This is Shark Week on the Discovery Channel. We just happen to be at the beach for my annual study break. Perfect. At lunch today, we watched an episode showing the first ever video of a shark attack on a human. The dude attacked was a researcher believing sharks don’t attack unless provoked. So… as the ground breaking film showed, this now-limping shark researcher was standing still in shallow, shark-infested waters somewhere in the Bahamas. He believed he would not get attacked by merely standing silently with the sharks. He was wrong. He was lunch. I finished my salad and went back to the beach.
Sherry wanted to go out into the water and float. I asked if she’d wait a little bit as I finished up my reading for the day. I also wanted to make sure there were other swimmers further out than I when we hit the waters. Perhaps selfish motives on my part, but extremely strategic. Sherry and i didn’t venture too far out for too very long. We were a bit paralyzed by the fear of getting bit by a shark without a camera to catch it all. Fear can make you do some crazy things, including leaving beautiful Gulf waters because of a well-edited, TV nature show.
We visited a local church on Sunday. The sign out front said “Community Church” in very small, disguising print. The robes and liturgy felt a little more like an Episcopal church. I wondered if something was up. There was an iPad in the front lobby for people to swipe their credit cards with an offering. The older lady at the welcome center explained how, “We’re just trying to make things easier for folks.” Hmmm.
The silver-haired pastor resembled most of his flock as he led each reading, hymn, and prayer. He asked for all visitors to stand and introduce themselves. Great. Ugh. Now I remember how our CCC visitors feel when we do our infrequent shake and greet thing. Good to remember.
The kid’s message was interesting. Little kids came to the stage to hear Pastor Bob talk about the American flag and the Christian flag. Our goal, said the pastor, was to be good Americans and good Christians. We then sang, “God Bless America.” A fine song for Fourth of July fireworks, but a bit awkward in a church service. “God bless America, my home sweet home,” seems out of place if the Gospel is central. The good news of Jesus clearly acknowledges this world is not our home,, but there IS a restored heaven and earth for those who trust in the redemptive work of Jesus. I’m sure I was being nit-picky. These were well-meaning folk. I’m sure the Gospel was assumed. But… should we ever assume the Gospel?
The sermon started with a lively golf story that was quite engaging and dealt with patience… or the lack thereof. The pastor’s message series was on the Fruit of the Spirit. Coincidentally, Britt Johnson was preaching about the same Fruit back at Cumberland. I had texted Britt earlier in the morning to encourage him with the power of the Gospel. “We can’t grow or do the fruit on our own,” I wrote to Britt. “The Fruit is something only Jesus can do in and through us.” Britt was all over it like I knew he would be.
The pastor at our island Community Church acknowledged Jesus, but then talked more about our efforts in growing patience and developing our own long-suffering. Ironically, I began to understand the whole long-suffering thing the longer he spoke about my efforts in employing patience. Jared Wilson, in “Gospel Wakefulness” writes, “When we insist on preaching about our efforts and making the gospel an afterthought, we have begun glorifying our works, glorifying ourselves.”
I actually thought the pastor had a great opportunity to paint our total inability to be patient, and then point to Jesus who epitomized long-suffering as he took on our sins at the cross. His patience was absolutely perfect, and gets infused in me when I die to Him. Immediately after the sermon, we moved into communion. This was their quarterly time of communion. That made perfect sense to me. If you focus mostly on your own efforts, reminders of the cross need be less frequent. When the gospel is assumed, you can assume the blood and body reminders of Jesus on a quarterly basis. Jared Wilson writes, “When we assume the gospel in our churches, we assume we only needed it once.”
I looked around the church afterwards and saw some tired congregants. After all, it was Shark Week, and you do some crazy things because of fear. The Community Church member’s slouched shoulders communicated their need for help. Fear of Jesus’ work not being sufficient, causes a hyper-spirituality that can wear you out with good works. The beach Community Church folks also seemed worried their church might not prevail against the gates of Florida’s priority of tourism. One qualitatively younger choir member made a beeline towards me once the service had ended. “Hey, I just wanted to see how you all enjoyed the service.” I smiled and nodded a lot. “We’re really trying to attract people… especially younger families. We don’t let the service drag on. It’s kind of a promotional thing.” I felt like I was getting a review from the church’s latest leadership marketing meeting. I really wanted to ask what his goal was for the church. I bit my lip underneath my visitor’s smile. I knew these kind people had good hearts, but perhaps they were assuming the Gospel in their many desperate, fearful efforts.
Gospel assumption moves people to believe they only need Jesus’ good news once and initially for salvation. Jesus justifies us and changes God’s perspective of us, and then we take it from there. Sanctification is on our shoulders. With this being the case, we pray, read our Bibles, go to church, tithe, and serve as Sunday School teachers to mold ourselves into the kind of people we’re supposed to be. BUT… the Gospel is bigger than such assumptions. Jesus’ work justifies AND sanctifies. Our Kingdom efforts are mere results of Jesus’ good, sufficient work. Wilson again states, “The longer we take our eyes off the Gospel, the more we will think our sanctification is powered by our own good efforts, and that is just a short skip and a jump to self-righteousness.”
But how do I approach things … even on study break? Jesus said, “It is finished.” Do I believe Him or not? Do I read my brains out, hit the beach before sunrise, write blogs, and pray in tremendously human ways geared towards my own sanctification? Or… do I rest in the full justification AND sanctification work of Jesus, which allows me peace and rest as I read, rise, write, pray, and worship? One approach is life-giving and helps me to walk in Kingdom freedom, confidence and honest humility. The other approach is based out of fear, and it’s crazy what you do when you’re fearful. After all, it is Shark Week.
Tomorrow I start N.T. Wright’s, “Simply Good News.”