Category Archives: Discipleship

Christian Unity and the Embodiment of Love

If you knew you were about die, what would you want to say to those you love the most? What would you want to do? It’s a hypothetical question that doesn’t really need an answer except to say that most of us, if not all, would want to say and do those things that really matter, that are of the utmost importance. And so it seems with Jesus too, on the night before he was crucified.

Jesus Washes an Apostle's Feet, Laurie Olson Lisonbee, 2006

“Jesus Washes an Apostle’s Feet,” Laurie Olson Lisonbee, 2006.

According to the Gospel of John,  Jesus washes the feet of his disciples in chapter thirteen and then begins addressing his disciples before he retreats into prayer. The foot washing is important because Jesus is offering his disciples an example of the life he is calling them to live. It’s a life of radical love embodied in the virtues of humility and servitude. It is the life Jesus has lived, the way and truth of the gospel, and why he insists that his disciples must love each other as he has loved them (13:34-35; 15:12). 

This life of love embodied in humility and service is the way, truth, and life of Jesus that reflects the gospel, the very Word of God, revealed in Jesus Christ. Compared to the world, this truth is the alternative the disciples are sanctified in (set apart) and sent into the world as witnesses of. This is the reason, Jesus prays in John 17 that his disciples will be one.

        “I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me.” – Jesus Christ, John 17:21

Sanctification and unity point us toward the mission of God (Carson, The Gospel According to John, 566). To be sanctified and sent out as a unified community of disciples is to continue participating in the very mission that God sent Jesus into the world to fulfill.

This is as true today as it was then. Being sanctified is not just a salvation issue and Christian unity is not uniformity achieved in keeping a list of church practices. This is not to suggest that holiness and theology is inconsequential. Some issues, such as the Triune nature of God or Christian marriage, are worthy of our reflection and discernment. But perhaps what matters most is the way we love each other. Our capacity to love one another is what Jesus desires when he prays that we will be one. For in being so one with each other that we will love each other as Christ has loved us, we reflect that love outward to the world around us. That’s a love that draws the rest of the world into the love of God (Gorman, Abide and Go, 124)

That’s why I love the story I heard in the news last week about Giuseppe Berardelli, a priest in Italy. He died from the Coronavirus after giving his respirator to a younger person in need. Now a younger me would have said “But he’s a Catholic…” Today though, I say, “Yes he was a Catholic, but  what matters is that in his death he showed us another example of what it looks like to be sanctified and sent into the world just as Jesus was.” Shaped by the virtues of humility and servitude, he loved someone younger than him with the love of Jesus because he knows that such love is the embodiment of the truth God has revealed in Jesus. This is the truth we all are called to embody, for it signifies that we are united in Jesus Christ as a people known for the very love of God.

One: On Mission with God

This is the prerecorded message that I preached for the Newark Church of Christ this past Sunday. The message, One: On Mission with God, is based on John 17:15-24 and is about the church being sanctified and sent as followers of Jesus united in our participation in the mission of God. The message is also challenges the notion that the basis of Christian unity is based on adhering to a list of dogmas and rules that have often divided churches, hindering their participation in the mission of God.

The Gospel and Politics: Five Convictions

Recently I had a conversation with another follower of Jesus about the relationship between Christianity and politics. That’s always a dangerous conversation because religion and politics are two subjects that are very personal and fraught with so much potential for exasperating conflict. It shouldn’t be that way but that is the nature of the beast these days.

6b-religion-vs-politics

Anyhow, when I speak of Christianity and politics, I am really speaking of the socio-political claim made by good news of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God. Below are five convictions I shared in this conversation, with a few edits. Maybe in some future posts I’ll expand on each conviction but here are the five for now:

  1. The gospel of Jesus Christ pertains to the life we are living now into the future. That is, the good news of Jesus Christ is not merely concerned with eternal salvation in the life to come, it is about reordering life in this world in order to bring about new creation in Christ and thus heaven on earth. This is why a central aspect of Jesus’ teaching consists of a moral vision for human life (e.g., The Sermon on the Mount, Matt 5-7) but this moral vision is also a political vision leading people to a new way of living for the good of society (what politics is ideally about).
  2. The gospel of Jesus Christ is brought about through his death and resurrection, unveiling God’s new creation within history. All people are called to participate this new creation by faith expressed in repentance and baptism. Such participation is putting to death the old creation, including the politics of old creation. While the governing authorities of old creation still play a part in maintaining civility among old creation, everything about old creation is “rubbish” in comparison to what we now know in Christ (cf. Phi 3:8).
  3. The gospel of Jesus Christ is as much of a political claim upon our lives as it is a religious claim because Jesus is Lord. Either Jesus is Lord over our entire life or he is not our Lord at all. Therefore the gospel and as the gospel is preached, has everything to do with politics just as much as it does with religion, family life, etc… I disagree with the notion of two kingdoms articulated by Martin Luther, later expounded by Reinhold Niebuhr as Christian Realism, in which Christians participate in two kingdoms: the kingdom of God and the nation/state. Niebuhr believed the kingdom of God could not be realized upon earth but the kingdom of God, first manifested in Jesus Christ, is realized through the church. While the kingdom of God will not be fully realized until Christ comes agin, it is realized to the degree that the church follows Jesus and gives it allegiance to the kingdom of God rather than any nation/state.
  4. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a politic revealed to the world that proclaims the reign of God by announcing that Jesus is the new King. This is the witness of the church that is embodied in the distinct way in which the church bears witness to its alternative life. Such life involves renouncing the sins old creation (e.g., adultery, dishonesty, etc…) and bearing witness to the ethic of new creation by loving all people, showing hospitality to all people, caring for the sick and the poor, etc… The earliest Christians regarded this alternative life of new creation in Christ as a politic, which is why they insisted on identifying themselves as an ekklesia (an assembly).They’re were other terms the early Christian could have adopted that referred to private religious associations but instead they chose to call themselves an ekklesia, which referred to a public political association in Roman culture. Had they adopted the former, the church would have easily been accepted among Rome, which was a religiously pluralistic society, but in choosing the later, the church was rightfully viewed as a threat to the Roman way of life (the Pax Romana). 
  5. Therefore, the gospel of Jesus Christ embodied in the church should be and is intended as a subversive people among every nation/state-kingdom of this world, including America. This does not mean Christians are anti-state, for we do recognize the authority God has granted to all governing authorities in this world for maintaining civility. Therefore Christians do obey the laws of the nation they live in so long as these laws do not require any compromise with their embodied witness as followers of Jesus.

These are just some convictions I have come to as I attempt to live and preach what I believe is the full implications of following Jesus and bearing witness to the kingdom of God. I’m not sure how my beliefs work out in everyday life but then again, I am more concerned with what is right than I am with what results may come about. I’ll trust God to bring about good through our faithful witness as followers of Jesus. I’ll also add that I’m not against Christians voting or even serving in a public office. However, as America is in another contentious political season, we should be cautious about the way we engage in state politics. Our calling is not to be a witness for any particular politician or political platform and that means not wasting our energy trying to tell others who or what they should vote for. That’s because at the end of the day, I believe what really matters is the reality that Jesus is Lord and his kingdom has come.

Lastly, while I had these convictions stirring in my for sometime, one very brand new book that I found really helpful is Scandalous Witness by Lee C. Camp, which was released yesterday. I highly recommend you buy it and read it.

Post-Christendom America: Living as Church in the New Reality

In the new post-Christendom society of America, Christianity has lost the positional power of having dominion over society as it once did in the days of Christendom. Without the positional power, Christians are only left with the power of witness. Yet many Christians are in denial of this cultural shift in America. Though nothing speaks louder to Christianity’s loss of dominion than when certain leaders tell Christians that they must attempt to exercise positional power by voting or lose America.

Empty Church Building

I’m referring to an example I shared in my previous post Post Christendom America: Understanding and Accepting the New Reality in which Franklin Graham saying urged Christians to vote on a Facebook post saying, “Make sure that you are registered to vote, otherwise we will lose our country.” That Christians must vote or lose is telling. That is, if the only way we believe that voting is the only way that some “Christian” goal is achieved, then we’ve already lost (and if we don’t see the loss then why must we vote or lose?). We’ve lost our influence in America and we’ve lost the way of God’s kingdom which only comes by way of the cross.

All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them.” – Jesus of Nazareth, Mark 8:34-35.

These were the words that inspired the slain missionary Jim Elliot to write in his journal “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” Yes, Jim Elliot penned was writing in a very different context but I believe they are appropriate for Christians facing the challenge of a post-Christendom society and the loss of Christian influence. Why? Because I believe that by understanding and accepting the loss of Christendom power, new space opens for thinking about how to live as faithful followers of Jesus in a post-Christendom society. By understanding and accepting the loss, we can return to the way of Christ and learn to regain the power of the Spirit-filled witness by following Jesus. So there’s a paradox at work here in that by losing, Christians stand to gain which is also a gain for our local churches.

The question we must ask is whether we can let go of the assumed right to win, carry instead the cross and follow Jesus to his cross? Doing so is how we embody the gospel  because the good news of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God. Because the wisdom of God is Christ-crucified (cf. 1 Cor 1:23-24). It’s not by adopting any political power or platform and voting so as to see certain laws pass, it’s by laying down our need to win and trust that God can bring about his kingdom through our willingness to carry the cross of Christ.

Now I’m not opposed to voting nor am I saying that Christians can’t vote. But there’s a difference between voting and spending our energy trying to convince other Christians to not only vote but also who to vote for (and who they shouldn’t vote for). The later makes us part of the world manifested in serving as an extension to the political parties of society, which obscures our identity as the church because we can’t embody the gospel if when the focus is winning a political election.

So here is how we live as the church in the new post-Christendom reality. We make following Jesus our singular focus so that we may learn to embody the gospel he proclaimed—the kingdom of God—in the new context, the new reality. That means getting more involved as a local church and not just for worship and fellowship but also serving together in the local community. A good place to start might be going on a prayer walk together, not stopping people to pray for them but praying quietly for the people and places you see. Out of this praying together, comes listening and learning for the ways in which God is already at work in the local community and how God is gifting the local church to serve. This means becoming present in the community but not as heroes, experts, and authoritarians, instead just as servants seeking to do good and even collaborate with the community where that is possible.

Here are some of the ways we do this in the church I serve, the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, Delware:

  • The People’s House: A ministry that works with the local hospital by providing free housing for families from out of town who have a loved-one staying in the hospital.
  • Blue Hens for Christ: This is our campus mission on the University of Delaware but in addition to leading students to follow Jesus, we help international students learn English and the BHC students also engage in service-oriented projects.
  • Food-Run/Pantry: The church operates a substantial food pantry for families in need and every Friday we take additional food into a couple of nearby neighborhoods. The groceries from our food run is supplied by supermarkets through a rejoined food pantry.

These are just some examples and I’m only sharing them as an example. Doing so doesn’t mean we have fully figured out how to navigate the new post-Christendom reality as follower of Jesus but we are learning.

At the end of the day, there isn’t any going back or turning the clock back to the era of Christendom, so the only way is forward into the murky waters of a post-Christendom and post-Christian society. The way forward isn’t promised to be easy and the good that God can and will bring, is not likely to be fully seen in our lifetime. But like all the people of faith listed in Hebrews that didn’t receive what was promised, let’s run this race with our eyes fixed on Jesus and not on the temporal positional power of state politics.

Reading Scripture as Followers of Jesus

Reading the Bible is as necessary to living as a Christian as sleep is in living as a healthy person. Continuously deprive ourselves of sleep and it’s our health that suffers. As Christians, deprive ourselves of reading the Bible and our faith will certainly suffer. But just as we can have habits that make sleeping more difficult, like eating right before bedtime, it’s possible to read the Bible in ways that actually makes living our faith more difficult. This is why it’s not just important that we read the Bible but it’s also important to think about how we read the Bible.

Coffee and BibleIn my experience as a pastor, there are some ways in which Christians read the Bible that are unhelpful, at best, and may in fact hinder discipleship. These include readings that ignore the context, dogmatic proof-texting or cherry-picking, and readings that focus simply knowing the times and dates of presumed prophetic event to come, and prosperity readings, to name a few.

Part of the problem is that there just does not seem to be enough attention given to thinking about and learning how to read the Bible. There’s plenty of encouragement towards reading the Bible but seemingly little attention given to the how of reading the Bible. That must change and it must change because as Christians, we are called to follow Jesus.

So as followers of Jesus, we ought to read the Bible in order to become more like him so that we may more faithfully embody the good news of the kingdom of God like Jesus did. That means we must go beyond just a reading of scripture that says, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.” The Bible says a lot of things but that neither settles the matter nor does it mean we just automatically do ________ because the Bible says so (which is impossible anyway). Instead, I want to propose that we must ask about how Jesus lived the ________ teaching in ________ passage of scripture from both the Old and New Testament.

Take for example two passages of scripture, one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament. First, Jeremiah 29:4-7

“The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims to all the exiles I have carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare.”

and then, 1 Peter 2:11-12

“Dear friends, since you are immigrants and strangers in the world, I urge that you avoid worldly desires that wage war against your lives. Live honorably among the unbelievers. Today, they defame you, as if you were doing evil. But in the day when God visits to judge they will glorify him, because they have observed your honorable deeds.” – 1 Peter 2:11-12

The historical context for each passage is different. Jeremiah is addressing how the people of Judah should live in exile, whereas Peter is addressing how Christians in Asian Minor should live as people whose faith makes them exiles among society. The common thread in each passage is that both passages are addressing the way God’s people should live within a society that is not their true home. Another common thread is that as we read each passage, we know that we are not facing the same exact circumstances as the people of Judah and Asia Minor.

So instead of reading each passage and literally transposing it’s instructions onto our own circumstances, I believe we must start with the question of how do we see the teaching of these two passages lived out in the life of Jesus. Answering this question is far from settling the matter of how we live (embody) these teachings and it is is a question that is better discerned within a community of believers. However, once we discern this question then we can also ask how Christians have embodied this teaching throughout history (tradition) and what/where God is working in our local community (culture).

This is the missional hermeneutic, in which Now we engage scripture, tradition, and culture together in a conversation. I believe this is where God opens space for us to reimagine what it means to embody the gospel. The result is a new way forward, that is both coherent with the life Jesus calls us to follow him in live and relevant for the local community we live among. As we do, we live the teaching of scripture among the community as followers of Jesus bearing witness to the kingdom of God.‬

Tell me what you think?

Following Jesus in 2020

Face of Jesus ChristHere we are in the second week of 2020, which seems a bit surreal. I was just getting used to saying 2019 and now it’s 2020. Churches have just traversed from a season of Advent into the season of Epiphany, from the birth of King Jesus to God’s revelation of King Jesus to the entire world. But does that mean anything?

As we step forward into year 2020 in America, we do so in a year of contention. President Trump is facing an impeachment trial, there is a rapidly escalating conflict with Iran, and there is an upcoming political election that is sure to bring out the worst vitriol and anger in many people. Besides all the contentious politics in America, we live in a society that has been sinking into a moral quagmire for sometime. Whether we talk about the life of the unborn, the increasing number of socially displaced poor living in our neighborhoods, or the life of immigrants seeking refuge from war and violence in their homeland, their livelihood always seems to come at the expense of politics. But where I find myself is with a growing disappointment for the ways in which it seems some Christians respond, acting as though the politics of right and left matter more than lives affected by these challenges.

Have we forgotten what it means to live as followers of Jesus? I’m talking about the Jesus we read of in scripture, who embraced the powerless over the powerful, took up the cause of the oppressed by show mercy and acting with justice, became a humble servant rather than an ego-driven despot, and who chose the way of the cross rather than the much easier way of the sword. This is the Jesus we are called to follow and the Christianity we profess as our religion must be coherent with the life Jesus lived, is nothing but another self-made false religion.

So as 2020 is upon us, I’ve heard a lot of pastors talking about sharing a “2020 Vision” with their church. I don’t have any problem with the language, playing on the year 2020, if that helps captivate the attention of the church. But from where I sit, churches don’t need a 2020 Vision for some new ministry initiative or how they can help take their church to the next level, whatever that means. What churches need is a 2020 vision for who Jesus is and the kingdom he called us to serve in as his followers.

On the night before Jesus was crucified, he prayed for this disciples. As a part of his prayer, he asked his Heavenly Father…

“I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, os that they also may be sanctified in truth.” – John 17:16-19 (NRSV)

Clearly Jesus did not want his followers withdrawing or from the world, which I believe includes not avoiding the problems that society must face. Rather, Jesus has sent his disciples into the world. However, in sending his disciples into the world, he does so with the expectation that they will be sanctified which has to do with being set apart in the world for the mission of God. This is the rub, the tension. How do we, as followers of Jesus, live in society facing numerous challenges and live as believers who singular focus is participating in the mission of God? 

I certainly don’t have the final answer but I remain committed to living as a follower of Jesus. And by that, I mean striving to live my life by the same beliefs and values that Jesus lived so that my life might be a coherent reflection of who Jesus is. I’m sure I’ll fail along the way but that is my commitment. As a pastor, I am also preaching through the Gospel of John this winter and spring with the Newark Church of Christ. As I preach through the Gospel of John, I am asking the question of what God is doing in Jesus as a way of trying to understand what is this eternal life that the church is called to participate in as believers following Jesus. And that’s it… I hope that by living as a follower of Jesus and preaching about Jesus, that whatever influence I have will be harnessed towards encouraging others to live as followers of Jesus.

 

The Witness of Preaching The Word.

If you’re a pastor then one of your responsibilities likely includes some preaching and the same is true for me. You may not preach every Sunday or maybe you’re a student pastor who speaks at a gathering of high school students every month. Whatever your role as a pastor among your church is, you understand the importance sharing a word from God in the scriptures when the time comes. As the apostle Paul says, “Preach the word…” (2 Tim 4:2).

preachingWhen it comes to preaching, most of us understand the importance of preparation. We’ve read a few books on the subject of homiletics, we’ve learned the skills of exegeting a biblical text and reflecting theologically on that text. More importantly, we know that tending to our own faith is important if we are to preach from a life of authenticity. That is, we know that we must be disciplined in living as a follower of Jesus ourselves if we are going to preach messages that ultimately are asking people to place their trust in Jesus and follow him.

That’s all good and I don’t want to diminish the importance of sermon prep and tending to our own faith at all. However, I do want to talk about another aspect of good sermon prep that doesn’t seem to get as much attention. I’m talking about the being with other people, which is both very pastoral and, as I will try to explain, necessary for good preaching.

In his book Faithful Presence, David E. Fitch writes about the way God is present in the world and the church is the people whom God works through to make his presence known. That’s because the presence of God isn’t aways obvious and so “he requires a people tending to his presence to make his presence visible for all to see” (p. 27). Later in the book is a chapter devoted to the discipline of preaching and a part of that chapter is about the preacher.

The preacher must not stand over the community but must stand as one among the community being present to the people in the community’s midst, for it is in this space that Jesus is found. From this posture comes the practice of proclamation. This is not a rhetorical performance. This is proclamation of the gospel for the people gathered in Christ’s name in this space and in this time (p. 100).

In times where we hear too many stories of pastors who stand over the people as authoritarians because they have a large platform, that is worth reading again and again but I digress.

Besides taking time to engage in some exegesis of the text, an important and critical aspect of sermon prep is spending time with people. Whether that’s visiting someone in the hospital, spending some time in a local coffee house with a college student, or just enjoying some food and fellowship with a small group, this time spent with others is invaluable to preaching. Not only will it (and should it) help shape the focus and function  of our message (cf. Long, The Witness of Preaching, 3d ed., 2016) but it will also help us discern what biblical texts we might preach, whether we’re selecting from one of the lectionary readings or planning a themed sermon series.

When we spend time with others, listening to them we are able to discern where God might be working. This opens space for the intersection of the gospel with the lives we are living so that we all might reimagine how God is working in our lives both individually and as a church. This is why Fitch rightfully says that “Proclaiming the gospel is always contextual” (p. 103).

Now as a pastor, I understand that it’s impossible to spend equal time with everyone but spending time with people is more about the quality of that time than quantity. Are we attentively listening and observant as to how God might be working when we are with people? Another important question is to ask if we are even spending time with people? I don’t know that it’s a given practice of serving as a pastor anymore, which is a shame. But if you want to preach good sermons that help lead others in the way of Jesus, spend time with those people. Yes, still take the time to care for your own faith and carve time out in your schedule for engaging the biblical text exegetically and theologically but also take the time to be with the people whom God has entrusted to your pastoral care as you preach. When we do, we are able to be the witness in preaching the word.