Category Archives: Kingdom of God

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.

Surprise Justice: Mercy, Not Sacrifice

We live in a society that is severely lacking in the ability to show much mercy, if any at all. I won’t spend time trying to defend or explain it. I’m just sharing this observation up front because as a pastor, this is what I come with as I enter the text of Genesis 4:1-16.*

Surprise Justice PictureYou likely know the story of Cain and Abel. It’s the first recorded account of murder in the Bible. Cain becomes jealous of his brother Abel, who presented a more acceptable offering to the Lord, so Cain took his brother out.

Literally, Cain took his brother out. He murdered his very own brother and the way the text reads, it appears to be a very calculated and cold-blooded killing. But this is exactly where the story becomes real interesting. You see, after the Lord confronts Cain with his brother’s murder, the Lord notifies Cain that he has come under a curse. For Cain’s part, he believes this curse will end in other people (whoever those people are) hunting him down and killing him. That’s understandable because that’s how people often pursue justice… an eye for an eye and a pound of flesh for a pound of flesh.

But justice in the form of blood for blood is not how this story goes. Cain is still cursed and he will have to live with that fact, brought about by his own evil deed, for the rest of his life. Nobody is ever going to trust him anymore (who would?), so he’ll live his life as a wanderer without any place to call home. But the Lord will not allow anyone to avenge Abel’s death by killing Cain. Instead the text tells us in v. 15, “…The Lord put a sign on Cain so that no one who found him would assault him.”

With this sign or mark placed on Cain, the text introduces to a surprising form of justice. The sign expresses both guilt and mercy for Cain (Brueggemann, Genesis, p. 60). In other words, justice here means that Cain is still guilty which comes with consequences of not have a place to call home anymore. However, justice doesn’t mean Cain’s guilt requires vengeance either. Instead, with this sign, the Lord is extending mercy to Cain. This sign of justice includes mercy. In fact, throughout the Old Testaement justice, often closely tied with righteousness, isn’t just a forensic concept concerned with legal proceedings but is associated with kindness that is expressed in showing mercy (Weinfeld, Social Justice in Ancient Israel and in the Ancient Near East, pp. 35-36). So in this story, the Lord is not only showing mercy to Cain but also serving notice that he expects others to show such mercy too.

This means we must thing about what it means to show mercy. So consider Exodus 34:6 says, “The Lord! The Lord! a God who is compassionate and merciful, very patient, full of great loyalty and faithfulness” (cf. Num 14:18; Ps 103:7-14; Jer 32:18). This confession of faith was repeated throughout the Old Testament because it was fundamental to Israel’s core understanding of who the Lord is and how he deals with people. The Lord is a merciful God and deals with people in merciful ways. In fact, even the Law of Moses was a way of ensuring that Israel lived a righteous life that expressed mercy. Of course, like any law, application takes wisdom and some people didn’t get this. The Pharisees focused on keeping the letter or the law to the neglect of showing mercy and so, when they encountered Jesus settings aside the law in deference to mercy, they questioned Jesus. So Jesus responded in Matthew 9:13, quoting the prophet Hosea, saying “Go and learn what this means: I want mercy and not sacrifice…”

Do we understand how important showing mercy is?

As I suggested earlier, we seem to live in a culture that severely lacks in the ability to show mercy and sadly, this sometimes includes Christians too. Now I’ll explain some more because people seem more preoccupied with upholding law and national boarders than showing mercy to foreigners and undocumented immigrants — even though scripture is full of passages calling for mercy upon such people. I don’t know what the answer is to illegal immigration in America and as a pastor, it’s not my job to have that answer but I do know that people are called to show mercy. Yet the rhetoric I so often encounter lacks any imagination for what it means to show mercy. And for Christians, this is the antithesis of who Jesus is and the life he has called us to live as his followers. Or are Christians still interested in following Jesus?

So Christians… Mercy is not a political issue for us to debate, it is a God-ordained virtue for us who follow Jesus to learn and live as an example of what the kingdom of God is like. When Jesus comes again, we will not be judged on whether we follow CNN, FOX, and MSNBC News and whether we support the President of the United States and other elected officials. But we will be judged on whether we have followed Jesus and Jesus went about showing mercy, even to the point of suffering death on the cross. That is the game-changer. us then, learning to be merciful means we must start with God’s word embodied in the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, and guided by the Holy Spirit in the community of other followers of Jesus where we can discern together what it means to show mercy and not sacrifice.


* You might also be interested in listening to the sermon podcast of the message I preached on Genesis 4:1-16 called Surprise Justice, which can be accused on the website of the Newark Church of Christ.

Romans, Reconciliation, and The Gospel

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

The Racial Tension Among Churches

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putting The Gospel into Practice

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

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

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

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

A Final Word…

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

Racial Reconciliation and The Romans Road to Salvation

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

People Reconciliation

Racial Reconciliation and the Christian Church

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

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

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

Romans: Asking The Wrong Questions

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

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

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

A New Walk Down the Romans Road

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

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.

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.

IMG_2254

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!”