My first video game system was a Nintendo. Grandma gave it to me for Christmas. I talked my parents into letting me hook it up to the tv before everyone had left the party, and soon enough there I was playing Super Mario Bros., jerking my hands into the air every time I wanted Mario to jump.
If you’ve never played any of the Mario games before, one of the features is the power up. If you’re lucky enough to find a magic mushroom—and can eat it before it wanders its way down a hole in the ground—you instantly double in size. This lets you get hit by one of the many enemies trying to prevent you from saving the princess without dying. If you do get hit, you merely drop down to your original size.
If you can find a fire flower, you gain the ability to throw bouncing power balls. Throw in both a magic mushroom and a fire flower, and the game gets a lot more interesting. And easier.
Evangelicals talk about salvation as though its a power up. Pray the magic prayer—Jesus, come into my heart because I’m a sinner—and you double your spiritual size. Charismatics and Pentecostals add in the fire flower: get baptized in the Holy Spirit and you can scare off the devil with your tongue talking. And by the way they talk about it, you can’t get into the most important levels of the game unless you’ve got a power up already in hand. It’s all powered up or nothing with them. No power up, and you might as well not even play the game.
But when I read the Gospels, I don’t find a Jesus interested in handing out spiritual power ups. If actions count louder than words, then his priorities were health (physical and mental) and hunger (thinking of the feeding of the five thousand). Often he healed people of physical ailments by first healing their undeserved shame, adding social and emotional healing into the mix.
When you bring in his words, his main preoccupation was how we treat each other, and how God would judge us by how well we pull that off. He was particularly interested in how we treat the poor and the outcast.
You have to pretty much ignore the first three Gospels and read power up theology into John to get anything like an evangelical theology out of texts. Then read magic mushrooms and fire flowers into Paul to boot. And if I read Philippians 2 correctly, Jesus gave up power ups himself. If he wasn’t interested in them, why should we be?
Let’s play this game just as we are, to abuse an old evangelical hymn. Power ups are for game players, not for the free receipients of life everlasting, a gift given to all. And that, my friends, is the real good news.