For so much of my life I was taught the importance of evangelizing. I would be given opportunities at retreats to practice telling people the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This was the gospel after all. Christ tells us to go everywhere and share this gospel with everyone (all of creation to be precise). And I was taught that for someone to be saved they had to hear and believe in this story. So I shared it with anyone who would listen. I had to! I was so deeply worried about my friends going to Hell. And if I didn’t share the gospel with them, it meant I didn’t really love them. If I didn’t talk to them about the problem of sin and use it as evidence to their need for a savior then I may as well share the blame for them being in Hell for all of eternity.
I’d be given five minutes to share my testimony in the lens of this Jesus narrative. Often vamping up my sinful life to make it sound much worse than it actually was while thinking hard to pinpoint the moment of my realization for a need of a savior. I needed a clear and precise “born-again” moment. But in truth, Jesus was always a part of my life. The “life before Jesus” wasn’t a part of my story. Whatever sinful depths or holy heights I traveled were with Christ’s presence known and secured over my life. There wasn’t some light-bulb moment.
It was often difficult to fit my testimony into this box that I could use as a sales-pitch to convert others. Honestly, for years of my life I would feel so guilty that I wasn’t able to tell you some clear transformation in my life. (Maybe I’m less selfish now? I don’t know…) Sure I had an experience as a high school student that changed my faith understandings and secured my trust in God, but some of the worst choices I made followed that experience! I absolutely would say I was growing in my faith, people were looking to me to be a leader; giving me opportunities to speak and preach, lead ministries and Bible studies. I would share this gospel story with more and more people. And several people gave their lives to Jesus! I was acquiring more attention and growing wiser and more loving by all standards, but “transformed?” Seemingly I was just moving down a path and rising up the chain.
That was until nearly everything was taken from me. My Bible, my ability to sing worship songs about bloody atonement, my desire to gather in a church. All those visual things that help you appear “holier than thou” were robbed through years of studying religion at a secular university and hearing about other understandings of God than the one I’d been attempting to sell all these years prior. I hit a point where I didn’t believe that narrative the way I had always been taught. To gather in the presence of it even felt wrong. It made me cringe. I started singing my own words over songs like “Jesus Paid It All or just not singing “Nothing But the Blood” at all. I didn’t understand salvation the same way. Nor did I believe the Gospel was merely some story I sold to children in Africa so that I could leave in peace knowing their eternal destination. No, that was such a cheapened view of it all.
I was grounded in very conservative evangelical understandings. I voted Red. Upheld the literalness of the Scriptures. Fought for inerrancy. Fought for traditional marriage and a fetus’ right to live. Fought against those evil-liberals who were so clearly rooted in all things anti-Christ. Depraved by the secular world, conforming to the “patterns of this world.” Because to disagree with the beliefs I was given as “certain” and “solid-rock” was to in essence not be saved. It was to be built on the sand awaiting the wave that would knock me over.
We were clear in saying you never could “lose your salvation.” We just found the clever way to say the same thing to those whose questions led them away; “you were never actually saved.” Apostacy! To question any part of the Bible was to question all of it. It was to pick and choose. And to pick and choose what you believed about Genesis or the historical accuracy of the events of Scripture was to question the very story that saves you.
I thank God every time I realize He delivered me from this narrow way of thinking. It built up my ego. It didn’t transform my life. It brought me comfort, community, identity, and security (all nice things) but genuine transcendence? I don’t know that it ever did. It certainly operated under the guise of this, I had a clear sense of what was right and what was wrong. I knew who was in and who was out. If people disagreed with my beliefs well then “blessed am I when people persecute me on behalf of Christ!”
The deconstruction of my faith brought on by years of studying religion, reading other theological perspectives and experiencing other communities and cultures placed me right in the cross-hairs of everything I had ever fought and criticized. (What a strange and lonely place to be.) I was one of them now, questioning my way into oblivion. Wait, Genesis 1 was actually a poem? Wait Hell was a literal place outside of Jerusalem? Wait, Caesar Augustus was called the “Son of God” and had a gospel that he shared to the world and called “salvation?”
The questions did something unexpected…
They transformed me. Suddenly reflecting on the person of my past revealed a clear difference. I wasn’t just growing or moving up some ladder, I had changed dramatically, not even able to recognize who I once was.
From 2012-2014 the entirety of my being went through the grinder. Theologically, I was digging deeper into the history of the church, and more importantly the history before the reformers. It was revealed that there are far more ways to understand the divine mystery than my conservative evangelical one. People actually had different understandings of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Those absolutes it turns out…were not absolutes. Culturally, the world beyond my white suburbia was challenged by the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. It revealed quite dramatically that not everyone has existed in the confines of my experiences. The words of Jake Chambers from Stephen King’s Dark Tower novels beamed in my mind; “Go then, there are other worlds than these.”
There are other world’s than my own. And it’s high-time I start listening.
The immediate feeling was betrayal. Stupidity even. To so aggressively have fought for the validity of my beliefs (religious and political) while ignoring all others brought me shame. But with that revelation came freedom. Because I was given the deconstruction that allowed me to rebuild in ways that felt more authentic and true than spoon-fed and unchallenged. Taking in everything I could, as diversely as I could, and placing it before this mystery I called God. It freed me from making everything bend into what I was once grounded so firmly in and actually allowed me to piece things together in a more critical and constructive way.
Nothing, nothing shaped me more than learning about Rome’s Pax Romana and the propaganda that read “There is no other name under heaven by which you can be saved, save for Augustus.” That Jesus was killed for confronting this power and stirring up others to go and share the good news that Jesus, not Caesar is Lord. That the Christ was making a better world, not through the conquering violence of the Empire, but through the sacrificial love of servants. That the Bible doesn’t actually talk about a mass-evacuation that we often call the rapture, rather it spoke over and over and over AND OVER again about the reconciliation of all things. That through resurrection God was making all things new and that He offers us this vision and prayer, that thy kingdom has come. May “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” It’s called the new creation. And we are invited to take part. Sharing this tool for salvation to the ends of the earth. Because this tool of subversion we call the Gospel is a tool that liberates everything that is in chains! Amen! It’s the tool that confronts that which uses bondage to build empires. It’s the tool that confronts the powers that oppress and marginalize others. It’s why Christ so often talked about the poor and the least of these. Because the work of his good news is to liberate all that we have historically disregarded.
God, as the Bible so clearly bears witness to, is a God of the oppressed.
In fact things had become so corrupt in the world that Christ appeared at what they called “the culmination of the ages.” A time where zealots donned the figure of a Messiah to violently overthrow the Roman Empire. A time where the wealthy and the religious elite taught that their blessings in life would equate to blessings in the next. That the fires of hell were awaiting the poor and broken. That their curses in this life would equate to an eternity of cursedness in the next. Christ comes along and flips the entire language of damnation back onto those who felt so secure. He warns the rebels that they will be destroyed should they seek the violent salvation tool of the Empire. He warned the religious leaders that it was they, not the least of these who were in danger of the fires of Gehenna! His sermon on the mount begins with this subversive point! Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven! Christ flips the entire power structures on their head. Calling us to seek out the least of these, to shatter all of our categories and caste systems, to look beyond our borders, beyond our religions, and our genders. To sell all of our possessions, and to walk naked through the eye of the needle, because the work of Christ is the revelation that we all are made one in Him. May any idea, any status, and any possession that hides this fact be given over to death.
Being freed of all my once secure theology allowed me to see that we have LOST this message. For so many in this world, salvation became about the selfish desire of where we end up when we die, rather than God’s call to build his kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven. God’s vision is a direct contrast of Rome’s. And the language is intentional. Yet we, members of the greatest empire this world has ever seen HAD to make this message about something else. To place it in it’s context would be to name all of our demons. And we have proven over and over again that we are not ready to do this good and necessary work.
The point of evangelizing is to make an announcement! And we have incredible news to announce! God is making everything new and may everything old that tries to fight away at this vibrant and abundant life stand in the knowledge that it will be removed.
God is making his home here! (Rev. 21.3) Heaven and Earth will be the same place and WE get to share in bringing that image down. This is what it means to be the hands and feet of Jesus. This is what it means to be Christ’s body. To be the Church.
We Evangelize to put to death the old order of things and awaken the new creation.
And America, we’ve got an old order that needs to be put to death. An old order so built into the fabric of this nation that to confront it demands we must do the painful work of confronting ourselves.
To be continued.