We are more sinful,
The Bible is more preeminent,
And the Cross is more central (and shocking and appalling and glorious),
These are some reflections from a recent trip to New York City. Sure, I also had a rippin' good time, ate classic New York style pizza, took in some authentic live Blues, and took the stroll through Central Park, Times Square, Rockefeller Center, and across the Brooklyn Bridge (among other things). But, in true God is in the Details form, I noticed some less famous and more subtle aspects of the city while I was there that I think tell an eternally relevant story, and ultimately help us articulate the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the midst of a city and a culture that is beautifully diverse and authentically desperate.
The above are pictures (not all that I took myself) of some of the things that I thought I should mention, and which, by the Sovereign grace of God, match the phrase that I have repeated before as defense of the insufficient perspective of the Gospel that our culture unfortunately has. I'll explain each picture, so you understand my thought process and so that I don't miscommunicate my heart.
First, God is holy. This picture was from the front door of the Trinity Episcopal Church at the foot of Wall Street. It's the most amazing door I've ever seen. This engraving is accompanied by the reference to Revelation 4, which says, "Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne, and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say: 'You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.'" I looked at this door wondering how many professionals on Wall Street, or tourists, who enter that church notice that door and specifically that engraving, and I wonder if they realize the immense holiness of God in the midst of the material culture that overwhelms them.
Second, we are sinful. Obviously using this picture I do not mean to imply that those that work in the New York Stock Exchange, or certainly those in America represented by the flag, are uniquely sinful. But I do mean to imply that we are all sinful, beyond measure, and it is interesting that the financial world has become a symbol of what our sin leads to. As Tim Keller said this Sunday, if you don't acknowledge the doctrine of original sin, just give it time; you will prove yourself wrong. Whatever you think about the economic crisis, whichever politician you support, whatever bailout plan (or lack of plan) you favor, there is no denying that someone is to blame for this situation, and whoever that someone is, greed had much to do with it. And someone's greed, or some group of someones' greed, affected more than themselves. My friend, and former Goldman Sachs employee, commented that "God is humbling a very proud people." That's true everywhere and anytime; He opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble; but particularly it is happening in the chaos surrounding Wall Street. I will try to do a future post on the crisis from a Christian perspective, if I can ever catch up and figure it out myself. But in the meantime, check out Albert Mohler's take.
Third, the Bible is preeminent. I escaped one day to the Morgan Library and Museum, which to many, would be considered absolutely boring. It features exhibits of ancient manuscripts and prints from music, art, history, etc. This time of year, it featured three Gutenberg Bibles, printed sometime in the 15th century. Somewhere beyond all the details of the printing, the style, the innovation, and the history that the exhibit mentioned, I was keenly focused on the words, which had been preserved and which endure beyond those of any other book in the history of civilization. It shouldn't take much convincing to see that the Bible is true, authentic, accurate, and preeminent to everything, but a few 600 year old books begin to do the trick for me.
Lastly, the Cross is central, and shocking, and appalling, and glorious. I saw a version of this picture above at a tribute to the victims outside Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan. The witness to this scene, viewing via zoom lens people holding onto each other before jumping from 80+ stories to their death to escape the fires, described it as unbearable and incomprehensible. Those probably are the words I also would have used. Yet, in the end, the tragedy itself was neither unbearable, as the city has endured and the people have persevered, nor incomprehensible, as we have been exposed to the horrors and motives of international terrorism for several years now, and though we don't understand it, we accept it as reality. Even our sinful hearts break with compassion for the people and the city that experienced this nightmare. Two thousand years ago an innocent man named Jesus Christ was tortured and crucified, in a scene that was more horrific, since He was God in the flesh, than 10,000 September 11ths. He suffered and died, and bore for us the wrath that our horrific sins deserve. This, on many levels, was unbearable and incomprehensible. Yet, in the end, it was not unbearable, as Jesus accomplished the Father's will, and rose from the dead, achieving for us forgiveness of sin and new life in Him. Nor was it incomprehensible, as the hope that it offers is free and available to us who are hopelessly hanging out the window as the smoke and fire of this fallen world engulf our soul.
In appropriate fashion, I closed my weekend attending Redeemer Presbyterian Church in the heart of the city, and heard Pastor Tim Keller in person. As expected, his sermon did not disappoint. Listen yourself here: The Fellowship of Grace. He began a series on the parables in Luke 15, this time explaining the parable of the lost sheep. The analogy is that we are like sheep, not dogs or cats who with the right direction (or teaching) can be fine on their own. We are desperate and need the shepherd not just to come back for us, and tell us the right things to do, as a moral teacher, but actually we need him to put us on his shoulders and take us home, accomplishing for us everything needed for our salvation. We are like sheep, who would climb a hill (seek temporal dreams) eat the grass (partake in worldliness), and with no way to get down (when what we have put our hope in crumbles around us), step over the edge and plunge to our death. And the Gospel is that then, after he rescues us, God's grace brings us into an authentic and unique community established to administer mercy and justice to a broken world and all the while bring endless glory to His name.After the service, we received the following (to the left) accompanied by whistle blows by the waitress after our dinner because one drink per person apparently doesn't cut it at Brother Jimmy's BBQ. Yeah, that's an alligator head first in there. We refrained from explaining that we had just gotten back from church and it was, after all, Sunday night, because I guess that's not normal in New York City. So we enjoyed about one-third of the mostly sugar-filled drink, and went about our night. Such a tactic probably works on a less conservative crowd, and I'm sure her tips reflect it. Her gamble fell flat with us, though the whole presentation and reaction was memorable.
In the end, the energetic yet annoying waitress, the quiet cab driver listening to Christian radio, the angry man screaming at no one at a busy corner, the young professional sending a text message while riding his bike on Park Avenue with groceries hanging off his handle bars, the Asian businessman praying before eating his sandwich at the Food Exchange, the bouncer at Terra Blues who in his excitement and intoxication can't remember the name of the members of the band playing at his establishment; need and are seeking the transforming grace of Jesus Christ, which is waiting to lead them (or has already brought them) not only into a relationship with the God of the universe, but also into a community, saved by grace, unlike the world has ever seen, of "beautiful, unified difference". A community where an old white man and a young, Hispanic, single mother can have an instant connection and fellowship thanks to the bond and the grace of Jesus Christ. May our churches look like this as well.