Every now and again we get asked how what we do at the Upper Room is anything to do with the Gospel. I find that a gobsmacking question personally – but it seems very obvious to me because I have spent the last fifteen years reading my Bible, thinking, praying, seeking after God, learning from others and hearing the leading of the Holy Spirit about this. I live and breathe it, and so it seems completely clear to me. I have to remember that others haven’t, come from different places and it is perfectly reasonable for them to ask this question. After all, we are all trying to honour Christ in the way we live our Christian lives, and seeking to learn from others as they also do this in diverse ways.
So here goes. It is important to explain that there are two parts to this issue. The first is – once we have come to know Jesus as our Lord and saviour, how then shall we live? What does making that commitment then require of us? What does Jesus expect of his followers?
As we seek the answer to that first question, emerges the next question – how do we – as followers of the Way – make new disciples? How do we share and communicate what the Good News of the Gospel is?
Both questions are answerable with reference to Scripture. And following that, for me as an Anglican, our church is also founded on tradition (the ways in which the church has understood the Word and responded to it) and reason – which is to say we are made in God’s image, as sentient beings, and at times he expects us to think and make decisions that would honour him, where the Bible doesn’t provide exact and detailed answers but in the light of guidance found there.
There is also a need to consider the Bible and how we use it to guide us. Many of the people who ask the question about why we do what we do are making assumptions about the way the Church should be done. These are actually cultural assumptions – there is nowhere in the Bible that says you must meet in a building on a Sunday morning wearing nice clothes and sing a lot of hymns or songs, of any style, and listen to a sermon – short or long – and/or say liturgy together, which is the words of the Scriptures that we commit to memory by saying together – and then drink weak coffee after. These are just the ways in which we have come together over the years, particularly since the Victorian era, to do some things that are important. The New Testament is written from the perspective of the Jewish background of the writers and the cultural behaviours of that faith and community permeate what is being written with assumptions of the Greco-Roman world and the habits of family and temple. It is ok for us to choose how and where to gather, and what to do in our practices of worship – and that applies of new forms of church too. There is nothing sacred – in terms of commandment at least, about the ways in which we do the things that seem to be important. We could meet in homes, coffee shops or prayer houses, synagogues, temples or forests, if they were fit for purpose for the people who are gathering.
So what are the important things that the people of God need to do together, and where do we find evidence for that?
a) Meeting together matters (Hebrews 10:25 and seen in the pattern of life among the early disciples and the early church in Acts.)
b) Reading the Scripture and learning from it – Ezra 7:10; Ecclesiastes 1:13; John 5:39; Matthew 22:29; Mark 12:24 seems to suggest we will be in error if we don’t know the scriptures; Luke 24:27 much of Jesus’ ministry was in teaching and explaining the scripture; Luke 24:32, 45.
c) Loving and caring for one another as the people of God – Luke 10:34, the parable of the Good Samaritan; John 21:16 Simon Peter is told to take care of the flock; I Thess 2:8 Paul cares for the Thessalonians; I Peter 5:2, be shepherds of the flock under your care.
d) Sharing the Sacraments – churches along the spectrum of tradition vary the importance they place on this, with some like The Salvation Army only receiving communion once a year to others who celebrate it every week or more often, and a wide range of practice in between. Jesus instituted this at the Last Supper (Luke 22: 19-20; I Cor 11:24-25) and it is a central tenet of the Christian faith.
e) Worship – most churches sing hymns, as a way of worshipping God and also because it is considered to ‘teach’ the faith. This is a place where our practices may differ, as we consider the words of God to some of the minor prophets to be instructive on this matter. Many churches are content to do the things listed above and feel that is sufficient but we feel there are additional elements to discipleship and worship and these inform the things we do together as a church.
f) Transformation / mission We believe that God is asking more of us – our whole life in fact, to be poured out in worship. And we see the Bible is full of exhortation to care for the poor, the vulnerable, the hungry or widows and orphans – to take action, get involved in care for others – and this for us is a whole life of worship. This love of God for us flows through us and spills out of the building and into the street where we live or work, the neighbours we have, the town and its structures of governance – all of this is our worship. We read our Bibles and see that from the covenant God made with Israel to the ministry and life of Jesus, true worship has required more than just gathering together as church and singing. The fact that Christ has redeemed us makes us jump, sing and serve for joy!
Amos 5:21-24 “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. 2 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. 23 Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. 24 But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”
Here we see God reject the religious observances of the people because they are not concerned with the fate of the poor.
In Micah 6:7-8 there is a similar story – the prophet checks whether God is asking for offerings of greater and greater magnitude, then answers: “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? 8 He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly, with your God.”
The life of Jesus reflected these concerns as he spent time among the marginalised and vulnerable, the unclean and the insane. He taught, fed, explained, healed, blessed and welcomed such who were ignored and excluded from religious society and we believe that His life is an example and a witness to us of how Christians should live.
So, for us being the church, being the body of believers, means we have a responsibility for the poor and the excluded. As Christians, it is part of our DNA to show the love of Jesus to people, and also to tell them that Jesus loves them. Over time the church has responded to this in many ways, from setting up schools and community centres, to missionaries going out to found hospitals and colleges aswell as to tell the good news.
The Church now helps to run many Foodbanks, homeless shelters, detached youth work. Since the first man and woman were told to care for the earth (Genesis 2:15) the place where they lived that God had made, there has been an injunction on God’s followers to shape and make the earth a good place for people and God to inhabit. What we cannot do is fold our arms, condemn the world and stand back and criticise. We are partly responsible, because we know that this earth is God’s good creation. And the injunction to care for the poor and the least of these still stands. Some theologians have described this as the Gospel showing a ‘preferential option for the poor’. The Gospel must be good news to those who are struggling.
This leads us onto the second part of the answer to the question ‘how is ‘this’ the Gospel?’ If we are to share God’s love with those who don’t know it, how are we to go about this? Some churches might think that meeting on a Sunday in a building that has the service times outside on a board is enough to let people know they’re there, and what they are doing. When people who are walking by don’t simply read the notice and rush in to join them, they deduce that the people ‘in the world’ do not want Jesus and have rejected him.
This is unfair and inappropriate as a means of understanding how to communicate with the world we live in. In the same way it would be unfair if I gave you some instructions in a foreign language, and then when you failed to carry them out because you didn’t understand, then I assumed that you had rejected my instructions and should be put to death for insubordination!
A gap has opened up in culture between what the Church does, that is assumes is completely clear and obvious, and what the world passing by outside understands by that. The church is often quick to condemn ‘the world’ and assume it rejects Christ, when the truth is it simply doesn’t know him enough to make that choice because no-one has taken the time to come out of the building and explain him, show and tell about him, in language that people can understand. There are people in the UK now who for four or five generations have had no Christian experience or history. No school assemblies telling bible stories, no bedtime prayers, no Sunday school outing, no family christenings or weddings. Among the poor this is particularly so. We meet people all the time who have never been inside a church, have no idea about any of the stories. People who think Easter is about eggs and rabbits and Spring.
WE MUST STOP BLAMING THEM FOR THIS! They didn’t ask to not be told! They didn’t choose it. They need people who patiently and willingly can engage with them, spend time, show that Jesus loves all people, regardless of their backgrounds or lack of middle class lifestyle, and is falling over himself to draw them into his kingdom. The truth is, from my experience, Christ loves the world and its people an awful lot more than the Church does. Jesus’ earthly ministry shows him out and about at all hours and in all places, sharing the love of the Father for people and having compassion upon them in their haplessness. Not condemning them – ever – or blaming, just trying to help them up from where they’re at now.
So, how do we communicate the Gospel to people at the Upper Room? We invite people in to our building, we eat together and journey together, and we talk about Jesus. We offer to pray for people who come, we tell them what the Bible says and we love them. We share testimony of what he has done for us, and we share texts in booklets that tell the Gospel in bite size pieces. And we keep doing that, building relationships of trust and letting people ask questions as they begin to ponder. We talk about the Holy Spirit, the three persons of the Trinity, the love of God shown on the cross, the bad choices we make when we are weak that separate us from God, the fact that Jesus cares what disasters have befallen people and wants to heal their hurts, and that the Church exists to journey together through life, caring for one another. And people come to know God, they begin to see him and grasp what he has done for them, what an awesome God of love he is. And they begin to make changes to their lifestyle, to ask for help with their weaknesses and messes, to ask for Bibles and booklets, and prayer. And to be baptised.
I am unsure what of this is not the Gospel?
Yes it may be that because we are not presenting God as an ultimatum to people; as a threat or a stumbling block; or proclaiming him and expecting an immediate yes or no; or because we are not approaching people and saying change your life at once before you are killed by an angry God… that makes some Christians feel we are not making it HARD enough, that makes them ask if this is not the Gospel. That this might be somehow ‘cheap’ grace, when in fact they believe grace is very hard to obtain and can only be accessed by people who have become right, clean, perfect, deserving?
I believe all grace is costly – there is no such thing as cheap grace, whatever Bonhoeffer might have said. All grace emits from God via Christ, and exists because they both paid the ultimate price, the price of separation and pain, of abandonment and agony, of humiliation and shame. And because of that, this grace is now freely given. The Church has not been given permission to levy a charge for grace, or to determine who is worthy of it, who may access it. God looks on the heart and judges, not us. He asks us to share the amazing news, and to love and care for the poor and one another in the Church.
All of this begs the question, what do you think the good news of the Gospel is? And how can it be shared, lovingly – like God loves – graciously as Christ sat and taught among the crowds or with the Samaritan woman? The way in which we share this news says as much about our God as the words that we say. Is it possible we are telling good news in a way that makes it seem not very good? Not very gracious or like a gift freely given? Not very much like something that will transform and change you and save you from yourself, but something like a test you are going to fail, or something we don’t really think you deserve, actually? Are we presenting the Gospel as something that has to be earned, worked for and can only be appropriated by a few middle class people, who then come to an old building and sing songs, keeping themselves away from the ‘taint’ of the world?
Or can we share the grace we ourselves have undeservedly received and pass it on to others in ways they can understand, underpinned by showing the care of God for the poor and desperate in acts of service? What do you think sounds more like good news?