He Gets Us — But Do We “Get Us?”

I’ve watched the controversy generated by the Super Bowl ad from "He Gets Us" (foot washings) with amusement, annoyance, and concerns. Reactions from skeptics, like in this Vox article, are typical: Christ may “get us,” but in the ads, “he loves who we hate.” Using expensive ads to market Jesus has also raised questions about those who fund the campaign.

But I am more interested in the reactions inside the Christian community. Some call the ads “woke.” Others say the ads are incomplete for gospel messaging. Well, that’s true. Others propose “He Saves Us” ad clips would be better alternatives. But sincere testimony clips might only mimic the higher quality antecedents. I doubt advertising Christian testimonies is the goal of "He Gets Us".

So what does this Donkey hee-haw? Reactions to "He Gets Us" confirm that “believing insiders” are better at religious critique than gracious communication. We simply don’t know how to share the gospel in a post-Christian culture. We live in echo chambers, and are not comfortable in public spaces.

Disciples of Jesus can learn much from our Master. The religious right in Jesus’ day (the Pharisees) observed his social interactions. Their criticisms sound vaguely familiar. “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” (Luke 7:39) “Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Matthew 11:19).

Jesus purposefully broke cultural norms, religious taboos, and gender-social barriers to connect with outsiders of ill repute. One woman was intrigued because Jesus shared in her basic, human, felt need (for water). That led to a deeper discussion about God's gift of salvation (“living water”) and her need to repent. (John 4:7-26)

The New Testament notes that curiosity comes before conversion. Jesus followers are urged, “let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” (Colossians 4:6) Do I pay attention to both the content and the manner of my messaging? God has given me grace. Do I show grace to others with appropriate, wise, and intriguing words?

“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect …” (1 Peter 3:15) Does my life make others curious to ask? If so, I must reply with gentleness and respect.

Lesslie Newbigin, in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, observes that “Almost all the proclamations of the gospel which are described in Acts are in response to questions asked by those outside the Church … there is something present, a new reality, which calls for explanation … Something is going on which prompts the crowd to come together and ask, ‘What is going on?’”

“He Gets Us” campaign ads seem intended for a limited purpose — to offer conversation starters for social interactions. Do we reflect Jesus to cultural skeptics? Graciously relating to outsiders may intrigue them. Then they may become ready to hear that “Jesus saves us.” Followers of Jesus must learn how to reflect Jesus, not with those expensive TV ads, but as “living letters” of God’s grace engaged in savory conversations.

Good Grief - with Hope

Recent events, globally and among my friends, have reminded me of the importance of good grieving. There is a grief that is real and deep, but that is not without hope. (1Thessalonians 4:13). Good grief requires dual perspectives: a clear, compassionate eye on present struggles, pains, and losses. But — simultaneously — hearing and listening to the joyful sounds of sure, promised hope.

Viewed from a distance, immense suffering weighs down and overwhelms our spirits. We may avert our eyes or turn off the news. But, when nearby friends or family are engaged in battles with disease, pain, and suffering, there is no escaping hard reality. This week I was a witness of two funerals.

But I recall Jesus’ clear-sighted compassion. He stayed personally present with pain and suffering. Jesus wept at his friend’s tomb. He was realistic, but without despair. As a good sister said this week: Jesus validates all that is hard, but offers the hope of a better world. And Jesus does this without any naiveté, or callously averting his eyes. He enters this present world’s pain and suffering. “The whole creation has been groaning together." (Romans 8:22)

Seeking to enter good grief, while groaning for the glory of a new creation, I am drawn to two Hebrew prophets who envision God’s future City. They paint a vivid contrast to the streets of Gaza and Ukraine, and to the fragile mortality of our all-too-human lives.

“No more babies dying in the cradle, or old people who don’t enjoy a full lifetime; one-hundredth birthdays will be considered normal — anything less will seem like a cheat.” (Isaiah 65:20, The Message)

Zech 8 (1)

“Old men and old women will come back to Jerusalem, sit on benches on the streets and spin tales, move around safely with their canes — a good city to grow old in. And boys and girls will fill the public parks, laughing and playing — a good city to grow up in.” (Zechariah 8:4-5, The Message)

These dual perspectives: seeing the hard and present sufferings, while hearing the overtures of hope, are expressed in the American folk hymn How Can I Keep from Singing? We groan — for glory.

A Cruciform Mind to Reflect Christ

Last month, I was invited to bring messages to our local church from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Both are available here — the 2-message series on “Reflecting Jesus.” As I prayed over the texts, in their original cultural-historical contexts, I became convinced of their relevance today. What can we learn from 1st century disciples who lived in a culture confused or hostile about Christianity?

It is now cost-prohibitive to build cross-shaped (cruciform) buildings. But, counting the cost, we must form cruciform disciples and churches to reflect Jesus among our post-Christian friends. Our only alternatives are fight (political culture wars), flight (disengage), or accommodate (try to attract or entertain skeptics).

What made Philippi unique? In Rome’s Civil War, to avenge Julius Caesar’s assassination, the decisive victory was at Philippi in 42 BC. In 27 BC, one victor, Octavian, was given divine status (“illustrious one”). To honor Augustus’ victory, the city became a Colony of Rome (Acts 16:12). Up to 25% of residents were veterans offered land grants. Augustus was a mortal, promoted to divine status, Rome’s first Emperor, the benefactor of Philippians, enforcer of the Pax Romana, and revered as “savior of the world.” Augustus could decree a census (Luke 2:1) across the Empire that displaced many ordinary provincial people, like Joseph and Mary.

Around AD 50, the Apostle Paul came to Philippi to preach the Gospel. Less than 20 years after Jesus’ ministry, 75 years after Philippi was made a Roman Colony, Paul’s missions team planted a Colony of God’s Kingdom. Philippians were citizens of Rome. But disciples at Philippi were also citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20). How did they identify? How should they live? Would they lose Roman legal and social status? Disciples worship God, who came down as a man, a slave, crucified by Rome. This was blasphemous and upside-down to the Augustus cult. As historian Tom Holland notes, before Constantine in the 4th century AD, the Romans thought Christianity a “blasphemous parody of the Caesar cult.”

Cicero, Roman statesman and scholar, wrote, “Let the very word ‘cross,’ be far removed, not only from the bodies of Roman citizens, but even from their thoughts, eyes, and ears.” Like the Philippians, Paul was a Roman citizen (Acts 22:25ff), exempt from crucifixion (he was beheaded). Yet, writing this church, he urged the disciples to focus on the cross and to have the “mind of Christ.” (Philippians 2:1-11). Paul quotes words that may have been a hymn praising Jesus. The Gospel they sang should form their minds, shape their worldview, and motivate them to cruciform living.

What mindset reflects Jesus? Disciples must remember we are redeemed and adopted as God’s children. Like God’s Son, we do not forfeit our identity, but should not grab for power or status. Following Jesus, we “empty ourselves” of status to take the form of servants. We are not exempt from personal sacrifices or public dishonor. The Gospel shapes our minds to be cruciform: we serve God, each other, and outsiders. What is our highest honor? Not that we are Romans (or Americans), but we are citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20). We follow someone Rome tried to cancel as a nameless nobody, but who received God’s magna cum laude, Jesus, whose Name is above all names.

The Apostle wept (Philippians 3:18) — many who professed faith lived as self-indulgent "enemies of the cross." To tell God’s Story, to reflect Jesus in our world, we must distinguish ourselves by selfless service. That is the crux, our daily crucible. Do I live “the good life,” a consumer of our culture's perks and privileges? Or do I live a Christlike, cross-formed life, that our society may despise? Am I a consumer of culture, or a cruciform disciple of Jesus?

Our identity must not be formed by our partisan affiliation. We “render to Caesar” (pay taxes) and exercise our freedom to vote. But our Capital is the City of our nail-scarred Servant-King, Jesus. Christians are a "polis" of heaven. May the Holy Spirit transform us into cruciform disciples and churches!

The Story of Three Trees

I spend my mornings in physical, intellectual, and spiritual exercises. Recently, I added a new piece of art to our basement rowing / theater room (with my bride’s forbearance). We didn’t need more art, but I wanted a visual reminder that “bodily exercise is beneficial, but godliness has value for all things … the promise of the life which is now, and that life which is to come” (1 Timothy 4:8). Now, as I row and view educational videos, I glimpse a stylized carving of the Tree of Life.

As I’ve prayed for friends’ health struggles, with some recently dying, my thoughts have been drawn to Three Trees in the Bible that represent sober reminders and hopeful promises.

THE TREE OF LIFE. The first tree is “an image of loss and nostalgia … also an image of hope.” (The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery). At the Bible’s beginning and end, the Tree of Life reminds me: I am a mortal, not essentially immortal. Everlasting life is God's gift. To live forever, I need access to the Tree of Life. Sinful mortals were barred from the Tree of Life. Having lost this antidote to death, all mortals must return to the dust. Any everlasting life must pass through death and resurrection. In God's mercy, we were not doomed to an endless physical life in this broken, sinful world. Rather, in a restored world to come, the Tree of Life will grow on both sides of the River of Life, not just in a bounded paradise (Farsi pars for royal park). In the middle of God’s Garden-City, the Tree of Life will provide healing for all nations.

THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE. The Bible’s second tree represents human hubris, our delusions of self-sufficiency, of life independent from God. It symbolizes the false promise, “you will be like God.” Life is God’s gift. To choose self-definition or self-sufficiency leads to death and decay. Wise children of God enjoy, explore, and delight in God’s royal park, but do not jump over the garden walls to play in dangerous streets. True life is when we “take and eat” the gifts of God. The deceptive and false promise, “grab life on your own terms” is a devil’s bargain.

THE TREE OF CURSE. For ancient Hebrews, death on a tree represented guilt and punishment. For imperial tyrants, death on a cross publicly shamed weak slaves and powerless rebels. Scandalously, for Jesus’ first followers, the cross became the symbol of God’s love, the high price to redeem life. “No man can redeem the life of another … the ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough — that he should live on forever and not see decay … the foolish and the senseless alike perish … But God will redeem my life from the grave; he will surely take me to himself.” (Psalm 49) God’s Son took on human flesh to bear guilt, death, and shame on a Roman cross. Jesus restores human access to the Tree of Life. Our lives, even creation itself, can be raised up and restored from the dust of death.

WISDOM FOR TODAY, HOPE FOR TOMORROW. Between the Bible bookends of Genesis and Revelation, there are only four metaphoric references to the Tree of Life. All are in the book of Proverbs, because, God's Wisdom “is a tree of life to those who embrace her; those who lay hold of her will be blessed” (Proverbs 3:18). These words are often sung in synagogues as the Torah is returned to the Ark after public readings. Some think that the golden lamp stand (or menorah) in the tabernacle and temple was a stylized representation of the Tree of Life.

In this fallen world, we grieve our losses and unfulfilled desires. We long for our hopes to be fulfilled in the resurrection. “Desire fulfilled is a tree of life” (Proverbs 13:12). In this now-not-yet, we find true life by embracing God’s Wisdom: not seeking to know or to live apart from God. Access to the Tree of Life only comes by the Way of the Cross, Christ crucified, foolish to many, but God’s Wisdom and power.

Our prayers for the church are “wobbly.”

I pray urgently for my church. Maybe it's because my local church is searching for its next lead pastor. Or maybe it's because my denomination is celebrating its 50th anniversary with reflection, thanksgiving, aspiration, and with some anxiety. I must confess: my prayers can get “wobbly.” What do I mean?

To borrow automotive terms, my prayers can be misaligned or unbalanced. When I purchase a new set of tires, the engine may be in tune and my car’s body waxed. But if the front end is not aligned or the tires rebalanced, my car will vibrate and not steer true.

My professor John Frame “triangulated” theology and ethics around three perspectives — the normative, situational, and existential. The normative is God’s revealed will in the Bible. The situational is God’s providence that orders my time and place in history. The existential is how my heart (fallibly) interprets my life experiences.

For a normative prayer, look no further than John 17:1-24, often called Christ’s “high priestly prayer” for his church. Only Jesus prays with perfect balance and true alignment with God’s will. What does Jesus pray for?

  • He prays for the Father to be glorified in the Son who accomplishes his finished work to redeem his people.

  • He prays for the Father to sanctify (set apart, make holy) his church by the continuing work of God’s Word of truth.

  • He prays that his church will be sent into the world just as the Father has sent him into the world.

  • He prays that the Father will be glorified as his people display spiritual unity-in-community before a watching world.

  • He prays for the Father to protect his church from both worldly corruption and the evil one’s schemes.

Unlike Jesus’ prayer, our prayers “wobble" and get misaligned and unbalanced. A friend, a wise church elder and counselor observed: “Psychology often hides behind theology.” Our prayers are skewed by our personalities and how we interpret our cultural situation.
  • I may pray for purity, to stay faithful to God’s Word, but then forget God sets the church apart to be sent — not siloed.

  • I may pray for missions, as Jesus was sent into the world, but be naive to the dangers of cultural conformity or deception.

  • I may pray for unity, but forget God is glorified when we speak the truth-in-love based on a mutual Confession of Faith.

In 1973, my church’s founding vision was summarized: faithful to the Scriptures, true to the Reformed Faith, and obedient to the Great Commission. That reflects the balanced prayers of Jesus.

But our unique personalities and our fallible interpretations of our circumstances can bend our prayers to our own dispositions:
  • Some personality types are more inclined to love the truth than to love their fellow believers.

  • Others fear that some have slipped into worldly conformity, and are tempted to slander, instead of showing mutual love and respect for one another.

  • Some want the church to be a refuge from the world, and forget that Christ calls the church to be a kingdom embassy, living in exile, and sent on God's mission into the world.

We need to regularly realign our prayers with Jesus, reaffirming the validity of the doctrinal, the missional, and the communal.
Like Jesus, we must ask God the Father to protect the church from both conformity to the world and spiritual deception.
Let us rebalance our “wobbly” prayers to bring them into sync with Jesus’ own perfect prayers for his church.
Lord, have mercy on Your church!

From @IntlBuzz