"Clearly Christian: Good"#88-41
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on June 13, 2021
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2021 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Matthew 8:17
Trevor was at the doctor's office. It was for his annual physical. The doctor came in and asked him, "What do you do for a living?" Trevor told him, "I'm a pastor, a Christian pastor." And the doctor asked him, not trying to be rude, but he was truly curious, "So how do you all find new ways, every week, of telling people to be good?"
That's what the doctor thought the Christian message was, telling people to be good. Now, this happened years ago, but Trevor tells me that that doctor's questions stuck with him, and motivated him to write a book. The book's titled Clearly Christian. The author has Pastor Trevor Sutton. You'll hear from him at the end of the program. But right now, I want to focus on the deeper question that drove him to write this book. The question is, what if there are people out there, people that you and I know, who have rejected the Christian faith, without really knowing what they rejected?
So maybe you're a faithful Christian and you know someone who's rejected the Christian faith, and maybe you're wondering—did they really know what they were rejecting? Or maybe you just happened to be listening and you have more or less rejected the Christian faith. And I'd like to ask you: do you know what you rejected? This is a fair question because there's a lot of confusion about what it means to be a Christian. Whether you're a skeptic or a follower, we can come together around this: clarity is better than confusion. But we live in confusing times. We live in an information age where we have more data at our fingertips than any other generation before us, but that data isn't necessarily reliable. Some of it is information, but some of it's misinformation; some of it's fact and some of it's fiction; some of it's news and some of it's fake news. With all this data that's descending on us from the cloud, sometimes it feels like we're walking in a fog. And it's frustrating because clarity is better than confusion.
Confusion has long plagued the Christian faith. Two thousand years ago in Jerusalem, when Jewish people started telling their brothers and sisters that Jesus of Nazareth was their long-awaited Messiah, the Christ, the King of the Jews, the Lord of the Nations. They shared the message about His death and His resurrection and what this means for all of this. Some of them believed, but some of them were confused about what this meant. They thought that these preachers were drunk. It was nine in the morning, they thought that they were out of their minds; they thought that they were tripping. Years later, there was a widespread rumor in the Roman Empire that Christians practiced cannibalism because they were talking about drinking blood and eating flesh. And in other places, because Christians talked about Jesus being the King of kings, they thought that Christians might be plotting to overthrow the government. From the start, there has been confusion about the Christian message: what it is and what it isn't.
So that's our goal over the next few weeks. If you'll stick with us, we're going to try to clear up some of the confusion and add a little clarity about what it means to be Christian. Let's start with the confusion reflected in the doctor's question to the pastor. He said, remember, "How do you all keep finding new and creative ways every week to tell people to be good?" So is that what the Christian message is telling the world, "Be good. Behave"? The doctor figured that he already had the answer. He believed that the Christian faith set out to tell the world to be good. And it's not an uncommon picture of the Christian faith. It's a picture of rules and rule enforcers.
It's like when you go to an art museum and there are those attendants in suits lurking around, and you'll hear them say things like, "Please, sir, stay 18 inches away from the artwork," or "Please, use your inside voice," or "Please, no running in the museum," or "Please, stop climbing on the display case." Or maybe that's what you heard them telling me and my kids when we went to the museum. And if mom were here, she'd be totally embarrassed right now. But that's how a lot of people see the Christian faith: that it's a bunch of restrictive, stuffy museum rules, enforced by overly zealous attendants. Now, there's some truth to this idea that the Christian faith is telling people be good. There's some truth to it, but it's not because that's unique to the Christian message; that's the message of every religion. And not just every religion, to some degree, that's the message of doctors and lawyers and politicians and professors and scientists and coaches and museum attendants and kids playing kickball out on the street.
To some degree, everybody is telling us to be good. Of course, we don't always agree on what it means to be good, and we don't always agree on the fine lines between good, and better, and best, but we do agree on the basic message. "Play fair, not dirty." "Be healthy, not sick." "Do good, not harm." This isn't a uniquely Christian message, it's a universally human message. For example, at one point, the unofficial motto of Google, the thoroughly secular, giant technology company, was this, "Don't be evil." That was the motto of Google. And I'm told that even now, in their corporate code of conduct, the first line is, "Do the right thing." You see, "Be good" can't be the distinctly Christian message because it's the message of the whole human race. Sure, we often disagree on good, better, and best. But because we all share this experience of having a conscience, most, if not all, agree that there are good things to pursue and not good things to shun.
And we are especially skilled at recognizing those not good things in other people. We can spot something unfair faster than an attendant can tell my kid to stop running in the art gallery. We can detect injustice like a finely tuned scientific instrument, and quicker than a kid can call out cheating on the kickball court, we can sniff out hypocrisy. In North American culture, sometimes it feels like it's anything goes, like there are no universally accepted standards of right and wrong. But this is one we can all still agree on, nobody likes a hypocrite. Nobody appreciates that person who tells you, "Don't do that, that's bad," and then they go and do the very bad thing that they told you not to do. And another thing, besides hypocrites, we can all also agree that people who are self-absorbed are no fun to be around.
For example, let's say that you and I go and hang out. And within the first few minutes, it becomes obvious to you that I am completely self-absorbed. I don't care about you. I'm not interested in you. I'm only interested in what you can do for me. I might politely listen to you talk for a while, but then I'm like, "Yeah, yeah, but what I said," because it's all about me. Right? Now, if I were to project that posture to you, you wouldn't want to be around me for long. And if you were to project that to me, I wouldn't want to be around you either.
And this is the core human tragedy. None of us like self-absorbed people, yet deep down, we all know that we're completely self-absorbed. It's just that some people, on some days, do a better job of hiding it than others. And the fact that we hide it makes us hypocrites, yet another thing that nobody likes. And this diagnosis of the human race, it's not necessarily Christian. A secular psychologist could say just as much, and many have. This self-criticism of humanity is not what makes the Christian faith unique. The clearly Christian message is not "Be good," although that's part of it because Christians are human, too. No, the clearly Christian message is that Jesus, the Christ, the promised Jewish Messiah, is God's good for us.
In one of the things ancient accounts of Jesus, written by a Jewish man named Matthew, we hear how Jesus is healing people, like a physician. They're in a small fishing village called Capernaum. It's the typical small town life, everybody knows everybody's business. A few people get healed, and pretty soon the whole town is gathered together at the front door. And Jesus keeps doing good for them—not just physical good, but spiritual good. Matthew tells us that Jesus was driving out demons. Demons? You see, the Christian worldview pictures the world much more like a dangerous spiritual battleground and less like a sterile art museum. There is a spiritual realm that charges the physical realm like electricity. And in this spiritual realm, there are powerful spiritual beings, created by God, but now some of them are an open rebellion against God.
And each of us has been seduced into this rebellion, caught up in this rebellion, and you can experience it. Not by spotting little red-suited devils running around with pitchforks, you can experience it firsthand in your own self-absorption, in your hypocrisy, in your self-loathing, and in your guilt, before God. And if you and I will accept that, now we are ready to hear something clearly Christian. Jesus has come to heal us. Not because we're good or because we promise to be good, but because God is good. And He's promised us good in Jesus. Jesus has come to carry our griefs and sorrows; He's come to take our illnesses and sin; He's come to absorb them all. It's like how certain trees can detoxify soil by absorbing pollutants through their roots, and in the process, render those pollutants harmless. So also Jesus, nailed to the tree that was His cross, absorbed our spiritual sickness into Himself.
He took it into Himself. He broke it down; He rendered it harmless, promising that nothing, not even our own self-absorption, can separate us from God's love. It's like how human blood contains white blood cells that seek out infection in the body. These white blood cells hunt the sickness; they engulf it; they absorb it; they destroy it. So also Jesus rose from the dead to undo our self-absorption. Jesus does this today through the deep-rooted, embodied, communal practices of the Christian church, through the Word that He speaks to us and through us, in the Bible, in Baptism, in preaching and prayer, in confession and conversation, and sharing His body and blood in the Lord's Supper. And no, that's not cannibalism, but I'd need another message to explain why.
Through these deep-rooted practices of the Christian faith, Jesus is God's good for us. And in Him, we begin reflecting God's good to others. I began by telling you about a doctor, who was confused and skeptical about the Christian faith. Let me tell you about another doctor, one who has been absorbed into this faith. The doctor's name is Stephen Mitchell. I don't know Him personally, but I've heard him speak about how he incorporates his calling as a physician into his identity as a follower of Jesus. At a crossroads in His life, Stephen said a prayer. He said, "Okay, Jesus, what am I to be about?" And the Lord led him into the practice of emergency medicine, twenty years ago. And for the last year, into the crisis of caring for people through the coronavirus pandemic, Dr. Mitchell says that the only way that he is able to get through each day is to start again with a worldview, that can not only make some sense of our human tragedy but can also absorb it and transform it. Now, Dr. Mitchell strikes me as a good doctor, and I'm sure that if I were under his care, I would trust him to do me good, and not harm. And I'd trust him not because he's a Christian. I'd trust him because he's a good doctor. But as good as he is, like every other doctor, he frequently finds himself in situations where medical protocols can do no more good.
When he sees the fear in the eyes of a seventy-year-old man with COVID, suffocating in his own lung fluid; when he hears the guilt-ridden confession of an overdosing drug addict who's back in the ER again; or when the good doctor is just dealing with his own self-absorbed failings and frustrations like the rest of us. Even in our human tragedy, Dr. Mitchell trusts that Jesus is still God's good for us. Dr. Mitchell remembers hearing his pastor preach that the crucified and risen Jesus is the only One in this world who promises to absorb all the pain, all the suffering, all the sin, all the evil that we see and experience and not only to absorb it, but to transform it, even when we can't see how.
Dr. Mitchell's faith shows the power of a Christian community gathered around a clearly Christian message. It's a message that keeps turning you out of yourself, back toward God, and toward God's work in the people around you. And even when we're not as good as we'd like to be, even when we're not as good as we will be when Jesus returns, we don't have to pretend that we're all good now. Because Jesus will never stop being God's good for us. Amen.
Reflections for June 13, 2021
Title: Clearly Christian: Good
Mark Eischer: For FREE online resources, archived audio, our mobile app, and more, go to lutheranhour.org. Once again, here's our Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler.
Mike Zeigler: Thank you, Mark. Today, I'm visiting with Trevor Sutton. He's the author of the book that I mentioned in the message. Clearly Christian is the book. Trevor serves as senior pastor at St. Luke Lutheran Church in Haslett, Michigan. That's near Lansing, right? Trevor.
Trevor Sutton: You got it. Exactly.
Mike Zeigler: And joining us is Deaconess Dorothy Glenn. Dorothy serves as communications and admissions director at Emmanuel Lutheran Church and School in St. Louis, Missouri. Thanks for being with us, Dorothy.
Dorothy Glenn: It's great to be here.
Mike Zeigler: Okay. So in this series, we're going to be talking about following Jesus in an age of confusion. And in the book, you start by talking about assembling furniture from Ikea. That's a common experience maybe for some, but why on earth would you start there?
Trevor Sutton: Invariably, whenever you're assembling Ikea furniture, you're pulling your hair out because you can't quite decipher what to do with this particular thing. And you put it together, and you got the wrong fastener. It's just a mess. There's that one guy, that cartoon guy, that you see him scratching his head. I think that just captures the mood that we're all living in. And what I mean by that is we live in this age, this mood of confusion, where everyone's kind of like that Ikea guy, sort of scratching their head a little confused. Just like that guy, if you are confused, then you should do something about it. You should seek clarity. If you are confused, you should strive to become a little less confused and gain that clarity.
Mike Zeigler: I think we can all agree that it's better to be clear than to be confused about something. So Dorothy, what was something that you appreciate about how Pastor Sutton approached the Christian faith in this book?
Dorothy Glenn: I really appreciate the visualization. I love to be able to actually see a picture; it brings clarity. And it's also something that everyone can relate to. When you're looking at a glass of water and you see ink drop into it, you can physically imagine that. And recognizing, and then comparing that to confusion within the world and realizing that it's not new. Trevor is able to show us how throughout the early church and the world's history that confusion reigns. And it's not just something that we see in our age today.
Mike Zeigler: Trevor, I talked about the story you shared with me. It's not in the book. But you talked about how this doctor that you were visiting, he had this impression that to be Christian means that you tell other people to be good. You didn't mention it in the book, but you said that this was kind of a catalyst for you to write the book, though. Tell me more about that.
Trevor Sutton: He was certain this is what you do as a Christian, and particularly as a pastor, you tell people to be good. I realized his conception was crystal clear in his mind, but it was totally off base and murky and wrong. Let's be absolutely clear what is the Christian faith about. And let's be clear what it's not about. And it's not about telling people to be good. But it's about God's good for bad people. Jesus, and His goodness for us.
Dorothy Glenn: This reminds me of a person I came across once who was doing his Ph.D. on culture, the experience that people have with culture. The exposure to a little bit of a culture would cause a person to have a disposition towards that culture that could be very negative depending on that experience compared to someone who has no exposure being completely open. And this understanding, and I think your book hits it, of this idea of people outside of Christianity having this little exposure of what they understand Christianity to be because of what we as Christians do. And recognizing that isn't actually what Christianity is. And so being able to see the clarity between what we do and what people perceive as Christianity and then recognizing okay what is being clearly Christian.
Mike Zeigler: I think it's like the experience of you meet somebody and you get a first impression of them. The goal or the trick is to not let that first impression become the only or the lasting impression. Because a person is so much more deep and so much more complex. And so also we're talking about the Christian faith. We're talking about faith in Jesus, the Christ. He's a Person, divine and human Person. And there's so much to Him. And if we just let a first impression of Him cast us in a lasting impression, we're going to miss the depth of who He is. Because of course He's concerned about good. That's not untrue. It's just not the whole truth of what He's about.
Trevor, in the book, you contrast the misconception that Christianity is about telling people to be good with this phrase. You say, "Lead with Jesus." And you even said this before that "It's not about being good. It's about Jesus is God's good for us." So tell us more about what you meant by that, to lead with Jesus.
Trevor Sutton: It's so easy for us to talk about everything and anything, but Jesus. And what I mean by that is its easy for us to say, we tell people, "I love my church." "I like singing in the choir." "Attending worship is important to me." "I'll pray for you." And there's nothing wrong with any of these things. They're great things to say. But why not lead with Jesus?
And a way that I've thought about this may be a silly way, but it makes sense to me. There's the classic Saturday Night Live skit where there's a band recording a song, and one of the guys is playing the cowbell. And he's just wailing on it louder than everybody else. And they recorded the song and the producer comes in and like, "No, no, no, this is all wrong." And it's pretty obvious, like as the viewer, you're like, he's going to be like, "You got to tone down the cowbell." But he's like, "There's just not enough cowbell here. You got to crank that up." And he keeps coming back and like "No, no, no, we need more cowbell."
Mike Zeigler: Gotta have more cowbell.
Trevor Sutton: And as silly as that is, I think there's something for us as followers of Jesus today to say, "We need more Jesus." Not more cow bell, but more Jesus. I don't think we can go wrong by talking about Jesus more than we talk about the choir, the potlucks, the "I'll pray for you." Again, those are great things, but to lead with Jesus, I think would help clarify to the world who and what we are about. But when we lead with these other things, it gets a little murky for people.
Mike Zeigler: That's hard to do if you're not spending time getting to know Him through time listening to the Gospels, reading Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. When you spend time getting to know a person, it's easier to talk about them. When you don't know anything about them except maybe just a little snippet, you don't really have much to say.
Thank you both for joining us in this talk. If you want to read this book, it's called Clearly Christian by Trevor Sutton. Check it out.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Come Down, O Love Divine" arranged by Henry Gerike. Used by permission.
"Andante" by Charles Callahan. (Concordia Publishing House) Used by permission.