Book 3 – The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything

Brian McLaren observes that what American Christians put forward as Gospel (Good News) about Jesus bears little resemblance to what Jesus himself said was Good News. I believe he is right and the implications for, not just the followers of Jesus, but the whole world are profound.

If evangelists understood and embraced what he calls the Secret Message of Jesus they would tell a very different story and engage the world in very different and much more transformative ways.

In many ways The Secret Message of Jesus continues the conversation that James Choung brought us last week. Namely that the gospel according to Jesus is:

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. (Mark 1:15 ESV)

The rest of the book articulates what this kingdom is, how it is announced, who it’s citizens are, and where it is going. Virtually every page challenged my imagination and invited me to take a fresh look at what Jesus was actually saying. I loved it!

THINGS I LIKED

Several phrases stuck out and are helping me reframe the message of Jesus and my own response:

1. I really like what he says about worldview (p. 77) – Not just that it is a “way of seeing,” but his advice that we are “wiser to immerse ourselves in Jesus’ worldview rather than drag him into ours.” Jesus worldview is better than ours (p. 87). The story he tells about an imaginary TV reporter in Chapter 7 is brilliant.

2. Eternal Life he says (p. 63) doesn’t refer to “life after death” burt rather “an extraordinary life to the full centered in a relationship with God.” Naturally, this sort of life would continue on and on, but the focus is on life here and now.

3. Signs and Wonders are real “touches of God’s grace” (p. 82) and serve to free us from the Tyranny of the Impossible – I LOVE that phrase! He describes the significance this way:

But when the kingdom of God comes near, when we experience it, the word impossible deconstructs. It melts and evaporates, and its tyranny over us ends. (p. 83)

He says that signs and wonders are a sign of the kingdom – namely that the King is present (at hand) working all around us from the inside.

4. The purpose of parables is to hide the message (p. 71-74). Jesus says this plainly in Mark 4:9-12

Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”

When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that,

“‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, 
and ever hearing but never understanding; 
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’ 

Those of us in InterVarsity tend to draw attention to the danger of being an outsider, emphasizing the importance of asking questions. We say that the secret of the kingdom of God is given to those who ask questions – or maybe, ask questions of Jesus. But Brian suggests that the intention of Jesus is to hide the message in such a way that it transforms hearts.  He keeps it away from the “know-it-alls” who never ask questions and reveals it to those who have nothing but questions, i.e. children. I’m not sure this is good news for me or the people I hang out with at Harvard…

5. The Five Moves for immigration to the kingdom (Chapter 13) are brilliant:

1. Repentance – Hear from the heart and think deeply about what you hear

2. Faith – of believing, of trusting

3. Receptivity

4. Going public with repentance, faith and receptivity – Baptism

5. Learn to follow Jesus every day for the rest of your life

Amen!

THINGS I STILL NEED TO THINK ABOUT

1. The scandal of the kingdom (p. 100) is that it needs to fail to succeed. This is a shocking idea and I’m sure he’s right. It reminds me of a talk our faculty advisor Bill Stuntz gave at the Law School a few months before his death. Bill said that God’s law is designed to fail. Spot on!

2. Brian says that it is necessary to exclude from the kingdom – namely those people who are themselves exclusive! At first glance this seems like some sort of logic problem. What he’s saying is that, if someone rejects the fundamental character of God’s inclusive kingdom, for the sake of inclusion, then they must be kept outside the territory and community. This is hard, right? I understand that he is trying to protect those who have come in for reconciliation and want to be reconcilers. At the same time, I wonder where I would be today if my inclusion depended on my satisfying some criteria of inclusiveness.

3. He doesn’t attempt to solve every theological problem around the eschatology of Jesus and some (maybe many) of my friends might be nervous about his  ideas about the future and the end times. He comes down sort of hard on “prognosticators” – and not just those who are looking for the world to end on August 22. It’s not that I have a better summary of Revelation (cf. p. 223). I mostly don’t know how he holds onto hope that the kingdom will someday come (really come) in fullness in the midst of all this realized eschatology.

4. Brian writes that the kingdom isn’t about making people nice – good news for me! – but rather to help them become secret agents of another realm. He goes on to mention a variety of jobs (including military service!) that can be engaged as agents of the kingdom. But what does this really mean? And what jobs are outside the boundaries of kingdom work? Tobacco framing? Brothel management? Partner in a hedge fund? (a friend of mine from the Business School says that today this work is outside what Jesus would approve) I believe this is an area for prayer, honest conversation, mentoring, accountability and Spirit-guided-creativity.

It is true as he said of Jesus’ secret message:

…if we take it in and manage not only to look at it but also to learn to look through it, our world and our lives will look different to us at the end of our exploration. And if that happens deeply enough for enough of us, everything could change. (p. 19).


Book 2 – True Story: A Christianity Worth Believing In

James Choung has undertaken a significant project in this little book:

  1. Redefining the gospel
  2. Providing a new napkin-size summary diagram

The challenge is worth it because James observes that a major obstacle the followers of Jesus face in speaking about Him is that the only message they have doesn’t feel like good news. In fact, most Evangelicals describe the gospel almost exclusively in terms related to heaven after they die. There is little or no relationship to the world they see everyday. No real-world benefit in the face of the profound brokenness of the world.

Not only, he says, is today’s gospel largely devoid of substantial good news, it also shares little in common with the gospel that Jesus himself preached – the one articulated in Mark 1:14-15:

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

When’s the last time you read that in a “gospel” tract somebody handed you in the subway station?

If you didn’t get to read the whole book, or if you want to see it in action, you can watch James himself line it out with a Sharpie in a couple of 3- minute videos on YouTube. These are not to be missed. There is also a pocket-sized version from InterVarsity Press cleverly named, Based on a True Story (ha!), that you can give to friends.

THINGS I LIKED

1. It took a little getting used to it, but I ended up liking the conversation format in the first part of the book. There were two separate conversation threads and they worked in two different ways:

• Caleb’s conversations with Professor Shalandra Jones provided opportunity for his own doubts as a confused-but-engaged follower of Jesus to surface and be thoughtfully and compassionately addressed.

• Caleb’s conversations with Anna showed how these ideas could be helpful to those most skeptical about following Jesus.

2. I like his drawings. I’m a visual guy so, if you’re gonna take away my bridge illustration, you’ve gotta come back at me with something else.  I’ve tried these a few times and, though I’m in no way as good as James on the videos, I’ve found them helpful. It’s also fun to draw when you’re chatting, right?

3. I like the three movements that this gospel describes and the invitation that follows.

Decision –> Transformation

Individual –> Community

Afterlife –> Mission Life

Understanding and applying those form the key difference in his invitation to embrace Christ and his revolutionary movement.

4. I liked James’s theological riffs – Seeing him put that doctorate from Fuller to work!  A couple stuck in my mind. First, in the run through Genesis (p. 97-8) Shalandra’s comment that Noah must have seen that first rainbow in the midst of falling rain – something that had previously destroyed every living thing. God’s promise and sign meant he would never have to fear the rain again. The second was his comment on the coming together of heaven and earth seen in the Temple, in Jesus’ body and (finally) in the community of believers. It gave me fresh appreciation for our InterVarsity goal to foster and support witnessing communities. “Guess where earth intersects heaven?” he says, “In the community of believers – where heaven shows up on the planet.” Right on!

THINGS I STILL NEED TO THINK ABOUT

1. Of course most of you will be surprised to hear me say this… I was put off a little by the progressive political viewpoint assumed by the author and the characters in the story. While the dialogue is somewhat believable in the college campus setting (University of Washington in Seattle), and it may be that we’re in a time in our culture where North Americans automatically assume Jesus and his followers are all white Republicans whose political/social agenda revolves entirely around ending abortion and keeping gays from marrying, I thought James piled it on too thick. My friend Professor Bill Stuntz who died this past winter told me shortly after arriving at Harvard Law School that, though he was a center-right conservative, he “leaned to the left whenever he could.”  There is certainly something to that when so many people want to line Jesus up behind their agendas. I only want to make sure we don’t exclude people because they can’t get past our rhetoric or don’t subscribe to Sojourners.

2. I know that Professor Jones highlights the centrality of Jesus death and resurrection in the the dialogue, but it felt like the power of both was insignificant compared to the role of Jesus’ followers who are, in his language, “Sent together to heal.” It would have helped to have him line out more about how his view of the Atonement – Ransom is one meaning he mentions among others – works to “Restore for better” and “Sent us to heal.” The same could be said for the Holy Spirit.

One last thing. James said that his hope (p.12) is that “this book will provide us a simple tool to share the hope that we have – one worth believing in.” He really has done this for me – now if I can get my friends on campus to learn how to draw those circles…


Book 1 – Speaking of Jesus: The Art of Not-Evangelism

Carl Medearis is a guy who can frustrate – even make you angry – the first time you meet him. He did that to me when he came to stay in our home and join us for some conversations a few years ago in Cambridge.

It always seemed to me and some of my friends that he was being a little cagy. He wouldn’t answer questions. Kept saying that he didn’t know – even if we asked him basic questions from theology 101. It was annoying – especially in the shadow of the Philosophy Department and Harvard Divinity School.

But Carl’s annoying, cagy way stuck, and what happened in our InterVarsity staff team and the lives of a bunch of grad students was profound. So I’m glad he finally wrote it down.

In truth, Carl isn’t really cagy – he is being completely direct and clear. And the one thing he wants to be most clear about is Jesus. Period. Jesus is all he wants to know and all he wants to talk about. Many of the things that people like Christians and missionaries (both banned words by the way) want to talk about are a distraction and a barrier to…  well…  loving God and loving others.

THINGS I LIKED (and this will be my format for future comments during this reading project):

1. Carl quotes Paul (p. 30) from 1 Corinthians 2:1-3 and this is the text that guides his witness.  Actually, Carl would say that Jesus guides it – this merely explains how. He knows nothing but Jesus and him crucified. The rest sort of follows and he invites the rest of us to join him in doing the same…

2. Knowing nothing but Jesus means his followers don’t need to defend Christendom, its history or its reasons. If it is really all about Jesus, then taking on and defending the religious history of the West (p. 48-55) doesn’t help. Carl tells us not to do it.

3. The tendency to draw a circle that defines insiders & outsiders and to try to persuade people to come inside by thinking the way I do isn’t helpful and it isn’t the way Jesus rolled. Carl opts instead (p. 90) for the invitation Jesus made to his disciples in John 6:60-64 to have him inside us – not everybody liked that idea, even in Jesus’ day!

4. I really like Carl’s stories – if you want to hear more, click on our HGSCF website and scroll down to the talk he gave in the Memorial Church in Harvard Yard in 2005. Imagine forming a discussion group on the Gospels (p. 92) and naming it “What the Hell?” I laughed out loud. On the other hand, his story about following Jesus (Isa) to Basra (p. 132 ff.) left me shaken at the hardness of my own heart.

THINGS I STILL NEED TO THINK ABOUT

1. Given his simple focus on knowing nothing but Jesus and speaking only of him I was left wondering how then to make sense of the whole Biblical narrative. Of course, if I ask Carl he might just say, “Gee, I don’t know. But, speaking of Jesus…”

2. Carl’s context in Colorado Springs differs significantly from Cambridge. I understand his interest in drinking coffee and working at Poor Richard’s Bookstore downtown. I tend to agree that this is where Jesus would be hanging out and drinking his double espresso. The question I have is, where is he hanging out here in Cambridge where we all swim in a strange brew that mixes power with fear, academic achievement with posturing and does it all in a manner that my friend Dave Schmelzer calls Grim Drivenness? It isn’t a new question or an academic one for many of us. Where is he and what would it mean to know nothing but Jesus here. Does the way of Jesus look different in Harvard Yard?


An Invitation

I’m doing some reading this summer and hope that others will join me in reading and engaging on some of these books.

In particular, I’m reading books about Jesus.  Books that discuss what people say about Jesus. Books that talk about the things that Jesus said and did.  Books that talk about Jesus in view of our multicultural and spiritually plural world. Books that talk about how to talk about Jesus – Speaking of Jesus.

Some of the books are easy and fun. Some are more challenging. I’m convinced that there are important lessons in each one of these texts. Lessons that may be useful for me personally as well as for how I do my work as a campus chaplain with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Maybe some will be useful to you too?

So here is my invitation… Take a look at the list of books about Jesus and pick one or two or three.  Read them by the date suggested.  And be prepared to share what you learn. I’ll post my own reaction on the blog each week and invite you make your own comments.

In case you’ve just stumbled on this blog, here is some more background on me…

I’m a follower of Jesus and serve as a campus chaplain with graduate students and faculty at Harvard. I’ve been at this for some time, having come to Cambridge in 1983 after seminary. A significant part of my work is advising and organizing Christian fellowships at the graduate and professional schools (HGSCF). Another part of my work is with the Harvard Chaplains and you can read more there.  I’m a fan of U2, and I love how they speak about Jesus.  I’m husband to Tara Edelschick – she has her own great blog: The Homeschool Chronicles. Tara and I have three kids – two boys and a girl – we’re all having a lot of fun!


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