Tag Archives: Culture

Welcoming Reconciliation: Embracing Christian Unity

As I have stated in the previous four posts, I believe the church is the living portrait of what God is accomplishing in Christ. That is, the church is the artwork of God which depicts the new creation God is bringing about in Christ. As the church follows Jesus in embodying the gospel by means of doing good works. the church serves as God’s poetry in motion. However, embodying the gospel means welcoming the reconciliation that God has accomplished in Christ but that is a challenge.

Welcoming Reconciliation

Whether we are talking about different races and ethnicities, different nationalities or  different Christian denominations, divisions and even hostility exist. That’s how it was for the Jews and Gentiles that Paul is writing too, that’s how its been in America, and in other parts of the world — past and present. Yet God has tore down these walls of division so that we can leave our racism, nationalism, and every other form of tribalism behind, if we’ll just see what God has done in Christ.

The apostle Paul says “Christ is our peace, He has made both Jews and Gentiles into one group” (Eph 2:14). The same is true for Blacks and Whites, Americans and foreigners, and even Democrats and Republicans or whatever affiliation we have. Christ is our peace, who has made us into one but we may never understand that if we don’t give our attention to what God has done in Christ, particularly in the crucifixion of Christ.

By giving our attention to the work of God in Christ, I don’t just mean reading the Bible more. Yes, read the Bible but remember that the Bible is like a window through which we are able to encounter the gospel Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God. Too many times people have failed to do this, turning the Bible into a weapon to justify prejudices and sectarianism. That’s why it’s not enough just to read our Bibles. We must read our Bible to encounter what God has accomplished in Christ. 

     “God has already accomplished reconciliation that we speak of — oneness and unity in Christ. It is an ontological reality already in existence, not something we must achieve but that which we must receive.”

We know from other writings of Paul that righteousness or justification is based on faith in what God has done in Christ. That is, having a right relationship with God is a result of what God has done (grace) through the faithfulness of Christ which we trust in (faith). Realizing this, knowing how God has graciously made us a part of his new creation, then who are we to hold any sense of animosity, superiority, and exclusivity towards someone else because their skin is a different tone then ours? Knowing this grace of God, who are we to deny fellowship to another believer because they gather for worship in a church building that has a different name on the marquee than our church building?

In Christ, God has already created “one new person out of the two, making peace. He reconciled them both as one body to God by the cross, which end the hostility to God” (Eph 2:15-16). God has already accomplished reconciliation that we speak of — oneness and unity in Christ. It is an ontological reality already in existence, not something we must achieve but that which we must receive. The question for us is whether we’ll welcome such reconciliation. Will we welcome the peace of Christ that allows us to live as one with God and each other, saying no to the wall of tribalism, be it based on our race, our national origin, or even our denominational affiliation?

I’ll be the first to admit that welcoming reconciliation isn’t easy. That’s why we have to be honest with the truth. That means first we have to be honest with the truth of ourselves, whatever animosity, superiority, and exclusivity resides in our hearts. Once we can be honest with that sinful truth, then we can be honest with the Truth that is Christ by receiving the grace God extends to us and extending that grace to each other. As Christena Cleveland says, “We must do the difficult work of examining our hearts and reflecting on our attitudes toward other groups in order to uncover, uproot, and repent of the deep biases that self-esteem and identity processes have ingrain in us. Then we must affirm our truest, common identities as members of the body of Christ” (Disunity in Christ, p. 111).

So what is does it mean to welcome reconciliation, embracing our unity as one body that God has made us to be in Christ? To answer this question, let me first say that I don’t believe welcoming reconciliation means becoming colorblind in a manner that denies the reality of our race and ethnicity. (read Nijay Gupta’s article Neither White Nor Black”?: Paul’s Case Against Being Colorblind). Similarly, I don’t believe reconciliation demands social homogeneity, which means we can disagree on politics and still be siblings in Christ. I also don’t believe unity is uniformity in matters of Christian faith, in which we must agree with each other on every matter of doctrine and practice.

Then how do we welcome reconciliation and embrace our unity? Ephesians 4:2 says, “Conduct yourselves with all humility, gentleness, and patience. Accept each other with love.” I suggest this requires listening to each other and serving one another by submitting to one another and praying for each other. If you’re not sure, go read the rest of Ephesians. This is how we welcome reconciliation. It happens by treating each other as though we both belong together, all belonging to the household of God, as people saved by the grace of God who have become a temple which God dwells among though his Spirit.

A Gospel Affirmation: Christ is our peace. Yes, we are different skin colors and different nationalities but we call each other brother and sister in Christ and that signifies us God’s poetry in motion. That’s a living demonstration of what God has accomplished in Christ. Come November, we may cast different ballots but we’ll still regard each other with humility, gentleness, and patience and that signifies us God’s poetry in motion. That’s a living demonstration of what God has accomplished in Christ. As we read the Bible, we may disagree on  different passages of scripture but from our common confession “Jesus is Lord!” we’ll accept each other with love and that signifies us God’s poetry in motion. That’s a living demonstration of what God has accomplished in Christ.

That’s becoming reconciliation, because Christ is our peace.

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Do Justice, Be Righteous

As I have stated in my last few posts, I believe the church is the living portrait of what God is accomplishing in Christ. Simply put, the church is the artwork of God which depicts the new creation God is bringing about in Christ. As the church follows Jesus in embodying the gospel by means of doing good works. the church serves as God’s poetry in motion.

Do Justice, Be Righteous

Our embodiment of the gospel as followers of Jesus happens as we become honest with the truth. In becoming honest with the truth, space opens for us to live as a community of healing, justice, and reconciliation. So let’s think a little more about what it means to live as a community in which there justice exists.

Let’s begin with the prophets of Israel, who did much more than just foretell future events to come. While the prophets proclaimed hope for the future, they also called people into repentance in regards to idolatry but also regarding corruption and injustice. For example, in a well known passage from Amos, the prophet says “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). This passage is one of thirty-four times in the Old Testament where the words “justice” (mishpat) and “righteousness” (tzedek). In short, speaks more of the resolutions and policies in governing and rendering judgments, where as righteousness speaks more about the character and conduct or the moral/ethical practices that people live by.

     “We read scripture to follow Jesus and so the Christ-Centered and Kingdom-Oriented life that scripture proclaims must shape our imaginations for doing justice and being righteous as followers of Jesus.”

In surveying the way justice and righteousness are used as a pairing, Moshe Weinfeld says they refer not only “to the proper execution of justice, but rather expresses, in a general sense, social justice and equity, which is bound up with kindness and mercy” (Social Justice in Ancient Israel and in the Ancient Near East, p. 36). This is the thought world that Jesus speaks and acts from throughout his ministry and in his Sermon on the Mount when he says, “desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt 6:33, the word dikaiosunē may be render as both “justice” and “righteousness”).

Thus far, I have only used the words justice and righteousness without any adjective, such as social-justice and biblical-justice. I’m reluctant at times to use the phrase social-justice because it often comes with a lot of ideas backloaded into the expression that have more to do with ideologies than the gospel. I’m also reluctant in using the phrase biblical-justice because the word biblical often gets used to claim support for whatever ideas people already hold.

That said, the prophetic call for justice and righteousness in the Hebrew Bible has social implications. In fact, God has always expect his people to live as a blessing to others, which has everything to do with justice and righteousness in a social-sense. However, our social practices of justice and righteousness must derive from the good news of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God as it is narrated to us within scripture. We read scripture to follow Jesus and so the Christ-Centered and Kingdom-Oriented life that scripture proclaims must shape our imaginations for doing justice and being righteous as followers of Jesus.

This is why Jesus tells us to “desire first and foremost” the kingdom of God. However, that can’t happen if our sense of justice and righteousness is filtered through Democrat and Republican politics, or any other ideology. When political ideologies frame our understanding of justice and righteousness, the only thing we end up seeking is what we deem is good for us and the politic idol ideology that forms our thinking.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus goes on to say “you should treat people in the same way that you want people to treat you; this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 7:12). As followers of Jesus, doing justice and being righteous begins with our own character and a commitment that we will love every person, treating them with honest, fairness, kindness, and dignity. Regardless of a person’s race, religion, sexual orientation, or national origin, we must have the character to do for others what we desire for ourselves if we are truly seeking first the kingdom of God and his justice/righteousness. That is why we have to listen and care for the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed, just like Jesus did in his ministry.

This is what it means to do justice and be righteous, God’s poetry in motion.

A Sanctuary for Healing

I believe the church is the living portrait of what God is accomplishing in Christ. Simply put, the church is the artwork of God which depicts the new creation God is bringing about in Christ. As the church follows Jesus in embodying the gospel by means of doing good works. the church serves as God’s poetry in motion.

A Sancturary for Healing

This embodiment of the gospel requires becoming honest with the truth. This honesty with the truth opens space for repentance, the letting go of the false narratives we have believed and receiving the truth revealed in Christ as the narrative we now participate within. As this happens, further space is opened for the church to be a community of healing, justice, and reconciliation, which is the embodied gospel.

So what might it be for a local church to be a community of healing? To answer this question, let’s recall the story of Jesus restoring the life of a dead man in Luke 7:11-17. The focus of the story seems to be the interaction between Jesus and the dead man’s mother, whom Luke also identifies as a widow. That’s an important detail because in her patriarchal society, she was depended on her son for economic survival and now that is gone. In the interaction, Luke tells us that 1) Jesus sees the woman, 2) he has “compassion for her,” and 3) he says to her “Don’t cry.” In other words, Jesus sees the circumstances of the woman and rather than ignoring her, he is moved to help her. To say it another way, full of compassion, Jesus acknowledged (validation) the predicament and despair of this woman in a manner that resulted in him showing her mercy.

In response to Jesus, Luke tells us that the crowd is overcome with awe or reverence for God, praising God. But why? Because Jesus had compassion for this widowed mother that moved him to care enough that he tended to her suffering before restoring the life of this dead man? Perhaps that’s part of the reason but it can’t be the entire reason. In the enchanted world that this healing is taking place, where secularism doesn’t exist, any form of healing or good is assumed to come from a god or gods. So that the crowd is now apparently praising Israel’s God is not a surprise. What is surprising is that the crowd knows, according to v. 16, “God has come to help his people.” Because of the compassion of Jesus, the people see God as a helper. The idea that this passage implies is that God actually comes to offer help and that is what healing is about. Healing is about being present with people, tending to their needs as a helper just like Jesus does.

This kind of healing makes us vulnerable because it requires us to open ourselves to others, which is always risky. Consider trying to comfort those who are grieving. There’s an article in Christianity Today that lists awkwardness, discomfort with our own mortality, and unrealistic expectations as the three reasons why Christians fail at times in helping those who grieve. That’s certainly understandable but we can bear this difficult burden if we’re honest with the truth revealed in Christ. Whether facing the haunting terror of not understanding why a young child has died or the discomfort of our own mortality because we have the truth — hope in Christ. Becoming vulnerable for the sake of others like this allow us to be a community of healing for those who are hurting.

So Jesus helps us reimagine what being a community of healing means. I want to end with three suggestions to remember that I believe will enable Christians to facilitate such healing:

  1. Listen well and don’t attempt to theologize or defend God. God’s big enough that he doesn’t need us to defend him and if you remember the story of Job, it all went downhill when his friends opened their mouths and began to speculate about Job’s suffering.
  2. Be willing to entire the pain of people, acting for their well-being. I need to say a word about prayer and healing. I believe in both prayer and healing but there is nothing in scripture that says God’s response to prayer and his healing excludes medical intervention, counseling, or any other sort of professional help. So when we encounter others who are sick or going through some emotional difficulties, a good way of helping might be offering to go with them to the doctor or counselor as support. Prayer is necessary but it seems rather simple and shallow to act as if prayer is all a person needs when their dealing with an illness, physical or mental.
  3. Don’t judge or pour guilt and shame on people. Most people, in my experience, who are going though a divorce, struggling with addictions, and so on, already have enough guilt and shame as it is. They don’t need anyone to pile more on them. What they need is someone to remind them that God is here to help.

Few people, if any, make it through life, without encountering some struggles and pain. So while we desire, as local churches, to be a community of healing, we’ll need such a community of healing too. So be gracious, just as the Lord has been gracious to us.

The Honest Truth

The church, universally and locally, is the artwork of God. Basically this claim implies that the church lives as a portrayal of the new creation God is bringing about in Christ. This happens as the church follows Jesus in embodying the gospel by means of doing good works. This is what I mean by speaking of the church as God’s poetry in motion, which you can read more about in my previous post.

The Honest Truth - Philippians 3.5-12

The challenge we face is with the truth of ourselves and the truth of Christ. We have to be honest with the truth of ourselves so that we can receive the truth of Christ. This was the challenge the apostle Paul faced when he encountered Christ while traveling on his way to Damascus (cf. Acts 9, 22, 26). He thought he was right in his loyalty to Judaism and persecution of the church. However, his encounter Christ resulted in a collision of the truth for Paul. What he believed was right and what he thought made him righteous, his Jewish pedigree (cf. Phil 3:5-6), was in fact wrong. 

Paul came to the conclusion that the truth according to his Jewish pedigree, the story he told himself, was wrong. So in being honest with the truth of himself, the truth of how wrong he was, Paul was able to receive the truth of Christ. Having received this knowledge, Paul reveals what honesty with the truth means as he compares his previous life to the life he now has in Christ:

“These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ. But even beyond that, I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have lost everything for him, but what I lost I think of as sewer trash, so that I might gain Christ and be found in him. In Christ I have a righteousness that is not my own and that does not come from the Law but rather from the faithfulness of Christ. It is the righteousness of God that is based on faith.” ~ Philippians 3:7-9

His honesty with the truth allows him to name what he once regarded as righteousness as nothing but “sewer trash” (other translations say, “rubbish” (NRSV) or “garbage” (NIV) but the word skubalon actually means bowl excrement).  It can’t be anything other because, for Paul, knowing Christ is to participate in the life which Christ has inaugurated through his crucifixion and resurrection. When comparing the truth that Paul lived by verses the Truth of Christ, there is no comparison. In fact, the story that Paul used to tell, the truth that he lived by, is now counted as a loss. 

However, Paul isn’t the only one faced with the question of truth. So are we because we are the stories we tell ourselves. Our truths, if you will, are the stories we tell ourselves and they include the multiple American stories, good and bad, even though these stories are increasingly in competition with each other. Yet, if we truly believe in Christ then we must see the deception in this kind of pluralism. If we confess as a matter of faith that Christ and the gospel he proclaims is the truth then the American stories we tell ourselves are not the truth. Whether these American stories are written in red or blue ink or with any other ideological pen, we must regard them as a loss compared to knowing (participating) in the gospel life of Christ. Such stories are certainly not anything we should be fighting for, as though participating in those stories is going to embody the gospel.

By naming these American stories as “sewer trash” in comparison to knowing Christ, space opens for us to participate in Christ in ways that were impossible before. The entrance into this new space is called repentance, in which we leave the stories we once lived behind so that we may fully participate in the story of Christ and his kingdom. In embracing this honesty with the truth, we need not protect any conservative image of America that denies the injustices of America, such as systemic racism. Nor do we need to jump on the liberal bandwagon, as though a better (progressive) America is the means by which we enter the kingdom.

This is call to be honest with the truth is a challenge for sure. The good news is that this call opens space for us to be people in which healing, justice, and reconciliation can exist. That is what I mean by the church living as God’s poetry in motion.

“The righteousness that I have comes from knowing Christ, the power of his resurrection, and the participation in his sufferings. It includes being conformed to his death so that I may perhaps reach the goal of the resurrection of the dead. It’s not that I have already reached this goal or have already been perfected, but I pursue it, so that I may grab hold of it because Christ grabbed hold of me for just this purpose.” ~ Philippians 3:10-12

Let’s Not Turn Love Into a Platitude!

Over the last several months we have witnessed society delve ever deeper into an abyss of contempt and hostility. Beginning with the Covid-19 pandemic, followed by the high profile murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breona Taylor, and George Floyd, the vitriolic climate that has lurked mostly beneath the surface in America has began spewing. Some might even say the volcano has already began erupting. What we see is the rightful protests against systematic racism and the ever widening political gap between the direction America should pursue.

Some see the anger, injustice, and violence and wonder why we can’t all just get along. Such a sentiment isn’t new at all. Rodney King, a black man who suffered a horrific beating at the hands of the Los Angeles Police Department, expressed the same sentiment back in 1992 following the riots in Los Angeles. Others will say we just need to love people. I heard two different people express that sentiment the other day. So let’s think about love just a little more.

woman-caught-in-adultery-painting-facebookMany people, Christian or not, know the two great commands in the Bible are loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Whether people believe in the existence of God or not, nobody can argue against the virtue of love. To love others implies acting benevolently toward others, doing good for them. This kind of love is what the Greeks called agapē but could also include friendliness towards others, the kind of love referred to as philia. But can we all just love others so easily?

Here is where I want to press more deeply into my Christian faith and speak about love, especially to my fellow Christians. You see, we all agree that Jesus was the perfect embodiment of love. But that ought to tip us off right there that there is more to love than just saying the word, being a nice person, and being kind.

Jesus loves me, this I know
For the Bible tells me so…

Yes, we believe that Jesus loves but how is his love expressed? Read the Bible. Read what Jesus actually did and what it cost him.

Look at the life Jesus lived and the way he interacted with people. In short, Jesus loved by the way he extended mercy to the suffering, justice for the oppressed, care for the poor, healing for the sick, hospitality to the outsiders (Gentiles), openness to the children, embrace for the unclean, and grace to the sinners. What is more important is that Jesus loved like this even when it meant breaking the religious rules of his day. He did so as a revolution, while calling his followers to do the same, even when it mean agitating the political powers of his day. Jesus loved even to the point of angering others, risking his own reputation, and causing great concern for his mother and brothers. Jesus even loved by speaking truth to power, to those whose concern was to preserve the status quo that benefited them. In the end, Jesus loved even to the point of suffering death on the cross.

And God vindicated Jesus, and the way he loved, by raising Jesus from death and exalting him as Lord and Messiah.

What it means to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves ought to be unequivocally clear from the example Jesus gave us. Loving people like Jesus means we might likely just anger and agitate some folks who benefit from injustice. Some of these folks will be found among the post-religious who reject Christianity but some might be found among the church. Our love for the oppressed, the poor, the sick, the unclean, the outsiders, and the sinners, might just threaten the livelihood of those who live comfortable with the religious, political, and socio-economic status quo. Our love might just require us to bear our own cross as followers of Jesus. Our love for God and neighbor calls us to follow Jesus and seek the kingdom of God, not the status quo of an unjust world. All that is to remind us that love is difficult and quite possibly dangerous. Nevertheless, it is what God commands us to do.

If we cannot love like Jesus, then any talk of love just seems like an attempt at ignoring the injustices and evils of our day. When that happens, we reduce love into nothing more than an empty word used as a platitude. Let’s not. Let’s not turn love to a platitude!

 

Christianity and Racism: What Might We Do Next?

On Monday, May 25, 2020 I watched the video clip of George Floyd being murdered by a Minneapolis Police Officer. It was horrifying to see the officer so callously keep pressing his knee upon the neck of George Floyd while Mr. Floyd was struggling to breathe and began crying for his deceased mother to come help him.*

Multi Ethnic Hands

Words are inadequate to describe what happened. I can only imagine how the family of George Floyd feels as well as the many black Americans who witnessed yet another black person unjustly killed in America. George Floyd’s name joins a long list that includes recent names like Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Botham Jean, Philando Castile along with other well known names like Martin Luther King Jr., Emmett Till, Mary Turner, and many others.

Since the murder of George Floyd, protests have erupted across America and even in other parts of the world. We see the frustration and hear the cries for justice. It is unfortunate that along with the protests, violence and looting has also occurred but we cannot allow that to silence the righteous protests against systematic racism and police brutality.

America has a long history of systematic racism rooted in white supremacy. Denying this history or downplaying the problem only makes matters worse. With the way that systematic evils work, people can unknowingly be complicit in maintaining this injustice without having a shred of racial bigotry in their souls and regardless of their race/ethnicity. That, of course, only makes addressing the problem even more complex but that should not never be a deterrent. I want to be clear though that I unequivocally condemn racism and racist acts, and stand in solidarity with all who are striving for racial equality in all of life — especially my neighbors who are black. Those who are racists must repent [full stop].

Having a black nephew, having witnessed overt racism among a church years ago, and having served as a minister mostly in multi-racial congregations, the Spirit has routinely convicted me to speak out against the evil of racism with whatever platform I have. However, I am also understand the need to be constructive and help cultivate justice and reconciliation. So this is my concern and when Christians ask about what they can do, I want to say “be the church” but that requires some explaining too.

When I say that Christians need to be the church, I have in mind the life that the gospel envisions. This is rooted in a conviction that the church, manifested in local congregations embodying the gospel as followers of Jesus, is the living portrayal of true life where justice and reconciliation exist.

As people learn to follow Jesus, they begin embodying the gospel and in doing so, other people of different races and ethnicities are seen as people made in the image of God. Embodying the gospel also allows people to be honest with the truth, including both personal and corporate sins, which opens space for confession and repentance. That’s because in this new open space of confession and repentance, the gospel is also the grace of God which forms people to forgive and receive forgiveness. From the gospel, people also learn how to love one another so that a community of justice and reconciliation forms.

In the meantime, one practical step that Christians can take is becoming more informed about the issue of systematic racism in America. First, have a conversation with other church members, coworkers, and neighbors who are black. Ask questions, listen and learn from their experiences. Sometimes doing so might come with other pleasant surprises. With one church, I was visiting with an elderly black couple who migrated from Georgia to New Jersey when they were young. Their basement was a display of all the pictures, tools, and other artifacts that had been passed down in the family. It was quite a history lesson on what life was like for black sharecroppers working on peanut farms in Georgia during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Reading books and watching films are also another way of becoming more informed. So I would like to make several recommendations:

  1. Here are some books I recommend which are all written by black authors.
  1. Here are several fairly recent movies I have watched that reveal the struggles that black people have lived with in America.
    • Just Mercy, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, Warner Bros. Pictures, 2019.
    • Hidden Figures, directed by Theodore Melfi, Fox 2000 Pictures, 2016.
    • Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay, Paramount Pictures, 2014.
    • The Blind Side, John Lee Hancock, Alcon Entertainment, 2009.

May the church of Jesus Christ live with humility and love, in the power of the Spirit, so that by the grace of God, his kingdom, in which there is true justice and reconciliation for all, may flourish! Amen.

____________________

* This post is a slightly revised article I wrote and sent to the Newark Church of Christ on Tuesday, June 2, 2020. The revision is the italicized portion in the fourth paragraph.

The Pentecost Message Today: Becoming The Alternative to Racism

This past Sunday was Pentecost Sunday. Many churches corporately observed Pentecost Sunday because it’s on the liturgical calendar that is followed in planning worship. Even so, #PentecostSunday is hardly trending news. For me though, as a pastor, the day is one of my favorite Sunday’s to preach because the more I learn about that day and texts like Acts 2, the more the events of the first Pentecost Sunday matter.

Pentecost Sunday

Since I wasn’t in Jerusalem for the event, it’s hard to know what the mood of the people was like then. What we know is that the apostles Jesus had selected were in Jerusalem, just seven weeks from when Jesus was crucified as an insurrectionist by the Jewish authorities conspiring with the Roman authorities. What they witnessed—Jesus being beat and whipped, publicly humiliated, and viciously crucified—was a vivid reminder of Roman rule.   

The events of that Pentecost Sunday began with an accusation. Speaking about the works of God in the tongues of all the different languages present on that day, some said that the apostles had too much to drink way too early in the morning. So Peter spoke up and began to quote from the Prophet Joel and the Patriarch David, quoting passages of scripture every devout Jew was familiar with. His message to the people was that the day of God’s salvation was upon them. What they were witnessing, with the fierce wind blowing and the apostle’s speaking in the different tongues, was the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon all, male and female, young and old. And it’s happening because the Jesus they crucified has been raised from death and exalted as Lord and Messiah.

Convicted as they were, they wondered what they should do. So Peter’s response was to call them to repentance and to baptism in the name of Jesus Christ (for the remission of sins) and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. It was an invitation to participate in God’s kingdom, the new creation that God was ushering in as a new covenant made by the body and blood of Jesus Christ. And participate they did, so much that within one-hundred years this Jesus movement went from virtually nothing to a movement so large that a philosopher named Aristides spoke of Christians as a new human race alongside of Barbarians, Greeks and Jews (Aristides, Apology, 2).

The Jesus movement from the get go was envisioned as an all-inclusive movement in which all participants were regarded as equals. Pursuing that vision wasn’t without struggle but as the apostle Paul later insisted, what mattered was their baptismal identity as all who were baptized into Christ—Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female—  were one (Gal 3:27-28). So whether people realize it or not, the Pentecost message matters because it serves as a catalyst for a new community where all people are loved as equals.

But this is where we run into a problem. Two-thousand years ago, the Pentecost message was new. Today though, it’s not and that’s not for a lack of churches. In fact, many Americans have experienced American Christianity, in its more liberal Protestant expressions and in its more conservative Evangelical expressions. What they found though didn’t seem much different from the rest of society. Apart from a few religious phrases unique to Christianity, what people found was a worldly church of individuals driven by consumer appetites clamoring for political power so that they can have everything their way.

The Spirit Poured UponIn fact, the gospel experienced among many churches, though not all, doesn’t resinate as good news. Instead, it’s become like a television rerun aired one too many times and now the people are changing the channel. Right now, America is slow suffocating under the weigh of systematic racism that has existed from the beginning, though it has certainly changed in the way it manifests its evil presence. Sadly though, the church in America has largely failed in embodying the equality of the gospel message proclaimed on Pentecost. Instead of existing as the alternative to the racism (and other inequalities), Christianity in America has often compromised with racism. Too often, Christianity in America has failed to see that God has poured his Spirit upon black people too.

So may I suggest that the Pentecost message today is a message for the church to hear again. If churches are going to embody the gospel that Peter proclaimed in his Pentecost message, then change is required. That’s because the gospel can only be embodied by a church that lives from its baptism, living in the name of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. The gospel message can only be truly proclaimed by people who regard all people equally and therefore embody the prophetic life that brings justice and equality for all into the present reality. Anything less is why Christianity in America is increasingly irrelevant.

Pentecost is the day when God poured out his Spirit upon all flesh, including black people. The Hebrew word for Spirit is ru’ach, which may also be rendered as “breath.” We may think of the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit as God breathing new life in Christ upon all people. How ironically tragic it is that the week before Pentecost a black man named George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis Police Officer by means of asphyxiation, prompting the protest of “I can’t breath”. It’s past time that the church in America hears the chants of “I can’t breath” and hears once again the Pentecost message, so that black people and other minorities may find a community where they can breathe.

Lord, have mercy!

Like A Servant: The Necessity of Character in Christian Leadership

If you’ve know me, then you know I read a lot. Mostly a wide range of books relating to theology and Christian ministry but some philosophy and social-culture too. Most pastors I know are also readers and frankly, it’s hard to imagine serving as a pastor without reading. I say this because reading a book is like having the author as a conversation partner forcing you to consider an idea or perspective that otherwise might remain hidden.

Leadership Concept

So within the broad category of theology and Christian ministry, I aim to read at least one book per year on leadership that I believe will help me serve as a better pastor. Of the books I’ve read, the best is Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve, 2007. Besides Friedman, other authors I’ve read and recommend include Alan Roxburgh, Mark Lau Branson, and Ruth Haley Barton.

Reading books on leadership increases an understanding of the challenges as well as the practices and skills to navigate those challenges. That said, as necessary as good practices and skills are to leadership, equally necessary for good leadership is good character. We live in a time when there are numerous examples of leadership failure, in churches and other segments of society, that seem rooted in a lack of character. Sometimes it almost seems as if character is unimportant so long as competency is evident. I don’t want to devalue competency but let’s be certain that a lack of character is a recipe for disaster.

By character I’m talking about the qualities a leader exhibits, especially in relation to the community organization he or she serves among. The word “serves” is of utmost importance for the character of Christian leadership. I say that because my point of departure for the way pastors and other Christian leaders serve is Jesus, whose life was that of a servant. Rather than employing top-down coercive or manipulative tactics, Jesus led by example and invitation.

During the last Passover Meal Jesus shared with his disciples, he heard them arguing about who among them was the greatest. So Jesus quickly responded saying in Luke 22:25-27, “The kings of the Gentiles rule over their subjects, and those in authority over them are called ‘friends of the people.’ But that’s not the way it will be with you. Instead, the greatest among you must become like a person of lower status and the leader like a servant. So which one is greater, the one who is seated at the table or the one who serves at the table? Isn’t it the one who is seated at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”

Just think about the difference between leaders who see themselves first as a servant and those who think their position ranks them above others. A servant leader seeks what is best for others rather than what serves his or her own agenda. A servant leader seeks to build others up and equip them for service, the other one often see others as just a means to their own end. Such a disposition doesn’t hinder the servant leader from taking a stand for what is right, it just means the stand isn’t self-serving.

To lead as a servant also impacts the way the leader relates to others. A servant leader isn’t concerned with stroking his own ego. The servant leader sings the praises of others, sees the potential in others and seeks to draw that out for the sake others. When mistakes are made, the servant leader take responsibility rather than blaming others. And let’s not be naive, there will always be someone who criticizes the decisions and actions of a leader. Rather than belittling and disparaging the critics, the servant-leader presses forward with discernment. If the servant-leader realizes the criticism is warranted, her or she owns it and if its unfair or baseless, the servant leader lets it go and moves on.

The character of good leadership begins with becoming a servant. And this is especially so among the church, where all serve under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, who said those who lead must become “like a servant.”

How Shall We Christians Respond?

As the length of the Covid-19 Coronavirus pandemic wears on, the endurance of society is challenged. Besides the number of deaths in the US alone, getting closer to 50,000, numerous other people are ill while others are out of work and many businesses are shut down, facing an uncertain future. Of course, I’ve not said anything you don’t know already.

Bay Care Nurses Sacrifice the Weak

What this pandemic has also done is bring out the best in some people and the worst in others. In the first picture are two nurses serving on the front line of this battle. We all know by now that medical personnel have worked tirelessly and under great duress to serve, caring especially for the sick. Their compassionate service is worthy of our commendation. Then the other picture is a woman protesting the shut down in the state of Tennessee. Her sign reads “Sacrifice the Weak/Re-Open TN” (ironically as she wears a face mask). She is essentially suggesting that if reopening the economy means letting more people become sick and possibly die, then so be it. Her mentality deserves our condemnation.

The pictures above illustrate how the best and worst are revealed in difficult seasons of life. For some, tragedy and disasters result in love that is embodied in acts of compassion, mercy, and service. For others, the result is hate cloaked in selfish desires and appalling attitudes.

But what about those of us who profess the Christian faith, who claim to follow Jesus Christ? While the example of Christ should spur us to acts of love, we are still sinners and so we are capable of acting with hatred. If you doubt that, just open a history book where there are plenty of examples. The answer to the question depends on how we are formed as Christians.

     “My little children, I’m going through labor pains again until Christ is formed in you.” ~ Galatians 4:19

The Bible verse above, written by the apostle Paul, is one of the classic passage of scripture cited when talking about spiritual formation. While Paul was addressing a very different problem with the Galatians that what I’m writing about in this post, the point is that we embrace the name Christian are to have the way of Christ formed in us. Elsewhere, Paul spoke about such formation as transformation into the image of Christ (2 Cor 3:18) and being conformed his image (Rom 8:29).

I don’t have any clue about what those two nurses or the protester in the pictures above claim as their religious beliefs. My concern is with us who profess to be Christians, which is a claim to live as followers of Jesus. This pandemic will reveal whether it is Christ or the world (particularly partisan politics) being formed in us.

We just went through Holy Week, remembering the passion of Jesus Christ and yet I’m not sure we see the implications of his crucifixion and resurrection. On the cross is the One who humbled himself by giving up his very own life upon the cross for the sake of others, including the “weak.” If his way of life and example does not become ours, we have made sacrelige of his death, burial, and resurrection and we continue to do so every time we take the bread and wine in remembrance of him.

Everyone of us will have different opportunities before us in our own local communities. Opportunities to serve others or serve ourselves. I certainly hope we’ll choose the former, as we follow Jesus in giving up our needs for the sake of loving others. The choice we make is our witness as Christians and it will either bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ or it will make a mockery of his name.

Let’s choose wisely and faithfully, for the world around us is watching!

Reflections on Church Leadership During the Covid-19 Coronavirus Pandemic

More than a month has passed since the church I serve, the Newark Church of Christ, decided to stop gathering together during this Covid-19 Coronavirus pandemic. I must admit that when we first made the decision, I wondered what would become of our church. If we are not able to gather together for several months, I wondered if there would we even be a church left. Of course, as soon as this wave of anxiety came over me, so did my leadership reflexes.

Worship Center

The first rule of good leadership is don’t be anxious. Don’t panic and don’t give a foothold to the devil of anxiety. Yes, what we are going through makes for more difficulties but panicking amid anxiety either results in doing nothing or making an anxious decision. Neither of which is helpful and most likely would only make matters worse.

Like many churches, we began streaming online worship gatherings. However, as important as worship is, there is more to living as a church than just worship. If we’re to bear each others burdens, love our neighbors, and join in the work we see God doing—participating in the mission of God—then we remaining connected with each other was paramount.

So one of the things we’ve done as a church is begin including two short videos of different people from our church in each online streaming of worship on Sundays. These videos have allowed us to hear from each other and have helped remind us that we are a community, a family of believers called “church” in this life together. We have also began organizing online connection groups so that we could meet during the week for encouragement and continue growing in our formation as followers of Jesus. So using Zoom, Google Meet, etc… we spend some time checking in on what we are thankful for and concerned about, and then we spend some time in scripture but not just for the sake of Bible study. Instead, as we come to understand what God is teaching us in scripture, we want to embody that teaching in the way we live.

     “But I have been reminded that church is neither a building, place, or time. Church is people following Jesus and that’s what we are.”

In the meantime, our church still seeks to love our neighbors. Loving God and each other through worship and fellowship matters but so does serving and caring for people in our community. One opportunity was preparing sack lunches for people who might otherwise go hungry. Now our church is receiving shipments of masks that we are going to distribute within our community where there is need. And as we see other opportunities to the good works that God is doing, we’ll gladly do so as followers of Jesus.

Oh me of little faith… I initially wondered if we would even have a church after this pandemic. But I have been reminded that church is neither a building, place, or time. Church is people following Jesus and that’s what we are. So as a pastor, even though helping lead the church during this pandemic has required some adjustments, I have also realized that leadership is still much the same. That is, I serve as a minister of the gospel and so my role is still that of what any pastor’s role should be: helping the church hold to the gospel and allow the gospel to frame our way of life as a church. As that happens, we will continue participating in the mission of God as followers of Jesus.

What the results are is neither in our control nor something we need to worry about as church. The same is true for the church you serve among too. But perhaps the eyes of those living in our local towns and neighborhoods will be opened to see real community taking shape among our churches as we embody the gospel. And if that’s the case then we’ll see the church growing as it should, with the seed of the gospel pollinating and blooming anew.