The Purpose of Christianity: Deification and Evangelism

David Russell Mosley

Ordinary Time
5 November 2015
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

I apologize for my lack of communication over the past month. I’ve had to submit my thesis corrections (I’m still waiting to hear back on the results), and I’ve had some other life things come up. But enough with excuses! I will endeavor to return to a regular posting schedule of at least twice a week.

Lately at the church my wife and I attend many of the sermons have had a very focused attention on evangelism. This isn’t something unique to the church we currently attend. I think I can safely say that with one or two exceptions every church I have attended has had a profound emphasis on evangelism, that is telling people who don’t believe in Jesus about Jesus in order to bring them into the fold of belief in Jesus. Some churches even go so far as to suggest that evangelism is the primary thing Christians are meant to be doing. Now I want to be clear, I am not against evangelism. Of course part of being a Christian is to “make disciples of the nations.” But I want to challenge the idea that this is the primary thing Christians are called to do.

First, I want to look at the primary passage we go to for seeing evangelism as the primary purpose of the Christian, Matthew 28.17-20. Jesus has been raised from the dead and these are his final words, in this Gospel, to his followers:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

We often call this passage The Great Commission, but it should be remembered that it only exists in Matthew’s Gospel and Mark’s (though many scholars believe the Great Commission portion of Mark’s Gospel is a later addition). Luke’s Gospel does not include any kind of commissioning other than to wait in Jerusalem until they clothed with power from on high and John’s Gospel ends with Christ’s commands to Peter to feed his sheep and follow him. Acts does begin with Christ calling on the 120 disciples to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the world. So we have this odd mix of Gospels ending, and Acts beginning, with some calling on the disciples, and therefore us, to be witnesses to the reality of God Incarnate, of God Crucified, of God Resurrected, and of God’s Return. So this is clearly important, but it is to be the central focus for Christians, the primary thing we’re meant to dedicate our lives to? It seems to me that the rest of the New Testament does not bear that out.

First, we should keep in mind that even the Matthew passage part of what the disciples are called on to do is teach “them to observe all that I have commanded you.” I don’t think this limited to making disciples, but all the commands Jesus has given, including, “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Which brings me to what I think is central: deification. For those who have kept up with the topic of my PhD thesis, you’ll know that I worked on the subject of deification and human creativity. Deification means being so unified to the Triune God through Christ and the Spirit that we may be called gods (although that by adoption/grace and not by nature). We could, to a certain extent, also call this holiness or even perfection. This is the thing to which we have been called and the reason for which we have been created, to be united to the Divine Life.

Paul’s letters bear this out. When you read through them you see that Paul spends little to no time about how believers should go about converting unbelievers, about how we should evangelize (although he does spend time concerning his own efforts in spreading the Gospel). Rather he spends most of his time concerned with our individual corporate holiness: how we conduct ourselves as individual Christians and as the Church. Paul calls us to strive towards the goal, which isn’t to evangelize as many people as we possibly can, but to come into that deified life in Christ.

It is for this reason that the early and medieval Church spends so much time on topics like contemplation, which in essence means times of intense thinking about and entering into the presence of God. This is the foundation of the Christian life, entering into the divine life through the incarnation of the Son and the indwelling of the Spirit. It is from this place of working toward our deification, which can only be done in and with the grace of God, that all other aspects of Christianity flow: like evangelism, social justice, human creativity, and more. The Christ event transfigures how we see the world around us and forces us to begin by doing more than simply assenting to a relationship with Christ, but to actually begin (or more rightly continue) the deifying process which is first and foremost about our transfiguration into Christ by being adopted into his Sonship. The natural outflow of this will include concern for the non-believer and for the poor and oppressed.

You see, I’m concerned. I’m concerned about the churches who make evangelism the main point of being a Christian. I’m concerned that making evangelism the central point of Christianity will lead to shallow Christians. I’m concerned it will lead to Christians who are like the seeds sown on the rocky soil, they will accept the Gospel with eagerness but will be burnt by the sun because they lack roots. It is of course true that there are problems with focusing only on personal or even corporate holiness (especially when done so without love and mercy) or only on the social or creative aspects of Christianity. However, I think the foundation must be in deification, in holiness. We must found ourselves in the reason God created us in the first place, namely to be joined to him in love. God did not create humanity to evangelize (since that require people created who needed evangelization). Neither did he create us to right the wrongs in society (since that would require societies existing in sinfulness before sin entered the world). God created humanity to be joined to him first and foremost, everything else we do is intended to facilitate that end. So I’m not calling us to stop evangelizing, far from it. What I am calling us to is a return to a foundational emphasis on the end for which we were created so that we may participate with God in bringing about our own salvation and deification and in order to transform this world to bring it into a deifying relationship with God. But we must start with our personal and corporate holiness, that must be our base of operations from which we go out to transform the world.

Sincerely yours,
David

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Seeking Guidance and Imaging God in Prayer: Icons and Their Use

icon

Dear Friends and Family,

One of my favourite Christmas presents from this last Christmas was a reproduction of an icon given to me by my Mother-in-law. Icons are another one of those things that tend to confuse Western Christians, particularly we lower-Protestants. They can seem like idols. They can be treated like idols. There are even passages in Scripture that tell us not to make graven images of our God. So why on earth do I have a reproduction of an icon of the Trinity?

The answer is less than simple and I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers. At root, however, the logic behind icons is that Jesus, who is the Image of the invisible God did precisely what graven images in Exodus were intended to do, he gave us a picture, a physical object in himself, to show us what God is like. This became the main argumentation in the early Church for creating (or writing as it is now called) icons. Since Christ gave us an image of God to guide us to God, it is not inappropriate for us to create images of God to help guide us to God.

The purpose of an icon is a guide. When you pray using an icon, you are not praying to the icon, instead you allowing the image depicted in the icon lead you to deeper truths about God. This can help you focus your prayer when you don’t know what to pray. While many icons depict Jesus (or God as the icon of the Trinity above, which is actually a depiction of the three visitors who come to Abraham before destroying Sodom and Gomorrah), there are also some that depict holy people. I don’t want to get in to this, since this leads us to the veneration of saints, but the idea behind these icons is still one of guidance and seeking for personal transformation. We pray to God (not the icon) that we may be made more like the person depicted (These icons are also used to invoke the saints themselves and ask them to pray for us, just as we would ask our friends. I realise that many may still have issues with this, but I wish only to focus on these icons as guides).

Below I’ve embedded a video from one of my supervisors, Dr Mary Cunningham, on why theologians ought to study icons. Give it a watch.

At the end of the day we are called to pray without ceasing. Sometimes, however, we need help, we need guides because we do not know how to pray. While the Holy Spirit will groan within us and for us when we don’t know what to pray, we can still use other guides. This is the usefulness of icons in prayer.

Yours,
David

Lent: The Light Has Gone out of the World

Dear Friends and Family,

We’re just over half-way through Lent and I’ve realised I didn’t do a post about it. There is a lot I could tell you about the history of Lent; how it started as a forty-hour fast before Easter to symbolise the time Christ spent in the tomb and then evolved into forty days of limited fasting to connect better with the Israelites in the desert and Christ in the wilderness. Instead, however, I just want to write a brief apology for Lent.

For many Christians Christmas and Easter are easy to understand. Even Pentecost and Ascension Day make sense since they’re days in the life of Christ. Lent is just a different bird. Lent is in place to remind us that Christ died, that the light of the world was snuffed out. We commiserate with the disciples who, still misunderstanding Christ, thought he had come to restore the Davidic Kingdom. We recognise our sinfulness during this time and dedicate ourselves anew to repentance. We fast to remember that the true source of our being is God, not food, not the comforts of this life, but God.

I know some Christians who see all Christian celebrations and commemorations as inappropriate because we ought to be celebrating Christ’s life, death, and resurrection all the time. This is true. It does not, however, negate the usefulness of year in and year out living in the rhythm of Christ’s Birth, Death, Resurrection, Ascension, and sending of the Spirit to the Church. We ought to set aside specific times to think about and discuss these things. Otherwise our view could become myopic, we could become sidetracked by whatever aspects of salvation speak to us most. In the Church Calendar we abate that fear. In Lent, we remember why we needed a saviour and why we tend to myopia in the first place.

Spend these next few weeks reminding yourself why you needed a saviour and Easter will seem all the more felicitous for it.

A Lenten Prayer

Almighty and everlasting God,
you hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent:
create and make in us new and contrite hearts
that we, worthily lamenting our sins
and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may receive from you, the God of all mercy,
perfect remission and forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

Yours,

David

A Contemplative Advent

Dear Friends and Family,

Below is a link to a video on contemplation and Advent. The speaker is Phileena Heuertz and she has a website on contemplation here. I only have two comments about this video I sadly cannot embed.

First, she says early on that since contemplation is about allowing ourselves to be open and receptive of God and Advent is also about making space for God in our lives, Advent isn’t a different time of year for her. I understand this kind of view. It’s the I know how I ought to live and shouldn’t need special times to remind me. It’s the argument I hear from my fellow lower protestants about the Church Calendar. This misses the point, in my view. Advent, specifically is about more than just making space for God, it’s about waiting. As I said in a previous post, Advent is both where we join the Church universal in waiting for Christ’s return, and we remember how the world waited for his first coming.

My second, brief, point is this: For her contemplation is centred around a centring prayer which is prayed by remaining silent and focusing on a sacred word to re-centre us when thoughts and distractions come our way. The Eastern Church has a prayer similar to this which is called The Jesus Prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.’ Another prayer often used in this way is based loosely on Psalm 71.12: ‘O God, incline unto my aid; O Lord, make haste to help me.’ I like these prayers (her idea is awfully similar to Eastern meditation, that doesn’t make it bad, I just prefer things based on Scripture or the Tradition). Anyway, watch the video, let me know what you think. Let’s contemplate and make space for God this Advent season.

A Contemplative Advent.

Yours,

David