Category Archives: Theology

The Ministry of Cultivating A Gospel Passion

I’m reading through Charles Taylor’s book Modern Social Imaginaries which is one of those thick reads akin to running a race waist deep in mud. Nevertheless, if I understand Taylor correctly, he describes how modernity brought about the notion of a modern-state as the means of establishing civility among European society where much savagery existed at the time. Of course, the idea that that morality and civility can be brought about by legislative governing is a modernistic idea and an anthropocentric one too. That is, the capacity to generate a well ordered life for people is an activity of human power.

Now I might be making too much of a leap here but given this modern notion that centralized authority could establish and regulate civility, this also gives some understanding of how the modern church denomination became so popular. A denomination provided structure that could regulate beliefs and practices of the Christians who belonged to the various churches within the denomination.  Even among the Churches of Christ, though not structured with the typical polity of most denominations, the editors of various journals along with the popular “gospel meeting” preachers served to regulate the local church.

The Limitation of Regulation

Like the modern-state regulated civility with establishment of new laws, the drafting of statements of faith and church by-laws by denominational boards helped regulate the beliefs and practices of local churches. Sometimes this regulation, as in the case of the Churches of Christ, was predicated on a legalistic reading of scripture that turned the Bible (and particularly the New Testament) into a constitution that served as the foundation for the regulation. In the end, the objective of such regulation was faithful Christians and faithful churches.

However, even though the modern denomination remained a strong presence throughout the twentieth century, it was during that time that we began to see the impossibility of regulating civility by legislation. Despite such coercive power, the twentieth century proved to be one of the most deadliest in history (if not the most) with numerous wars and conflicts that have now spilled into the twenty-first century.

Few believe that governments can maintain lasting peace, though without a doubt they will continue trying. I also suggest that like the inability of governments bring about civility, church denominations cannot make faithful Christians by regulating the beliefs and practices of a church (and that includes appealing to scripture as a legalistic text). Despite written and unwritten creeds, church’s still struggle to live on mission with God and Christians still struggle in remaining faithful to Jesus.

Cultivating Passion

Nothing can replace passion! When someone is passionate about something, they will pursue that passion vigorously and good will come of that provided that the said pursuit is based upon a health passion. So it also seems that local churches flourish when there are a core group of people with a passion that is rooted in Jesus and his gospel and that individual Christians are most likely to remain faithful when they have this passion.

And where does this passion come from? A living encounter with God and what he is doing in Jesus by the power of his Spirit! It is a spacial-jouney whereby a new core identity takes shape, one that is in alignment with the kingdom of God. This is why Jesus announces the gospel (cf. Mk 1:15) and then invites us to come follow him (cf. Mk 1:17), which is an invitation to come learn how to live the kingdom life as an embodiment of the gospel he has announced. The fulfilling of this passion is then brought into fruition by the Spirit rather than enforcing regulation, which is exactly what we read of in the book of Acts.

If the fulfillment of this passion could be achieved through regulation of law, we would have a different story to tell about the Pharisees and religious leaders of Jesus’ own day. But that won’t work and I think we are coming to realize this with what we see happening in many churches across various denominations and fellowship. If ministers of the gospel and other church leaders want to form people with a passion rooted in Jesus and his gospel, a passion that results in people serving as God gifts them and calls them to do so, then we must, as Alan Roxburgh suggests in his book Missional Map-Making, cultivate that passion as an artisan working soil (p. 138).

This cultivation involves, I believe, preaching, teaching, and leading people to see what God is doing in life. Doing this requires presence among the people while simultaneously having the ability to ask good questions as a listener of both the people (the church you serve) and culture. Scripture is still very much involved but the aim is more than just pointing people to scripture. Ministry points people beyond scripture toward that living encounter with God.

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!

The Love of God and Marriage

A few weeks ago I picked up a copy of Henri J. Nouwen’s book Life of the Beloved in a bookstore. I started reading through it and as I read about the love of God, I began to think about this love and marriage. Does marriage express the love of God? And if so, how so? So read on…

We are the the beloved children of God. This is a truth imprinted throughout scripture, from Genesis to Revelation. But the truth and believing the truth are two different matters. For various reasons, maybe our own sinful awareness or perhaps a traumatic childhood, we’re so prone to rejecting the truth that we are loved by God.

Unfortunately, as our rejection contradicts what Nouwen describes as that sacred voice that tells us we are Beloved, we begin a futile chase for love in various streams and substances that never satisfy. They have the appearance of fulfilling our desire for love but ultimately they fail to deliver anything but eventual misery. Whether we’re chasing the bottom of a whisky bottle, that next pornographic website, a bigger house then the one that already is stretching our financial means, endless work just to appear as someone great in the eyes of our peers, etc… it’s all the same. That’s why we must come to the knowledge that we are eternally loved by God.

Yet knowing that we are eternally loved by God, our Creator, we lose the desire to vainly seek love in created realities.

Knowing that we are eternally loved by God matters much. As Nouwen says, “Every time you listen with great attentiveness to the the voice that calls you the Beloved, you will discover within yourself a desire to hear that voice longer and more deeply. It is like discovering a well in the desert. Once you have touched wet ground, you want to dig deeper” (p. 37). So once we come to a full awareness that God loves us and that our deepest desire for love is found only in God, then we continually seek that love in God.

However, as I think about this, I think about marriage… After all, we are creatures and so our are spouses, yet we seek love from one another. Is this vanity?

No!

In the story of Adam and Eve, the Lord says, “It is not good that the man should be along; I will make him a helper as his partner” (Gen 2:18, NRSV). Then God creates a woman for the man and Adam has a wife named Eve. Before going on, let me point out that the word “helper” (‘ezer) is not about hierarchy in the relationship between the man and woman. The same word is also used in Deuteronomy 33:29 where the Lord describes himself as Israel’s helper and I’m quite sure the text is not implying that Israel has a hierarchal relationship over God. What the Lord is doing is creating a helper who will bless the man as his partner and had it been that the woman was created first, then the Lord would have created man as a helper to bless them woman as her partner. Because in truth, both the man and woman need each other as partners who help each other and that is what this relationship is about… Two people, who through a mutual relationship, will help each other as partners.

Consequently in Genesis 2:18 we find an expression of God’s love for us as he gives us partners to help us along in life. In the context of marriage, it means that marriage itself is a blessing from God. While not everyone will marry in life, nor do they need to in order to have the love of God fulfilled in their life, this is important for those of us who are married. Our marriage is an expression of God’s love toward us. In marriage, God is giving us a spouse as a helper and likewise, God is giving us to our spouse as a helper too. That is, when two people are married, God is blessing them with the intention of them living as lifelong partners who help each other through life. So when we look at our spouse and our spouse looks at us, we are seeing what should be a tangible reality of God’s love.

Of course, that’s not always the case. Marriage is never a perfect blessing because it is an expression of love clothed in flesh… in the humanity of Adam. It’s a risk that God takes. It’s the same risk God takes in creating humanity in his image, who will fail to reflect his in numerous and sometimes very horrendous ways. Sometimes the expression of God’s love through the blessing of marriage  backfires horribly and for those who have experience this failure, I am deeply sorry. Nevertheless, for many of us, despite our sins and weaknesses, God is still able to express his love to us through our marriages.

Realizing that we are loved by God means that we also must learn to let that love permeate everything we think, say, and do.

Early on in marriage, after the honeymoon is over, we begin to see the short-comings and weaknesses in our marriage. Unfortunately, what we often see our the problems that our spouse’s have, while failing to recognize our own problems. Often then, the first response is to try “fixing” our spouse, by criticizing and correcting, which only adds to the problems. Stop that! It doesn’t work. There is only one person in this world that we have enough control over to affect change and that is ourselves. So my suggestion is this: INSTEAD OF TRYING TO CHANGE YOUR SPOUSE, DECIDE WHAT YOU MUST DO TODAY IN ORDER TO SHOW THE LOVE OF GOD TO YOU SPOUSE.

Now, go do that.

As a husband or wife, be a helper and be an expression of the love of God to your spouse.

Good Friday: Religious Freedom and the Crucified Christ

Every week I drive into the same local Shell gas station to buy gas because this is where the cheapest gas prices are in town. The manager is a Muslim and I think he originates from Pakistan. Then about once a month I get my hair cut at one particular barber shop because the barber not only does a good job but also offers the cheapest price for a haircut in town. The barber is a Buddhist who migrated to the United States from the nation of Laos.

I wonder how I would feel if either that gas station manager or the barber refused to do business with me because as a Christian, my religious and moral values differ in some way from their own convictions? How would you feel if either of these businesses refused service to you because they do not share your Christian religious and moral convictions… because in doing so, they feel they would be violating their own religious convictions?

Us vs. Them

As you most likely know, their is a firestorm erupting in American culture over the State of Indiana’s passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). You can read the bill, officially known as Senate Act 101, right here. Whatever the intention of this bill actually is, which is still not entirely clear (evidenced by the fact that Indiana legislators have already amended the law), the application of the law seems to single out LBGQT people over the issue of gay marriage. Consequently, a restaurant owner has the right to refuse catering service for a gay wedding because doing so violates the religious conviction of the restaurant owner who believes that gay marriage is morally wrong.

The firestorm has continued to spread with one restaurant owner, who professes to be a Christian, calling into a radio station to freely admit that he does discriminate against gay people. Then another restaurant owner, responding to a hypothetical question (which seems unwise), has said according to this article “If a gay couple was to come and they wanted us to bring pizzas to their wedding, we’d have to say no.”

So it seems that regardless of the RFRA intention, the issue has singled out the moral issue of homosexuality. That is, once again some Christians have found another way to elevate the moral issue of homosexuality above other moral issues and religious convictions. I wonder if those same Christians would refuse to provide catering to a wedding should they learn that the ceremony will include something such as a Wiccan prayer ritual or if the reception to follow should have alcohol where inevitably some people will become drunk? My point is simply to say that by singling out gays and gay marriage, something else appears at work beside mere religious and moral conviction. That something else is a cultural war waged by political power that continues fostering an “Us vs. Them” scenario where exclusion  − both implicitly and explicitly − is the result.

This is a Christian problem! Some Christians seem to insist upon the rest of society conforming to their beliefs and values, even if it means relying upon state political power to ensure that conformity. Those within society that do not embrace the beliefs and values of these Christians are then marked for exclusion. This was the way of the Pharisees and other religious leaders in Jesus’ day, who were quite accustomed to practicing exclusion themselves. Yet the more that Christians embrace an exclusionary practice, the more Christianity drifts further and further from Jesus. Only this time this drifting is not due to the theological liberalism that characterized some mainline Protestant Denominations throughout the 20th century; this drifting comes from Christians  maintain the political privilege of a Christendom culture is coming to an end.

Good Friday and the Gospel

It seems as though the gospel is failing among us… the gospel that was and is salvation for both the Jew and Gentile (cf. Rom 1:16)

Today is Good Friday. It’s the day when Jesus was nailed to the cross for the sake of the world, to set the world free from the burden of sin and death. Jesus’ death was that inclusive moment when God destroyed the barrier that excluded Gentile from Jew, by making the two into one…

But now in Christ Jesus you who used to be far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, the one who made both groups into one and who destroyed the middle wall of partition, the hostility, when he nullified in his flesh the law of commandments in decrees. He did this to create in himself one new man out of two, thus making peace, and to reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by which the hostility has been killed. – Ephesians 2:13-16

Jesus’ death was that act of grace on the part of God that said my sin and your sin will no longer separate us from God or each other. It doesn’t negate the fact that we are sinners, as we most certainly are, it just means that Jesus has atoned our sin by making peace through his death so that our sin would no longer exclude us.

We praise God for that act of grace, as we should. We gather together around the Lord’s Table to sing hymns, offer up prayers, hear from God’s word, and ultimately remember through the partaking of bread and wine, which represents the body and blood of Jesus, that we are now included. So why then should we turn around and maintain a practice of exclusion, singling out certain people for their religious, moral, and lifestyle choices? Do we think their behavior somehow taints us, indicts us as guilty? Or do we just need to keep our culture sanitized of that which offends our Christian sensibilities? Were these the concerns of Jesus  when he embraced the sinner… when he was lifted up upon the cross as a scandalous and shameful spectacle?

True Religious Freedom

Jesus died to include those whom his followers sometimes exclude. This has to change. Here’s how…

In his book Exclusion and EmbraceMiroslav Volf writes, “We would most profoundly misunderstand the Eucharist, however, if we thought of it only as a sacrament of God’s embrace of which we are simply the fortunate beneficiaries. Inscribed on the very heart of God’s grace is the rule that we can be its recipients only if do not resist being made into its agents; what happens to us must be done by us” (p.129). That is to say that as we gather around the Lord’s Table to remember the very grace of God which includes us who are sinners, we must also become practitioners of this inclusionary grace. We are to be agents of this grace with our fellow believers whom we are communing with around the Lord’s Table and with our neighbors, regardless of whether or not they are believers… or whether they share our same beliefs and moral values. However, the way we live as agents of this grace will differ in each particular setting we find ourselves in.

When it comes to discerning how we should live as agents of this inclusionary grace in the market place, we should look at how Jesus, whom we follow, did this in his life. For the sake of space, let’s just recall that Jesus sat among and engaged in life with the “sinners and tax-collectors.” In doing this, Jesus was neither approving of their sin nor becoming participants in their sin and it seems that should be the case with us. Neither by eating a meal with a gay person nor by providing them with a meal, even in a gay-marriage or same-sex civil union, means approval or participation in the actual relationship. To say otherwise is believe in guilt by association and it that’s true then we are guilty of another sin just about every time we engage someone else with just a simple smile. Rather than incurring guilt participating in life with someone who is gay, what we are doing is removing the “Us vs. Them” barrier that we have built up. We are saying that even though we may not agree with their certain aspects of their life, we will not let it become a hostile barrier that stands between us because our God let his Son, Jesus the Messiah, be crucified to demolish such barriers.

As we, who profess to be Christian, remember the death and resurrection of Jesus on this Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday, let us become conduits of the very grace we are recipients of. Let us give up the political power we use as an attempt in conforming the rest of society to the beliefs and values we choose to live by… And let us instead serve our neighbors regardless of whether we agree with their lifestyle choices. For to do is to embrace true  religious freedom!

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” – Galatians 5:22-23.

“So we must not grow weary in doing good, for in due time we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who belong to the family of faith.” – Galatians 6:9-10.

May it be so among our neighbors whether they be Christian or not, White or Black, Strait or Gay!

Whose Side Are You Standing On?

Last Tuesday, March 3rd, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in the United States speaking to Congress. Predictably, his appearance and speech was a political moment that showed the great polarization between Democrats and Republicans. Not surprisingly, his address was lauded with both support and scorn by Christians. Those who favor the right, the conservatism of Republicans, expressed their approval for the Prime Minister while those who favor the left, the liberalism of Democrats, criticized the Prime Minister’s appearance. And not surprisingly, though disappointing, many of these voices lending support or scorn were the voices of Christians… people who belong to the Kingdom of God.

This all seemed like a primer for what’s to come as America gears up for another major election, including the election of a new President. Many Christians will take to social-media as a vehicle for expressing their views, most of which will sound unabashedly either Democrat or Republican. So let me be clear: Christians, we have a problem!

Gospel of Reconciliation

When the Apostle Paul was writing to the Corinthian church to defend the legitimacy of the ministry he and Timothy are engaged in, he described the work as the ministry of reconciliation. Paul said that it was “…God who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and who has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18). In a world divided between Jews and Gentiles, fueled by years of animosity, Paul was called to proclaim the death and resurrection of Christ which was the climatic event bringing an end to the division by creating one new creation in Christ. In fact, much of Paul’s writing in the New Testament is dedicated to bringing out the implications of this reconciliation.

One of the implications for reconciliation is that those who are reconciled to God also become agents of reconciliation. After discussing how in Christ the wall of division between Jews and Gentiles has been destroyed, creating one new people known as the church, Ephesians makes clear that this “wisdom of God” is now being made known “through the church” (Eph 3:10). The church is able to participate in this mission of God because the Holy Spirit empowers it to live as a proleptic reality. That is, the Holy Spirit enables the church to live among the present as a witness of what the future is.

This is how the eschatology of the gospel works. The future of history, God’s future, has entered into the present through Christ and now his church who continues the ministry of Christ. This means the church is called to live as the tangible reality of what reconciliation looks like among a dying world that only knows division.

There’s just one problem: The majority of Christians in America seem to have forgotten this gospel of reconciliation. Or worse, they just don’t care. What makes me think this, you ask? Because too many Christians are more worried about upholding the present day divisions that having nothing to do with the gospel by aligning themselves with the American right and left… Republican and Democrat politics.

Swallowed Up Into the Division

One of the books I am currently reading is Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace. The author, who as a native Croation, lived through the wars in the former Yugoslavia, knows something about division and explains the real consequence of aligning with one side or the other…

The stronger the conflict, the more the rich texture of the social world disappears and the stark exclusionary polarity emerges around which all thought and practice aligns itself. No other choice seems available, no neutrality possible, and therefore no innocence sustainable. If one does not exit that whole social world, one gets sucked into its horrid polarity. Tragically enough, over time the polarity has a macabre way of mutating into its very opposite − into “both us and them” that unities the divided parties in a perverse common of mutual hate and mourning over the dead (p. 99).

Volf explains how people, by failing to remove themselves from the division, become swallowed up into the division, taking up the cause of one side or the other so that it becomes about “us” (whatever side we align ourselves with) against “them.”

Here in American, that polarity is the politics of the conservative vs. the liberal, typically known as Democrat vs. Republican. The problem for Christianity is that is aligning ourselves with either side, we become that side and lose the ability to participate in the gospel of reconciliation. Note what I did not say: I did not say that by aligning ourselves with one side or the other will prevent us from proclaiming “Jesus saves,” teaching a bible class at church, helping with our church’s VBS, or many of the other good Christian things we do. But let’s be clear, we can do all that and still fail to join in the gospel of reconciliation because this ministry is about living among the present old world of human kingdoms as a witness of the new in-breaking future world of God’s kingdom. And we can’t embody the new when we’re still enjoined with the old!

So, someone might ask, are you saying that Christians cannot vote? Nope! I’ve not said that once and to think that this is the issue is to miss the issue. Most Christians are way past voting. We’ve gone from being just voters to people who are involved in waging a social-media war for one side or the other, as if whatever side we are fighting for is the good news that give life to this dying world. Except, if we really believe the Bible, then we must admit that this is wrong and that the only way we can participating in bringing good news to America and the rest of the world is by aligning ourselves exclusively with Jesus’s cause… not Jesus’ cause and America’s cause but Jesus’s cause alone!

One Question

Let me finish by asking a question. But first, a quick story.

When I was a child at church camp, we would sing a song during devotionals called Standing On The Lord’s Side. The song went something like this…

Leader: “Tell me, whose side are you standing on?”
Church: “I’m standing on the Lord’s side.”
Leader: “I said, whose side are you standing on?”
Church: “Standing on the Lord’s side.
I stand, I stand, I stand… standing on the Lord’s side.

So it seems time for us to ask, whose side are we standing on? The American Right and Left or the Lord’s Side?

Christians: Not of the World?

“Be in the world but not of the world!”

It’s a well known phrase that has been preached in many sermons and repeated by many, many more Christians. It is a conviction which many Christians, especially of the Bible-believing, conservative-evangelicalish type, understand the relationship they are to have with the world. That’s why you won’t hear such Christians talk about going out to see the movie Fifty Shades of Grey followed up by dinner at some restaurant like Hooters or Tilted Kilt.

Being “in the world but not of the world” is actually rooted in some solid biblical teaching. Jesus himself desired that his disciples would be both sent and sanctified. According to John 17:15-19, Jesus prayed to his Father about his disciples saying…

“I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth” (NRSV).

The idea of sanctification means to be holy, set apart for God and his mission. While Christians are sent into the world, rather than withdrawn from the world, Christians must abstain from living as the world because they do not belong to the world. The Apostle Paul expresses a very similar concern as he commands the Christians in Rome saying, “Do not be conformed to this present world… (Rom 12:2).

To See The World as God Sees

But living as people who are not of the world is more than just abstaining from certain segments of the entertainment culture.

In his book Exclusion and Embrace, Miroslav Volf writes about the strangeness that Christians are to have regarding their culture as a result of their allegiance to God rather than country. Such strangeness gives “…a vantage point form which to perceive and judge the self and the other not simply on their own terms but in the light of God’s new world…” (p. 53). Thus, by embracing this strangeness, Christians are able to see the world as God sees it and respond in ways that reflect the new creation they belong to.

The importance of this strangeness cannot be overstated. Two Sunday’s ago I turned on the news and was horrified by the news that twenty-one Coptic Christians were beheaded as martyrs of Jesus Christ by the terrorist group ISIS. It is horrible and as expected, everyone believes something needs to be done about such terrorism. The world, including the United States, will meet such violence with violence. Militaries will wage war and the masses will champion the cause as if it will really save the world, ridding it of evil.

Yet a lot of Christians, including some preachers, are among the masses cheering this cause and here in the United States it too often ends up having to do with what is best for America… filtered through whatever political camp one affiliates with. So much for being not of the world!

To Speak As Christians

I’m not writing this just for the sake of being critical. I’m concerned with how the church is going convince this broken world of the gospel when so many Christians speak as people who still belong to the world?

I went and saw the movie American Sniper yesterday. It was a realistically brutal portrayal of war, in more ways than one. Besides the bloodshed and the loss of lives of both Americans and Iraqi insurgents, who both bear the image of God, families suffered on both sides for the gods of war. As the movie finished, I was left with nothing but sadness. There was anything to celebrate, there wasn’t any winners to applaud, and there wasn’t any heroes to venerate as a legend. What I saw were victims. That’s right, victims! I saw victims of a dark and broken world where everyone keeps trying to kill everyone not in a war that ends all wars but as a war that only begets more war.

The only way the world is ever going to know there is hope beyond such mayhem, the future hope which Jesus has established through his own crucifixion and resurrection, is for Christians to speak of such hope… to speak as people who are not of this world in response to the terrorism and violence of this world. The world doesn’t need the church to champion its way of the sword, as it already has plenty of people ready and willing to do that. What the world needs is for Christians “to be concerned about nothing among [the world] except Jesus the Messiah and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2) because it is only through the crucified Jesus that the world will ever know the hope of the resurrected Jesus.

As You Come Together

Here is a video of me preaching at the Westside Church of Christ in Baltimore on Sunday, February 8th. The sermon is titled As You Come Together and is based on 1 Corinthians 11:23-34.