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Life Together: The Life God Created Us to Live

In Confessions, Saint Augustine mentions how some people ask the question, “What was God doing before he made the heavens and earth?” He answers by basically saying that God was preparing hell for people who ask such questions. I appreciate Augustine’s humorous response because like the question of whether God can build a rock so big that he can’t move it, such questions are irrelevant and ridiculous. Good theology reflects instead upon God’s revelation of himself to us and how is at work among us. Such theological reflection allows us to also understand how we are called to serve as participants in the mission of God.

Life Together PictureIn reflecting on God and his work, we gain insight into the life for which we have been created and are being redeemed to live as followers of Jesus Christ.* So when we come to the Genesis creation narrative, we discover that the heavens and earth are the cosmic temple in which God dwells as the king (Wenham, Rethinking Genesis 1-11, 16; Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, 83-84). Yet God is at work doing even more.

Genesis one reminds us that what God has created is good. So we must reject any ideas of platonic dualism in which physical creation is something bad that we need to overcome or escape. Instead, we happily find ourselves among creation and here is our first hint as to why… “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it. Take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and everything crawling on the ground” (Gen 1:28). So among the garden, God is cultivating a life that is sustainable and enjoyable for all of creation and we are to participate with God in the cultivation of this life.

“The Genesis creation narrative imagines us as part of God’s community participating with God in the continued cultivation of his community.”

Chapter two of Genesis offers another portrayal of God creating that expands further on this life that God has created us to live. First, we are told in vv. 15-17, “The Lord God took the human and settled him in the garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it. The Lord God commanded the human, ‘Eat your fill from all of the garden’s trees; but don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, because on the day you eat from it, you will die!'” Walter Bruegemann identifies three characteristics of the life God envisions here vocation, permission, and prohibition (Genesis, p. 46). In other words, God has created us to work and gives us much freedom to use our abilities but God also places some restrictions. Secondly, the male is alone and in need of a suitable “helper” (vv. 18, 20) who will become “one” (v. 24) as they multiply in offspring. The idea of a “helper” does not imply any sense of inferiority since elsewhere in scripture the Hebrew word ‘êzer is used to describe God as a helper of Israel and the Bible is not ascribing an inferior status to God. The point is that God has created us to live in community with others.

So God is at work creating an enduring community that continues growing and developing. The Genesis creation narrative imagines us as part of God’s community participating with God in the continued cultivation of his community. Absent here are any notions of the individuality and autonomy that says we can live life apart from the help of God and each other. But do we understand what that means?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter…” (Life Together, p. 27) In other words, if we love our vision of community more than we love the community then we destroy the community we actually live among. That seems very important because if we’re honest, I think sometimes we are more interested in our vision of community rather than listening to God. That is, we don’t mind the work it takes to cultivate community and we certainly love the idea of freedom but we treat the notion of having any restrictions on our freedom as an insult to our human dignity. Yet, we seem better at destroying the community of God’s creation than cultivating a life that is sustainable and enjoyable for all of God’s creation. So maybe it’s time that we start listening to God again as to how we should care for his creation rather than playing God by determining for ourselves what is right and wrong.

As a pastor, I believe in Jesus and I believe that it is ultimately God’s self-revelation in the person of Jesus where we learn how to live as God’s true community. It is Jesus who teaches us how to love the community… Love God, love our neighbors, and even our enemies. Is that what we want? And if so, are we going to listen to Jesus? Or are we more in love with our own vision of community than joining with God in cultivating the life Jesus gave his life for?


* You might also be interested in listening to the sermon podcast of the message I preached on Genesis 2:15-25 called Life Together, which can be accused on the website of the Newark Church of Christ.

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Evangelism: The 72 Includes You

Evangelism is a ministry task that many churches struggle with, for various reasons. Beyond such reasons, evangelism sometimes has been relegated to the job of a revivalist preacher going from town to town preaching the good news. With all appreciation to such preachers like Billy Graham or my own tribe’s Jimmy Allen, evangelism isn’t their responsibility alone. Similarly, evangelism is neither about standing on a street corner preaching a hellfire and brimstone sermon to other pedestrians nor can it be reduced to knocking on some unknown person’s door.

4517So what is evangelism? If that’s a question you’ve wonder about or if the subject of evangelism interests you, then perhaps the book I am writing to tell you about can help. A few weeks ago IVP Books was kind enough to send me a copy of The Power of the 72: Ordinary Disciples in Extraordinary Evangelism. This book, authored by John Teter, who serves as Pastor for the Fountain of Life Covenant Church in Long Beach, California, is a very easy to read book of 162 pages in length. In fact, one of the things I appreciate about this book is that the author has written in a manner that is accessible to any reader, whether they have a theology degree or not, and has done so without dumbing down the theological content of the book.

After an introduction, the book divides into two sections, with the first made up of three chapters laying a theological foundation and the second made up of five chapters on application. Throughout the book, the author works through the story of Jesus sending out the 72 to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God in Luke 10:1-20. Overall, the author asks of the Christian reader to see himself or herself as one of the 72. That is, Christian readers are challenged to consider themselves as people Jesus is sending out to proclaim the good news — evangelists engaged in evangelism. To that end, the author offers a fourfold purpose of 1) providing a theological foundation for evangelism, 2) presenting his theory on the process of conversion, 3) call the reader to master ministry tasks pertaining to evangelism, and 4) prepare the readers for rejection (p. 14).

The author is not offering a step-by-step “how to” manual for evangelism, which is good since I have always found problems with such manuals (which is beyond the scope of this post). However, besides presenting a solid theological praxis for evangelism, I found the book inspiring and encouraging. Without any guilt trips, I found myself wanting to be better at evangelism as I read through the book. Though there didn’t appear anything of significance to dispute in this book, there were a couple of places where I thought the author was trying to hard to make the biblical text support his conviction. However, I’m sure the same could be said for any pastor-theologian, including myself.

One point the author makes in the book does warrant some further discussion because it is such a good point for churches and individual Christians to remember. In discussing the work that God is already doing, the author says:

“Evangelism is not going into newly formed relationships doing all we can to create a hunger for God. Evangelism is becoming flesh in a situation where God is already at work. The hard work has already been done” (p. 97).

As with every aspect of Christian ministry, the task begins with discerning where God is already at work so that we may join in as participants in the mission of God. Likewise, because evangelism is participating in the work God is already doing, we can trust God to bring forth the harvest among those who are seeking him. Consequently, evangelism does not and should never be a coercive or manipulative tactic on our part. We simply share the good news of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God, allowing the Spirit to convict and call those seeking God to respond.

If you’re seeking to gain more confidence in evangelism yourself, here’s an easy book to read that God can use to equip you with more confidence. Perhaps you’re looking for some material on evangelism that can use to facilitate a discussion about becoming more evangelistic among your church or small group you’re part of. If so, I think you’ll find this book a helpful place to begin that conversation.

A Word For The Church

Sutherland Springs ShootingThis past Sunday should have been an encouraging day, as I gathered with Christians for worship and fellowship. But then I came home and saw on television the news coming out of Sutherland Springs, Texas. Another mass-shooting, this time at a First Baptist Church where at least 26 people were killed and many others wounded.

Something Is Wrong!

Like most people, I am sad and shocked as well as a bit angry. I neither know what motivates a person to indiscriminately commit mass-murder, killing innocent people without any regard for their lives, nor do I understand why a person would do such a wicked thing. I also find it very alarming that such violence has become a regular occurrence in this American society we live among. Surely our society is sick, suffering from a soul-disease, of which the symptoms include our addiction to violence in everything from entertainment to all sides of politics as well as these mass-killings. But as a pastor and minister, I am concerned for churches.

Concerned for churches… I’m sure you are too. However, we may not share the same concerns. Yesterday, I saw many posts and comments on Facebook about what church leaders are planning to make church gatherings more safe and secure. Some commenters, presumably Christians, talked about carrying their firearms or hiring trained security officers. How American! And sadly perhaps, how unChristian!

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m all for taking reasonable measures for ensuring safety and security. But if that is our first response, our gut response, or our only response to the threat of potential danger, then we have lost the faith that Jesus calls us to have.

An Unfamiliar Church

In the early part of Acts, the apostles Peter and John are arrested and told to quit preaching Jesus. As followers of Jesus, who was crucified right there in Jerusalem, booth the apostles and the church understood where this could lead. So the church responded by forming a safety committee to consider ideas about how they might avoid such dangers.

Wrong!

According to Acts 4:23-31, we are told that the church began praying. And what they prayed for just might astonish us because they didn’t pray that God would protect them or keep them safe in any manner. Instead, praying to the “Sovereign Lord,” they petitioned him saying, “Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”

Could we pray such a prayer? Would we pray such a prayer?

I’m sure churches are praying but is prayer the first response or is it just an appendix added on to the committee meetings about safety and so on.

I often hear Christians lament the growing trend of secularism in America that has also resulted in the marginalization of Christianity. But whose fault is that if we are more worried about safety than praying for God to enable the church to speak his word more boldly? Whose fault is it if we are more worried about how to stop a potential threat than we are about asking God to stretch out his healing hand and perform signs and wonders through the name of Jesus.

Faith and The Threat of Danger

As suggested earlier, I am not opposed to taking reasonable measures of safety and security. However, our response to the threat of danger must be one of faith and therefore an expression that is both coherent and in continuity with our ancestors in the faith — some of whom expressed their faith in Jesus through martyrdom.

We know that throughout history, followers of Jesus have suffered persecution as Jesus promised. So we should not be surprised that evil people will target Christians with violence and other kinds of wickedness. The question that matters is how we respond and part of that response is the prayer for boldness that the Christians in Jerusalem prayed. For should we be called by Jesus to suffer for his sake, we will never have the faithful courage to suffer as a martyr unless we have the faithful conviction of a martyr.

May the Lord give us eyes to see and ears to hear his word! And may the Lord strengthen his church, filling us all with the Holy Spirit, that we may live according to our faith with great boldness!

Three Suggestions for Church Leaders

aaeaaqaaaaaaaallaaaajdy0zwuwotfkltfkntatngjkzi1hnjyylwnmywvmntmwnwu2maRegardless of what might pass a leadership among society, the church is different or should be different. Leadership within the kingdom of God is not about positional authority or ruling over others but about serving. As Jesus said to his disciples in Luke 22:25-26, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves” (NRSV).

Notice the contrast Jesus makes between ruling over people and serving people. When church leaders, such as ministers/pastors and elders/shepherds, act as though their role is a position that entitles them to make decisions, they are ruling over rather than serving the church. Regardless of the intentions, acting with positional authority will create problems that usually brings about decline. At the same time, for there to be leadership then those called to lead must do so with vision and courage just as Jesus himself did. Timid leadership can just as easily result in problems that brings about decline.

At the surface, it sometimes seems like there is a paradox between serving and leading. Perhaps so and if there is indeed a paradox, then we should let it stand and wrestle with it rather than trying to eliminate whatever tension it creates.

With that being said, here are three simple suggestions for church leaders:

  1. Lead by example. In the economy of God’s kingdom, leaders are followers of Jesus first. Leadership is thus characterized by having a humble and self-sacrificial posture that is willing to care for others. Setting an example also means going first where one desires to lead others. Leaders must themselves cultivate a life of discipleship if they seek to be a church making and maturing disciples.
  2. Lead by listening. Spend time with people and get to know them, learn who they are and what they’re passionate about or what sort of struggles they have as well as questions and concerns they have. Doing so validates their existence and feelings as well as opening space to ask questions that will allow everyone to further discern where God is leading and then begin to go there together.
  3. Lead by Conviction. At the end of the day, leaders must be decisive. However, good leadership makes decisions based upon beliefs, principles and values rather than popularity. This doesn’t negate listening to others but no matter what decisions are made, someone will always disagree. So at the end of the day it is better to lead from convictions rather than the approval of others as right is always right regardless of it’s popularity.

So now, what says you?

Imagining The Church

One of my favorite books, perhaps the best, I’ve ever read is Vincent J. Donavan, Christianity Rediscovered, 25th Anv. Ed., 2003. The book is an account of Donavan’s ministry in Tanzania as a Catholic missionary and his reassessment of what it means to follow Jesus which led to rediscovering his Christian faith. I like the book because not only is it a great story to read but whether you’re reading the book as a lesson on multi-cultural mission work or just a devotional text on faith, Donavan’s story is encouraging.

man_church

Donavan’s story reminds us that when we follow Jesus, the church Jesus desires will always follow but that church will not necessarily be what we expected. This was the lesson the apostle Peter learned too. If you recall when Jesus told his disciples that he was going to be crucified, it was Peter who rebuked Jesus (Mk 8:32) for speaking about dying on a Roman cross. While Peter was able to discern that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, his imagination for what it meant to be part of this Jesus movement couldn’t fathom how crucifixion fit into that scheme. But Peter would learn and learn again.

In Acts chapter 10 we read about the conversion of Cornelius, a Gentile who served as a Roman soldier. In the story Peter is given a vision during his sleep of heaven opening up with animals that Jews considered unclean appearing in the vision as Peter is told to eat. However, Peter rejected such an idea and why… because his imagination for what it meant to be a part of this Jesus movement did not have any capacity for inclusion of the Gentiles. But the Lord spoke saying in v. 15, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” Thus Peter, who was still loyally committed to following Jesus, learned.

What lesson did Peter exactly learn? Well, we can obviously say that Peter learned the kingdom of God is inaugurated the the crucifixion of Jesus the Messiah. We also can say that Peter learned the kingdom of God is a realm without an ethnic and national boundaries. But I believe Peter learned even more and that there is more that we can learn too.

Peter learned that in following Jesus, the church Jesus desires will always follow too but that church will not necessarily be what he expected. But can we learn that lesson too? You see, everyone has an imagination for how we understand the church to be…

  • What the church should look like.
  • How the church should act.
  • Who belongs to the church.
  • What the markers of the true church are.
  • How the church should participate in the mission of God.

These ideas all constitute what we hold convictions and there’s nothing wrong with having convictions per se. The question is hold tightly or loosely do we hold our convictions about the church. Can Jesus challenge our imaginations about what it means to be the church?

I hope so.

One thing I am certain of is that if we follow Jesus then the church Jesus wants us to be will always follow, though it may be different from what we imagine the church to be. However, if our imaginations for what the church should look like, how it should act, who belongs in the church, what it’s true markers are, and how it participates in the mission of God never changes, then perhaps we might start asking if it’s Jesus whom we’re really following.

What Matters Most

A lot has transpired for my family over the last month. We have finally made the move from Columbia, Maryland to Chillicothe, Missouri so that I can serve full-time as a minister with the Chillicothe Church of Christ. Since moving 1,000 miles across country is time consuming and stressful, I haven’t had time to write much on this blog. However, now that I’m done with the move, I plan on returning to more regular writing.

Living Christ PosterThough I have been swith the congregation since last October, traveling back and forth between Maryland and Missouri, last Sunday was my first sermon as a Chillicothe resident. I have begun a summer preaching series based on the book of Philippians called Living Christ. Now that I’m here full-time, I wanted to begin by talking about what I believe matters the most and that is Jesus Christ. Paul makes this clear in his letter to the Philippians as he seeks to guide this community of believers, who are facing opposition and struggling with some conflict, to continue in way of Jesus Christ. In this way, Paul is confident that the work God has begun in the Philippians will continue until the day of Jesus Christ (1:6).

This is how I feel about the Chillicothe Church of Christ. God has already been at work with this church, something he began long before I was even born. My work as a minister of the gospel is to help this church continue in the way of Jesus so that the work which God has already begun will continue until the day of Jesus Christ. In many ways, this is an invitation from God to continue seeing what he is doing in Christ and join in that work.

But with that invitation comes a challenge too. When Paul wrote to the Philippians, he was in prison and possibly facing execution for preaching Jesus. Yet he rejoiced because his suffering had encouraged confidence in other believers to preach the gospel (1:14). Even in acknowledging that some were preaching for false motives, he is fine with this since they are preaching Christ (1:19). That might seem strange but for Paul, the one thing that matters is the proclamation of Jesus Christ. So in what is kind of a mantra for Paul, he says in Philippians 1:21, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

What matters most for any church, including the Philippians and the Chillicothe Church of Christ, is Jesus Christ. In particular, what matters is the proclamation of Jesus in word and deed. Everything we do, every decision we make and ever endeavor we pursue, must be shaped and guided by the proclamation of Jesus Christ. This also is a challenge to embody the gospel of Jesus Christ as our way of life because without such embodiment, our proclamation in word just becomes meaningless chatter to the surrounding society.

Pray for the Chillicothe Church of Christ and pray for every other church in the community as well as your own church and the other churches in your community. Pray that we may all prioritize Jesus Christ. Whatever problems, struggles, and questions there are facing churches in America, the way forward is by refocusing on what matters most: Jesus Christ.

“I want to know Christ — yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.”

– The Apostle Paul, Philippians 3:10-11

A Confession: The Blessing I Forgot

“Rejoice Christian! Your sins are forgiven and you have the gift of eternal life in Christ,” says the preacher.

jesus-crucified-08-2“Good sermon, preacher!”, says me the faithful, church-going Christian. It’s the kind of sermon I want to hear and it’s all true too. It’s nice to be reminded of such spiritual blessings in Christ and it’s good to be so blessed.

Then like a good Christian should do, I pick up my Bible and read. Today I’m reading in Philippians, a letter written to Christians by the apostle Paul.

And so I begin reading about how thankful Paul is for the Christians who partner with him in the gospel and how Paul is in prayer for such Christians. That’s nice. I need prayers and I’m sure there are plenty of other Christians who need prayers too. So it’s good to know that Paul is full of thanksgiving and prayer for his fellow Christians.

And then I read how Paul is actually “in chains” for preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. How terrible it must be for him to be confined to a jail cell like that but I’m thankful for his faith. I’m thankful too that nobody has ever put me in prison for being a Christian.

And then I read how Paul says, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Can Paul get an “Amen!”? Maybe a “Hallelujah!”? Of course he can. Now we got an idea for the next student devotional, the next church retreat. Hey… a good preacher might even develop a good sermon series about living for Christ, knowing that when we die — hopefully a very long time from now when were really old people — that we’ll gain our eternal inheritance in Christ.

Wow… this is going to be a really wonderful book of the Bible to read through.

But then Paul talks about standing firm in Christ and says… “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him…” (Phil 1:29, NIV).

I know those words were not written directly to me or any other Christian living today, yet those words are part of the story we’re called to embody. But when I think about the blessing of being included in Christ, suffering for Christ isn’t a part of such thinking. In fact, my first inclination is to say, “Thanks for such a grant but no thanks!”

Lord, have mercy on me… a sinful man!