Royal Flush: Playing the Hand that Trumps the Times

Presented to Christian Economic Forum
By Joseph A. Tosini and Robert L. Briggs

In a rousing game of five-card stud, imagine a player picking up his cards to find a 10 and all face cards. All red. All hearts. A royal flush. The highest hand in poker. He knows his cards will beat anything his fellow players could place on the table. So what does he do? He bets. Everything. All in. He can’t lose.

“ never cease remembering with soberness and joy the cost of that freedom ”

Now picture the top truths of the Christian faith. The entire Bible is filled with truths, but which are the ones that take precedence? We have the 10 Commandments. The Great Commission. The Sermon on the Mount. Among the sea of instruction found from Genesis to Revelation, did Jesus establish priorities, pre-eminent truths which are most critical to understand? This paper proposes the pre-eminent truths, the cards in the “Royal Flush” hand of the Christian faith. Our “hand” begins in the gospel of John, where the gospel writer depicts the drama unfolding during Jesus’ final hours before the Cross. We begin at the Last Supper, where Jesus issued His final words to his band of brothers, soon to become the apostles of the first church. Here Jesus is prepping the disciples for his departure, sharing in the celebratory meal that serves as a reminder of being freed from the bondage of slavery. God’s people were to never cease remembering with soberness and joy the cost of that freedom, experienced through the sacrifice of a spotless lamb. The Old Testament lamb couldn’t speak. But if it could have, that woolly animal would have told us that he is just the shadow of the Lamb of God who would speak, and through His words and deeds demonstrate His love and provide a glimpse of His mysterious divine nature. But at the Cross, the shadow took on human shape.

Jesus knows He is headed to the Cross. He knows He is passing the divine mantle to the Holy Spirit to lead His followers into all truth. In light of the enormity of this coming cataclysmic event, which would separate history into the two separate epochs of BC and AD, is it reasonable to conclude that Jesus would use His final moments to underscore the most critical truths that should guide the decision-making of the church? We think so. Jesus was aware that the stakes riding on the hand that He would deal the church were so very high: the salvation of all people of all human history–past, present and future–and the healing of the nations. We believe the five cards comprising the hand that will win it all are Unity, Humility, Friendship, Holy Spirit Movements, and Kingdom Economics.

Let’s Start with the Ace of Hearts: Unity

Like a conductor instructing his orchestra before the curtain rises, Jesus at The Last Supper implored His followers to remember what He had taught them. He began His review by pleading with them to stay together, to remain as one, to remain in unity. This was His model for kingdom advancement. Not so they could enjoy life more but so that “the world may know” that He is who He claimed to be.

If this “oneness” is the critical success factor, then we must ask the question: How credible is the message of the church today? At last count, some 41,000 denominations are sprinkled across the globe. From the largest, the Roman Catholic Church numbering some 1.2 billion people, to the smallest numbering only in the hundreds, the story told by Christ followers is one of fragmentation and division. Some of the breaches in the body of Christ have been over substantive separations based on major differences. The first was in 1050 AD when the Orthodox Church centered in Constantinople and the Catholic Church centered in Rome separated. The second was 500 years later when Luther’s 95 Theses led to the Reformation, which opened the door to what has now become a plethora of denominations. But let’s face it: some of the further fragmentation has looked more like petty shoving matches over doctrinal or even practical preferences, many of which we will have no way of proving this side of heaven. Yet, we separate.

The King of Hearts: Humility

Within the fragmented church, there are pockets of productivity. Some modern Protestant movements have shown signs of vigor. But upon closer examination, even some of these seem to have been at least influenced, if not overtaken, by a culture that features events led by popular superstars, rather than activity that consistently deepens and enriches faith and practice. While this event orientation can be momentarily entertaining and even produce some near term benefits, the model has not produced the hoped for outcomes in terms of spiritual maturity and thriving communities. Frankly, the model looks much more like the pattern of product and event marketing featured by the world’s most successful brands.

“ expressed through utter humility ”

In contrast to this personality-promoting methodology, let’s consider another face card—the King of Hearts–that we might want to find and keep: Humility. Would Jesus allow himself to be promoted on the marquee, as the brand that leads to success? Or would He position Himself with the “least of these,” the ones least able to pay an event ticket price? The people—and the devil himself, by the way–tried to enthrone Him as king, but He relentlessly turned this role down. Instead, he spent a few of His final moments bending down to wash His followers’ feet, demonstrating the power of serving. He intentionally bundled up all that leadership authority, and rather than recounting His exploits in His final hours, He washed their feet. This was no technique to achieve a goal but an authentic expression of the very nature of God. This is the nature, expressed through utter humility, that is the goal of salvation and that unifies the three persons of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The Queen of Hearts: Friendship

Jesus used a powerful word when He referred to those closest around Him. He didn’t refer to them as “associates,” like Wal-Mart workers. Or as “subjects,” like He could have if He had followed the practices of the reigning Roman rulers of the day. Instead, He chose to use the term “friend.” He walked together with them. Opened His heart and life to them. Broke bread, shared stories, enjoyed journeys from town to town. He didn’t establish a strict hierarchy, delineated by titles and promotions. They were, at the core, friends. And some were women, by the way, quite a counter-cultural statement of gender equivalency.

Among these “friends,” He certainly recognized their individual differences, their giftings, the unique contributions they would make. Friendship doesn’t mean they all would play identical roles in the critical work of establishing the church of the first century. But it did mean that there was a shared understanding that they all carried the same value. What should this mean for us today? Are we simply co-laborers in this kingdom, like associates at Wal-Mart who meet together to review the week’s schedule? Or are our lives aligned and our hearts connected as friends?

The Jack of Hearts: Holy Spirit Movements

“ impact in the world that is noticeable ”

Gifted leaders are clever. Clever enough to create enthusiasm around certain teachings that gather crowds and maintain momentum. But Jesus pointed to One who would follow Him into the arena after He departed the earth: the Holy Spirit. While the Holy Spirit would be busy comforting the broken-hearted and convicting the sinner, He would also be charged with leading the church into all truth, with working through the Jesus community to continue doing what Jesus did, only more. Periodically though history, we can see evidence that the Holy Spirit has focused His activity in the world to the point where we notice a resurgence of energy and confidence in the church, with an accompanying impact in the world that is noticeable. We call such occurrences “revivals,” or “awakenings,” or “movements.” Some clever leaders are capable of emulating such activities, creating the appearance of such a “movement.” But these tend to fade, with little lasting impact. Pope Benedict XVI addressed the subject of movements in church history, saying, “Movements are a gesture of God’s benevolence. They are fresh, authentic and capable of accomplishing God’s desire.” He warned, however, that they need “apostolic leadership” or they will “die under the onerous management of vision-less leaders that resist the pain or risk to establish protocol.”

The 10 of Hearts: Kingdom Economics

“ contributions in the United States to charitable causes in 2012 topped $316 billion ”

Jesus didn’t have a Harvard MBA. But He gave us good instruction about how to work together, including how to pay the bills. While it doesn’t get much attention, modern ministry has a reasonably well-defined business model that undergirds it. Does it align with the model Jesus envisioned? While church leaders want to claim immunity from market forces, the truth is that they are beholden to some extent to the sources of funding. They need to eat. They need a place to live. They have hopes and dreams, just like their followers, of sending their kids to college, of having a secure retirement, of accessing quality health care. So they feel pressure to put on a show that someone will pay for. Granted, some work hard to resist this and remain faithful to their core beliefs and values. But the pressure is still there. Total contributions in the United States to charitable causes in 2012 topped $316 billion, with nearly a third of that funding “religion.” What if we could ensure this flow of funds aligned with the Royal Flush truths. Might we get more accomplished for the sake of the kingdom?

Can We Fix This?

Sometimes the solutions to our challenges are more straightforward than we think. Let’s consider this Royal Flush of Christianity, the truths that trump the others.

Unity. Jesus nearly pleaded with His followers to stay together, to remain as “one.” Why? So that the world would know that He is the Christ. His prayer for them and all who would believe their message was for unity of heart, mind and spirit. This is the message that resonates through chapters 13-17 of John’s gospel. He also made it clear that simply believing these truths would be a good start, but the practice of them is what would stimulate the world to believe in Him (John 13:17).

So what might it look like if today’s church leaders laid down their divisive egos and histories and declared to a watching world that there is more that binds them together than what separates them? That the declarations of the Apostles Creed—one God, the Father and Creator; Jesus as fully human and fully divine, descended from heaven through a mysterious virgin birth; the Holy Spirit, continuing to give us guidance and comfort today. Every confessing church body believes these core truths. The few that don’t have self-selected to exit the community of Christian orthodoxy. What would it look like for the entire confessing community to gather together in one place to join the angels in heaven in declaring that God is Holy, that Jesus is the Christ, that the Holy Spirit is our guide and comforter?

Humility. Jesus demonstrated that same night of The Last Supper what it means to be great and to be a servant. Rather than scolding His followers for arguing about whose gifts outshone the others, He modeled servanthood by bending down and scraping the caked-on grime from their feet. Just like a household servant would typically do. He did not allow His name to be promoted, or His brand to be built by advertisement. He didn’t do anything to advance Himself. He just kept serving. And then serving some more. He made it clear in word and deed that His kingdom had nothing to do with this world.

Friendship. Perhaps we have allowed the hierarchies that reflect worldly value systems to infect our church culture. What if we recognize that every member of the body of Christ carries equal value, although some will carry out different assignments? What if we let down our guards that protect us from each other and ensure that no one gets close enough to see the frailty and failure that is part of our story, and warmly connect as a community of friends?

Holy Spirit Movements. We don’t need to substitute man-made methodologies for genuine Holy Spirit inspired and guided “movements.” We don’t need to duplicate what works in the world. What if we give room for the Holy Spirit Himself to move through His people and make something happen that the world will notice? We can be assured that He will do this so the world will know that God the Father sent Jesus the Son.

Kingdom Economics. God consistently points to a method for supporting financially the work of the kingdom. It’s not through effective product marketing, or through building a killer brand. It’s through the generous giving from a faithful community of those who are entrusted with stewarding resources. Generosity is good, but not good enough if not blended with wisdom. Well-intended but poorly informed generosity could lead to supporting the wrong things. Kingdom economics calls for a ministry-funding model that blends generosity with wisdom. This is the alliance that leads to good stewardship. The church needs givers. But it needs wise givers who understand their stewardship responsibilities more.

Establishing a Model

“ The millennials expect more. They are leaving the church, and they are not coming back ”

Would it be possible to build a community around the Royal Flush truths of the Christian faith: Unity, Humility, Friendship, Holy Spirit Movements, and Kingdom Economics? If so, what would it look like? How would its leaders function? What kind of people would participate? With a Church moving toward a fuller expression of the Royal Flush truths of the Christian faith, perhaps God would reverse current trends in the U.S. that are now carrying us toward further antagonism toward the gospel and disregard for the very truths that would set American captives free.

“ Something we’re doing isn’t working, and we need to figure it out quickly ”

Perhaps it is because of our lack of alignment with these Royal Flush truths that the world tends to watch us with a degree of disdain, rolling its proverbial eyes at Christians who fall short of appropriate standards. The younger the onlooker, the less likely they are to retain enough respect to even consider the claims of Christ, much less latch on to the church as we know it today. The millennials expect more. They are leaving the church, and they are not coming back. Some 30 percent of American adults ages 18-28 indicate they are skeptical of the Bible, while only 10 percent regularly engage with the Bible. The full adult population’s rates are disturbing—19 percent skeptical and 19 percent engaged—but the perspectives of the millennial generation should serve as a startling wake-up call to the church. Something we’re doing isn’t working, and we need to figure it out quickly.

“ The high stakes game is on ”

We are prepared to put these Royal Flush truths to the test in the Southwest U.S. city of Phoenix, Arizona. Already, Catholic and Protestant leaders are meeting together, tasting the benefits of friendship and envisioning significant demonstrations of unity. No one will stand as the sole personality leading the work; instead the leaders will stand together as a team, each contributing from their own gifting. The Pope himself has already blessed the work with a letter encouraging collaboration among confessional bodies in the area. Our hope is that we have heard the whispers of the Holy Spirit, compelling the church in this U.S. city to courageously come together in a fresh, even revolutionary, way. The high stakes game is on, and the church in Phoenix is preparing to play its hand. Perhaps success there can show the way for a fresh expression of modern Christianity, a path of spiritual power and impact, both invigorating the insiders who are already onboard and challenging the outsiders to take another look at Jesus, as the main attraction at the center of a vigorous church community.

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References

American Bible Society. State of the Bible in the United States. Barna Group. 2014.

Indiana University, Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Giving USA 2013. Giving USA Foundation.

Ratzinger, Joseph. New Outpourings of the Spirit. Ignatius Press. 2007.

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