Monday, December 25, 2017

What It’s All About

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate some surprising things. In my twenties, I finally “got” Shakespeare. How many people, like me, loathed him at first meeting, usually in high school? I guess there are some things you just have to be old enough to understand. And some people never do.

By my thirties, I suddenly found I had a feel for non-fiction reading. In my forties, I developed a taste for comparative religions and philosophy, then for apologetics. Now, in my fifties, I suddenly discover that some of the music styles of songsters more celebrated by my parents’ generation have started to speak to me with very strange poignancy. Again, I guess sometimes you just have to reach an age.

Lately, I’ve found myself strangely compelled by the work of Burt Bacharach.

“What’s It All About, Alfie?”

If anybody’s a songster for the late-middle-aged, I guess he’s got to be it; and really, he’s been that his whole career. Back in the 1960s, during the throes of the Sexual Revolution, he and Hal David put together the lyrics for his song “Alfie” as a key piece in a movie (not recommended) about a young man who trashes women and never manages to find love. Bacharach calls it the song he’s most proud of, and David’s lyrics “one of the best lyrics anybody ever wrote.”

In the wistful conclusion to the film, the title character (played by Michael Caine) turns and speaks to the camera. As he reflects on his life and conquests, he sees that there has been passion, and rage, and pain, and confusion. There have been plans, and failures, and hopes and losses. But really, through it all, Alfie has gotten nowhere. He confesses, “I ain’t got my peace of mind … and if you ain’t got that, you ain’t got nothin’.”

It’s then that Alfie poses that ultimate question: “What’s it all about?”

The Search for Meaning

It depends, I guess.

For Alfie, there’s a big question, but no answer. But then there’s nothing in Alfie’s view of the world that allows for an answer. His world has no God. It exists as a product of some sort of much earlier cosmic happenstance, like perhaps the Big Bang, which was then presumably followed by the chain effects of physical laws on merely material entities. If that's his view, then the truth is that Alfie’s existence is one big accident. How could his life be “about” anything, then?

Not really, I mean. He could imagine himself a meaning, of course. And in the film, he could console himself momentarily with yet another fling, another sensation, another possession, or another kind of distraction. But in those moments when he would look back on the inexplicable developments of his life through his foggy, agnostic lenses, he would always have to know that whatever he was imagining by way of an answer to his question was merely a cheat.

But at the end, Alfie did figure something out. He figured out that without peace, really, “you ain’t got nothin’.”

Dead right, Alfie.


That agnostic lens isn’t the only one available, of course. For those willing to consider it, there’s life viewed through the lens of scripture. After all, one of the main purposes of the word of God is to put the temporal events of this existence into some sort of larger context, some framework of purposeful events and divine intentions, so that what seems merely inexplicable to us from our very limited and short perspective in our seventy-or-so years of existence on this planet finds its place in the larger pattern of divine purposes.

If we want to know what it’s all about, the only Person we can really ask is the one who put it all in motion in the first place, right?

What Is It All About?

Just this weekend I just happened to go looking on the Internet for information on speakers promoted by an organization I like. One of them was Dr. Chris Wright. I wasn’t familiar with his work before this; but I found myself quite enjoying his little talk on the Bible, ethics and evangelism.

In his talk, Wright says (I think, with some justification) that it is reasonable to view all of scripture as centered on the issue of mission. In aid of that thesis, he points out that while you could say that there are many topics in the Bible, there are few that you could credibly say are the reason for the Bible.

For example, he says, the Bible talks about marriage, and also about things like work; but you could never say that the whole reason for the Bible is marriage or work. However, he concludes, “mission” is different. It’s quite possible to make a case that the whole focus of all of scripture is mission. In fact, he calls it “the hermeneutical key that unlocks the whole book.”

If you’re a fan of YouTube sermons, you can see the whole thing here:

Partly Right, Mr. Wright

Now, I wouldn’t say that Wright is totally wrong about this. No doubt “mission” is a recurrent idea in the Bible, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it were possible to frame one’s whole interpretation that way. However, I must wonder if, in some sense, his analysis doesn’t go quite far enough.

My reason for wondering is that we really can’t help but be conscious that a “mission” is always really “a mission for” something. Moreover, I think it makes a very big difference what it is for. It certainly makes a huge difference whether the “mission” in question is medical, moral or military; if nothing else, to the question of whether we are to expect incoming doctors, political activists, or shock-troops. That is hardly a matter of idle concern for those on the receiving end, I think you’ll agree.

So if all of scripture is about “mission”, we need to ask what sort of mission it is — whether its outcome is expected to be health, humanitarian aid, military occupation, or something else entirely.

For this reason, I want to agree only guardedly, but then modify Dr. Wright’s claim without departing from his thread of thought entirely. For I would point out that the purpose of God’s missional activity to mankind is not merely consolation, temporal help, or prosperity. And it’s certainly not political activism or a military takeover. So if God’s purpose is missional, then we may say that the outcome of the mission is as follows:

It is relationship.

What “Relationship”?

From Genesis to Revelation, the flow goes as follows. The world is created as a stage upon which a genuine and free relationship between creatures and Creator can be established. But since no relationship is possible on a forced basis, mankind is permitted to choose to fall away from God and create a serious relational problem; serious, because it’s utterly impossible for a holy God to be in relationship to sinful creatures. Then the drama is played forward in terms of different relationship strategies: from godly individuals like Noah and Abraham, through the development of ritual and nations, and finally to an impasse at the end of Malachi, which ends with exhaustion, and with the definitive failure of man to live up to any relationship with God.

At the start of the New Testament a new basis for relationship is set. “Come to me,” says Christ, and “I will give you rest.” What this means is established in Messiah’s life, purchased in his death and certified by God in his resurrection. Man’s failures end, and God’s success in producing relationship with mankind begins on that note. But then the remainder of the New Testament is about the working out of that relationship under earthly trials and conditions; and finally, Revelation exposes the final victory assured to those who enter into right relationship with God.

What Kind of “Relationship”?

What kind of a relationship does the Bible show God is establishing with mankind? It goes back to that very important word with which this post begins. Biblically, if the theme is “mission,” then it’s a peace mission.

Now, “peace” is an important term in scripture, as we all know. But it’s easy to think of it only in the late English-style way, as a sort of cessation of hostilities or a condition of being left alone to do as one wishes. This is not the biblical implication. In scripture, “peace” is shalom. It’s not merely something negative or passive, as the previous definitions would seem to suggest. It goes far beyond that, promising “a state in which harmonious relations are sustained between previously antagonistic factions or sides.” In other words, to have “the peace of God” is not merely to avoid his antipathy and to escape judgment, but to have entered into a peaceful contract and condition, in which one is able to continue infinitely in a mutually pleasing way, not merely living alongside, but living with each other well and happily.

Whereas the routine, English definition of “peace” would seem to leave the two parties in uneasy coexistence, the biblical definition places them in a situation of future collegiality and mutual affection — really, of friendship, or more intimately, of marriage. In the ordinary definition of “peace”, the two parties may merely coexist; in the latter, they are transformed into a unity. The factions are removed, the two are merged into one; they go forward henceforth happily, as a common concern and a unified entity. And whereas human “peace” leaves blank the question of the developments of the future, the shalom of God, divine peace, answers that question with the affirmation (to steal a line from the old Hall and Oates song), “It’s you and me forever.”

The Gospel of Peace

The “mission” of God, therefore, is not merely to convince men and women of the truth of God’s existence, or even of the gospel itself. It is to do that so as to bring those same men and women into a lasting condition of harmonious relationship with both God and each other. At the core of that mission is the goal of relationship. “Therefore,” says Paul, “having been justified by faith, we have peace through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

“Justification” means that the hostilities between a just and holy God and sinful, fallen man have been terminated in declaring legally that those who have faith are just and righteous. But the “therefore” of it all is that peace with God is permanently established through the mediation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The end of judgment against us is the beginning of a new condition of life, in which we are not at war with God but in harmonious communion with him for the eternal future. No wonder, then, that the scripture also says, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things have passed away, and the new have come.” Those brought into peace with God are also given the mission of extending that peace to others. Having reached the condition of peace, we are to extend that experience to others who at present know nothing of peace with God.

And that is why I must modify Dr. Wright’s claim, not with the purpose of making him wrong, but of making him at least a little more right. The purpose of God in giving us the Bible is not mere mission, but a comprehensive peace mission — with the goal not only that men would be saved, but that they would be brought into a state of permanent harmony and blessing, both with God and with each other.

The distinction is very important.

The Priority of Peace

Why? Because without it, it is too easy for us to think that the whole purpose of God is to save souls. It is not. It is to bring people into the ongoing condition of relationship characterized by peace; in which God not only forgives sins and silences judgment, but restores, heals, transforms, blesses and eventually perfects his people as those who are fit for friendship with God.

In this work, edification is at least as important as salvation. Maturation matters every bit as much as deliverance. The question of whether people will go on from being saved and enter into the fulfillment of what God has planned for them is no less crucial than the question of the destination of a soul.

Entering into the fullness of harmonious communion with God is not a second (and optional) goal for the Christian; it is integral to the plan God has for all those he saves: he has saved them for no less a purpose and destiny than that they should participate fully and committedly in such a relationship — starting now, and going on forever.

And if we miss that, then what we have is far less than the gospel — whatever we may still choose to call it.

Peace Disruption

The failure to understand this relationship, peace, as the core of the Christian message has been an unqualified disaster for Christendom. Thinking that our mission as Christians has been satisfied as soon as we have “preached people into the kingdom” has caused many churches to downgrade teaching to the level of a secondary activity — something we can get to eventually if and when all the souls are saved; but until then, the focus on talking people into salvation takes complete precedence.

Yet how shall we call souls in when there is nothing of comparable importance into which we are calling them? The whole credibility of the gospel is its power as a lived experience, as demonstrated in the lively activity of those who have entered into peace with God. In our daily lives and activities, if we don’t look like those who know what that sort of a relationship really is, how can we ask anyone else to believe we can direct them into it?

Our maturity, our love of worship, our passion for God, our love for each other, our patient enduring of injustice, our absence of fear in the face of persecution and our daily focusing on eternal priorities, so that we grasp nothing in this world but give freely to all — these are the essence of our credibility in the missional message of God to the lost.

If we cannot show that God actually does transform lives and bring real people into harmonious relationship with him, why should anyone believe us when we tell them he does?

Peace on Earth

Peace on earth, goodwill toward men.” We say that all the time at this season.

But sometimes a translation is too short to do justice to what a verse means. That’s true in this case. Really, it needs a bit of expansion, to read more like, “Peace among men who are the objects of the good will, approval and love of God.” That would actually better convey the sense.

You see, it’s not merely about how God feels about mankind — and it’s certainly not about how mankind transform themselves into the loving, peaceful kind of people God tells them to be. It’s about how true peace, for the first time, becomes possible among mankind, because those who have been saved by the divine gift of Messiah Jesus (whose name, you will recall, actually means, “God saves”) discover they have entered into a lasting condition of peace with the Father — and thus, henceforth, with all others who are likewise blessed by him. But the human peace is very much secondary and derivative of the primary peace, the peace with God. And this new condition is secured not in mankind’s own always-failing efforts but as a free gift of God.

“Peace” and “goodwill” are not two goals. They are the summation of God’s intention in sending Christ to earth for us. God’s goodwill is made possible because there is a state of peace into which men are being invited. That’s why Luke tells us about how, at the birth of Messiah, the holy host of angels did not descend in wrath and judgment — though well they might have. They came proclaiming this peace.

Peace Forever

Have you entered into God’s peace?

Dear unbeliever, if you have not, then why not? God has offered it to you, and sealed the sincerity of his offer by sending himself in the person of Jesus Christ to pay the price of your sins, proving God’s justice and love in the same stroke. You don’t have to be alone, floating through a universe devoid of sense, morality and meaning, chasing from empty sensation to empty sensation, trying desperately to ignore your looming realization of missing out, of decline and of death.

That nagging sense of having been abandoned, orphaned in a meaningless cosmos is actually trying to tell you something: that it just isn’t enough. And it’s that very emptiness that now calls out to you, reminding you that you were made for more. But it’s not hopeless ... that emptiness was made to be filled. Your universe can find its center-point in a real, personal relationship of lasting peace with the eternal God.

That’s what it’s all about, Alfie.

And you, my dear believer: have you been the beneficiary of God’s peace? Not just the fact that your sins are forgiven, but the permanent and progressive enjoyment of the fact that God loves you and wants an eternal relationship of love with you? Have you been savoring his word every day, growing in knowledge and appreciation for God? Have you been praying diligently for his will in your life? Have you been setting your priorities and values on the inevitability of your eternal home? Have you been happy in the love of God, unselfish in your daily habits, loving with those you know, and generous with all the needy? Can you say that this year you are more mature, more filled with joy, and more committed to the kingdom of God than you have ever been before?

And has this been evident to everyone who knows you? If we have been falling short of this, then we have lost sight of the mission of God: the relationship of peace.

Our God is not just “the God who is over us”, nor even “the God who has forgiven us”; he is God with us, “Immanuel” … every day, in a real way, now, all year and forever.

Time to sharpen our understanding and renew our vision. Time to enter into the peace once and for all secured to us in the giving of the Son of God, the Gift of all gifts.

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