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Echoes Blog

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Is it personal or is it social?

The question rings through debates that have vexed much of the church over the past couple centuries. It's been a debate over the message itself. What have we to say to those who ask? Which side are we on? Why is the other side so wrong about Jesus' message?

But what if neither side is wrong, except in rejecting the other? What if it's both, and there's a big, wide, whole message to tell? What if the important question is not if the gospel is personal or social, but how it is personal and social?



Jim Wallis, from the Sojourners Community, became famous for his swiss cheese bible. He took scissors and cut out each verse of scripture that speaks of God's call to tend to the poor, and the stranger, and the homeless, and the hopeless. With 2000 verses cut out, there were a lot of holes in his bible. And the verses missing weren't just about giving a cup of water or your second coat away. They were also about unjust systems, about economics and using power in ways that harm the powerless. These are verses that imagine a new city, that give a vision that can guide a gospel-inspired approach to social life. For in Christ we refuse to believe the myth that society is merely a zone of competition. We refuse that kind of cynicism. Instead, we cling to the bible's vision of hope and peace. And we let that vision take us where it will. It's risky, but it's part of the whole bible.

The gospel is about God's grand concern for justice and an end to both oppressive systems and oppressive actions. It is social.

Yet as it is social, it is also about God's intimate concern for you, for your heart, that (as Paul wrote to the Colossians) you might be "filled with the knowledge of God's will and lead lives worthy of the Lord . . ." Lives that are strong, patient, and full of joy.

The gospel is personal too.

God cares about who you are. God cares about what you value, how you learn, what you do with yourself, what you do with others. God cares what you do with your time, and your money, and your influence. God wants each one of us, and wants all of us. God wants to get down inside, to help us see ourselves, accept Godly love, and know God's peace.

Scripture, the church, reason, and the Holy Spirit are given to help us figure this out. And we're promised that help.

We don't need to be nervous about this personal part of faith. We don't need to be suspicious of prayer, or miracle, or devotion. We don't need to fear experiencing Jesus. We can let him be free to come as he will.

We need him. And he will come.

Don't fear what some more pious folks call being "born again." Forget the manipulative baggage that can come with that idea. A spiritual renewal can be a "second blessing" like the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, described when his heart was warmed when hearing the words of divine love for him—even though he'd heard those words so many times before. Or it can be an awakening you only feel looking backward, like the once Secretary General of the United Nations Dag Hammarskjold described, when shortly before his death he looked back and realized that "at some moment" he said "yes," and that "yes" made all the difference in the world. Or it can be a hard won change in your outlook, in your emotions, in your will that only comes after long work. But it can come, and it can come to you personally, as if by name. And it can make all the difference.

The gospel is radical, you see. It gets to the root, which is what "radical" means. It gets to the root of social injustice and social ills. It gets to the root of personal worry and aimless wandering. It gets to the root and it waters, and it feeds, with something new.

It's social. Oh, yes. And it's personal. Thanks be to God.