Tag Archives: Discipleship

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.

Discipleship and The Local Church

Anyone that’s read the four canonical gospels knows that when Jesus began his public ministry, he also began calling people to follow him. This is where most conversations about Christian discipleship begin. As the conversation goes, most church leaders are aware that making and forming disciples of Christ is a challenge, to varying degrees, among churches in America.

Disciple-Making

Seeing the lack of discipleship has resulted in a renewed focus on making disciples, that is, forming people to live as followers of Jesus. This is a good thing. However, many times when a problem is recognized, attempts at correcting tend to swing the pendulum too far and in this case I wonder if the pendulum is swinging too far in focusing on making disciples.

The renewed focus on making disciples seems to imply that every disciple should make disciples. For example, David L. Watson and Paul D. Watson say in their book Contageous Disciple Making, “Making disciples is about having a relationship with Christ that results in a lifestyle of obedience to Christ commands, which requires disciples to make more disciples” (p. 48). Or Jeff Vanderstelt writes in his book Saturate, “Life on mission is not just about being disciples, but also making disciples who make disciples—and that can be learned only while on Jesus’s mission” (Kindle ed., L. 1477).

I agree that to be a Christian is to be a disciple, one who follows Jesus and obeys his teaching and that includes the teaching of scripture. That is the kind of relationship all Christians are to have with Jesus. But does that mean that all disciples will be people who make disciples?

Perhaps we need to better define what it means for disciples to be making disciples first. Francis Chan does write in his book Letters to the Church, “We want everyone trained to make disciples. No one should come as a consumer, but we need everyone to come as a servant using his or her gifts to build up the body” p. 176). If we are talking about an entire community of disciples (a local church) serving together as the Spirit has empowered each person, using their specific gifts and talents, then I agree and I think the apostle Paul would certainly agree as well (cf. Rom 12:5-8; 1 Cor 12:4-11; Eph 4:11-13). However, that’s not always clear. The quotes I shared above from Watson and Watson as well as Vaderstelt are somewhat vague. Do they mean disciples working together as a community making disciples or each individual disciples making another disciple?

I’m raising this issue because in a lot of conversation I encounter and even sometimes participate in, there are some who seem to believe true discipleship means ever single disciple is discipling another person in a one-to-one relationship. But that is just not the picture that emerges in the New Testament. In scripture the emphasis appears to be on the local church, as a corporate community, faithfully embodying the gospel.

Take for example Romans. In this letter the apostle Paul describes his appointment as an apostle “to bring all Gentiles to faithful obedience for his name’s sake” (1:5). Towards the end of the letter Paul says in 15:15-16:

Nevertheless on some points I have written to you rather boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. (NRSV)

Then at the end of Romans Paul reminds the church again that the gospel he proclaims is to result in their “faithful obedience” (16:26).

If you’ve read this far then please know that I am not against making disciples. I am one who does believe discipleship, or the lack of, among Christianity in America is a problem. I just don’t see the way some tend to emphasize disciple making today as the focus in scripture. Instead, the focus seems to be on the faith formation of church so that the church, as we see in Romans, lives as a holy people unto God. Ideally, such a church will also be making disciples of the seekers, leading them into a relationship with Jesus that results in obedience to the teachings of Jesus. Then, as repentant believers who have been baptized into Christ, they too contribute to the churches participation in the mission of God as they learn to serve using their Spiritual gifts. So maybe instead of focusing on cultivating a disciple-making culture among our churches, we should just focus on the formation of faith in our churches and trust that as Christ is formed in our churches (cf. Gal 4:19) then the local body will function as her head, Christ himself, intends and organically make disciples.

Lastly, consider this blog entry as a thinking-out-loud con, something to consider but something that could undergo further nuance. What are your thoughts?

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.

One: On Mission with God

This is the prerecorded message that I preached for the Newark Church of Christ this past Sunday. The message, One: On Mission with God, is based on John 17:15-24 and is about the church being sanctified and sent as followers of Jesus united in our participation in the mission of God. The message is also challenges the notion that the basis of Christian unity is based on adhering to a list of dogmas and rules that have often divided churches, hindering their participation in the mission of God.

Truth: A New Way, New Life

According to John 14:6, Jesus says to his disciple named Thomas, “I am the the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” It’s one of the more well known and controversial statements Jesus makes. Too often it seems as though Christians have taken Jesus’s response as either an abstract idea or propositional claim. The former hears Jesus as the promise of salvation but disconnects that promise from the actual life that believers are to live, whereas the later uses the words of Jesus as a thesis statement in a philosophical debate about the nature of truth.

truth

Both approaches miss what Jesus is actually saying. To understand what Jesus is actually saying, we have to take the context into consideration. Within the Gospel of John, the disciples of Jesus are anxious because Jesus is talking to them about leaving. Even worse, Jesus is talking about leaving by means of crucifixion. This frightened the disciples and for good reason. It also left them confused about how they would participate in the coming life (restoration of the kingdom of God). But Jesus had told his disciples to trust in him rather than being troubled because they know the way to the place he is going, which prompted Thomas to ask about how can he and his fellow disciples know the way. That is when Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life…”

        “Jesus is assuring his disciples that he, the way in which he lives and what he is doing, is the truth that is life.”

So what is Jesus saying? In the previous chapter of John’s Gospel, all within the same evening, Jesus has washed the feet of his disciples and given them the new command of loving each other. So I’m suggesting that Jesus is making a claim about his way of life being the true way and that by embracing his way of life as the truth to live, his disciples—including us—will live the new life (eternal life) Jesus has inaugurated.

To understand, we have to understand the world that Jesus has entered. It’s a world of brut force in which might makes right. Nothing symbolized that kind of life in Jesus’ day more than the Roman cross that he would soon be crucified upon. But this kind of world is also revealed in less brutal but nonetheless self-serving ways whenever people put themselves above others, seek to serve themselves at the expense of others. There may not be a cross, gun, or other instrument of death involved but there will still be coercive (and manipulative) power involved.

Frederich Nietzsche described the kind of world Jesus entered into with the phrase “the will to power.” And it is this world of coercive power that Jesus is speaking against. Jesus is assuring his disciples that he, the way in which he lives and what he is doing, is the truth that is life. What Jesus is doing in reassuring his disciples is also a subversive claim to the world he has entered which acts as its own way, truth, and life.

Later in the Gospel of John, the Roman Governor Pilate will attempt to dismiss the truth Jesus claims with his question of “What is truth?” (Jn 18:38). Even though Pilate will still have Jesus crucified, his attempt to dismiss the claim of Jesus is already an acknowledgment of the possibility that Jesus’s way of life is the truth. It’s why Pilate must have Jesus Crucified because it’s the last attempt to quash the subversive truth that Jesus is unleashing upon the world. As David Bentley Hart points out, “Jesus has already subverted the order of truth to which Pilate subscribes, and Pilate has no choice but to act to restore it. Christ’s, however, is a truth that is only made more manifest in being suppressed; its gesture is that of the gift, which is given even in being rejected; and so, on the cross, Christ makes the sheer violence that underlies the economics of worldly truth transparent to itself, and opens up a different order of truth” (The Beauty and the Infinite, p. 333).

     “For us to truly embrace the claim of Jesus as truth, we must also embrace the way of Jesus as our particular and peculiar way of life.”

The truth, Jesus has claimed, is the way of life he lives. Pilate, threatened as he is by Jesus, attempts to rid his world of this subversive truth by having Jesus nailed to the cross. But even death on the cross cannot quash the truth and when God raised Jesus from death, it was a vindication of Jesus that emphatically declares his truth as the way of life.

What makes this so important for Christians today is that we claim to be people in pursuit of the truth and for good reason. That’s because we confess that Jesus is the Son of God and thereby claim that Jesus is indeed the way, truth, and life. But as mentioned earlier, this claim is neither abstract nor propositional. Rather, the claim of Jesus is a new concrete reality. It is the new way and life we are to live. For us to truly embrace the claim of Jesus as truth, we must also embrace the way of Jesus as our particular and peculiar way of life. We live as we believe and so to say we believe that Jesus is the way, truth, and life, we must learn to embody the life Jesus lived on earth as his followers. Anything less just numbers us among the ranks of the Pilates in this world who dismiss Jesus in order to cling to their own way of life.

Now it’s hard to think of a better opportunity to show the world the truth that Jesus is by embodying this truth in the midst of the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic. We do this by loving each other and loving our neighbors, extending compassion and showing mercy as people who serve in the name of Jesus Christ. I’m not saying or suggesting that God has this virus or that this virus is good but it is an opportunity for the churches to show that the God revealed in Jesus Christ is good. So how about it!

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.