July 2, 2020

Carrying the Fire

Christ’s church began its story with bright tongues of fire.

Bill Knott

There is no greater temptation for the church of Jesus today than the desire to be liked by those with power, and thus conform its message and its mission to preserving the status quo.

But at its core, the church always carries a molten gospel in its life, a force so powerful and clear that it remakes a million lives a day, inflames their new imaginations with visions of a different world, and sets in motion deep movements that inevitably change this world as well.

Thus the earliest followers of Jesus stood against the establishments and elites of the Roman world to announce a gospel still unfolding in our world today: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28, NRSV).* In a culture that awarded social value by ethnicity and race, by economic status and by gender, the manifesto of first-century Christianity was correctly read as undermining the foundations of an evil social order. And so we read of confrontations and martyrdom, of countless lives expended on the sands of amphitheaters, in dungeons, and at the stake. Make no mistake: the enemies of truth were entirely clear-eyed about the change the gospel always brings.

Tell the child of a despised people that he is, in fact, a valued son of an omnipotent Father, and he will never fully acquiesce to tales of his inferiority. Tell a slave that the only Master who truly matters has announced the coming death of slavery, and you strike sharp sparks to tinder in her mind. Tell women that the Word of God, from Genesis through Jesus, recognizes in them the image of eternal God, and you may reasonably expect changed families, new congregations, and yes, reformed societies.

You cannot preach the authentic gospel taught by Jesus and simultaneously plan for only sweetly devotional outcomes—for things-as-they-were; for unruffled times and unyielding authority; for victims of this world’s way to never challenge how things work.

It must be said: Christ’s church began its story with bright tongues of fire. And even on its darkest days—when the church itself forgot its truth, and used the corrupting power of the state to suppress the incendiaries of freedom, Sabbath, and salvation by faith—the embers never died away. Some lips were still anointed with the coals from heaven’s altar. Some minds could still imagine a day when every prisoner will go free. A thousand hidden campfires burn with dreams to live within God’s better world.

We ought never be surprised when both our culture and our church stir with the power of a better dream—a vision of a just society; a call for fairness in the public square as well as in the congregation. The censer swung for centuries in rituals and ceremonies had real fire within it. And the incense reaching to the sanctuary has identified ingredients: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Isa. 58:6, 7).

We are still learning from this gospel that we carry—still realizing how vast is its ability to remake lives and families and movements. So make a covenant with me that we will yield to the message that we bear—that we will not domesticate it; or make it tame; or make it sound like corporate press releases.

The church I want to belong to is . . . fearless.

*Bible texts credited to NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.