February 20, 2008

Into Our Neighborhoods

2008 1505 page5 capne of my favorite verses is John 1:14: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

And I love what Eugene Peterson did in his paraphrase of this verse in The Message: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, generous inside and out, true from start to finish.”

This verse reminds us that the God we worship is not distant and removed from our experience; He knows exactly what it feels like to be human. And the way He lived as a human not only displayed God’s character for all to see, it revealed how His followers should live.

While we Adventists often define our religious experience by what we don’t do—we don’t drink alcohol, don’t use tobacco, don’t go to church on Sunday, don’t wear jewelry, etc.—Jesus’ life and ministry were defined by what He did. His manifesto, if you please, was revealed in His first public proclamation: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18, 19).

2008 1505 page5And while some may believe they are advancing God’s kingdom by what they no longer do, what they no longer wear, or what they no longer eat, the reality is much more challenging and demanding. Notice this imperative from God, recorded by Isaiah, the gospel prophet: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isa. 58:6, 7).

Self-discipline and personal piety are fine, as far as they go. But to be truly Christlike, we have to be out where people struggle with life’s realities. Because our message cannot be completely captured in a few chapters and verses, we’re here to model a lifestyle of redemption and recovery. We’re not only trying to communicate a message, we’re trying to demonstrate what it would be like if Jesus lived in the neighborhood.

Misconceptions about religion in general and Christianity in particular abound. While most people characterize Jesus Christ as loving, open, compassionate, nonjudgmental, and forgiving, many times our detractors describe Christ’s “followers” in terms that are exactly the opposite.

That’s why we owe it to Christ—and each other—to be out in our communities living as Jesus lived. This is no time to adopt a “monastery mentality” and withdraw from society to pursue a life of theological nit-picking and self-absorbed reflection. This is a time for Christians, fortified by the Scriptures and empowered by the Holy Spirit, to infiltrate their neighborhoods to reflect Christ’s character to old and young, male and female, saint and sinner.

Sometimes this can be accomplished through the church and its ministries. But often we can find opportunities to demonstrate Christ’s compassion and concern through other vehicles as well. Over the years I’ve been a volunteer for the March of Dimes, the Red Cross, the Committee for Drug-free Schools, the Rotary Club, and others. And not only have I met some wonderful people, who, in many ways, share the values I hold dear, I’ve been able to have some intriguing conversations about life, responsibility, and yes, religion.

I hope, along the way, to have shared why Christ is important to me; why my relationship with Him has made me sensitive to the hopes, aspirations, and needs of others, and why if people said about me, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2), I would 
consider it the highest form of praise.