Category Archives: Missions and Ministry

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.

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.

Post Christendom America: Understanding and Accepting the New Reality

Christianity in America is currently in somewhat of a precarious state. Many local churches are declining, with some even closing, and while the influence of Christianity’s past is still evident, it is increasingly contested and rejected by the populace. The beliefs and values embraced by society reflects a growing acceptance of religious pluralism. We now see the convergence of humanism and secularism expressed through the American lens of individual liberty, which is welcomed under the rubric of tolerance.

Empty Church Building

Now I’m neither celebrating nor lamenting the changes that have taken place in America. I’m simply trying to name what is happening with the intention that I might be of some help to Christians and local churches in navigating the new challenges we face in the wake of such changes in culture.

One of these challenges is facing the reality that Christendom is over. By Christendom, I am talking about the importation of post-Constantinian Christianity from Europe into America in which the culture of society was heavily influenced by the power and prevalence of Christianity. By saying that Christendom is over, I am speaking in a proleptic sense in which its future death is already a conclusion or prognosis like that of a person diagnosed with stage-4 pancreatic cancer. That is, even though the vestiges of Christendom are still visible in America, the future fate of Christendom is already known and it’s evident by loss of Christianity’s influence in American culture.

The challenge for local churches and the Christians who make up those churches is learning to live as faithful followers and witnesses of Jesus in a post-Christendom society. Part of that challenge is overcoming any denial, though that is easier said than done. As Douglas John Hall points out:

In some places, including much of our own continent, it can even appear that Christendom is alive and well, unless one looks beneath the surface. In such contexts, Christian congregations and even whole denominations are able to carry on as usual, as if nothing had happened. But this response is often visibly contrived, and it is viable only as long as the economic conditions of churches are relatively sound. With each new decade, more and more Christians are driven to realize the watershed through which Christendom is passing (“The End of Christendom and the Future of Christianity,” p. 4).

In other words, the relative “success” of a local church is enough to obscure the reality of what is taking place. Christians are likely only hit with the post-Christendom reality when they see the decline of Christianity’s influence in visible manifestations. These manifestations might be the realization that once effective evangelism programs are no longer effective, that the small crowd of gathered worshipers are mostly over the age of fifty, or even seeing a church close for good.

Another challenge, it accepting the loss of Christendom and learning to live as the church in a post-Christendom culture. Many Christians are still trying to preserve a Christendom culture and in doing so, hinder learning how to live as “exiles” participating in the mission of God among a secular society that once was Christian but is no more.

One recent example is Franklin Graham encouraging Christians to vote saying, “Make sure that you are registered to vote, otherwise we will lose our country.” Can the post-Christendom reality not be any more clear when the suggested way for Christians to avoid losing is voting in an election? Can we not see the death of Christendom when fear is the motivation for engaging in state politics, a coercive form of power, in an effort to retain Christian interests?

Now don’t misunderstand me. I’m neither opposed to Christians voting nor am I trying to suggest whether Christians should or should not vote. Voting isn’t the problem per se. What is the problem is the suggestion that Christians must vote or lose. Franklin Graham’s plea begs the question of what is it that Christians stand to lose? A worldly kingdom or the kingdom of God? Which kingdom are Christians really fighting for if the fear of losing America, or any other nation, is what motivates their political engagement?  The suggestion is just another example of the way Christians fail to understand and accept the post-Christendom reality that is America in the twenty-first century.

But in coming to the point where Christian are implored to vote if they wish to win, perhaps we can see the futility in clinging to the vestiges of Christendom. If so, then there might just be some space opening up for reimagining how local churches can live as faithful followers of Jesus in a post-Christendom society. For that, stay tuned.

An Alternative Politic: The Faithful Witness of the Church

I know we have this thing called the separation between church and state in America but just a casual observation and we can see how that separation has often been blurred. This is why American culture was influenced by the reality of Christendom (was being the key word), with most Christians participating in politics through voting and holding public offices.

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Although many Christians are still very engaged in politics, the Christendom culture has nearly become thing of the past and will eventually pass altogether. While there are many Christians still clutching to Christendom, trying to preserve the past, the reality is that America is now a post-Christendom society in which Christianity is of little influence.

Lament if you with but I believe Christianity must shoulder some, if not a lot, of the reasons for the cultural shift. There are a variety of reasons but when some churches are more concerned with preserving their traditions, like wanting to revive the use of hymnals, and other churches are driven by consumerism, then the mission of God is subtlety lost among other utilitarian goals. There’s another reason why Christianity must take responsibility for the loss of influence that is more difficult to accept and it has to do with politics.

       “It’s time for a new reformation that opens space for an alternative community that embodies the gospel as an alternative and subversive politic.”

As already mentioned, most Christians in America have engaged in politics. They have done so with with good intentions but in doing so, many have given themselves to politics. Mainline Protestants veered to the left, while evangelicals turned to the right. Yes that’s a generalization but it’s one that more people are beginning to realize, except maybe for those Christians still deeply invested in politics. The investment itself serves a binary system defined and dominated by Democrats and Republicans, which really just represent two different sides of the same coin. That is, even though each side has significantly different ideas about how to govern (= rule) society, they both believe the only way forward is through the state. Also, it is this system that has determined the rules of engagement.

Locked within this binary system, Christians have been led to believe and will tell each other one side is good and the other is not. This has meant adopting the good side as our side, supporting it and defending it while ignoring or mitigating anything that might question the virtuosity of our side. Believing then that there are only two options, Christians will pressure other Christians to get involved because failing to vote for the good side is a vote for the other. This is why I have had Christians tell me that if I vote Republican, then I support a platform of injustice towards minorities and immigrants while other Christians have told me that by voting for a Democrat, then I am supporting abortion by voting for a pro-choice platform. Christians from both sides have told me that not voting is a vote for the other side, which is exactly what the binary systems wants everyone to believe.

According to the binary system, there isn’t any other options. But I beg to differ because I am a Christian who believes in Jesus and is striving to live as a faithful witness of Jesus and the kingdom of God. I believe there is an alternative to the futility of state politics, an alternative political party called the church of Jesus Christ. I know that sounds counterintuitive, especially in knowing the ways Christianity has woefully failed to live according to the teachings of Jesus within history. These failures are due, in part, to the rise of Christendom in which the church gained a favorable status, sought to maintain that status, and in doing so, compromised the gospel witness. Thankfully though the Protestant Reformation gave us the language semper reformanda (always reforming) because its time for a new reformation that opens space for an alternative community that embodies the gospel as an alternative and subversive politic.

   “The alternative for Christians requires an exclusive commitment to this way of Jesus Christ rather than trying to do both church and state at the same time.”

When Shane Claiborne tweeted about the need for a political party with a consistent pro-life stance, my reaction was that there should be such a party offering a consistent social-ethic and moral character derived from the gospel, the church of Jesus Christ. That politic was one of the distinctives among the community of disciples in the first century when they declared themselves to be an ecclesia. That’s because ecclesia referred to a public assembly that was open to all in which the concerns of the city, the was life was organized and lived.

That’s politics. Ecclesia was a political assembly. However, as an ecclesia gathering in the name of Christ, the allegiance of the people gathering in this assembly was to King Jesus rather than Caesar. In fact, had the followers of Jesus merely wanted to exist as a religious community, then there were other words they could have identified themselves with (e.g., thiasos, eranos) which referred to private religious associations. Doing so may have even made the disciples more tolerable in the religiously pluralistic Roman culture but the disciples steadfastly understood themselves as an ecclesia, an alternative politic that was a threat to Roman peace.

This understanding of church is largely unknown in America where our English word “church” is derived from the German word kirche, meaning building. So instead of understanding the local church as an alternative politic, the church has become a building located in place to gather for worship and then leave, returning to American life as usual — politics as usual.

Exactly what it will look like for local churches to live as an alternative politic in a post-Christian American culture is still an open and ongoing discussion. While America embraces free speech, freedom to assemble and religious freedom, it seems enslaved within a political binary system that has little capacity for imagining any alternative. So becoming an alternative politic in this context won’t be easy but that is what I believe that Christian, gathered as a local ecclesia, are called to be and in doing so, embody the gospel as a faithful witness to Jesus and the kingdom of God. This is the alternative politic that witnesses to a life beyond the futility of state politics but it requires a new imagination, relearning how to live as followers of Jesus and not just mere church-goers. The alternative for Christians requires an exclusive commitment to this way of Jesus Christ rather than trying to do both church and state at the same time. It will also require faith, trusting God to bring about the good through our faithfulness witness even if the results are not seen in our lifetime, which is the point of Heb 11:1-12:2.

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?

Advent: Meth, The Messiness of Lie, and the Incarnation of God

Years ago I was sitting in the living room of a couple that I was reading the Bible with. I met them because I had seen the man hitchhiking in the rain and stopped to give him a ride. As I go to know them, I heard that both he and his wife had been released from jail for crimes related to a methamphetamine habit. Nevertheless, they were nice and I was hoping to teach them about Jesus

On this particular day, the wife had made some brownies and she offered me one. I knew it would be impolite to refuse, so I politely received the plate with this very appetizing warm and fresh out of the oven chocolate brownie. The problem was that is was so gooey that I needed a fork and so when I asked for a fork, I was told to look in a particular drawer in the kitchen. So I did and when I opened the drawer, there on top of the utensils was a used hypodermic needle which presumably was used to shoot up meth.

As you might imagine, every worst case scenario of possible health issues suddenly came to mind. I also had a decision to make. Do I eat the brownie or do I not? Be polite or possibly risk offending this wife? Do I put my own health first or the relationship I am building with this couple first? What does faith look like in this moment and do I have that faith?

Joseph, Mary, and Baby Jesus

I mention all that just to illustrate how messy life can really be. The good news is that God doesn’t avoid the mess, our mess, that life often is. Instead God embraces the mess by becoming one of us, becoming flesh, in the person of Jesus. We call this the Incarnation and a significant portion of our incarnational theology flows from reading the Gospel of John but the Gospel of Matthew has something to say about our understanding of the Incarnation too.

In short, Matthew draws attention in the genealogy to the names of four women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and “the wife of Uriah” which we know is Bathsheba. There is scandal attached to each of their stories which sets us up for the scandal attached to the story of Joseph and Mary, namely the fact that Mary is unmarried and pregnant. You see, prior to the angel of the Lord appearing to Joseph, all he knows is that Mary is pregnant and he’s not the father. In his eyes, Mary has committed adultery and this is why the angel must first tell Joseph “don’t be afraid” (Mt 1:20). Then in the eyes of their neighbors, who are unaware of what the Angel says about Mary conceiving a child by the Holy Spirit, Mary simply appears as unmarried and pregnant.

Those two words, unmarried and pregnant, are word that no pious and God-fearing person wants to hear in the same sentence. It’s scandalous! And yet this is the story in which this baby child, who will be named Jesus because he save his people from sin, is born (Mt 1:21). It also is the fulfillment of prophesy in which child will be called Emmanuel because this child is “God with us” (Mt 1:23).

This is the scandalous story that Matthew tells of the Incarnation and it tells us something about who God really is. God doesn’t run from our sin, with all of its scandal and shame. Rather, in Jesus, God risks becoming associated as a sinner so that he might embrace us as sinners and save us from our sin. In fact, God took this risk knowing that  the cost of salvation would lead Jesus into Jerusalem to suffer death by crucifixion on a Roman cross. Though we feel the shame of our own sin and often our hesitant at involving ourselves in the lives of others, whose sin we seem to deem as more shameful than our own, God risks his own self to embrace us and the other so that he might save us from sin.

And if you’re wondering, I ate the brownie and it tasted good. I never became sick or experienced any illnesses that I irrationally feared might happen. I don’t know what ever happened to the couple because it wasn’t long before they both were back in jail facing new criminal charges. But on that day, as the ambassador of Christ that I am, I hope they somehow saw that God loves them and isn’t afraid or ashamed to be around them because of their sin.

That’s good news to us as well. For we know very well that we are sinners too and yet God still loves us and embraces us with the grace extended in his Incarnation. And this is another reason why Advent matters. It’s the messiness of life, marred by our sins, that is met in the coming of God Incarnate, born among us as the Savior.

Born that man no more may die:
Born to raise the son of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new-born King !”