Category Archives: Kingdom of God

A Leper, Jesus, Some Children, and World Vision

At the end of Mark chapter one is a story about a leper which you can read here. This leper was an unclean man. But apparently he heard about the kingdom ministry Jesus was doing, which included healing people of their diseases. So he approached Jesus in hopes that Jesus would heal him of his leprosy.

This leper said to Jesus, “If you are willing, you can make me clean” (v. 40).

Did you catch that? The leper did not ask whether Jesus was able to make him clean, he asked if Jesus was willing to heal him. That’s because the leper was apparently used to Jesus’ contemporaries ignoring him, wanting nothing to do with him and unwilling to offer him any help.

Now to be fair, Jesus’ contemporaries, the Jewish religious people, had their reasons. After all, all they had to do was cite Leviticus 13:45-46 as justification for the way they treated the leper… if they were looking for a biblical proof-text to hang their hat on. But the truth is, this is the sort of reasoning that happens when a hobby-horse issue couched as a “moral principle” is placed above doing justice and showing mercy… when principle is placed above people.

And this made Jesus “indignant” (v. 41).

Angry, that is.

And it makes me angry too!

Just the same, it makes me angry that some Christians would encourage other Christians to withdraw support of World Vision and sponsorship of children through World Vision because this organization decided to employ people living in a same-sex marriage (read about this here). It makes me angry not because I agree with the decision World Vision made (which it has now reversed) but because once again, more principle is placed above people, above doing justice and showing mercy.

Let’s be honest. Every day we, who call ourselves “Christians,” give money to businesses and organizations that champion values and engage in practices that do not conform to the kingdom of God. In fact, we are probably wearing clothing manufactured with unfair wages and unjust labor practices. But that doesn’t stop us because it’s not our hobby-horse issue. So the suggestion that Christians should stop supporting World Vision and sponsoring children through World Vision because of a decision made that we disagree with just suggests that a that this is more about the sensibilities of an Evangelical hobby-horse issue than it is doing what’s right.

Yes, I said that. You see, whatever you think about World Vision and the decision they made, the children who are supported through their organization have nothing to do with that decision. And their needs, which are many, remain!

My wife and I sponsor two children through World Vision, Marita and Payal. There are other child-sponsoring organizations such as Compassion International and if you sponsor a child through one of these organizations, then I encourage you to continue doing so. My wife and I went with World Vision simply because when the opportunity came to sponsor our first child, World Vision was the organization we were speaking with. Are we to just dump these children over a decision they had nothing to do with? Seriously…

My wife and I have absolutely no intention of changing our sponsorship of these children because our sponsorship is not about World Vision or our own beliefs on certain moral issues. Sponsoring these children is about sharing the blessings of God, the love God bestows upon us, with these children who are as worthy of such blessings as we are.

Some Christians spend a lot of energy talking about their hobby-horse issues and raising a ruckus when someone goes against what they believe. That when the Bible often gets wielded around as a weapon, with someone quickly saying, “The Bible says…” I actually get that and I get that people are passionate about certain issues. Believe me, I really do. I’m pretty passionate about certain issues too. I only hope that we’re as much doers of the word as we are talkers about the the word. And I hope that standing on our moral high ground will never come at the expense of helping people in need, especially children.

One thing we can be sure of… When moral principle comes at the expense of children, these children cry out to Jesus, “If you are willing…”

Be Blessed By God: The Sermon on the Mount

I haven’t posted much because I am busy with my Doctor of Ministry class but I wanted to share with you a quick thought about The Sermon on the Mount and God’s blessing. This is a reoccurring theme that I reflect on because I believe this sermon Jesus preached in Matthew 5-7 gets at the heart of the kingdom life he is calling us to live as his followers.

Any ways, I have long wondered why we ask God to bless our lives in the many endeavors that we pursue when Jesus tells us of a life that God has already blessed. “Blessed are the poor in spirit… Blessed are those who mourn… Blessed are the…” This is a play on the word makarioi which could be translated as “blessed,” as it usually is, or as “happy.” But the more I read the Sermon on the Mount, read what others have learned, and so forth, the more I realize that this is the life that God has blessed us to live. Hence, God isn’t blessing us to be wealthy per se or to be Americans per se but to be his kingdom people and the Sermon on the Mount is what this life is like.

The other day I was listening to the Sermon on the Mount on my iPad and it happened to be from the New Living Translation:

“God blesses those who are poor and realize their       need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
God blesses those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
God blesses those who are humble,
for they will inherit the whole earth.
God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice,
for they will be satisfied.
God blesses those who are merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
God blesses those whose hearts are pure,
for they will see God.
God blesses those who work for peace,
for they will be called the children of God.
God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right,
for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.”

So what life is God blessing us to live?

Now, be blessed by God… go and live this life!

Discernment for Dying Churches

We love to talk about life but death is another matter. When it comes to churches, this aversion to talking about death is much greater. I have encountered many small struggling churches that are living in maintenance mode, unsure of how or even if they even have the capacity to become a church moving forward on mission with God. But few of the churches want to consider that it might be time for their church to die.

I don’t think it should be like this. Though I realize that death is never a pleasant subject, it is a fact of life. However, for Christians, death is never the end. We believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and therefore we believe that God raises new life out of death. God does so whenever a person is baptized into Christ where they are crucified with Christ — buried into death with Christ — and then raised into new life with Christ (cf. Rom 6:3-4). And God can do so even when a particular church decides that it is time to close (death).

The local church always exists to serve a purpose within the mission of God. One church may serve to minister among an emerging inner-city Latino neighborhood while another may serve exist to serve near a university among  college age young adults. Each church, with its purpose for existence, is valid and necessary but neither church is bigger than the mission of God that has been revealed in Christ and is now being lived out in the universal body of Christ. Over time and for various reasons, the purpose which the local church served within the mission of God no longer exists. Maybe its a church that once grew though a great Sunday School outreach program in a neighborhood of young families but now has discovered that as the neighborhood has changed with the young families being replaced by Asian immagrants who do not speak English as their primary language, their purpose is has run its course. Or maybe the church once grew because it was a safe community for people who were trying to discover the grace of God but as more and more other local churches discovered the grace of God, their purpose has been fulfilled.

Without finding a new purpose for existence, one that participates in the mission of God, the church begins to decline as it shifts into maintenance mode. Sadly, many churches linger in such mode until they are forced to close because their are few members left, financial resources have disappeared, etc… Sometimes, if not many times, this is very taxing and detrimental to the spiritual health of the members in this church. But what if the church decided that it was time to close the church for good, effectually letting the church die (rather than trying to keep it on life support)?

I think there are at least several good results that could come from a church deciding to close for good. First, the members could then become a part of another church where they continue growing in faith as they serve with this church using their spiritual gifts. In such a case, God is breathing new life into their own souls as well as the new church they are joining. Also, the remaining assets of the church that closed could be contributed to other churches or para-church ministries that are serving a needed purpose within God’s mission. Second, the members could call a missionary/evangelist leader to plant a new church with a new purpose. The members may even choose to be a part of this new church (but they must let it be a new church and not just a reinvention of the old church). In this scenario, where one church is closing, another is being planted… where one church has died, another one has been born.

So what should be done? This is where discernment is necessary. The declining and dying church must come together in prayer and in conversation in order to listen to what God is trying to say about the way forward. The church I serve in as a minister is starting to have such conversations right now. This isn’t the sort of ministry I ever envisioned myself helping a church work through but it is a necessary one. I’m convinced that many other churches need to discern the same question as well and that’s why I’m writing this blog post.

Here is a prayer that I wrote for our church which we prayed together yesterday. The prayer is structured around the Lord’s Prayer that Jesus teaches us to pray in Matthew 6:9-13 and it is a prayer as we move forward trying to discern the will of God:

Our Father in heaven, you are holy, the one true living God. There is no one like you, who loves us beyond our ability to fully understand.

We desire for your kingdom to come, for your will to be done here on earth as it is in heaven. And as we discern together the future, we want to discern your will so that it can be done in us and by us.

We ask for you to provide all our needs, our daily bread, with full trust that you will do that just as you always have in the past. Should we relaunch, we know that you will provide the way. Should we close and scatter, we know that you will provide the way.

Whatever the course is, we know that we are mortals and that we have and will continue to make mistakes, so we ask for your forgiveness as we forgive each other of our mistakes, short-comings, and sins. Whatever grievances we hold toward each other and toward past decisions made in this church, we release.

We know that our enemy, Satan, will try to distract us and steer us from your will, so we pray for your deliverance from Satan influence, that we may be filled with the power of the Spirit to hear your will and obey your will.

The kingdom belongs to you, our God. You reign through you Son, Jesus, who was crucified, who has been raised from death and has ascended to the throne. Through him alone, we ascribe to you the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever. Amen!

Following Jesus Into the New Year

Well, it is officially 2014. A new year has arrived and while that comes with hopeful expectations for the days ahead. I pray that our days are filled with great joy, love, and laughter. As the prayer of serenity goes, let’s change what we can, accept what we can’t change, and have the wisdom to know the difference.

The Big Issue

With that being said, I am still convinced that the biggest pressing issue facing the Christian church here in America is the question of discipleship. Last year I wrote an article for Wineskins titled Living the Way of Jesus in which I defined discipleship as “learning to live in the way of Jesus.” In simplest terms, it involves following Jesus and learning from him so that we can learn to think and act as Jesus does. In our own day and age this involves reading about the life Jesus lives within scripture, learning among the company of others who are following and learning from Jesus, learning to connect this with all of scripture (Old and New Testament), and practicing what we learn as we go along, even as we fail some along the way, so that our life is continuously formed as a disciple.

I stand by that definition as a simple explanation of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. While other nuances might be better suited to help people understand better what we mean when we talk about discipleship, I believe the definition itself is consistent — according to the scriptures — with Jesus’ call “Come, follow me!”

In Our Own Communities

Having said all that, we must remember not to spiritualize discipleship. Learning to live in the way of Jesus is not about pursuing a life that is so extra-ordinary that it cannot be lived within the every-day mundaneness of life. We all know the stories of people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Mother Theresa. Likewise, we all know someone who has moved to serve as missionaries in some country that is very far away from all family and friends. All such people are commendable and should Christ call us to be a martyr, to serve the poor in a third-world country, or evangelize the lost as a foreign missionary, then we should go and do just that. Yet the reality is that many of us are called to such a life. Instead, we are called to be disciples right where we live in our own urban to suburban to rural communities.

So how do we continue learning to live in the way of Jesus right in our own neighborhoods as carpenters, school teachers, nurses, lawyers, truck-drivers, engineers, pastors, stay-at-home parents, volunteers, and whatever else we may be? I use the language of up, in, & out which I learned from Mission Alive who learned it from 3DM who probably learned it from… Any ways, living relationally up towards God, in towards our church, and out towards those in our neighborhoods is a good rhythmic guide to get started with.

Practically speaking, there are several things we can do to practice this rhythm of up, in, and out.

  • Commit a part of every day as time spent praying and reading scripture (Up). It’s only the second day of the new year, so it’s not too late to begin a daily bible reading plan. This is also a time to pray about what we are reading, praying that we can understand God’s will and live it out in our lives.
  • Be a regular engaged participant in the gatherings of the local church we are members of (Up, In). Plan on being fully present in the worship celebrations, the partaking of the Lord’s Supper, small group fellowships, etc… Pray about the gatherings before hand and be an intentional participant during the gatherings. Not only does this please God as we give him praise and thanksgiving but we also encourage the other Christians among us (even some who maybe a nominal Christian only, having lost sight of discipleship).
  • Commit ourselves to becoming better acquainted with others in our neighborhoods (Out). For many, this is the most difficult task and it’s not getting any easier. No longer are our neighbors just Christians attending a different church than our own, our neighbors now may be Muslims, Hindus, Agnostics and Secularists, and even former Christians who are skeptical of Christians (sometimes for good reasons). So take a batch of cookies to them, invite them to a cookout, or attend their cookout (if invited) and be respectful. That is, go as a learner and let God provide the occasion for us to be his witness, as it will happen if we pray about it and are patient enough to allow God to redemptively work ahead of us.

Just remember that when it comes to discipleship, it seems that Jesus is more interested in teaching us how to live the heavenly life here on earth than to muse about the heavenly life to come. Hence, part of the Lord’s Prayer we are taught to pray is for the will of God to be done here on earth as it is done in heaven.

Speaking More For the Poor!

In my previous post Speaking of the Poor — It’s Not Their Fault, I wrote about poverty through my experience as a minister. The post was in response to recent comments made by noted financial expert and evangelical author Dave Ramsey, who suggested that poverty in America is simply a result of bad decision making on the part of the poor.*

Preposterous Assumptions…

Though there isn’t any denying that poverty is compounded by bad choices, poverty is also the result of problems that are beyond the control of any single individual or family. In fact, while everyone of us has made choices that either help or hinder a healthy life, we also are the product of choices that others made for us. From the family into which we are born to systemic issues such as racism, poor health, lack of education, etc… are issues that contribute to poverty and are often beyond the control of those suffer in poverty.

Yet for those of us raised in a functional home where such issues were not a problem, it becomes easy to forget how difficult it is to overcome such challenges. Even worse, it’s tempting to judge the behaviors of those who still struggle in everything that is poverty, be it the working poor or the homeless. I’ve heard some people suggest before that people are poor because they choose to be or that poverty is some sort of bed they deserve to sleep in. One person commenting on my blog even suggested that some poor people are like a prodigal child and that “hunger sometimes is the best discipline to bring a prodigal to his senses.”

This is disturbing! I don’t know the people who have such thoughts. However, I can surely say that I’ve never met a poor person who was happy living in poverty or a hungry individual who was better served by starving. Herman Melville once said, “Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed.” In fact, at some point such criticisms become an exercise in self-righteousness. Can I get an “Amen!”?

What Can We Do?

As a minister, I encounter a lot of individuals and families who call the church looking for help. To be honest, “benevolence” is often a very frustrating. I’ve never met a church member who disagrees with me on that. The frustration comes from seeing people make bad choices as well as seeing the systematic problems (sometimes injustices) that prolong a never ending cycle of poverty.  Yet I wonder if part of the frustration stems from the fact of wanting to help by trying to solve a problem that isn’t ours to solve.

Let me be clear, as people belonging to God, the church is called to do justice and show mercy (cf. Mic 6:8). That involves helping people when we encounter them in need (mercy) and addressing the systemic problems that create poverty (justice) as we can. What role the government and other civic organizations have towards the poor is an important question but not my concern. My concern is the church and I believe the church’s first response to poverty is to follow Jesus.

For Christians, this time of year is known as Advent and our attention is focused on Jesus coming into the world. If that means anything then it is a call for us to follow Jesus as he comes into the world for the world. Born in a manger and put to death on the cross, Jesus is born in humility and dies in humility before he is raised in victory. Throughout his ministry Jesus chose a life of downward mobility, willing to be present with those rejected by others—including the poor. So rather than trying to solve the problem of poverty, our first responsibility is to be present with the poor that we encounter. Not as a judge nor as someone who is better but as a friend!

Such presence can take the form of volunteering in a shelter, inviting a struggling family over for dinner, taking time to listen to the story of the person we’re trying to help, and so on. When we spend time with Jesus and allow Jesus to take us into the world as he comes into the word, among the poor (and others who suffer), possibilities abound. As we are present with the poor, we trust the problem of poverty to God who is always redeeming and restoring. For one day, all things will be made new!

——————–

* This post was originally published as a similar article titled The Church and The Poor in Connecting 28 (December 4, 2013), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ.

Speaking of the Poor — It’s Not Their Fault!

“Well, I’m glad you pulled yourself up by your own bootstraps!”

That was the reply I received well over fifteen years ago from a church member after sharing my story of how I went from a twenty-three year old closing down all the local bars to a twenty-four year old following Jesus. Many times since then I have heard various Christians express this boot-strap theology… and too often, I’ll add.

It’s Just Bad Theology

It’t just plain bad theology! Boot-strap theology, that is. And every Christian I know who understands the gospel of Jesus Christ agrees. No Christian who understands the doctrine of God’s grace thinks we save ourselves. Yet, somehow when it comes to the issue of poverty, particularly rising above poverty, boot-strap theology abounds.

Recently a post written by Tom Corley documenting 20 Things the Rich Do Every Day comparing some lifestyle differences between the rich and poor in America. This post drew criticism, particularly from three other evangelicals writing a post titled Things Broke People Do. Due to the criticism, noted evangelical author and financial expert Dave Ramsey responded (his response can be read on Tom Corley’s post). The response from Ramsey drew a critical response from evangelical author and speaker Rachel Held Evans titled What Dave Ramsey Gets Wrong About Poverty.

When I first saw my twitter feed filling up with 142 character criticisms directed at Dave Ramsey a few days ago, I was a bit skeptical. I’ve never read a book by Ramsey but I know what he does and know that he has helped a many of people get out of debt, teaching and equipping them with new money behaviors based on biblical convictions. So I wanted to give Ramsey the benefit of the doubt but as I read his response, I was very disappointed.

Ramsey speaks of the U.S. as a 1st world economy, which it is. However, there are many communities within the U.S. that are 3rd world. Ramsey speaks of biblical teaching on sowing and reaping, suggesting that our choices are the cause of our results. However, that is only partially true. While many times our circumstances, good or bad, are a result of the choices we have made, many other times they are not. If there’s one thing that the book of Job teaches us, it’s that sometimes bad things happen which are no fault of our own and that includes poverty (more on this in a moment).

A Minister’s Point Of View

What bothers me most about Ramsey’s remarks is the fact that he attempts to make the issue at hand about political ideology saying,

If you are broke or poor in the U.S. or a first-world economy, the only variable in the discussion you can personally control is YOU. You can make better choices and have better results. If you believe that our economy and culture in the U.S. are so broken that making better choices does not produce better results, then you have a problem. At that point your liberal ideology has left the Scriptures and your politics have caused you to become a fatalist.

My first reaction is to turn his own words around and say that his thinking is evidence that he has allowed his conservative ideology to… But that misses the point!

For Christians, the issues of poverty should have nothing to do with being liberal or conservative. Poverty is a justice issue! The prophet Isaiah implores the people of God saying,

Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. – Isa 1:17

Part of doing right and seeking justice for the poor, is speaking correctly about the struggles and obstacles they face. And I’m not trying to suggest that Ramsey is being dishonest; I just find his remarks to be lacking.

I’ve been a minister for almost fifteen years now. One of the opportunities ministers have is engagement with the poor, from the homeless to the working poor. Whether it’s helping a struggling family with some groceries and food to eat, accompanying an addict to an N.A. meeting, or volunteering at a homeless shelter, ministers encounter a variety of people steeped in poverty and an assortment of various other issues (addiction, abusive relationships, etc…). The truth is that many, many times, the poor do make terrible decisions that have negative consequences. But… And this is a big “but!”

The poor often suffer From choices that others have made for them!

When I lived in Searcy, Arkansas, I volunteered in the country jail. Most of the men were in jail for some crime related to their meth habit. But most of those men were born into a dysfunctional home where they were taught terrible ways of living, that takes a lot of life rehabilitation to over come. Neither the home they were born into nor the way they were raised was their choice. When I lived in Memphis, I met a woman who was addicted to heroin and dying from AIDS. She ran away from her rural Arkansas home when she was a teenager after suffering years of sexual abuse at the hands of her father who also introduced her to meth. How much of a choice did she have? Also, when I lived in Memphis, I was once told by a manager at my job that one particular job opening that we were accepting applications for was not available to the people “from the hood” (a remark in reference to black people). I wonder how much of a choice people have when their color of skin (something were born with) still means they are discriminated against as they are barred from certain jobs. When I lived in Ithaca, New York, I received a call from a woman needing help with food for her and her children. Her choice? Being married to a man who left her for another woman, leaving her and their children in a terrible bind. When I live in…

The Poor… In America

Do you get me point? It’s not all their fault! There are systemic issues of injustice that affect the poor and help keep them poor, even in America. When we follow Jesus, who always will take us among people, including the poor, and we are seeking the kingdom of God, we are compelled to show mercy and do justice. But to throw the poor under the bus, so to speak, suggesting that they just need to make better choices without at least giving equal voice to the systematic injustices… Well, that might just show that we have allowed the Bible to be absorbed into a story other than the story of Jesus and the kingdom of God.

I Don’t Miss Mayberry. . . And Neither Should You!

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Mettitt

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Mettitt

I’m old enough that I can remember watching The Andy Griffith show air regularly as reruns on television. I also remember watching the shows Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons. It was good wholesome family oriented television that parents could watch with their children without having to worry about what those little ears and eyes might encounter.

Of course, The Andy Griffith Show took place in the fictional town of Mayberry. It was a small town, an all American kind of town. Neighbors knew each other, there weren’t any video games to keep children from playing outdoors, and the most serious crime was when Barney, the Deputy Sheriff would take Otis the drunkard to jail to sleep it off. That certainly seems like the ideal kind of place to live and make a life for ourselves. Heck, even though I didn’t grow up in a single parent home, it certainly would’ve been nice to have an Aunt Bee around always having a fresh-baked apple pie hot off the stove. If only we could return to way back when, right?

Wrong!

As the title suggests, I don’t miss Mayberry and what it represents and neither should you. As wholesome and pleasant as Mayberry may seem, I’m sure not a single Black person would enjoy going back to America’s Mayberry era. Not when being black meant being forced to ride at the back of the bus, not having the right to vote, and even being lynched. In fact, there’s more than a few groups of people that would not enjoy going back in time. That was a time when many still believed a woman’s place was nowhere else but in the home (not that there is anything wrong with women choosing to be homemakers) and sometimes that was a home where women were abused by their husbands while the law did little to nothing since it was a “domestic problem.” Let’s not forget the mentally ill, the mentally handicapped, and many other groups who were marginalized and mistreated.

So no, I don’t want to go way back when and I don’t know why any other Christian would either. In fact, I don’t know why Christians would long for any idyllic American culture, be it the traditional culture that Mayberry represents or the more progressive culture that America has seemingly become.

Growing up, we would sing the spiritual This World Is Not My Home during church services. Some churches still sing it. But do we really mean it? Because whether it’s the down-home traditional America or the more progressive America, many American Christians seem baptize the American ideal as the best thing since sliced bread.

Can We Recover Our Hope?

Christianity in America really needs to recover a sense of eschatological hope. That is, the church needs to learn once again what it is to live with hope. . . to be in the present what it awaits for and what it already is in the fullness of time. The Apostle Paul writes Philippians 3:20-21,

But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

Only when Jesus returns will everything in life, including our own bodies, become what it is meant to be. Right now we live with a promise which is hope to us in Christ because we know what our future is. So if this is what we are to eagerly await, why dream and politic for good ole’ Mayberry or it’s American antithesis? Christians belong to neither and await neither!

However, let me push this a bit farther. Within the context of Philippians 3:20-21, Paul is contrasting the Christian disposition of being set toward to the second-coming of the Lord with people who have their minds set on “earthly things (v. 19). While Paul is directly talking about people driven by hedonistic values where their own stomach becomes their god, it isn’t a stretch at all to say that Christians who for an idyllic American life also have their minds set on earthly things.

This is not to say that everything about America then and now is bad, as that would be a gross mischaracterization. There were and are many good things about America. Yet no matter how good we think America was or is, it will not be when Jesus comes again. One day when Jesus return, everything will be brought under his reign. Until then, the only way for the world to know now that Jesus is Lord is for us, the church of Jesus Christ, to live in hope of that day when every knee will bow and every tongue confesses. We can’t do that when we’re preaching sermons in the sanctuary, on Facebook, or else that says “I Miss Mayberry.”

Spiritual Leadership

“But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”

That phrase jumped out at me the other day as I was reading through Matthew 11. It’s Jesus’ last remark as he addresses a question regarding himself and John the Baptist (cf. Matt 11:1-19). As Jesus is finishing up his response, he noted the accusations people made against him and John the Baptist. Jesus was allegedly a glutton and drunkard while John the Baptist was said to be a demon. It is to those accusations that Jesus says, “But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”

…by her deeds.

Do we here what Jesus is saying? Jesus didn’t try to win an argument with them and he didn’t ask anyone to check his teaching and see if if was in accordance with sound doctrine. Instead, Jesus just gave a subtle, or perhaps a not so subtle, pointer to his ministry. . . to what he does. . . to his deeds. Think about it.

For Jesus, wisdom is proved right by deeds. In other words, Jesus will be proved right by the way he lives. But I was taught, as well as many others, that knowledge matters most to ministry. A good minister was the one who had the right answers, rightly divided the word, taught sound doctrine, etc… But maybe we need to rethink that a bit.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting that correct biblical teaching and good theology don’t matter. They matter much! However, ministry is about leading people to Christ and in the way of Christ. Whether we’re a preaching minister, student minister, or else, it’s about others coming to know and follow Jesus Christ. Yet we can only lead when we are followers of Jesus because in the kingdom of God, spiritual leadership flows from discipleship.

Here’s three implications for ministry:

  1. Having all the correct knowledge is not a substitute for living as Jesus lives. A picture is worth a thousand words and living as Jesus lives says far more about what the gospel is than what words alone can do. This is not to say that preaching is unnecessary, but to say that the way we live must be coherent with our message.
  2. Jesus calls us to be a doer of God’s will before we become a teacher of God’s will. Having solid answers to different doctrinal issues is important but not as important as living in the way of Jesus Christ. Our spiritual authority as preachers, teachers, and ministers of the gospel is gained by living as a disciple. It is in the doing of discipleship that we gain the spiritual authority as preachers, teachers, and ministers of the gospel.
  3. Inviting others to come alongside of us and learn from us by following us as we follow Christ matters. People are not going to learn the way of Christ from just a sermon and Bible class. They need to see the way of Christ lived out in real time. So take someone along for that hospital visit, invite someone for some coffee and conversation, open our lives to others, and so on. Then wisdom will be proved by her deeds!

The Church I’ve Never Known

You belong to a church and so do I. Regardless of what the actual name is of the Jesus community we belong too, we call it church. We belong to the church, the church of Jesus Christ.

But what does that mean to be the church?

I recently finished writing a paper on preaching and the responsibility we have, as the church, in the mission of God. In this article As The Father Has Sent Me, I Am Sending You, Michael W. Goheen discusses why early Christians continued identifying themselves with the word “church” (ecclesia) saying,

The original meaning of ecclesia was a public assembly to which all citizens of the city were summoned. The town clerk issues the call and the public gathering of citizens discussed and settled affairs that were important for the city’s life. This self-chosen name must be contrasted with the names that were given to the church by its enemies. Celsus and others referred tot eh church as thiasos and heranos. Both of these words were selected to interpret the church as a private religious cult that offered personal salvation by way of knowledge, self-discipline, and religious practice; religious communities of this kind received the protection of Roman law because they did not threaten the public doctrine of the Roman empire. The church refused to accept the designations of private religious fraternities but saw itself as a people participating in the end-time kingdom of God and launched into the public life of the world to challenge all competing allegiances, including most urgently, of course, the cultus publici of the Roman empire-the emperor cult.

That’s probably not something many churches will hear about in a Sunday sermon. In fact, many churches seem quite at home among the kingdoms (=nations) of this world.

I don’t believe a one to one comparison can be made between the Roman Empire and the United States or any other modern nation. But the fact that our fellow Christians insisted on being an ecclesia knowing that such identity made them a threat to the Roman Empire, which undoubtedly resulted in persecution, should create some questions.

I wonder how many of churches view themselves as an subversive threat the the national kingdoms of this world? My church doesn’t. Does yours? That’s the church I’ve never known.

Maybe that’s part of the missional problem with us Christians…we feel to at home in the national/tribal kingdoms of this age. And the irony is that many Christians my age and older can remember singing the old spiritual This World Is Not My Home!

The Spirit, The Church, and the Stories We Tell

According to Acts 2:41, about 3,000 people were baptized, joining the Jesus movement on that Day of Pentecost. Now I must admit that 3,000 is an impressive number. Don’t tell your not impressed. I don’t know of a pastor or church that wouldn’t welcome 3,000 baptisms in response to preaching the gospel. In fact this number of 3,000 has sort impressed upon us the idea that numbers matter. No, it’s not the number that matters; it’s just numbers that matter.

Numbers, Numbers, Numbers…

We plan for numbers, measure success based on numbers or at least partially based on numbers, and admire numbers. When churches had revival meetings, the measure of success was the number of people who responded to the gospel invitation. When missionaries sent in their missions report, what mattered was the number of new Christians, new church members, new churches established. And today, we’ll buy the books on ministry written by a pastor of a mega-church (ironically a term referring to a numerical size) because the mega size of the church obviously is impressive.

But that’s the problem… our measuring stick is calibrated with numbers. So when we read through Acts chapter two, we believe the sure sign that the Holy Spirit was poured out upon all (v. 17-18) is the fact that 3,000 people were baptized after Peter preached the gospel. And therefore, all the numbers we enamor ourselves with surely is the sign of the power of the Holy Spirit.

But are we sure that numbers tell the power of the Holy Spirit?

The Power of the Spirit is…

Don’t get me wrong. I not trying to praise smallness nor am I trying to take away from the numbers of baptisms, new church members, new churches, etc… But when we role with this logic that measures the power of the Holy Spirit and therefore the success of ministry by numbers, then whatever number is claimed is actually a sign of weakness. For example, if 3,000 baptized is the sign of the Spirit’s presence and power, then why not 6,000 or 60,000?

Rather than pointing to numbers as the sign of the Spirit’s presence and power, it is spiritual transformation of those 3,000 who were baptized that speaks to the power of the Spirit (Stone, Evangelism after Christendom, 270). And that ought to be a game changer! What happened on that Day of Pentecost because of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit wasn’t just 3,000 baptisms but the character formation of a new community that “had everything in common” (v. 44). These new disciples had been transformed into a community which embodied the very gospel they heard preached as their way of life.

So when we talk about the work of the Holy Spirit among us, it’s not the numbers that count but the spiritual formation that happens. In fact, if we’re going to claim that the Holy Spirit is at work among our churches and ministries, we ought to be telling stories of communities undergoing transformation so that the gospel is embodied like we read of in Acts. However, and to be rather frank, I doubt that every claim of the Spirit’s work among churches and ministries can be matched with a community that embodies the gospel we preach. Of course, that may also be an indication that the gospel we are preaching is in wanting (but that’s another issue). What it does mean is that we’ve got work to do and we need the Holy Spirit to do it.

A Question for Ministry…

This must force us to look at our own ministries, whether we are pastoring an established church or planting new churches. Here is the question we must ask: Is the aim of our ministry numbers or a number of people who are being formed into a community which embodies the gospel of Jesus Christ?

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Last Sunday I spoke about the character formation of the church as the sign of the Spirit’s presence and power from Acts 2:32-47. I have uploaded this message, The Spirit Formed Community, if you wish to listen to it (click on the title).