If your church puts words on paper ahead of Jesus, it’s “just an empty building filled with paper people.”
The second preacher of the day ended his remarks on this note. Paper Christianity—the kind that looks for security in right words and right beliefs—took a hit from start to finish Monday in Seattle. Yesterday the One Project gathering was a sustained declaration that to be Christian is to be human—and broken; and that to be a broken human who is Christian is to receive from God the grace—the strength—to act.
But for alert listeners, the day ended, nevertheless, with a giant question mark, not projected on the ballroom screen but still seen and felt, like a summons, or perhaps an invitation, to further give-and-take.
The beginning, as on Day One, was praise and prayer. After the Hosanna’s and the promises, sung in ardent unison, Zane Yi, a teacher at Loma Linda University, stepped forward. Within minutes he was saying that we “need more people like Pilate,” the front-and-center character in the story he was considering from Jesus’ Final Week, the theme of the 2015 gathering.
Yi argued that Pilate actually did seek and learn the truth. Like Socrates, he asked questions, in his case questions about charges that religious bureaucrats were bringing against Jesus. Then he drew conclusions from what he’d learned, coming to realize that Jesus did not deserve to die. But to “advance the truth,” Yi went on, is also “to act on the truth.” And here Pilate fell short, lapsing into “cringe-worthy” evasions like passing decision responsibility off to Herod, or giving accusers a choice that could free him from responsibility, or placating the crowd by torturing Jesus instead of killing him. None of these evasions worked, so in the end Pilate caved in to protect his reputation, and sent Jesus to his death. Yi then offered, by contrast, the story of English anti-slavery advocate Thomas Clarkson, who also asked questions and came to a conclusion, but who then acted on what he’d learned. If like Jesus we are going to shed light on the darkness, Yi said, we, unlike Pilate, must act on the truth we come to know.
Tim Gillespie, pastor of the Crosswalk Church in southern California, turned attention to Peter’s denial of Jesus. Why would Peter do this? Why was he such a “loser”? Gillespie said the answer is that he was “human.” Failure goes along with being human. It’s just a “fact” about us; but failure also something God “foresees” and “forgives.” And if Peter was human, so are we, both as individuals and as a “corporate body.” So it will not do to look down on him. It is better to live with “gratitude” and “joy”; better to acknowledge our “need” for Jesus and to throw off every vestige of “legalism”; better to grow into acquaintance with Jesus as a “person,” not just a “concept.” This Jesus, he emphasized, saves us from our sins and denials. If you overlook your brokenness and play down the centrality of Jesus, and if you depend instead on knowing the right words and believing the right doctrines, you are just a “paper” Christian.
Macy McVay, a young woman pastoring in Salem, OR, considered the report that Jesus was crucified between two criminals. These criminals were like Barabbas, she said, “would-be Robinhoods” who had run afoul of the Roman authorities, and Jesus’ interaction with them showed his commitment to what she called “radical friendship.” Relying on Luke, McVay noted that both criminals heard Jesus say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” but one joined with the scoffers at the scene, demanding that if he was King or Christ he should save himself. The other criminal, however, asked Jesus to remember him in his Kingdom, and Jesus immediately promised that they would be together in “Paradise.” McVay then explained that the word translated “Paradise” evokes a Persian king inviting someone to be his companion for walks in a private garden. Thus it is Jesus’ way, she said, to invite fellow-sufferers into the intimate friendship of kindred spirits, and she invited her hearers to feel the same generosity toward all those who suffer today.
The next preacher was Jennifer Scott, who is just now transferring into the pastoral workforce in Florida, and she examined Jesus’ anguished cry: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If one kind of quiet is meditation in God’s presence, another is the “quiet of forsakenness,” when you feel you belong to no one. Jesus felt such forsakenness. How did he deal with it? First, he did not deny the truth about his feelings, and like the writer of Psalm 22 gave voice to his exasperation. He faced his forsakenness. But despite the misery of the cross, he also embraced belonging, quoting yet another Psalm, the thirty-first, by saying, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” Her point was that these experiences shed light on ours, offering us both permission to be honest an example of persistence in trust.
One Project organizers had invited William Johnsson, the former Adventist Review editor, to join the circle of younger speakers, and he came to the podium first after lunch. Seated on a stool, Johnsson expressed appreciation for the One Project, and declared himself with the statement, “It’s all about Jesus; it’s not about me and it’s not about the church.” But he said, too, that he loves the church, even though just now he’s in a “lover’s quarrel” with it. Last summer it “punched me in the stomach,” he allowed, clearly alluding, as other speakers had done, to the General Conference decision against full ministerial equality for women.
Johnsson’s assignment was to consider the meaning of Jesus’ death. Concerning this he quoted, from 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s claim that the matter of “first importance” for the gospel is that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures…” With a nod to best-selling author Stephen Covey, Johnsson then called Jesus’ death for our sins “the main thing,” again and again repeating the words: “The main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing.” The meaning of Christ’s death is the forgiveness of sins, and nothing matters more. Johnsson allowed, ever so briefly, that Christ is our “example,” but also declared that neither the gospels nor the rest of the New Testament focus on this. It is not his life but his death that matters crucially. He was not so much the “model man” as the man who died to take our sin away. His death, as the Gospel of John declares, was his “glory.”
Dilys Brooks, a chaplain at Loma Linda University, closed off Day Two, addressing the experience of the aggrieved Mary in the Garden of Gethsemane. Intending on the day after the Sabbath to care for the body of Jesus, she found instead the empty tomb. She fell into weeping, but didn’t leave the place, soon mistaking a man she met for the “gardener.” But then the man said her name, and she responded, in Aramaic, “Rabboni,” meaning “Teacher.” At this Mary suddenly recognized the risen Christ, and the fact that would become the ground of Christian hope. But Brooks ended her remarks with a reminder that Jesus is “so much more” than a rabbi; he is our savior and he is the one we are called to “follow.”
Soon both song and prayer brought the gathering to its end. But by now, as was evident at several discussion tables, the question mark had appeared. Why had Johnsson failed to connect Jesus’s death with the theme of discipleship? Why had he seemed to overlook repeated calls on Jesus’ part to “follow” him? Some table participants were puzzled. One, a teacher from Southern Adventist University, alluded to the perfectionism of Adventists who champion “last generation theology.” On this view the achievement of unsullied obedience, where human brokenness is somehow fully overcome, will one day open the way to the Second Coming. Perhaps Johnsson’s argument was to be understood in light of that earlier dispute.
It seemed in any case that the One Project was still generating questions to which thoughtful Adventists would want to return.
Charles Scriven is Board Chair of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum.
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