Chapter 3: Steps of Faith. 3, Eager, Feeble Footsteps

Several years ago, a student in my world religions class raised his hand.

“Hey, Dr. Stroble!”

“Yes?”

“Did you know that the word %&@# is in the Bible?”

Questions like that make me glad that I’m happy and unflappable as a teacher.  Fortunately I knew the answer.  In Philippians 3, Paul recites his heritage: a Pharisee of the tribe of Benjamin, a blameless observer of the Torah. But the gain that he had before, and indeed everything, is counted as loss

because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith….. (3:8-9)

The Greek word translated “rubbish” is pretty strong, if not as strong as my student’s translation, at least carrying the connotation of “excrement.”

Paul is not saying that his Jewish heritage is %&@#.  Paul understands himself as a Jew and understands Christ as the fulfillment of all God’s promises to his people the Jews.  Paul is saying that nothing compares to the blessing of having Christ and his grace and power; all else is worthless compared to Christ.

It’s hard to “feel” the same excitement. We’re all churchgoing Gentile Christians, with no threat to our comfort, and the Holy Spirit within us is merely assumed. I suspect that we’ve domesticated the Gospel so much, and are so accustomed to believing the central Christian truths and relying upon our own strength and character, that we’ve become practical agnostics.

But sometimes the Gospel jerks us awake, though. In Acts 2:37, Peter’s audience is “cut to the heart” concerning Peter’s message.  The people had a sound reason; they realized they were accessories to the killing of an innocent man, indeed a man sent by God!  We can be “cut,” too, in a more positive way when particular scriptures speak strongly to us.

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Behind the book, there’s the Zondervan Bible Dictionary that my grandma gave me.

That happened to me in an required introductory course in religion, taught by Dr. Jim Reinhard, during my freshman year at Greenville College in Illinois. The course was during the autumn of 1975. Among other subjects we did a quick survey of the Gospels. I don’t think we read Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship in that class, but the book was certainly discussed on campus and at the time I owned the familiar 4-by-7, dark-green paperback, 1975 edition. We did read William Hordern’s A Layman’s Guide to Protestant Theology, which excited me so much I got up one morning at 4 AM in order to finish that survey of interesting theologians.[1]  With these influences dovetailing with my earlier church instruction, I became challenged, excited, and “cut” by several Bible passages that had to do with Jesus’ call of discipleship.

I leaf in my old Bible among some of those passages, which I underlined during the late 1970s. Here’s one:

For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from them who have not, even what they have will be taken away (Matt. 13:12).

This idea was so important, apparently, that we find it again later in the same gospel: 25:29. As an eighteen year old with a variety of interests and talents but no clear idea what to do with my life, such verses challenged me to devote my own modest “abundance” to Christian discipleship in some way, whatever my life’s work became.

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matt. 9:36-38).

Who will go?  Matthew and other disciples took up Jesus’ call (Mk. 1:20; 2:14). The rich man of Luke 18:18-30, though, was given more of a challenge than “follow me,” and at that point he wasn’t ready.  But Philip responded and brought Nathaniel along (John 1:43-45); Nathaniel in turn followed, after he had the assurance of his question answered (John 1:45-51). Simon the sorcerer responded eagerly but was confused about the whole thing (Acts 8:9-24). I wasn’t sure what discipleship would entail, but I wanted to respond, as long as I could search out answers to some of my own questions.

Among those questions were the expectations of Jesus.  His commands still seemed difficult; his demands for an all-encompassing discipleship that reached all the way into the heart’s most stubborn places seemed out of reach.

If you love me, you will keep my commandments (John 14:15).

Okay … but what are they?  (This is serious: John 3:36 reiterates the consequences.) But keep reading: not long after John 14:15, Jesus explains:

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another (15:12-17).

So Jesus’ commandment is to love!  Not just to love—and not just to try to force ourselves to love as Jesus did—but to love through the power of the Holy Spirit, so that the Spirit can use our imperfect love in ways far beyond our imaginings.

The story of the Judgment in Matthew 25:31-46 spelled out Christ’s commandment of love very well, as did the story I’d learned long before, the Good Samaritan: we love and serve those who are in need, regardless of who they are.  When we do so, we serve Christ himself.

Jesus upheld the Ten Commandments but, even more, the Two Commandments. I have Mark 12:28-34 underlined:

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength’, and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself’,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question (Mk. 12:28-34).

As our class studied the Gospels, I had a very strong, positive impression of the historical quality of the gospels: the way the authors used historical materials and collections of stories and sayings in order to draw an account of Jesus’ life. The accounts of Jesus seemed thereby more real and true. In turn, if the Gospels were sound historical accounts, then Jesus’ call of discipleship seemed all the more urgent.

So did the messages of Jesus’ love. Jesus did not single out the religious “athletes,” the ones who would today be the called and ordained leaders, the Ph.D.s in religion. He didn’t exclude the very religious but he reached out to all kinds of people: the good folks, the dregs, the well off, and the seriously sinful sinners. The twelve fellows he chose for students were a slow-to-get-it crew whom he never ceased to love.

Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Matt. 11:29-30).

Being “yoked” to Christ also meant learning from him. The word “disciple” basically means “student,” although our modern conception of a student as a classroom-bound person narrows the word’s setting. We learn from Jesus—we are his students/disciples—as we assume the responsibilities of showing Christ in our daily activities.

From Dr. Reinhard’s class I learned my first “cool” original-language word, splagchnizomai, which in Greek means, “moved with compassion” (e.g., Luke 7:13) but literally, “to have the bowels yearning.” The compassion that Jesus showed was no superficial thing or a “pose” assumed by a distant sovereign: his love permeated his deepest being, his “guts.”

Finally, that erroneous element of fear—of feeling I had to earn God’s grace—changed into happiness and excitement. I felt freed and chosen by someone who lived and died and lived again on our behalf.  Of course, I’d known this all along; Jesus was not foreign to me. In one of his lectures in 1980, my professor, Luke Timothy Johnson, called theology a process of “catching up.” God has already done more than we can imagine, but we have to catch up to it.  At this stage of my life, Jesus seemed newly real to me, and I wanted to deepen my faith and to discover ways of serving and understanding Christ.

A few years ago, I wrote a short study book on selected world religions.[2] I interviewed everyday people about their beliefs, and one man in particular impressed me.  For this interview, I’d been told that I should just show up at a worship service and someone would be willing to be interviewed. I thus found a volunteer, and he sat down with me described his faith and beliefs for nearly 45 minutes, articulately and without advance preparation. Could we Christians share the essential doctrines of our faith if someone said, “Hello! I want to discover what Christians believe. Can you explain Christian faith to me?…”

In 1977, when I was 20, I purchased my Harper Study Bible for another college class—this Bible that I’ve continued to use all these years—and I began to consult it in order to figure out the Christian message.  I wanted to articulate the message of the Gospel, based on all my Sunday school classes and now my college classes.  Studying the then-new book, I expressed the message in a traditional, evangelistic way:

*  God is holy, and we are not: we’re sinners. Because God is holy, he holds us accountable for violating his will. But we cannot do enough to make amends to God for our many sins. Thus God created a system by which animals could be killed humanely and other food products could be offered as types of sacrifices.  The blood of animals was particularly potent, because blood is a source of life and the release of blood from an animal was believed to have spiritual consequences.

* But, of course, such sacrifices would go on forever. Those sacrifices were also authorized for God’s own people, the Hebrews, and God related to non-Jews in other ways.  So how can sin be satisfactorily “covered”?

* Jesus died under terrible circumstances as a condemned sinner who was, nevertheless, innocent. His death, while not caused upon an altar, did involve the shedding of his blood. Jesus was not simply a blameless human being; he was also the incarnate God.  In Jesus, God became human and was sacrificed so that the power of his blood—the fully human blood of God become flesh—would be shed for the forgiveness of sins, for all who believed and for all time.

* But Jesus’ death was not the end of the story. He soon rose from the dead, conquering the ultimate destructive power of both sin and death.  Although we still commit sins, suffer various difficulties in our lives, and eventually experience physical death, these forces have no power to affect our eternal destiny, which is life with God through the power of Jesus.

* But that’s not all. We need not feel regret that Jesus lived long ago. He himself said that he was more effective and available for us if he died and returned to Heaven.  Now, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we have a close relationship with Christ, daily and for all time.

* But that is not all! We have all kinds of wonderful blessings in Jesus’ name.  Again, I leaf through my old Bible and find the passages that I discovered that helped me understand the Gospel message:

§Jesus defeated the power of sin and death (1 Cor. 15:51-57).

§He defeated the ultimate power of the forces of evil (1 Cor. 15:24-28).

§He has reconciled us with God (Rom. 5:10-11).

§We receive mercy and grace from God (Rom. 6:23, Heb. 4:16).

§We’ve confidence in approaching God (Heb. 4:15-16).

§We’ve assurance that God will never forsake us (Rom. 8:31-39).

§We’ve gentleness from God (Heb. 5:2).

§We’ve freedom from being “good enough to please God” (Rom. 3:21-26)

§God gives us power for living (1 Cor. 4:20, 1 Thess. 1:5).

§God removes all the barriers between us and other people (Eph. 2:11-22), which raises the excellent question of why those barriers persist.

§God gives us fellowships that sustain us (Eph. 4:11-16).

§God gives us spiritual gifts and power for growth (Gal. 5:22-23).

§God frees us from the need to be anxious (Phil. 4:6).

§God gives us a peace that is even better than “peace of mind” (Phil. 4:7), it’s the peace of a right relationship with God.

Can you think of other aspects, in our own confluence of the Bible and your life?

In spite of all this studying, understanding the Gospel was not a quick process for me. These discoveries and musings took a long time.  I was in my late teens, early twenties. I had the notion that I should be able to witness to my faith—-a classic Christian responsibility, after all.  But my first efforts at sharing and explaining my faith were pathetic.  I recall talking to a local friend about faith, but I really didn’t know the best way to approach the subject, and our conversation was like a bad blind date with long awkward silences.  Other times, I thought I had a chance to talk about faith, but I “chickened out.” I tried to associate with other Christians, so that their faith might “rub off,” but that didn’t really work, except at the United Methodist Church in my hometown, which my parents and I began to attend.  As a young person I was struggling so, unsure of myself, longing for love.

Over time, I grew very depressed. I think that a common experience in Christian faith is a spiritual low that follows a positive encounter with God (although that “low” may be felt in very different ways). We mistakenly think that faith will always be positive and upbeat, and thus we set ourselves up for disappointment, since faith is more than emotional feeling.

This can be a key juncture where one becomes stuck in feelings of failure, or grows more deeply in faith, or (as in my own case) some combination. Shyness and self-doubt in one’s faith may have to do with your personality, the things that nourish your faith, the amount of affirmation or discouragement you received from other Christians, and so on. You may feel so deeply about your faith that it’s hard to put it into words. Perhaps you feel like your faith is meager and thus hard to share. Perhaps you fear damaging someone’s faith by unintentionally “shoving Jesus down someone’s throat.”

Looking to oneself (2 John 8) can be a long process. If I was re-embarking on Christian faith right now … well, I’d have a thicker skin, but that’s a matter of personal growth. I’d also give myself time to grow spiritually, and time to understand. I wanted a faith that was genuine and genuinely and naturally verbalized itself, but at the time I hadn’t such a thing.  I love this verse:

[A bishop] must have a firm grasp of the word that is trustworthy in accordance with the teaching, so that he may be able both to preach with sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict it (Titus 1:9)

That’s excellent advice for any Christian, not only church leaders. Faith is knowledge but it’s also a “holding on” firmly to God, a whole orientation of living in God’s truth and of clarifying aspects of faith and doctrine. God touches our lives richly, through God’s own initiative, but we don’t always know how God’s power is real in our lives or how to express that fact to others.

The Bible itself gives warrant for treating one’s own faith with patience. We don’t know what Paul did following his conversion (or, as he himself puts it, his call), but we do know that he went to Arabia and then Damascus, and only after numerous years did he met with Jesus’ disciples (Gal. 1:15-18). Interestingly to me—because I lacked an evangelistic gift of gab—-Paul considered himself a person of unimpressive speech compared to the orators of the Greek world; he trusted in God’s Spirit to demonstrate God’s power (1 Cor. 2:1-5).

Much is always made of Peter’s boldness in the beginning of Acts, but Peter wasn’t just starting out with highly effective sermons the moment he became a follower of Jesus. “Effectiveness” had nothing to do with it; nor his natural extroversion. An earthen vessel (2 Cor. 4:7), he was empowered and matured by the Holy Spirit (who worked with his natural extroversion and abilities) after a long time of learning, making mistakes, looking stupid, losing his nerve, starting again. God’s Spirit is the way by which the Gospel takes root and grows in people’s lives.[3]

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The title comes from J.S. Bach’s song “Wir eilen mit schwachen,” for Cantata 78, “Jesu, der du meine Seele” (Jesus, Thou who my soul). The song’s first two lines translate, “We hasten with feeble, eager footsteps, O Jesus, O Master, to seek after your help!” The melody is bouncy and “eager,” but, as a choir director pointed out, the bass line plods, to connote the feebleness of our steps to God.

[1]  New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1955, 1968.  I still have that copy, displayed separately on a stand on my bookshelves. Hordern responded to my letter of thanks with wonderment that someone would rise before dawn to read his book. The theology of Karl Barth, about whom I first learned from Hordern, continued to be a significant theological interest through doctoral work and beyond. Although his position is still vigorously argued, Barth’s key position—in Walter Brueggemann’s words, “The God of the Bible is not ‘somewhere else,’ but is given only in, with, and under the [biblical] text itself”—remained thought provoking for me.  Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 19 (emphasis in text). My eventual doctoral dissertation, approved in 1991 and published in 1994, was called The Social Ontology of Karl Barth.

[2]  Paul Stroble, What Do Other Faiths Believe? (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003).

[3] “We are saved and made into the image of Christ not by our efforts to imitate him. Such an idea reduces the gospel to ethical effort. We recognize that the gospel tells us of the absolutely unique work of Christ, both in his living and his dying, by which we are saved through faith. We cannot imitate or live the gospel event as such. We can only believe it. We cannot work our way to heaven by moral endeavor. We can only depend on the finished work of Christ for us. We cannot command other people to live or do the gospel. We must proclaim the message of what God has done for them in the gospel. We follow the New Testament in calling on people to live out the implications of the gospel, but we cannot urge people to actually live the gospel, for that was the unique work of Christ. This distinction between the gospel and its fruit in our lives is crucial.” Goldsworthy, Peaching the Whole Bible, 4.

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