Because Jesus Says “Come!”

I don’t know what it would be like to walk on water as Peter did but according to the story, doing so led Peter to Jesus. Well, that was until he became afraid and took his eyes off of Jesus. That’s when he stopped walking on the water and began sinking. You can read the entire story of Peter in Matthew 14:22-36.*

Stepping Into The Chaos

Most people who remember the story do so thinking of Jesus. But we shouldn’t forget about Peter because in many ways we are Peter. We here Jesus say “Come!” and that means we must step out of the boat and walk. But stepping out of the boat is scary business because to do so means stepping out and on to the sea, the great symbol of chaos throughout the Bible.

Chaos is difficult and frankly, nobody wants it or needs it. Not I. Not you. The boat is a much safer place. Though it may be surrounded by chaos as it sails on the sea, staying in the boat gives us the illusion that everything is ok and will be ok. Whatever danger staying in the boat may pose, it seems manageable. Faith is unnecessary, we just need to keep sailing until we reach the shore. The only problem is that Jesus isn’t standing on the shore . . . he’s walking on the water, telling us to get out of the boat and come to him.

Peter did the right thing when Jesus called. He got out of the boat and with his eyes fixed on Jesus, he began walking on the water towards Jesus. What got Peter into trouble was taking his eyes off Jesus. That’s when he began sinking. Yet even in sinking, he still did the right thing. That is, he still reached out to Jesus.

Perhaps we would do the same when we feel ourselves sinking in the chaos. But I also know that the boat remains a few yards away. So we might just try swimming back to the boat, thinking that if we can just get back to the boat and get control of the situation ourselves − or at least get things back to manageable situation − then everything will be okay.

It won’t! Jesus isn’t there. Jesus is out on the water bidding us to come join him. Peter did. Even cowering in faith, he reached out to Jesus. And Jesus saved him and sent on to become a founding apostolic witness for this kingdom of God movement that has now gone global.

But Peter never got back into that boat!

Eyes Upon Jesus!

Of course, I’m not really talking about a boat! I’m talking about the church. Your church. My church. Our church.

Jesus is calling but to step on the water and go to him, we have to step out of the boat and that is full of risk. Yet the boat, as we know it, appears safe. It’s surely more convenient. It appears more manageable, as we know how to row this boat because we’ve done it for some time. And if we step out on to the water and find ourselves sinking in the chaos, which seems normal, the temptation is to swim back to the boat, grabbing for a life-preserver, a boat oar, or anything else to feel safe again. But doing so loses focus on Jesus because he isn’t sitting in the boat . . . he’s out walking on the water.

So keep our eyes focused on Jesus and we’ll walk on water, joining Jesus and following him in this Kingdom journey. Just like Peter did . . . who never got back in that boat!

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* This article was originally published in Connecting 29 (October 15, 2014), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ, and has been reformatted for this blog.

When Fear and Faith Collide

Ebola!

ISIS!

Ferguson, Missouri!

And _____!

It all evokes fear. Perhaps lots of fear. And the fear is somewhat understandable. After all, if you find yourself in the middle of a bad storm, a little fear is expected.  Yet…

Last Sunday I preached on the story of Jesus stilling the storm in Mark 4:35-41. I’ve preached on the passage before but this time was different because unlike before, I understood why the disciples became afraid. The text says that the storm on the sea was so fierce that the winds were blowing waves up into the boat. I’d be scared if I was on that boat . . . and I’d bet you would be too.

So what is Jesus thinking about when he questions his disciples about their fear and loss of faith? Maybe Jesus is speaking into something much deeper than just a severe thunderstorm. Maybe Jesus is taking the occasion to speak about the deeper issue of discipleship in those moments when faith and fear collide, where we allow one to drive the other away.

You see, when faith and fear collide, like they will later on for Jesus and his disciples when they enter Jerusalem for the Passover, our response speaks. Fear seems natural but those who let fear dictate the agenda will abandon the way of life Jesus calls us to embrace in attempt to assuage the fear on our own. With the fear of Ebola, we’re tempted to demand secure national borders rather than recalling how God expects his people to treat foreigners (read Deuteronomy lately?) much less care for the suffering should we encounter them. With the fear of ISIS, we’re tempted to champion the idea fighting fire with fire in another war rather than stopping to pray for them (read the Sermon on the Mount lately?).

But Jesus silences the storm, rebuking the win as he says to the sea, “Peace! Be Still!” The story in the Gospel of Mark leaves us with the question of who is Jesus? It’s meant to refocus our faith in the midst of fear.

Who is this Jesus but the Messiah, the crucified and resurrected King of Kings, Lord of Lords! The storms cannot and will not destroy us. Keep our focus on Jesus. Silence the profiteers of fear posing as news stations like CNN, FOX, MSNBC, and so forth.

Listen instead for the voice of Jesus and follow him. Together we will weather the storm!

Believing In Jesus and His Way

A Farewell to MarsI’m currently reading through Brian Zahnd’s book A Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor’s Journey Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace. The book is about the peaceful, non-violent way of Jesus Christ, which is often ignored and even dismissed as irrelevant by many Christians living in America. In other words, American Christianity believes in Jesus as the Savior but does not necessarily follow Jesus as Lord… at least not when it comes to putting down the sword and picking up the cross. This is why Zahnd says quite clearly and convincingly that, “It’s not enough to believe in Jesus; we also have to believe in the Jesus way!” (p. 142).

To illustrate his point, Zahnd does a little historical work regarding southern culture and the Christian revival throughout the southern states that preceded the American Civil War. Here’s the quote:

In seeking to preserve an economy dependent upon slave labor, Southern churches had embraced a fatally distorted faith. Probably without even knowing what they were doing, these Christians had quite effectively used Jesus and the Bible to validate their racist assumptions and protect their vested interests. They went to church on Sunday. They got saved. They loved Jesus. They waved their palms and shouted hosanna on Palm Sunday. But like the crowd in Jerusalem eighteen centuries earlier, they didn’t know the things that made for peace. And Jesus wept over an America headed to hell. The churches were full and slavery continued—until the Civil War, that is. Then 750,000 people died for the sins of America (p. 146).

My question is how long will Christians keep dismissing the non-violent way of Jesus as irrelevant and how much more carnage will we suffer as a result?

Blessing The Children

Yesterday the Columbia Church of Christ had our blessing of the children. Besides singing songs and reading scripture about the abundant blessings of God, the message was about the role parents and the church plays in raising children as faithful followers of Jesus. At the end of the message, the parents brought their children and committed to raising them as followers of Jesus, with the church lifting each child up in a prayer of blessing. After blessing our children, we shared in the Lord’s Supper together.

The following was part of the prayer of blessing offered for our children:

As the family of God, a congregation of whom Jesus is the head…We ask for you God, our Father in heaven to bless these children…

Lord, we praise you for the life of these children and ask you to surround everyone of them with your blessing, that they each may know your love and may be protected from all evil, knowing your goodness all the days of their lives.

Lord, we ask that you bless the parents of these children, giving them the grace to love and care for their children with patience and faith. As they stand before us as a profession of their commitment to teach their children to be followers of your Son, Jesus, may your Spirit grant them wisdom and guidance to live as Jesus, setting an example of what it means to be a Christian!

And Lord, as we give these Bibles to the newest born children among us, we pray that as they grow up, they will receive the scriptures as your word, shaping them and becoming their story… our story…your story, Lord! Amen!*

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* Adapted from an Anglican prayer of blessing for children.

Do We Have To Go To Church?

“Do we have to go to church?”* said most everyone of us at some point in our life. I’ve asked that question before and I’m sure other minister have done so as well.

I get the question. People are asking if attending a Sunday church assembly is necessary. Part of me wants to whip out Hebrews 10:25 as a prooftext, where the writer of Hebrews warns against forsaking the assembly. If were looking for a law, which a question like this often assumes, then the instruction in Hebrews appears sufficient. Having said all that, something else has already gone afoul when we have to ask the question of whether it is necessary to assemble with our church… on Sunday or any other time when the church assembles.

What Are We Asking, Saying, and Doing?

The question of whether we have to go to church also assumes a view of church that is widely accepted but still wrong. The assumption is that church is where we go and what we do rather than who we are as a community of disciples. Hence, we speak of church in the third-person singular rather than the first-person plural voice. Church is no longer thought of in terms of who we are − our identity as a community of disciples − but as an independent part of our life.

The problem is deeper though. As I pointed to earlier, the question assumes a legalistic approach to the Christian faith. This legalism holds that there are certain laws that must be kept in order to remain a faithful Christian and the question wants to know if going to church is necessary to remain a faithful Christian. However, most of the time it seems as though the person asking is looking for an out… a legal loophole, so to speak. Perhaps the person wants to justify sleeping in on Sunday morning, heading out to the golf course, the deer stand, etc… Because church is already regarded as just a part of life, something the person goes to do rather their way of live, church is now becoming even a lesser part of life.

In reality, the question of whether or not we have do go to church says much about our relationship with God. Since church is only a part of our life and is becoming a lesser part of life, God is no longer first. God is replace with something else, which is now more important and that is a deeper issue.

A Spiritual Disease?

As I think about the deeper issue, I am reminded of the story in the Gospel of Luke about the rich ruler (Lk 18:18-29). The man’s problem is not his wealth, it’s putting his wealth before God! Trying to justify himself he comes to Jesus inquiring about what is necessary for eternal life, so Jesus tells him to keep the commandments. Of course, this wealthy man is already keeping the commandments. There’s still one problem and Jesus calls him on it… This man loves his riches more than he loves God and so his riches, rather than God, are his top priority. So he left, unable to follow Jesus into the kingdom because he loved his riches more than he loved God.

We can’t and don’t go to church because we are the church! Yet as the church, we gather together as an assembly in various formats and these gatherings are important. There are times when we cannot assemble and have legitimate reasons for not being able to do so. But when we begin to see the assembly as the church and separate that into just one part of our life, we inevitably do the same with God. For our relationship with God is bound within the community (church) of God’s people which God has made us a part of. When we relegate this relationship into one part among other parts of our life like family, work, hobbies, and so on, those other parts have the potential of becoming more important.

When this happens we end up asking questions like “Do we really have to go to church?” It’s a spiritual disease because what we really seem to be asking is “Do we really have to put God first?”

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* This article was originally published in Connecting 29 (October 1, 2014), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ, and has been reformatted for this blog.

My Top 10 Books

After receiving a nomination to do so, I listed on Facebook the top 10 favorite books sitting on my bookshelves. All of these books have been read within the last fifteen years of my life and I selected each because of their impact when I read each book. I’m listing them here with a brief comment for each book as to why it makes my top 10 list. Regardless of what edition I read, I am providing links (click on the titles) to each of the latest book editions. Also, this should go without saying but for the sake of clarity, this list pertains to non-biblical books. The Bible is obviously my favorite and most read book.

So here are my top ten books… for now:

  1. Vincent J. Donavan, “Christianity Rediscovered.” This is the story of how one Catholic missionary begins anew with one desire, to teach the Masai people about Jesus, and rediscovers what it means to live by faith as a follower of Jesus. The book is full of fascinating insights for the missionary, pastor, or parishioner.
  2. N.T. Wright, “Surprised By Hope.” This book is about what the future life to come will be like because of what God has redemptively accomplished in Christ. It gave a succinct voice to a lot of thoughts I was already developing as I read scripture.
  3. Jürgen Moltmann, “Theology of Hope.” This book is fairly dense reading on the subject of Christian eschatology rooted in christology. The idea of our future being present to us in the resurrection of Christ was a theological paradigm shift for me and remains very provocative idea in a good sense.
  4. Alan Hirsch & Micheal Frost, “The Shaping of Things to Come.” This is the book that opened me to the missional church conversation that had started emerging. I read the book just after having moved from Memphis, TN to Ithaca, NY and I needed to think more like a missionary and help lead churches towards a missional (as opposed to pastoral) stance.
  5. John Howard Yoder, “The Politics of Jesus.” Um… Although this is a pretty dense book, I managed to read it during my last year as an undergraduate student at Harding University. Major paradigm shift! Prior to that, living as a Christian in America was easy because both my understanding of the life Jesus calls us to follow him in living and the American life were pretty much flowing in the same direction. After reading this book, everything changed.
  6. Christopher J.H. Wright, “The Mission of God.” This book offers a comprehensive theology of the Bible showing how the entire Bible is the story of God’s mission and how this shapes the way we read scripture. The author’s treatment of sub-topics such as faith, idolatry, covenant, and so forth are also more than worth the time you’ll take to read through this tome.
  7. N.T. Wright, “The New Testament and the People of God.” This book really helped unlock the culture and mindset of the world of Second-Temple Judaism which the gospel unfolds within, giving rise to the New Testament. Wright’s treatment of how this shapes the way we understand the New Testament and his “five-act play” treatment of how we read and practice scripture as participants of the story is essential reading, in my opinion, for any minister of the gospel.
  8. Michael Goheen & Craig Bartholomew, “The Drama of Scripture.” A friend and fellow Christian gave me a copy of this book and since reading it, I have been recommending it to other people (I’ve even given a few copies away myself). The book is an easy read, written for undergraduate students with little to no understanding of the Bible. Therefore the book is sort of a “cliff notes” version of the Bible, presenting the coherent account of the Bible as a single narrative projecting it’s own worldview which Christians are called to live out of. 
  9. Rubel Shelly, “I Just Want To Be a Christian. At a time when my understanding of Christianity was very sectarian, this book helped me see a vision for nonsectarian Christianity by showing me what the formative leaders of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement were seeking in attempting to restore New Testament Christianity. I believe this book and the author, more importantly, is the most important piece of literature to be written among the Churches of Christ in the last fifty years because of the impact this book had (for the better too).
  10. Walter Brueggemann, “The Prophetic Imagination.” This book is a short treatment of the prophetic voice in the Old Testament and the author is challenging and thought provoking as he seeks to have the reader take seriously the alternative vision of the prophetic vision. I can assure you that the next time I preach through one of the prophetic books in the Old Testament, I’ll be reading this book again.

Neither Male Nor Female (Part 4)

Galatians 3.28After reading the Bible and realizing that God had a lot more to say about women in the church than just what I thought two said, I realized that many of the restrictions placed upon women by churches were wrong. I was convinced of this even more after realizing that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-12 were often lifted out of their context and used as proof-texts to say much more than what these two text actually say. Thus, I became what is commonly referred to as a soft-complimentarian and you can read of this journey in the three previous posts (see links below). But now I have come to hold an egalitarian view, which is another shift. Here is how that happened and why…

Reading the Bible

[Let's talk about the way we should read the Bible. Every Christian reads the Bible but how we read the Bible is as important as reading the Bible.]

A lesson I learned from listening to Randy Harris, who teaches Bible at Abilene Christian University, is that we all tend to understand various issues through certain biblical texts. Traditionally, the issue of women in the church has been  read and understood through the two texts of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-12. However, the more I came to understand the Bible, the more I  realized that how we read the Bible matters. As a result, I have become very interested in the way the Bible is read (hermeneutics) and whether or not the way we read the Bible is faithful to the aim of the Bible.

What I’ve learned along the way is that the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is a narrative or story. Scripture tells the story of how God is redeeming creation in Jesus Christ and how the Spirit empowers the church, as participants in this story, to live as a portrayal of what this redemptive life looks like and will be for the world when Jesus returns. In other words, the story is centered in Christ and portrays the future redemption breaking into the present. This means that instead of scripture (esp. the New Testament) being read as a law book, it is read as a Christological story with an eschatological aim. So I came to the realization that reading the issue of women in the church through the two passages in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2:12 was wrong.

New Scripture Within the Story

I realized that there were two other passages that anticipated this redemptive goal in Christ as it pertains to women in the church. These two passages are found in Acts 2 and Galatians 3. We read in Acts 2:17-18, “And in the last days it will be, God says, that I will pour out my Spirit on all people, and your sons and your daughters will prophesy, and your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days and they will prophesy.”And then in Galatians 3:27-28, “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female − for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

What I came to realize is that the gospel vision is one of reconciliation where all people are equal, where things like ethnicity, social-status, and gender are of no consequence. The passages of scripture in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2, which deal with specific prohibitions regarding women, are sort of like the different passages that give specific instructions about slaves. That is, they are temporal instructions given into a culture that is still awaiting to see the full embodiment of the gospel vision where all people are regarded as equal and therefore as equal participants in the mission of God. And that is how I came to embrace egalitarianism. That is, if the gospel vision is one of equality where differences no longer matter, then there are not any roles or ministries in the body of Christ that are restricted to men only except in temporary occasions where the gospel might be impeded by not restricting women. However, that’s not the case throughout much of our Western culture in North America. In fact, we might reasonably conclude that churches who continue to practice positions of male-hierarchy are actually impeding the gospel vision.

A Reflection

Well, there you have it. That’s the story of how God has led me from a naive position of male-hierarchy into soft-complimentarian view and now into an egalitarian view. This is why I don’t have any problems with women leading us in prayer, reading scripture, sharing a word as they lead us in the Lord’s Supper, or serving in the many other ways that God has gifted them with the power of his Spirit. It is why I didn’t have any problem with women entering seminary so that they might serve the Lord as a minister among his church (let’s pray for more churches to embrace God’s call upon their lives). And it’s why I won’t have any problems when Sarah Barton, who is a gifted preacher, speaks at this year’s upcoming Pepperdine Bible Lectures.

My aim with this series has first been to affirm the courageous steps that churches like the Columbia Church of Christ and other Churches of Christ have taken regarding the participation of women in the church. But I also want to challenge more consideration of the egalitarian vision regarding men and women in the church which I believe the Gospel points us toward. Where more conversation is necessary is the process by which churches discern this issue and implement change, and what Philippians 2:5-11 has to say about the way churches proceed on an issue where there is a lot of emotion and disagreement.

May God, by the power of his Spirit, give us the courage to live into the gospel vision that Jesus has brought about through his death and resurrection!

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See also “Neither Male Nor Female” (Part 1), (Part 2), & (Part 3)