Moving With The Spirit

Last Friday I published a post titled Animated By The Holy Spirit, which was an updated version of an older post. The point of the post was to state why I believe that the Holy Spirit is essential for the local church’s participation in the mission of God and mention two guiding convictions I have regarding the work of the Spirit. My friend Amy commented “…how do congregations begin to rely more on the Spirit and less on their traditions? I get prayer but I wonder if the Spirit can even work if we have other objects to over come.” So I want to write more about how how our churches are animated by the power of the Holy Spirit over several posts and I’ll begin with what has to change for us to see where the Spirit is leading.

Repentance Is So Much More

Repentance! It’s a word very familiar to our Christian vernacular but perhaps too familiar. We often think of repentance as turning away from whatever ungodly ways we lived in the past, meaning that we are not indulging in immoral and destructive behaviors any more. To say it sort of sarcastically, repentance, we think, means saying goodbye to the endless summer nights of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. There’s a lot of truth to that but in truth, the call to repentance is so much more.

When Jesus began his public ministry and Peter later preached the gospel on the Day of Pentecost, both called for repentance. Jesus called the people to repent and believe the good news of the inbreaking kingdom of God (cf. Mk 1:14-15) and Peter echoed this call with even a stronger sense of urgency since God had raised the crucified Jesus from death and exalted him as Lord and Messiah (cf. Acts 2:36-39). But what we often miss is that on both occasions, this call for repentance was issued to the Jewish people who were already religiously devout people seeking to live righteous lives. And yet… they still needed to repent. Jewish nationalism, religious traditions, and contempt for the Gentiles blinded them to the work of God among them and they needed to let go and become followers of Jesus.

Now hopefully this doesn’t come as a surprise to you but spiritual blindness is not a disease that has disappeared. As local churches and as individual Christians, we are capable of becoming blind to the ways in which God is at work. Consumerism, traditionalism, politics, careers and personal ambitions, and even a lifeless apathy towards the gospel are ways that obscure the kingdom of God so that it remains hidden from our eyes and ears (cf. Lk 8:9-10). This must change… We must repent!

We Pledge Our Allegiance…

Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost challenges and invites us to “repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” assuring us that not only will our sins be forgiven but that we will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (cf. Acts 2:38). Now here is the important caveat that goes overlooked to often: Peter is telling us to pledge our allegiance to the Lord, Jesus the Messiah! Join the movement, follow Jesus and receive the gift of the Spirit that animates our life together and enables us to move with the Spirit as participants in the mission of God. That’s the invitation and challenge.

But… Moving with the Spirit requires change! That’s what repentance is. It is changing, letting go of whatever other commitments we have and living, not as consumers of religion or just good church-going Christians, but as passionate followers of Jesus participating in the mission of God. As Christians, who presumably have already been baptized, that means remembering our baptism… remembering that given our allegiance to Jesus.

By remembering our baptism and living as people committed to Jesus and aligned with his kingdom, we learn to see and hear where God is working among us and how the Spirit is animating us for participation in that work. Then we are moving with the Spirit and learning to move with the Spirit.

Following Jesus Together

Let’s not kid ourselves and think that this is an easy thing to do. Even Peter, when told to not regard as unclean what God had made clean, struggled to move with the Spirit (cf. Acts 10). So I assume we will as well. This is why we need our Christian community and particular people who will speak the truth to us, challenging us to see what we are struggling to see… to see where God is trying to lead us through the Holy Spirit.

God can and will certainly speak through the hymns and liturgy of worship as well as through the reading and preaching of his word. God can even speak in a dream if he so chooses (far be it for any one of us to tell God in what ways he can and cannot work!). However, God’s normal way of working seems to be through people who themselves are moving with the Spirit. God is working through you and I, if we are aligned with him. So when we encounter Christians who are placing things like traditions above participating in the mission of God, we must have the courage to lovingly but boldly call for repentance.

A lot of this has to do with leading missional renewal among our local churches which is so necessary. However, rather than expecting an entire church to change at once, renewal will happen as we, along with a few others from our church, begin to reimagine what it looks like to follow Jesus together. As we learn to embody the gospel in new ways, we become a breath of new life that God uses to bring renewal and change within the church overtime as we move with the Spirit. So if you find yourself among a church that seems lost in tradition or anything that has stifled the mission of God then my suggestion is finding a few other people and invite them over to your home, inviting them to break bread and into the word of God as you pray together and discern together how God is calling you to serve together on mission with him (but more on that in another post).

Animated By The Holy Spirit

The third person of our Triune God, the Holy Spirit. As the promise of our victory in Christ and the power of our living in Christ, the Spirit dwells among Christians so that we may live as the church Jesus gave his life for us to be. You need the Holy Spirit. I need the Holy Spirit. We need the Holy Spirit. God offers us his Spirit.*

Consider what one passage of scripture says:

While he was with them, he declared, “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait there for what my Father promised, which you heard about from me. For John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” So when they had gathered together, they began to ask him, “Lord, is this the time when you are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” He told them, “You are not permitted to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth.” – Acts 1:4-8

The same Holy Spirit that is promised here is promised as a gift to all (Acts 2:38-39).  Yet in most churches, talk of the Holy Spirit still seems as if we are entering into unchartered waters. Why?  What is it that makes churches/Christians afraid of the Holy Spirit?

Perhaps it is because we fear losing control. Most churches in America came of age during the end of modernism, which was shaped thoroughly by the rationalistic and humanistic thinking of the Enlightenment era. That was the sort of thinking that held a high view of humanity, which sought to maintain control over important matters in life through human reasoning. Control is the operative word and it is something we lose by submission if we allow the Holy Spirit to lead us. That isn’t to say that the Holy Spirit will ever force us in any way but to say that when we seek the guidance of God through his Spirit, we are relinquishing our own way and that still makes us nervous.

But for what are we relinquishing our own way?

For mission. The mission of God. That as the church of Jesus Christ, we may participate with God in his mission as followers of Jesus. So in thinking about the way in which the Holy Spirit leads us as followers of Jesus, the book of Acts is always a great place to start understanding how we should expect the Holy Spirit to lead us. In fact, the book of Acts is so important to this question that even though it is technically known as The Acts of the Apostles that it has also been described as The Acts of the Spirit. That’s because the book of Acts is the continuing the story began in the Gospel of Luke regarding how the gospel goes from the Jews to the Gentiles, first undertaken by Jesus himself and then continued by the followers of Jesus who, like Jesus, are animated by the Holy Spirit.

There is so much more that needs to be said about the work of the Holy Spirit as told in the book of Acts but here is where I start: I believe that any faithful reading of Acts reveals that our calling as followers of Jesus is to be animated by the Holy Spirit so that we embody the gospel of Jesus Christ in all that we do and say. Within this belief I have two additional convictions that might help clarify the work of the Holy Spirit among the church.

  1. As the third person of the One Triune God, the Holy Spirit will never empower Christians to do anything that goes against the will of God.  Although we will have disagreements  over the question of God’s will and disagreements on certain issues, scripture is the story which tells us how God acts within history. In particular, it tells us how God is working to redeem creation in Jesus Christ and the goal of that redemptive work (which is also to say that we should read the Biblical narrative as a christologically centered and eschatologically oriented story). Consequently, we know what sort of values, what sort of things make God tick, what he loves and what burns his anger, etc… and how that has played out in Christian history. Thus, scripture and tradition must be our conversation partner in discerning the leading of the Spirit.
  2. The Holy Spirit will animates us to accomplish our calling as in both ordinary and extraordinary ways but in ways that are often beyond our own human ability. That means that participating in the mission of God always more than our own capabilities. This is one reason why we, like Jesus whom we follow, must pray. So if we are living by the power of the Holy Spirit, we’ll be a praying people because there isn’t any other way except to go to God the Father and pray that he may strengthen us with power from the Holy Spirit (cf. Eph 3:16).

So what say you?

——————–

* This post is an updated and revised version of a post titled You Need The Holy Spirit, originally published on May 20, 2012.

Reconciliation: From Creation to New Creation

I wish people could see what I see. That’s how I felt last Friday evening as I drove home. Twenty minutes before I was sitting in a room with other Christian men seeking to follow Jesus. Some of us, like me, were White and some others were Black. As I sat in this room, I could here some Hispanic Christians in another room singing hymns in Spanish. It was a beautiful moment. For though we all were different in our racial and ethnic makeup, we were there as one in Christ.

I wish people could see what I see.

When God created us in his image, he created us equally and yet he also created us with much diversity. It was and remains a beautiful thing. The problem is that when this beautiful diversity should have moved us to glorify God, we have used it to glorify ourselves by lifting ourselves up while we put others down. We take the created diversity as both a sign of our superiority and a sign of inferiority regarding others. We say that our race and ethnicity, or our gender, or our intellectual giftedness, and so on, makes us better than others of a different race and ethnicity, of the other gender, with different intellectual gifts, and so on…

In the desire to glorify ourselves and display our superiority, we even made God, our Creator, inferior. Some do this by sheer denial of his existence, while most of us do it by denying his glory and power to one degree or another in the way we live. The end result has become a of division and animosity, where we separate from God and each other. Invisible walls build us as suspicion and fear increase, opening the door to all sorts of sin and unjust acts in our feeble attempt at maintaining our alleged superiority at the expense of God and others.

From Creation to New Creation

But some of us have encountered the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ! There on the cross, sinless and innocent as he was, the death of Jesus demonstrated just how horrendous the pursuit of our own glory and superiority really is. That we would be so driven our own will as to play a part in killing an innocent person is indicting. And we would have got away with it except for the fact that God raised Jesus from the grave, vindicating him as the Lord… as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Then we realized how broken we are, how wrong we have been, and that it is us who must change, who must lay down our own will in exchange for his will — the will of God, the Heavenly Father.

No longer can we pursue our own glory and insist insist upon our superiority, not when the Lord himself became the humble and suffering servant. Now rather than glorifying ourselves, we seek to glorify God by humbling ourselves in order that lift the other up through acts of service. We are learning to love our neighbors as ourselves and even loving our enemies, and in doing so, loving God. We don’t cease to be diverse people. We’re still Black folk, White folk, Hispanic folk, and so on. We’re still engineers, business managers, and even a few preachers. But rather than seeing the differences about us as a threat to our own existence, we see the beauty of God our Creator in all of our diversity. By the power of the Spirit now dwelling among us, we glorify God for the wonder of beauty and power seen in each person as a reflection of the image of God. We also glorify God for saving from our broken selves so that we could share again in the beauty of life that God has created, this new creation in Christ.

As I said earlier, I wish others could see what I see.

For that’s how I was able to see the beauty of last Friday sitting in a room with other Black men and White men next to a room full of Hispanic people, all Christians seeking to follow Jesus. Diverse as we are, yet one in Christ to the glory of God.

Perhaps you do see what I see… and if so, then blessed are you!

“But now in Christ Jesus you who used to be far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, the one who made both groups into one and who destroyed the middle wall of partition, the hostility, when he nullified in his flesh the law of commandments in decrees. He did this to create in himself one new man out of two, thus making peace, and to reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by which the hostility has been killed.” – Ephesians 2:13-16

Does Your Church Have Faith?

In terms of work, serving as a minister is my second vocation. Besides working for my father, who owned a small excavating business, for a few years after high-school, I also worked four years as a machinist. It was during these years that I became a follower of Jesus, began to sense a call to ministry, and eventually returned to college in order to engage in biblical and theological studies in preparation for ministry.

Though it sounds simple, this journey was far from easy. Many difficulties came, most notably the death of my son Kenny in the summer of 2002. Yet long before Kenny’s death came the first test and it had to do with whether or not I could step forward in faith or go backwards to what was known, manageable, and predictable.

It was the spring of 1999 and my wife and I, newly married, were living in Rolla, Missouri where my wife had a teaching job nearby. I had a machining job that paid a quarter above minimum wage which irritated me knowing that I had left behind a machinist job in LaPorte, Indiana that paid nearly three times what minimum wage was. Like most newlyweds, money seemed tight and that frustrated me… I mean, it really frustrated me. Though I was already accepted and scheduled to begin studies at Harding University in the fall, I told my wife that we should just move back to Indiana where she could get a teaching job and I could either get my old machining job back or take my brother’s offer up and go to work for a construction outfit through the Carpenter’s Union. Of course, you know the outcome. Thanks to the prayerful encouragement and persistence of my wife, we pressed ahead into the unknown and unpredictable.

There’s a reason why I am telling this story and it has to do with local churches and Christianity in America. But first a story about Israel and I think the point I want to make about local churches will make more sense.

Israel and the Uncertainty of the Wilderness

According to Exodus 12:40, Israel spent 430 years in slavery under Egyptian tyranny. That’s a long time. Given the brutal and harsh conditions that Israel suffered, Israel was eager for redemption. Yet once they found themselves in the wilderness, there feelings changed. Facing the perils of the journey as they encountered opposition, Numbers 14:2-3 tells us just how the Israelites felt:

“If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we had perished in this wilderness! Why has the Lord brought us into this land only to be killed by the sword, that our wives and our children should become plunder? Wouldn’t it be better for us to return to Egypt?”

Would it be better if Israel returned to Egypt? Of course not! But when we consider the circumstances they were facing, we can better appreciate the question.

For Israel, the way ahead was full of uncertainty and well beyond their manageability. Regardless of the oppression was, 430 years allowed Israel to become well acclimated to life in Egypt. It became a predictable life in which they knew the rules and everything they needed to do in order to survive. It was a manageable life that they understood, whereas the journey ahead was full of risk that required faith rather than their own understanding which was well acclimated for the past. But the temptation of returning to the safe, predictable, and manageable past was great… “So they said to one another, ‘Let’s appoint a leader and return to Egypt’” (Num 14:4).

The Local Church, The Past, and the Future?

Come back to present day and the question facing many local churches. It’s the twenty-first century in American and Christians no longer exist in world that many local churches were established in. That was a world characterized by modernism and Christendom, two socio-political realities that predates America as a nation. It was a world shaped predominately by Christian rule and human reason as the sure foundation by which we could be certain about what is true and what is right. More importantly, it was the world that many local churches remain well-acclimated for… unlike the postmodern and post-Christendom world these churches find themselves among now.

Because churches now find themselves existing in a postmodern and post-Christedom world, they find themselves in a wilderness so to speak. The world of modernism and Christendom safe, predictable, and manageable because it was well-known territory. Despite the problems it created (and both modernism and Christendom were fraught with problems), local churches knew how to function for the sake of God’s mission. Ministry programs at the church building would attract people to the church and evangelistic tracts using human-reason as their teaching method helped bring people to Christ. But that was then!

Now local churches find themselves living in unchartered territory, the wilderness of a postmodern and post-Christendom world. The way forward seems uncertain. Follow Jesus… Yes! Embody the gospel… Yes! Embody the gospel in a contextualized manner… How? The context has changed and the rules that easily provided clear direction and certain in the past no longer work so easily. Sometimes they don’t seem to work at all.

Now stepping forward in an unpredictable and uncertain world is risky and very uncomfortable at times. It requires faith but no amount of faith will eliminate the anxiety and the temptation to think that it would be easier if we just return to the past. In fact, many church will attempt to go back. I think this explains why some churches continue to talk about creating more building-centric programs, thinking that people will come if they build it. It is also, I believe, why in my own tribe, the Churches of Christ, many churches and Christians have become enamored with the book Muscle and a Shovel (despite it’s numerous theological problems (see John Mark Hicks 3-part review here, here, and here)… because despite the sectarianism and legalism of the past, most Churches of Christ know how to function in that past culture. Even though returning to the past will not help in learning how to engage among the new cultural territory, returning to the past is more comfortable than doing the messy task of faith which is continuing to journey forward through the wilderness learning how to live as a colony of heaven in an unChristian world.

One Final Word

The question churches face in the wilderness is whether they will try returning to the past or continue stepping forward. It’s a question of faith. It’s the question I faced in Rolla, MO, the question Israel faced in the wilderness, the question many other people of God have faced on occasions, and the question facing local churches in America today. How the question is answered is either a matter or faith or a lack of faith.

In the meantime, remember that Israel made to the promise land not by their own strength but by their faith in the God who delivered them. The church of Jesus Christ will make it too not by her own strength but by faith in the God whose promise in Christ is sealed by the Spirit dwelling among the church. I’m tired of reading article about the ten reasons why millennial won’t… or the ten steps every church needs to do in order to… At the risk of oversimplifying the journey ahead, churches just need to press forward in following Jesus and learning how to embody the gospel in contextualized manners. It’s a messier task filled with unpredictability, requiring discernment bathed in prayer and scripture but the church today is not the first to make this journey. So press ahead!

About Sunday’s Sermon

About Sunday’s sermon… Perhaps it was the very word from the preacher that you needed to hear. A convicting word, an encouraging word, a challenging word, and so on. If that is the case, then praise the Lord! You heard a word from the Lord through the preacher that God has appointed to preach his word and for that, as a preacher myself, I am glad.

But perhaps yesterday’s sermon wasn’t so good and you’re not happy. The sermon just fell flat, the preacher’s message just wasn’t that inspiring unlike those TED Talks you love, the sermon went a little too long… or was too short. Maybe it’s just the preacher who isn’t that dynamic of a speaker… if only your preacher could deliver a sermon like _______ (insert the name of your favorite preacher). I’m sorry!

I’m sorry because you missed hearing a word from the Lord and it has nothing to do with your preacher. That’s right! I think the problem is you. For whatever reason, you didn’t come open to what God might say to you through the word your preacher spoke. Lurking behind your unhappiness is a whole lot of consumerism, selfishness, and expectations that are impossible to satisfy. Here’s the problem

  • As long as you come wanting to hear a sermon like your favorite preacher always delivers, then you’ll likely miss what God wanted to say through your preacher — who clearly isn’t your favorite.
  • As long as your worried about how long it is until that closing hymn, then you’ll likely never have enough time to hear a word from the Lord since He doesn’t work on your time schedule — though you’ll likely have enough time to complain later.
  • As long as your more worried about the way your preacher delivers the sermon rather than listening to hear the word of God preached, then you’ll likely miss the word of God — all the while blaming the preacher.

I could go on but I think I’ve made my point. Now let me as a preacher elaborate a little more.

Why I’m Writing This…

Right now I’m in a ministry transition. So other that guest preaching on a few Sunday’s, I have been the one sitting in worship and hearing the preacher preach. Over the past few months I have had the opportunity to hear about ten different preachers and all of them had a different style of delivery. I could, if I wanted to, evaluate every preacher for the development of content and delivery of the sermon but I have intentionally chosen not to do so because that is what God wants. That is, God has not blessed me with the opportunity to gather in worship with other Christians, which typically includes hearing a sermon during that gathering, just so that I can critically evaluate what I like and dislike about a sermon. If I myself want to hear a word from God then I must gather in the presence of God with a listening posture, open to what God might say through the foolishness of preaching (cf. 1 Cor 1:21).

The same is true for you. If you want to hear a word from God then you must gather in the presence of God with a listening posture, open to what God might say through the foolishness of preaching. Don’t get me wrong… I’m not giving preachers a pass for being lazy and not preparing well (which is usually very evident). But just because your preacher did not hit a home-run with last Sunday’s sermon does not nullify the word of God spoken for those who have come hungry for the word of God. And I am, as a preacher, standing up for other preachers because some of the complaints I have heard about one preacher or another tell me that there’s a problem and it’s not the preacher who has the problem.

So about Sunday’s sermon… Perhaps you heard a word from the Lord and if so, as I said earlier, praise the Lord! May that word be lived out in your very life this week and beyond! And if you didn’t… perhaps next Sunday!

Cultivating People of Grace

Everybody sins, including you and including me. But to often, so it seems to be the case, we forget that we’re sinners as we heap judgment and condemnation down upon others for their sin. But as one who unapologetically believes in Jesus and is striving to follow him, I believe Jesus calls us to become conduits of grace in our world. And boy oh boy, does our world ever need grace…

If Only there was more grace

Last week I read the story of a Michigan City, Indiana police officer who was found dead from a self-inflicted gun shot wound. Growing up in the LaPorte, near Michigan City, the story interested me. The story itself is sad, as it is any time someone takes their own life, but the story is bigger than just a tragic loss of life. The officer had resigned his position just a couple days prior to his death after having been arrested and charged with three counts of level 6 felonies having to do with misconduct and possession of a prescription narcotic drug without a prescription.

I’m not repeating the story here in order to heap any sort of judgment upon this officer. In fact, I intend to do just the opposite with this post. I tell the story because it seems rather apparent that the officer had some personal struggles that had now led to further problems affecting his life and career. Adding his trouble was the fact that the news was well publicized locally and some people apparently used Facebook as a place to play judge, jury, and executioner by quickly heaping judgment and condemnation on this officer with vitriolic comments. Unless we have found ourselves in similar circumstances, we can only imagine the shame and how it must have felt for this man to have his life seemingly unraveling in such a public way. Nevertheless, this officer apparently felt so hopeless that ending his own life seemed like the only option and that is a great tragedy.

The reason I share this story is because it reminds me of how much every community needs the local church whether they know it or not. Every community needs people who know how to show grace and that should be the church who has encountered the grace of God. Here is why…

Society is often full of graceless people who are ready to judge and condemn, as though they have never sinned themselves. When people find themselves broken and their world is collapsing amidst the shame of judgment and condemnation, what they need is some friends who will love them rather than heap more scorn upon them. By loving such people, the church becomes a conduit of grace and mercy. As I have said in preaching before, everyone needs forgiveness and a second chance at some point in their life. When the church is the place where those who have failed and let others down begin encountering that forgiveness and second chance, the possibility of hope is believable.

Jesus, An Immoral Woman, and Grace

One of my favorite Jesus stories, one that I’ve written about before, is found in Luke 7:36-50. While dining by invitation at the home of a Pharisee named Simon, a sexually immoral woman, perhaps a prostitute, anoints the feet of Jesus with oil and Jesus doesn’t scold her. This doesn’t sit well with Simon, so under his breath he criticizes Jesus which in turn draws some very pointed teaching about grace from Jesus. Then Jesus tells the woman, “Your sins are forgiven… Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (v. 48, 50).

But there’s more and it’s matters much!

Jesus spoke words of grace to this woman and that’s important because she needed to hear that she is forgiven. But Jesus also embodied grace to this sinner in the way he treated her.

  • By not scolding her, Jesus extended hospitality and let her know that he is someone safe. Unlike Simon, Jesus will not heap judgment and condemnation on this woman whose tears signify the shame she already carries around with her.
  • When Simon, along with the others, judge this women with their glaring looks and scornful remarks, Jesus comes to her rescue and defends her. Jesus will not let this woman drown in her own tears of shame. Instead his protection lets her believe in the possibility of hope, hope that not even she is beyond redemption.
  • Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Jesus himself is willing to risk his own reputation and endure the scorn of others in order to show grace. Regardless of what Simon and the others think, this woman will not bear the shame alone anymore because Jesus is willing to bear it with her.

This sinful woman is able to leave this dinner party with forgiveness but she is also able to leave with hope because through the actions of Jesus, his word of grace has meaning.

Cultivating Grace

Talk is cheap and words are meaningless without action. Churches can sing all the songs about grace and pastors can preach sermons about how much God loves the sinner and forgives the sinner but unless the people that make up the church are able to embody the grace of God, those songs and sermons mean little.

Ministers, through preaching and teaching, must cultivate the churches they serve to become people of grace. And by that, I mean becoming people who extend hospitality to people drowning in the shame of their sin, defending them from the judgment and condemnation of others and doing so even at the risk of their own reputation. It’s not enough to offer recovery programs for those struggling with addictions or those who have suffered through a divorce. Those are certainly important in helping people turn the page, so to speak, and learn to live into the life God is redeeming them for. But when people find their life unraveling in brokenness, what they need is people who will put their arm around them and remind them that they are not what others, and maybe even they themselves, think they are… who will remind them that the grace of God is for them.

Cultivating churches to become a people of grace involves equipping the people to be present to their friends, neighbors, and co-workers in order to extend that grace in that hour of need. That means equipping people how to listen without judgment nor advise. Sometimes it might be necessary to offer some suggestive guidance just to help prevent someone from aggravating their trouble any further but other than that, advise is not needed. What every sinner needs, especially when they are drowning in shame, is someone to be their friend. And that means being the friend who will listen to them, praying for them and being present to them so that the phrase “Jesus loves you and so do I” has actual meaning.

One Final Word

Everyone sins. Unfortunately, sometimes the price of sin is very steep. Beyond adversely affecting the relationship with God, moral failure can be costly in a social sense and this is especially the case when it involves criminal activity. Grace will likely not eliminate these consequences nor should it necessarily do so either. But what showing grace just might do is make the fall bearable and let the person know that this too will pass… that there is hope, a second chance to get back up and live again.

By the power of the Holy Spirit, may our churches embody the grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ to the glory of Father in heaven!

Loving The Enemy: Jesus and The Early Church

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor’ and ‘hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be like your Father in heaven…”

– Jesus Christ, Matthew 5:43-45

This is the teaching of Jesus who refused to take up the sword against his enemies, instead submitting to the will of his Father in heaven by choosing the cross. This is the Jesus whom we are called to follow and if we call ourselves a Christian, we are making a claim to follow Jesus.

We’re fine with following Jesus until it comes to the way we treat those who would do us harm. Then we would rather have a militant Jesus who will say it’s ok to take up arms and, in the name of safety and self-defense, do violence to that enemy and even kill that enemy if necessary. We’re so comfortable with the idea of necessary violence as part of our way of living, that it is almost impossible to fathom that Jesus is calling us to a non-violent way of life as part of our kingdom witness. Seriously! Listening to some Christians defend the use of violence leaves me the impression that the Jesus they follow entered into Jerusalem with military gear and an assault rifle, like captured in the picture here.

The notion that Jesus is calling us to a non-violent way of life seems so asinine that some Christians will stop at almost nothing to negate this teaching of Jesus. Some will proof-text certain passages of scripture out of both their historical and theological context to do so. Others will appeal to utilitarian reasoning, beginning with some hypothetical circumstance that logically seems to necessitate some measure of violence, in order to dismiss the notion that Jesus calls us to not fight with violence. And some will even anachronistically read the Bible by claiming that Jesus, as the second-person of the Trinity, is violent because God allows violence to take place in the Old Testament (an argument that is fraught with poor theology and hermeneutics).

All of these attempts either ignore, evade, or attempt to redefine the historical and eschatological trajectory of the biblical narrative and the good news of the kingdom of God that it proclaims (the gospel Jesus preached) which tells us of the redemptive mission of God that liberates us from the old life marred by sin, much of which involves some measure of violence, into the new life as new creation in Christ. That is, the attempts at justifying violence prolong the old life even though, as followers of Jesus, we are called to live as new creation bearing witness to the heavenly life that God is restoring among his creation in Christ. Violence has nothing to do with this life that we are witnesses of!

Of course, I could be wrong. It is always possible that my reading of scripture is wrong and therefore my understanding of the life Jesus calls us to follow him in living, which includes non-violent living, is wrong. But one way of always checking our reading of scripture is by turning to early Christian history and seeing how some of the earliest Christian leaders, those who historically are much closer to the apostolic era, understand the life Christians are called to live regarding the issue of violence and loving our enemies. So here are a couple of blog posts here and here that have assembled some quotes from some of the early church leaders of the patristic era. You can click on those links to read all the quotes but here a few:

  • Justin Martyr: “We, who used to kill one another, do not make war on our enemies. We refuse to tell lies or deceive our inquisitors; we prefer to die acknowledging Christ.”
  • Irenaeus: “Christians have changed their swords and their lances into instruments of peace, and they know not now how to fight.”
  • Tertullian: “Under no circumstances should a true Christian draw the sword.”
  • Origen: “We have come in accordance with the counsel of Jesus to cut down our arrogant swords of argument into plowshares, and we convert into sickles the spears we formerly used in fighting. For we no longer take swords against a nation, nor do we learn anymore to make war, having become sons of peace for the sake of Jesus, who is our Lord.”
  • Athanasius: “Christians, instead of arming themselves with swords, extend their hands in prayer.”
  • Clement of Alexandria: Christians are “an army without weapons, without war, without bloodshed, without anger, without defilement.

I won’t pretend as though this teaching of Jesus answers how we should respond in every possible situation that seemingly creates an ethical dilemma. However, it should be evident that peaceful living (which includes non-violence) should be one of the virtues that characterizes the Christian life. That means at the very least that we should strive to nurture peaceful mind-set among ourselves so that in every circumstance we might respond in non-violent ways that bear witness to the eschatological reign of God in Christ. It also means that even if we conclude that there is a time when some measure of violence is justified (on the criterion for just-war, see here), we should never speak and act as apologists for violence — especially in a time where the ethos of American culture appears saturated by violence rooted in the things of the world rather than Christ.

May we learn to follow Jesus embracing the cross rather than the sword, loving our enemies rather than killing them!