Category Archives: Churches of Christ

Restoration Christianity and Christian Unity

In a recent meeting with other pastors, I was asked about the strengths and weaknesses of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement. As I considered the question, it became clear to me that our strengths and our weaknesses are the same: our commitment to Jesus and to the Bible, or our attitude toward Jesus and the Bible.*
    
Historically, Restoration Movement Churches are very committed both to following Jesus and taking the Bible seriously. This commitment brings a desire for restoring New Testament Christianity and the vision of Christian unity as depicted in the New Testament. This vision causes us to seek truth in the Scripture so that we are faithful to King Jesus. Although we’ve never done this perfectly, our intent has always been faithfulness to Jesus and revering the Bible as the inspired word of God.
    
At the same time, we have presumably subordinated faithfulness to Jesus to getting the Bible right. Restoring New Testament Christianity requires “rightly dividing the word” (cf. 2 Tim 2:15, KJV). Failure to do so is tantamount to being in error and rejecting the apostolic teaching of Jesus in Scripture. This approach also means that unity requires uniformity, a pursuit that comes at the expense of relationships. Condemnation and disfellowshipping the “errant brother” are used to control others and keep churches within the party lines of sound doctrine, or our unwritten creed.
    
However, loving others is what lies at the heart of Christian living. Jesus himself said, “I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other” (John 13:34 CEB). Jesus gave this command after he washed the feet of his disciples, including one disciple who would betray him and another who would deny him. If Jesus had only known how to disfellowship them… Or maybe we still need to learn from Jesus what it means to love each other.
    
Lest I am misunderstood, I do believe we should always seek to follow Jesus, and we should do so by taking Scripture seriously. But as we do so, we must also learn how to love each other, even when we disagree. We will never agree with each other on every matter. 
    
The desire to follow Jesus and take the Bible seriously is honorable. I hope we never lose that desire, but we also need to value loving each other and embodying the oneness (unity) that we already have in Christ. Therefore, our desire for unity must include openness to differing views. In fact, discussing differing views can even sharpen our minds and bring us closer together. Ultimately, very few differences are worth losing family over.
    
Grace is especially necessary on social media where many of us find it easy to respond in an unnecessary, even hurtful, manner. I know from personal experience how social media can be a helpful medium for building connections and friendships; I also know how easy it is to eviscerate someone with one unwise comment, whether we intend to do so or not. 
    
Unity in Christ is not something we can manufacture on our own. Rather, it is a gift of grace from God that we must embrace. Doing so requires love to be fleshed out in the practices of humility, patience, forgiveness and yes, even tolerance of each other even when we disagree.
    
May we all remember that even in our disagreements we must love one another as Jesus loves us!


*This article was originally written for Common Grounds Unity, published on Saturday, April 3, 2021.

The Coming of the Lord

With a few slight changes, this is the message I shared with the Newark Church this past Sunday. The message is called The Coming of the Lord and it’s based on Mark 11:1-11, the New Testament lectionary reading for Palm Sunday. Here is the text:

When Jesus and his followers approached Jerusalem, they came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives. Jesus gave two disciples a task, saying to them, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter it, you will find tied up there a colt that no one has ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘Its master needs it, and he will send it back right away.’” They went and found a colt tied to a gate outside on the street, and they untied it. Some people standing around said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them just what Jesus said, and they left them alone. They brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes upon it, and he sat on it. Many people spread out their clothes on the road while others spread branches cut from the fields. Those in front of him and those following were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessings on the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest!” Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. After he looked around at everything, because it was already late in the evening, he returned to Bethany with the Twelve.

I’m sure I’ve said this before and I’m sure I’ll say it again but I love preaching about Jesus and particularly from Mark’s Gospel. Perhaps it’s because out of the four Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — I’m most familiar with the Gospel of Mark, which isn’t saying much. But I do enjoy preaching from Mark’s Gospel and almost always find writing a sermon from this Gospel to be a breeze. That was until I came to this text, Mark 11:1-11, which we just read.

I don’t know what it is. Preaching is, in one aspect, a form of art, which makes the preacher, in some sense an artist. Not necessarily a good artist but an artist nonetheless and sometimes the creativity involved in artistry hits a wall and that’s what this week has felt like as I have sat with this text. I’ve read and reread over the text, and I’ve read what some other scholars have said about the text. I can tell you some details, factoids you might call it, about Jesus entering into Jerusalem. 

That is what this text is about. Jesus enters into Jerusalem riding on a colt with many people blessing him. That is, I believe, a good one sentence summary of this story that we read in Mark 11. So I ask… What is the message? What is the word from God in this text for us, who follow Jesus? How do we live into the life that this text envisions? These are the kind of questions I ask when I’m writing a message. But as I think about these questions, I remember that today is called Palm Sunday. It is always the Sunday before Easter Sunday, the Sunday that segues into Holy Week. 

In some churches that means the worshipers are given palm branches to hold during the singing of hymns before sharing in the Eucharist of Lord’s Supper. There’s nothing wrong with that nor is there anything wrong for those churches that don’t. But in reading the text of Mark 11, we see where the idea of palm branches comes from. The people in the story have branches. But why? What do the branches mean? Well, for Jewish people, such a gesture was done when welcoming the arrival of a king (cf. 2 Kgs 9:13). That makes sense considering that Jesus has commandeered a colt like the king who comes to save riding on a colt that the prophet Zechariah mentioned (cf. Zech 9:9).

It’s subtle but the people see the messianic signs here. Their response is a blessing. Mark tells us “Those in front of him and those following were shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord!’” That’s a blessing from Psalm 118. The word Hosanna is simply the Hebrew word that means “to save, deliver, or liberate.” That’s what Jesus comes to do… to save, to liberate us. That’s salvation. But before we get ahead of ourselves, there’s the other half of the blessing which isn’t found in any Psalm or anywhere else that anyone knows about. Maybe there’s a reason. Here’s the rest of the blessing: “Blessings on the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest!” Only nowhere in Mark’s Gospel has Jesus ever talked about “the coming kingdom of our ancestor David.” Jesus has talked a lot about the coming kingdom of God but not a kingdom of David.

That might seem like a subtle difference reveals the confusion that exists regarding the mission of Jesus. More specifically, misunderstanding about the kingdom of God and the nationalistic aspirations that so many of the Jewish people had attached to their messianic hope that one day God would restore the kingdom. They’re expecting the militaristic revolutionary that’s going to ride into Jerusalem and kick some… Well, we shouldn’t talk like that but that’s what they wanted. And if we’re honest, it’s what we may want as well. We see the evil all around us. As I heard someone recently say, the pagan worship of Mars, Aphrodites, and Mammon is everywhere. People don’t seem as interested in the gospel anymore. They sure don’t care about offending our Christian sensibilities anymore. So what can we do? 

Let’s call a boycott. If they won’t listen to reason, then perhaps a little coercive power will get their attention. Only Jesus won’t have anything to do with that. According to Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has made it clear three different times that he’s going to Jerusalem but not to conquer with the sword or any other kind of coercive power. He’s going to Jerusalem to die on a Roman cross (cf.8:31; 9:32; 10:33).

Talk about a real buzz-kill. Except it wasn’t. Jesus commandeered a colt so that he could ride into Jerusalem as a king because he actually believed the gospel. That is, Jesus believed the good news of the kingdom of God. So he trusts. He has faith in what his Heavenly Father has sent him to do. Jesus believes the cross is the victory, that the world is reclaimed for God, that is, the kingdom of God is restored not through might makes right but through self-sacrificial love. That in suffering death on the cross, the world will begin will begin to see where true life begins and will come not only to receive that true life but learn how to live it too. 

So as we begin Holy Week on this Palm Sunday, we remember how Jesus entered into Jerusalem. But more than just another Palm Sunday, we are invited to follow Jesus into Jerusalem and witness him redefine what salvation means through “his obedient death on the cross and in the exaltation to God’s right hand that will follow his rising from the dead” (Brendan Byrne, A Costly Freedom, p. 177).

Now if God would be so gracious as to open our eyes and ears, to see and hear, we’ll understand what the kingdom of God really means. We’ll learn what it means for Jesus to truly be God’s promise of salvation. And we’ll know what it means to faithfully follow King Jesus. After all, as N.T. Wright puts it, “The point of trying to understand the cross better is not so that we can congratulate ourselves for having solved an intellectual crossword puzzle, but so that God’s power and wisdom may work in us, through us, and out into the world that still regards Jesus’s crucifixion as weakness and folly. …Jesus died for our sins not so that we could sort out abstract ideas, but so that we, having been put right, could become part of God’s plan to put his whole world right” (The Day the Revolution Began, p. 22).

Believe: An Message for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

It’s the Fourth Sunday of Advent and the message is called Believe.* Let’s read from the Gospel of Luke and I want to read two passages today, Luke 1:26-38 and then Luke 2:13-14.

As I mentioned, today is the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the Sunday before Christmas. Or perhaps better said Christ Mass. We join in the heavenly chorus of praise for the good news that God is fulfilling in the coming of his Son, Jesus Christ.

But far from the setting of some grand cathedral with shining lights and the ringing of bells echoing throughout, the story unfolds in Nazareth. It’s a city but more like a small village in the Galilean region of northern Israel, far from Jerusalem — the center of Jewish social-culture and political power.

That’s where God sends this angel known as Gabriel. He’s sent to visit Mary. Except before Luke ever identifies her as Mary, he identifies her as “a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph.”

Now the story is getting good. Although Mary is a virgin, which will be even more clear as the story gets told, the word virgin also implies a young woman who is of a marriageable age. It seems like a small but important detail because now, the story not only takes place in a setting of no significance but we also have a woman of no social significance.

Think about it for a moment. Before this story, Luke tells us about the foretelling of Elizabeth giving birth to John the Baptist. Elizabeth is said to be “righteous” and “blameless” before God and in regards to the Law (1:6), but Luke doesn’t offer such commending words for Mary. She’s just a young woman and in a strong patriarchal society that values age, is ruled by men in a stratified economy, she’s a powerless poor young woman for a little town that anyone would miss with the blink of an eye. 

So it’s understandable why Mary is confused. The angel comes to her saying, [v. 28] “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” But then immediately Luke tells us that Mary was “confused” or as the NRSV reads, “perplexed.” The greeting of the angel may sound fairly emotionless but the greeting is literally one that speaks of grace, of bestowing a favor upon someone. Yet the angel is speaking to her, a young virgin woman without any social-standing among her society.

Sensing her confusion, the angel says to Mary, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you.” It’s almost humorous because in the same breath that he tells Mary not to be afraid, the angel continues says that she is going to conceive and give birth to a son she is to name Jesus. He then says to Mary that her son will be the “Son of the Most High” and will receive the throne of David, ruling over the house of Jacob forever without any end to his kingdom.

That’s messianic language right there. Such language invokes the message of Israel’s prophets and the promise of messianic hope that the prophets proclaimed to exiled Israel. Essentially, the angel is announcing the fulfillment of this messianic promise that God is going to send a Messiah to restore the kingdom. It’s a message that says God is making good on his promise of salvation.

But I’m not sure Mary heard a single word after the Angel told her she was going to conceive a child. After all, Mary’s only response is, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?”

It’s a good question. After all, she’s a virgin. 

When my brothers and sisters and I when we were young, my mother would always say keep those pants zipped up and you won’t have to worry about having a child. She was right. Biologically, it’s impossible to be a virgin and conceive a child. Which begs the question of how is this even possible?

It’s a fair question to ask. In fact, it’s fair to ask the other important question too. How is a child born to Mary going to restore the kingdom of God and make good on the promise of salvation? That might seem like a simple question to us but in Mary’s day such a question was legit because the powerful Romans were in charge and they ruled with brute force. Even King Herod was in bed with the Romans and only had power because of the Romans. Added to this is the fact that other Jewish leaders, some even claiming to be the Messiah, attempted to lead revolts, only to be crushed by the brute force of Rome. So to hear the angel say what he’s saying raises the question of how is this even possible.

But  listen again to how the angel responds. He says to Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son. Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant.” 

That’s how. It’s the work of God through the Holy Spirit, not the work of humans. God’s work. And there’s one more thing the angel said to Mary, “Nothing is impossible for God.”

With those words, Mary believed. Her response to the angels words are, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.”

But how about us? Do we believe? As I ask that knowing how sometimes people want rational arguments for the credibility of faith and I get that, to a point. But if we’re not careful, such a demand can actually be a way fo resisting faith.

Mary didn’t get the luxury of having all the scientific and philosophical arguments for how God could restore the kingdom through the birth of Jesus through her virgin body. The angel simply told her that God was at work just as he was with Elizabeth becoming pregnant and that was enough. Mary believed. That is, she trusted God enough to say “Let it be…” even though everything about this story is beyond all possibilities to the human mind.

But isn’t that what it means to believe? Isn’t that the kind of faith we’re called to have? To believe God can accomplish what is impossible for us to even fully understand?

The season of Advent is to remind us that the Lord, Jesus Christ is coming to restore the kingdom, so that there will be “on earth peace among those whom he favors.” But it’s easy to wonder sometimes if that’s really so. We’re twenty years removed from the most violent, war-waging, century in world history. We live in a nation that has been at war for about 225 years of its 244 year existence, where a hymn, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, sang “Glory!Glory! Hallelujah!” were first sang as a song of victory during the American Civil War. 

That’s why, at least sometimes, it’s really tempting to wonder if this is at all possible. To wonder if God can really bring about his peaceable kingdom through the birth of a baby to a virgin woman of no social-political significance at all. And sometimes in the wondering, God, in his grace to us, reminds us that nothing is impossible with God, that God is restoring his kingdom through Jesus. Perhaps such a reminder is this song, Your Peace Will Make Us One, by Audrey Assad.

Believe! In the form of a helpless baby, Christ has come. His name is Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. Born to Joseph and Mary but born so that God and sinners may be reconciled; born so that man may no more die, to raise the sons of earth, to give them second birth. Through crucifixion, resurrection, and exaltation, this is more than possible because it is the work of God. So believe and let this bread and wine that we are about to share in together remind us all that this salvation is possible because it is the work of God and nothing is impossible for God.


* This message was originally preached for the Newark Church whom I serve with as Lead Minister/Pastor.

Fellowship in Christ: Grace Received, Grace Extended

A common practice among all congregations within the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement is weekly participation in the Lord’s Supper.* Although once viewed simply as a doctrine that must be obeyed based upon one example of breaking bread on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7), many of our churches have rightfully moved beyond the legalistic approach.  

    
That said, we still see the value in coming together to share in this Lord’s Supper or Eucharist meal. Accompanied by songs, prayers, and time spent in the Word through readings of Scripture and preaching, we still accept this invitation to gather together around the table of our Lord, Jesus Christ. 
    
If we read through the gospels, particularly the Gospel of Luke, we see how Jesus created space for people at the table. From the religious authorities to his disciples and even the “sinners and tax-collectors,” Jesus welcomed all these people to fellowship with him. This hospitality was a way in which Jesus extended the grace of God to both Jews and Gentiles, which pointed to his own death and resurrection so that all might indeed share in this fellowship. 
    
Two-thousand years later, some are still asking who gets to come to the Lord’s table?  Behind the question is an awareness that not everyone shares the same beliefs on any number of different issues, some having to do with matters of Christian doctrine and others having to do with politics, social-cultural challenges, etc… It’s easy to start drawing lines of inclusion and exclusion. Interestingly, we tend to draw these lines so as to always include ourselves. As a result, we see division and wonder how we can build unity. It’s as if we believe that reconciliation is our work rather than what God has accomplished in Christ. 
    
This is where we seem to miss what is happening at the Lord’s Table. When we receive the bread and wine that represents the body and blood of Jesus Christ, we are receiving the same bread and wine that Jesus served to his disciples. Jesus served Peter, who would deny knowing Jesus; and, Judas, who would betray Him. He served the other disciples also, who would all desert Him. Jesus extended his grace to all of his disciples without drawing any lines. What they did with his grace was in their hands, just as it is in ours too. Although Judas turned away from grace he received, the others didn’t and we know what they did with it because we are all beneficiaries of the way they extended the grace they received from Jesus. 
    
So, when we receive the bread and wine, we are receiving the grace of God extended to us even though we too are sinners and are undeserving of such fellowship. Because of that, rather than drawing lines, we can and must extend that grace to others regardless. Such fellowship, and the unity it expresses, is the gracious hospitality of welcoming others without distinction. But this oneness is not something we do as though we are manufacturing reconciliation and unity ourselves. As it was when Jesus first invited his disciples to receive the bread and wine, this is the grace of God that we receive and therefore that which we extend — fellowship in Christ. 


* This blog post originally appeared as a small article on the Common Grounds Unity website, published on November 28, 2020.

Can We Change The Way Churches Seek Ministers?

I’ve had numerous ministry friends that have been fired. I too was once fired, even though I wasn’t involved in any illegal, immoral, or unethical activity. The decision came as a shock to my family and I as well as to the church. Ten months prior to this my family and I had spent a weekend with this church, with me preaching on Sunday and then receiving a call from the elders asking me to come serve the church as a minister. But now, only three weeks after my family and I were finally able to move a nine-hundred miles across country to serve with this church, I was terminated immediately.

As you might imagine, being fired left was difficult. Three weeks prior to this, the church was having a welcome fellowship for us and now I was fired. The decision didn’t just hurt me. It hurt my wife and children. I also know it was upsetting to the church too, as almost every member was just as shocked as I was. Now there is more to the story but I’m sharing this to suggest that the was many Churches of Christ go about “hiring and firing” ministers is wrong and needs to change.

Like seriously, needs to change. I say this especially for the sake of my fellow ministers of the gospel serving among Churches of Christ who have also been fired for reasons having nothing to do with any illegal, immoral, or unethical activities.

The traditional approach that Churches of Christ take in finding ministers, which is still very common, involves placing a “minister needed” announcement on a job board. Most of these boards are found on the websites of universities affiliated with the Churches of Christ. The announcement is meant to solicit resumes from interested ministers, resulting in a pool of candidates for consideration. Then either the elders or a selected search committee will identify the most qualified of the candidates and perhaps after a couple of telephone conversations or an initial phone interview, the top two or three candidates will be brought in to visit the church. This visit usually occurs over the weekend, which means the church has a few days (at best) to evaluate the ministers. The minister and family have the same time to decide if the church and local community is a good fit for them. At the end of the day, it’s easy for this process to become a talent show with whichever minister performs the best receiving the call to come serve as the minister. Should the minister accept the invitation, the minister is hired.

Churches of Christ, we have a problem.

Seeking a minister to serve with a church should not be a hiring process conducted much like a company hires a sales rep or new business manager. It certainly shouldn’t be a “dog and pony” show where the top three candidates are brought in for a visit to face off in what amounts to a talent show of who can preach the best sermon. The vocation of ministry is a sacred vocation and should be treated as such.

Most churches seeking a minister to come serve with their church want to rightfully talk about finding the minister that God is calling. Since that’s the case, let’s give space and time for God to work in the process. That means the process of finding the minister God is calling to serve with the church involves discernment, which takes a lot of time that is saturated with prayer and conversation. It’s a time of prayer and conversation that the church needs to have with each other but also with those ministers they are giving consideration too. The reality is that both the church and minister should be discerning, listening to each other over a period of time so that God can reveal to the church and minister whether he is calling the minister to serve with the church.

Because the minister is called by God to serve, there isn’t any reason for quickly dismissing the minister except in the case of illegal, immoral, and unethical conduct. Even in the case of illegal, immoral, and unethical conduct, the decision to dismiss should be discerned rather than automatic. If God has called the minister to serve with the church, then what right does the church, via its elders or leadership team, have to dismiss the minister without a period of discernment to ensure that it is the right decision. Likewise, the minister shouldn’t be so quick to resign without discerning this decision as well (more on that later).

Don’t misunderstand me. There are times when there needs to be a ministry transition but when it seems so, I believe this should be discerned with the entire leadership team or elders and minister together. Talk together about the problems and what needs to happen. Perhaps this results in some meaningful time where the problems are resolved without any transition. However, after much discernment (prayer and conversation), if it does seem that a transition is necessary, then neither the church nor the minister is blind-sided by the decision. Perhaps both the church and minister can agree then on a transition process that is fair for both sides, especially the minister whose family has needs (financial, emotional, etc…) that cannot just be abruptly disregarded.

Churches of Christ, we have a problem with the way ministers are selected to serve with churches. The problem will continue as long as the selection process is viewed as an “employment” decision rather than a calling blessed by the Lord and therefore in submission to the Lord and each other. When the ministry is simply viewed as an employment arrangement, both ministers and churches can make decision the employment status without submitting that decision to the Lord and each other first.

Now I’ll confess… Before I understood this, I served with a couple of churches and when things were not going the way I thought they would, I announced my resignation. As soon as another opportunity came along, I submitted my resignation and made this decision without ever asking the leaders to discern with me whether God was still calling me to serve with their church. Was there some problems that made the ministry difficult? Yes… problems with both the church and with me. However, had I invited the leaders into a discernment process, through prayer and conversation God might have helped us to see a way forward together that would have resulted in more fruitful ministry. The same goes with churches too.

In October of 2017 I received a call from the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, Delaware informing me that someone had been recommended me to them as their next minister. When I informed them that I was interested, we began a period of discernment together that lasted almost six months. Over that time, we had numerous conversations interviewing each other. The search committee spoke with people that could tell them more about me and I spoke with people that could tell me more about them. By March of 2018 I was convinced that God was calling me to serve with this church and hoping that the church shared this discernment. They did and I received a call from the shepherds inviting my family and I too visit so that they could commend me to the church as their next minister.

I’m so glad that I received that call. Ministry still has its challenges but I haven’t doubted once that God has called me to serve with the Newark Church. I love this church and consider it a privilege to serve as their pastor (yes, that’s the role most church ministers fulfill and that’s okay). I’m thankful for the process that Interim Ministry Partners (IMP), a partner of Hope Network, held both myself and the church through, with Phil Ware serving as the Interim Minister. The process of discernment gave both the church and I the space and time to see the sacredness of God’s work, letting God bring us together.

The only reason I’m sharing this is because we, the Churches of Christ, must take a better approach on both ends of the ministry transition. Calling a minister to serve with a church is a matter of discernment rather than just a “try out.” Likewise, when minister transitions do occur, they should be the result of discernment too rather than just a quick decision that comes out of nowhere. If we really want God to have a say, we’ll seek a better approach.

Imagine Conference: Living On Earth As In Heaven

You’re invited to participate in the Imagine Conference this coming Friday and Saturday hosted by the Newark Church of Christ. Our theme, Sacramental: Living On Earth As In Heaven, draws our attention to a theology of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper with attention given to how each sacrament shapes us for living as followers of Jesus.

Imagine 2020 will feature Dr. John Mark Hicks, Professor of Theology at Lipscomb University, and Fred Liggin, Lead Minister/Pastor of Williamsburg Christian Church. Besides brothers in Christ, both John Mark and Fred are friends of mine whom God has worked through to help me become the person I am today. We will also hear from Casey Coston, Campus Missionary with Blue Hens for Christ, and Rusty Jordan, Campus Missions Coordinator with Reflect Campus Missions. Both Casey and Rusty are also on staff with the Newark Church, so I know these brothers whom I serve alongside of in ministry will have an important word to share with us.

Because this is a virtual conference, you can participate from the comfort of your home, office, or wherever you like. The live stream will begin Friday evening at 6:00 on the Newark Church YouTube Channel. Here is the schedule:

Friday Evening

6:00 Opening Worship

6:30 A Theology of Baptism

7:15 Questions & Engagement

7:45 Break

8:00 Because We’ve Been Baptized

8:45 Questions & Engagement

Saturday

8:00 Fellowship

8:45 Worship

9:00 “A Theology of the Lord’s Supper”

9:45 Questions & Engagement

10:15 Break

10:30 Reflect: A Vision for Campus Missions

11:15 Lunch Break

1:00 Extending the Grace and Hospitality of the Lord’s Table

1:45 Questions & Engagement

2:15 Closing Worship

Since the conference is virtual, we have waived the registration fee. However, if you would like to make an offering to help support this event, you may do so by either sending a check to the Newark Church of Christ (91 Salem Church Road, Newark, DE 19713) or through PayPal via Newark Church website.

#Imagine2020

Time To Celebrate: The Parable of the Prodigal Son

I grew up hearing the story Jesus tells in Luke 15:11-32 spoken of as The Parable of the Prodigal Son.* It’s a wonderful story that has everything to do with the grace of God. It reemphasizes the mercy and compassion of God, who is patient and full of steadfast love. 

Whenever I read this story, I recall the late Neal Pryor. He was a preacher and Bible professor at my alma mater Harding University. I think of him because I can remember listening to him preach this parable to an auditorium full of college students. About twenty-five minutes later I saw numerous college students  lining up to confess their faith in Christ and give their lives to him in baptism. 

That’s the way the grace of God surprises us sometimes. People, in this case, students, who seem to have their lives all together but know that underneath the masks and veneer they put on, their lost in sin. But when they hear about the mercy and love of God, they come to life as they put their faith in Christ. 

Yet when reading a story like this parable of the prodigal son, it seems that the story Jesus is telling is quite provocative regarding the grace and mercy of God. To hear the provocation, we have to hear the story within the larger story the Gospel of Luke is telling. 

At the beginning of chapter fifteen, we read how “All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Lk 15:1-2).

Apparently, the gatekeepers of the faith missed some Sunday school lessons on the prophet Isaiah as well as Elijah and Elisha. That’s because in Luke 4, Jesus enters the synagogue and reads from the prophet Isaiah. In doing so, he declares himself as the fulfillment of this good news for the poor that is freedom for the prisoners, sight for the blind, and liberation for the oppressed because now is the time of God’s favor (cf. Lk 4:18-21). In proclaiming this good news, Jesus also associated himself with the prophets Elijah and Elisha, who were sent not to Israel but to a widow and Gentile. 

Failing to understand this, the Pharisees and lawyers are displeased to see Jesus  hamming it up with the sinners and tax collectors. Responding to his critics, Jesus begins a little tale about a lost sheep and lost coin. Things anyone can relate to. At least, I can. I mean if the TV remote goes missing at my house, there’s a mini crisis on hand and heaven forbid if we misplace our iPhone’s.

Somehow though when it comes to people, especially “the tax collectors and sinners,” whoever they may be, the concern is usually a measure of judgment and condemnation. Especially the people who can’t cover up the shame of their sin the way most can do with their sins. 

Now these stories Jesus is telling about the lost sheep and lost coin are beginning to make some sense but he doesn’t stop there. Jesus continues on telling a story about a father and his two sons. The younger son takes his inheritance and runs away with it until he squanders it through his “extravagant living” or “dissolute living” (NRSV). After squandering his inheritance, the younger son finds himself at the bottom of the barrel with no place to go except back home to his father. 

Then there’s the older brother, who I like to think of as the pouting brother. He’s not too happy to hear about his younger brother’s return. In fact, he’s miffed that his father would welcome back this rebellious brother so easily with nothing but a big homecoming party. Exasperated, the older brother says to his father “…I never disobeyed your instructions.” His attitude (self-righteous?) has blinded him from seeing that what was a terrible loss has now become a great reunion. 

“The grace of God isn’t just for those who think they are God’s elect but for the rest of us too because the election of God is his desire that we all would come home as recipients of his grace extended to us in Christ.”

That’s the story Jesus is telling to a bunch of Jewish Pharisees and lawyers who are bothered by Jesus spending his time with the sinners and tax-collectors. That’s the larger story which is really about Israel and the Gentiles. In our day, we might say the church folk, perhaps self-righteous church folk, and any number of unbelievers who never ever think about coming to a church service.

The cool thing about the story Jesus is telling is that the younger son thinks he’ll go back to his father except… As Jesus tells the story, the father was already looking for his lost son and when he saw him off in the distance, the father “was moved with compassion.”

Borrowing the langue of the apostle Paul, we Christians sometimes speak of people being dead in sin (cf. Eph 2:1, 5). However, the story Jesus tells should keep us from pressing the metaphor too far because though that is true in a sense, it can’t mean that we literally dead to God. Even when feeling as though we’re drowning in the deepest and most shameful pits of sin, God still knows us. Not only does God still know us but moved by compassion, God is looking for us so that he can lead us home.

A few years back in Chicago, I was sitting with a few pastor friends in the outside patio of a bar. As our waitress, Brittany, was taking orders, it was obvious that she was very pregnant. So to make small talk, I asked her if she was having a boy or girl. The baby was a boy and she planned to name him Brian, named after her brother who died from leukemia a few years prior. 

Well as it turned out, this was Brittany’s last day of work before she went on maternity leave and in the small talk conversation, she learned that everyone at our table was a bunch of pastors sitting at a bar. That kind of took her back for a second and then she looked at the all black outfit she had on as she said, “Don’t think because I’m dressed in all black that I’m some kind of satanist or something. My boyfriend and I have actually thought about finding a church so that we can raise our son right.”

Now being that this was a Thursday evening and we were all planning to fly back to our homes on Friday, the most we could do was get her contact information and pass it along to a local pastor we knew. But don’t miss the fact that here was a young woman looking for God and I like to believe that God was using us pastors siting in that bar to begin showing Brittany that God is looking for her too.

So back to the story Jesus is telling. The father explains to his angry older son how, “we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.” No scolding, shaming, or making the younger son beg for mercy, just a big welcome and party to celebrate the younger son coming home.

The grace of God is that great. No matter the sin and no matter how far down in the pits of sin we climb, the door is open for us to come home. When it comes to salvation, what God has predetermined is the extension of his grace to us in Christ. It’s a standing invitation for all, just as it was for the Gentiles. To say it another way, the grace of God isn’t just for those who think they are God’s elect but for the rest of us too because the election of God is his desire that we all would come home as recipients of his grace extended to us in Christ. 

That’s why Jesus tells us a story like this parable of the prodigal son. It’s because the grace of God is for everyone and when God finds his lost children, it’s not a time for judgment or heaping on a bunch of shame; it’s time for a celebration.

May the grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and the love of our God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all!


* This is a modified manuscript of the message I preached last Sunday to the Newark Church, whom I serve with as the Lead Pastor. You can also watch a video recording of the actual message on the Newark Church Youtube Channel, just click here.

Welcoming Reconciliation: Embracing Christian Unity

As I have stated in the previous four posts, I believe the church is the living portrait of what God is accomplishing in Christ. That is, the church is the artwork of God which depicts the new creation God is bringing about in Christ. As the church follows Jesus in embodying the gospel by means of doing good works. the church serves as God’s poetry in motion. However, embodying the gospel means welcoming the reconciliation that God has accomplished in Christ but that is a challenge.

Welcoming Reconciliation

Whether we are talking about different races and ethnicities, different nationalities or  different Christian denominations, divisions and even hostility exist. That’s how it was for the Jews and Gentiles that Paul is writing too, that’s how its been in America, and in other parts of the world — past and present. Yet God has tore down these walls of division so that we can leave our racism, nationalism, and every other form of tribalism behind, if we’ll just see what God has done in Christ.

The apostle Paul says “Christ is our peace, He has made both Jews and Gentiles into one group” (Eph 2:14). The same is true for Blacks and Whites, Americans and foreigners, and even Democrats and Republicans or whatever affiliation we have. Christ is our peace, who has made us into one but we may never understand that if we don’t give our attention to what God has done in Christ, particularly in the crucifixion of Christ.

By giving our attention to the work of God in Christ, I don’t just mean reading the Bible more. Yes, read the Bible but remember that the Bible is like a window through which we are able to encounter the gospel Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God. Too many times people have failed to do this, turning the Bible into a weapon to justify prejudices and sectarianism. That’s why it’s not enough just to read our Bibles. We must read our Bible to encounter what God has accomplished in Christ. 

     “God has already accomplished reconciliation that we speak of — oneness and unity in Christ. It is an ontological reality already in existence, not something we must achieve but that which we must receive.”

We know from other writings of Paul that righteousness or justification is based on faith in what God has done in Christ. That is, having a right relationship with God is a result of what God has done (grace) through the faithfulness of Christ which we trust in (faith). Realizing this, knowing how God has graciously made us a part of his new creation, then who are we to hold any sense of animosity, superiority, and exclusivity towards someone else because their skin is a different tone then ours? Knowing this grace of God, who are we to deny fellowship to another believer because they gather for worship in a church building that has a different name on the marquee than our church building?

In Christ, God has already created “one new person out of the two, making peace. He reconciled them both as one body to God by the cross, which end the hostility to God” (Eph 2:15-16). God has already accomplished reconciliation that we speak of — oneness and unity in Christ. It is an ontological reality already in existence, not something we must achieve but that which we must receive. The question for us is whether we’ll welcome such reconciliation. Will we welcome the peace of Christ that allows us to live as one with God and each other, saying no to the wall of tribalism, be it based on our race, our national origin, or even our denominational affiliation?

I’ll be the first to admit that welcoming reconciliation isn’t easy. That’s why we have to be honest with the truth. That means first we have to be honest with the truth of ourselves, whatever animosity, superiority, and exclusivity resides in our hearts. Once we can be honest with that sinful truth, then we can be honest with the Truth that is Christ by receiving the grace God extends to us and extending that grace to each other. As Christena Cleveland says, “We must do the difficult work of examining our hearts and reflecting on our attitudes toward other groups in order to uncover, uproot, and repent of the deep biases that self-esteem and identity processes have ingrain in us. Then we must affirm our truest, common identities as members of the body of Christ” (Disunity in Christ, p. 111).

So what is does it mean to welcome reconciliation, embracing our unity as one body that God has made us to be in Christ? To answer this question, let me first say that I don’t believe welcoming reconciliation means becoming colorblind in a manner that denies the reality of our race and ethnicity. (read Nijay Gupta’s article Neither White Nor Black”?: Paul’s Case Against Being Colorblind). Similarly, I don’t believe reconciliation demands social homogeneity, which means we can disagree on politics and still be siblings in Christ. I also don’t believe unity is uniformity in matters of Christian faith, in which we must agree with each other on every matter of doctrine and practice.

Then how do we welcome reconciliation and embrace our unity? Ephesians 4:2 says, “Conduct yourselves with all humility, gentleness, and patience. Accept each other with love.” I suggest this requires listening to each other and serving one another by submitting to one another and praying for each other. If you’re not sure, go read the rest of Ephesians. This is how we welcome reconciliation. It happens by treating each other as though we both belong together, all belonging to the household of God, as people saved by the grace of God who have become a temple which God dwells among though his Spirit.

A Gospel Affirmation: Christ is our peace. Yes, we are different skin colors and different nationalities but we call each other brother and sister in Christ and that signifies us God’s poetry in motion. That’s a living demonstration of what God has accomplished in Christ. Come November, we may cast different ballots but we’ll still regard each other with humility, gentleness, and patience and that signifies us God’s poetry in motion. That’s a living demonstration of what God has accomplished in Christ. As we read the Bible, we may disagree on  different passages of scripture but from our common confession “Jesus is Lord!” we’ll accept each other with love and that signifies us God’s poetry in motion. That’s a living demonstration of what God has accomplished in Christ.

That’s becoming reconciliation, because Christ is our peace.

Poetry In Motion: A Vision for Being Church

Two weeks ago I began a new message series with the Newark Church called Poetry In Motion. The series is about being the church based on what I regard as a visionary passage in terms of ecclesiology. According to Ephesians 2:10 “we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for those good things to be the way that we live our lives.”

Poetry In Motion

There are a couple of points to note about this passage that have to do with the way we embody this visionary purpose here.

  1. The says that “we are God’s accomplishment…” That’s how the Common English Bible renders the text. Other translations render the text saying we are “God’s handiwork” (NIV), “God’s workmanship” (ESV, KJV), or “God’s masterpiece” (NLT). The word in the original language is poiēma which is where we derive our English words “poem” and “poetry” from. It’s a word that describes a piece of art, like a sculpture, a painting, or even a poem. That’s why the New Jerusalem Bible renders the text saying that we are “God’s work of art…” The claim here, I believe, is that God’s intention for us is that we will be a living portrait of the new creation he is bringing about in Christ.
  2. The good works we are created to do as our way of life is best understood in relation to the context which has to do with God making both Jews and Gentiles into one new community. So rather than just having an abstract idea of doing good, such as being a nice person, our good works nurture our fellowship with God and each other. Nurturing this fellowship does not mean agreement with each other on every issue, as unity is never about uniformity (which is virtually impossible). Instead, knowing the grace God has extended to us, we also extend that grace to others. That’s how we live as God’s accomplishment on display so that others will see there is hope beyond all the suffering, racism, and violence that exists around us.

This ecclesiological vision is what it means for local churches to live as God’s poetry in motion. Understood within the narrative of scripture, it’s historical arch and destination (telos), our ecclesiological vision is Christ-centered and kingdom-oriented. In other words, the church, both locally and universally, is a community in which the fulfillment of God’s redemptive mission in Christ is manifest.

I need to say more about the church as a manifestation of God’s redemptive mission in light of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement. This movement has focused on restoring the past of first-century ecclesiology. However, if the ecclesiological vision is about portraying God’s redemptive mission, then churches are to be a people in whom the future is discernible. This means that the embodiment of the gospel is proleptic reflection. It also means the purpose is not about restoring the past, first century or any other historical period. Instead, the church as God’s accomplishment of everything he has brought together—the things of heaven and of earth. In this regards, the church embodies the gospel as a living portrait so that others might begin to see what new creation is and will be.

This is what I mean then by describing the church as poetry in motion. The question is how do we go from the ideal to actually putting this vision into concrete practice. To answer that question, the series focuses on truth, healing, justice, and reconciliation and I will address these matters in subsequent blog posts. In short, when we can learn to be honest with the truth, then space opens for becoming communities in which healing, justice, and reconciliation can be practiced which then concretely becomes God’s poetry in motion.

Discipleship In Community: A Review

Like other church denominations in America, Churches of Christ are facing many challenges in the twenty-first century. While the tasks of ministry are the same as they have always been, the monumental shifts in culture have brought new challenges. In many ways, local congregations are facing a realization that the new social context is uncharted territory for which the maps used in navigating previous territory are obsolete. However, this doesn’t mean congregations are helpless and left blindly navigating their way forward. For uncharted territory, Tod Bolsinger says the first task in going forward is a recommitment to the core identity (Canoeing The Mountains, p. 94). As Christians, our core identity is a theological commitment and this is what Mark E. Powell, John Mark Hicks, and Greg McKinzie offer Churches of Christ in their new book Discipleship In Community: A Theological Vision for the Future.

41ucepfegxlFresh off the press of Abilene Christian University Press, this book is 190 pages, divided into eight chapters and then followed by three responses as well as a couple of appendices. Though the three authors all teach theology at the academia level, the book is written in very accessible prose. With some basic familiarity of the Bible and Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement (SCRM) history, readers will easily follow along. As the title suggests, the book offers a vision for navigating the way forward by providing a theological framework that is focused on the formation of disciples within the local church. This framework is anchored in the historical Christian faith affirmed in both scripture and Christian tradition. On a personal note, I attended seminary with Greg McKinzie at Harding School of Theology in Memphis where we both had Mark E. Powell and John Mark Hicks as professors. So reading the book reminded me of some fond memories we all shared inside the classroom.

The core work of the book is within chapters two through eight and each chapter builds upon the previous. So rightfully, chapter two provides the theological foundation which is a Trinitarian understanding of of God which then opens space for the eschatological orientation of God’s mission that churches are called to participate in. Essential to such participation is reading the Bible as a practice “called theological interpretation of Scripture, as a way of encountering the living Word” (p. 70). This is a narrative approach that seeks to avoid both populism and perspicuity or the idea that anyone can pick up the Bible and rightfully understand scripture because the meaning is always self-evident. The authors intent is not to suggest that only people with theological education can understand the teaching of scripture. Rather, the point is that understanding the scriptures requires a relationship with God that results in character transformation, which is “to conform to the Spirit’s nature” (p. 81).

Having this Trinitarian foundation that is eschatologically oriented as churches engage in a narrative reading of scripture cultivates a framework for understanding what it means to be church. By church the authors have in mind the Believers Church tradition, which is associated with the Anabaptists but still confesses with the Nicene Creed that “the church is one, holy, universal (or catholic), and apostolic” (p. 94). This brings more clarity in understanding the place of the sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, in the formation of disciples and what it means for local churches to live as participants in the mission of God.

The vision presented by Powell, Hicks, and McKinzie seek to incorporate the healthy aspects of the SCRM while challenging aspects of this tradition that need challenged. For example, their book encourages Churches of Christ in continuing to take scripture seriously as our Restoration tradition has historically sought to do. At the same time, while remaining respectful in tone, they are rightfully critical towards some of the Trinitarian views held within the SCRM and allow the greater Christian Tradition to correct these views. As hinted at earlier, readers will also find the three responses by Lauren Smelser White, Stanley Talbert, and Carson E. Reed helpful. I was especially appreciative of Reed’s response because while I too see the place of finding continuity with our past, I also see a need for some discontinuity if churches are to go forward on mission with God. A Reed mentions, “To point out such discontinuous spaces with regard to practical theology highlights the need for Churches of Christ to recognize that new strands of DNA may well be necessary for mission and ministry in the twenty-first century” (p. 179). In other words, Churches of Christ cannot realistically expect to find renewal through the formation of disciples if the practical outworking of theology  (theological praxis) among local churches remains the same. That’s doing the same thing while expecting different results, which we know is the classic definition of insanity.

One concern I have is what I believe is missing from the book and that is a chapter on the subject of Christology. The authors rightfully ground the foundation of discipleship within a Trinitarian understanding of God and they rightfully help us see that following Jesus is eschatologically oriented towards the future. However, because Churches of Christ are rightfully a people of scripture, the hermeneutical question of how we read the Bible so that we may participate in the mission of God as disciples matters. The answer to the hermeneutical question is answered in part by having a Trinitarian foundation and an eschatological orientation. However, the narrative of scripture is centered in Jesus Christ as the one who reveals God and his mission to us (cf. Jn 1:1-4, 14-18; Col 1:15, 19; Heb 1:2-3). Our participation in the mission of God as followers of Jesus and the moral/ethical formation that demands is centered in who Jesus, so that our lives are increasingly conformed to the life Jesus lived — his beliefs, values, and practices — which willing embraced the cross as the way of redemption. In my judgment, this book would be perfect with a chapter on Christology, explaining how the doctrine of Christ and the logic of the cross that Christ embraced should shape our reading of scripture and thus our formation as his disciples.

All said, I highly recommend Discipleship In Community for you to read. Powell, Hicks, and McKinzie provide a compelling theological vision for navigating the uncharted territory ahead of us. Knowing the three authors, I’m sure they would agree that this book should be read as a conversational prompt rather than holy writ and that is what a good book, such as this, should always do. So don’t wait. Instead, go purchase your copy and read.