps we need to repent of being embarrassed about Jesus’ lordship that summons every creature to bow before the Lamb who was slain, and who is seated on the throne.

Jesus and the Answer to Jehovah’s Witnesses

Colourful booklets and smart attire make it easy for the person on the other side of the spyhole to figure out that the pair standing outside the door is a Jehovah’s Witness team. I had the chance to walk into a kingdom hall yesterday and picked up their tract “What the Bible Really Teaches” (all 200 pages of it). Paging through it, one is immediately presented with the name Jehovah; packaged as the way to get near to God. “If you want someone to get to know you, what might you do? Would you not tell the person your name?” they ask in – what I believe for the vast majority is – utmost sincerity.

Of course, it’s easy to get lost when speaking to a member of the Watchtower society in arguing over the various truths they distort or deny (hell, the Trinity, the person of Jesus and who goes to heaven are obvious ones). So the question we want to ask is: How do we present the gospel to these very genuine individuals without destroying their beliefs?

The answer that presented itself to me in the first few pages of this book was in answering the question that they themselves pose, “Can you be close to Jehovah?”. I recall asking a friendly lady how I could be close to God, her response was that the first step was to know His name. Suppose I rather pose the question to my friend, “What is it that separates us from God?”. The answer that I can give from Scripture is found in Isaiah 59:1-2 and I’ll quote their New World Translation, “Look! The hand of Jehovah has not become too short that it cannot save, nor has his ear become too heavy that it cannot hear. 2 No, but the very errors of YOU people have become the things causing division between YOU and YOUR God, and YOUR own sins have caused the concealing of [his] face from YOU to keep from hearing.“.

So ultimately, whether I call God “YHWH”, “Jehovah”, “Father” or something else, it’s not what I call God that will separate me from Him, I am already separated and it’s because of my sin. So again, I can pose their question “Can you [or, I] be close to Jehovah?”. At this point I want to answer emphatically that even though I have disagreed with them, I do think that the answer is a resounding “yes!” And the Bible makes it clear, John 14:6-7 tells us, “Jesus said to him: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If YOU men had known me, YOU would have known my Father also; from this moment on YOU know him and have seen him.”” [NWT].

The way we get to the Father is through Jesus. It’s not by knowing a name, it’s not by doing good works (c.f. Ephesians 2:8-9); it’s by God’s grace. So if from the outset you have in mind that Jesus is the only way of salvation and that His death as God on the cross is what makes that salvation possible, you can direct conversation and discussion along these lines and present the gospel hopefully out of the questions that they raise. You will notice that I have quoted from the NWT, I have done this because Jehovah’s Witnesses are unlikely to trust anything that comes from you anyway. If you read from their literature and their copy of the Bible (as distorted as it may be) you will create a common ground on which you can speak the gospel which cannot be constrained even by the NWT.

________________________________________

BIBLIOGRAPHY:
Quotations from the NWT are taken from:

  • http://www.watchtower.org/bible/isa/chapter_059.htm
  • http://www.watchtower.org/bible/joh/chapter_014.htm

The Tract that I quoted is called

  • What Does the Bible Really Teach