Category Archives: Scripture

Eyes Wide Open: Overcoming the Blindness of a Christless Christianity

Most Christians, and ever Christian I know, including myself, say they believe the Bible is the word of God, inspired of God and authoritative on all matters of faith. Very good! But as a pastor there are many times when what Christians say they believe and what they actually believe are different to some degree.

house-blindness

Earlier this year Mayor Theresa Kenerly of Hoschton, Georgia, was heavily criticized for racial discrimination after pulling the resume of a black man because of his blackness. According to the Atlantic Journal Constitution, the Mayor did not believe that her nearly all-white small town was ready to have a black man as a city administrator. But a few people defended the Mayor’s racism, including City Councilman Jim Cleveland who insisted that he understood the Mayor’s decision because Hoschton is not Atlanta. Mr. Cleveland insisted that he is not a racist but according to the report in the Raw Story, he had an interesting remark. Councilman Jim Cleveland said, “I’m a Christian and my Christian beliefs are you don’t do interracial marriage. That’s the way I was brought up and that’s the way I believe.”

Besides the obvious racism, what I find interesting is that Mr. Cleveland says he is a Christian but then defends his racism by saying that is the way he was raised and therefore the way he believes. In other words, even though he is a Christian, neither the gospel nor the Bible is his moral authority. Mr. Cleveland’s authority is the way he was raised. It’s also not a stretch to assume that Mr. Cleveland is part of a Christian culture, a church culture, that has failed to truly embody the Good News of Jesus Christ—despite the authority of the Bible. That shows also how easily Christians can read the Bible and still fail to see what Jesus and his kingdom really entails, just as the Pharisees and Jesus’ own disciples still failed to see.

In the eighth chapter of Mark’s Gospel is a story about a blind man that is brought to Jesus for healing. So Jesus spits in the man’s eyes and touches them so that the man could once again see and he was able to see then, only his vision wasn’t clear. When asked if he could see, the blind man replied, “I see people. They look like trees, only they are walking around” (v. 24). As Mark is telling the story, the remark of this blind man is really a commentary on the Pharisees and Jesus’ own disciples. Both have seen Jesus do plenty of miracles and heard him teach with authority but the Pharisees are still challenging Jesus’ authority, while the disciples are questioning him as they continue doubting. It’s not just the blind man who needs his sight restored, it’s the Pharisees and disciples who need to see clearly.

Let me push the matter just a little farther. From my understanding, both the Pharisees and disciples were familiar with the story of Israel and her scriptures. In his conversations, Jesus frequently references the story of Israel along with the Hebrew Bible as he engages both the Pharisees and disciples. Yet they still failed to see clearly. The same is true of Councilman Cleveland. I am sure he has some knowledge of the Bible and could teach a few Sunday School lessons to children about the miracles that Jesus performed. Yet he still fails to see clearly.

How about us? Do we read the Bible? If we proclaim the Christian faith, then we should. But… How do we read the Bible? Does the way we read the Bible open our eyes to clearly see Jesus and the Kingdom of God he has inaugurated? Or has our vision become obscured by the way we were raised or by our favorite church traditions? Is whatever cable news and talk radio we listen to or blind partisan loyalty to whatever politician and political platform we side with obscuring our vision?

Jesus touched the blind man’s eyes a second time and as Mark tells the story, the blind man “looked with his eyes wide open, his sight was restored, and he could see everything clearly” (v. 25). He needed to be touched again by Jesus to see clearly. The same is true for the Pharisees and the disciples, then and now.

As we read the Bible, if our reading obscures us from seeing Jesus then we are the blind!

The Gospel of Mark, along with the rest of scripture, is clear that the invitation of Jesus is to come follow him. We are called to follow Jesus, learning to live by the same beliefs and values of Jesus so that we may embody the Kingdom life that he embodied. That’s what discipleship is. But it is increasingly becoming obvious that discipleship is not Christianity is often known for in America. In fact, as the dichotomy between who Jesus is and what Christianity is, it seems more like a Christless Christianity has sprouted.

We can shake our heads at people like Councilman Cleveland, especially those of us who don’t defend racism, but we may be more like Mr. Cleveland than we realize. That we can justify war and violence, freedom of choice over the life of the unborn, national boundaries over mercy for refugees and immigrants, vitriolic rhetoric for the sake of partisan politics, and so forth with the most unGospeled wisdom and logic is revealing. We show that it is very possible to call ourselves Christians and yet fail to see Jesus and his Kingdom clearly. It shows that we can read the Bible and still miss Jesus, still miss what the Bible is all about and the life it reimagines for us to live as people called to follow Jesus.

I am glad that we read the Bible but let us read with eyes to see Jesus and his kingdom clearly. May the Lord come, by the power of the Holy Sprit, to touch our eyes again that we may see with eyes wide open!

I’m Not Renouncing My Faith

In recent weeks a couple of more popular Evangelical Christians have publicly renounced their Christian faith. In particular, I’m thinking of former pastor and author Joshua Harris as well as Hillsong Worship Leader Marty Sampson. Both seem to be struggling with the Christian faith as they understand it, though I’m not sure if that means they have completely abandoned belief in Jesus Christ or they’re just struggling with a lot of doubt right now. What I do know, based on what I have read, is that both are struggling with their faith.

iBelieve Series

My point isn’t to criticize or pass any judgment on anyone, including Joshua Harris and Marty Sampson, who struggle with doubts and even for a time may lose their faith. I’m just mentioning this to provide some context for this blog post. You see, I actually sympathize with those who struggle in their Christian faith because I have struggled in my Christian faith too. In fact there was a time during my seminary years, of all places, when I nearly walked away from this life of following Jesus because I wasn’t sure of what I believed anymore and I wasn’t even sure if it mattered.

The existential crisis for my own struggle with faith was the death of my first son, Kenny, followed by the death of my younger brother, John, a year later. Such suffering has haunted me. Not only did the death of my son and brother burden me with much grief and pain but my eyes began to see the suffering of others and the unfairness of it all. I remember well the afternoon I went to visit someone in the hospital battling cancer and walked through the pediatric oncology ward… Haunting!

The reality of suffering leaves me with many more faith questions than I have any satisfactory answers. Beyond that, as a pastoral-theologian, I know that life is much more complex than the fundamentalist Christian worldview some Evangelicals have. There are issues about creation and science, the end of time as well as God’s judgment, the nature of scripture, and so forth that I still wrestle with because some of the answers I have are not dogmatic absolutes. At least they’re not for me because the issue seem far too complex for such black and white solutions.

All that said, I still believe in Jesus. Even though there are questions for which I’m unsure of the answer, I still believe.

I still believe in the good news about Jesus, his death, burial, and resurrection, because I find the testimony about what happened to be believable. That is, I find the story of Jesus dying on the cross and being raised back to life (and bodily resurrection) to be reasonably credible. I’m not saying that this story is provable like one can prove the laws of gravity but I do think the story is credible, and therefore believable, just like the story of the American Civil War even though we weren’t alive to witness either event with our very own eyes.

What makes the story of Jesus believable is the evidence we have, the testimony that has been passed on from those who did see (cf. 1 Cor 15:1-8) and the effects what happened. While it might be possible that the story of Jesus was all just a ruse or some lie perpetuated by the early Christians, that possibilities loses their probability when considering the suffering of persecution many of these Christians endured. In one-hundred years time, from AD 25 to AD 125, history went from no existence of Christianity at all to a movement so numerous that some saw Christians as a new human race (N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 359). This happened even though the believers didn’t have any legal standing and faced much opposition, including persecution and death. The only explanation is that what they believed about Jesus, his death, burial and resurrection, did really happen.

I also still believe in the good news of Jesus because of the hope that blossoms from such faith. The good news of Jesus is the story of how God overcomes sin and death, bringing about a new creation. Without that promise, our life ends in death so that all the suffering endured to that point is without any hope. Nihilism is what we are left with. As difficult as suffering is, it becomes utterly unbearable if life is nothing more than just “Life’s a bitch and then you die.”

As I said earlier, there are many questions about faith that I don’t always have satisfactory answers for but there is one thing I do know. If the story of Jesus being crucified and resurrected is true, and I believe there is credible reason for believing it is true, then it changes the course of history. The life Jesus lived, with all of his teaching, is the life that God is bringing into existence and it’s the life I want to participate in as a follower of Jesus. It’s a life lived by faith and a faith that’s big enough for and can co-exist with the questions and doubts we sometimes have.

So I’m not renouncing my faith and I pray you won’t either.

A Little Truth On Loving Our Neighbors

“What must I do to gain eternal life?” It’s a question that many sermons, evangelistic tracts, and other church literature has answered. And if you’ve been around any church, you know how the answer goes. In the churches I have been a part of, the answer has always seemed to include teaching about the necessity or repentance and baptism. But when a Jewish lawyer came testing Jesus by asking the same question, the conversation about gaining eternal life went in a very different direction.

Bulletin Message Picture

In Luke 10:25-37 we have a well known story that has traditionally been known as The Good Samaritan. But the story, as Luke tells it, doesn’t begin with a man encountering assailants along a desolate road. It begins with a Jewish lawyer asking “What must I do to gain eternal life?” So Jesus answers the lawyer but not in a way that most Christians would expect. Jesus simply asked the lawyer “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”

There are two observations worth noting here. First, Jesus seems to assume that knowing what is necessary for gaining eternal life is found in the Law of Moses. If living the eternal life is understood in terms of the kind of life we live and not just the length of life, then it makes sense. We can begin knowing how to participate in the kind of life Jesus is offering by reading the Old Testament. Why? Because the Law in its essence is about loving God and neighbor (we cannot do one without doing the other), which the Lawyer knows. So when he answers Jesus’ question by reciting the two great commands, Jesus replies “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”

But, but but…

The lawyer wanted to justify himself, so perhaps with some chutzpah he asked “And who is my neighbor?” That brings up the second observation about Jesus’ question. How one reads the Law of Moses, or in our case, the entire Bible, will indeed shape how we define our neighbor. If we are followers of Jesus then we must read the Bible in light of who we know Jesus to be, the life we know that he lived, and the aim (telos) for which he lived his life — the kingdom of God.

Lest we misunderstand, Jesus tells the story of the good Samaritan. The Samaritan was despised and seemingly beyond the boundaries of God’s kingdom in the eyes of the Jewish people. Yet this Samaritan became The Good Samaritan or the one who was a neighbor because he exemplified love for his neighbor. Perhaps if Jesus was telling a story today, perhaps he might speak of an American Evangelical Christian and a “Truth-defending, Sound-Doctrine” Preacher as he tells a tale about an undocumented immigrant or a Muslim loving their neighbors (like Imam Abubakr Absullahi, an 83 year-old Muslim Cleric who is being honored by the US Government for hiding 262 Christians to protect them during an attack in Central Nigeria last year).

I mention this because we all have known of Christians who have made defending Biblical truth and sound-doctrine, which always seems to be their own dogma, the essence or primary focus being a Christian. Don’t misunderstand me. Truth and doctrine matter but when such concern is elevated about loving God and neighbor (and history is replete with examples), not only does such a pursuit become an idol but it takes a wrong turn away from eternal life.

Yes, I just said that. When our concern for sound-doctrine is elevated above or ignores loving God and neighbor, we turning away from participating in eternal life. That doesn’t mean we can’t turn around and get back on the right path. The grace of God says we can. That is why, when the Jewish lawyer recognizes that the neighbor is the Samaritan “who demonstrated mercy,” Jesus says “Go and do likewise.”

To love our neighbors as ourselves is to love God and if we love God with all our heart, being, strength, and mind, we will delight in loving our neighbors. But let’s also remember, that it’s possible for a Samaritan, an undocumented immigrant, or a Muslim just might be closer to the kingdom than some Christians because of the way they love their neighbors.

So what must we do to gain eternal life? And what does the Bible say? How do we read the Bible? Well, here’s a little truth on these questions that we should notice. In essence, the answer is that we should love God and love our neighbor. But to be clear, Jesus tells us a story of about loving our neighbor and how that involves extending mercy. Then Jesus simply says, “Go and do likewise.” Stop trying to justify ourselves like the lawyer, saying “Yes, but…” and just hear Jesus say “Go and do likewise.”

“Go and do likewise.” ~ Jesus

 

Promoting Peace: Churches Living in a Post-Christendom Society

This past Sunday I began a new three-week message series with the Newark Church of Christ called Neighbors: The Church Among Society. The idea of the series focuses on the question of how does the church, as followers of Jesus, live among society as neighbors. At face value, that might seem like a simple task and in some sense it is. However, now that many churches in North America, including the church I serve, find themselves living in a post-Christendom culture, the task becomes more challenging.

Neighbors - The Church Among Society

The challenge of a post-Christendom culture is that Christianity exists more and more on the margins of society. No longer is Christianity at the center of society and no longer is Christianity attached to the state so that the policies of society favor a Christian view. I happen to believe that is a good thing because there are beliefs and values intrinsic to the gospel that were lost, or at least diminished, when Christianity moved from existing as a mission-movement into a Christendom culture. However, with the post-Christendom shift, it requires churches to rethink what it means to live as followers of Jesus in a society the beliefs and values of the church differ from society.

So as followers of Jesus, how do we live as neighbors among society? Well, the prophet Jeremiah has a word that can help us reimagine our role as God’s people in a post-Christendom society:

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.

This text is important because it’s a word for how Israel should live in a society not of their choosing. In a nutshell, Jeremiah tells Israel that they should get used to living in Babylon and make the most of it because they’re going to be there for a while. That’s also an important word for churches living in the post-Christendom culture of North America today. Get used to it and make the most of the opportunity because it’s going to be this way for awhile.

Of great importance to the prophet is that Israel should “Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray for to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare.” The idea of promoting the welfare of the city is to “seek the peace” (NIV) of the community and doing so requires a particular posture.

To begin with, there isn’t a word in the text about retreating or resisting the changes taking place in society. Withdrawing from engaging in society is out of the question but unless a church is careful, that’s what happens. I know because I once remembered eating in a restaurant owned by a Muslim family that catered to the small population of Somalian refugees. The restaurant had been open for about four to five years. So I was astonished when the owner told me that I was the first Christian to ever come in and eat at his place. Such avoidance of engagement with non-Christians is the sort of retreating that churches must avoid. Just the same, churches must avoid resisting the changes. Promoting the welfare of the community doesn’t happen by boycotting Starbuck or protesting the local PRIDE parade. Doing so only helps erect obstacles that places Christianity in an unnecessary adversarial relationship with society at large.

Promoting the welfare or seeking the peace of society requires learning how to exercise good table manners. We enter and engage our neighbors as neighbors who listen to understand before we attempt to contribute to the good. We do so by extending to others the courtesy and respect we hope they would extend to us (and do so even if they won’t). In doing so, we avoid offering banal answers to difficult questions and challenging issues. Instead, we are able to contribute by becoming what Tomâś Halík describes as “competent partners respecting the rules of dialogue” (Night of the Confessor, pp 134-135).

Taking such a posture doesn’t mean or require churches to abandon any convictions. Instead, the local church is able to discover where God is already at work in society and participate in that work for the sake of the kingdom — the will of God done on earth as it is in heaven. This approach is possible in a variety of different avenues, from partnering with local agencies that serve people in need to planting new churches that also seek to serve their neighbors as they lead people to follow Jesus.

Whatever form promoting the welfare of the city takes, it will involve prayer. So I’ll end this post with the Peace Prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi:

Lord make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light
And where there is sadness, joy
O divine master grant that I may
not so much seek to be consoled as to console
to be understood as to understand
To be loved as to love
For it is in giving that we receive
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned
And it’s in dying that we are born to eternal life
Amen

The Spirit and the Mission of God

Last week I finished reading the book Poured Out: The Spirit of God Empowering the Mission of God by Leonard Allen, the Dean of the College of Bible and Minister at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee. If you’re looking for an accessible and very good introductory read on the work of the Holy Spirit, look no further. I really recommend this 208 page book.

Poured OutMy intention here is not to offer a review of Allen’s book but I do want to draw some attention to the connection he makes between the outpouring of the Spirit and the church’s participation in the mission of God. Before doing so, it is important to understand that the Holy Spirit is the third-person of our Triune God and therefore remember that God is Trinitarian: One God in three Persons, the Father, Son, and Spirit. Allen is right to ground his understanding of the Spirit in Trinitarian doctrine and I do so as well.

By grounding our understanding of the Spirit within the Trinity, we have a guard against certain abuses and claims that are sometimes attributed to the work of the Holy Spirit. This is because the Holy Spirit will never lead us to say or do anything that is contrary to the will of the Father that has been fully revealed in the Son. So if we want to know how the Spirit is leading, we must look to the will of God revealed to us in the life and teachings of Jesus (which scripture faithfully bears witness to). This will is about forming us to live as his people, following Jesus as we participate in the mission of God. So in Trinitarian language, as Allen puts it, “we can say that Christian discipleship means following the risen Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to the glory and praise of God the Father” (p. 71).

Understanding the work of the Spirit within the Triune Godhead won’t eliminate every potential controversy but it does help because it points us toward the mission of God. However we understand this or that text within the Bible or lean a certain way on some difficult theological issue, we know that our calling is to live as followers of Jesus. We receive the Spirit of God to participate in the mission of God as followers of Jesus, which is really the key focus of Allen’s book as it should be for us too. So when reading the book of Acts, what we have “is a commentary on the Spirit’s unrelenting focus on Jesus and empowering the proclamation of Jesus” (p. 103).

This commentary on the work of the Spirit must open our imaginations for the way the Spirit is seeking to work in our local churches participating in the mission fo God. Allen suggests that the difference sometimes experienced between the work of the Spirit in churches today and the work of the Spirit in Acts stems from the loss of mission. With the onset of Christendom, the role of the church aligned with the state so that the church served as a chaplain to society rather than as the prophetic witness to the inaugurated kingdom of God. Consequently, Allen writes, “With the receding of the church’s mission orientation, the doctrine of the Spirit was constricted, now redefined by the settled caretaker role that the empire required. The loss of mission correspond to a narrowed and tamed doctrine of the Spirit” (p. 116).

A local church cannot fully participate in the mission of God as followers of Jesus without power of the Holy Spirit. However, the catch is that if a local church wants to experience the power of the Holy Spirit at work among them, the community of believers must commit themselves to living on mission with God. What that looks like will differ, in particularities, from one church to the next but it will always be a faithful-yet-contextual embodiment of the gospel. Is that not what every church wants?

Come, Holy Spirit!

The Outpouring of the Holy Spirit Again?

Last year Jonathan Merritt wrote a piece for The Atlantic discussing then decline of Christianity in the US. The article was titled America’s Epidemic of Empty Churches and based on Lifeway research, Merritt mentioned the fact that roughly 6,000 – 10,000 churches discontinue to exist every year here in the US. This grabs my attention because I once helped close one of those churches. So now that churches in the United States find themselves living amidst a postmodern and post-Christendom society, the question faced is how do we continue participating in the mission of God?

The answer to the question of participating in the mission of God is huge but a significant part of the answer is the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit that forms us and animates us to live as followers of Jesus, to be the church on mission with God. Yet, in more than a few churches the work of the Holy Spirit is neglected and even suppressed at times.

The prophetic vision declared in Acts 2 is the outpouring of God’s spirit upon all people, men and women as well as people of every race, ethnicity, and nationality. The Spirit gifts these people to live as faithful followers of Jesus so that, as local churches, we may continue stepping forward on mission with God. But our need to be in control has a way of stifling the Spirit. So even though we neither own God nor rule over Christ but that doesn’t stop us from wanting to control the Spirit.

Here’s how that happens: With a proof-text of two from scripture and an ad hoc argument, many churches have silenced half the believers simply because they were born female. Then with other finely crafted rhetoric, movements of the Spirit among followers of Jesus are shut down simply because they don’t fit within the tradition of the church. What’s left is a stagnant church living in the boundaries of its own comfort-zone while admiring the acts of the Holy Spirit in Acts but never realizing that God is pouring out the same Holy Spirit again and again and again and… Then unexpectedly, the same local church is added to the list of 6,000 to 10,000 disbanding churches.

It doesn’t have to be that way though. I recently heard another pastor say something along the line of “Every church has a decision to make about the book of Acts: Either it is a historical documentation of the early church or it is a vision for the church in every generation.”

So what if the acts of the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts became a vision for our churches? What do we have to be afraid of in praying for God to fill us with his Holy Spirit? What might happen when we pray for God to pour out his Spirit again upon our churches?

The Church: God’s New Future Unleashed

It isn’t any secret that Christianity in the United States is facing some challenges. In a post-Christendom society churches are getting smaller and even closing. There are likely many reasons for this but that is also why there continues to be a market for books on growing churches, connecting with the unchurched, and reaching the next generations (Millennials, iGeneration, etc…).

Now I love reading and have nothing against such books per se. However, when we open our Bible up to the book of Acts, what we have is a summons to receive the Spirit so that we may fully live life as a follower of Jesus. That’s what repentance and baptism is (Acts 2:38). Nothing said about growing churches, reaching the next generation and so forth, just a summons to repentance and baptism. That’s because the way we participate in the kingdom and journey on mission with God is by the power of the Spirit under the authority of Jesus Christ. That is, we submit our lives to Jesus and are formed by the Holy Spirit to live life as Jesus lived.

Luke gives us a description of what happened with the community of believers in Jerusalem when they responded to this summons. Acts 2:42-47:

The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. All the believers were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.

I believe we should read this as a description rather than a prescription. In other words, rather than trying reduplicate or mirror everything we read exactly as we think it was done then, Luke’s description is meant to evoke our own imaginations. What might happen when we allow the Holy Spirit to (re)form us as people living in the name of Jesus?

The answer to that question will vary from one local community to another, though I do believe that there will be some commonalities. Commonalities like remaining committed to apostolic teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer, as well as demonstrating the goodness of God — loving God, loving neighbor — to everyone. The result will always be putting into motion the kingdom way of life that Jesus proclaimed and faithfully lived, even to the point of being put to death on the cross. It is a way of life shaped by the cruciform-character and kingdom-oriented life of Jesus.

Bottom line, what we read in Acts is what happens when we are formed by the Spirit to live as faithful followers of Jesus. As a church on mission with God, we become the new future that God has unleashed into the present.

Let’s be this church!