Christianity: Reclaiming the Practice

According to Acts 11:26, “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” Before this, followers of Jesus were typically called “believers” or “disciples.” But now the citizens of Antioch said they were Christians and I’m pretty certain they were not meaning to compliment these believers. To say “I am a Christian” today may draw some sneers but not for the same reasons. So perhaps we can ponder a little more what it means to be a Christian.

THEN and NOW

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The words read “Alexamenos worships his god.”

In the eyes of this Greco-Roman city, these people were following someone who had been crucified and as the apostle Paul would later remind the Christians in Corinth, this was considered foolishness (1 Cor 1:23). As a matter of fact, Jesus was not considered a hero or a good honorable person among the unbelievers, to some he was a crucified ass as the third-century Alexamenos Graffito etching depicts. And I use this language not to be vulgar but so that we might understand the point. If hearing Jesus spoken of as a crucified ass makes you uncomfortable, imagine how Christians must have felt  nearly two-thousand years ago. Yet these Christians remained fiercely loyal, swearing their allegiance to King Jesus and embodying the way of life he lived while on earth — even to the point of suffering death themselves.

But my, my… How things have changed. I once was asked by a barista in a local coffee house if I considered myself a mainline Protestant Christian or an Evangelical Christian. Realizing that this person likely had assumption about both groups that I didn’t want to own, I was very thankful for my Restoration heritage which gave me the language of saying “Christian only but not the only Christians,” So I told the barista, “I’m just a Christian and nothing else.”

That seemed like a good answer in 2007 but ten years later, I’m not so sure. There are ideas associated with the term Christian that give me reason to pause and sometimes option to just say that I am a follower of Jesus. So it’s not that I’m ashamed to confess my faith in Jesus, as I’m not, It’s just that when Christianity has become so embedded in American politics that it’s nearly impossible at times to see any cultural difference between the two, then Christian means something very different from what Christianity should be.

GUITAR PICKING and CHRISTIAN LIVING

As already pointed out, Christianity began as a way of life. To be a believer was to be a disciple of follower of Jesus in community with other believers. That is what it meant to be a Christian and thus to be a part of the ekklesia of King Jesus. It was more than just believing. It was believers putting into practice what they believed about Jesus and the life he lived while on earth.

However, Christianity as a practice isn’t how we typically think of being a Christian. MacIntyre describes a practice saying:

“A practice involves standards of excellence and obedience to rules as well as the achievement of goods. To enter into a practice is to accept the authority of those standards and the inadequacy of my own performance as judged by them. It is to subject my own attitudes, choices, preferences and tastes to the standards which currently and partially define the practice” (After Virtue, 3rd ed., p 190).

In other words, every good has certain practices that must be followed for that good to exist. If the good is playing the guitar, then there are certain practices such as properly fretting chords and scales, picking techniques, etc…  that must be learned and followed to say I can play the guitar. Any person may be able to pick up a guitar and produce a sound from making contact with the strings but that does not make such a person a guitar player. The same is true with Christianity. There are certain practices that must be learned and followed to say that we are being a Christian (for an accessible read on such practices, I would begin with Fitch, Faithful Presence, 2016). While there is room for debate about what practices are necessary, there shouldn’t be any regarding the need for learning and following certain “standards of excellence” and “rules” in order to be Christian.

This MacIntyrean understanding of practice helps us as we think about our own confession of faith. To be a Christian is not just to believe in Jesus and have a set of beliefs about what is taught in scripture, it is to follow Jesus as a way of life. While that sounds so obvious, just a quick observation of society shows that it doesn’t always translate into practice. Yet it must. If we confess faith in Jesus then we must reclaim Christianity as a particular practice of which Jesus is the interpretive lens that focuses our understanding of what this practice involves.

SO THEN…

Our goal is the formation of Christ in our lives (cf. Gal 4:19) and it requires more intentionality on our part. If our desire to become like Jesus, then we must invest in the practices following Jesus. This isn’t a works oriented salvation, it’s called repentance and it is part of Jesus’s original call to come follow him… learning to be distinctly Christian.

“Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord.” – Lamentations 3:40, NIV

This Battle Still Belongs to the Lord

The tragic shooting this past Sunday in Sutherland Springs, Texas has been a painful tragedy to hear of from afar. I’m upset for the many innocent lives that have been lost and hurt, and I’m angry that someone can just indiscriminately kill other people. Yet just as with the past church shootings in Antioch, Tennessee and Charleston, South Carolina, in ways that hit close to home, we are reminded again that churches face persecution. The question we face as the body of Christ here in America is “Now what?”

Sutherland Springs Shooting

The Battle Belongs to Who?

When I was in college, one of the popular songs during chapel and devotionals was The Battle Belongs To The Lord (if you’ve not heard the song, you can click on the title to hear an a cappella rendition of the song). It’s a song that encourages faith with lines like… “No weapon that’s fashioned against us shall stand [because the] battle belongs to the Lord.” Or, “When your enemy presses in hard do not fear… The battle belongs to the Lord.”

Yet, sometimes I wonder if Christians really believe this? Or have we so compartmentalized our faith that the battle we sing about has nothing to do with the physical life we are living? I ask that because with the news of so many mass-shootings which are now also taking place at church and other religious gatherings, the response of many Christians is not any different from the way the rest of the world responds.

For the past few days the response of many Christians on social-media was the reaction of anxiety expressed in the question of how do we protect ourselves from such harm. Don’t get me wrong! I am not opposed to undertaking measures that protect innocent people from harm but when Christians suggest that the number one concern of the church should be safety is just to lose sight of the gospel. When our anxiety about a mass-shooter coming to our church prompts us to immediately suggest locking all the doors of the church building during worship and/or encourage members to carry firearms, we are letting fear lead us rather than faith. [Whether it is moral/ethical for Christians to carry firearms as a means of personal self-defense is besides the point.]

It seems as though Christians in America have forgotten that following Jesus might mean suffering for the name of Jesus. It certainly has for our fellow disciples throughout history and even today among certain places in the world. So the possibility of suffering for the sake of Christ should not surprise us. Scare us??? Yes, the idea of having an individual or group enter our worship gathering to kill us is terrifying. The question we must ask is how should we respond?

A Christian Response

Consider these words from the Apostle Paul that have been the focus of many sermons on a Sunday morning. Ephesians 6:10-20…

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.

Exegeting the text isn’t the big issue we face with a text like this. In my experience as a pastor, the problem is that too often we have so spiritualized and privatized this passage of scripture that it doesn’t have any bearing on an issue like the threat of a mass-shooting. That is, we limit the “struggle” (v. 12) to the way Satan may be trying to lure us into sexual immorality, selfish behaviors, bouts of depression, and so forth. Now I’m not denying that any of those issues are real battles we face as Christians. They are real and this passage offers us sound instruction for facing those struggles. However, this text was originally written to Christians who were also facing forms of persecution for being followers of Jesus. So when we hear that a gunman has committed mass-murder inside a church gathering and realize that such a massacre could happen in our church gatherings too, this text offers us instruction for facing this struggle too.

The passage tells us how we, the church, remain strong. Our strength is in the Lord, not in our own fallibility. Putting on the full armor of God then is essentially living as the new creation we are in Christ (Lincoln, Ephesians, p 442). Of course, finding our strength in the Lord as we put on the full armor of God requires faith. That is why v. 18 says, “And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.”

When faced with any struggle, our response begins with prayer because it isn’t our battle to fight or win. The battle, as we sing, belongs to the Lord and it is a battle he has already won even though we may suffer. The promise of the gospel is not that we will be without suffering but that through the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ we have a victory now that will be known in fullness when our Lord returns. So when faced with struggles, we respond by praying and lifting our petitions up to the Lord… praying that we can live as his new creation rather than like the old creation that the rest of the world is.

Through such prayers we gain the strength to remain distinctly the church. And when it comes to the threats of violence, it doesn’t mean we ignore safety concerns. What it does mean is that we will act in faith rather than with fear and that by acting in faith, we don’t not consider just our own safety but how we go about our business of embodying the gospel. That is, besides considering how we might develop a protocol for responding to an emergency such as a mass-shooting taking place, we are also resolved to keep loving others, forgive those who wish us harm, and proclaim the word of God more boldly. If our response to danger is not an embodiment of the gospel then we’re not any different from the world and if we’re not any different from the world then are faith is nothing more than empty words we recite on Sundays.

One Final Plea

My fellow Christians, I am not asking that we remain naïve about the world or just throw ourselves into danger. My plea is that we not lose sight of the victory we have in Jesus Christ and that we respond to the potential dangers we face as the victorious people of the Lord. That won’t always be easy but let’s remember… This battle belongs to the Lord!

A Word For The Church

Sutherland Springs ShootingThis past Sunday should have been an encouraging day, as I gathered with Christians for worship and fellowship. But then I came home and saw on television the news coming out of Sutherland Springs, Texas. Another mass-shooting, this time at a First Baptist Church where at least 26 people were killed and many others wounded.

Something Is Wrong!

Like most people, I am sad and shocked as well as a bit angry. I neither know what motivates a person to indiscriminately commit mass-murder, killing innocent people without any regard for their lives, nor do I understand why a person would do such a wicked thing. I also find it very alarming that such violence has become a regular occurrence in this American society we live among. Surely our society is sick, suffering from a soul-disease, of which the symptoms include our addiction to violence in everything from entertainment to all sides of politics as well as these mass-killings. But as a pastor and minister, I am concerned for churches.

Concerned for churches… I’m sure you are too. However, we may not share the same concerns. Yesterday, I saw many posts and comments on Facebook about what church leaders are planning to make church gatherings more safe and secure. Some commenters, presumably Christians, talked about carrying their firearms or hiring trained security officers. How American! And sadly perhaps, how unChristian!

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m all for taking reasonable measures for ensuring safety and security. But if that is our first response, our gut response, or our only response to the threat of potential danger, then we have lost the faith that Jesus calls us to have.

An Unfamiliar Church

In the early part of Acts, the apostles Peter and John are arrested and told to quit preaching Jesus. As followers of Jesus, who was crucified right there in Jerusalem, booth the apostles and the church understood where this could lead. So the church responded by forming a safety committee to consider ideas about how they might avoid such dangers.

Wrong!

According to Acts 4:23-31, we are told that the church began praying. And what they prayed for just might astonish us because they didn’t pray that God would protect them or keep them safe in any manner. Instead, praying to the “Sovereign Lord,” they petitioned him saying, “Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”

Could we pray such a prayer? Would we pray such a prayer?

I’m sure churches are praying but is prayer the first response or is it just an appendix added on to the committee meetings about safety and so on.

I often hear Christians lament the growing trend of secularism in America that has also resulted in the marginalization of Christianity. But whose fault is that if we are more worried about safety than praying for God to enable the church to speak his word more boldly? Whose fault is it if we are more worried about how to stop a potential threat than we are about asking God to stretch out his healing hand and perform signs and wonders through the name of Jesus.

Faith and The Threat of Danger

As suggested earlier, I am not opposed to taking reasonable measures of safety and security. However, our response to the threat of danger must be one of faith and therefore an expression that is both coherent and in continuity with our ancestors in the faith — some of whom expressed their faith in Jesus through martyrdom.

We know that throughout history, followers of Jesus have suffered persecution as Jesus promised. So we should not be surprised that evil people will target Christians with violence and other kinds of wickedness. The question that matters is how we respond and part of that response is the prayer for boldness that the Christians in Jerusalem prayed. For should we be called by Jesus to suffer for his sake, we will never have the faithful courage to suffer as a martyr unless we have the faithful conviction of a martyr.

May the Lord give us eyes to see and ears to hear his word! And may the Lord strengthen his church, filling us all with the Holy Spirit, that we may live according to our faith with great boldness!

Three Suggestions for Church Leaders

aaeaaqaaaaaaaallaaaajdy0zwuwotfkltfkntatngjkzi1hnjyylwnmywvmntmwnwu2maRegardless of what might pass a leadership among society, the church is different or should be different. Leadership within the kingdom of God is not about positional authority or ruling over others but about serving. As Jesus said to his disciples in Luke 22:25-26, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves” (NRSV).

Notice the contrast Jesus makes between ruling over people and serving people. When church leaders, such as ministers/pastors and elders/shepherds, act as though their role is a position that entitles them to make decisions, they are ruling over rather than serving the church. Regardless of the intentions, acting with positional authority will create problems that usually brings about decline. At the same time, for there to be leadership then those called to lead must do so with vision and courage just as Jesus himself did. Timid leadership can just as easily result in problems that brings about decline.

At the surface, it sometimes seems like there is a paradox between serving and leading. Perhaps so and if there is indeed a paradox, then we should let it stand and wrestle with it rather than trying to eliminate whatever tension it creates.

With that being said, here are three simple suggestions for church leaders:

  1. Lead by example. In the economy of God’s kingdom, leaders are followers of Jesus first. Leadership is thus characterized by having a humble and self-sacrificial posture that is willing to care for others. Setting an example also means going first where one desires to lead others. Leaders must themselves cultivate a life of discipleship if they seek to be a church making and maturing disciples.
  2. Lead by listening. Spend time with people and get to know them, learn who they are and what they’re passionate about or what sort of struggles they have as well as questions and concerns they have. Doing so validates their existence and feelings as well as opening space to ask questions that will allow everyone to further discern where God is leading and then begin to go there together.
  3. Lead by Conviction. At the end of the day, leaders must be decisive. However, good leadership makes decisions based upon beliefs, principles and values rather than popularity. This doesn’t negate listening to others but no matter what decisions are made, someone will always disagree. So at the end of the day it is better to lead from convictions rather than the approval of others as right is always right regardless of it’s popularity.

So now, what says you?

Imagining The Church

One of my favorite books, perhaps the best, I’ve ever read is Vincent J. Donavan, Christianity Rediscovered, 25th Anv. Ed., 2003. The book is an account of Donavan’s ministry in Tanzania as a Catholic missionary and his reassessment of what it means to follow Jesus which led to rediscovering his Christian faith. I like the book because not only is it a great story to read but whether you’re reading the book as a lesson on multi-cultural mission work or just a devotional text on faith, Donavan’s story is encouraging.

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Donavan’s story reminds us that when we follow Jesus, the church Jesus desires will always follow but that church will not necessarily be what we expected. This was the lesson the apostle Peter learned too. If you recall when Jesus told his disciples that he was going to be crucified, it was Peter who rebuked Jesus (Mk 8:32) for speaking about dying on a Roman cross. While Peter was able to discern that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, his imagination for what it meant to be part of this Jesus movement couldn’t fathom how crucifixion fit into that scheme. But Peter would learn and learn again.

In Acts chapter 10 we read about the conversion of Cornelius, a Gentile who served as a Roman soldier. In the story Peter is given a vision during his sleep of heaven opening up with animals that Jews considered unclean appearing in the vision as Peter is told to eat. However, Peter rejected such an idea and why… because his imagination for what it meant to be a part of this Jesus movement did not have any capacity for inclusion of the Gentiles. But the Lord spoke saying in v. 15, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” Thus Peter, who was still loyally committed to following Jesus, learned.

What lesson did Peter exactly learn? Well, we can obviously say that Peter learned the kingdom of God is inaugurated the the crucifixion of Jesus the Messiah. We also can say that Peter learned the kingdom of God is a realm without an ethnic and national boundaries. But I believe Peter learned even more and that there is more that we can learn too.

Peter learned that in following Jesus, the church Jesus desires will always follow too but that church will not necessarily be what he expected. But can we learn that lesson too? You see, everyone has an imagination for how we understand the church to be…

  • What the church should look like.
  • How the church should act.
  • Who belongs to the church.
  • What the markers of the true church are.
  • How the church should participate in the mission of God.

These ideas all constitute what we hold convictions and there’s nothing wrong with having convictions per se. The question is hold tightly or loosely do we hold our convictions about the church. Can Jesus challenge our imaginations about what it means to be the church?

I hope so.

One thing I am certain of is that if we follow Jesus then the church Jesus wants us to be will always follow, though it may be different from what we imagine the church to be. However, if our imaginations for what the church should look like, how it should act, who belongs in the church, what it’s true markers are, and how it participates in the mission of God never changes, then perhaps we might start asking if it’s Jesus whom we’re really following.

Agape Blitz in Portland, Oregon

Two weeks ago I accompanied three other adults and six students, including my daughter, from the Chillicothe Church of Christ on a service mission trip to the city of Portland, Oregon. The purpose of our trip was to work with the Agape Church of Christ as part of their summer Agape Blitz in serving people who are homeless.

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Group photo taken with the family of Ron and Lori Clark. Ron serves as the Minister with the Agape Church of Christ in Portland.

We did this by working in some homeless camps that provide housing shelter to those who otherwise would likely be sleeping on city sidewalks or underneath some overpass. We also participated in a Night Strike which according to the website “is a community gathering that mobilizes volunteers/services, meets felt needs, and develops relationships that transform lives.” This is a weekly event that provides everything from basic care, such as haircuts and feet-washing, to services that extend human dignity to people who often are ignored by much of society, such as offering a hot meal and friendship.

Besides the work we were doing, we enjoyed the fellowship we had with one another as we took a day to travel into the mountains and visit both Seaside and Canon Beach on the Pacific Ocean. In addition, we enjoyed some meals together, a few stops at local coffee shops, and a visit to the famous Voodoo Donuts, which provided us with opportunities to grow closer to each other as people who are all on the journey of following Jesus.

To sum up this trip, it was an opportunity to not only love people but to teach our students what it means to follow Jesus. Our goal was to #SeeJesusBeJesus. Or in other words, we wanted see how God is working in Jesus and to participate in the work that God is doing in Jesus among the world. Of course, that is something we can and are learning to do in our everyday lives as people of “the Way” (cf. Acts 9:2). As Jerry, a deacon of our church who organized this trip, says, “Everybody is somebody, so treat everybody as somebody.”

I personally am really proud of our students. When it came time to work, they worked hard without complaining. When it came time to interact with people whose lives and circumstances were very different than their own, they loved and served without fear or judgement. Here is a slide show video of our trip…

The Christian Mind

If we want to know how someone thinks, the place to begin is with what the person does. Except for the ignorance of acting without thinking, which we all are woefully guilty of at times, human action reflects human thought. The important question we must ask ourselves is what kind of thinking shapes the way we live?

Living Christ PosterThe question of what kind of thinking we do is important because virtuous thought doesn’t always seem natural. Just take children for example. Get any group of three-year old children together and they will play together without any concern for matters such as skin colors, clothing apparel, etc… But they’ll need to be told again and again to share. Sharing toys with each other is not a part of their thinking.

Unfortunately, as they grow up, this me-first selfish mentality is reinforced over and over. I remember years ago seeing a bumper-sticker that said “He who has the most toys wins!” And if you remember watching the MTV show Cribs, a reality television in which viewers received a tour of the homes belonging to Hollywood celebrities, actors, musicians, and athletes, then it sure seemed like there was truth to that bumper-sticker.

As Christians though, we are called to a different way of life and one that reflects the good news of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God. But old habits die hard. Following Jesus requires a new way of thinking so that our new way of living will take shape over time. This is the reason why Paul reminds us of the Christ-hymn in Philippians 2:5-11:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very natureGod, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! 

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

The point isn’t simply to tell us about Jesus and help us develop a more sound doctrine of christology, though that’s certainly helpful. Paul is interested in cultivating our mind-set, as v. 5 says.

This matters because most conflicts in church are made difficult not because people disagree but the way people disagree. When “selfish ambition or vain conceit” as opposed to the humility of regarding others before ourselves and caring for the interests of others guides our train of thought, conflict becomes a disaster. As Christians though, we must learn to think in a selfless manner that seeks to serve others because that is the model and example we have learned from Jesus Christ. It is the Christian mind in us that places others above ourselves, considering their needs before our own and even when the cost to us is great.

A couple years ago I listened to Dr. Kent Brantly share his story of caring for patients with Ebola in the African country of Liberia. While treating patients, he contracted the deadly virus and nearly died. Yet he didn’t regret his decision to go serve others suffering from such a terrible illness. But in talking with a few other Christians about his story, I heard someone remark about the faith of Dr. Brantly and then quip how they doubt they could ever do that.

Well, it does take a lot of faith but that faith is the product of a mind that has been cultivated as a Christian mind. Our heroes of faith are people just like us who simply have allowed God to conform them in the likeness of Jesus Christ. That’s the only difference. So while I don’t want to downplay their faith, I don’t want to supersize it in a way that allows us to say that could never be us because that’s just not true. The question of faith is just a matter of how much our mind-set has been cultivated as a Christian mind, reflecting the mind-set of Jesus. So instead of saying we could never… we should begin with the dangerous prayer of “Lord, Jesus Christ, make me like you!”