Category Archives: Discipleship

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.

Free Falling: The Slavery of Self

July 4, 2018 is coming soon. Two weeks from today America will celebrate another Independence Day with parades, backyard barbecues, fireworks, and so much more. This is the festive holiday in which Americans celebrate one of her most cherished values, freedom.

Free Falling PictureFreedom as Americans understand, is a “We the people” thing that embraces democracy and individual rights. In other words, America regards freedom as the ability of each person to think, speak, and act without restraint so long as such expression neither harms nor violates the freedom of another individual. So every person is individually autonomous and decides for themselves the sort of life they wish to live.

I’m not sure where this idea of freedom originates but we find it thoroughly embedded within modernism. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant defined freedom as, “…the alone unoriginated [sic] birthrite of man, and belongs to him by force of his humanity; and is independence on the will and co-action of every other in so far as this consists with every other person’s freedom” (The Metaphysics of Ethics). Freedom then, according to Kant, is the right of self-rule for every individual by virtue of their birth. In other words, freedom is a part of the created order of life. Among America such freedom is also understood as a truth that all people have posses by virtue of their creation. As stated in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

While freedom from the tyranny of oppressive rulers is a good thing and something I do appreciate, there is a problem for Christians with how freedom is understood in America. To put it bluntly, nowhere in the Bible is this understanding of freedom found. That won’t stop some people from misusing the Bible by proof-texting a passage of scripture from here or there, to make it affirm the American idea of freedom. Nevertheless, freedom as it is generally understood in America is not a part of the Bible. Those that try making it so offer one more example of how people co-opt the Bible to a later developed worldview. The Bible has a different view of what freedom entails but understanding that requires going back to the beginning Genesis and the original sin.

“The original and continuous sin is taking possession of the power to decide for ourselves what is good and evil or right and wrong. Yet neither Israel nor anyone else, including us red-blooded Americans, were ever created to live independent of God’s rule.”

You might recall how after placing the man and woman in the garden, God gave them permission to eat of any tree except the one tree known as the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:15-17). So although much permission was given as to how these two people would utilize there abilities in taking care of the garden, they never were given total liberty. They were prohibited from acquiring the power to determine for themselves what is good and evil. However, the desire for having that knowledge and the freedom it appears to offer, rather than relying upon God, is too much to resist. So in comes the the serpent saying to the woman “God knows that on the day you eat from it, you will see clearly and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5). The text goes on telling us how the woman saw how good the tree would be — even for the purpose of gaining wisdom. So she eats from it and gives some to the man to eat as well.

And there it is… Verse 7 says “Then they both saw clearly…” They got what they wanted but at what cost?

Since I read the Genesis creation narrative as a text offered to Israel during her exile, the story is more than just about the origin of sin. The sin here is the sin that Israel continued making and it’s the sin that we continue making as well. The original and continuous sin is taking possession of the power to decide for ourselves what is good and evil or right and wrong. Yet neither Israel nor anyone else, including us red-blooded Americans, were ever created to live independent of God’s rule. As people created in the image and likeness of God, we were made to live dependent upon our Creator and that dependence means listening and obeying his word.

What America considers to be freedom is the first form of slavery. You see, once we take the power of knowing good and evil so that we can determine for ourselves what is right and wrong, freedom becomes a good we never can fully acquire. There is always another obstacle in the way… another war to fight, an appeal to make before the Supreme Court, and some more money spent chasing “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” So freedom has become the pursuit of removing anything that hinders or restrains us from living as we have determined for ourselves. This pursuit itself then becomes the object of desire (Highfield, God, Freedom, & Human Dignity, 103-104) which makes it an idol we serve, making us slaves to the grind.

But for those of us, like me, who love freedom, there is some good news. Jesus once said to his followers, “You are my disciples if you remain faithful to my teaching. Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (Jn 8:31-32). So if it is freedom we want, then know that it is Jesus who gives us the opportunity to be free again. This opportunity isn’t a path where we can say whatever we want, live however we like, chasing after life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Instead, Jesus gives us the opportunity to live life as God created us to live, free from the tyranny and slavery of our autonomous selves. With this opportunity we gain the freedom to truly live as humans by recognizing Jesus as Lord so that God may rule over us again. That’s why Jesus says that we’ll know the truth that sets us free if we remain faithful to his teaching. True freedom is living in submission to King Jesus, as his servants, by remaining faithful to his teaching so that God’s will is done in our lives as it is in heaven.

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.

Christianity: Reclaiming the Practice

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

THEN and NOW

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The words read “Alexamenos worships his god.”

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

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

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

GUITAR PICKING and CHRISTIAN LIVING

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

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

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

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

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

SO THEN…

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

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

Agape Blitz in Portland, Oregon

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Christian Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Confession: The Blessing I Forgot

“Rejoice Christian! Your sins are forgiven and you have the gift of eternal life in Christ,” says the preacher.

jesus-crucified-08-2“Good sermon, preacher!”, says me the faithful, church-going Christian. It’s the kind of sermon I want to hear and it’s all true too. It’s nice to be reminded of such spiritual blessings in Christ and it’s good to be so blessed.

Then like a good Christian should do, I pick up my Bible and read. Today I’m reading in Philippians, a letter written to Christians by the apostle Paul.

And so I begin reading about how thankful Paul is for the Christians who partner with him in the gospel and how Paul is in prayer for such Christians. That’s nice. I need prayers and I’m sure there are plenty of other Christians who need prayers too. So it’s good to know that Paul is full of thanksgiving and prayer for his fellow Christians.

And then I read how Paul is actually “in chains” for preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. How terrible it must be for him to be confined to a jail cell like that but I’m thankful for his faith. I’m thankful too that nobody has ever put me in prison for being a Christian.

And then I read how Paul says, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Can Paul get an “Amen!”? Maybe a “Hallelujah!”? Of course he can. Now we got an idea for the next student devotional, the next church retreat. Hey… a good preacher might even develop a good sermon series about living for Christ, knowing that when we die — hopefully a very long time from now when were really old people — that we’ll gain our eternal inheritance in Christ.

Wow… this is going to be a really wonderful book of the Bible to read through.

But then Paul talks about standing firm in Christ and says… “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him…” (Phil 1:29, NIV).

I know those words were not written directly to me or any other Christian living today, yet those words are part of the story we’re called to embody. But when I think about the blessing of being included in Christ, suffering for Christ isn’t a part of such thinking. In fact, my first inclination is to say, “Thanks for such a grant but no thanks!”

Lord, have mercy on me… a sinful man!