Ordinary Christianity

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in his excellent word!
What more can he say than to you he hath said, to you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?

The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!” Numbers 11:4-6

But [Jesus] answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation demands a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” Mark 12:39

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Does Christianity consist merely of gathering as God’s people, being united to Christ in baptism, abiding in Christ in the worship and fellowship of Holy Communion and attending to the word of God? Don’t you want something more than ordinary Christianity? Don’t you need something more?

I’ve spent my entire life in Christian denominations that grew out of 19th century American revivalism, which in turn grew out of the 18th century pietist movement in Europe. I have frequently heard Christian messages that went something like this:

Are you sure that you are a Christian – have faith in Jesus – are saved – have the Holy Spirit? Are you really, really sure? Yes, you’ve been baptized and go to church, but are you really a Christian?

The revivalist continues:

Here’s the reason that you’re not really a Christian. You haven’t had the right experience. You don’t have enough enthusiasm. You don’t have the right feelings in your heart. You don’t have the true, inner witness of the Spirit. Your faith if – if it exists at all – is in a category too weak to save you. You’re still committing secret sins. If you really loved Jesus, you would be doing some really important Christian thing. You don’t really love God.

Or, there’s the liberal-progressive version of that riff.

You’re not really a Christian because you’re not sufficiently committed to the cause. You haven’t broken free of the idolatry of the capitalist imperial mindset. You’re not imitating Jesus closely enough. If you really loved Jesus, you would be doing some really important Christian thing. You don’t’ really love your neighbor.

Both versions share the same basic message.

Your version of Christianity is ordinary, cold, unexciting and weak. Baptism? Communion? Preaching and hearing the word of God? Don’t depend on them! They don’t mean anything unless you really feel it in your heart and act it out in your life (and, by the way, in the manner that I tell you is the right way to feel and act). If you were a real Christian, your heart would be filled with white-hot passion and the world would be turned upside down by your zeal. You need something more to be a true Christian.

So, don’t you want something more – something more than ordinary Christianity?

What if, however, the desire for something more is not a sign of holiness, but a sign of worldliness? What if it is a sign that we’ve rejected what God has actually given us and demanded something else – something that better fits our human desire for emotional fulfillment, entertainment, relevance, practicality, pride and importance – something that puts us, and not God, at the center of the picture?

Do you remember how God fed the Israelites with manna during their sojourn in the wilderness? God graciously provided manna that kept the Israelites alive on their journey, but they wanted something else. God’s manna was sufficient for the 40 year journey, but they wanted something that would fulfill their human appetites as well nourish their bodies. God has given us his manna, but like Hawkeye Pierce facing a chow line with a “river of liver and an ocean of fish,” we demand something else.

As Jesus preached, ate with sinners, healed the sick and cast out demons, he made God’s saving grace present and real. Many of the people were unimpressed; Jesus didn’t scratch where they itched. “What else do you have, Jesus?” How dare we say that what God gives us is not good enough!

I am a passionate advocate of ordinary Christianity. It is the manna that God has given us during our sojourn in the wilderness – in the time between Jesus’ ascension and his coming again.

God is at the center of ordinary Christianity. The good news is that God has acted. He called Abraham and promised him a family. He delivered the Hebrew slaves and gave the Law through Moses. He led his people through the wilderness into the Promised Land, defending them, empowering them, and holding them accountable for their actions. He led Israel’s armies in victory and anointed David as king. He spoke through the prophets and established a temple where his people could worship him. In the fullness of time, he sent Jesus to bring all these related story lines to their climax. Through his life, death and resurrection, Jesus overcame sin and death, created one people of God for the entire world, and opened the door to God’s eternal kingdom. Jesus will come again to usher in the age in which God’s promise is perfectly fulfilled and all creation lives in peace. This is what God has done for us.

In ordinary Christianity, the church is God’s means of uniting us to Christ and the story of salvation. The church proclaims the story of what God has done – the word contained in Holy Scriptures – and invites all people to respond in faith. Ordinary things like assembling together, confessing our faith together, baptizing new believers, sharing the communion table, preaching and hearing the word of God: these are God’s means of grace. The phrase “means of grace” is much too weak, however, if we only see these gifts of God as means to other human experiences or actions. God has given us the sacrament of baptism to unite us to Christ and his church. He’s given us the sacrament of communion for us to live in Christ. The church confesses, preaches, baptizes and communes by faith in God’s actions and God’s promise. We accept what God has given and don’t demand anything more. God’s grace – God’s manna given in word and sacrament – is sufficient. If it doesn’t seem like enough, the problem lies in us, and not in God’s gifts.

Of course there is more. As people gathered around God’s word and united to Christ, we grow in grace and in the knowledge of God. Word and sacrament transform us. We learn to love God and love each other as we live together as God’s people. God uses us for his purposes in the world. There is a kind of holy dissatisfaction with the world in this age as we groan for the age to come. But the key point is this: we don’t demand anything more from God than what he has given. Let me repeat: his grace – given in word and sacrament – is sufficient.

When we evaluate God’s gifts by our desires, our wants, our feelings, our emotions or our sense of justice, we put ourselves at the center of the picture. What we think is a great experience or a tremendous action may be little or nothing in God’s eyes. What we think is of little significance may be the most important thing of all.

Ordinary Christianity is Christianity for the long haul. It’s not like a New Year’s resolution or a high-school crush. It doesn’t depend on spasms of emotional intensity, spiritual experience, good intentions or righteous activity. Ordinary Christianity will change us, but we don’t know how. Like marriage, some days it will make us ecstatic. Some days, it will seem tedious. Some days, it might even make us angry or dissatisfied. But none of that matters. Ordinary Christianity is where we connect with what God has done and what he will do.  As we say with the disciples of John’s gospel, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Talking bad about ordinary Christianity is understandable. Humans want to exert power over others; when we tell others that their faith isn’t good enough, we meet our need to feel important and powerful. And humans like to put themselves at the center of the universe. Of course, it’s all about me!

Instead of trying to talk Christians out of their faith or encouraging Christians to doubt the validity of their faith, maybe we should just encourage them to receive the gifts God has given them with gratitude and faithfulness, and then let God do whatever God wills in their lives.

So, are you wanting something more, or wanting something else?

Lord, we know that your ordinary gifts are sufficient for us. The world may call them weak or foolish, but for us, they are the power of salvation.

Lord, we will take whatever comes our way, as long as we stay connected to you: highs and lows, excitement and boredom, fame and obscurity, clarity and confusion, affection and alienation, closeness and solitude, relevance and insignificance, confidence and self-doubt, success and failure. The grace you give daily in our ordinary union with you is enough to sustain our souls. We need nothing more; help us to know that we need nothing more.

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