upper room daily devotions

Monday, May 21, 2007

recovering the radicality of christianity

This year marks the tenth anniversary of my ordination. It has taken all this time for me to finally come to a few pretty basic conclusions about ministry in the local church.

1. There is usually a very big difference between what a pastor is saying or thinks she is saying and what the congregation hears.

2. Perception is more important than reality.

3. Congregations tend to filter the radical message of the gospel. They don't hear the radicality; they hear the gospel as supporting evidence for already held beliefs. The message is manipulated by our ears and our brains to conform to our expectations.

4. When people hear a pastor say the gospel is political, they hear the pastor say, "The gospel belongs to my partisan political viewpoint." We need to be much clearer in communicating that "politics" and "partisan politics" are very different concepts. And, that the gospel in 100% political in nature.

5. People are hungry for the gospel. We just have to find a better way to make it real.

I come to these conclusions after years of teaching courses on the politics of Jesus (which are kingdom of God politics) only to watch congregation members get mired in conflict over whether Jesus was a liberal or a conservative. I have watched my congregations reflect back to me their experience of a sermon, a stewardship drive, or a teaching that is markedly different, even antithetical, to what was intended. I also sit in holy conversation with members, constituents, and visitors and listen to them tell me about their deep hunger for meaning and for a sense of power in an overwhelming world.

There is a disconnect happening in our churches that I believe begins with a fundamental misunderstanding of what church is and what the gospel message is. Church is a community that enters into both the belief and the practice of God's kin-dom. We do so even while this world exists and tries to deny our foolish endeavor. Church is a community that practices an alternate way of life even while living in the cities, neighborhoods, and even families that are based on a different set of principles and values. The gospel is an invitation into this life. It is an invitation to believe in love and grace in a world of hate and vengeance. It is an invitation into the economics of abundance and the politics of radical hospitality.

As followers of Christ, we are asked to step outside of the preconceived notions of our world and to live in an alternate world, in an alternate way. In this alternate way of life the resurrection is not a superstition, it is a radical invitation to life in the midst of death. Birth narratives are not fairy tales, they are stories of meaning saying to us that life is pulled from barren places as well as from virginal places. Miracles show us that God's power stands outside of the power of the state which proscribes and prescribes.

We need to recover the radicality of the gospel and re-infuse Christianity with it. Until our perceptions of the church change, our understanding of politics is transformed, and we become ready to be changed by the gospel rather than changing it to meet our needs, we will continue to struggle in a futile battle to domesticate the wild and radical message of God. And the hungry will not be fed.

I wonder what the next ten years will bring.


Mystical Seeker said...

I completely agree with your inspiring concept of the radicalism of Christianity. To me, Jesus was neither liberal nor conservative, but radical. But I think radicalness is scary for some people. They prefer safe to radical.

What depresses me about the early history of Christianity was how Jesus's radical and inclusive message got coopted by the Empire that executed him. Three centuries after he did, his followers were happily feted by a Roman Emperor at Nicea. Something is wrong with this picture.

How do we re-radicalize Christianity? Is it possible that we can do so now, when for the past two millenia it was stuck in collusion with the status quo? Maybe we live in such a different world that the old ability of the church to rest on its laurels is now undermined. Maybe this is our chance. Or maybe not. I still hold out hope that somehow, someday, we can build the Kingdom of God that Jesus preached.

rev katie m ladd said...

Thanks for the comments. Our history has certainly given us some obstacles to overcome. Constatine's conversion certainly transformed the radical message of Christianity into a domesticated agent of the state. Like you, though, I still hold out hope that the radicality of the message will break through the pull to normalcy.

Eileen said...

Hi Rev Katie -

Found your blog through Mystical's.

I agree wholeheartedly with the idea of Jesus being a radical, whose ideologies were co-opted and subverted by Empire.

If Constatine hadn't been "converted", and decided to harness Christianity as a state religion, I doubt we'd be Christians today. Empire force fed the prolific spread of Christianity.

But, radicality was not something tolerated by Empire, and so, the Christianity we live, isn't the same as the Christianity delivered by Christ.

I too, hope that we can return in a meaningful way to live the challenges presented to us by Christ - to be radical.

Great thoughts!

rev katie m ladd said...

You're right that Constantine was a double edged sword. Would we be here without him? Or would God have found another way? Thanks for the comments. Hope to see you around here again.

Eileen said...

I wonder sometimes.

I suppose, if I really believed in a God "up there", who was a puppet master, that I would believe he would have found another route to deliver Christianity.

I just don't believe that though. I'm a panentheist - God in everything, everywhere - but not God the puppet master.

I also don't believe Christianity is the only path - God may be happy with what exists, for all I know.

rev katie m ladd said...

Ooooh, I would hope that most people reading the blog don't understand God as a puppet master! I believe that God is beyond my comprehension even while being as close as my own breath; I'm in many ways a good panentheist as well. I also believe in the encouraging power of God to entice new ways from old ways or a way from no way. It is the story that I read over and over again in the bible and the one I've experienced in my own life. I wished I trusted this God more. It's my belief in such a God that helps me to believe that somehow we can recover the readicality of the gospel. Good conversation...I hope you keep commenting. It's great!

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