Category Archives: Scripture

The Gift

There’s a story in the Gospel of Luke where Jesus is standing in the temple watching the wealthy give their offerings.* Somewhere in the midst of all this comes a “poor widow” who only has two coins to offer. After placing her coins in the offering, Jesus saw the difference between the two offerings. According to Luke 21:3-4, Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all offered their gifts out of their wealth. But she, out of her poverty, put in everything she had to live on.”

At first glance this story may appear as a blight against the wealthy or it might lead us to believe the only acceptable offering is giving every last cent in our pocket. Or maybe we’re just missing the point.

Some Baseball Cards, Dad!

Today is my 41st birthday. I’ve already received birthday greetings, cards, and a few gifts. I appreciate them all but there is one gift that stands out, one that I’ll remember throughout my life.

Yesterday my son Jared gave me a set of baseball cards because he knows I’m a baseball fan. And he’s becoming a fan, as we’ve taken in an Orioles game each of the last two years. So he decided to give me some baseball cards.

What makes this gift so special is that it’s the first time where Jared has decided on his own to give me a gift. In the past, his mother has always taken him shopping on our dime (insert smile). Not this year. Jared picked out his own gift to give. And he was so excited it! So much that he couldn’t wait until my birthday… He gave me my gift yesterday.

As I opened the gift and saw the baseball cards, I saw the smile on his face and the joy in his heart. That joy that radiated through his smile lit up the room and filled the air with joy. That was the real gift he was giving, a gift from the heart born out of the love he has for his dad.

The Heart That Gives…

Back to the story of the widow’s offering. What was it that she gave out of her poverty? Was it just two small coins or was it something much deeper, of an unmeasurable wealth?

I wasn’t at the temple with Jesus to see this woman’s expression or the expressions of her wealthy neighbors. Nevertheless, it seems that the gift this poor widow gave was her heart. Yes, the gift was expressed through two coins but the gift was the heart nonetheless.

The heart that gives is the gift that pleases God, that brings a smile to his face like it did when my son gave me the set of baseball cards. The heart that gives is a gift that can be expressed through two coins, if that is all one has, or through an abundance like the wealthy temple-goers had. Likewise, one can give either an abundant or just a small amount such as two coins and still never give from the heart.

What matters when we worship and when we serve God is that we do with a heart that gives. That’s not an offering that can be manufactured or taught. That’s the heart that gives because it’s the heart that loves… loves God and loves neighbor!

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* This same article was originally published in Connecting 29 (August 6, 2014), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ, and has been reformatted for this blog.

A Place For Lepers

One of my favorite Jesus stories is the one told in Mark 1:40-45. It’s a story about Jesus and a leper whom Jesus heals. But it’s so much more.*

A Kingdom Story!

ImageLet’s think about the context a bit more. As already mentioned, this story occurs early on in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus has already appeared in the Galilean region proclaiming the good news (gospel) of the kingdom of God. This is a declaration that the reign of God has started breaking forth upon history and that people should change (repentance) everything about their expectations of what this means and accept (believe) what they hear and see, which is Jesus preaching and teaching with authority as well as healing the sick and driving out demons.

That all sounds good but it makes even more sense why this was called “good new” when we read of Jesus’ encounter with this leper. This leper approached Jesus and said to him, “If you are willing, you can make me clean” (v. 40). Take notice that the leper did not ask about the ability of Jesus to make him clean. He already believed Jesus had that ability. What he questions was Jesus’ willingness and that is apparently because Jesus’ religious contemporaries were unwilling to help this leper at all.

But Jesus was… Jesus is!

Here is what happens. The text says, “Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched our his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I am will. Be clean!'” (v. 42). I suppose Jesus simply could have spoken and cured this leper of his disease but that’s not what Jesus did. Moved by compassion, Jesus treated this leper as a human being by touching him. He didn’t have to but he did because restoring a sense of value and dignity to this leper was that important. That’s because this is what it looks like when the kingdom of God is at hand.

Moved With Compassion…

Now here’s the caveat… In chapter one of the Gospel of Mark, as Jesus proclaims the good news of the kingdom of God, he calls us to follow him. And we say “Yes! We will follow Jesus.” But even as we say yes, I wonder how many people there are around us who are crying out to Jesus saying, “If you are willing…” The encounter Jesus has with this leper teaches us something very important to following Jesus. If we want the people in our community to believe in the good news then just as Jesus was, we had better be the people who are moved with compassion when they cry out to God. Whether we encounter an actual leper or just someone who has become a societal leper because of their present life circumstances, we dare not be the religious people who turn a deaf ear to their cries.

A lot of energy is spent these days on the declining influence of Christianity in the western world. I have a strong feeling that everything will be just fine so long as churches learn to follow Jesus and become a place for lepers, reaching out and touching them with the compassionate hand of Jesus!

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* This post is my contribution to the Compadres Blog Tour.

Discernment and Mission: Seeing Beyond Our Own Church

“But the word of God kept on increasing and multiplying.” – Acts 12:24 (NET)

Many commentators treat this statement simply as a summary of what’s going on among this early movement of Jesus followers. While it’s entirely appropriate to this passage as a summation, we miss a lot if we limit this text to mere rhetorical strategy. Regarding v. 24, Luke Timothy Johnson says, “it is also a triumphant assertion of the movement’s growth despite the attempts of a tyrant to suppress it through the harassment of its leaders” (The Acts of the Apostles, p. 216). Therein is a clue regarding what ought to challenge every church’s understanding of what participation in the mission of God may involve.

Baptisms and Bible-Studies

Let’s first take a few steps back and think about church and mission. I think it’s fair to say that when it comes to the church and the mission of God, there’s a lot of for the spectacular occasions. For example, in the book of Acts, churches love to talk about chapter two where the Spirit is poured out and 3,000 plus people are baptized upon hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ preached. The same is true for chapter eight where an Ethiopian eunuch is baptized after basically asking Philip to study the Bible with him.

Churches love stories like these and would love for them to be the stories of their churches. That’s why churches talk about their yearly number of baptism or about the evangelistic Bible studies taking place, as if the number of baptisms and evangelistic Bible studies are the sure marks of a good church (don’t get me wrong here, I’m all for baptisms and evangelistic Bible studies). However, turn to Acts chapter twelve and we won’t find any spectacular stories of baptisms and evangelistic Bible studies. What we find is a church struggling in turmoil and this is where churches today must pay attention because, as I’m suggesting, they can learn a lot about what participation in the mission of God may involve.

A Theological Conundrum and Persecution

At this point in the book of Acts, its somewhere between 41-44 CE during the reign of Herod Agrippa and the church is facing a lot of challenges. First, Peter has already baptized Conelius and his household (ch. 10). The baptism of Gentiles has now thrusted a theological conundrum upon the church that results initially in a counsel (ch. 11) but one in which the church, through the ministry of Paul, will wrestle with for the next several decades. Second, Herod has begun persecuting the church, having James executed and Peter arrested (presumably to suffer the same fate as James).

While Peter is rescued from his imprisonment by an angel of the Lord, the church doesn’t know this. So when Peter returns to his church gathered at the house of Mary where, according to v. 12, “many people had gathered and we praying” (churches brag about baptisms but how often do they brag about gathering for prayer?). Peter, who already realized it was the Lord that rescued him from prison, tells the church that it was the work of God. Then we are told about Herod’s death (which also is the work of God), which says something about the continued unstable political climate the church lived within. But… With all these challenges facing the church, “the word of God kept on increasing and multiplying” (NET).

Seeing Beyond Our Church

Why did the word of God, the gospel of Jesus Christ, keep increasing and multiplying? This is, after all, what matters. The answer is none other than God. God was at work and this early Jesus movement believed so, which is why they continued faithfully following Jesus even when the difficulty of their circumstances escalated. If more churches would understand that the multiplication of the gospel is the work of God then they might also understand the futility and unnecessary need for the utilitarian thinking that undergirds many books on ministry. The increase of God’s word is the work of God that happens through the faithfulness of the church and not through turning this multiplication into an end that justifies whatever means gets the job done. This is not to say that churches should cease casting vision and planning for ministry. Rather, vision and planning for ministry must begin with the question of discerning: how must the church live faithfully as participants in the mission of God within the current circumstances?

As I suggested earlier, Churches love to talk about the mission of God when it involves preaching, a lot of evangelistic Bible studies, and especially a lot of baptisms. More importantly, Churches love the mission of God when it means church growth with lots of people joining their church. But… That is not how God always works. Sometimes God is taking that large church gathering in Jerusalem and scattering it though out the region (cf. Acts 8:1-3) so that the word of God may keep on “increasing and multiplying.” Sometimes God simply needs the church to gather for prayer and fasting so that Barnabas and Saul can be sent off as missionaries to serve somewhere else (cf. Acts 13:1-3) so that the word of God may keep on “increasing and multiplying.” Sometimes a church’s best vision and planning for future ministry is not how God is working. Sometimes the vision for growth and new ministry Churches have for their church is not how God is working. And let’s be clear… The mission of God is about the increase and of God’s word, not the increase of their church or our church per se.

The question is then, are churches willing to participate in the mission of God even if it means faithfully walking down a path different than it envisioned? The answer to this question takes discernment but the story here in Acts is inviting and challenging churches today to see beyond the realm of their own church so that they may fully live as participants in the mission of God.

 

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!

The Eclipsing of Christ!

Every year seems the same. Come Christmas and Christians are all giddy about the birth of Jesus Christ and remembering “the reason for the season.” Then as Easter approaches, we observe lent and focus our attention on the death and resurrection of our Lord. But then… The weather warms up as spring gives way to summer and Jesus is left on the back-burner as Christians turn there attention to national holidays. Patriotism eclipses the gospel. And maybe it’s just me but in recent years it seems that this patriotism has become more nationalistic, glorifying America as though it is the source and sustenance of life (idolatry is what that is). Honestly, I sometimes wonder if some Christians even understand the gospel. Allow me to explain…

In Ephesians 2:11-22, Paul describes Jesus as the peace that has mended the division between the Jews and Gentiles, a division that involves both ethnic and nationalistic pride. This is a very important aspect of the gospel but it’s something too many Christians are missing. The purpose of the gospel is the creation of one new humanity who are reconciled to one another and God. These reconciled people have a new identity that is found in Christ: they are  members of God’s household! What matters now is neither ethnic nor nationalistic identity because they belong to God. This is what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ, as the identity of every believer is now understood from their inclusion in Christ.

What was true for the Ephesians should be true for us who confess the name of Christ. But it’s not. Instead we claim our Christian identity while simultaneously carrying on our nationalistic identity, as though we can live for both nation and God. As I already alluded to, it is ironic that we are so worried about the removal of Christ from the holiday season but seem more than willing to allow the name of Christ to be eclipsed by patriotic fever.

Part of the problem is that to a large degree we have separated ourselves from the church (and notice how I just used “church” in the 3rd-person voice). Church is somewhere we go rather than who we are. So we see ourselves as Americans who also happen to be Christians that go to church rather than people who belong to God and just happen to live in America. Simply put, we tend to view ourselves as American Christians rather than Christians living in America. This is why, for example, during the American Civil War Christians were able to kill other Christians because those they identified more with the state than the church. That is, they saw themselves belonging to either the Union or Confederate State rather than to the household of God.

Today when we gather as the church on Sunday’s, we partake in the bread and wine as the family of God… proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes again. We also dream of heaven where the life we know by faith will be known by sight. Yet we miss the fact that as the church we’re meant to be a portrait of the heavenly life to come so that the world can see what the purpose of the gospel is. But we can’t be that so long as our purpose is oriented towards nationalism, as we can’t act out two different stories simultaneously. So it would seem that if we are so interested in the heavenly life that we would have more interested in that life now and expressing that life now.

Grace! A Scandal Among Christians?

Hang around almost any church in America and it won’t be very long until you hear something said about the grace of God. It’s one of the most cherished and fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith and yet this grace is a scandal.*

Grace is Much Deeper, More Earthy

You see, though salvation is by the grace of God, grace is much deeper and more earthy than a few hymns and a doctrinal statement. The grace of God is rooted in and finds its grandest expression in the incarnation of God… in the Son of God, this Galilean born in Nazareth among a barn, born to a mother whose unwed pregnancy stirred enough scandal all by itself.

We know him as Jesus, the Messiah. We believe in him. We pray in his name, sing praises about him, and apparently we’ll even rent out entire theaters to watch movies made about him. I guess you can say that we love the stories told about Jesus, the ones in the Bible. In fact, every preacher knows that he or she can’t go wrong in preaching about Jesus. After all, we’re Christians… We have a friend in Jesus, who all of our sins and griefs to bear

We adore Jesus and we adore all those stories we’ve read about Jesus in the Bible. We hear the stories of Jesus driving out demons, healing a leper, feeding five-thousand hungry mouths, eating lunch with sinners and tax-collectors, forgiving a woman caught in adultery, washing the feet of his friend-become-enemy named Judas Iscariot, and even promising paradise to the condemned criminal as Jesus himself was being crucified… And our hearts melt! When Jesus spoke from the cross and said, “Father, forgive them…” (Lk 23:34), we hear his grandest expression of love and mercy. For even as he was dying a cruel and shameful and death he didn’t deserve, he never abandoned the character of God’s grace.

But… Malarkey!

The Apostle Paul wrote that even as we were “sinners” and “enemies” of God, Jesus died for us to save us (cf. Rom 5:8, 10). We love it, cherish it, stake our faith upon it. When it comes to us, we’re never beyond the reach of God’s grace and mercy. It’s not that we think we’re somehow deserving of God’s grace. We just know how much we need the grace of God, so we relish in knowing that God loves us and is merciful to us from the boundless riches of his grace.

But what about the other person whose sins are different than ours, whose struggles are more apparent than ours, whose life is much more of a mess than ours? What happens when we encounter a homeless veteran who only knows how to numb his pain with lots of drugs and alcohol? What happens when we encounter a flamboyant LGBTQ person suffering from AIDS who’s angry towards Christians because of the rejection he or she encountered among the church of their youth when they were struggling with their sexual identity? What happens when we encounter our Muslim neighbor whose ideological outlook on life appears unAmerican? What happens when that family whose skin color differs from ours, whose language isn’t American English, moves into the neighborhood bringing with them their culture from back home?

This is where the test of how well we really embrace the grace of God is proved. But truly embracing the grace of God is not something all Christians have an interest in doing. Some will go to great lengths to evade practicing the same grace they revel in as believers. When it comes to showing mercy, loving one’s neighbor and even their enemy, and practicing hospitality with the stranger whose sin is reviling, some Christians turn to their ever handy and favorite ad hoc proof-texts from the Bible. With their favorite proof-text in mind and coupled with a big dose of utilitarian reasoning, they dismiss the example Jesus lived – this life we are called to follow Jesus in living. I even heard one Christian point to King David from the Old Testament, as though we’re called to follow David rather than Jesus… as though the example of David is greater than the example of Jesus.

This is malarkey! When we resort to such evasive tactics, we become like the Pharisees and other religious authorities of Jesus’ day who knew their Bibles well but missed the very heart of God revealed in Jesus. The grace of God, which is most palpably expressed in the life Jesus lived, must transform our character so that we learn to think, speak, and act with love and mercy towards others regardless of what condition or decisions they have made in life. When it doesn’t, then the scandal of God’s grace apparently becomes too big of a scandal for even us to embrace.

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* This same article was originally published in Connecting 29 (June 4, 2014), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ, and has been reformatted for this blog.