The First Order Concern ©

Thursday evening October 22nd we returned home from our pilgrimage following the Apostle Paul’s 3rd and 4th missionary journeys.  We managed to include a stop at the island of Patmos where John wrote Revelation.  I have had the privilege of visiting the Holy Land and a part of Paul’s missionary/church planting stops before, and I am conscious from other visits that it takes a good while (months and even years) to fully unpack insights from such explorations.  Yet I feel compelled to comment on one of the foundational insights I received. In truth, that insight is not new at all. It is rather a radical re-emphasis (an exclamation point if you will) of a truth we know full well.  “Jesus is Lord.”  This seminal, creedal affirmation clung to with passionate intensity by the earliest Christians (check out Philippians 2:1-11) hit me once again with tidal wave intensity as we stood by the jail where Paul and Silas were imprisoned in Philippi  – a small dark depressing hovel.  (And yet Paul and Silas offered praise and prayer; check out Acts 16:23-25.) This truth was hammered home in the hill-top kingdom of Pergamum. Standing at the place “where Satan’s throne is” (Revelation 2:13) with Trajan’s great temple of emperor worship looming above them and the altar of Zeus spread out below them (scholars argue which is “Satan’s Throne”), they didn’t talk about the church or justice or missions.  Their first order of concern was to lift up Christ.  “You are holding on to my name and you didn’t break faith with me [i.e. Christ Jesus]” (Revelation 2:13). The witness of Christianity’s core creedal affirmation embraced my soul again standing on Mars Hill in Athens. Soaring majestically above and to the right was the Parthenon.  This great citadel of Athena and ancient Greek deities (plus a set aside temple for Caesar Augustus, also considered a god) is still awe inspiring 2,000 years later.  Gazing out from Mars Hill when I looked down, I saw the agora, the market place where Socrates taught and Plato argued.  The sheer courage and incredible depth of commitment exhibited by Paul humbles the most self-righteously ardent among us.  You can read about it yourself in Acts 17.  Incredibly, Paul didn’t argue about the importance of the church or the need to serve others.  He didn’t trumpet the conviviality of Christian fellowship or argue for good moral teaching.  He offered the good news of a once unknown god now known in the person of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen.  He shared a divine embrace from the risen Christ for all people – “God isn’t far away from any of us” (Acts 17:27; read the entire story in Acts 17:16-34). In every case the foundational offering is Christ. He is not one concern among many.  He isn’t a “first order concerned” offered alongside other important concerns.  Jesus Christ is the first order concern.  The church, justice, fellowship, mission, service, etc. are all important, but there are second order concerns.  They are built on the solid rock of Christ.  Christ and Christ alone is the one who speaks of freedom for the imprisoned, holiness when battered by the presence of Satan’s throne, and truth to an intellectually starving culture.  Great hymns of faith come too – “The Church’s One Foundation” and “In Christ Alone.” In our present day church and modern witness of Christianity, we are so tempted to begin with second order concerns. I recall with embarrassment a conversation a few years ago with a non-believing cousin and her spouse which focused on the church, its faults and failures, but never really offered Christ.  They were interested church drop-outs.  They knew much about the church and missions and justice, etc. They didn’t know Christ.  I answered their questions and sought to both defend the church and confess her faults and failures.  I shared the institution at its best.  Tragically, I failed to offer Christ. I have discovered a similar witness all across the Conference I serve and indeed spread far and wide across the shrinking ruins of American Christendom. Culturally we have lived with an assumption that people know Christ or at least know about Christ.  Today many do not even know about Christ, let alone know Christ.  I believe God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is calling us back to our first order witness.  We need more than just information about Christ.  We need to offer the person of Christ … a vibrant living life changing relationship of love and grace divine.  Jesus is Lord indeed!