Tag Archives: Christianity

Be The Church!

Like others, I am tired of turning on the news only to hear that another mass-shooting has occurred. With the most recent shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio taking place within twenty-four hours of each other, it seems as if such violence has become an epidemic. Maybe that’s more perception than reality but nonetheless what is reality is the fact that more innocent lives were harmed and killed.

It is beyond me to understand how anyone could so maliciously plot and carry out a deadly attack on other people. Yes, I am aware of the anger and extremism, the hatred and racism, the mental health and emotional trauma, and the many other factors that come into play, including the easy access to certain firearms — assault weapons designed simply to kill with efficiency. I’m frustrated that elected officials just keep offering their “thoughts and prayers” without undertaking any reasonable solutions. I’m frustrated that, fifty-one years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., racism still has a grip on America and my frustration doesn’t end there. As a White person, I am also frustrated with many White people who either don’t seem to care about racism or seek to downplay it and even want to disassociate from the racism (a White privilege), failing to see how systematic racism still exists even if they don’t personally discriminate against any person of color. And if the truth be told, maybe I have been one of those White people too. I try not to be but I am a sinner too.

So what can I do?

What can we do?

As followers of Jesus, what must we do?

Be the church!

I know, I know… It sounds simple and even trite because for far too long “church” has been nothing but a place where people gather on Sundays. Our traditional understanding of Church in the west has often become an impotent caricature of the ekklēsia that Jesus called us to be as his followers. It’s the reason why many of the Sunday parishioners “go to church” and then leave an hour later as the same people they were before and as the same people they were when they first started going to church many years ago. Let’s be honest, this understanding of church is a place for people to sing songs about Jesus, hear a message about Jesus, and pray but not necessarily follow Jesus. I’m not against singing, preaching, and praying but such worship loses its way when those gathering for “church” leave only to sound more like an echo-chamber of whatever news-pundit they listen too as they continue pursuing a life shaped more by their own individualistic desires.

But that is not what I mean when I say “Be the church!” What I mean is hopefully a little more profound because it is about following Jesus and serving as a living embodiment of the gospel Jesus proclaimed. That means living as a people who gather, in the name of Jesus and by the power of the Spirit, with others, including people of other colors, nationalities, social-political viewpoints than our own. As we gather together, we do so as people learning to be practitioners of the Jesus way (discipleship) in which we embrace each other with love. This is a love that is full of the grace and truth that opens space for us to confront our sin with repentance and forgiveness so that we all may journey forward as reconciled brothers and sisters. This love is a fellowship in Christ that we have pledged ourselves to in baptism and that we continuously acknowledge together in the Eucharist. This vision of church, which Jesus has called us to be, is one that bears witness to an alternative kingdom — the reign of God — and becomes the beacon of light in a society shrouded in darkness.

This is the kind of church we are called to be and it is this kind of church that I believe God is working among to offer hope in the midst of despair and peace in the midst of violence. That’s why I posted on Facebook the other day this word for pastors, saying:

Pastors, the best response to a society boiling over with hatred and violence is for you to cultivate a living embodiment of the gospel among the church you serve so that there will be a community bearing witness to the way of peace in Christ.

This kind of church doesn’t effect change like a tsunami crashing upon the shore. Rather, it is a patient approach that doesn’t force its way of life on others but becomes such a beautiful portrait that others are captivated by it and want to become a part of this life. It is a life that flows from the prayers of those who are committed to living. So I leave us with the Peace Prayer attributed to Saint 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;
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 is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Amen.

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! 

Repentance and Baptism: More Than Fire Insurance

Every evangelistic tract I have ever laid eyes upon focused on answering a question about salvation. Namely, how does a person get saved from sin and God’s eternal judgment? Now if a person has never committed their life to Jesus and is experiencing an existential crisis due to some moral failure, the question might address their crisis. The problem is that this view of salvation  is too narrow.

In Acts, the apostles were not thinking about how they would be saved from sin and judgment. They wanted to know when Jesus was going to restore the kingdom to Israel (1:8). So it seems that when the pious Israelites at Pentecost realized that the Jesus they helped crucify had been raised from death by God and exalted as Lord and Messiah, their question about what they must do (2:37) was a kingdom question. That is, they weren’t just asking how could they now be forgiven and spared from God’s judgment but now that God is restoring his kingdom in Jesus the Messiah, how could they participate in the kingdom?

The question of how do we participate in the kingdom is much broader than just how do we get saved from sin and judgment. Yes, such participation includes salvation from sin and judgment but the question of salvation is as much about the life we are being saved to rather than just what we are saved from. The point is that salvation is so much more than just escaping eternal damnation! So here the summons to repentance and baptism again:

“Change your hearts and lives [repentance]. Each one of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” – Acts 2:38

Now despite the countless debates about the meaning of “for the forgiveness of sins” and when is a person “saved” in relation to baptism, such a focus is too narrow. What makes this summons to repentance and baptism different is that it is 1) in the name of Jesus Christ, and 2) associated with the promise of receiving the Holy Spirit. That makes sense because the entire Pentecost sermon was a declaration that God is now pouring his Spirit out on all people now that he has raised Jesus from death and exalted him as the Lord and Messiah.

The question we must ask in Acts chapter two is how do we participate in the kingdom that God is restoring? The answer is repentance and baptism because in doing so — in turning away from the old life that is passing and to the new life as we learn to live as followers of Jesus [repentance] and surrender our lives in submission to King Jesus [baptism] — we are immersed into a new life where we live under the kingdom-reign of God where we are then formed and animated by the Spirit to live as the church of Jesus Christ. This is the way we are summoned to participate because neither repentance nor baptism is a one-and-done transaction but an immersion into a transformative life as the people of God.

I’m going to be blunt here but it’s something that needs to be said. Repentance and baptism is about so much more than “fire insurance” to escape whatever hell we think awaits. If we truly want to participate in the eternal kingdom of God, then we must learn what it means to live a life of repentance and baptism. And if we don’t, we really haven’t repented and the baptism we received has become nothing more than a cleansing bath.

God is restoring the kingdom. That’s why he has poured out the Spirit and exalted Jesus to his right side as the Lord and Messiah but the kingdom is not appearing in some magical hocus-pocus manner. The kingdom appears as we, who profess our faith in Jesus as Lord and Messiah, live a life that is form by the Spirit as an embodiment of cruciform-character and kingdom-oriented life Jesus lived. So our summons to repentance and baptism is an invitation to receive the Spirit and be transformed in the way of Jesus as we live under his reign.