Category Archives: Redemption

Cultivating People of Grace

Everybody sins, including you and including me. But to often, so it seems to be the case, we forget that we’re sinners as we heap judgment and condemnation down upon others for their sin. But as one who unapologetically believes in Jesus and is striving to follow him, I believe Jesus calls us to become conduits of grace in our world. And boy oh boy, does our world ever need grace…

If Only there was more grace

Last week I read the story of a Michigan City, Indiana police officer who was found dead from a self-inflicted gun shot wound. Growing up in the LaPorte, near Michigan City, the story interested me. The story itself is sad, as it is any time someone takes their own life, but the story is bigger than just a tragic loss of life. The officer had resigned his position just a couple days prior to his death after having been arrested and charged with three counts of level 6 felonies having to do with misconduct and possession of a prescription narcotic drug without a prescription.

I’m not repeating the story here in order to heap any sort of judgment upon this officer. In fact, I intend to do just the opposite with this post. I tell the story because it seems rather apparent that the officer had some personal struggles that had now led to further problems affecting his life and career. Adding his trouble was the fact that the news was well publicized locally and some people apparently used Facebook as a place to play judge, jury, and executioner by quickly heaping judgment and condemnation on this officer with vitriolic comments. Unless we have found ourselves in similar circumstances, we can only imagine the shame and how it must have felt for this man to have his life seemingly unraveling in such a public way. Nevertheless, this officer apparently felt so hopeless that ending his own life seemed like the only option and that is a great tragedy.

The reason I share this story is because it reminds me of how much every community needs the local church whether they know it or not. Every community needs people who know how to show grace and that should be the church who has encountered the grace of God. Here is why…

Society is often full of graceless people who are ready to judge and condemn, as though they have never sinned themselves. When people find themselves broken and their world is collapsing amidst the shame of judgment and condemnation, what they need is some friends who will love them rather than heap more scorn upon them. By loving such people, the church becomes a conduit of grace and mercy. As I have said in preaching before, everyone needs forgiveness and a second chance at some point in their life. When the church is the place where those who have failed and let others down begin encountering that forgiveness and second chance, the possibility of hope is believable.

Jesus, An Immoral Woman, and Grace

One of my favorite Jesus stories, one that I’ve written about before, is found in Luke 7:36-50. While dining by invitation at the home of a Pharisee named Simon, a sexually immoral woman, perhaps a prostitute, anoints the feet of Jesus with oil and Jesus doesn’t scold her. This doesn’t sit well with Simon, so under his breath he criticizes Jesus which in turn draws some very pointed teaching about grace from Jesus. Then Jesus tells the woman, “Your sins are forgiven… Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (v. 48, 50).

But there’s more and it’s matters much!

Jesus spoke words of grace to this woman and that’s important because she needed to hear that she is forgiven. But Jesus also embodied grace to this sinner in the way he treated her.

  • By not scolding her, Jesus extended hospitality and let her know that he is someone safe. Unlike Simon, Jesus will not heap judgment and condemnation on this woman whose tears signify the shame she already carries around with her.
  • When Simon, along with the others, judge this women with their glaring looks and scornful remarks, Jesus comes to her rescue and defends her. Jesus will not let this woman drown in her own tears of shame. Instead his protection lets her believe in the possibility of hope, hope that not even she is beyond redemption.
  • Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Jesus himself is willing to risk his own reputation and endure the scorn of others in order to show grace. Regardless of what Simon and the others think, this woman will not bear the shame alone anymore because Jesus is willing to bear it with her.

This sinful woman is able to leave this dinner party with forgiveness but she is also able to leave with hope because through the actions of Jesus, his word of grace has meaning.

Cultivating Grace

Talk is cheap and words are meaningless without action. Churches can sing all the songs about grace and pastors can preach sermons about how much God loves the sinner and forgives the sinner but unless the people that make up the church are able to embody the grace of God, those songs and sermons mean little.

Ministers, through preaching and teaching, must cultivate the churches they serve to become people of grace. And by that, I mean becoming people who extend hospitality to people drowning in the shame of their sin, defending them from the judgment and condemnation of others and doing so even at the risk of their own reputation. It’s not enough to offer recovery programs for those struggling with addictions or those who have suffered through a divorce. Those are certainly important in helping people turn the page, so to speak, and learn to live into the life God is redeeming them for. But when people find their life unraveling in brokenness, what they need is people who will put their arm around them and remind them that they are not what others, and maybe even they themselves, think they are… who will remind them that the grace of God is for them.

Cultivating churches to become a people of grace involves equipping the people to be present to their friends, neighbors, and co-workers in order to extend that grace in that hour of need. That means equipping people how to listen without judgment nor advise. Sometimes it might be necessary to offer some suggestive guidance just to help prevent someone from aggravating their trouble any further but other than that, advise is not needed. What every sinner needs, especially when they are drowning in shame, is someone to be their friend. And that means being the friend who will listen to them, praying for them and being present to them so that the phrase “Jesus loves you and so do I” has actual meaning.

One Final Word

Everyone sins. Unfortunately, sometimes the price of sin is very steep. Beyond adversely affecting the relationship with God, moral failure can be costly in a social sense and this is especially the case when it involves criminal activity. Grace will likely not eliminate these consequences nor should it necessarily do so either. But what showing grace just might do is make the fall bearable and let the person know that this too will pass… that there is hope, a second chance to get back up and live again.

By the power of the Holy Spirit, may our churches embody the grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ to the glory of Father in heaven!

Our Redemptive God

This message, This Is God, was preached before the Westside Church of Christ in Baltimore on Sunday, July 12, 2015. The text I preach from is Exodus 3:1-10 which is one of my favorite passages to preach on, especially as a guest preacher. I hope this message will encourage you!

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.”

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!

——————-

* 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!