FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, your Son Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. Give us grace to love one another, to follow in the way of his commandments, and to share his risen life with all the world, for he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6.
That verse has followed me throughout my whole life. It has shaped the trajectory of my thinking in numerous ways at different stages of my development. I have known the verse from early childhood and probably had to memorize it in Sunday school. It was a staple in Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod teaching, the church in which I was raised. The emphasis back then was on the second sentence: “No one comes to the Father except by me.” The way, the truth and the life consisted in understanding and believing the correct doctrine concerning Jesus Christ. Thus, purity of doctrine was essential. Though our pastors and teachers grudgingly admitted that other protestant traditions and perhaps even a few confused Roman Catholics might hold elements of the gospel sufficient to constitute saving faith, the only way to be absolutely sure of your salvation was to hold fast to the doctrine professed in our Lutheran Confessions, the essential bones of which were spelled out in Luther’s Small Catechism. In my mother’s day, memorization of the entire Catechism was a prerequisite for confirmation. Thankfully, by the time I was confirmed, memorization of the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed and several key Bible verses sufficed.
In my freshman year of high school, I had my first encounter with “evangelicalism.” I met a group of kids loosely associated with a 1970s movement then called “The Jesus People.” They had a very different take on the captioned Bible verse. Their emphasis was on the first sentence: “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Jesus, they believed, did not simply teach or embody abstractly the good news of the gospel. Jesus was the good news. Salvation was not about believing the right doctrine, but rather trusting the right person. Faith was relational. Thus, the issue was not “what do you believe?” but “who do you trust?” The critical question was, “have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior?”
This new community had much to commend it. It seemed to offer everything I did not know I was looking for in my own church-a living faith and a group of people seriously trying to follow Jesus in the carnivorous world of high school. This group was made up of believers from several different churches. We met each morning before school began in one of the class rooms for a prayer meeting led by Father Joe. Father Joe was a priest from our local Roman Catholic parish who had received “the baptism of the Holy Spirit,” an experience of renewal accompanied by speaking in tongues. In these meetings we bared our souls, offering up prayers for help in our own trials, for one another and for our unbelieving fellow students. Witnessing to our faith was a large part of what we did. Our lockers had bumper stickers reflecting bible verses or just the name “Jesus.” When these were defaced, we simply replaced them, prayed for the vandals and “rejoiced that we were found worthy to suffer for the name.” If our witnessing was intended to win converts, it was not particularly effective. But it led to many lively conversations in locker rooms, tables in the cafeteria and the hallways about faith and the things that matter.
Ironically, the same Jesus that drew me into the evangelical movement led me out of it. That journey began at my encounter with Rev. James Cone, who preached at an assembly held by my junior college. He spoke eloquently about Jesus’ solidarity with the oppressed and discipleship that calls his church to do the same. It would be decades later that I finally read his classic book, A Black Theology of Liberation, but his powerful witness was enough to turn my thinking in a new direction. No longer could I view Jesus as “my personal Lord and Savior.” He is, as John’s gospel makes clear to us, “the savior of the world.” I now understood that discipleship was not about rescuing as many souls as possible from a sinking ship. Discipleship is joining with Jesus in saving the ship.
I should also add that, just as I was changing my perspectives, evangelicalism was evolving in a new direction. The evangelicals I found myself associating with in college seemed to lack the freshness of newfound faith that drew me to my high school group. They seemed less interested in Jesus than in ending abortion and bringing prayer back into the public schools. They were critical and fearful of the outside world. Indeed, they viewed the school (a Christian one!) and its student body and professors as mostly hostile. Theirs was very much an “us against them” mentality. Bible study, rather than a means for deepening faith in Jesus, focused instead on the approach of the “end times,” the coming “rapture,” “demon possession” and signs of the antichrist in every headline. Perhaps this dark side of evangelicalism was always there and I just did not notice it earlier on. But in any case, it did not square with following the “way, the truth and the life” of the Jesus I had come to know as savior of the world and the God who hates nothing God has made. By the end of my junior year in college, I was done with Intervarsity, Campus Crusade and the small group of prayer partners in in my dormitory.
I cannot possibly catalogue all the friends I have made, teachers I have had and books I have read that have and continue to influence my faith journey. But more than anyone else, Paul Sponheim, Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology at Luther Seminary, shaped my thinking about Jesus as the cosmic Christ, as the incarnation of God’s creative and redemptive love. Jesus is God putting God’s skin in the game we know as human existence. As such, the life he lived and the death he died and his resurrection to which the scriptures testify matter-and not just for those of us who believe in him. If Jesus is who the scriptures say he is, the eternal Word which both is with and is God (John 1:1); the one through whom God created the world (Hebrews 1:2); the one in whom all things hold together (Colossians 1:17); then the salvation he brings is universally applicable, politically oriented toward justice for the oppressed, socially oriented toward reconciliation and ecologically restorative.
In view of all this, it should not surprise us, indeed, we ought to expect that we will find the work and wisdom of this Word through which the Spirit of God is released into the world among people of different faiths and those of no faith at all. Again, if Jesus is who we say he is, how could it be otherwise? Thus, to say that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life through which all come to the Father is not, as so many assume, an exclusion of those whose doctrine is not quite right or who have not explicitly “accepted Jesus as personal Lord and Savior.” As Jesus himself testified, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold.” John 10:16. It is for Jesus and his lifegiving Spirit to form all of humanity into a single flock. We, for our part, have no idea how that will happen or what it will look like in the end. Ours is simply to bear witness in word and deed to Jesus and live as best we can into the just and gentle reign he proclaims.
Though I classified myself as a former evangelical in the title of this post, that is not entirely accurate. I am still evangelical in all the ways that I believe are important. I still believe that faith is relational and that, as important as doctrine may be (and I do believe that it is important), it exists to serve, guide and nurture our faith in Jesus Christ. I still believe that theology, whatever brand it might be, is not worth the trees sacrificed to print it if it does not have as its end forming the mind of Christ in communities of faith. I still believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life and that all who trust him can be assured of abundant and eternal life. But because Jesus is at the right hand of God, the life he promises is bigger than my own personal needs, bigger than the church and bigger than anything our Creeds and confessions can contain. One thing I have learned is that, whenever you think you have Jesus all figured out, you discover you don’t.
Here is a rendering of the well known Prayer of St. Patrick that I believe captures what it means to be a disciple of the Cosmic Christ.
The Prayer of St. Patrick
I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
of the Creator of creation.
I arise today
Through the strength of Christ’s birth with His baptism,
Through the strength of His crucifixion with His burial,
Through the strength of His resurrection with His ascension,
Through the strength of His descent for the judgment of doom.
I arise today
Through the strength of the love of cherubim,
In the obedience of angels,
In the service of archangels,
In the hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
In the prayers of patriarchs,
In the predictions of prophets,
In the preaching of apostles,
In the faith of confessors,
In the innocence of holy virgins,
In the deeds of righteous men.
I arise today, through
The strength of heaven,
The light of the sun,
The radiance of the moon,
The splendor of fire,
The speed of lightning,
The swiftness of wind,
The depth of the sea,
The stability of the earth,
The firmness of rock.
I arise today, through
God’s strength to pilot me,
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s host to save me
From snares of devils,
From the temptation of vices,
From everyone who shall wish me ill,
afar and near.
I summon today
All these powers between me and those evils,
Against every cruel and merciless power
that may oppose my body and soul,
Against incantations of false prophets,
Against black laws of pagandom,
Against false laws of heretics,
Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul;
Christ to shield me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that there may come to me an abundance of reward.
Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
of the Creator of creation.
Source: Though attributed to the legendary Irish Saint Patrick, no one knows the precise origin of this beautiful expression of faith which appears in many abbreviated forms and has inspired numerous hymns, including “I Bind unto Myself Today,” by Cecil Frances Alexander in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, (c. 2006 by Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; pub. by Augsburg Fortress Press) Hymn # 450.
 I will not attempt a comprehensive definition of the term “evangelical” as it applies to a distinct Christian tradition. As with all movements of any sort, there is a great deal of diversity among evangelicals as well as some dispute over who belongs there and who does not. Moreover, many of us “mainliners” also lay claim to that term with our own take on what it signifies. From my own experience, it seems that one common denominator is the belief that a genuine Christian is one who has made a conscious decision to accept Jesus Christ as savior.
1 thought on “Cosmic Christ and the Confessions of a Former Evangelical Christian”
I read a post on a different blog a few days ago and was invited by the writer to visit his “testimony.” His testimony read like a personal/self-styled creed. “I believe… I believe… I believe…”
It was very thoughtful stuff. He obviously has lived a while, experienced things, and now reflected on them in earnest.
Your story, seems closer to what I would call a testimony, but that personal creed pulsates beneath the surface, I think.
Thanx for sharing your story. I am a little younger than you, but I would have been alive during all the pertinent parts of your story, and have memories of some of that. In fact, I lived in Missouri as a youngster, but one of my biggest memories of those days is riding the school bus and looking at the artwork some of the “big” kids drew on their school books of KISS, the rock band. I lived there during the US Bicentennial celebration, and I recall parades. I also remember sitting in a Bible classroom during a potluck gathering with some older kids who calculated the year of my high school graduation on the chalk board, and that seemed so far in the future then that we would surely have our jet packs by that time!
I’m a little disappointed even now about those jet packs.
Anyway, my dad was a preacher in our traditionally staunch faith heritage which managed to mimic and ride the coattails of so much evangelicalism without claiming to be evangelical – in fact denying it, opposing it, and ignoring it as much as possible. (There are some levels of church life in the modern world where we really keep our heads buried in sand.)
We left Missouri while I was still very young, and in a couple years landed in a very small west Texas town. So small we weren’t big enough to be BOTH po and dunk.
I realize now, though I didn’t then, that even though it was the 1980s, that little town had a spirit and mentality that never got out of the 1950s. As I reflect on it now, I realize that all those weekends when we would routinely, as a family (like so many other families in that town), make the trip down to San Angelo for groceries, which usually meant we made a round of doctors visits, shopped at the mall, ate out, and frequently saw a movie too (made a day of it), that I would pass through a time warp coming and going.
I recall going with a school group to a competition thingy held in Dallas which dictated two busloads of kids (I was in jr high then) staying overnight in a motel. There were many features of that trip I still recall stood out because of the exposure we collectively had to a much faster, more intense culture! All us country bumpkins pulled up in the lot on the bus and saw a couple girls (I think they were girls) dressed up sorta punk rock like and one of them wearing a dog collar with metal spikes as she walked by. One of the kids on the bus shouted at her some disapproval of her fashion, and she dropped her drawers and shined us the moon!
We weren’t in Kansas anymore, Toto!
Anyway, as I moved into high school, Dad left preaching and became a marriage and family counselor. We left that small town for another, but this new one was three times as big as the other. But it was out of the Bible belt and in another state several hundred miles away. It was remote from city life, but… but… (and this is why I recite all of this), it was firmly in the 1980s culture.
When I went to school the first day, I met at least three girls in the hall dressed like Madonna in fishnet stockings and all. I went to the pep rally for the ball game that Friday, and a group of guys dressed up like Dokken, the rock band, and played one of their songs to pump up the crowd.
But our small town didn’t have a lot of local entertainment. The movie theater would show movies (you only had two to choose from, and all of them were old, released six weeks before we got them) for a dollar!
This meant Monday night, the theater was overrun with high school kids. I soon learned the cultural routine, kids would show up a half hour before the movie and begin forming a line on the sidewalk out front that would trail off around the corner, around the bank, and sometimes past the alley out back. This became a time to socialize while waiting for the movie to let us in.
It was then, for the first time ever, I saw the Jesus freaks, basically young people from The Potter’s House church, who at least once a month would show up with guitars and a bull horn or maybe an amplifier, line up on the sidewalk across the street in front of the drugstore, which was after hours for them, and sing Jesus songs and preach salvation from hell and damnation to us kids across the street.
They pulled a few other stunts of that sort too, but this was a near routine. And I watched as kids on the theater side would shout obscenities back at them in response.
I was petrified. It would be a very long time before I decided to hold to faith with that kind of tenacity. But a seed of respect was sown in me.
That’s just me.
I’m sure it is very likely others had a similar respect, but we never compared notes. So, I don’t know that. I have to presume it, but maturity gives me a sense that there are some shared views like that out there.
Your post deals heavily in how the church as a whole views such things, how it disciples people into or out of such views. Emphasis on the first part of the verse or the latter part, and so forth.
I see where we have these divided allegiances. We serve various masters as best we can, and yet when serving Jesus, to the extent we do, there is yet another concern that we not be too uncaring, too rigid, too insensitive – and finally judgmental for that matter.
No doubt, I devote myself to loving and serving Jesus as best I can, or at least I convince myself of that. In effort to be all in, I try to teach/lead others to serve him “properly” as I see it. I wouldn’t take you out to the backside of the barn, hang a target on it, and insist you shoot a gun at it, but then give you a bow and arrow and turn you the other direction! Right?
Of course, some of this is not just innocent mistakes. And even some of the innocent mistakes prove to be directed by more sinister powers.
I’m thinking that when Luther challenged the church, reform was needed. But when the church broke, there became a competition for the marketplace of souls. (Us and Them)
The splitting didn’t stop there but continued.
But there are other matters too.
National church. The church of England, of France, of Italy, of Spain…. and on and on. I am not a church historian by any stretch. But I can see a major shift in the church from before Constantine and after, from before Luther and after, and then the USA (“the New World”) comes along, and among some of the many, many, many shifts in the bedrock, a concern for German Christians fighting in wars with French or Spanish Christians (who whoever) is so problematic there has got to be a way to address it. Not to mention the murders and conflicts between Catholics, Lutherans, and other splinter groups. All IN THE NAME OF JESUS!
The founding fathers separate church and state and give freedom to the church – sorta. And the culture embraces it! And the marketplace for souls explodes with possibilities.
The state doesn’t care (sorta). (None of this is ever as simple as it sounds, but there is a lot of truth to it nonetheless.)
The state runs things down here, God is safely kept up in heaven, and those of us who care about Jesus reduce our fights to debates about doctrine and so forth. We can actually hold real debates between each other in front of discerning souls and make appeal to their sense of right and wrong. Winning souls became a thing.
Plenty of lay people settling the frontier didn’t overly invest in these debates, but pretty much which ever man in a collar showed up to lead a prayer could lead us in our little group, and it might be another century before we wake up to the fact that we are Baptist now. Or Methodist…. etc…
My guess is there was a fairly strong impulse in the general populace to devote ourselves to Jesus in whatever heritage we found ourselves, but it was already subtly taking second place to matters of state.
One thing almost all of these faith heritages did was offer chaplaincy to empire. And when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, plenty of country bumpkin kids who never dreamed about crossing the county line, suddenly found a pair of GI boots and Paris or Okinawa.
These people with feet of clay who had just come through the Great Depression, saw things, did things, and went places, and didn’t come back until the USA had dropped an atomic bomb on our enemies. When they returned, these feet of clay were now world-conquering feet of clay.
My grandparents never shook the shaping they went through in the Depression, but their kids sure did! Us grandkids got our shoes at the mall and couldn’t think outside THAT box.
The state had come to wag the dog. Ahem, the tail now wagged the church… ahem… um… I bet you get me.
We split hairs about emphases on the first part of the verse, the last part of the verse, and meanwhile Vietnam.
I still believe in Jesus. But I am more sure all the time that my church doesn’t. I am more sure all the time that a group of like-minded people in America today have other interests and hold them more important than those of others.
My grandparents generation started dying off twenty some odd years ago, and now only those without feet of clay are left, and we are terrible parents of our children. We are clueless about Jesus either as a personal savior or a world saver. Those of us devoted to him at all now want our Purpose Driven coffee mug with the handsome Purpose Driven leatherbound journal to go with it. Either that or we want our Left Behind family board game.
Oh… are we past all that now?
I mean we want Trump, the pussy grabber for President to Make America Great Again, you woke Democrats BE DAMNED!
Hmmm.. the founding fathers wanted to address Christians warring on other Christians among other things, didn’t they? Wasn’t that part of the reason, a big part, of why we have “religious freedom”?
Who is this guy named Ron Reagan claiming that means freedom FROM religion?
Did we build our house on the sand?
Tell me about Jesus.