Category Archives: Redemption

Living Hope!

Life is full of disappointment, hardships, and suffering. In my own life, the story has the grief and pain of losing a father, a son, and a younger brother. For others the struggle has been divorce, depression, abuse, chronic health problems, persecution, and so on.

Localized persecution made life very difficult for the Christians living in Asia Minor. So after the standard greeting, the Apostle Peter began his first letter to these Christians with these words:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he gave us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, that is, into an inheritance imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. It is reserved in heaven for you, who by God’s power are protected through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. – 1 Peter 1:3-5

There’s a hymn that churches sometimes called The Sands of Time, with the words written in 1857 by Annie R. Cousin. The song captures the journey of faith that we live on.  “…Dark, dark hath been the midnight, but day spring is at hand,” reads one line. The fourth verse begins, “The King there in His beauty, without a veil is seen; it were a well spent journey, though seven deaths lay between.”

As difficult as life can become, the journey is coming to an end. That end is Jesus Christ who is coming again and bringing with him our salvation in its fullness. When we see Jesus appearing, full of the great mercy of God, we’ll see our King standing unveiled in the most splendid beauty. Then we will know that our journey has been a well spent journey, even though the seven deaths do lay between.

That hope… that’s what keeps me on the journey. May it offer you courage to keep on the journey too!

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.

In Christ: Neither Democrat Nor Republican

Since the original sin, division has been the plight of fallen humanity. For many cultures, race and ethnicity has been a boundary separating people. Fortunately, in America, the walls of racial and ethnic division are coming down. This isn’t to say they don’t exist at all any more but to say that racial and ethnic discrimination is regarded as morally wrong and something society must overcome. But… Even as the walls of racial and ethnic divisions are toppling, are Americans erecting new walls based on their political ideologies?

Unless You’re A…

Let’s look closer at who Americans are choosing to associate with and where they’re choosing to live. In his book The Big Sort, author Bill Bishop says,

As Americans have moved over the past three decades, they have clustered in communities of sameness, among people with similar ways of life, beliefs, and in the end, politics. Little, if any, of this political migration was by design, a conscious effort by people to live among like-voting neighbors (p. 5).

He goes on to say that, “In 1976, less than a quarter of Americans lived in places where the presidential election was a landslide. By 2004, nearly half of all voters lived in landslide counties” (p. 6). This doesn’t mean that politics is the only factor Americans are basing their decision on where to live but it does suggest that politics has become an important factor, perhaps a very important factor.

Two days ago I read an editorial piece titled Is America Dangerously Divided? discussing how Americans are separating based on political affiliations. In the article, which is based on this recent Pew Research survey, we are told that:

More than six-in-ten of consistent conservatives and about half of consistent liberals say most of their close friends share their political views. People on the right and the left also say it is important to them to live in a place where most people have similar political sentiments. And three-out-of-ten consistent conservatives say they would be unhappy if an immediate family member married a Democrat (compared with almost a quarter of across-the-board liberals who voice the same concern about the prospect of a Republican in-law).

Apparently then in a culture where tolerance is a preached, Americans have their limits and they’re spelled D-E-M-O-C-R-A-T, R-E-P-U-B-L-I-C-A-N, etc… So it seams that if I’m an _________ and you’re a _________ then we apparently can’t be neighbors, friends, not even family members.

One In Christ!

This is a great opportunity for the church in America except that many Christians identify themselves also as Democrats, Republicans, or some other political party. So maybe Christians – we who profess faith in Jesus Christ – need to think afresh about the gospel our faith is to be aligned with.

An ancient daybreak prayer of the Jewish male was, “I thank you God that I was not born a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.” It was this kind of culturally acceptable thinking with its social distinctions that the gospel of Jesus Christ sought to obliterate and this aim is the issue that permeates much of the New Testament. Consequently, the gospel of Jesus Christ is as much social as it is theological. That is, just as the gospel is a theology statement about the God’s work in the world, so it’s a social statement about his intention for the world (Tweet that!). Thus, in Jesus Christ, God is not just reconciling all people to himself but is also reconciling all people to each other as well so that all people becoming one community belonging to God (cf. Eph 2:14-16).

The Apostle Paul expresses one of the clearest statements of how the gospel of Jesus Christ upends the social-reality of the world saying in Galatians 3:27-28, “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female—for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (NET). But given the increasing political division that is shaping American culture, might not the gospel also be there is neither Democrat, Republican nor any other political party, for Christians are one in Christ? 

Our Baptism Into Christ Professes…

This is neither to suggest that Christians are not entitled to side with a particular political view when they believe that such belief is right and for the good of society nor is it to suggest whether Christians should or should not vote. The concern is that in America many Christians, some more so than others, align themselves with one particular political party or another. This happens even as the gospel has often been absorbed into the various American political ideologies. So its seems that Christians would do much better to identify themselves from the point of their baptism rather than some political reality that belongs to the old dying world (or anything else belonging to this dying world).

So much needs to be said about what it means for Christians living into the reality that they are neither Democrat nor Republican but baptized into Christ. Yet for our purposes here, I’ll mention three quick implications. First, Christians don’t have any business in dividing from people because they are Democrat, Republican, or of some other political (socialist, libertarian, etc…). This includes deciding where we might live, whom we socialize with, and whom we marry (it’s a shame that any marriage could be affected by politics!). Second, Christians must also remember that the kingdom of God, to which we belong, and it’s values are neither red or blue, right or left, but wholly other. Our allegiance is to Jesus Christ whom we confess as Lord, as our baptism into Christ professes, and therefore our discernment and practice of what is right must emanate from this allegiance rather than from any affinity we have to a political party. Lastly, while this post has focused on the growing political divisions in America, Christians must remember that ethnic, gender, and social divisions are unacceptable. After all, the gospel is the redemptive work of God in Jesus Christ, through his death and resurrection, that creates a community of people fueled by the Holy Spirit who loves all people just as God does. It’s this good news that Christians must be witness of!

Maybe one day Americans will slowly begin to see why the gospel of Jesus Christ really is the good news!

Sex, The Sinner, and Jesus

In Luke 18:9-14 Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-Collector. Many of us are familiar with it… But maybe we’ve forgotten it. More on that in a moment.

Sex…

Over the last couple of days I posted some links on Facebook to some blog posts regarding the subject of sexuality titled Why I Didn’t Wait and Homosexuality: Have I Changed My Mind? The first blog, written from a woman’s perspective, explains the problem with treating sex as nothing more than a casual meaningless activity. The later blog post is written by a seminary professor who while remaining convinced that the traditional view of what the Bible teaches on homosexuality is correct, explains how his posture has changed on this issue.

I realize that the vast subject of sexuality is a sensitive and contentious issue, especially in a culture where there is such a diversity of views. Nevertheless, I posted the links because they both offer a short but well-written word from a perspective that seems to get lost in the broad conversations on sexuality among Christians (and I agree with them too).

Something’s Bothering Me…

As I said, I realize that the subject of sexuality is difficult but as I read comments and responses, something began to bother me. Well, it’s actually something that I known for a while but now is an occasion to say something. It seems that for some Christians who hold to a more traditional view regarding what the Bible says about all things sex, this view is held alongside a certain degree of self-righteousness. For instance, we might mention how Jesus hung around the “sinners and tax-collectors” – those Gentiles who were regarded as pariahs among the Pharisees in Jesus’ day – and someone will inevitably insist that this doesn’t have any bearing on how we engage LGBTQ people.

Sometimes, perhaps many times, it seems as though anyone whose sin is of a sexual nature is somehow more of a sinner than someone whose sin is not. If you’ve ever listened to someone’s fear of what would happen when their church finds out they struggle with pornography, have been sleeping with their boyfriend or girlfriend, have feelings of same-sex attraction and may have even acted on those feelings, etc… then you know what I mean.

I’m not trying to make light of sexual sin or any sin for that matter. But I do believe the grace of God is bigger than any of our sins. But when sexual sin is singled out or when we think we are on higher ground because sexual sin is not our sin, something is afoul.

Eyes Upon Jesus!

So let me come back to the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-Collector. The Pharisee stood in his self-righteousness and praised God that he was unlike those other sinners, as though his own sin wasn’t so bad. The Tax-Coleector caught a glimpse of God as he looked to heaven and knowing that he was a sinner, simply asked God for mercy.

There’s a lesson to be learned from this parable and I think it begins with the one telling the parable. Jesus. He’s the fullness of God’s self-revelation. When we see Jesus, we see God and when we the Righteous One, we see how unrighteous we really are.

As Christians, as those who profess to follow Jesus, we need to keep our eyes fixed squarely upon Jesus. When we do, we become keenly aware of our own sins and lose our ability to pick up the metaphorical stones. For when we fix our eyes upon Jesus, we realize that we have too many of our own sins to be casting stones at any other sinner (including the person guilty of sexual sin). When we fix our eyes upon Jesus, we recognize our great need for the grace of God in our lives and the lives of others. When we fix our eyes upon Jesus, we learn to, as Preston Sprinkle so wonderfully said, “Not, love the sinner and hate the sin, but love the sinner and hate [our] own sin.

When we do so, fixing our eyes upon Jesus, we’ll learn how to engage people who need Jesus as much as we do (and be sure to read The Irritation of Incarnation by Dan White Jr.). These days I have more questions than I used to have. However, though I still hold to a traditional or conservative view regarding what the Bible says about sex, there is nothing about the teaching of scripture that precludes a generous and hospitable demeanor towards others. Maybe then we’d create a culture in our church where people could find the courage to let others bear their struggle with them without fear of condemnation.

Fix our eyes more upon Jesus and be thankful that he has a seat reserved for us all at his table!

Creating A Non-Judgmental World

We all have made some poor choices that we would love to have a redo if we could. Sometimes these choices come with greater consequences than others. For some, the bad choices come to define their life. For example, if someone is a drug addict or has spent many years in prison, they are defined in society by their status as an addict or prisoner.

Like it or not, that’s often the reality. But what if we could change that? How could we do that? That’s what I want us to think about a little more.

There isn’t any denying that we all make mistakes, use bad judgment from time to time, and just make some poor choices. But sometimes when we see others, especially those in which it is very apparent that their life hasn’t turned out well, we only see the poor choices they make. That is, when we encounter an alcoholic living on welfare, we only see someone who has made a choice to get drunk every day rather than getting a job. We could describe any number of different circumstances that people live in but the way we see them would likely still be for the poor choices they’re are making.

Enter into the conversation the story of a prostitute. She’s obviously made some poor choices right? Well, yesterday while attending a meeting for the Howard County Task Force on Human Trafficking, I listened to the story of a survivor… a woman who is a victim of human trafficking, who was a former prostitute. It was nice to hear the story of her recovery and the strides she is making towards living a fully functional life. But as I listened I also heard the story of a girl who was eleven when she was molested by an uncle and the story of a girl who was just a teenager when a man took her into his house, first caring for her needs which was all a facade to make her more dependent so that he could use violence and drugs to control her and force her to make him money as a prostitute.

It reminds me years ago of meeting a woman in Memphis who was dying with AIDS. That woman grew up in rural Arkansas and came to Memphis in order to catch a bus bound for Los Angeles. She never made it out of Memphis, as drugs had their hold on her life. She started using drugs as a young teenager when her step-dad, who had already been molesting her, started giving her drugs to mask the physical pain endured as he sold her out to some friends.

That’s pretty horrid to comprehend but there’s a point why we need to hear stories like this. Such stories remind us that no matter how poor choices people make for themselves, if we’ll take the time to listen and dig a little deeper then we’ll uncover the many poor choices that someone else made against these people. In other words, when we hear the story of a teenage child being forced into prostitution, on some level we must begin to ask if such a person ever had a choice? When we encounter a homeless veteran who’s ailing from physical and mental health issues because of the injuries suffered during war, we might see beyond whatever choice he or she is making because we know there is more to the story.

But here’s my point. It’s too easy to make judgments about others based solely on what we see when there’s often so much more to the story that we don’t know… And that we won’t know if we’re not willing to listen first and understand rather than passing judgment. So maybe we could recognize that there’s always more to the story than meets the eye, as the saying goes.

And that’s how we’ll change the reality of a world where people are often defined by the poor choices they make. Instead of passing judgment, we can see people through the lens of the gospel and create a new world where people are defined by the image of God they have been created in and the image of Christ God is redeeming them to bear.

How beautiful of a world that will be!

Community, Sexuality, and Redemption

“I thank you God that I was not born a Gentile, a slave, or a woman!” That was the ancient daybreak prayer that Jewish men recited. So what a radical vision it must have been to hear that a day was coming when the Lord would pour out his Spirit upon all people in this oracle from Joel 2:28-32.

For a better understanding of this passage within it’s historical context, I suggest this post by John Mark Hicks. The significance of this oracle cannot be underestimated. Biology, sociology, and nationality matter not, for as is has been declared, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” In fact, the apostle Peter will even recite this entire oracle in Acts 2 to declare the outpouring of the Spirit as the sign that the promise of the Lord’s redemptive grace has been fulfilled in Jesus and is available to all. So we cannot underestimate the redemptive significance of God pouring out his Spirit upon all people. It is the declaration that all people matter to God, not just the Jewish male. All people are invited to share in the new Spirit-empowered community that God has created in Christ, for all people are equal.

It’s very important that we remember this is for all people. To that end, we’re on solid ground saying that one’s race, ethnicity, social-standing, and even sexual identity matter not because all are equal, all are welcome! But it is this last point – sexual identity – that needs further explanation. I still hold the conviction that same-sex relationships are not the will of God for our lives but I don’t believe that a people should be unwelcome in this new community because they identify as gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, or trans-gender. That is because we all, regardless of our sexual identity, come as equals… We’re all sinners!

All Are Equal ✟ All Are Welcome

Regardless of our sin, we come in response to an invitation that God has extended in Jesus Christ who offers us salvation. However, this salvation is a lifetime journey. To borrow the language of Paul, salvation is justification, sanctification, and glorification. What God is doing is inviting us into a new community that belongs to Christ where we have been justified, are being sanctified, and will be glorified. But justification, sanctification, and glorification are not requirements for accepting this invitation from God, they are the results–more precisely, the result of God’s finished work of redemption.

Let me express what I’m saying another way. When God has completed his work of redemption, when Christ comes again, when heaven and earth again become one and God dwells among people (cf. Rev 21:1-4), I fully expect that there will be people who have struggled with sexuality, including people who struggled with same-sex attraction all their life. I expect this just as much as as I expect that there will be others who have struggled with addictions to drugs and alcohol, or with anger and hatred towards people of other races, or with selfish and greedy desires, or with with being honest and ethical in their business practices, and so on. We all are sinners and we all still struggle with sin in one form or another. Throughout our journey we confess our sins to God and cling to Christ as our only hope of salvation, a hope the Sprit dwelling among us assures us of.

In the words of the African-American spiritual, when Christ returns the entire new community of God’s people will have one common testimony, “I once was lost in sin but Jesus took me in…” What we need to learn how to do now is become as welcoming and inviting as God has been to us and is to all people. Then we’ll be a community where sinners just like us can discover the grace of God, find healing from any injury and be transformed by God the mercies of God which are new every morning.

A Preview of Heaven

It’s been a couple of weeks since writing anything extensive for this blog but I hope to get back in the rhythm of regular blogging soon. In the mean time, here is a piece I wrote for the Connecting Newsletter published by the Columbia Church of Christ. As the title suggests, it’s about heaven but read it because it’s also about the life we are living right now as the church.*

• • • • • • • • • •

With all the books that focus on people going to heaven for a brief time, there’s obviously a curiosity about what heaven will be like. There’s nothing wrong with such curiosity if that leads us to seek after God.

Having said that, what is generally spoken of as the after life in heaven is what the Bible refers to as a “new heaven and new earth” (Isa 65:17; 2 Pet 3:13; Rev 21:1). But instead of turning to stories about the alleged near-death or momentary after-life experiences of a few people, we have a preview of this heavenly life that’s much closer than we may realize.

A Little  Bible and Theology First

The book of Ephesians has a lot to say about what it means to be the church, the body of Christ. The church is described as one body in whom both Jews and Gentiles have been reconciled to God and each other through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. Having raised his Son from death, God has made the church alive in Christ. The apostle Paul describes this redemptive act as God’s “eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph 3:11, NIV). In other words, the life we anticipate in the appearing of the new heaven and new earth is already taking shape in the church. Therefore, if we want to know what life will be like “in heaven” then we should look at the life God has made us to live as the church.

Of course, as the church, we don’t always live as an accurate portrait of what the heavenly life will be like. This is why we must speak of the heavenly life as “taking shape” in the church. In a way, we are like soldiers in basic-training. Over the course of the training, the soldiers look more and more like they belong to the military but all along the way there are setbacks when the soldiers fail to live by the standards expected of them.

So given the fact that sometimes the we fail to live as a heavenly portrait, we can’t rely exclusively on what we see and experience in the church. Therefore, if we want to know something of what life will be like “in heaven” then we must also read what scripture has to say about who and what we are called to be as the church.

A Witness of God’s Redemptive Salvation

That as the church we are a preview of heaven has some important implications that matter now. As the church, we are the reconciled body of Christ which is a body of one where all are equals living under the Lordship of Christ. The values that divide people from one another in the old life that is passing do not have any place in the church. In the church it matters not what color of skin we are, what sort of economic status we have, what sort of education we possess, or what our gender is. Such social statures remain in this old passing life but because of the gospel and by the power of the Spirit, we as the church must overcome such distinctions and live as one.

We must remind ourselves this because we are a portrait of what the heavenly life will be like and because values such as elitism and racism remain alive in the world. Whether obtained ethically or not, the recent racist remarks of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling remind us that prejudices remain a part of the larger culture. That racial discrimination in America was defended by Christians reminds us that we’re not exempt from failing to inhabit the gospel as the way of life and live as the reconciled body of Christ. Our calling to live as a portrait of what the heavenly life will be like is our witness to the redemptive salvation God has accomplished in Christ.

As it is when the new heaven and new earth appears with God dwelling in the midst of it, so should it be in the church today. If we enjoy worshiping and serving the Lord today then we will enjoy the heavenly life to come. If we enjoy the hospitality of our neighbors then we will enjoy the heavenly life to come. If we enjoy sharing with others of what we possess then we will enjoy the heavenly life to come. If we enjoy the company of people from different races, ethnicities, and nationalities then we will enjoy the heavenly life to come. If we enjoy learning from and working as partners with both men and women as equals then we will enjoy the heavenly life to come.

And as we do… Then we have a portrait, a foretaste, a preview of heaven!

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This same article was originally published in Connecting 29 (May 7, 2014), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ, and has been reformatted for this blog.