Category Archives: Church

Two Commands: Simple but Challenging

Most people, whether they are Christian or not, are aware of what we often refer to as the “Greatest Commands.” These are the two commands of loving God and loving neighbor. They sound so simple and in fact, they are pretty simple. However, these two great commands are also very challenging and sometimes it seems like our assumed familiarity with these commands obscures the challenge. So allow me to poke, prod, and really go all preacher on us for a few minutes.

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Years ago I was traveling through Illinois down the very boring stretch of Interstate 57 and after sever cups of coffee, nature was calling. So trying to make the most of my stop, I pulled into a Cracker Barrel restaurant thinking I would get a bite to eat while also stopping to use the restroom. Now I’ve ate at a many of Cracker Barrel restaurants in my lifetime and the men’s room is always to the left and the women’s to the right. So with nature really desperately calling, I glanced up as I entered the restroom to my left and saw the sign that said “Men” on it. 

So I entered into the restroom and seeing as how desperately nature was calling, I just saw a stall and opened the door so that I could take care of business. However, it was in the middle of taking care of business that it dawned on me, “Rex, why aren’t there any urinals in this restroom?” That was about the moment when beads of sweat began forming on my forehead as I heard the sound of a couple of women entering this restroom. Apparently my ability to read and interpret a simple sign such as the gender of a restroom was not as accurate as I assumed.

Now let me share a more important point with you: I suspect that for many people, including myself, these two great commands of loving God and loving neighbor have become so familiar that we glance at them, assume we know what Jesus is saying. However, could it be that our assumption is a little off… perhaps a lot?

In Matthew 22, the occasion is a rather dubious question. The Pharisees and Sadducees have already tried entrapping Jesus with questions about paying taxes to Ceasar and the resurrection of the dead, so now they send in a lawyer to literally ask which commandment in the Torah is most important. However, Jesus answers correctly by quoting the Shēma from Deuteronomy 6 saying in v. 37, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind.” This was the correct answer because obeying Torah was all about loving God.

“Jesus becomes our interpretive lens for how we understand the teachings of the law and in fact, the teachings of all scripture, and how we love both God and neighbor.”

Yet this is where everything gets interesting because Jesus didn’t stop with the Shēma. Instead he continues to answer the question with two other points. In v. 39 Jesus quotes from Leviticus 19 to say that there is a second great command, “You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.” So now loving God is impossible without loving our neighbors and likewise, when we love our neighbors we are loving God. Obeying both commands happens by doing the teachings of the Law and Prophets. This is why Jesus says in v. 40 “All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”

That seems strait-forward except that there is a twist here. Jesus has taken the role of a prophet calling people to repentance with the promised hope of coming salvation. In doing so, Jesus comes as the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets which mentioned during his sermon preached on a mountain in Galilee (cf. Matt 5:17). So not only is Jesus disclosing the interpretive lens through which he understands the Law and the Prophets, Jesus is also living is the embodiment of the Law and the Prophets. Now Jesus becomes our interpretive lens for how we understand the teachings of the law and in fact, the teachings of all scripture, and how we love both God and neighbor.

But I’m not sure all Christians like this. We gather around the Lord’s Table in sanctuaries for worship where we confess through song and prayer that Jesus is Lord and hear the word of God proclaimed to us through scripture and sermon but does that transcend the way we live. Do our beliefs and values really become Christ-like?

Less than a hundred years ago there were Christians living in America that defended the racist and discriminatory practices against Blacks in this nation. Every person, Christian or not, can look back on this awful history and see just how badly these Christians failed in living the great commands. But today, in the name of what is supposedly good and politically beneficial, there are Christians who will defend unjust practices against people seeking to migrate into this nation from other countries… practices that have now rendered great harm by separating children from their parents in immigration detention facilities. This happens despite what scripture has to teach us about treating “foreigners and aliens”, despite what scripture teaches us about showing mercy, and despite how Jesus treated the Samaritans and Gentiles (enemies of the Israelites). This happens despite the fact that Jesus tells us we are to love God by loving our neighbors as ourselves.

So I wonder if a hundred years from now, a generation of Christians will look on this generation and wonder how our generation could so badly miss the most simple teaching of Jesus just we wonder about those Christians in the 1950’s during Jim Crow? The good news though is that just as there were Christians during the twentieth century that defended racism, there were Christians knew such racism was wrong and that loving God and loving neighbor by following Jesus meant loving Black people as themselves. For that reason I am also confident that there are plenty of Christians who understand the denial of justice and mercy towards foreigners is wrong and that loving God and loving neighbor by following Jesus means loving all foreigners as ourselves.

May we have the moral courage to hear and obey Jesus when says, “You must love the Lord your God with all your hear, with all your being, and with all your mind… You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

Discipleship: Jesus Calls… …We Follow

Discipleship Series Pic “When Christ calls a man, he bid him come and die,” wrote the German theologian, pastor, and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his influential classic The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer understood perhaps more so than many contemporary Christians that following Jesus may call for our death — martyrdom — as a witness of Jesus. For his own commitment in following Jesus led him to lead what became known as the Confessing Church which became a movement resisting Nazi power, which ended for Bonhoeffer on the gallows at Flossenbürg Concentration Camp on April 9, 1945 at the young age of thirty-nine.

This coming Sunday, August 5th, I am starting a new and fairly short, four week, message series for the Newark Church of Christ on the subject of discipleship. While we will likely never be called to suffer any physical persecution, much less death, for following Jesus here in America (or at least anytime soon), we are nonetheless called to follow Jesus and this call is always counter-cultural. Discipleship is a life of living-sacrifice and obedience unto Jesus whom we confess as Lord. As I wrote in a Wineskins article back in 2013, Discipleship or following Jesus is about “learning to living in the way of Jesus.”

In this message series on discipleship, my aims to help the church (re)imagine the sort of kingdom vision Jesus is calling us to follow him in living, and broadly what that requires of us. In doing so, this series will cover four passages of scripture, one from each Gospel, beginning with Luke 4:14-30 followed by Mark1:14-20, Matthew 22:34-40, and John 13:1-18. Also, if you are someone who enjoys reading then here are two book recommendations that deal with the subject of discipleship.

  1. Scot McKnight, One Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010. A very practical book, the author explores how following Jesus and living the kingdom life relates to relevant life issues such as love, peace, and church, and even sex and vocation. This is a book that I have given to students graduating from high school or already in college because it deals with challenges and question everyone faces in adult life.
  2. Lee C. Camp, Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World, 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008. Though still accessible reading, Camp offers a primer on what it means to be a Christian. The book serves as a counter vision to the easy pop-Christianity that has so easily co-opted American idealism, going back to scriptures and the cross-shaped vision Jesus calls people to follow him in living.

Romans, Reconciliation, and The Gospel

People ReconciliationOne doesn’t have to look very hard to see the problem of racism is a difficult issue in America. Fifty years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the dream that got him killed still has yet to be fully realized. Now I don’t make any claims of fully understanding the problem of racism or knowing how to fully address this very complex issue. However, I am a pastor who believes that local churches should be communities where racial-reconciliation is practiced because these churches are called to be a living embodiment of the gospel. Sadly, that’s not always the case. Nevertheless, following my previous post Racial Reconciliation and the Romans Road to Salvation from a couple weeks ago, I want to sketch how Romans instructs us on the practice of reconciliation.

The Racial Tension Among Churches

I had just begun a new ministry with a church that was very diverse in terms of race and ethnicity. So here I was sitting at a table outside an ice-cream parlor where folks from the church were meeting for some milkshakes and fellowship. Sitting at the table with me, a White person, was a elderly man and his daughter who were both Black and another woman who was White. At some point in the conversation, the White woman sitting next to me mention how her dog did not like Black people.

Though I can’t recall the context of the conversation that preceded that comment, I can recall the look on the face of the Black woman sitting across from me. The offense and hurt was plainly evident on her face, and understandably so. Though the White woman wasn’t trying to discriminate or make any racial insults, her remark was unwise and lacking in any sensitivity. I could only imagine how such a remark aroused the memories of those times when this Black woman was given “the look” when she walked into a boutique full of White women, when she heard co-workers laughing in the break room at a “harmless” about Black people, and so forth.

As a fairly young minister at the time, I wasn’t sure how to handle the situation. However, I knew something like this had the potential to become very divisive, disrupting the Christian unity that God was forming among this diverse church.

But there’s also another point to be observed from this story: reconciliation in a church is much more than the fact that people of different skin colors and ethnicities worship and fellowship together. As I said in my my previous post:

The fact of the matter is that racial integration and racial reconciliation are not the same thing and worshiping together in the same church building and living as a unified church body that practices reconciliation with each other is not the same thing.

So even though worshiping and fellowshipping together is important, reconciliation that springs from the gospel of Jesus Christ is much more. Reconciliation is the embodiment of the gospel vision and that means that it is the practice of the ideal.

Putting The Gospel into Practice

In my previous post I was trying to show that we miss the point of Romans when we reduce salvation to the individual justification of sinners. Such reductionism comes from asking the wrong questions when reading through Romans which then obscures us from how Paul is trying to instruct a divided church of Jews and Gentiles to live as the people of God. Ergo, the church, where a person’s statues as justified before God is experienced, is a community. So even though salvation is a gift from God to each individual believer, the gift of salvation is fellowship within the community of God and his people. However, the embodiment or practice of reconciliation is necessary for this vision of salvation to exist as a concrete reality.

While a large portion of the New Testament speaks to this very issue, I will briefly draw our focus in this post on Paul’s letter to the Romans. In doing so, let’s assume that we understand that we all are guilty of sin and thus lack any foundation for passing judgment on one another. Let’s also assume that we are humble enough to know that it is only by the grace of God that we have been justified as sinners and are being sanctified. In making these assumptions, we not only embrace are large portion of what Paul has addressed in the first eight chapters but we are humble enough to have made the commitment of living as obedient children of God (baptism into Christ).

This is good. Now we are able to continue in presenting ourselves as living sacrifices while also recognizing that we are just a portion of the body, in need of the other portions whose skin color and ethnicity may differ from our own. But what happens when we encounter tension, when we do something that causes injury and offense, as I recalled in the story above? This is where Paul’s instructions about practicing love and equality with each other is so necessary. to hear again. Romans 12:9-10 says, “Love should be shown without pretending. Hate evil, and hold on to what is good. Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other” (CEB). Then in chapter fifteen Paul instructs with the admonition to “welcome each other, in the same way that Christ welcome you…” (v. 7).

As people committed then to loving each other, treating each other as equals, and extending hospitality to one another, we realize that at times we will have disagreements. We also recognize that because we are still sinners, we will at times say do things that offend each other. However, our love unto, equal regard for, and welcoming of each other regardless of race and ethnicity means that we are humble enough to repent and forgive each other. That is, when we offend, we go to those we have offended and confess our sin against them. We remain humble enough to listen so that we are able to learn from our mistake rather than repeat them same sin over and over again. Likewise, when we are offended and the offending person comes to us confessing their sin against us, we remember the we too are sinners forgiven by God and so we forgive the person who has sinned against us.

A Final Word…

This is what it means to practice the ideal of reconciliation and embody the very gospel of Jesus Christ through which we have been reconciled to God and each other. By embodying this gospel in the practice of reconciliation, which Romans provides instructions for doing so, we demonstrate what a true community of people belonging to God looks like. We show the world what love, equality, and hospitality truly are and then we are poised to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, explaining to the world how this good news is received from God. And we all know how much our neighbors among an increasingly diverse America, where racism and discrimination continue, so desperately needs to see and hear such good news.

Racial Reconciliation and The Romans Road to Salvation

Ask any group of Christians what there favorite book of the Bible is and more than a few will mention Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Then ask these Christians how Romans might speak to the issues of racism that have never gone away in America and you’re likely to see some very puzzled facial expressions. And this might just be part of the problem and a reason why the issue of racial-reconciliation, and lack there of, is still a glaring problem among Christianity in America.

People Reconciliation

Racial Reconciliation and the Christian Church

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the Christian church is to be a reconciled community of believers from different races, ethnicities, and nationalities. That much should be clear to anyone reading through the New Testament. But the ideal of a reconciled church body and the reality are never the same. The later is always a work of God in progress. Nevertheless, Jesus was crucified in order to reconcile all people to God and each other as one new humanity. Thus, as the Apostle Paul said about Jews and Gentiles, that God’s purpose was “…to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (Eph 2:15-16).

Despite the ideal, Christians have woefully failed at times to embody this gospel throughout history and that is especially true in America. The painful history of racism and racial discrimination that resulted in the practices of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and many other racial injustices has resulted in a racially divided church throughout America. This is descriptors such as “predominately White churches” and “Black churches” are part of the Christian vernacular in America. It is why everyone knows the cliché that “Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week in America.”

Of course, in the last twenty-five years or so, it has seemed like racial reconciliation was happening among Christianity in America. To begin with, most Christians today disapprove of racial discrimination/segregation and condemn hate groups such as the Klu Klux Klan. More importantly, many churches are becoming more racially diverse. In fact, as a minister, I have visited and spoken among many local churches and while most of these churches were still predominately White, the churches are becoming multi-racial communities. However, this recent article, A Quiet Exodus: Why Black Worshipers Are Leaving White Evangelical Churches, published by the New York Times reminds us of how little of racial-reconciliation has actually taken place. The fact of the matter is that racial integration and racial reconciliation are not the same thing and worshiping together in the same church building and living as a unified church body that practices reconciliation with each other is not the same thing.

Romans: Asking The Wrong Questions

Reconciliation is hard work and that is why the much of the New Testament is speaking either directly or indirectly to this challenge. Reconciliation is hard work for God, who gave up his Son Jesus in death to reconcile all people. Reconciliation is also hard for us to practice reconciliation because it calls for us to humbly repent and learn how to love one another as Jesus has loved us (cf. Jn. 13:34). However, reconciliation is made even more difficult when we misread the vary letters among the New Testament addressing this very issue that is at the heart of the gospel.

One of those letters that I am speaking of is Romans. Does that surprise you? The suggestion that Christians in America have misread Romans should shock many Evangelicals, for whom Romans has sort of served as the go to text on the gospel of Jesus Christ—the message of salvation. In fact, Evangelicals has so relied upon Romans as the message of salvation that it was quite common to speak of the Romans Road to Salvation. However, the Evangelical understanding of salvation in Romans has to do with the individual justification of sinners in a legal (forensic) sense so that each justified believer may be forgiven of their sins and henceforth saved.

The problem with this traditional Evangelical understanding of Romans is that it has been shaped by the lens of sixteenth century Reformation questions rather than the first century context of a Jewish and Gentile church struggling to embody the gospel. To put it another way, Evangelicals have walked the Romans road asking the wrong questions while selectively cherry-picking certain passages that seemed applicable to these Reformation questions. In doing so, these cherry-picked passages have become proof-texts to uphold a view of salvation that is individualistic rather than communal and vertical (between God and the individual rather than both vertical and horizontal (where Jews and Gentiles are reconciled to one another as one people belonging to God).

A New Walk Down the Romans Road

Space will not allow for much survey of the text of Romans, let alone any detailed exposition. There are numerous commentaries, theological books, and even sermon series available that attempt this. I do want to suggest is that in light of the lack of reconciliation that exists within Christianity among America, what is needed in terms of reading the Bible is a new walk down the Romans road. However, this new walk must pay attention to the entire road rather than just a few selective spots, lest we only reaffirm what we already assume (which hasn’t resulted in reconciliation). In doing so, we not only will discover how God is reconciling both Blacks and Whites as well as many other races/ethnicities to himself and each other but we will learn the sort of new behaviors that are necessary for living as a reconciled people—a community baptized into Jesus Christ who are now empowered by the Spirit to glorify God by treating one another in Godlike ways (Gorman, Becoming The Gospel, p. 295). This is the salvation that God is bringing everyone who believes (Rom 1:16)!

Back East: A New Ministry With The Newark Church of Christ

We’re on the move. That is, this coming spring my family and I will be moving back east to Newark, Delaware where I will begin serving as the senior minster with the Newark Church of Christ. Those of you who follow me on other social media networks like Facebook and Twitter likely already know about this news but I wanted a chance to say more about this move.

IMG_E2700Since we only moved from Columbia, Maryland to Chillicothe, Missouri last July, some people have asked why we are moving back east so quickly. I don’t want to go into a lot of details but we moved to Missouri so I could serve with a church but things didn’t work out as we anticipated and I was let go rather quickly. This had nothing to do with any illegal, immoral, or unethical activity on my part, so it came as quite a shock and with a lot of questions for my wife and I as it pertains to our family as well as the vocation of ministry. In fact, I actually began giving a lot of consideration to leaving the vocation of Christian ministry as a full-time occupation all together (note: not giving up on following Jesus, just serving as a church pastor/minister). However, the Lord had other plans.

While I was still uncertain about my future in the vocation of Christian ministry, my name had been recommended to several churches as a candidate to consider becoming their next minister. Most of these churches were working with Interim Ministry Partners, a ministry partnership I highly recommend if your church is seeking a new minister. One of these churches was the Newark Church of Christ, who contacted me back in early November of 2017. As I began a conversation with the search committee, it became clear that God is at work in some amazing ways among this church.

To begin with, after much discernment, the Newark Church of Christ embraced a new vision form God of being people who invite people to experience Jesus together. This vision was clear in their support of ministries such as Blue Hens For Christ, the campus ministry at the University of Delaware, The People’s House, and the monthly Saturday morning pancake breakfast where guest can also acquire goods necessary for daily living. This was even more clear in church’s decision to transition their traditional Vacation Bible School to a summer outreach week and the begin a second contemporary and instrumental worship service that will attract new people seeking Jesus.

But there’s more… More importantly, as I talked with the search committee and later with elders, the passion for Jesus was palpable. I could hear it their prayers and see it in their faces when they talked about what God was doing in your church. As I spoke with the search committee and elders it was apparent that the Holy Spirit is the one breathing life into this church, filling it with a passion for the gospel of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God.

Throughout the conversation, the process required much prayer and discernment. Remember, that there was a part of me considering that my time serving in the vocation of Christian ministry was over. So I was simply praying that the Lord would reveal if serving with this church was his will. As the conversation continued and as it became evident of the way God was working among the Newark Church of Christ, the Lord kindled a desire to serve with this church. In fact, I don’t know how else to describe it except to say that my desire to serve with this church increased so my that in my prayers I simply began petition for the Lord to open this door so that my family and I could become a part of the Newark Church of Christ and I could serve with them as a minister of the gospel.

I am beyond excited to announce that I will begin serving as a minister with the Newark Church of Christ later this month. I am also confident that God will continue leading us forth, filling us with the Holy Spirit, as followers of Jesus who invite people to experience Jesus together.

Evangelism: The 72 Includes You

Evangelism is a ministry task that many churches struggle with, for various reasons. Beyond such reasons, evangelism sometimes has been relegated to the job of a revivalist preacher going from town to town preaching the good news. With all appreciation to such preachers like Billy Graham or my own tribe’s Jimmy Allen, evangelism isn’t their responsibility alone. Similarly, evangelism is neither about standing on a street corner preaching a hellfire and brimstone sermon to other pedestrians nor can it be reduced to knocking on some unknown person’s door.

4517So what is evangelism? If that’s a question you’ve wonder about or if the subject of evangelism interests you, then perhaps the book I am writing to tell you about can help. A few weeks ago IVP Books was kind enough to send me a copy of The Power of the 72: Ordinary Disciples in Extraordinary Evangelism. This book, authored by John Teter, who serves as Pastor for the Fountain of Life Covenant Church in Long Beach, California, is a very easy to read book of 162 pages in length. In fact, one of the things I appreciate about this book is that the author has written in a manner that is accessible to any reader, whether they have a theology degree or not, and has done so without dumbing down the theological content of the book.

After an introduction, the book divides into two sections, with the first made up of three chapters laying a theological foundation and the second made up of five chapters on application. Throughout the book, the author works through the story of Jesus sending out the 72 to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God in Luke 10:1-20. Overall, the author asks of the Christian reader to see himself or herself as one of the 72. That is, Christian readers are challenged to consider themselves as people Jesus is sending out to proclaim the good news — evangelists engaged in evangelism. To that end, the author offers a fourfold purpose of 1) providing a theological foundation for evangelism, 2) presenting his theory on the process of conversion, 3) call the reader to master ministry tasks pertaining to evangelism, and 4) prepare the readers for rejection (p. 14).

The author is not offering a step-by-step “how to” manual for evangelism, which is good since I have always found problems with such manuals (which is beyond the scope of this post). However, besides presenting a solid theological praxis for evangelism, I found the book inspiring and encouraging. Without any guilt trips, I found myself wanting to be better at evangelism as I read through the book. Though there didn’t appear anything of significance to dispute in this book, there were a couple of places where I thought the author was trying to hard to make the biblical text support his conviction. However, I’m sure the same could be said for any pastor-theologian, including myself.

One point the author makes in the book does warrant some further discussion because it is such a good point for churches and individual Christians to remember. In discussing the work that God is already doing, the author says:

“Evangelism is not going into newly formed relationships doing all we can to create a hunger for God. Evangelism is becoming flesh in a situation where God is already at work. The hard work has already been done” (p. 97).

As with every aspect of Christian ministry, the task begins with discerning where God is already at work so that we may join in as participants in the mission of God. Likewise, because evangelism is participating in the work God is already doing, we can trust God to bring forth the harvest among those who are seeking him. Consequently, evangelism does not and should never be a coercive or manipulative tactic on our part. We simply share the good news of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God, allowing the Spirit to convict and call those seeking God to respond.

If you’re seeking to gain more confidence in evangelism yourself, here’s an easy book to read that God can use to equip you with more confidence. Perhaps you’re looking for some material on evangelism that can use to facilitate a discussion about becoming more evangelistic among your church or small group you’re part of. If so, I think you’ll find this book a helpful place to begin that conversation.

I don’t Look Like A Christian

tattooedcoupleA few weeks ago while sitting in a coffee shop reading, a young woman asked me what I was reading. I told her that I was reading the Bible and that led to a small conversation about reading the Bible. But then the young woman said, “I just started going to church. I know I don’t look like a Christian but I am.”

I thought about what she said. I could see the tattoos covering her arms, the numerous body piercings, and the Gothic hair style dyed an unnatural color. Was that why she said that she didn’t look like a Christian? I’m guessing so.

Okay, that got me thinking about what does a Christian look like. Regrettably, too often churches have cultivated a culture where Christianity has a certain dress-code that has more to do with style than modesty. I don’t think most churches mean to cultivate such a dress-code but when you walk into a church service where the older Christians dressed in their best Sunday dresses and suits and the younger families all have on clothing from Ralph Lauren and Ann Taylor stores, well… And this goes for us pastors too. I once noticed at a ministry conference how many of the pastors were wearing pretty much the same clothing, like they all just finished shopping at True Religion and Lucky Brand.

I’m not saying Christians are wrong for wearing the clothes they wear, even if it does become rather monolithic. But people need to know that looking like a Christian has nothing whatsoever to do with the clothes they wear, their hairstyles, and so on. Of course, few would disagree with me and yet there are still communities where Christianity has a look that may exclude anyone who looks different.

What then does a Christian look like? There are so many ways to answers that, ways which are all true. For example, a Christian looks like someone following Jesus. Or a Christian looks like someone who has been baptized and belongs to a local church. And a Christian looks like someone who has the Holy Spirit living within them as they turn away from sinful behaviors and learn to love both God and their neighbors more each day.

All that is to say that perhaps the best way of describing the look of a Christian is to say that a Christian looks like someone whom God is at work transforming into the image of his Son, Jesus Christ (cf. Rom 8:29).

So after thinking about what this young woman said for a little while, I went up to her again and told her that I think she looks like a Christian. She smiled and asked, “Why is that?”

I told her, “Because I see Jesus Christ forming in you.”