Agents of Grace

One of the books I’m reading through is Captive to the Word of God by Miroslav Volf. The author offers reflects on how scripture forms the theological mind so that belief and practice remain conjoined and interwoven. The idea is that what we believe is evident in our practices and therefore our practices declare what we believe.*

On Belief and Practice

The relationship between belief and practice has everything to do with our understanding of the grace of God. Volf picks up on this when he says, “Inscribed in the very heart of God’s grace is the rule that we can be its recipients only if we do not resist being made into its agents. In a precisely defined way that guards the distinction between God and human beings, human beings themselves are made participants in the divine activity and therefore are inspired, empowered, and obligated to imitate it.” (p. 51-52). So when we reflect upon the grace of God and how we become agents of this grace, we must ask two important questions: 1) What sort of life has God redeemed us from? 2) What sort of life has God redeemed us for?

By asking these two questions we are saying that the grace of God is both a salvation from and salvation to something. Therefore, in surrendering our will so that God may make us into an agent of his grace, we are letting go of an old way of life while simultaneously embracing a new way of life. The old life is the myriad of ways that have pulled us away from our created intent, while the new way of life is the remaking of our created intent which we receive from and learn how to live in Jesus Christ. In Colossians Paul says, “Therefore, if you have been raised with Christ, keep seeking the things above… …since you have put off the old man with its practice and have been clothed with the new man that is being renewed in the knowledge according to the image of the one who created it” (3:1, 9-10, NET).

Beliefs and practices belong together. Our believing commits us to practicing and our particular beliefs commit us to particular practices which we cannot neglect if we truly believe. This isn’t to say that we will perfectly practice our beliefs or never find ourselves neglecting certain aspects of our practices but to say that if we believe, it will become evident in the way we live. For those who have trouble reconciling the teaching of Paul with the teaching of James (cf. Js. 2:17-19), it should be evident that they both are really on the same page.

Participants of the Story

By learning to practice our beliefs, putting away our old self and putting on the new self, we allow God to remake us as agents of grace. That is to say, as we have received the grace of God, so we become conduits of that grace in the way we live. This is our way of life and it includes the ways in which we cease living as and the ways in which we embrace, learning to live as Christ. It’s the way of Christ.

As I reflect on this, I have one final thought. Throughout scripture we read the stories of people like Abraham, Moses, Ruth, Hannah, David, Daniel, Mary, John the Baptist, Peter, Paul, etc… In these stories we see how God worked, accomplishing the seemingly impossible because of their enormous faith. Such stories challenge and inspire us as they should. We read these stories as part of the biblical narrative, joining the story. Yet we must realize that our participation in the story may involve the seemingly impossible tasks of our ancestors, our participation will always involve letting go of the old and putting on the new.

Our call is one that emanates from the grace of God and therefore is one that embraces the grace of God, turning from and turning to, becoming agents of that grace!

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

Living As We Believe

“But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith without works and I will show you faith by my works.” – James 2:18.

As Christians, our faith should be evident in the way we live. It’s not always the case but it should be. In reality, how we live is always trying to catch up with how we believe. For example, we believe that we are to live by the Spirit and not by the works of the flesh (cf. Gal 5:16-25) but as we all know, it requires daily discipline in order to say “No!” to the flesh and “Yes!” to the Spirit.

What sort of discipline is necessary so that there might be more coherency between what we profess as belief and how we live? In his book Captive to the Word of God, Miroslav Volf says:

Espousing a belief puts pressure on the one who believes to act accordingly. Put more generally, basic Christian beliefs as beliefs entail practical commitments. These commitments may need to be explicated so as to become clear, or they may need to be connected to specific issues in concrete situations, but they do not need to be added to the beliefs; they inhere in the beliefs. Christian beliefs are not simply statements about what was, is, and will be the case’ they are statements about what should be the case and what humans beings should do about that. They provide the normative vision for practices (p. 50).

Volf is suggesting that what we articulate as our belief shapes how we live. It works sort like this: If we profess that we reject envy and jealousy as being an acceptable way of life then we envision envy and jealousy as abnormal and sinful values and commit ourselves to getting rid of such works of the flesh in our lives. Or to put it another way, if we profess that we are to give thanks in all circumstances (cf. 1 Thess 5:18) then we envision life where we take stock of the blessings we have and express our gratitude for such blessings (rather than becoming envious of others who have what we don’t have).

This is our submission to the sanctifying work of the Spirit in our lives. We profess our beliefs, thereby committing ourselves to live in accordance with what we believe. Consequently, this is one reason why we should continue gathering together in worship and fellowship as the church. When we come together as Christians for worship and fellowship, which includes preaching and teaching, we are reminded of what we believe and the life that our faith calls us to live into. It is also a reason why confession of faith in prayer is an immensely important as a daily discipline. For example, if in prayer we confess that we are called to live by the same mindset of Jesus (cf. Phil 2:5-8) then we are more likely to remember the mindset of Jesus as we encounter life and live accordingly.

The Lord’s Supper and the Church As Family

As you know, one of the metaphors used to describe a church is family. In the best sense, family is a warm and lovely image. So it is with the church, the family of God. Christians are brothers and sisters in Christ, bearing the burdens of each other and supporting one another. But as we all know, a family can also have some stressful moments too. Anyone who has grown up with siblings know that brothers and sisters don’t always play so nice together. And so it is with any local church at any given moment.

Family-Church

Churches are people with a myriad of different personalities, who bring all sorts of different baggage to the table. At any given moment, someone says or does something that bothers someone else, unknowingly causes offense, and may even create some level of animosity and division. How does the church deal with this?

The Lord’s Supper

The Corinthian church had a lot of problems. Among those problems was their participation in the Lord’s Supper. According to 1 Corinthians 11, some of the Christians were stuffing themselves and getting drunk (imagine that!) while leaving nothing for others, leaving some still hungry (vv. 20-21). So what does Paul do to remedy the problem? He tells them about their participation in the Lord’s Supper. Here’s what Paul says in vv. 23-26:

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed took bread, and after he had given thanks he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, he also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, every time you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For every time you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Paul reminds them that this Lord’s Supper involves both remembering and proclaiming.

Remembering goes back to the Passover in which the Jews would come together and remember how God delivered them from Egyptian bondage. So partaking of the body and blood of the Lord is to remember the redemptive grace God has shown us in the death of Christ. Proclaiming is to “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” says Paul. The scope of this proclamation is past, present, and future. It is to embrace the grace of Christ, which involves the most unselfish act of giving his own life up for the sake others, as the church’s way of life.

Reading the remaining part of 1 Corinthians 11, we see how effortlessly Paul moves from participation in the Lord’s Supper to how it ought to shape the social-practice of the church. What the church remembers and proclaims (belief) as it participates in the Lord’s Supper must extend beyond the actual meal and transform how the church relates to one another (practice). This has everything to do with being a family.

As Christ, So We

In his book Captive to the Word of God, Miroslav Volf suggests the connection between belief and practice involves an as-so structure saying “as God has received us in Christ, so we too are to receive our fellow human beings” (p. 46). This is a helpful way of understanding how our participation in the Lord’s Supper ought to shape the social-practice of the church as a family. It says that as a church remembers Christ and proclaims his death until he come, so also should every believer grant the same grace God has granted them to their brothers and sisters in Christ. In this way, participation in the Lord’s Supper is a rehearsal of what we believe, which is wrapped up in the grace of God, so that we can act towards each other as we have rehearsed.

So as a family, Christians are going to say and do thing that get on the nerves of each other from time to time. Sometimes the offense has caused enough harm that it creates division and in those cases, with repentance, an apology is necessary so that reconciliation can take place. However, what is also needed is an assumption of grace. Every Christian has a bad day, moments when they don’t put their best foot forward . . . times when they say something wrong. In those moments people need to know that they’re forgiven and that their brothers and sisters in Christ don’t hold what they said or did against them because they’re a family who grants each other the same grace that they have received in Christ.

That’s how the many imperfect churches lives as a healthy family! Families forgive rather than hold grudges. I grew up with two brothers and two sisters in my nuclear family. Sometimes we would say and do things that irritated each other, made each other mad, etc… But we learned to love each other, let things go, and carry on as brothers and sister. That’s how it should be in every church and when Christians participate in the Lord’s Supper, they are saying this is how it will be in their church.

For The Imperfect Churches

One of the metaphors for a church is family, namely the family of God. Thus Christians often refer to each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. I used to think that sounded pretty archaic but these days it seems like churches need to recover a more robust sense of being family.

Family-Church

I love the large worship gatherings of the church, whether it’s fifty or so people gathered in a small chapel or a thousand plus people gathered in a theatre of sorts. Yet if that’s the extent of our life together as a church then there is something deeply wrong. Nobody can read the scripture honestly and come away believing that church life is just a cooperate worship gathering, usually on Sunday mornings. However, reading scripture will confirm what we already know based upon our own experience: family life can be crazy . . . sometimes very difficult.

The Corinthian church is an easy example because they had so much wrong but there example also gives us hope. For all the problems, all the doctrinal error, sin, and dysfunction among the Christians in Corinth (and there was a lot), Paul still wrote saying,

to the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, and called to be saints, with all those in every place who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours. Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ! – 1 Cor 1:2-3.

Yes it’s just a greeting but it’s wasn’t necessary. Paul certainly didn’t offer the such a greeting when he wrote to the church in Galatia (cf. Gal 1:1-4). So the fact that Paul could still see the Corinthians through the grace of God is, I believe, good news for a many of churches today.

Most churches today are not that large vibrant and growing community with opportunities bursting forth, led by a group of dynamic shepherds and talented ministry staff. And if you’re reading this blog, the chances are that you don’t belong to one of those churches either. This is not to say that your church is bad or that the leadership of your church is a failure. Nor am I trying to mitigate the problems that exist, which must be courageously addressed by the leaders of the church. It’s simply to say that most churches are like the churches we read of in scripture, churches with problems. So maybe the place to start is by reading Paul’s greeting to the Corinthian church as a greeting to your church.

I plan to follow this post up with another post on the Lord’s Supper and family life as a church because I believe the Lord’s Supper is a remedy to many of nagging conflictual issues a lot of churches lives with. However, I wanted to begin with Paul’s greeting to the Corinthian church because I believe there are many less-than-the-ideal churches that need to hear that they are still the church, sanctified believers, living in the grace and peace of God.

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?