Category Archives: Scripture

Got Faith?

Willmar TornadoThe picture you see to the right was the tornado that touched down a third of a mile from my house on July 11, 2008. My family and I had just moved to Willmar, Minnesota and I had just returned from a stop at the nearby Best Buy where I overheard there was a confirmed tornado touch down in Kandiyohi County. I didn’t make much of it because the skies were still bright but five minutes later, while retrieving a flashlight from the trunk of our car, I noticed that the branches on the trees looked like a vacuum cleaner was sweeping them up. In what seemed like minutes but really was a couple of seconds, I heard what sounded like a jet approaching and noticed my ears were beginning to pop as I looked up at the sky to see the twister approaching.

As soon as I realized that a tornado was coming, I ran back into house screaming for my wife to get the children and get into the basement immediately. Fortunately for us, the tornado made a slight turn in direction and we, along with the other residents on the south side of Willmar were spared a direct hit. Damage was minimal, with only two injuries and some property damage nearby (including three homes that were leveled).

Fear and Faith On A Stormy Sea

I have a fascination with storms, especially tornadoes but on that particular occasion, I was scared. So when I read Mark 4:35-41 where the disciples are become frightened on a boat as a storm comes along, I can identify with them. In fact, I really want to speak out in their defense. These were seasoned fisherman who were used to the seas but this storm was big enough to scare them. In fact the storm was strong enough to cause the waves to break over the boat. So if the boat should capsize, they all are probably going to drown and they know that. That’s why disciples wake Jesus up and frantically ask him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”

Well, if you’ve read this story then you know Jesus rebukes the storm and silences it, saying “Peace, be still” (KJV). But then Jesus turns to his disciples and says to them, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

Can we have enough faith so that our natural impulse of fear does not become our master? 

I used to think that Jesus was rebuking his disciples for their lack of faith which is why it seemed like Jesus was being a little unfair. However, the text never says that Jesus is rebuking his disciples per se. So what is Jesus doing? Perhaps his question about fear and faith is not so much a rebuke as it is a teacher challenging his learners (which is what a disciple is). After all, I think Jesus, as a human, can understand why a storm provokes fear and let’s not forget that fear is a normal reaction too. But Jesus has also began to demonstrate the inbreaking of the kingdom of God by healing diseases, driving out demons, and teaching with authority that was unlike any of the other religious authorities. Then, according to the Gospel of Mark, in chapter four Jesus has taught a series of parables about the potency of faith. So it seems that Jesus is taking advantage of the opportunity to point out their fear and remind them that they need to have faith.

Faith, of course, is important and necessary. Jesus knows that his disciples will face more danger, more unnerving encounters, and challenges bigger than this storm. And for that, they will need to have faith. Not just intellectual assent that confesses belief in Jesus, but a living faith that is willing to follow Jesus even to the point of death on the cross. Can the disciples have such faith? But the more important question: Can we have such faith?

Assuming you’re a Christian like I am, can we have enough faith so our natural impulse of fear does not become our master? 

Faith and The Way of Jesus

Right now we live in a volatile society that is rupturing quickly. I’m not one for doom and gloom but there’s hardly a day that goes by without the report of another terrorist attack somewhere and sometimes that somewhere is here in America. Political extremism, racism, and violence are spending like cancer and regardless of who’s to blame, such evil is a danger to everyone. Those without faith think the problem will be solved by more of the same, matching one extremism with another extreme or trying to solve violence with more violence. But as the late Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

The only way of peace is the way of Jesus, the way of the cross. That is, the kingdom of God breaks upon the wold as we, the disciples of Jesus, his church, embody his self-sacrificial life and emulate his character as a witness to the rest of society. Some Christians don’t get this. Even though they proclaim the cross as God’s victory over evil, they’ll reason (utilitarianism) as to why God’s power of the cross must be set aside for the power of the sword in one form or another. But how can we live under the cross as follower of Jesus and set aside the cross. As Leonard Allen writes, “The church that lives under the cross will consist of people possessing cruciform values, that is, the character traits and virtues necessary to follow the way of the cross” (The Cruciform Church, p. 187).

According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus calls us to follow him all the way to the cross. With a hindsight faith, we believe that even though Jesus was crucified and buried in a tomb, the tomb is now empty and Jesus is alive. Sin and death have been defeated and the kingdom of God is appearing. It is our calling to live as witnesses and show the world the way of peace, where hatred is replace with love, where the light drives out the darkness of racism, violence and any other malady. But this is not an easy call. It never was and never will be. It takes faith.

Fear is a natural response to any storm, whether it be a literal storm like a tornado or a metaphorical storm in the form of racism and terrorism. But here is Jesus saying to his church, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

The Gospel According To Us

“Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary use words.” This famous quote is often attributed to the twelfth century Catholic Friar, St. Francis of Assisi, though as far as we know he never actually made such a statement. Christians often share this quote as a reminder that the life of Christians should be a proclamation of the gospel itself and that the gospel proclaimed in spoken word is insufficient. Of course, this quote attributed to St. Francis has also come under criticism in an attempt preserve the necessity of preaching the gospel in words. Ed Stetzer goes so far as to say that “the quote is not biblical.”

Is it really unbiblical to suggest that we should preach the gospel and only use words as necessary? Stetzer thinks so and makes his case by appealing to the Apostle Paul, particularly what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8:

The Apostle Paul summarized the gospel as the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ… The gospel is not habit, but history. The gospel is the declaration of something that actually happened. And since the gospel is the saving work of Jesus, it isn’t something we can do, but it is something we must announce. We do live out its implications, but if we are to make the gospel known, we will do so through words.

The problem with this is that while it’s fair to describe what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15 about the gospel as a summary, we must remember that it’s just a summary. As with any summary, there is much more detail to what the gospel of Jesus Christ is and that is found in the larger biblical narrative which is why Paul says that the death of Christ is “according to the Scriptures” (v. 4). Beyond the mere facts of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, there is a kingdom with a particular end (telos) that cannot be separated from the gospel. Even more so, behind the historical facts of the gospel is the actually life which Jesus lived and called us to follow him in living too. We read of this life in the four canonical Gospels, the Gospel According to Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John. As Scot McKnight points out, these four books are called “Gospels” because they each are witnesses to the storied life that Jesus lived (The King Jesus Gospel, pp. 81-82). That’s important because Jesus himself proclaimed the gospel in both word and deed. Put another way, Jesus both demonstrated and declared the gospel, the good news of the kingdom of God.

Unequivocally then, the gospel is preached in both word and deed, and therefore something which is both seen and heard. So rather than making a dichotomy between preaching the gospel in word and deed, turning this into an either/or issue, let’s treat preaching the gospel in word and deed as a both/and issue. If someone thinks the gospel only needs to be lived and never proclaimed in word, then Ed Stetzer has a valid reason for concern and I join with him in voicing such concern. However, I suspect that some Christians regard the gospel demonstrated as less important that the gospel declared. I don’t know of a Christian who would admit such devaluing of the demonstrated gospel but when we look at what is done, there are reasons for such suspicions.

“Jesus both demonstrated and declared the gospel, the good news of the kingdom of God.”

Last week after various evangelical leaders met with Presidential Candidate Donald Trump, James Dobson of Focus on the Family declared that Trump had accepted Jesus Christ and therefore was now a Christian. Regardless of Trump’s political views, there is good reason for raising questions about Trump’s alleged conversion when months ago Trump said that he has never even asked God for forgiveness and did not have any need of repentance. However, as one article recently said, this is not about Trump:

But I think these things are less the failure of Trump’s Christian infancy as much as they are a microcosm of the underlying problem with much of America’s evangelical movement — we actually have no idea what it means to be Christian. We lack a meaningful understanding of faith and belief.

That’s right, the issue is really a problem for Christians.

However, I believe such confusion about what it means to be a Christian flows from a misunderstanding of the gospel itself. If we think that demonstrating the gospel is somehow less important than declaring the gospel with the spoken word then it’s easy to define a Christian based on what they say, such as claiming to have accepted Jesus Christ. Identifying a Christian has less or even little to do with the transformed living that comes from the Spirit at work as we repent and receive our baptism into Christ.

While we all, as Christians, including myself, struggle in someway to live congruently with the faith we profess, our faith in Jesus is intended to become an embodied life as much as it is a confession. Yet one only needs to open up the status feed on social-media to see that what Christians often believe in, value, and advocate for is far removed from Jesus… Like when a woman’s right to choice or a person’s right to bear arms eclipses all consideration of the thousands of unborn children or the numerous civilians who are being slaughtered by gun violence across America… Like when fear of terrorism, Muslim refugees, and undocumented immigrants justifies an expedient exemption from love our neighbors as ourselves and even loving our enemies… Like when the need to either be politically correct or politically offensive allows the demonization of either the police or the #BlackLivesMatter movement, depending on what side one falls on, or despise the LBGTQ community…. Like when sounds more like an echo chamber of Bill Maher or Bill O’Reilly than Jesus and the Bible that bears witness to Jesus. And like I said, one only needs to turn to social-media to see what I’m getting at.

“…our faith in Jesus is intended to become an embodied life as much as it is a confession.”

The only way forward begins with a better understanding of the gospel, which includes understanding the gospel as an embodied way of life rooted in the mission of God. I’ve just finished reading Michael J. Gorman’s book Becoming The Gospel which summarizes this saying:

From Paul’s perspective the gospel itself is a powerful word of transformation, its content being given voice not merely in words but also, and inseparably, in actions. This does not eliminate the need for, or the importance of, words, but it does imply that the words have meaning and power only in action. God did something in Christ; Christ did something in becoming human and giving himself for us; the Spirit does something to and through the people who believe the good news of this divine activity.

     Furthermore, the content of the gospel Paul preaches is so thoroughly rooted both in the peculiar Christological shape of this divine activity — the life and teaching, and especially the death and resurrection, of Jesus — and in the Scriptures of Israel, with their promises of the Spirit and of shalom, that people who believe such good news are ineluctably drawn into its strange Christ-shaped and Scripture-shaped reality. So if the gospel has to do with a faithful God, a Suffering Servant who inaugurates God’s shalom, and a prophetically promised indwelling Spirit, then the individuals and communities who believe in that good news will be shaped in their minds and bodies, their thinking and their living, into Godlike, Christlike, Spirit-enabled people who in some real, if imperfect, way instantiate the message they believe (p. 298).

This connection between the gospel as historical reality and embodied life is what seems lacking, in varying degrees, among many Christians and local churches.

I’ve talked with more than a few churches over my years as a minister. Most are experiencing some decline and seeking renewal, desiring both spiritual and numerical growth. That’s good but we must understand that renewal is the work of God which sprouts from the gospel as it is believed in word and embodied in deed. So I would like to suggest that we must give as much, if not more, attention to demonstrating the gospel in the way we live as we give to declaring the gospel with words — without drawing a sharp distinction between word and deed since what we believe, value, and advocate for with spoken words reflects and impacts how we live.

How we demonstrate the gospel matters more than ever if we are to have any credible gospel witness. In fact, in our post-Christendom society where our Christian voice is increasingly marginalized, how we demonstrate the gospel becomes a currency of sorts for gaining a hearing. Without demonstrating the gospel, we lose the audience of those who may be open to the declared gospel. Stated in the positive, demonstrating the gospel as our embodied way of life gives us the credibility for declaring the gospel and “preaching the word” then becomes an explanation of what is seen rather than just an argumentation for what we profess. After all, the only gospel of Jesus Christ others are going to see and hear is, as the picture above suggest, the gospel according to us… the gospel we embody in word and deed. So to invoke the alleged wisdom of St. Francis of Assisi again, “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary use words.”

Visions, Churches, and Conversion

When it comes to the book of Acts, a lot of attention has been given to the so-called conversion stories. There are good reasons for this, as these conversion stories not only give us an account of the gospel being preached to unbelievers but also how people responded to the gospel message. One of those conversion stories tells of the first Gentile conversion to Christ when a centurion soldier named Cornelius and his household were baptized. But there’s another “conversion story” (if you will) within this story that seems overlooked, the conversion of the Apostle Peter told in Acts 10:9-23.

Conversion might seem an odd way of describing what happens to Peter on the roof but conversion is repentance, a change involving a person’s entire self to the will of God. What happens to Peter is a conversion towards the impartiality of God (Witherup, Conversion In The New Testament, 69) and it demands our attention, especially if we’re interested being led by the Spirit as I have heard different churches express.

When Heaven Opens…

When Peter went up on to the roof to pray, he was a God-fearing follower of Jesus. His devotion to God as a follower of Jesus has already led to him proclaiming Jesus as the crucified and resurrected Lord and Messiah (Acts 2:36) and it has resulted in even being arrested (Acts 4:3). So there isn’t any question about the sincerity of Peter’s faith. Peter is a God-fearing follower of Jesus but he’s still lacks some understanding he will need to repent of in order to believe in the full gospel and live fully as a participant in the mission of God.

The repentance Peter is in need of has to do with what he regards as unclean. In a dream of sorts, Peter receives a vision of all different kinds of four-footed animals telling him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” Peter’s response is an immediate and emphatic rejection of such a suggestion. And who can blame Peter. Like Jesus and the other apostles, Peter knew the scriptures  and he knew that the Law clearly forbids eating anything unclean (Lev 11:47). But the voice in the dream tells him to stop calling unclean what God has made clean (Acts 10:13) and Peter will later say that this voice was God teaching him that he should not speak of anyone or anything as unclean (Acts 10:28). Consequently, despite his conviction about what he thought was the biblical teaching regarding clean and unclean, Peter had to recognize that he was wrong in his belief on this issue and repent.

Is there a lesson for churches today? I believe so. The churches I am familiar with have a very high view of scripture and are devout God-fearing followers of Jesus. Like Peter, we know that we must “obey God rather than human beings” (Acts 5:29). But like Peter, could we ever be wrong about what we believe is God’s will according to scripture? I certainly hope so because it takes an abundance of hubris to think otherwise. Although everyone of us believes we are right in the different views we hold, we must open ourselves to the possibility that God may be trying to show us we are in fact wrong. That requires humility, which most of the churches I encounter seem to possess. This openness is important because without it, we risk the danger of one day become so dogmatic and self-righteous that we end up looking more like the religious authorities who opposed Jesus and the apostles.

Letting Go…

The conversion of Peter in this story is not a result of a different Bible teaching, a point that should not go unnoticed. It is a vision that initially challenges Peter’s understanding of scripture which has taught him to reject what is unclean and that is only the beginning point. So how is it that Peter will regard what he has previously believed, with good biblical reasoning, and open himself new understanding of God’s will? While Peter is aided by the voice of the Spirit, it is the unfolding events that help him make sense of the vision and conclude that the vision is the revealing of God’s will. In fact, he unfolding events to come will stretch Peter’s understanding of what it means to be a member of the people of God (Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, 187).

The openness of Peter is a mindset that churches must embrace if they are to participate in the mission of God. It is an openness that’s willing to say that the way we have understood scripture on any particular issue is wrong and requires us to change (repentance). But it is also requires a willingness to relinquish control and I’m talking about the control that keeps everything safe, comfortable and within our “dogma” box. Of course, we can become dogmatic and double-down with our biblical proof-texts, insisting that the scripture says… But imagine if Peter would have taken that approach. Sometimes our understanding of scripture is wrong and if we’re open to seeing how God is at work in the unfolding events rather than defining how God must work with our predetermined conclusions about the teaching of scripture, we might see our need for conversion as did Peter.

Peter doesn’t turn to scripture but allows his experience in the events that unfold to redefine for him the boundaries of God’s people and in whom God is at work. I’m not suggesting that scripture is without authority or has a diminished importance but we must learn to discern what God might be saying though events, experiences, and voices other than scripture. For example, I grew up believing that only those who understood scripture exactly as I did were true Christians but this sort of sectarianism began to crumble when I began to take notice of the Spirit dwelling among other believers in Jesus, evidenced by the fruit of the Spirit in their lives. I realized that God is not partial in offering his grace to only those who think they understand all the teachings of scripture correctly. The same might also apply to the way we view women serving in ministry. Regardless of what we think certain passages teach regarding women serving in ministry, when we see how God has gifted some women as incredible teachers and leaders might it suggest that maybe our understanding of certain biblical passages is wrong?

A Final Thought…

Peter underwent a conversion because he was open enough to know he could be wrong and needed to reconsider what he believed about what God is up to. We know the results, the gospel expanded to the Gentiles and Christianity began to differentiate itself as an entirely new movement rather than just another Jewish sect. Right now any local churches find themselves at a pivotal point, facing decline and wondering where God is leading them next. The real question is whether or not we are open enough to be surprised as to where God is leading or will we simply insist on not eating anything unclean?

Hope Remains!

Aunt PatThis past Wednesday my Aunt Pat, who is pictured on the left, took her last breath in this life. Having battled cancer for the last couple years of her life, her suffering finally came to an end. That is another way of saying that although my aunt will be very missed, her death is a relief in some manner as she is no longer having to endure the pain and suffering that usually comes with the final stage of cancer.

I don’t want to be misunderstood about death. Death is a terrible thing. Whether it comes at the end of a very long and beautiful life or it comes prematurely through tragic circumstances such as violence, disease, etc… death is still something that should grieve us. Death has grieved me and still does, from the day when I was twenty-two years old and watched my dad, who had cancer too, take his last breath, to the day when my first son, Kenny, unexpectedly died and a year after that when my younger brother tragically died. Death stings and hurts because once someone we love is gone, they’re gone.

Death also grieves God who created life to flourish rather than perish. So when we turn on the news and hear of people who were violently killed in an Orlando nightclub, or in some school like Sandy Hook Elementary, or at a movie theatre in Auroa, or even in foreign countries like the Westgate Mall shooting in Nairobi Kenya, God is grieved. It matters not what the victims religious beliefs were or what sort of moral lifestyle they lived, these are people created in the image of God and loved by God.

In this world of death which is also filled with much hatred and violence, it is tempting to become cynical. It’s tempting to throw our hands in the air as though life is hopeless. But I refuse such cynicism because I believe that God has become a human like us in the person of Jesus Christ and that in the coming of Jesus, God is reconciling all things through Jesus who was crucified and raised victoriously from death (Col 2:19-20). I believe there is a day coming when Jesus will come again and make all things new, a day when the new heaven and new earth will be one and death will be no more (Rev 21:1, 4-5).

So even as death seems all around us, hope remains! Until the day when Jesus returns or the day when I take my last breath, which I hope is not any time soon, and I rest in Christ while awaiting his return, I will live with faith(fullness), love, and hope (1 Thess 5:8). Let’s seek peace with each other, loving our neighbors and even our enemies, forgiving others as God forgives us, grieving with those who are grieving, and let the Spirit of God sanctify us that we may live with faith, love, and hope.


Here is a video of the choral group singing the hymn Be Still, My Soul, which I listen too frequently. I first heard this hymn when I was struggling to make sense of life and maintain my faith after the death of my son and younger brother. This hymn speaks gives voice to the grief and pain of suffering as well as the hope that encourages faith.

Cruciformed: Reflections on the 2016 Pepperdine Bible Lectures

A week ago I was on my way to the best Pepperdine Bible Lecture’s to date, at least in my opinion. I’m thankful for the leadership of Mike Cope, Rick Gibson, and the rest of the staff for organizing and hosting such an encouraging time of worship, fellowship, and teaching. This years theme was Cruciformed: Living In Light of the Jesus Story which is always a very timely but perhaps even more so as more and more Christians among North America recognize that we now live in a post-Christendom/post-Christian society.

The main features of the Pepperdine Bible Lecture’s are always the worship, fellowship, and teaching. The bonus is the location of Malibu, California with the view of the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Monica Mountains. I had many people ask if I was having a good time and I’m sure I asked other people the same question. Nevertheless, it seems that one would really have to try hard not to have a good time.

I have always enjoyed gathering for worship at the Firestone Fieldhouse, as the singing is uplifting. Whether singing a song like How Great Is Our God or The Lord Bless You and Keep You as a blessing to Ruby Bridges, my heart is filled with joy. And yes, I just mentioned Ruby Bridges, who delivered a powerful message late Wednesday evening. Her message was one that everyone in living in America, and especially every parent, needed to hear. Hearing N.T. Wright and Greg Boyd speak and teach was a joy because I have learned so much from these two Christian scholars from their books. While I was encouraged and challenged by every keynote address, I especially appreciated the addresses delivered by Randy Harris on The Scandal of Carrying the Cross and Dave Clayton on The Scandal of the Resurrection. I enjoyed all of the classes I went to but really the 2-part class taught by Pat Bills called Once Bitten, Twice Shy which is about the way elders and ministers lead together (available on a free podcast here); if you’re an elder or minister then I highly encourage you to download the two sessions and listen to them.

Hula PieBesides the worship and teaching at the Bible Lectures, fellowship is also a key feature. Like always, I run into old friends and make new friends. Some people I meet in person for the first time after already knowing them through social-media, which is really nice. I’m terrible at remembering names but if I ran into you, it was my delight to speak with you even if it was only for a brief minute or so. Of course, the one disappointment, as there is never enough time to spend with friends. And to the friends who recommended that I order the Hula Pie at Duke’s (pictured to the left), it was great but next year I really hope that my wife can come with me to share some pie as well as some great worship, teaching, and fellowship.

Baptism: What Are We Missing?

Sadly, the teaching and practice of baptism is a conflicted issue among Christians. Talk to ten different churches in any community and one will certainly hear at least several different views, if not more, expressed about baptism. The snarky part of me wonders if the only thing Christians agree one about baptism is that it somehow involves water and is mentioned in the Bible. While that’s an overstatement of the case, it does highlight the confusion that exists over the issue of baptism. It also seems that what most churches have to say regarding baptism is, at best, only a part of the story. So could this not actually be a problem and one that runs deeper than the issue of baptism itself?

Woman Being Baptized

Two Opposite Positions…

Most of the conversation about baptism has to do with the bigger subject of salvation. As humans, we are sinners and our only hope for salvation is the grace of God, particularly expressed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This good news calls us to renounce our sinful way and receive this grace, the promise of salvation, from God which calls for a response of faith. That much all Christians seem to agree on but it is at this place in conversation where baptism is located and also where a divergence of trajectories regarding the role of baptism begins.

There are two popular positions among contemporary Christianity which are polar opposites of each other. The first position, and one I am the most familiar with since it is held by most Churches of Christ, says that baptism is essential for an individual to receive the promise of salvation from God. In the most extreme expressions of this position, it is held that one cannot possibly be saved without baptism and without receiving baptism for this reason which unintentionally seems to reduce to nothing more than a “ticket to heaven.” The other position says that baptism is not essential for an individual to receive the the promise of salvation from God. In the most extreme expressions of this position, baptism is viewed as merely a symbol that may even be optional as to whether or not one participates in baptism.

It’s important to understand that churches espousing both positions can cite biblical proof-texts and put forth reasons based on those biblical passages to support each view. My own view is that baptism is a necessary part of receiving the promise of salvation and therefore baptism cannot be reduced to a mere symbol but that baptism as a sacrament (means of grace) cannot be expanded into the sum-total of God’s grace so that we cannot exclude from the fellowship of Christ those who, for whatever reason, have believed in Jesus but were unable to be baptized (in fact, I am personally inclined simply to proclaim Christ and invite those who believe to receive baptism and let God do the judging about who receives his promise of salvation and when they receive that promise). But the problem with both positions is that they seemingly fail to account for the real reason why Paul even mentions baptism in Romans 6:3-4 and Galatians 3:27-28 (I have linked to the extended passages in each book so you can click on those links and read the passages for yourself).

Digging Deeper…

In both Romans and Galatians Paul is dealing with issues stemming from differences between Jewish and Gentile Christians as a result of the inclusion of Gentiles in the gospel. In Romans, Paul is particularly addressing the question of how God can show favor (grace) to both Jews and Gentiles. By insisting that both Jews and Gentiles are justified by grace through faith, Paul must deal with the question of whether Christians should continuing in sin so that the grace of God might increase. In short, Paul’s response is an emphatic “No!” and his reason is that the Christian has been “baptized into Christ.” In Galatians, Paul is dealing with the question of whether or not one is saved on the basis of faith or the Mosaic Law. By insisting that Christians are saved on the basis of faith, Paul must deal with the question of whether the Law or any other status marker, such as maleness, gives one an advantage. Again, in short, Paul’s response is an emphatic “No!” and his reason is that Christians have been “baptized into Christ.”

Do we see the problem? When we reduce baptism to merely a “ticket to heaven” or just a symbol having nothing to do with salvation, we lose the meaning of baptism in both Romans and Galatians. We also reduce the biblical meaning of salvation from being redeemed and transformed into the image of Christ to mere forensic justification of our sins but I digress. Getting back to the problem, in both cases Paul is neither concerned with the issue of baptism being necessary for salvation (though based on my understanding of scripture, I believe Paul would be dumbfounded at the suggestion that baptism is unnecessary) nor with whether baptism nullifies faith if it is indeed necessary (Paul, I believe, would say that baptism is part of our faith response to the work of God in baptism which we receive from God, which is why he speaks of our baptism in the passive-tense voice). These are issues we bring to scripture ourselves, sometimes making so much of them that we fail to see what scripture actually says. Furthermore, if baptism is merely about getting saved or just a symbol of salvation, what Paul says about baptism in Romans and Galatians makes little sense.

Paul is rhetorically invoking the experience of baptism into his arguments in Romans and Galatians because in baptism we undergo a profound change that reorients the aim (telos) of our life as believers who follow Jesus. Baptism is our surrender to Jesus in which we give up our old life in exchange for his new life. Faith here is not having perfect doctrinal knowledge of what baptism is but is entrusting ourselves to God, letting him do the work of crucifying us with Christ and then raising us into the new resurrected life of Christ (indeed a mystery of faith). Because we have been baptized and therefore have died to the old life, we cannot continue allowing sin to rule our lives. Likewise, our value and role is not determined anymore by our ethnicity, gender, and social-status since we have been baptized into Christ. As a result of God baptizing us into Christ, we are now equals in Christ who live our lives as instruments of righteousness and we have faith that God has saved us, is saving us, and will save us when Christ returns.

Why This Matters…

We have often heard it said that Sunday morning is the most segregated time during the week because local churches tend to be homogenous when it comes to race and ethnicity. There’s a lot of truth to this. Many local churches have also been fellowships where being white, wealthy, and male means power over minorities, the poor, and females. At the same time, the demarcation that the Christian church as the fellowship of Christ distinct from the world has becoming increasingly blurred, so much that some Christians are unsure of the differences between the way of Christ and the way of being a good American.

Perhaps it is just coincidence that this has also occurred when baptism has too often either been reduced to a mere salvation ticket or a mere symbol of salvation. But maybe it’s not a coincidence. Maybe it’s time that to rethink our understanding of baptism, dig deeper into the theology of this sacrament, and consider what it truly means to live as a people who have been baptized into Christ. After all, if we truly desire to follow Jesus as participants in the mission of God, it seems necessary that we truly understand that we have indeed been baptized into Christ and belong to his new life − lest we continue living as though we are baptized into some other reality still belonging to the old way of life.

As a minister who has been asking questions about baptism for sometime, I still feel like there is much more digging to be done and more repenting to do! How about you?

Psalm 23 and Pastoral Leadership

One of the Lectionary readings for this coming Sunday is Psalm 23. The most popular Psalm, known to most from the King James Version, this Psalm has been featured in Hallmark Cards, recited at memorial services, and quoted numerous times in a plethora of different contexts. It’s certainly an appropriate scripture to read for worship and devotion on the fourth Sunday of Easter, as the Lectionary suggests. After all, since God has raised Jesus from death and made him Lord, by faith we can live confidently knowing that the Lord is indeed our Shepherd and is guiding us as he invites us to eternally dwell with him at his table and in his house.

As I read through Psalm 23 I couldn’t help myself from thinking about ministry as it pertains to pastoral leadership. Pastoral responsibilities is a part of serving a church as a minister. Besides preaching and teaching, a minister works at the bedside of someone in the hospital or at a local cafe having lunch with someone wanting to talk about some struggles. This is the primary reason why we who serve as ministers are often called “Pastor” in our day.

Yet because I believe that leadership in a local church includes elders serving as shepherds, my concern for pastoral leadership isn’t just with the role of the pastor/minister but the role of those called to serve as elders. When reading Psalm 23, I am immediately drawn to the sense of peace David has with the Lord. David knows that he can trust the Lord to do right and lead him in the right way no matter the circumstances, including those times of walking “through the valley of the shadow of death” (v. 4, KJV). That raises a question about pastoral leadership in the local church, since the Lord is shepherding his flock through the leaders he has raised to serve that church. The question can be stated as the following: How must the leaders of a church serve in order to attain the trust of the congregation to lead them and do so even in difficult circumstances?

I don’t have the definitive answer to such a question and I believe it is a question that can only be answered by each local leadership. However, I do want to clarify a couple of things which might help any local church leadership answer this question. First off, when I speak of local leadership, I have in mind both the ministers and elders working together in a collaborative effort. Both ministers and elders are leaders that Christ has given to the local church. Failure of ministers and elders to work collaboratively to lead as a team creates unhealthy tension and disunity, which in turn diminishes the ability of a church to trust its leadership. Secondly, trust is attained on the ground with people and not just in an office or leadership meeting. Minister will spend some time in an office preparing teaching lessons, elders might choose to meet one evening a week to pray for their church, the elders and minister will meet to talk about the circumstances of the church in order to discern the way ahead, and… But ministers and elders must spend time meeting with people, listening to them, and serving them, if they want to gain their trust.

One suggestion I have for when ministers and elders meet together is to spend sometime dwelling in the word and they might do so beginning with Psalm 23. Spend some time reading this Psalm out-loud and dwelling on it, listening for what God might be saying about the way they serve and what it means for pastoral leadership. Then talk about this with each other, listening to what God might be saying through one another. Finally, as ministers and elders discern together how God is calling them to serve in order to attain the trust of the congregation to lead them and do so even in difficult circumstances, hold each other accountable to such service. If the leadership of a church can do this, I believe the result will become a much more healthy and spiritually mature church that is able to continue participating in the mission of God.