Category Archives: Faith

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!

A More Violent Christianity?

“Do not treat prophesies with contempt but test them all: hold on to what is good” (1 Thess 5:20-21). Discernment has always been necessary for Christians because the difference between “good” and “bad” prophesy is never so black and white. Like spiked punch, the bad is always cloaked in enough good that it appears good to the undiscerning.

Unsalty Salt: Misreading The Bible

Such is the case of these words spoken Dave Daubenmire, a Christian and former high-school football coach turned activist on the religious right. In a recent live episode of his Pass The Salt, the “Coach” said, “The only thing that’s going to save western civilization is a more aggressive… a more violent Christianity.”

Well, Coach Daubenmire is just flat wrong! If that’s salt he’s passing, it’s lost its saltiness! Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not denying that Daubenmire is a believer or that he doesn’t mean well but when he suggests that America needs a more violent Christianity, he is speaking what we might call false prophesy.

i283445314525658362-_szw480h1280_If you listen to Coach Daubenmire, it’s clear that he has read the Bible and regards the Bible as the inspired word of God. But suggesting a need for a more violent Christianity is a great example of how one can completely misread the Bible. That’s made clear also when he talks about the violence in the Bible and then says, “The Bible teaches violence as a last resort.”

Yes, there is violence in the Bible. There’s also polygamy in the Bible as well as kings ruling over the people but I doubt the Coach is ready to suggest that western civilization needs polygamy and monarch rule again. So how does he suggest that Christianity needs to become more aggressive and violent? Because his reading of the Bible is neither Christ-centered nor kingdom-oriented!

Christian Faith and The Bible

The only reason there is a worldwide group of people called “Christians” is because of the historical existence of Jesus, whom Christians confess as Lord and Messiah. As part of jesus-crucified-08-2the confession of faith in Jesus, Christians not only believe that Jesus was crucified and resurrected but that he also is the Son of God, the second-person of the Trinity who is God Incarnate revealing the fullness of God. In fact, Hebrews says that Jesus “is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being…” (Heb 1:3). So when it comes to the question of who God is, Christians point to Jesus. And it’s not just that Jesus is like God but that God is 100% like Jesus… that is, Jesus is God in living flesh and he calls us to follow him.

The revelation of God in Jesus both centers and orients faith, thus also centering and orienting the way Christians read the Bible. In other words, Christians do not read the Bible indiscriminately because doing so would mean that one could make a case for offering sacrifices for the atonement of sin since such teaching is a part of the Bible. But that won’t happen because Christians read the Bible in light of the life and teaching of Jesus. But somehow when it comes to the issue of violence, there are some Christians who resort to an indiscriminate reading of the Bible.

A Christian reading of the Bible is one that is Christ-centered and kingdom-oriented. It’s that simple and that complex, depending on how one looks at it. Since Christians are called to follow Jesus and thus be conformed into the likeness of Christ (cf. Rom 8:29; Gal 4:19), Christian faith and the reading of scripture is centered by Christ. That is, Christians read scripture to embody the way of life Jesus lived which took him to the cross. However, Jesus’ own life and teaching was also oriented towards the kingdom of God rather than any particular earthly civilization or society. That is to say that Jesus was bearing witness to the life that was to come, the reign of God where his will is done on earth as it is in heaven (cf. Matt 5:10) and had already begun breaking into the present. Christians too are a witness of this kingdom life and though imperfect, are called to embody God’s kingdom future in the present.

With a Christ-centered and kingdom-oriented faith shaping the way Christians read the Bible, it is unbiblical to say that Christianity must become violent. This has nothing to do with the ethical dilemma of whether there is ever a so-called “just-war” or whether Christians can use a measure of violence in self-defense. This is about following King Jesus rather than the world.

An Example…

Coach Daubenmire alluded to the violence that early Christians encountered saying, “You look at all the crap that the disciples went through…” They did suffer persecution and sometimes even unto their own death but they never called for Christians to become aggressive and violent towards their persecutors. In fact, the Apostle Peter wrote to some Christians who were suffering persecution and he said,

“But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Pet 2:20-21).

But this will likely never make sense to Christians whose faith is centered in and oriented towards something other than embodying the way of Jesus and the kingdom of God.

Discern wisely! Test all prophesies and hold on to what is good!

 

 

Christian Baptism and Christian Identity

Among Churches of Christ, the subject of Christian baptism has always been generated a lot of conversation. Much of the talk has been about the relationship of baptism to salvation in Christ and the question of whether baptism is necessary for receiving the promise of salvation. Less talk, and perhaps very little, has focused on the significance of baptism as it pertains to Christian identity and how baptism initiates believers into a new way of life that is embodied in daily living.

Brueggemann Meme on Baptism

The other day I shared the above photo with the quote from Walter Brueggemann on Facebook. Brueggemann is aiming at the unhealthy and ungodly patriotism, sometimes called nationalism, in which the identity of Christians has been baptized into American values to the point that Christian baptism is failing to yield a new identity of faith and discipline evident in the way Christians live. But notice that the problem is a baptism issue.

I wrote the following article (see below) for the Chillicothe Church of Christ weekly bulletin last Sunday, May 21, 2017. I did so and am also sharing it with you because there is an important aspect of baptism that needs more of our attention. Enjoy!


On Baptism Into Christ

The church of Jesus Christ consists of those who have been baptized into Christ. Notwithstanding all the debates about the purpose and practice of baptism, this is a conviction historically held by all orthodox Christians and is importance for more reasons than we might always understand.

For Paul, the importance of baptism largely has to do with what we have become in Christ which is inseparable form what has transpired in baptism. So even though Greco-Roman society defined people by their social, ethnic, and gender status, the church was defined by equality and mutuality. Why? Because Christians have been baptized into Christ (Gal 3:27-28).

Baptism then signifies a change in our identity but at the same time, a change in the way we live is expected as well. We might recall how some Christians in Rome thought they should continue sinning so that the grace of God would abound. In response to that woeful misunderstanding Paul recalls the memory of baptism into Christ as the reason why Christians should discontinue in sinful living (Rom 6:1-4). However, in doing so Paul also recalls what has transpired in baptism. Namely that Christians have been baptized into the death of Christ where they are buried with Christ and then raised into new life with Christ (note: baptism is not what we do but what God does to us). Thus in being baptized we have been crucified with Christ and then raised in the resurrected Christ by God.

And this changes everything about who we are and how we ought to live!

Consider this… We all come from somewhere and were born into different circumstances. Sometimes we point to our roots, so to speak, to explain who we are. For example, I was born in Arkansas as a caucasian but raised in a small midwestern Indiana town. Having lived the past six years on the east coast among people of different ethnicities and national origins, I see how different upbringings shaped people and that’s okay to an extent.

To use a botanical metaphor, as Christians we have been replanted in Christ and our roots are now being nurtured by a different soil — the Spirit dwelling among the church. Thus we should be growing differently and increasingly reflect a life that is filled with the Holy Spirit rather than the “spirits” of our upbringing. So it’s not okay to justify unChristian living and unChristian values by saying that’s how we were raised because if we have been baptized into Christ then we have been raised anew in Christ.

And that’s at least one important reason for remembering our baptism into Christ!

Seeing Again: A 20/20 Kingdom Vision

It’s not any secret than many established churches find themselves struggling and in decline. Facing different challenges, one wonders if there is hope for renewal or if these church must just hang on until than can no longer continue and then decide to close. While I’ve helped close a church and believe doing so is the right decision in some cases, I also believe that renewal is very much possible but it begins with seeing again. Allow me to explain…

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Getting Older: A Brief Story… A Point

More than a few years back, my wife and I were driving during the wee hours of the night from Indiana to our home in Searcy, Arkansas. In the bootheel of Missouri US HWY 412 makes a left turn as it enters the town of Kennett and heads southwest for a few miles before turning and heading towards Paragould, AR.

It was at this left turn in Kennett where I accidently turned into the path of a semi-truck and nearly had a head-on collision, one that surely would have killed my wife and I. It was my fault too, as I had turned into this truck’s right-hand turning lane. Frightened and perplexed then as to how this happened, I began noticing that I was not able to read the street signs until I was just about to pass them. So I decided that it was time to visit an eye doctor and when I did, I learned that I was only able to read the top three lines of the eye-exam chart. The doctor told me the obvious, that my vision was bad and that I needed eye-glasses and/or contacts in order to see with 20/20 vision again.

As of today, I wear contact lenses and the difference is huge. It’s not that I’m blind without corrective lenses but that I cannot see well enough to engage in tasks that are necessary to living a healthy and productive life, such as driving or reading and writing. Of course, this is not some shocker to anyone. In fact, many people will resonate because they too wear glasses or contacts. Poor vision is a fact-of-life, a part of aging and getting older, and if we’re fortunate enough, we’ll make an appointment with an optometrist in hopes of restoring our vision to 20/20.

Eyes and Ears: But Do We See and Hear?

In my experience established churches begin suffering from poor vision as they age. This has to do with a kingdom vision, one of understanding what following Jesus involves as participants in the kingdom of God. Such was the problem the fist disciples of Jesus were suffering from and why Jesus asked if they had eyes and ears but failed to see and hear, if they still failed to understand (Mk. 8:17-18, 21).

This is exactly when we read the story of a blind man who Jesus had to touch twice in order to fully restore his vision. Here is the account in Mark 8:22-26:

They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?”

He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.”

Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Jesus sent him home, saying, “Don’t even go into the village.”

The point is that the disciples of Jesus see the kingdom, which is why they have followed him, but they have yet to see the kingdom clearly. The Jewish faith of these disciples has aged and in that process of aging, their 20/20 kingdom vision is impaired and they are the ones who need Jesus to touch them again that they might see the kingdom of God with clarity.

As a minister of the gospel, I believe this is the problem facing many established churches. That is, many local churches suffered from an impaired kingdom vision and because these local churches are made up of individual believers, the problem is both individual and communal. An impaired kingdom vision is something that every follower of Jesus, including me, can suffer with and for a variety of reasons. Here are a few examples I have encountered…

  • Our understanding of church (ecclesiology) is reduced to a worship gathering.
  • Maintaining traditions are more important than embodying the gospel.
  • Sharing our political views are more important than sharing the gospel.
  • Doctrinal dogma obscures and openness to scripture and Christian Tradition.
  • Safety and security, rather than faith, guides decision making.
  • The wisdom of the cross is subtly replaced with conventional wisdom.
  • Avoiding conflict and appeasing critics is more important than change.
  • Anxiety and quick-fix solutions trump dealing with the underlying difficulties.

Like the disciples who needed to be touched by Jesus again in order to see the kingdom of God clearly, aging local churches also need Jesus to touch them again. How this happens is the work of the Spirit but I would like to suggest that it begins with prayer.

Can We Pray?

I want to end this post with a prayer historically attributed to St. Francis of Assisi and suggest that when such a prayer becomes the cries of our hearts, Jesus will come touch our churches again.

Lord, make Lord, make us instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Amen!

Disruptive: The Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus

Nobody, or at least most people, do not enjoy having their lives disrupted. But for most of us, it does happen. Think of a horrific car accident, being diagnosed with a terrible disease, etc… When such disruptions happen, one thing is for sure: life will be different!*

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The crucifixion of Jesus was a disruptive occasion for sure. In fact, Jesus dying on the cross is really the preeminent disruption of history as well as the climatic disruption within the biblical narrative. As Jesus hangs nailed to the cross and utters in his last dying breath “It is finished” (Jn 19:30) before finally dying, what has transpired is a horrid and violent moment of injustice. Here hangs in death the Son of God, the one who has unconditionally loved those around him without any judgment. But now this Messiah has been crucified—nailed to the cross—like many other Jews who became a political threat to the Pax Romana. The death of Jesus now seems like a reminder that the power of the sword, wielded by a conspiracy between Jewish religious authorities and the governance of Rome, wins. This death, with its display of power, is symbolic of rulers everywhere.

But then came the third day, which we now call Easter Sunday. On that morning the tomb where Jesus was buried was found empty. The grave of death was powerless to hold Jesus, who has been raised from death. And now vindicated by his Father who has raised him by the power of the Spirit, this only begotten Son of God has overcome. Victory is at hand! The cross, which appeared as the mighty power of human authority on display, is revealed as the power of God that overcomes sin and death.

“No matter how much anyone says otherwise, death has given way to new life as the grim reality of the crucifixion is matched by the promise of the resurrection.”

The Pax Romana, which was never really true peace, has been overcome by Jesus who now appears saying “Peace be with you!” (Jn 20:19, 26). And now having born the sins of the world and suffered the cost of death, Jesus has won the victory through crucifixion and resurrection.

This is the preeminent disruption for sure and life will surely be different but not for the reasons we might think. We live in a world that still clings to coercive power and self-justifying violence as the means of maintaining authority over others. But no matter how the rulers of this world try, it’s a losing effort. No matter how much anyone says otherwise, death has given way to new life as the grim reality of the crucifixion is matched by the promise of the resurrection. The crucified Jesus has been raised from death as a promise of hope for all who believe. The old life of self-serving and might-makes-right governing, of which the powers of this world cling to, is done. The days of that old life are numbered, they are coming to an end. For there is a new life, and eternal life characterized love and peace, of which Jesus is the benevolent king.

Now here is why this disruption matters. It leaves us with is a disruptive question: On whose side will we stand? Will we choose the old life whose power expressed in death has been rendered impotent, or the new life of peace whom the crucified and resurrected Son of God, Jesus the Messiah, offers?

Let us choose wisely and not be stupid!

* A shorter and slightly different version of this blog post was published as an article for the Chillicothe Church of Christ weekly bulletin on Sunday, April 16, 2017.

Worship In Spirit and Truth?

I’ve heard more than a few sermons on the subject of worshiping God in spirit and truth. I’ve even preached a few of those sermons myself. Using the passage of John 4:23-24, the focus of the sermon always presumed a question of what are the requirements that God expects of the church in worship so that the worship is pleasing to God and thus offered in spirit and truth? The preacher then begins proof-texting various Bible verses to clarify what God presumably requires of Christian worship and how the church is to carry out that requirement. And if you’re from my Christian tradition, the Churches of Christ, that sermon will always include an argument for a cappella singing in worship coupled with an argument against the use of instrumental music in worship.

worshipinspiritandintruth

The passage of John 4:23-24 is part of a larger story about an encounter Jesus has with a Samaritan woman. However, the type of sermon I described in the preceding paragraph has very little, if anything, to do with Jesus. The focus of that sermon is the church and specifically what the church must presumably do to worship God in spirit and truth. Yet the focus of John chapter 4 and really the entire Gospel of John is Jesus. So do we see the problem with a sermon using a passage from John 4 that is focused on us, the church, and not on Jesus?

Regardless of what our views our on how the church should worship, John chapter 4 isn’t about that and if we don’t realize that then we’re going to miss the more important point. So moving on…

There’s this woman from Samaria whom Jesus meets at a well and asks for a drink of water. That was a surprise to the woman since Jews don’t associate with Samaritans. As the conversation unfolds, Jesus offers the woman “living water” which will forever satisfy her thirst and everyone else’s thirst who drinks of the water Jesus offers. It is the promise of “eternal life” (v. 14). This intrigues the Samaritan woman but then, and rather abruptly, Jesus points out her marriage situation. Whatever the circumstances are for why this woman has been married five times and is now living with a man who is not her husband, the woman now sees Jesus as a prophet (v. 19). Her marriage history coupled with her identity as a Samaritan raises questions about her suitability to receive the promise of eternal life. But it is these questions that prepare us for the twist in the story.

Jesus offers living water and says, “Come, thirst no more!” Now who are we going to believe?

The twist comes when Jesus says in v. 21-24, “…believe me a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

Jesus says to the woman, “you will worship…” The personal pronoun is in the second-person plural voice. In other words, here is this Samaritan woman with a questionable marriage history who knows that she and the Samaritans are excluded from the temple worship of God in Jerusalem but now Jesus is telling her that she and the Samaritans will worship God. They who were excluded will now be included. Jesus is the Messiah (vv. 25-26) and this Samaritan woman along with other Samaritans now believe in Jesus (v. 39). The assurance of worshiping God in spirit and truth is an inclusive promise because Jesus is the Messiah who comes as God in the flesh, full of grace and truth.

Let’s not miss the irony here either. In John chapter 3 Jesus encounters a Pharisee named Nicodemus, an insider who excludes people like this Samaritan woman and thinks he’s on the inside because he keeps the Law and its traditions… But unless he believes in Jesus (that eternal life is possible because of what God is doing in Jesus), he’s an outsider. On the other hand, in John chapter 4, she who has been an outsider becomes an insider because she believes.

So worshiping God in spirit and truth is about believing in Jesus. This point is underscored from the wider narrative of the Gospel of John when we keep in mind that God is both Spirit and the Incarnate Word. So while in the past God dwelt among the temple, he now dwells among in the person of Jesus and as the Holy Spirt whom the Father and Son have sent. We worship God in spirit and truth not because of how we sing or pray when assembled for worship among our local church. No… we worship God in Spirit and Truth, or even better, in the Spirit and in the Truth because we believe in Jesus and have received the Holy Spirit.

This inclusive promise is the good news for everyone who has been an outsider. Those who have been treated as an outsider because of their race and ethnicity or because of questions about their own marriage history and moral lifestyle are now included in the promise. Here Jesus is offering living water regardless of the past… regardless of whatever circumstances, sins, doubts, and so forth. Jesus offers living water and says, “Come, thirst no more!” Now who are we going to believe?

Can You Believe?

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:16

102113This Bible verse, John 3:16, is one of the most well known passages of scripture in the Bible. Children throughout Sunday School’s memorized this verse and it was a favorite of preachers in many revivals, such as Billy Graham preaching to a stadium. Even those who never read the Bible may remember people holding up signs that read “John 3:16” at various sporting events such as seen in the picture above.

Yes, that is how popular John 3:16 has been. The passage has been a source of debate. Is it really true that we simply must believe in Jesus to receive the promise of eternal life? Well, that is what the passage says. Ok, then. But what about repentance and baptism? Doesn’t Jesus call people to repentance and re not those who respond to the gospel message in the book of Acts called to be baptized? And, of course, the answer to all of these questions is an easy “Yes!”

But these questions also seem more like a big adventure in missing the point because they are not the questions John is answering when he wrote John 3:16.

This might make more sense if we first recognize that John 3:16 is not the words of Jesus, but the commentary of John in response to a conversation Jesus has with Nicodemus. That conversation is about being born again and seeing the kingdom of God. Jesus tells Nicodemus in John 3:5-8:

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

While some interpreters see water and Spirit as a reference to baptism, these terms have more to do with life. For example, the vision in Ezekiel 36:25-27 suggests “a new begetting, a new birth that cleanses and renews, the eschatological cleansing and renewal promised by the Old Testament prophets” (Carson, The Gospel According to John, 195). Such newness of life comes from God alone and that is Jesus’ point to Nicodemus.

Keep in mind that Nicodemus is a Pharisee and as such, he believes that God will restore the kingdom when Israel returns to a strict observance of the Law and its traditions. While Jesus is not anti-Law, he is correcting the misunderstanding of Nicodemus. Seeing and entering the kingdom of God depends on the work of God but Nicodemus doesn’t get this and asks how this is possible (v. 9). So Jesus says in vv. 14-15, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believesmay have eternal life in him.” Alluding to his own pending crucifixion and resurrection (Slovan, John, 46), Jesus is telling Nicodemus that this is how God is ushering in the kingdom and this is what he must believe.

The point is simple but important: whoever wants to participate in the kingdom then  must believe that God is at work in Jesus Christ. This is what it means to believe in Jesus and why John sums up the conversation Jesus has with Nicodemus by saying in v. 16-17, “…God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

This is gospel or good news to us. It’s good news for fundamentalists and legalists but such people may have the hardest time accepting this good news. Those who are trapped in fundamentalist and legalism often believe they must “get themselves right with God” so to speak. In my own experience, participating in the eternal kingdom of God required “sound doctrine” and attending the “right” church. For others it might have to do with not watching any movies, using the KJV Bible only, and so forth. Now don’t misunderstand me, I am not trying to suggest that doctrine doesn’t matter or that moral relativism is ok. The point is this: we will only see the kingdom of God by believing that it is possible because of what God has done in the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ.

Anything else is doomed to failure and we know this because we know we are sinners. Even if we give an A+ effort, we still come up with the results of B or C or… Yes, sometimes we even get an F. The good news is that we’re no longer burned with the task of trying to get a good enough grade, because God loves us and has given his only Son, Jesus Christ, for us so that we too might see the kingdom of God and thus share in eternal life with God.

This I believe!

Can you believe?