Back in August of 2012, an amateur (well-intentioned, to be sure) painter decided to restore a 19th century portrait of Jesus in a Spanish church building. To say that she botched the job would be an understatement. What was once recognized as one of the most beautiful “portraits of Jesus” in the world became an ugly, cartoonish blob. The original image was ruined by someone who thought they would “fix” it.
One of the greatest temptations we encounter is to take the things that God has given us, and re-make them into our own image. There are probably various reasons for this, one of which is the desire to please ourselves or to think that we are “in charge” of what is in our lives. We don’t seem to do well with others – including God – telling us what to do or imposing something upon us. Or maybe we actually think — with the best intentions — that our changes are good. The result is that we tend to modify God’s things so that they are more to our liking and less “foreign” to us. But like that “artist,” we ruin them in the process.
There are many ways in which people have attempted to re-make the things of God into a different image. Please consider the following three examples. I have stated them in the negative in order to make my point a little more emphatic:
1. The New Testament churches were not the “social centers” of their towns. It has become extremely common for people (mostly outsiders) to think of the local church as a kind of local rec center, a religious YMCA, a social club where people get together to have fun. Yes, they get together for worship, but they also build facilities for ball games, scout meetings, dinners, etc. They sponsor baseball teams, they have fairs and bake sales, and they rent their buildings out for community groups. It would be naïve indeed to deny that these kinds of things have become the defining marks of most denominational churches. The goal is to be a center of social activity for the town.
The picture of the church that one finds in the New Testament is quite different. There no sense in the New Testament writings that the early Christians were concerned with providing a social outlet for the local town. They did none of the secularized things that modern denominational churches do. The early churches were groups of Christians who worked and worshipped together out of love and gratitude to the Lord. They met on the Lord’s day to worship and to encourage each other. They helped each other when there were difficulties. Their focus was on living like Jesus and glorifying God with their lives. That is the New Testament image of the church.
2. The teachings of Jesus are not a simply list of things to do, a list of “do’s and don’ts.” Jesus’ teachings are easy to understand, but hard to practice. That is because what Jesus wants is for us to change the kind of people we are, and to become re-made in his own image. That’s our goal as disciples of Jesus – to become like our teacher and master. It is, in fact, a complete re-creation of ourselves that he wants to accomplish in us. That, however, is easier said than done. Jesus wants us to change our hearts and our minds, to change our characters and our wills, so that they are like his in every way. That is the image of a Christian.
But we do not do well with change, especially when it comes to changing our thoughts, our ways, our attitudes, and our values. We like being the way we are, and we are especially good at defending ourselves when we are challenged. It is far easier to modify or “re-interpret” the teachings of Jesus so that they are more amenable to the kinds of people we already are. We prefer a Christianity that approves of the people we already are and does not call for such radical and difficult change. We would prefer a Christianity that is more like a list of things to do which we can post on the refrigerator door and check them off as we get them done. That is easy, and that is much less painful than what Jesus actually taught.
3. Evangelism is not “marketing,” and the gospel is not spread by using sales methods. Spreading the gospel is an area in which we probably all could do a lot better. I do not believe that it is necessarily the most important thing about being a Christian, but I also suspect that it should get much more attention than we customarily give it. But how?
The picture from the New Testament is that the early Christians were simply open about their faith. They spoke about it to others, and their lives were different from the pagans around them. Sure, there were some people like Paul who devoted their lives to the spread of the gospel, but the majority of the early Christians did not do that. Yet they spread the word of God by the word of mouth. When the Jerusalem Christians faced hardship and had to flee the city, Luke tells us “those who had been scatted went about preaching the word” (Acts 8.4). That is the New Testament image of evangelism.
It was no more complicated than that. It did not require advertising or the printing of tracts. There was no need for them to learn some special techniques of personal evangelism. They had no classes training them how to do it, and they did not need a church “program” for “outreach.” They simply went about telling others about their faith, telling them the story of Jesus. They did not have to learn how to “close” or to “cold call.” Now I have absolutely no gripe with those who earn their living by selling. My point is simply that spreading the gospel is not sales. Many times, however, that is exactly the way we have thought of it and practiced it.
In all of these ways people have given in to the desire to re-make divine things into images that are more amenable to our own tastes. The result is a Christianity that is virtually unrecognizable from the New Testament point of view. Let’s make sure we keep the original image intact.
An interesting twist on the ruined painting is here: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/ruined-jesus-church-fresco-fixed-article-1.1178142