Category Archives: Christian History

With Thanksgiving… An Advent Message

Sunday, November 27th, was the beginning of the New Year per the Christian Calendar. It was also the First Sunday of Advent. Below is the video of the Advent sermon I preached at the Westside Church of Christ from Psalm 100 which is called “With Thanksgiving.”

Happy New Year!

You may not realize it but Sunday will mark the beginning of the new year. So… Happy New Year!

According to the Christian calendar and in keeping with our historical Christian tradition, this Sunday is the beginning of the new year. And not only the new year but it’s the first Sunday of Advent, where we become mindful of the coming of God.

The reason this may be unfamiliar is that some groups of Christians have paid little attention to Christian history with its tradition, including the Christian calendar. If that’s the case, where does that leave us? Without the Christian calendar, the only calendar telling us the seasons and dates is the secular Western calendar which our lives are oriented around more than we realize. In terms of Christian or gospel formation, without the Christian calendar we are formed only by secularism as it pertains to how we live in response to the seasons of the year.

The late Charles Taylor described Western society as so enmeshed in secularism that a transcendent reality can only be seen like rays of light peeking through a cloud. Perhaps then it’s of little surprise that people, Christians included, have become so oriented around consumerism, nationalism/tribalism, and technology. All the more reason why we must give more attention to the Christian Calendar and to the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, and Ordinary Time or what some refer to as Kingdom Time.

Does this mean that our secular calendars are all bad or without value? Of course not! There are days on the secular calendar worth remember, like Thanksgiving which we will celebrate tomorrow. However, giving our attention to the Christian Calendar allows God to form our imaginations and worldview even more so around the gospel story as told throughout the biblical narrative. One way of doing this is reading the scripture readings that are listed in the Revised Common Lectionary for every week of the Christian Calendar.

So I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving. More importantly though, Happy New Year! Advent is upon us, so let us turn our attention to the coming of God. For our God, who became flesh and dwelt among us in the person of Jesus, will one day come again and make all things new!

Reclaiming The Way of Jesus

As you know, Christianity began as a very counter-cultural movement of Jesus followers. As communities of believers, these disciples gave total allegiance to Jesus and proclaimed him, who was crucified, as the resurrected Lord and Messiah. The result was marginalization from society and sometimes even persecution. Yet, with all the resistance and animosity towards this movement, it continued growing and spreading. Today Christianity has spread around the globe and continues spreading with its proclamation of Jesus, doing so even in places where followers of Jesus are still oppressed and sometimes persecuted.

A lot of significant events have happened since the first Easter, some for the good and some not. One of these significant events was the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine in the early fourth century. After his conversion, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan giving legal status to Christianity as a religion and brought an end to persecution. This new status meant also meant a new challenge for Christianity as a movement.

Following the conversion of Constantine, as Christianity found favor with the state, an alliance was formed between church and state. This relationship between the church and state resulted in the eventual formation of a Christendom, a geopolitical reality in which the values and practices of society were mandated by the church. With such power came corruption and a lot of bad, including religious wars that eventually gave rise to secularism and the emergence of modernism. The result in Europe and now in North America has been the slow and steady decline of Christendom.

Even though the U.S. Constitution has maintained a separation between Church and State, America was still very much a Christendom society (was being the key word), Though there are still some local cultures, particularly across the Bible-belt, where Christendom still lingers to some extent, America has become a post-Christendom society.

Our calling is faithfulness to Jesus, living as his followers. Whether or not such faithfulness is attractive or expedient is inconsequential. What matters is our faithfulness!

As you know, as Christians, our way forward is always in following Jesus. But as we renew our call to live as followers of Jesus in a post-Christendom society, I suggest we should give more consideration of the ways that America has often colonized our faith. For far too long Christianity in America has been a faith in which its adherents, Christians, have believed that one could serve both church and state. While that might be possible for some, for far too many, it seems, this has led to serving the aims (telos) of the state rather than the aim of the gospel. Christianity becomes a privatized belief expressed on Sunday while the rest of life is rather coherent with the values of the state… politically, economically, and so forth. Our faith in Jesus must redefine our entire life. The gospel must become the reality that shapes our values and practices, thereby redefining our lives so that Jesus’ way of life becomes our way of life − easy to talk about but much more difficult to do.

So here is where I want to take this post and the reason I wrote it. One question we have to answer is whether the way of Jesus will be our way period or only our way only when it makes sense with whatever circumstances we are facing. In other words, is our belief in Jesus merely utilitarian or is it our gospel? As the authors of the book StormFront write:

The church that lives by the gospel is called by that gospel to a different kind of life. The church is called to model a form of life in which faithfulness, love, and allegiance are not merely utilitarian virtues to be discarded when inconvenient, but rather the bedrock upon which life is built. Participating in resurrection life means living as if love really is stronger than death, as if faithfulness really is more powerful than the naked pursuit of self-interest. In the midst of a society that believes that all bets must be hedged, that all loyalties must be conditioned upon self-interest, the church dares to live differently (pp. 69-70).

Our calling is faithfulness to Jesus, living as his followers. Whether or not such faithfulness is attractive or expedient is inconsequential. What matters is our faithfulness! But I also believe the way of Jesus in which we live as humble servants who love one another, our neighbors, and even our enemies, is a beautiful life that many are looking for and the only life that will endure.

Lent: Because We Are Sinners

According to the Christian liturgical calendar, today is Ash Wednesday. It is the beginning of Lent, a season of forty days leading up to Easter Sunday. Christians who observe Lent will participate in prayers, periods of fasting, and self-denial as a means of self-discipline and concentration unto the Lord.

Growing up in a Christian tradition that did not follow the liturgical calendar and therefore did not observe Lent, the purpose of Lent has always remained somewhat nebulous and maybe that is due in part to my own observance of this season. I have never attended an Ash Wednesday service and had ashes placed on my forehead, however the idea of remembering that I am but dust and shall return to dust, and therefore in need of repenting and believing in the gospel of Jesus Christ, is something I need to remember. I am give planning to practice some self-denial as I spend time in prayer, though prayer is a part of my daily life already, while anticipating Holy Week in remembrance of the suffering death of Jesus Christ upon the cross and his resurrection unto life upon the third day.

Yet as I think about Lent, it seems that the purpose is a way of reminding us that we are sinners in need of a Savior, who receive that salvation from God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And that is why we might need to observe Lent more than ever.

Though we are all sinners, we live in a culture that increasingly forgets this. Even Christians, myself included, are not immune to this forgetfulness. There is a quickness to criticize and condemn others for their short-comings, just ask Cam Newton. Forgiveness, mercy… Not so! In the coming months, politicians will tear each other apart, painting each other in villainous way, and they will have plenty of help as people use social-media to pass along their same vitriol in memes, tweets, etc… Even when acknowledging our own sin… our mistakes, poor-judgment, and wrong doing, there is an ever temptation to mitigate such sin even though that same judgment isn’t extended to others.

This season of Lent, might we say “Enough!”

This season of Lent, might we say, “We are sinners and therefore are not in any position to condemn and criticize others!”

This season of Lent, might we say, “Lord, have mercy upon us and everyone else!” 

This season of Lent, might we say, “Lord, teach us to be as merciful to others as you are merciful to us!

May this season of Lent remind us that we are all sinners! Not so that we can mitigate our sin but so that we will look to Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected, through whom we all have the forgives of sins. Perhaps then, as we emerge forty days later from this season of Lent, we will not be a people who judge and condemn others but instead be a merciful people of who sing the praises of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, as the one who saves us all!

Lord, have mercy!

Loving The Enemy: Jesus and The Early Church

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor’ and ‘hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be like your Father in heaven…”

– Jesus Christ, Matthew 5:43-45

This is the teaching of Jesus who refused to take up the sword against his enemies, instead submitting to the will of his Father in heaven by choosing the cross. This is the Jesus whom we are called to follow and if we call ourselves a Christian, we are making a claim to follow Jesus.

We’re fine with following Jesus until it comes to the way we treat those who would do us harm. Then we would rather have a militant Jesus who will say it’s ok to take up arms and, in the name of safety and self-defense, do violence to that enemy and even kill that enemy if necessary. We’re so comfortable with the idea of necessary violence as part of our way of living, that it is almost impossible to fathom that Jesus is calling us to a non-violent way of life as part of our kingdom witness. Seriously! Listening to some Christians defend the use of violence leaves me the impression that the Jesus they follow entered into Jerusalem with military gear and an assault rifle, like captured in the picture here.

The notion that Jesus is calling us to a non-violent way of life seems so asinine that some Christians will stop at almost nothing to negate this teaching of Jesus. Some will proof-text certain passages of scripture out of both their historical and theological context to do so. Others will appeal to utilitarian reasoning, beginning with some hypothetical circumstance that logically seems to necessitate some measure of violence, in order to dismiss the notion that Jesus calls us to not fight with violence. And some will even anachronistically read the Bible by claiming that Jesus, as the second-person of the Trinity, is violent because God allows violence to take place in the Old Testament (an argument that is fraught with poor theology and hermeneutics).

All of these attempts either ignore, evade, or attempt to redefine the historical and eschatological trajectory of the biblical narrative and the good news of the kingdom of God that it proclaims (the gospel Jesus preached) which tells us of the redemptive mission of God that liberates us from the old life marred by sin, much of which involves some measure of violence, into the new life as new creation in Christ. That is, the attempts at justifying violence prolong the old life even though, as followers of Jesus, we are called to live as new creation bearing witness to the heavenly life that God is restoring among his creation in Christ. Violence has nothing to do with this life that we are witnesses of!

Of course, I could be wrong. It is always possible that my reading of scripture is wrong and therefore my understanding of the life Jesus calls us to follow him in living, which includes non-violent living, is wrong. But one way of always checking our reading of scripture is by turning to early Christian history and seeing how some of the earliest Christian leaders, those who historically are much closer to the apostolic era, understand the life Christians are called to live regarding the issue of violence and loving our enemies. So here are a couple of blog posts here and here that have assembled some quotes from some of the early church leaders of the patristic era. You can click on those links to read all the quotes but here a few:

  • Justin Martyr: “We, who used to kill one another, do not make war on our enemies. We refuse to tell lies or deceive our inquisitors; we prefer to die acknowledging Christ.”
  • Irenaeus: “Christians have changed their swords and their lances into instruments of peace, and they know not now how to fight.”
  • Tertullian: “Under no circumstances should a true Christian draw the sword.”
  • Origen: “We have come in accordance with the counsel of Jesus to cut down our arrogant swords of argument into plowshares, and we convert into sickles the spears we formerly used in fighting. For we no longer take swords against a nation, nor do we learn anymore to make war, having become sons of peace for the sake of Jesus, who is our Lord.”
  • Athanasius: “Christians, instead of arming themselves with swords, extend their hands in prayer.”
  • Clement of Alexandria: Christians are “an army without weapons, without war, without bloodshed, without anger, without defilement.

I won’t pretend as though this teaching of Jesus answers how we should respond in every possible situation that seemingly creates an ethical dilemma. However, it should be evident that peaceful living (which includes non-violence) should be one of the virtues that characterizes the Christian life. That means at the very least that we should strive to nurture peaceful mind-set among ourselves so that in every circumstance we might respond in non-violent ways that bear witness to the eschatological reign of God in Christ. It also means that even if we conclude that there is a time when some measure of violence is justified (on the criterion for just-war, see here), we should never speak and act as apologists for violence — especially in a time where the ethos of American culture appears saturated by violence rooted in the things of the world rather than Christ.

May we learn to follow Jesus embracing the cross rather than the sword, loving our enemies rather than killing them!

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.

Evading Jesus: Christians and Violence

Brian Zahnd recently wrote a blog post titled You Cannot Be Christian and Support Torture that went viral within the evangelical sub-culture. The post generated a lot of conversation, including a lot of disagreement. That’s not surprising but it is saddening. If I didn’t know any better, from the way some Christians defend the use of torture and violence I just might conclude that Jesus is a violent warrior who makes right by violent might.

Of course, that’s ludicrous! Jesus had the opportunity to lead a violent revolution but chose instead to humbly die on the cross at the hands of his enemies rather than killing his enemies. This is how Jesus loves even his enemies and Christians know this. Christians know that Jesus teaches us to love our enemies (cf. Matt 5:44). Christians know that Jesus calls us to follow him by picking up our own cross (cf. Mk 8:34). In fact, Christians know that the teaching and example of Jesus does not include violence.

Even if it can be argued that there are times where some level of violence is permissible (cf. Doctrine of Just-War), there is nothing virtuous about violence.  Violence is nothing for a Christian to champion. But that doesn’t matter for some.

In order to negate the teaching and example of Jesus in the canonical Gospels, some Christians are now claiming that Jesus employed violence in the Old Testament as the second member of the Trinity.

That’s the claim I am reading among some commenters on various blogs and Facebook thread. But plain and simple, this is grasping at straws. There are at least two problems with such an argument:

  1. Suggesting that Jesus used violence in the Old Testament as the second-member of the Triune Godhead broaches upon the heresy of decetism. While such a claim doesn’t actually deny the physical existence of Jesus’s life, it negates the physical life he lived, which was both a non-violent and an exemplary life, by appealing to his divinity in order to justify violence as part of the Christian life. This claim, of course, is made while ignoring the fact that while Jesus is the eternal Son of God, it is only in his flesh as God Incarnate that he reveals the fullness of the invisible God (cf. Col 1:15, 19).
  2. Suggesting that Jesus used violence in the Old Testament as the second-member of the Triune Godhead employs an anachronistic reading of the Bible. The Bible has a directional flow to it’s narrative that such a claim ignores by imposing Christian theological claims upon the earlier part of the narrative while ignoring the claims made in the later part of the narrative. That is, those making such a claim impose Trinitarian theology upon the Old Testament in order to make Jesus violent while setting aside the Trinitarian revelation of God in Jesus Christ which culminates with the cross rather than a sword.

Such carelessness on the part of some Christians, including some who have a theological education, clearly reveals just how much the tail is wagging the dog. In the end it just reveals how much Christianity in America is willing to ignore the elephant in the room… evading the Jesus whom we are called to follow just so that we can continue legitimizing the American way, which includes violence.

Maybe we need to learn from Jesus again…

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.” – Jesus, Matt 5:9