Category Archives: Kingdom of God

When The Glamour Fades… Discipleship

I’ve been preaching through the Gospel of Mark, which is probably my favorite  of the four Gospels in the New Testament. In a nutshell, the Gospel of Mark is about what it means to truly believe in Jesus. Discipleship!

Reading through the Mark’s Gospel will remind you that Jesus did call us to be just good “church-going” folks. Jesus calls us to follow him and as Mark reminds us, that call takes us to the place where we must choose to pick up our own cross and continue following Jesus into this narrow way that leads to life (cf. Mk. 8:34-35). So I’ll leave you with a quote from a book I recently read by Richard V. Peace, Conversion in the New Testament, reminding us that the following Jesus will not always be an ecstatic journey:

“To follow Jesus as the teacher/prophet/Messiah of popular imagination is one thing. This has glamour and appeal. Clearly Jesus is in touch with the power of God, and equally clearly he plays a unique and special role in God’s scheme of things. But the glamour fades quickly when following Jesus is defined in terms of self-denial and cross-bearing” (p. 257).

Whatever it may look like to deny ourselves and bear our own cross on a daily basis, we do it not because it is easy or pleasurable but because we believe in Jesus… because we believe that salvation only is found in following Jesus into his crucifixion and resurrection.

As darkness and evil continues among the world, may we remember our faith in Jesus!

What Question Are We Asking?

Reading the Bible is a good thing. But how we read the Bible may or may not be such a good thing! As I’ve said before and as I’m sure many others have said too, how we read the Bible matters just as much as whether or not we read the Bible.

Consider Jesus and the Pharisees in a story from Mark 3:1-6. There they all stand among a synagogue on the Sabbath Day. According to Exodus 31:15, doing work on the Sabbath day was a violation of the Law and anyone committing such a violation was subject to capital punishment. So as a man with a withered hand approaches Jesus, the Pharisees are looking at Jesus to see if he is going to keep the Sabbath regulation or if he is going to violate it, which in their eyes he has already done enough of (read Mark 2). That’s when Jesus asks the Pharisee a very interesting question in v. 4:

“Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath, or evil, to save a life or destroy it?” 

That’s one question but in reality it reveals two very different questions being asked, one by Jesus and the other by the Pharisees.

In one sense, Jesus and the Pharisees have a lot in common. They both love God, seek righteousness, and are committed to faithfully doing the will of God . . . kind of like us. Yet in another sense, Jesus and the Pharisees are very different. Their understanding of God’s will is different and it all stems from their understanding of the kingdom. The Pharisees believe the kingdom will only come by a strict adherence to the Law of Moses, which includes the traditions associated with Torah. But Jesus the kingdom of God is already at hand (and has already declared this good news – cf. Mk 1:14-15) and therefore believes that he and his disciples simply should live out the kingdom life.

And that is why when the man with the withered hand approaches, the Pharisees are asking a legalistic question “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” while Jesus is asking a kingdom question of “How do I do good in this place, bearing witness to the presence of God’s kingdom (reign)?”

Two very different questions!

I once knew of a thriving church of roughly 150 believers. They gathered for worship in a fairly new building on a side of town that was experiencing a lot of new residential growth. Some of the young parents began asking a kingdom question “How might we minister (do good) in this neighborhood?” After praying about this for a few months, they received a vision for how they might minister to other young families with children in that neighborhood. And with the blessing of their elders and minister supporting them, they began an exciting Sunday-School ministry, assisted by the purchase of a Joy Bus. God blessed this ministry and the church with lots of new growth and all seemed well.

And all was well until a few modern-day Pharisees came along asking a legalistic question “Where is their authorization in the New Testament for having a Sunday School?” By asking such a question while proof-texting the Bible, particularly the New Testament, in ad hoc fashion and resorting to their syllogistic reasoning, they divided the church. The Joy Bus was parked for good and this promising children’s ministry died!

Again, Two very different questions!

But what questions are we asking. When we pick up the Bible and read it, do we read it as a story where we ask how we might participate in the kingdom life as followers of Jesus in a consistent yet improvisational way? (See N.T. Wright, “How Can The Bible Be Authoritative?,” and pay attention to the section The Authority of a Story to understand what it means to live in a consistent yet improvisational way.) Or when we pick up the Bible and read, are we asking questions like “Does scripture authorize us to do…?” or “Is there a direct command, apostolic example, or necessary inference for doing…?”

By recognizing that the kingdom of God is already at hand, we are free to read the Bible as a story which we participate in rather than a law which we must some how try to meticulously keep. This is not to ignore that there are commands in scripture which as followers of Jesus, we must obey. What this does is open for us new possibilities as people who are learning how to improvise the story we are participants of in a consistent way among our own contexts. It doesn’t matter whether or not we have an example in scripture for . . . because it’s the wrong question and asking the wrong question usually results in getting the wrong answer.

And if your still not convinced that the difference between the two different types of questions matter that much, Jesus looked at the Pharisees with “anger” as he was “grieved by the hardness of their hearts.”

Questions For Reflection:

  1. How does this change our understanding of what it means to be the church? Participants in the mission of God?
  2. What do need to do in order to be a tangible expression of the kingdom of God in our neighborhoods?
  3. What changes might we have to make in the way we go about doing church?

Church Renewal: Give Up The Old Wineskins

Last year the Christian Chronicle, a monthly newspaper for the Churches of Christ, ran an article on the Bar Church of Abilene, Texas that the Southern Hills Church of Christ helped plant. The Bar Church is a community of Christians that originally gathered inside a local bar for worship, fellowship, etc… in order to reach people who will likely never step foot inside the gatherings of a traditional church. As expected, news of a church plant meeting in a local tavern drew both praise and criticism. Without knowing any more details than what has been reported, I am one who applauds such effort and I want to briefly focus on the criticism as a way of discussing a larger issue with the gospel and the mission of God.

One critic said in response to the news of a church meeting in a bar, “Jesus might have gone to Matthew’s house, but he did not teach his disciples to go to places of public intoxication…” Not surprisingly, I actually disagree because Jesus himself, according to the Gospel of Luke, even acknowledged eating and drinking with these sinner’s and tax-collectors to the point that he gained the reputation of being a drunkard and glutton (cf. Lk 7:34). I suppose we could say that Jesus was only going into places of private intoxication (insert snarky face here) but the point is that Jesus not only sought out the “sinners” but was also teaching his disciples to do so as well. Yet the critics, who all likely come from a church fellowship that is declining, resort to the box they have the gospel contained within to rationalize their complaint. And this is a problem…

Listen to Jesus

According to the Gospel of Mark, the first parable that Jesus teaches occurs in chapter two:

No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and the tear becomes worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the skins will be destroyed. Instead new wine is poured into new wineskins (vv. 21-22).

This parable occurs within a series of five stories in which the authority of Jesus is challenged (Mk 2:1-3:6). The problem with Jesus is that he does not live according to the expectations of the Jewish lawyers and Pharisees.

The Pharisees themselves meant well. Like Jesus, they wanted to see the kingdom of God at hand too. But unlike Jesus, they believed that the kingdom of God would only come when all of Israel returned to a strict observation of the Torah, especially the laws pertaining to the Sabbath and those that separated the clean from the unclean. For Jesus, however, the kingdom of God is already at hand (Mk. 1:15), so the efforts of the Pharisees are futile. Instead they, like us all, need to follow along with Jesus and learn how to participate in this kingdom, which involves something as simple as eating when you’re hungry rather than fasting or something more radical like wining and dining with the “sinners and tax-collectors.”

The kingdom of God looks like a reality where sinners are welcomed with hospitality, where those who suffer find healing, where showing mercy trumps the sacrifice of Sabbath keeping, and so forth. This is the kind of life Jesus calls us to follow him, learning how to participate as disciples. Yet Jesus is clear: As long as we continue trying to fit this way of life into our old paradigms (theological, ecclesiological, etc…), it will not work! That is why Jesus tells us the parable of sewing a new patch on an old garment and pouring new wine into old wineskins. We need new wineskins for new wine! We need new a new paradigm for this gospel of the kingdom of God that Jesus preaches and calls follow him in living as his disciples!

Old Wineskins Will Not Do

I began this blog post with story of a Church of Christ that planting a very non-traditional seed of the gospel by helping plant a new church meeting in a bar. It’s but one example of what it might look like for a church to the new wine of the gospel into new wineskins. Just one example. It is by no means a suggestion that this is what every church needs to do. I believe way too much in the need for local contextualization of the gospel to even begin suggesting a one-size-fits-all approach. What I’m concerned about is those who want to cling to their old wineskins while criticizing any attempt at pouring new wine into new wineskins.

Any one familiar with the Churches of Christ can see the decline. Most churches, including the Columbia Church of Christ with whom I serve as a minister, are less than one-hundred members and declining. The culture around us is rapidly changing and learning how to navigate the waters in this ever changing climate has been… Well, as far as I can tell, were not sure how to do that.

In such uncertain circumstances, there are more questions than answers which that creates a lot of stress and anxiety. “How do we move forward in all this mess?” is the question that gets asked. Yet our human nature is to take the path of least resistance and that usually means reverts back to what we already know… the so-called tried and true approach. I think this is why Michael Shank’s book Muscle and A Shovel has become so popular. Because despite it’s sectarian approach that promotes a gospel focused on the “true church,” a form of legalism that many in the Churches of Christ seemed to have let go of, it offers an approach that is very familiar (if you read the book then make sure you also read this very well-written and critical review of the book by John Mark Hicks). But Jesus is clear: As long as we continue trying to fit this way of life into our old paradigms (theological, ecclesiological, etc…), it will not work!

Then What Do We Do?

Learning to follow Jesus together begins with hearing afresh our Lord’s first commandment: “Repent and believe the gospel! (Mk 1:15). We have to change our expectations of how we expect to see the kingdom of God at hand. Seeing God’s kingdom at hand does not happen by trying to restore the first-century church pattern from proof-texting the New Testament. The way forward is found in embracing the values and practices of Jesus as our own, within our own local contexts. That requires much discernment.

In order to discern, churches and especially the leadership of the church must learn how to listen together for the leading of God. You might consider reading Pursuing God’s Will Together by Ruth Haley Barton as a resource in learning how to listen as a church. Only as we listen and discern together will we discover the new wineskins necessary for the new wine of the gospel. Also, you might consider contacting Mission Alive, an organization that helps equip church planters and churches seeking renewal to live as “kingdom communities on mission with God.”

Conversations On Racism and Injustice

This past Sunday afternoon I attended the “Town Hall Meeting for Justice For All” hosted by the Bridgeway Community Church in my town, Columbia, Maryland. The meeting was in response to the events taking place in Ferguson, Missouri following the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black man who was shot by the police. Even though there is 800 miles of Interstate 70 between Columbia and Ferguson, the issues that Browns death and the subsequent protesting have raised affect Columbia just as they affect every community.

The meeting itself was a great start to some courageous conversations that communities must start engaging in. Whites, Blacks, and Latinos all showed up for this meeting but the majority of the audience was Black. Pastor David Anderson served as a moderator taking questions the audience had for the five panelists that consisted of a school administrator, two police officers, a college student, and a local pastor. Of the five panelists, three were Black and the other two were White.

Black America and Fear

As you what has happened in Ferguson has brought to the forefront the problem of racism that still exists in America. Besides the problem of racism, there is a distrust of law-enforcement and a lot of frustration because of injustices that Blacks and other minorities have endured (and if you’re not sure what those are, I suggest you do a little more listening to some of your Black neighbors).

I went to this town-hall meeting to listen because I’m interested in what I can do to help facilitate racial reconciliation and be an advocate for justice. After all, as a minister of the gospel, the God I serve seeks reconciliation and desires justice, so… Any ways, I tried my best to just listen during this meeting and here’s a couple of things I heard:

  1. Negative Images of Young Black Males. During the meeting, the Black voice of the audience agreed that the Hip-Hop culture has created a caricature of the young Black male that contributes to the negative perceptions and that the Black community has helped perpetuate this image. I thought this is important because it tells me that when we hear the Black community saying there’s a problem, they are also willing to own their part of the problem too.
  2. Palpable Fear. There was a point when the audience was asked if those who are minorities raise their children to carry themselves in certain ways in public because of a fear of being mistaken by law enforcement and others as being up to criminal activity. This is the fear of how their children might be perceived when they’re hanging out, walking down the street, into a store, etc… and how might the police react if their children appear “suspicious”? As an observer, this fear was extremely evident in the response of the minorities present (who were in the majority there). And I must say, words cannot really express how sad this is because nobody should have to live in fear for their life or the lives of their children.
  3. Where are the Whites? As I said, the majority of those in attendance were Black. Now there could be a variety of reasons for this, so I don’t want to make too much of this observation. But I do want to say that the problems of racism, et al. is a problem for the entire community, not just minorities. White people, like myself, don’t have to engage in conversations like this because we’re not the ones who suffer from systemic racism. That’s part of our White Privilege. But the problem isn’t going away and if it gets worse (with the violent protests of Ferguson as a sign of what might be on the horizon), we’ll all suffer the consequences. So let’s all work together for the good of racial-reconciliation and justice!

Where Do We Begin

Working together for reconciliation and justice begins at the table, so to speak. That is to say, we have to start by talking and having a conversation together about these issues. As you know, such conversations are not always easy but we must have the necessary courage, humility, and love to gather at the table with others for some talk.

Now I’m not any expert but one thing I’ve learned as a minister is the importance of listening. Or let’s say, I’m learning the importance of listening and more importantly, listening first. Listening to understand before we speak is important because in conversations like this, there are tense moments of disagreement at times. Someone says something that we disagree with and our gut reaction is to respond immediately, countering…arguing. And then we’re just talking past each other, or shouting past each other like they do on what passes for nightly cable news.

Instead of that, Don McLaughin, who serves as the preaching minister for the North Atlanta Church of Christ, suggests that we learn to say “Tell me more” (you can listen to all he has to say about this and more on this podcast). If we don’t understand or don’t seem to agree with what someone says then by saying “Tell me more” rather than counter-reacting, we can here their point of view and what it is that has led them to feel this or that way. We may still disagree but at least we’ll understand better and we’re validating the feeling of others.

One Last Thing…

As a parting word, let me encourage us to begin a conversation. Maybe it’s with a friend of another race or ethnicity, or maybe that conversation starts by attending a town meeting on race and justice matters in your own community. Help your church to start having these conversations (churches should be leading the way in conversations about reconciliation but sadly, we’re not!). Learn to ask questions and listen… Imagine what could happen if we just start having conversations!

Amidst Racism, Wars, and Other Afflictions: What Says the Church?

It’s a predictable script. When something terrible happens, such as the police-shooting death of one unarmed Michael Brown or the recently release of a video showing the beheading of missing American journalist James Foley, people become indignant. Something is wrong and something should be done. So the question is asked, “Mr. President of the United States of America, what say you?”

Our Way or The Way of God?

That’s how the script always seems to play out. The President must do something or at least say something. Depending on his response, one either cheers him on from the sidelines or one starts cursing him in one fashion or the other. Issues of racism, violence, and other cancerous maladies become political issues for the government to solve. Yet because the politicians and the masses that elect them can’t seem to even agree on what the first step towards a solution should be, the conversation turns into a toxic pit that poisons everyone who steps into it. And maybe in writing this, I’m showing symptoms of poisoning too.

Having said all that, I think I understand why people always turn to the government for a fix. To start with, for some people, the government is their best shot. Regardless of what they claim on a religious census, they don’t have the living hope in Christ that allows them to see how the gospel is redeeming, reconciling, and restoring life. But some people, Christians included, would rather just turn to the government in hopes for a quick solution to the problems… like passing a new law, sending some more troops, or creating a new program and initiative.

I think the devil likes it this way… keeping people, Christians included, seeking quick-fix human engineered solutions to problems that will only be resolved through a slow process requiring personal sacrifice. As a Christian, and as a preacher and minister of the gospel, I believe the slow process leads right to the cross of Jesus Christ. It’s the process that the church is called to participate in. But as I said, it’s a slow process that requires personal sacrifice.

It’s A Way of Life!

In the Gospels when Jesus calls his disciples to pick up their crosses and follow him, he is calling them to a very different way of life than what the rest of the world seeks. Jesus is clear that answering this call may cost the disciples their very own life but he assures them that they will actually receive life, a promise made with his own death and resurrection (cf. Mk 8:34-35).

This way of life is bears witness to what life looks like when God’s redemptive, reconciling, and restorative work is at hand. It’s a life that loves God by loving neighbors and even the enemies. It’s a life that champions peace rather than trumpeting the 2nd Amendment as though an AR-15 assault rifle will keep the peace. It’s a life that extends hospitality rather than judgment to all people, including the neighbors who that came across the borders in search of better living and the single-parents buying their groceries with EBT cards. It’s a life that exalts God as the Creator and Redeemer of life rather than patronizing Old Glory as the symbol of life, liberty, and happiness. It’s a way of life in which the things said and done during Sunday morning’s church service are also the things said and done at home, in the work place, and even on Facebook, Twitter, and so forth (for those who have a presence in the world of social-media).

As I said, this way of life bears witness the redemptive work of God in Christ. In this way, the church lives as a proleptic sign of why the gospel really is good news. It’s God offering the world through Christ and his church the alternative to fear, violence, and hatred. It demonstrates the possibilities of redemption, reconciliation, and restoration so that ideals like brotherly love, joy in Christ, and the peace of God move beyond the realm of spiritual platitudes, becoming instead virtues with concrete meaning. Though the church will always struggle in this endeavor, without intentionally pursuing this way of life the preaching of the church sings like a broken record playing the music of religious superstition than the songs of life.

What I’m Saying

If the church has any desire to offer the promise of hope amidst racism, wars, and all the other afflictions that plague the world, then we, who are the church, must learn to be the church Jesus envisions. If we really believe in the good news that Jesus preached, then we must learn to embrace it as how we live. Then, we can tell the world about God and sound like we actually know God. The results will not come quick as this is and will always be a slow process requiring the personal sacrifice but in doing so–following Jesus in this mission–we join God in creating a life legacy of redemption, reconciliation, and restoration.

Being Church In A Burning World

I want to mention three recent events, two of which you are already aware of unless you just crawled out of a cave and another issue that many of you are unfortunately all too familiar with. But let me first ask you one question: What do you think it means to be the church?

Coming Apart At The Seams

So, as I said, unless you just crawled out of some cave, you know that Robin Williams died last week. Like so many others, I was disappointed because he was a truly brilliant actor, comedian, and entertainer. Of course, I’m sure that those who knew him personally, especially his family, are heart-broken. It was even more sad to read that in the midst of suffering from depression among other health-related issues, Robin Williams took his own life. However, his death also reminded us of just how terrible and deadly the illness of depression can be. Sadly, thanks to the ridiculous blog of person and his absurd follow up post (which I won’t link to hear, so as not to give his ilk more publicity), we also know just how badly our society still sometimes misunderstands mental illnesses.

Also last week in Ferguson, Missouri, a young man by the name of Michael Brown, who was unarmed, was shot and killed a police officer. This has triggered both protesting and rioting. While we don’t know the full details of what happened that led to the shooting of Michael Brown, his death joins a list of unarmed black males killed by law enforcement. Regardless of what the investigation into the death of Michael Brown reveals, the fall out of his death has reminded again that racism is still an issue in America. And it seems the hostility is weaved into the ever increasing political polarization taking place in America, which political pundit Glenn Beck describes America as being “at or near a cold civil war.” Whether you agree or disagree, one thing seems clear: the cracks are getting bigger and the little 238 year experiment called the American Dream is fading.

Of course, while society around us is coming apart at the seams, some Christians would rather continue on pursuing their adventures in missing the point. Two weeks ago I spoke at the Bowie Church of Christ for their Wednesday Evening Praise on following Jesus (you can listen to the message here). It was a wonderful evening and the praise team did an amazing job of leading the church in worship. It was nice to visit with another church that allows women to serve as God has gifted them. However, word of this church having a praise team got out and it drew sharp criticism from another area Church of Christ who suggested that this violated the teaching of scripture.

Now do you understand what I mean by adventures in missing the point?

Being Church… Following Jesus!

We’re called to follow Jesus… learning to live our lives as Jesus lives his life. When churches and Christians are still occupied with trying to convince others why praise teams are wrong or arguing about who’s going to hell while the black community is living in hell (you should really click on that link and read the article), you can be sure that we’ve forgotten how to follow Jesus.

Our best response to a world suffering in depression, racism, and many other issues is simply to be the church, just like Richard Beck describes in this blog post (and you should really click on that link and read it too). You see, when we follow Jesus we learn how to become better neighbors, how to become hospitable with people who are different from us… different in skin color, country of origin, religion, and even sexual orientation. When we follow Jesus we learn how to show solidarity with the poor and oppressed, with the suffering. Only then do we gain the credibility to speak truth… to speak about this good news of the kingdom of God, the good news that Jesus preached.

The question of what it means to be the church is a huge question, one that too large to answer in one blog post. So don’t take this as an exhaustive answer but let me clearly say: we are being the church when we follow Jesus! Just because we are gathering to sing and pray does not necessarily mean we are being the church. That’s just a religious service. But we can be the church in that religious service when the invitation of Jesus and his communion table moves us to welcome the stranger, listen to the pains and fears of others as we bear that burden with them, and love each other enough to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of serving one another. We live as the church when this way of life transcends beyond the walls of our church buildings and becomes our way of life in our homes, our neighborhoods, our work and social spaces, and so on. Then… we can speak the truth of Jesus we are compelled to speak because it’s a message that has transformed our own way of life.

The world around is burning. Sometimes it’s a small smoldering fire and but here lately it seems like a wildfire that’s burning out of control like it seems to be right now in Ferguson, MO, The Ukraine, Iraq and Syria, Israel and Palestine, and West Africa. What we can do is learn to follow Jesus again! Can we do that?

Those Unhelpful Labels!

What kind of Christian do you consider yourself? A liberal or conservative? Perhaps a progressive or traditionalist? Maybe you consider yourself a fundamentalist or one of those “spiritual but not religious” Christians. What about a Neo-Calvinist or Missional?

Once Upon A Time…

In the year 2007 my wife and I moved to Ithaca, New York, a small town full of an earthy, free-spirited, political culture. Down the road from my house was a trendy little coffee shop that I frequented a couple times a day. One day one of the Barista’s, who knew I was a Christian, asked me if I considered myself a mainline-protestant or an evangelical? Well, I’m not one who likes to be cornered but I also knew that there were (and still are) some assumptions this person had attached to both choices that I didn’t want to claim. Fortunately, having been raised in the Churches of Christ, I responded as any Church of Christ member would and said, “I’m just a Christian.”

Several months later, the same Barista asked me if I believe that Jesus is the only way to salvation. Knowing that the person asking the question was not a Christian, I invited her to have a cup of coffee with me sometime so we could talk about her question. She did. And I did my best to explain over a nice cup of coffee why I believe Jesus is the only way of salvation. Her response… “So Rex, you really are a conservative!”

It’s kind of ironic because a year before that, when still living in Memphis, I had someone insist that I was a liberal because they knew I rejected a literalist reading of the Genesis creation narrative (creationism) and opposed the war in Iraq.

So Am I a liberal? A conservative? Or am I… Truthfully, I don’t really care!

Hyphenated-Christians?

But if you must know whether I consider myself a liberal or conservative, or whatever other designated tag you want to label me with, it all depends on where you stand in relation to me. You see, from my perspective, I stand perfectly in the center and it’s you who are either too far to the right or too far to the left.

How’s that for an answer! It also shows the absurdity of such labels. They’re all just too nebulous and too loaded for the kingdom of God. Fortunately, followers of Jesus don’t need such labels. That’s one of the values I greatly appreciate about my Restoration heritage that reminds me, we can just be “Christian’s only.” Not the only Christians but Christians only!

To say that we are Christians only without any additional hyphenated adjective allows us to stop defining ourselves by our own terms and instead define ourselves simply as followers of Jesus, which is what we are. Any thing else is too nebulous and in my experience as a minister, people and churches are too diverse to fit into the categories we want to label each other with.

So let’s just be Christians… followers of Jesus!