Practice Six: Alter

This spring at Westside King’s Church we have set off to explore the richest expression of life there can be: the life we find with Jesus in the company of others. We are pushing ourselves towards a communally-focused, Jesus-based life. We fully realize the challenge of this, especially as we live in what we have been calling “the culture of me”. We have become convinced that self-centered interest and “going it alone” do not serve us well. Robinson Crusoe and the Lone Ranger do not make good patron saints. This Sunday we invite you to what we think will be an important moment. We intend to take a courageous and redemptive look at our own spiritual history and identity. As we have been talking about six practices that can help us realize the gift of community, we intend to imbed out sixth practice into the heart of our gatherings this weekend. We are calling this practice “alter”, the practice of change which is deep and personal. The older word for this deeply held Christian value was repentance. The reason we chose an alternative word was to get us all to think in new ways about what it might mean for us to experience real change together. What might deep spiritual change look like for each of us as individuals, and what would deep spiritual change look like for us as a community?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a promising young theologian who died as a martyr for the Christian faith in one of Hitler’s death camps. He was only 37 when he died, but he left a rich legacy in his writings and in his personal example. Bonhoeffer was born into an age and place that had long intellectualized the Christian faith and had made it over into a kind of speculative philosophy for gentlemen at leisure. It was certainly not the living and breathing (and dying and rising) faith of the Scriptures. Early in his theological career, Bonhoeffer realized that as a theologian he needed to become a Christian. He needed to become a true follower of Jesus. This might seem like an absurd disconnection to begin with, but it reminds us how easily we can push the heart of our faith away from us. We are not called to merely think great thoughts; we are called to enter into a life of real and significant alteration. Grace is more than a great thought; grace is a door into a new life. And it is a door we must walk through.

The times Bonhoeffer lived in were deeply challenging for the church in Germany. For the most part, the “cheap grace” he saw dispensed by the institutional church (almost the entire nation had been baptized as a matter of course) had left it powerless to critique the rising evil embodied in Nazism. Bonhoeffer saw clearly that what was needed was an awareness, an acknowledgment, a confrontation with our human bent-ness we call sin. For without an understanding of sin as sin, grace was not only cheap, but meaningless. Without repentance, grace was trivial. Without the practice of confession, grace would whither into something uninteresting, limp, irrelevant.

In Bonhoeffer’s understanding, to participate in the community of Jesus was to participate in an experience of alteration. Confession, he said, would actually bring “a breakthrough into community”. Confession was “the God-given remedy for self-deception and self-indulgence”. Regularly practiced, confession would free the church from all of the hidden yet real ways we remain isolated and split off from each other, in all of the hidden yet real ways we remain spiritually anemic and culturally irrelevant. Simply put, confession was essential.

So I invite you to the practice of alteration, the practice of confession and repentance, the practice of change that brings a promise with it. In Acts 3, Peter shares the good news of Jesus in those first days following the resurrection. His message was unvarnished and raw, its primitive essence unmistakable: “… change your hearts and lives! Come back to God, and he will forgive your sins. Then the Lord will send the time of rest.”

May I simply remind us that the grace now available in and through Jesus requires a counterbalancing action on our part -- a fundamental change of life. As we follow that pathway, says Peter, we enter into the rest God promises (the original language suggests the ability to “breathe again”). The offer of grace in Jesus is both a call to change and the promise of restored life.

See you this Sunday at 9:29 or 11:11 am -- come prepared for a gracious, but altering, experience. And don’t fear -- we will do this together.

Bob Osborne

For further reflection:

  1. What would you like to deeply change about yourself? What hinders that change? Are you afraid of change? Do you feel helpless? How have you reacted to this sixth practice?
  2. What models or stories of life alteration do you have to guide or inspire you?
  3. Read and ponder Psalm 51 and the corresponding story in 2 Samuel 11-12. What can be learned from David’s experience. How is David a model of repentance?
  4. Take a look at James 5:16. How might this idea be practiced in community? What might possibly be the link between the first and second halves of this statement from James?

The Bonhoeffer quotes were taken from L. Gregory Jones, Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis (1995)