Thursday, May 2, 2019

Is Christ an Avenger?

With all the buzz about the latest Marvel Avengers film about, I recently noticed a meme in my social media feed that portrayed Jesus as an avenger.  It even had him dressed in a superhero costume. I'm sure this is all just some good clean fun!   However, until archaeologists dig up said costume, I will assume Jesus didn't really have one.  The verse quoted in the meme is:

 that no one wrong or exploit a brother or sister in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things,1 Thessalonians 4:6 (NRSV)

This is the only time that Paul or any other New Testament writer calls Christ an avenger.  Jesus never speaks of himself using this term.

An a avenger is one who brings vengeance, and the Bible has much to say on this topic. For example St. Paul writes:

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:19-21 (NRSV)

So vengeance is the province of God and does not belong to us.  So one can speak of God and Jesus as avengers only in the sense that ultimate justice is determined by God.  Looking at some of the other ways we describe Christ might help us see why the term may not really explain who Christ really is. 

The first confession of the early followers of Christ was to call him "Lord". This was the confession that Christ is sovereign and one with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.   Avengers are reactive. They are responding to the actions of others.  When we confess Jesus as Lord, we are confessing that God is in control.   The outcome is assured. God is acting first for the salvation of all and we are the one's responding to events initiated by God.  In superhero movies like the Avengers series, they are never in control of events they are reacting and surviving.

The followers of Christ, shortly after his resurrection began to call Jesus "Savior." Jesus doesn't merely avenge,  Christ saves. Salvation looks very different than vengeance.  Vengeance is temporary and cyclical, it only lasts until the next slight.   Salvation is permanent and eternal; it breaks the cycle of sin and retribution.  Vengeance is about hurting the perpetrator back and causing wounds as payback.  Salvation is healing and making whole.  Vengeance is filled with anxiety while salvation is peace in every sense of the word. Vengeance kills, but salvation gives life.

So the central witness of Scripture shows that Christ is God's Son who is sovereign and wills that all who believe will be saved.   God jealously holds on to vengeance because of its destructiveness, while Christ offers salvation freely because it renews, redeems and restores people and things.  Scripture teaches us that God is Justice and God determines what Justice is.   While vengeance may be a tool in bringing about Justice, it is rough and incomplete one.   It can only get one so far.

This is clearly seen in the only instance I could find where God was called an avenger in the Old Testament.  The verse is in Psalm 99.

O Lord our God, you answered them;
you were a forgiving God to them,but an avenger of their wrongdoings. Psalms 99:8 (NRSV)

The psalmist is describing God as the King who loves and is committed to Justice.  In this psalm the avenger is also the forgiver.   God drives out the evil but restores the relationship with the evil doer.  The psalmist then advocates that our appropriate response to this is worship.   This theme is picked up in the last book of the Bible, the Revelation of St.John.   In your Bible you may notice that Christ is called that "Almighty'.   This is the English translation of the Greek term ὁ παντοκράτωρ which really means ruler of all.  The Bible concludes with a picture of God's promised salvation in the new heaven and earth that requires no sequel.

So, is Christ an avenger? Well, yes he is, but He is so much more. I pray that you may nurture your faith by seeking out God through your interaction with Scripture.   This way your picture of God will be defined by the Word of God Himself and not merely the culture.  For we have a Lord and we have a Savior for whom a costume is not necessary.

Be blessed

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Worship: Are you Experienced?

I noticed that lots of churches today are calling their Sunday gatherings an “experience” rather than a “service”. Changing the names of doing things Christians have done for centuries is a peculiar characteristic of the American Protestant branch of Christianity.  It is one thing that unites both liberal and conservative Christians in this country. It probably has to do with the fact that the United States religious landscape is characterized by competition and we are all trying to get an edge to help our congregations grow.  I understand that changing the descriptor of worship from service to experience is usually done for evangelistic reasons.  The idea of having an experience may seem less threatening than performing a service to people who have demands on their time coming from all directions.

However, worship is the primary action of the Christian community, so we should really take a step back and ask ourselves, is this a good thing?  Does the word experience communicate what we are seeking have happen in our worship?  We should also ask the same question of service.  I would start by taking a looking at our sources and see what they say about what our worship should be. 

St. Paul gave a quick model for worship in his dialog with the Christians in Corinth: What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. 1 Corinthians 14:26 (NRSV)  So, is this experience, service or something different?

To the Christians in Rome Paul would describe worship in the following way: I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  Romans 12:1 (NRSV) This one seems move us in the direction of service.   One doesn’t just attend worship but presents oneself as a sacrifice.  But still I think there is more than service going on.

In John 4, Jesus has a dialog about worship with a woman at well in Samaria: But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”  John 4:23-24 (NRSV) Do the words experience or service capture what Jesus is trying to communicate to this woman who was need of acceptance and healing?

If you asked me which term is more biblical overall, it would be the word “service”.  Forms of the Greek verb λειτουργια are used about 15 times in the New Testament and it can be translated as “to serve” or “offer service” and used on several occasions to describe worship.  The English word “liturgy” which traditional churches use to describe worship, is the loan word derived from this New Testament term.

Words that can translated to the English word experience occur 10 times in the New Revised Standard Version.  The King James only uses them 4 times.  No Bible translation uses the word to describe worship.  So, calling worship “an experience” is obviously a modern innovation.  That need not be deal breaker if we keep to the core of what our worship should be but does it?

My gut reaction to using the word experience to describe worship is a negative one.  The word is too passive.   It has connotations of entertainment and its goal seems selfish and unfulfilling.  It is too much like going to a concert or watching a movie and worship should be more.  Yet, I must admit that as a pastor one of the blessings in my current ministry is “experiencing” the ministry of our worship leader and team he has assembled to lead our congregation in song.  On countless Sundays over the years I have had to drag myself out of bed wondering how I could face the congregation I serve, only to have the worship inspire and encourage me to give. So yeah, part of great worship is the experience.

Even though the word service has a Biblical basis, I think it also is lacking.   Worship is not just about what I can bring to God, it is what God can do with, for, and to me.  If it is only about what we do, then worship can become drudgery.   Unfortunately, I have witnessed this happen when we in the church make too many demands of those who attend.   In summary, I suppose we should be careful about limiting the phenomenon of worship to the words we use to describe it or qualify it.

My choice for the congregation I currently serve is to let the word “worship” stand alone. I no longer use words like traditional or contemporary to qualify it.   Keeping it simple helps preserve the idea of majesty and even mystery.  For worship in Spirit and Truth that Christ describes will always be more majestic than our words.   Worship should be “an experience”, but remember we are saved for a purpose which means it should be a “service” to live out our call.   In all its unfathomable majesty worship should encourage, challenge, stimulate, comfort, heal, and all kinds of other things.   For indeed our best worship is when we meet and come face to face with the unfathomable God.

As we come into the church’s great season of worship, I pray that worship in your congregation may be so wonderful as to be indescribable.

Be blessed,
Pastor Knecht

Friday, March 1, 2019

What’s Up with Lent?

The season of Lent has been a time when Christians have focused on the core principles of their faith.   Early Church historians point out that Lent was at first the time when early Christians began to teach people about the faith in preparation for their baptism.  Many Christians in the first few centuries of the church were baptized during the Easter Vigil Service (a service that starts sometime after sundown on the Saturday before Easter) to accentuate the believer participating in the event at which Jesus Christ saved the world. So basically, the season was a time prepare new disciples of Jesus Christ.  What ended up happening is that rather than segregate these new disciples to work on their faith alone, the church decided it was best if we all work on this together.  Lent has been and is a time to get serious about our faith ever since.

Lent has always included the following elements to help people commit or recommit to a life of discipleship:

1. A call to repentance: we recognize our need for God and our need to be forgiven for the things that we have done or failed to do.   The words “remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” spoken as ashes are imparted in the beginning of Lent, remind us of our limited nature and our inability to save ourselves.   Since Hebrew Bible times ashes communicate the realization of the believer that life is transient and that only by appealing to the Eternal One can he or she have any real hope.

2. A re-commitment to living out the faith daily: sometimes our healthy patterns of practicing the faith can drift away due to the demands of living in a sinful world.   The repentance spoken of above is characterized by the Bible in one of two ways.  Changing one’s mind or changing one’s direction.   So, Lent can be a time recommit to a practice that has been left behind in the chaos of our living in broken world.  Restarting Bible reading or a prayer practice, or attending worship more often are some common examples.

3. The exploration of new ways to live out the faith: changing one’s mind about one’s faith and starting a new direction in the faith can mean picking up a new practice or new way of living the faith that you might lead you to a closer relationship with God. If you haven’t had a regular devotional life before, Lent is a perfect time to start.

4. The denial of those things that obscure our faith: perhaps the idea of “giving something up for Lent” is the most common way people think about Lent.   People fast so they can remember what it is like to be hungry for something.   This opens the heart of the believer for God.   Lent is perfect time to drop a behavior that is leading your life astray.   It is a perfect time to do away with those things which make us unhealthy and weigh on us.  An essential part of a life of discipleship is to care for the life we have been given because that is what those who love us would like us to do, and nobody loves more that God who sent Christ to save us.

5. The preparation of the heart for the coming joy of Christ’s resurrection: reliving the story of God sending Jesus to the Cross and Resurrection is the best thing one can do with Lent.    We are reminded of our own dignity as well as our brokenness and God’s answer to the dilemma of living in the tension between these two things.   The best part of Lent is about making the story of Jesus real again.  This can kindle hope which strengthens our faith, which in turn can empower us to love others as Christ loves us.

Just as we set time apart for God Sunday of each week, we also set six weeks out of the year to focus on the essentials of our faith.  Lent is a gift to help us not to take the essential elements of our faith for granted.  It enables us to remain grounded in the faith that gives life.  It is this faith that kindles in  us hope for each day and that
hope helps us persevere through all the challenges that we face in life.

Be blessed
Pastor Knecht

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Have You Suffered Yet?

Perhaps if I told you of the things that cause me to suffer you would dismiss me, saying by what right do you have to bother us with this?  Perhaps you would point out my race, my class, my gender, my education level, my citizenship and marital status and label me as someone just trying to justify a sense of entitlement.  Indeed, you could point out that I have a variety of privileges, and you would be right.  I am privileged in many ways.  I am able to live with things and do things that others are not able to do.  However, just because I am privileged doesn't mean that I do not suffer, I do.   You can minimize my suffering all you want and I can minimize yours, but it will not change the fact the suffering exists in all of our lives to one degree or another.  For to suffer is to be human.

One of the signposts to Jesus being fully human in traditional Christian thought is the simple fact that Jesus suffered.  One hundred and one years ago the world suffered the Spanish Flu pandemic, it respected no boundaries of gender, race, class, or ethnic affiliation.  If you were infected you suffered or maybe even died.  The existence of suffering in our lives is evidence of our belonging to a single common humanity. The spiritual question of suffering is not so much about whether one suffers or not, but rather what does someone do when they suffer.  In our church we read the following verses from Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians at funerals:

2 Corinthians 1:3-4 (NRSV) Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God.

There are two things going on in this short passage, which will cause problems for those with simplistic world views.  The first is that suffering represents a spiritual opportunity.   The God of all consolation named by St. Paul consoles us in our suffering.   Suffering is an opportunity to rely on  God.  Many people will stop me here and complain, so what?  The answer to this is that until one suffers, the person doesn't really know who his or her friends are.  Those who stick by you in suffering show their love for you.   If they walk away, they don't love you.   Paul tells the community in Corinth that because of the cross and resurrection we have proof that God sticks with us.  We know that we are loved by God, and that can change things.

The second point that Paul makes is particularly relevant for today.  Paul sees the purpose of one's suffering as opening the heart to the other.  The spiritually mature person is called to use their suffering to direct her or himself toward empathy, compassion and acts of consolation.   Our suffering should be directed to find common ground with others who suffer.  It is a call to transform the bad that happens in our lives to good by connecting with someone who has something bad going on in their life.

This Christ-like attitude of using one's suffering to connect to another person has been used by countless of the faithful to promote the healing and well-being of others.  For example, during his imprisonment by the Gestapo, Dietrich Bonhoeffer befriended, prayed for, and offered spiritual care to his guards.   Additionally, one of the most meaningful books written by acclaimed author Henri Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love was gleaned from his journals while he was hospitalized for depression.   The book had a profound impact on me, and helped me find some healing while going through a difficult time in my own life.  This is exactly the type of thing that Paul was alluding to when he wrote the Corinthians so long ago.

As you are probably aware, this is not always how people respond to suffering.  Some of those suffering may act out of their pain and condemn others because they are envious of people they perceive as having an easier life.  Others may fall into despair and give up life all together.   Some may lash out at those whom they blame rightly or wrongly for their afflictions.   These negative responses to suffering are indeed understandable in some cases, but are never very healthy in the end.   Those who respond with envy end up in prison of bitterness.  Those who respond in despair end up in a prison of meaninglessness.  Those who respond with revenge end up in a prison of violence.

The only way out of these traps is to choose life over death. This is done through the twin spiritual gifts of compassion and forgiveness.   This is the core message contained in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Forgiveness given in love transforms the suffering afflicted upon God's son into love for our world.  God's response to Christ's suffering was resurrection and reconciliation. To forgive frees the sufferer from control of the perpetrator of the suffering.   Compassion transforms what was once a detriment into an asset bring hope and healing to others.

Please understand I am not wishing suffering upon anyone.   Any person who has suffered and has compassion for others could never do that.   What I am saying,
is that if suffering comes your way, we have a God who is more powerful than anything that causes us to suffer.   This God is able to take the evil of our suffering and transform it for good.  This essay is to written to give you strength and encouragement today and in the future.   It is a call to rely on the one who has suffered for us, Jesus Christ Our Lord.

Be blessed
Pastor Knecht

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Resolve to Keep the Faith this New Year!

If you are going to make a New Year's resolution to improve or change your life, why not resolve to keep the faith this year? Make a simple promise to God:  "I will not depart from you" or "I will stick with you through thick and thin."   In a sense, I am asking you to make a resolution to hold your life together.  I am all for improvement, but sometimes focusing too much on areas we need to get better leads us to neglect the necessary maintenance of the things that should stay the same.    For example, if you adopt some fad diet that leads you too tired to keep up your exercise routine that could hardly be called progress.

The Hebrew word for faithfulness אֱמוּנָה (amunah) derives from the root verb meaning to make firm or to give support.  This makes sense when you think about the story of the people of Israel.   There is a long list crazy, tragic and horrible events that this people has had to endure, yet they still hold onto their God despite the mess of living in a broken world.   The gift of the Old Testament is that it shows that staying with God is just as important as coming to God is in the first place.

The other important thing to realize is that faithfulness is not just between you and God.   It affects all your relationships with those you meet every day.   People who are faithful are a blessing to those around them.  They help provide some stability in an ever-changing world.    A great example of this is when Paul writes to the Philippians   It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. Philippians 2:16 (NRSV)

You have probably heard of the idea of being a "non-anxious presence."   The simple wisdom behind this idea is that anxiety is contagious like a virus.   A steadfast and faithful person can be likened to one who is inoculated against the virus of anxiety.  It not only helps the person vaccinated it dampens the transmission of the pathogen.    Part of the problem our society faces in our current age is that too many people a running to too many fad ideas and have left solid faith of our ancestors behind.   This means there are less non-anxious people out there to help stop the spread of the crazy.

Please understand I when I say to keep the Faith, I am not reducing it mere personal piety.   We will still need to feed, the hungry, care for the sick, visit the prisoner, and lift up the lowly because as the Word teaches us this is just as much a part of our faith as is our prayer, scripture reading, and worship are.   Serving as others as our Lord does us is at the core of the faith I am asking you to stay with.   So perhaps with Martin Luther we can pray the words of the hymn Lord Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word. 

Lord, keep us steadfast in Your Word;
Curb those who by deceit or sword
Would wrest the kingdom from Your Son
And bring to naught all Christ has done.

Lord Jesus Christ, Your pow'r make known,
For You are Lord of lords alone;
Defend Your holy Church that we
May sing your praise eternally.

O Comforter of priceless worth,
Send peace and unity on earth;
Support us in our final strife
And lead us out of death to life.

Wishing you a blessed New Year and that you keep the Faith!

Pastor Knecht

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Advent and Christmas: It's Not Just for Kids

Have you been around a while?   Have you seen both good and bad in the world?   Does it seem that the changes in the world seem to be leaving you behind?  Do you feel more isolated from others as time goes by?  Then perhaps the story of the coming of Jesus in Luke is just what you need to hear this season.

The Cultural Christmas 

In our culture, Christmas is supposed to be about the kids.   The common view is it is all about presents wrapped under the tree.  The family in well decorated home all gathered watching the children joyfully experience the grace of their parents, grandparents and extended family and friendships.  Much of the media we will view this season will be that that refers back to a lost mythic childhood.  From the old Christmas specials from the 1960's like A Charlie Brown Christmas, Frosty the Snowman, and Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer, to the comedies of the 1980's and 90's such as A Christmas Story and Home Alone,  kids take center stage.  The adults are the comic foil to the bright shining youthful main character (usually a blonde boy between the ages of 8-10).  The adults are portrayed mostly as clueless or or even evil.  As an old dude, this is not good news for me for obvious reasons.  By the way, neither was it when I myself was a young blonde boy 8-10 years old.  My memories of that time revolve mostly around beloved family members blaming me for ruining the perfect Christmas.   Our cultural Christmas celebrations can be fun, entertaining, and yes profitable. However the real Christmas story found in Luke's Gospel is something more.  It is trans-formative, life-giving, and most of all hopeful. 

The Biblical Advent and Incarnation 

In contrast to our cultural orientation, the biblical story of the coming and infancy of Jesus according to Luke is a lot about older people.   In Chapter 1, we first meet Zechariah and Elizabeth, an older couple, who like Abraham and Sarah are waiting for their first child.   Near the conclusion of Luke 2 at the end of the story, we meet Simeon and Anna, two older, possibly lonely people.  They are portrayed as those who go to the temple on their own each day and wait in prayer to see what God does.   For Luke, these older folks who have remained steadfast despite the ups and downs of life are at the core of the story.   They serve to remind us that God does answer prayer, works miracles, and most of gives reason for hope through the sending of his Son Jesus.  God comes to the aid for those who have been beaten down by the pressure of living in a sinful world. They are those who have their hope fulfilled by the coming of the Messiah.

By the time of Jesus birth, Zachariah, Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna would have witnessed, heard of, and experienced the brutality of living in a country occupied by foreign power and given over to the murderous sycophant puppet rule of Herod the (so called) Great.  They would have been privy to dramatic outrages and everyday slights.  It would have been enough for any person to give up and give in, but they didn't.  They kept the faith.  The words about Simeon are particularly powerful.   "He was waiting for the consolation of Israel" writes Luke. 

Luke affirms not only their hope, but their dignity as well.  For they are not mere victims to be rescued, God actually calls them to play a part in the salvation drama.  Zachariah and Elizabeth shelter the unwed probably teenage mother Mary from the tyranny of being the center of scandal in a small town.  Simeon and Anna help affirm the dignity of the Holy Family as they assist them in following the rituals of their faith community.  The older folks in Luke are part of the story; it is an affirmation of their value before God.  In a youth obsessed culture like ours, where everyone is supposed to look 25, this is certainly good news. 

The People of God 

I meet people like Zachariah, Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna all the time in my ministry.   I meet people who though they have experienced hardship and even tragedy, keep the faith and are part of the story of God at work in our world today.   They hold on to hope despite the evidence they read of in their newspaper or news-feed.  You will meet these people volunteering to feed the homeless, working the polls on election day, babysitting their grand-kids, checking up on their neighbors and  yes, keeping our communities of faith running.  I hate to break it to you, but God did not send his son to bring your child the hot toy for Christmas,  God did this to validate the hope that people like Zachariah, Elizabeth, Simeon,  and Anna (maybe even you?) who have placed their trust in Him. 

Right now, there is much going on that can serve to erode our hope.  I need not catalog it, for you probably have experienced some of it or know of it.  But the story we proclaim every December in the church during Advent is that we have a God who is worth waiting for.  So perhaps with Simeon we too can confess these words:

By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us, 
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, 
to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Luke 1:78-79 (NRSV)

No matter what your age, I pray that the dawn from on high will break upon your life this Advent.  I hope that you too may be able to place your trust in God and become part of God's story for our time. For the story of Christ can give hope to people of any age.  Indeed, people of all ages can be part of this story, because the Bible shows us that they have been in it all along.

Be blessed

Friday, October 26, 2018

When Being Good is not Enough

 Am I a Good Person?

This is the question that people ask in times of crisis.  One can ask it when they are going through a difficult ordeal and wonder if the difficulty is deserved.   One can also ask this when they see that there is much in the world that seems evil, and ruminate if he or she is part of the problem or part of the solution.  It is also the question that most people have asked when considering if they are worthy of eternal life.   The story of the rich man which is found in Mark chapter 10 deals with this question in a unique way.

This wealthy man comes to Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. (Mark 10:17) He is wondering because his answer to the question "am I a good person?" is by the cultural standards of the day a resounding yes.   When Jesus refers the  man to find the answer in scripture, he gives the reply “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” (Mark 10:20 NRSV).  So the man is saying "yeah, I am good person."  Yet this man came to Jesus with a longing in his heart that there was something more important than being a good person in the eyes of God.

 Give It All Away to the Poor?

Jesus tells him straight out what is missing.   In order to inherit the kingdom of God he must do two things.   The first is a tall order: sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor.   Jesus asks him to do this to show love for those he came to serve.  Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes:  "For the follower of Jesus there can be no limit as to who is his neighbor except as his Lord decides." Dietrich Bonhoeffer- The Cost of Discipleship   Additionally selling his possessions will remove any attachments that the man may have which may be keeping him from doing the second more important thing which the man lacks for inheriting the kingdom. 

Follow Me

The second thing Jesus asks is even a taller order.  The simple truth is, that the most important thing this man and anyone else can do for that matter, is to follow Jesus.   The selling and giving to the poor is the prelude to the following.  The following is the harder of the two things that Jesus asks the man to do.  Often when reading this passage, we get so caught up in the enormity of selling all one's possessions that we miss how hard it actually is to follow Jesus.   The truth is that the selling of  all one's possessions to help the poor only leads one to the kingdom if one follows God during the process.  Bonhoeffer explains this perfectly:  "Obedience to the call of Jesus never lies within our own power.  If for instance, we give away all of our possessions, that act is in itself is not the obedience he demands... In fact such a step might be the precise opposite of obedience to Jesus, for we might be choosing a way of life for ourselves.. (one) is not set free from his own self, but still more enslaved to himself."  Dietrich Bonhoeffer- The Cost of Discipleship.  St. Paul was thinking along the same lines in 1 Corinthians 13, when he lists a whole bunch of spiritual and moral gymnastics that he can put himself through and concludes that without love these are worthless.

The fact is that there are plenty of "good people"  who have excellent personal morality, have great manners, and follow the cultural appropriate virtues who never become part of God's work for the world.  I meet wonderfully moral and upright people of every persuasion in my neighborhood.  They can be Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, agnostic atheist or whatever.   Some of these people will at times live more morally than those of us who belong to the church.  The question Jesus is asking us to consider is not whether or not I am a good person, the question is: do I love God, my neighbor and our world?

The message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that through the cross God has shown love to the world.  Through the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, God reaches across the chasm that exists between human beings and God.  When Jesus replied to the rich man to follow him, he was inviting him to be part of that work. 

The Radical Gospel 

I have observed two poles where contemporary American Christianity can get off track.   One pole reduces the Gospel to a personal morality code.  I see this often in books written for young Christians.  It is as if the Gospel is reduced to method to program the youth to be a part of someone's idea of respectable society.   This is quite common in churches that preach a "prosperity gospel."  If one follows the rules, the quid pro quo is not only admission to heaven, but worldly wealth as well.  This leaves one permanently in the condition of the rich young man as he approached Jesus.  The person is trapped in a bondage to the self.  I think Jesus died for you for something more than this.

The opposite pole is that if we only fix society than all will be good and everything will be in balance.  Utopia will be at hand.  People are only bad because the structures of society are bad, this reasoning goes.   This reduces the dignity of the person into just being a cog in some machine.   If it is only the culture or society responsible for our actions, than we have lost agency, and are something less than human.  I can not see how the cross makes sense if this is all there is.

God did not send his son to die so that we could live in a prison of self-absorption.  Neither was he crucified to create some hive mind where one's individuality no longer matters.   Christ came as love for love.  Whether we are good enough to be loved is not the point, the point is that we are loved.   I hope this is good news for you. It is good news for me because I am good and bad all mixed up and at times struggle to follow the path Christ has set for me.  To me the choice has never been between good and bad, but between love and apathy.  So Christ lays this choice before us, just as he did for the rich young man.  How will we choose?