Tag Archives: current-events

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!

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.

Christian Unity and the Embodiment of Love

If you knew you were about die, what would you want to say to those you love the most? What would you want to do? It’s a hypothetical question that doesn’t really need an answer except to say that most of us, if not all, would want to say and do those things that really matter, that are of the utmost importance. And so it seems with Jesus too, on the night before he was crucified.

Jesus Washes an Apostle's Feet, Laurie Olson Lisonbee, 2006

“Jesus Washes an Apostle’s Feet,” Laurie Olson Lisonbee, 2006.

According to the Gospel of John,  Jesus washes the feet of his disciples in chapter thirteen and then begins addressing his disciples before he retreats into prayer. The foot washing is important because Jesus is offering his disciples an example of the life he is calling them to live. It’s a life of radical love embodied in the virtues of humility and servitude. It is the life Jesus has lived, the way and truth of the gospel, and why he insists that his disciples must love each other as he has loved them (13:34-35; 15:12). 

This life of love embodied in humility and service is the way, truth, and life of Jesus that reflects the gospel, the very Word of God, revealed in Jesus Christ. Compared to the world, this truth is the alternative the disciples are sanctified in (set apart) and sent into the world as witnesses of. This is the reason, Jesus prays in John 17 that his disciples will be one.

        “I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me.” – Jesus Christ, John 17:21

Sanctification and unity point us toward the mission of God (Carson, The Gospel According to John, 566). To be sanctified and sent out as a unified community of disciples is to continue participating in the very mission that God sent Jesus into the world to fulfill.

This is as true today as it was then. Being sanctified is not just a salvation issue and Christian unity is not uniformity achieved in keeping a list of church practices. This is not to suggest that holiness and theology is inconsequential. Some issues, such as the Triune nature of God or Christian marriage, are worthy of our reflection and discernment. But perhaps what matters most is the way we love each other. Our capacity to love one another is what Jesus desires when he prays that we will be one. For in being so one with each other that we will love each other as Christ has loved us, we reflect that love outward to the world around us. That’s a love that draws the rest of the world into the love of God (Gorman, Abide and Go, 124)

This is the truth we all are called to embody, for it signifies that we are united in Jesus Christ as a people known for the very love of God.

The Gospel and Politics: Five Convictions

Recently I had a conversation with another follower of Jesus about the relationship between Christianity and politics. That’s always a dangerous conversation because religion and politics are two subjects that are very personal and fraught with so much potential for exasperating conflict. It shouldn’t be that way but that is the nature of the beast these days.

6b-religion-vs-politics

Anyhow, when I speak of Christianity and politics, I am really speaking of the socio-political claim made by good news of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God. Below are five convictions I shared in this conversation, with a few edits. Maybe in some future posts I’ll expand on each conviction but here are the five for now:

  1. The gospel of Jesus Christ pertains to the life we are living now into the future. That is, the good news of Jesus Christ is not merely concerned with eternal salvation in the life to come, it is about reordering life in this world in order to bring about new creation in Christ and thus heaven on earth. This is why a central aspect of Jesus’ teaching consists of a moral vision for human life (e.g., The Sermon on the Mount, Matt 5-7) but this moral vision is also a political vision leading people to a new way of living for the good of society (what politics is ideally about).
  2. The gospel of Jesus Christ is brought about through his death and resurrection, unveiling God’s new creation within history. All people are called to participate this new creation by faith expressed in repentance and baptism. Such participation is putting to death the old creation, including the politics of old creation. While the governing authorities of old creation still play a part in maintaining civility among old creation, everything about old creation is “rubbish” in comparison to what we now know in Christ (cf. Phi 3:8).
  3. The gospel of Jesus Christ is as much of a political claim upon our lives as it is a religious claim because Jesus is Lord. Either Jesus is Lord over our entire life or he is not our Lord at all. Therefore the gospel and as the gospel is preached, has everything to do with politics just as much as it does with religion, family life, etc… I disagree with the notion of two kingdoms articulated by Martin Luther, later expounded by Reinhold Niebuhr as Christian Realism, in which Christians participate in two kingdoms: the kingdom of God and the nation/state. Niebuhr believed the kingdom of God could not be realized upon earth but the kingdom of God, first manifested in Jesus Christ, is realized through the church. While the kingdom of God will not be fully realized until Christ comes agin, it is realized to the degree that the church follows Jesus and gives it allegiance to the kingdom of God rather than any nation/state.
  4. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a politic revealed to the world that proclaims the reign of God by announcing that Jesus is the new King. This is the witness of the church that is embodied in the distinct way in which the church bears witness to its alternative life. Such life involves renouncing the sins old creation (e.g., adultery, dishonesty, etc…) and bearing witness to the ethic of new creation by loving all people, showing hospitality to all people, caring for the sick and the poor, etc… The earliest Christians regarded this alternative life of new creation in Christ as a politic, which is why they insisted on identifying themselves as an ekklesia (an assembly).They’re were other terms the early Christian could have adopted that referred to private religious associations but instead they chose to call themselves an ekklesia, which referred to a public political association in Roman culture. Had they adopted the former, the church would have easily been accepted among Rome, which was a religiously pluralistic society, but in choosing the later, the church was rightfully viewed as a threat to the Roman way of life (the Pax Romana). 
  5. Therefore, the gospel of Jesus Christ embodied in the church should be and is intended as a subversive people among every nation/state-kingdom of this world, including America. This does not mean Christians are anti-state, for we do recognize the authority God has granted to all governing authorities in this world for maintaining civility. Therefore Christians do obey the laws of the nation they live in so long as these laws do not require any compromise with their embodied witness as followers of Jesus.

These are just some convictions I have come to as I attempt to live and preach what I believe is the full implications of following Jesus and bearing witness to the kingdom of God. I’m not sure how my beliefs work out in everyday life but then again, I am more concerned with what is right than I am with what results may come about. I’ll trust God to bring about good through our faithful witness as followers of Jesus. I’ll also add that I’m not against Christians voting or even serving in a public office. However, as America is in another contentious political season, we should be cautious about the way we engage in state politics. Our calling is not to be a witness for any particular politician or political platform and that means not wasting our energy trying to tell others who or what they should vote for. That’s because at the end of the day, I believe what really matters is the reality that Jesus is Lord and his kingdom has come.

Lastly, while I had these convictions stirring in my for sometime, one very brand new book that I found really helpful is Scandalous Witness by Lee C. Camp, which was released yesterday. I highly recommend you buy it and read it.

Post Christendom America: Understanding and Accepting the New Reality

Christianity in America is currently in somewhat of a precarious state. Many local churches are declining, with some even closing, and while the influence of Christianity’s past is still evident, it is increasingly contested and rejected by the populace. The beliefs and values embraced by society reflects a growing acceptance of religious pluralism. We now see the convergence of humanism and secularism expressed through the American lens of individual liberty, which is welcomed under the rubric of tolerance.

Empty Church Building

Now I’m neither celebrating nor lamenting the changes that have taken place in America. I’m simply trying to name what is happening with the intention that I might be of some help to Christians and local churches in navigating the new challenges we face in the wake of such changes in culture.

One of these challenges is facing the reality that Christendom is over. By Christendom, I am talking about the importation of post-Constantinian Christianity from Europe into America in which the culture of society was heavily influenced by the power and prevalence of Christianity. By saying that Christendom is over, I am speaking in a proleptic sense in which its future death is already a conclusion or prognosis like that of a person diagnosed with stage-4 pancreatic cancer. That is, even though the vestiges of Christendom are still visible in America, the future fate of Christendom is already known and it’s evident by loss of Christianity’s influence in American culture.

The challenge for local churches and the Christians who make up those churches is learning to live as faithful followers and witnesses of Jesus in a post-Christendom society. Part of that challenge is overcoming any denial, though that is easier said than done. As Douglas John Hall points out:

In some places, including much of our own continent, it can even appear that Christendom is alive and well, unless one looks beneath the surface. In such contexts, Christian congregations and even whole denominations are able to carry on as usual, as if nothing had happened. But this response is often visibly contrived, and it is viable only as long as the economic conditions of churches are relatively sound. With each new decade, more and more Christians are driven to realize the watershed through which Christendom is passing (“The End of Christendom and the Future of Christianity,” p. 4).

In other words, the relative “success” of a local church is enough to obscure the reality of what is taking place. Christians are likely only hit with the post-Christendom reality when they see the decline of Christianity’s influence in visible manifestations. These manifestations might be the realization that once effective evangelism programs are no longer effective, that the small crowd of gathered worshipers are mostly over the age of fifty, or even seeing a church close for good.

Another challenge, it accepting the loss of Christendom and learning to live as the church in a post-Christendom culture. Many Christians are still trying to preserve a Christendom culture and in doing so, hinder learning how to live as “exiles” participating in the mission of God among a secular society that once was Christian but is no more.

One recent example is Franklin Graham encouraging Christians to vote saying, “Make sure that you are registered to vote, otherwise we will lose our country.” Can the post-Christendom reality not be any more clear when the suggested way for Christians to avoid losing is voting in an election? Can we not see the death of Christendom when fear is the motivation for engaging in state politics, a coercive form of power, in an effort to retain Christian interests?

Now don’t misunderstand me. I’m neither opposed to Christians voting nor am I trying to suggest whether Christians should or should not vote. Voting isn’t the problem per se. What is the problem is the suggestion that Christians must vote or lose. Franklin Graham’s plea begs the question of what is it that Christians stand to lose? A worldly kingdom or the kingdom of God? Which kingdom are Christians really fighting for if the fear of losing America, or any other nation, is what motivates their political engagement?  The suggestion is just another example of the way Christians fail to understand and accept the post-Christendom reality that is America in the twenty-first century.

But in coming to the point where Christian are implored to vote if they wish to win, perhaps we can see the futility in clinging to the vestiges of Christendom. If so, then there might just be some space opening up for reimagining how local churches can live as faithful followers of Jesus in a post-Christendom society. For that, stay tuned.

An Alternative Politic: The Faithful Witness of the Church

I know we have this thing called the separation between church and state in America but just a casual observation and we can see how that separation has often been blurred. This is why American culture was influenced by the reality of Christendom (was being the key word), with most Christians participating in politics through voting and holding public offices.

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Although many Christians are still very engaged in politics, the Christendom culture has nearly become thing of the past and will eventually pass altogether. While there are many Christians still clutching to Christendom, trying to preserve the past, the reality is that America is now a post-Christendom society in which Christianity is of little influence.

Lament if you with but I believe Christianity must shoulder some, if not a lot, of the reasons for the cultural shift. There are a variety of reasons but when some churches are more concerned with preserving their traditions, like wanting to revive the use of hymnals, and other churches are driven by consumerism, then the mission of God is subtlety lost among other utilitarian goals. There’s another reason why Christianity must take responsibility for the loss of influence that is more difficult to accept and it has to do with politics.

       “It’s time for a new reformation that opens space for an alternative community that embodies the gospel as an alternative and subversive politic.”

As already mentioned, most Christians in America have engaged in politics. They have done so with with good intentions but in doing so, many have given themselves to politics. Mainline Protestants veered to the left, while evangelicals turned to the right. Yes that’s a generalization but it’s one that more people are beginning to realize, except maybe for those Christians still deeply invested in politics. The investment itself serves a binary system defined and dominated by Democrats and Republicans, which really just represent two different sides of the same coin. That is, even though each side has significantly different ideas about how to govern (= rule) society, they both believe the only way forward is through the state. Also, it is this system that has determined the rules of engagement.

Locked within this binary system, Christians have been led to believe and will tell each other one side is good and the other is not. This has meant adopting the good side as our side, supporting it and defending it while ignoring or mitigating anything that might question the virtuosity of our side. Believing then that there are only two options, Christians will pressure other Christians to get involved because failing to vote for the good side is a vote for the other. This is why I have had Christians tell me that if I vote Republican, then I support a platform of injustice towards minorities and immigrants while other Christians have told me that by voting for a Democrat, then I am supporting abortion by voting for a pro-choice platform. Christians from both sides have told me that not voting is a vote for the other side, which is exactly what the binary systems wants everyone to believe.

According to the binary system, there isn’t any other options. But I beg to differ because I am a Christian who believes in Jesus and is striving to live as a faithful witness of Jesus and the kingdom of God. I believe there is an alternative to the futility of state politics, an alternative political party called the church of Jesus Christ. I know that sounds counterintuitive, especially in knowing the ways Christianity has woefully failed to live according to the teachings of Jesus within history. These failures are due, in part, to the rise of Christendom in which the church gained a favorable status, sought to maintain that status, and in doing so, compromised the gospel witness. Thankfully though the Protestant Reformation gave us the language semper reformanda (always reforming) because its time for a new reformation that opens space for an alternative community that embodies the gospel as an alternative and subversive politic.

   “The alternative for Christians requires an exclusive commitment to this way of Jesus Christ rather than trying to do both church and state at the same time.”

When Shane Claiborne tweeted about the need for a political party with a consistent pro-life stance, my reaction was that there should be such a party offering a consistent social-ethic and moral character derived from the gospel, the church of Jesus Christ. That politic was one of the distinctives among the community of disciples in the first century when they declared themselves to be an ecclesia. That’s because ecclesia referred to a public assembly that was open to all in which the concerns of the city, the was life was organized and lived.

That’s politics. Ecclesia was a political assembly. However, as an ecclesia gathering in the name of Christ, the allegiance of the people gathering in this assembly was to King Jesus rather than Caesar. In fact, had the followers of Jesus merely wanted to exist as a religious community, then there were other words they could have identified themselves with (e.g., thiasos, eranos) which referred to private religious associations. Doing so may have even made the disciples more tolerable in the religiously pluralistic Roman culture but the disciples steadfastly understood themselves as an ecclesia, an alternative politic that was a threat to Roman peace.

This understanding of church is largely unknown in America where our English word “church” is derived from the German word kirche, meaning building. So instead of understanding the local church as an alternative politic, the church has become a building located in place to gather for worship and then leave, returning to American life as usual — politics as usual.

Exactly what it will look like for local churches to live as an alternative politic in a post-Christian American culture is still an open and ongoing discussion. While America embraces free speech, freedom to assemble and religious freedom, it seems enslaved within a political binary system that has little capacity for imagining any alternative. So becoming an alternative politic in this context won’t be easy but that is what I believe that Christian, gathered as a local ecclesia, are called to be and in doing so, embody the gospel as a faithful witness to Jesus and the kingdom of God. This is the alternative politic that witnesses to a life beyond the futility of state politics but it requires a new imagination, relearning how to live as followers of Jesus and not just mere church-goers. The alternative for Christians requires an exclusive commitment to this way of Jesus Christ rather than trying to do both church and state at the same time. It will also require faith, trusting God to bring about the good through our faithfulness witness even if the results are not seen in our lifetime, which is the point of Heb 11:1-12:2.