27th November 2003
``Radical'' is one of those words that's thrown around so casually now that it's lost nearly all of its force and its distinctive meaning. In general use, it is close to a synonym of ``good''. But its true meaning is to do with the concept of a root. A radical change is one that comes from the root; a radical politician is one who wants to change the roots of the political system; and a radical Christian is one whose roots are in Christ.
So the key question for us is this: what is the root of our lives? What does everything else grow from?
Paul draws out the importance of our root in the letter to the Colossians:
So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness— Colossians 2:6-7
And Jesus describes it in the parable of the sower:
[Jesus] told them many things in parables, saying: ``A farmer went out to sow his seed. [...] Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root.''
[...] ``Listen then to what the parable of the sower means [...] The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away.''— Matthew 13:3, 5-6, 18, 20-21
For us, as for plants, every aspect of our health and growth is determined by the nourishment we get from our root. A plant with no root will die, and a Christian whose root is not in Christ will find his faith dying. It is as simple as that.
A radical Christ hears the radical call of Jesus and obeys, not because he manages to persuade himself that it's the best thing, or out of a sense of duty, but because his root is in Christ and so following the call is the obvious, natural thing to do.
The call of Jesus is as demanding to us to today as it was to his first disciples two thousand years ago:
Jesus said to his disciples, ``If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.''— Matthew 16:24
I want to be clear that being radical, in this biblical sense, is very different from being weird. Christians come across as weird when they're trying too hard to be something they're not, to force themselves into a spiritual or cultural mould that doesn't fit their real identity. But being radical means nothing more or less that being true to the identity that God has given us.
In the opening section of his classic 1981 book The Radical Christian, Arthur Wallis writes:
If any man professes to call himself a child of God, a disciple of Christ, or a citizen of the kingdom, and yet is bereft of this radicalism, he would be well advised to take a long hard look at his Christian profession. Can it be real gold without this hallmark?
[...] The radical Christian [...] is not a special Christian. He simply qualifies for New Testament normality.— Arthur Wallis, The Radical Christian, p15
The bible doesn't envisage any other kind of Christian than what we're calling ``radical''. In the New Testament, radical Christians would not be called radical, they'd just be called Christians!
Being a radical Christian is not a special, high call that's just reserved for a few special people. It is what God desires for each of us, expects from each of us, and has equipped each of us for. There is no real alternative.
When Dave Nunn (leader of the Bermondsey NFI church and helping with this plant) was a new and enthusiastic Christian, someone suggested that he should read Watchman Nee's book The Normal Christian Life. He didn't bother, because his attitude was that he wasn't interested in just being a mundane, ordinary Christian; he wanted more than that from God. But years later, when he finally read the book, he found that that was precisely the book's point:
What is the normal Christian life? We do well at the outset to ponder this question. The object of these studies is to show that it is something very different from the life of the average Christian.
[...] The Apostle Paul gives us his own definition of the Christian life in Galatians 2:20. It is ``no longer I, but Christ''. Here he is not stating something special or peculiar - a high level of Christianity. He is, we believe, presenting God's normal for a Christian, which can be summarised in the words: I live no longer, but Christ lives His life in me.— Watchman Nee, The Normal Christian Life, opening words.
2 Corinthians 5:17 says ``if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!'' We are new people - God has given us a new root. Now he expects us to live from that new root instead of continuing to live our old lives from an old root. Doing this is nothing more than being true to what we are. It is holiness in its sense of wholeness.
In the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul spells out how important the way we live our lives is:
Each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man's work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.— 1 Corinthians 3:10-15
This is a stern warning. The message here is that it is not enough just to cruise through a Christianised life on autopilot. Comfortable, middle-class church-attendance is not going to impress God. The warning to the Laodicean church in Revelation is even more thought-provoking:
I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm - neither hot nor cold - I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ``I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.'' But you do not realise that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.— Revelation 3:15-17
We must not sing ``Jesus be the centre'' and then make him peripheral, one ingredient among many in our lifestyle. If we inventory our lives and find that we're going: family, job, God, football, then something is desperately wrong.
Treating Jesus as an optional extra, a ``lifestyle accessory'' may be the single greatest hindrance to our evangelism. Although there are many styles of evangelism, there are ultimately only two basic approaches. The first can be characterised by the phrase ``ask Jesus into your life'', and is all about adding him in to whatever else our lives already consist of. The is completely unbiblical. Jesus never offered anyone anything like that. The second approach can be characterised by the phrase ``give your life to Jesus'', and is an accurate representation of the offer that he made then and still makes now.
We must be ever vigilant against the tendency to drift from the second of these approaches, which can be perceived as threatening and confrontational, to the first, which is much less demanding for the people we're talking to. When we present the gospel in terms of ``here's something nice you should add to your lifestyle'', we offend God, deceive our hearers and waste our time. The gospel of Jesus is much more stark: ``Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!''
The number one characteristic of a radical Christian is that he or she loves God more than anyone or anything else. In Paul's case, his passion for God was so great that he actively looked forward to his own death:
To me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labour for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.— Philippians 1:21-24
The second characteristic is that a radical Christian works hard at the work God has given him or her to do. That's not the same as burning out on meeting other people's needs, but a recognition of God's call and a response to it. Again, Paul is an excellent example:
By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of [the apostles] - yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.— 1 Corinthians 15:10
We see both of these attributes together in a single, paradoxical verse from the letter to the Philippians, in which Paul tells them:
Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you.— Philippians 2:12-13
Here, the motivation to work hard is that God is already at work in us, and has already worked in us; but our response to that is not laziness but a determination to respond to God's work in us by working at what he has given us to do. Again, please understand, this emphatically does not mean that we work to earn God's approval. Quite the converse: we work hard as a response to the fact that God has already given us his approval. We're not trying to earn love, but to please someone who already loves us.
These are quite abstract descriptions of what a radical Christian is like. That's how it has to be: there is no ``badge of office''. I knew four people in the church at Bermondsey who were (and still are) radical Christians.
In each of them, the radical Christianity that God called them to is expressed differently. That's because God deals with each person individually. Not everyone is called to be a missionary in Africa; but everyone is called to live a radical Christian life with Jesus at the very centre of it.
When Nick asked me to preach this week, he wanted me to be much more practical than I usually am, and asked me to include ``top tips for holiness''. I've thought about this, and the fact is I just can't do it. The kind of radicalism I'm talking about here must by its very nature start at the root and work its way upwards and outwards. We can't get there by imposing rules on our behaviour.
So what can we do? It's very, very simple. God says:
You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.That's all.— Jeremiah 29:13
Remember that in the passage from Revelation earlier, God says to the Laodicean church, ``You do not realise that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.'' To realise that, and to hunger and thirst for more, is Step One towards biblical, Jesus-centred radicalism - just as in Alcoholics Anonymous's twelve-step program, step one is to admit that you have a problem. That's why Jesus says:
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.— Matthew 5:3, 6
If we want to be radical, if we want Jesus to be the root of our lives, then all that is required is that we make him the centre. It's not necessarily easy, but it's simple. And it all comes from the hunger for God that Jesus described in the sermon on the mount.
Where does that hunger come from? Well, hopefully from sermons like this one! Also from reading the bible, from anointed Christian music (which does not mean all Christian music), from time spent in prayer. My number one hope for this session is that people will go away from it hungrier for God than before.
Finally, to anyone who became a Christian in response to an invitation of the ``ask Jesus into your heart'' variety, I was to say this: sorry, you were misled. The call of Jesus to you now is the same it was then, but it wasn't explained to you. That call is to turn your whole life over to him. Please do.
If you're reading a paper copy of this document, the soft-copy can be found at www.miketaylor.org.uk/xian/radical.html