Tag Archives: Discipleship

Baptism, Temptation, and Mission

I’ve been a Christian for twenty-five years and serving as a minister of the gospel for the last twenty years. I’m ever thankful for the life that God has allowed me to live. Serving as a pastor with a local church is a fulfilling vocation but doing so can be difficult. While some days are filled amazing stories, other days our tragic moments because that is what life really is. One day the sun shines bright while another day the sun is obscured by dark clouds and this is the life that God calls us, as followers of Jesus, to embody the gospel among.

With that in mind, let’s consider the baptism and temptation of Jesus according to the Gospel of Mark. We read in Mark 1:9-13,

About that time Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. While he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw heaven splitting open and the Spirit, like a dove, coming down on him. And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.” At once the Spirit forced Jesus out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among the wild animals, and the angels took care of him.

Unlike the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Mark doesn’t have any interest in telling us why Jesus was baptized or any of the details regarding his temptations. Instead, Mark’s interests is that we know that Jesus is not just a Jewish man from Galilee but that he is the Son of God on whom the Spirit descends and whom the Spirit now leads into the wilderness.

What we see in Jesus is the work of God. This is who God is and what God is doing. If we really want to know what God is about, Mark tells us about Jesus, the Son of God. This is what God is and is about. As Jürgen Moltmann says, “When the crucified Jesus is called the ‘image of the invisible God,’ the meaning is that this is God, and  God is like this” (The Crucified God, p. 295). God is revealed to us in the baptized Jesus who, led by the Spirit, did not retreat into the heavenly realms but was led into the wilderness and beyond into realms of darkness that will take him all the way to Jerusalem where he, the Son of God, will be crucified.

This is this same Jesus whom calls us to follow him (Mk 1:17) and in whose name we are to be baptized.

So what Mark is telling us about the baptism and temptation of Jesus also matters for us who claim to follow Jesus. After all, Mark isn’t telling us about Jesus so that we’ll just have a better Christology. He’s telling us so that we’ll follow Jesus, the Son of God, because where he goes is where we encounter redemption and participate in the redemptive mission of God. That is, after all, what we signed up for when we were baptized into Jesus Christ and received the Holy Spirit.

As a church, this is not a choice we have. The Spirit, which we have received, will always lead us in the way of Jesus, the Son of God, to the glory of the Father. So either we follow Jesus into the realms of darkness or we don’t follow him. Participating in the mission of God isn’t limited the heavenly realm of worship in a place we might call a sanctuary. Rather, joining in the work of God means following Jesus out among places where darkness persists with people whose struggles evoke grief and pain. That’s where the Spirit led Jesus and that where’s the Spirit leads the church. 

This is what living as faithful followers of Jesus involves and it is how the church embodies the gospel in a meaningful manner to those we encounter. The gospel that we call the good news of Jesus Christ isn’t a slogan. It’s a storied message about Jesus Christ but it takes a community of people faithfully committed to that storied message as followers of Jesus living among people for it to mean anything more than a slogan in some ancient sacred text we call the Bible.

May we remember our baptism and let the Spirit lead us as followers of Jesus among places with people where God seeks to extend his love and grace!

Believe: An Message for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

It’s the Fourth Sunday of Advent and the message is called Believe.* Let’s read from the Gospel of Luke and I want to read two passages today, Luke 1:26-38 and then Luke 2:13-14.

As I mentioned, today is the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the Sunday before Christmas. Or perhaps better said Christ Mass. We join in the heavenly chorus of praise for the good news that God is fulfilling in the coming of his Son, Jesus Christ.

But far from the setting of some grand cathedral with shining lights and the ringing of bells echoing throughout, the story unfolds in Nazareth. It’s a city but more like a small village in the Galilean region of northern Israel, far from Jerusalem — the center of Jewish social-culture and political power.

That’s where God sends this angel known as Gabriel. He’s sent to visit Mary. Except before Luke ever identifies her as Mary, he identifies her as “a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph.”

Now the story is getting good. Although Mary is a virgin, which will be even more clear as the story gets told, the word virgin also implies a young woman who is of a marriageable age. It seems like a small but important detail because now, the story not only takes place in a setting of no significance but we also have a woman of no social significance.

Think about it for a moment. Before this story, Luke tells us about the foretelling of Elizabeth giving birth to John the Baptist. Elizabeth is said to be “righteous” and “blameless” before God and in regards to the Law (1:6), but Luke doesn’t offer such commending words for Mary. She’s just a young woman and in a strong patriarchal society that values age, is ruled by men in a stratified economy, she’s a powerless poor young woman for a little town that anyone would miss with the blink of an eye. 

So it’s understandable why Mary is confused. The angel comes to her saying, [v. 28] “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” But then immediately Luke tells us that Mary was “confused” or as the NRSV reads, “perplexed.” The greeting of the angel may sound fairly emotionless but the greeting is literally one that speaks of grace, of bestowing a favor upon someone. Yet the angel is speaking to her, a young virgin woman without any social-standing among her society.

Sensing her confusion, the angel says to Mary, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you.” It’s almost humorous because in the same breath that he tells Mary not to be afraid, the angel continues says that she is going to conceive and give birth to a son she is to name Jesus. He then says to Mary that her son will be the “Son of the Most High” and will receive the throne of David, ruling over the house of Jacob forever without any end to his kingdom.

That’s messianic language right there. Such language invokes the message of Israel’s prophets and the promise of messianic hope that the prophets proclaimed to exiled Israel. Essentially, the angel is announcing the fulfillment of this messianic promise that God is going to send a Messiah to restore the kingdom. It’s a message that says God is making good on his promise of salvation.

But I’m not sure Mary heard a single word after the Angel told her she was going to conceive a child. After all, Mary’s only response is, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?”

It’s a good question. After all, she’s a virgin. 

When my brothers and sisters and I when we were young, my mother would always say keep those pants zipped up and you won’t have to worry about having a child. She was right. Biologically, it’s impossible to be a virgin and conceive a child. Which begs the question of how is this even possible?

It’s a fair question to ask. In fact, it’s fair to ask the other important question too. How is a child born to Mary going to restore the kingdom of God and make good on the promise of salvation? That might seem like a simple question to us but in Mary’s day such a question was legit because the powerful Romans were in charge and they ruled with brute force. Even King Herod was in bed with the Romans and only had power because of the Romans. Added to this is the fact that other Jewish leaders, some even claiming to be the Messiah, attempted to lead revolts, only to be crushed by the brute force of Rome. So to hear the angel say what he’s saying raises the question of how is this even possible.

But  listen again to how the angel responds. He says to Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son. Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant.” 

That’s how. It’s the work of God through the Holy Spirit, not the work of humans. God’s work. And there’s one more thing the angel said to Mary, “Nothing is impossible for God.”

With those words, Mary believed. Her response to the angels words are, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.”

But how about us? Do we believe? As I ask that knowing how sometimes people want rational arguments for the credibility of faith and I get that, to a point. But if we’re not careful, such a demand can actually be a way fo resisting faith.

Mary didn’t get the luxury of having all the scientific and philosophical arguments for how God could restore the kingdom through the birth of Jesus through her virgin body. The angel simply told her that God was at work just as he was with Elizabeth becoming pregnant and that was enough. Mary believed. That is, she trusted God enough to say “Let it be…” even though everything about this story is beyond all possibilities to the human mind.

But isn’t that what it means to believe? Isn’t that the kind of faith we’re called to have? To believe God can accomplish what is impossible for us to even fully understand?

The season of Advent is to remind us that the Lord, Jesus Christ is coming to restore the kingdom, so that there will be “on earth peace among those whom he favors.” But it’s easy to wonder sometimes if that’s really so. We’re twenty years removed from the most violent, war-waging, century in world history. We live in a nation that has been at war for about 225 years of its 244 year existence, where a hymn, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, sang “Glory!Glory! Hallelujah!” were first sang as a song of victory during the American Civil War. 

That’s why, at least sometimes, it’s really tempting to wonder if this is at all possible. To wonder if God can really bring about his peaceable kingdom through the birth of a baby to a virgin woman of no social-political significance at all. And sometimes in the wondering, God, in his grace to us, reminds us that nothing is impossible with God, that God is restoring his kingdom through Jesus. Perhaps such a reminder is this song, Your Peace Will Make Us One, by Audrey Assad.

Believe! In the form of a helpless baby, Christ has come. His name is Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. Born to Joseph and Mary but born so that God and sinners may be reconciled; born so that man may no more die, to raise the sons of earth, to give them second birth. Through crucifixion, resurrection, and exaltation, this is more than possible because it is the work of God. So believe and let this bread and wine that we are about to share in together remind us all that this salvation is possible because it is the work of God and nothing is impossible for God.


* This message was originally preached for the Newark Church whom I serve with as Lead Minister/Pastor.

The Problems with Church Leadership?

With the news of yet another well-known evangelical pastor falling into moral failure, I’ve seen a lot of chatter about what is wrong churches and leadership. In particular, the conversation seems to be about so-called “celebrity pastors” and the megachurches they serve with, churches that function more like a business enterprise. You can read two such critiques here and here but if there are plenty of other social-media posts too. Though there are obviously some leadership issues that need to be addressed, we need to make sure were addressing the right issues and not making more out of them than they actually are.

To begin with, let me be clear and say it is without any doubt that the failings of pastor’s like Carl Lentz (or Billy Hybels, Perry Noble, etc…) is terrible and reveals some troubling leadership issues in some churches. I say “some churches” because it is just some, not all and likely not even the majority of churches. Most pastors are honorably serving as men and women of good character and integrity as they follow Jesus. 

We should also be careful about the way we critique church leadership. I’m not a fan of churches organizing like business enterprise with their pastors functioning more like CEO’s rather than ministers of the gospel but I doubt this is the norm. Far from being big business enterprises with celebrity pastors building their brand, most churches are just local people serving in local communities with a pastor or two who serve as humble leaders with their church.

The problem of moral failures and abusive leadership can happen in any organization regardless of what kind of leadership model exists. So although some models undoubtedly are more conducive for problems to appear, it seems short-sighted to think that simply by changing leadership models will resolve the problems. Also, while it is true that some churches have a toxic hierarchal leadership derived from a business model, this is not the case with many churches in whom their leadership model differs based on denominational polity and traditions. So such broad sweeping criticisms not only seems unwarranted but also of shifts the blame, removing the responsibility of the moral failings from where they belong which is the particular pastors and churches in question.

One of the articles I linked above goes so far as to critique what the author describes as a “pastor-centric” model derived from the Pastoral Epistles. This model is contrasted with what the author believers as a better model, the APEPT model (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers) derived from Ephesians 4:11-12. In my opinion, the author misrepresents the function of Timothy and Titus played as leaders sent to the churches in Ephesus and Crete. While it is true that Timothy and Titus were referred to as “pastors”, if we look at the functional tasks they were given then their work is what we typically understand as the work of a pastor. Of course, one of those tasks was to appointing of overseers and deacons (1 Tim 3:1, 8) and elders and overseers (Tit 1:6-7), so they were never to remain the only leader. Also, I don’t believe there is any hierarchy implied in the Pastoral Epistles that would place any particular leader (pastors, elders, etc…) over one another. Rather, they should serve in mutual submission to each other as they submit to Christ (more on that below).

I’m not opposed to the so-called APEPT model but I also find that many who are pushing this model make a lot of assumptions about the text of Ephesians. We don’t know if the “apostolic” referred any number of Christians with an apostolic gifting as people sent or was this in reference to the Apostles appointed by Christ. Also the grammar of the text leaves open the question of whether  “pastors and teachers” is one role or two separate? So maybe we ought to be a little more cautious about constructing a leadership model off of one passage of scripture. As best as I can tell, there isn’t any one specific model of leadership found in the New Testament, so perhaps we should resist imposing one model over others. Besides, I not sure the point of the New Testament is to offer a particular form when it comes to leadership models. So if we are to address the issue of leadership failure, particularly the abusive leadership and the lack of accountability, then we have to address that issue which takes us back to the leaders themselves.

Regardless of what leadership model exists, every leader if first and foremost a servant. My point of departure for Christian leadership is Jesus and the conversation he has with his disciples about greatness in the kingdom of God. Jesus says to his disciples in Luke 22:25-26, “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.” This humble servant mindset of Jesus would result in his crucifixion, so Christian leadership is to serve and do so from the logic and wisdom of the cross that Jesus embraced rather than a top-down position of coercive power. That’s true whether the leader is functioning as a pastor, elder, or even an apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher.

Because every leader is a servant following Jesus, mutual submission and accountability is required of every leader. Rather than elevating one leader above others, all leaders within a church should be able to question and challenge each other. Further more, all leaders should listen to each other and submit to the discernment of the entire leadership. That’s how mutual submission and accountability work. When any leader seems to be acting or involved in activity that could bring harm to the gospel and call into question the integrity of the leadership, other leaders must have the moral courage to address these matters (how to do this is a whole other matter). The failure to do so is what allows toxic cultures to grow until they implode in a big scandal.

Perhaps the best thing we could do as church leaders right now is reflect on how we are serving. One thing is for sure. People are not fooled. They know the difference between a servant and an authoritarian, between someone who submits to others and someone who submits to nobody, between someone who is accountable to others and someone who thinks they are exempt from the rules others must live by.

To My Fellow Christians Living In America

To my fellow Christians living in America, can I share with you a concern I have as a pastor?

America is now officially one week away from the official 59th U.S. Presidential Election. Although voting has already begun and election officials will likely continuing counting votes after November 3rd, the election will technically be over. Contentious politics, on the other hand, is far from over. The difficult and divisive issues will come again and again. That’s how politics go these days and I say that not to dismiss the importance of politics in a civil society. Every society needs officials to administrate, organize, and govern. What is really nice is when these officials can govern as representatives of their society, as leaders appointed to serve in office by ballots rather than bullets.

However, civility is not a given. There are many examples of political violence and civil war throughout history and America is not any exception. America has experienced civil war, political assassinations, etc…, so it would be foolish to think it can’t happen again. In the last couple of years America has seen the rise of extremists organizations, such as Antifa and Proud Boys. Recently, law enforcement arrested members of anti-government militia on charges of plotting violent attacks that included the kidnapping of Michigan’s governor. Then there’s the rapidly increased vitriol rhetoric that defines many political conversations, both in the news media as well as social-media.

As concerning as lawlessness and civil war is, that’s not my primary concern. As a pastor, my concern is with the witness of those who call themselves Christians and namely that in the midst of conflict, Christians will take up for one side or the other as though we belong to this world. That’s happened before as well. Instead of loving others, even if the other is an enemy, as Jesus taught, many Christians already seem to be taking up sides as though doing so matters more than bearing witness to the good news of the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed — living as disciples of partisan politics. That’s the concern because should there ever be widespread violence, civil war, etc… who will bear witness to the things that make for peace if those who claim to believe in Jesus Christ take up sides with another kingdom of this world.

Lord, have mercy!

I’m not suggesting that Christians cannot have a political opinion about what is best  nor am I saying Christians should vote or not. I’ll vote. Whether you vote or not is not my business but there is a big difference between voting and taking up sides in a conflict and in doing so, treating certain others as enemies to be conquered. 

So if we consider ourselves to be believers, people who confesses that Jesus of Nazareth is the Lord and Messiah, remember then who we are called to follow. Remember the life that Jesus has taught us to live, with its very peculiar beliefs, values, and practices. Don’t worry about what results, short-term or long-term, will come from remaining true to our confession but trust that God will bring about his redemptive good through our faithfulness in living as witnesses of God’s kingdom. If we can’t commit to that because it seems too hard or just seems too out of touch with reality, then we are the ones to be pitied because we are the ones who call ourselves believers and yet do not believe.

Lord, have mercy!

Imagine Conference: Living On Earth As In Heaven

You’re invited to participate in the Imagine Conference this coming Friday and Saturday hosted by the Newark Church of Christ. Our theme, Sacramental: Living On Earth As In Heaven, draws our attention to a theology of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper with attention given to how each sacrament shapes us for living as followers of Jesus.

Imagine 2020 will feature Dr. John Mark Hicks, Professor of Theology at Lipscomb University, and Fred Liggin, Lead Minister/Pastor of Williamsburg Christian Church. Besides brothers in Christ, both John Mark and Fred are friends of mine whom God has worked through to help me become the person I am today. We will also hear from Casey Coston, Campus Missionary with Blue Hens for Christ, and Rusty Jordan, Campus Missions Coordinator with Reflect Campus Missions. Both Casey and Rusty are also on staff with the Newark Church, so I know these brothers whom I serve alongside of in ministry will have an important word to share with us.

Because this is a virtual conference, you can participate from the comfort of your home, office, or wherever you like. The live stream will begin Friday evening at 6:00 on the Newark Church YouTube Channel. Here is the schedule:

Friday Evening

6:00 Opening Worship

6:30 A Theology of Baptism

7:15 Questions & Engagement

7:45 Break

8:00 Because We’ve Been Baptized

8:45 Questions & Engagement

Saturday

8:00 Fellowship

8:45 Worship

9:00 “A Theology of the Lord’s Supper”

9:45 Questions & Engagement

10:15 Break

10:30 Reflect: A Vision for Campus Missions

11:15 Lunch Break

1:00 Extending the Grace and Hospitality of the Lord’s Table

1:45 Questions & Engagement

2:15 Closing Worship

Since the conference is virtual, we have waived the registration fee. However, if you would like to make an offering to help support this event, you may do so by either sending a check to the Newark Church of Christ (91 Salem Church Road, Newark, DE 19713) or through PayPal via Newark Church website.

#Imagine2020

Diversity and the Wisdom of God

I believe in the church. By saying that, I don’t mean that I believe the church is the source of salvation. As believers, our salvation is from Jesus Christ and none other. What I mean  is that I believe the church, particularly in her localized expressions, is the means by which God is now making the good news of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God known. That is, the local church is the vehicle or instrument through which the mission of God advances. This happens as the believers, led by the Holy Spirit, follow Jesus together as a local church.

Most likely we understand that the church participates in the mission of God by the doing of good works and that is indeed so. However, the witness of the church is also seen in who the church is.

Ephesians 3:10 says, “God’s purpose is now to show the rulers and powers in the heavens the many different varieties of his wisdom through the church.” The word that gets translated as “many different varieties” in the Common English Bible is an adjective describing the wisdom of God. It speaks of diversity and multiple dimensions or many sides. In fact, Joseph Thayer defined the word in his lexicon as “marked with a great variety of colors” (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 1889). So God’s wisdom is shown in the fact that the local church is a diverse fellowship and read within the context of Ephesians, the church is a diverse fellowship of reconciled believers living as one unified local body of Christ.

Here is why this matters. Christian unity is not uniformity. As believers, our inclusion in Christ, which is our reconciliation to God and each other, does not eliminate our differences and make us all the same or imply homogeneity is the goal. Yes, we share the same common confession of faith in Jesus Christ but there is much diversity that still exists. The genius of the gospel is that it brings Jews and Gentiles, males and females, as well as slaves and masters all together in Christ (cf. Gal 3:28) who will no longer be defined by their differences, which foster division, but instead love and serve one another  as brothers and sisters belonging to God and each other—the family of God in Christ.

The beauty of the church is seen in her multi-colored expression of God’s accomplishment in Christ. As Christians then, we don’t become color blind as though our racial and ethnic identities have been erased. Our witness as a local church is that we are Blacks and Whites, Latinos and Middle Easterners, etc… who belong to each other and God in Christ.

Now let me ruffle the feathers and talk about the different political leanings found among Christian in America today. The reality is that Christians have different views when it comes to politics and voting. Some will lean left and others right, voting accordingly if they choose to vote. I’m not saying that every political view is right and morally/ethically justified and righteous. So there is a time for discussing the righteousness of our politics (and here I’ll recommend Lee Camp’s latest book Scandalous Witness: A Little Political Manifesto for Christians, 2020) but we must, it seems, acknowledge the political diversity that exists among Christians today.

What then does this political diversity have to do with Christian witness and the wisdom of God? Well, to begin, we live in a culture that is increasingly divided along political lines. In such a cultural climate, the genius of God’s wisdom might just be shown in the fact that though we may vote differently, we will still love and serve one another as brothers and sisters belonging to God and each other because we have received the grace of God in Christ. Consequently, wherever this increasing political divide leads among America, we will not draw sides based on how we may have voted and become a part of the “us vs. them” cultural divide. Even more importantly, should the cultural divide lead to some sort of active civil war, as Christians we will commit to not taking up arms because our reconciliation in Christ transcends whatever political differences we might have. Instead, as diverse people brought together in Christ, who now share a common confession of Christ with a commitment to following Christ, we will continue accepting one another with love and so maintain the unity of the Spirit as we speak the truth of Christ in love.

This is how we participate in the mission of God. As such participants, God displays his wisdom through our existence and good works to a society that desperately needs to know this wisdom.

Let Us Fix Our Eyes

My favorite Stanley Hauerwas quote says “Jesus is Lord, and everything else is bullshit.” I know those with sensitive ears might find such a statement shocking but that is a theological load of truth that Christians need to hear. We especially need to hear that Jesus is Lord and everything else is… as we move into the fall year of 2020, with a national election looming. We need to be reminded of it even in proliferation of the news media we are bombarded with everyday.

I didn’t watch the Democrat or Republican convention’s this year. I recognize the necessary role of politics in a civil society but I can read what the various speakers have to said without all the unnecessary hype. My interest here isn’t opining on the many claims, promises, etc… made by those running for office but I do have at least one exception. When politicians use Christian language, co-opting ideas and even the words of scripture for their own political end, I am compelled to say something because I find it troubling. 

This pilfering of the Christian faith for state politics happens often and Vice President Mike Pence is just the latest example. So my comments about what the Vice President says has nothing to do with his political affiliation. I was an equal critic of former President Barack Obama and President George W. Bush but here is the notable excerpt from Pence’s speech at the Republican National Convention:

My fellow Americans, we are going through a time of testing. But if you look through the fog of these challenging times, you will see, our flag is still there today. That star-spangled banner still waves over the land of the free and the home of the brave. From these hallowed grounds, American patriots in generations gone by did their part to defend freedom. Now, it is our turn.

So let’s run the race marked out for us. Let’s fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents. Let’s fix our eyes on this land of heroes and let their courage inspire. And let’s fix our eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith and our freedom and never forget that where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. That means freedom always wins.

The quote references both Hebrews 12:2 and 2 Corinthians 3:17 but with the former, Pence replaces Jesus with “Old Glory” and “this land of heroes.” I’ve read the entire transcript of the speech as well as listened to the speech. It’s overwhelmingly clear that what Pence has in mind is not Jesus and the kingdom of God but America, in all of her patriotic splendor. 

As mentioned earlier, such rhetoric is nothing new for politicians, as every former living U.S. President and even those long past have applied Christian language and ideals to the American story. They’ve done so because Christians have for the most part tolerated and even believed what they’re saying. So the issue isn’t with the politicians but with the Christian church in America, allowing the Gospel story to be co-opted with little resistance and even approval on many occasions.

My concern stems from the fact that I am a follower of Jesus who happens to serve as a pastor and am deeply concerned for the Gospel witness of the church. Tolerating and even believing this co-opted rhetoric compromises the witness of the church. That’s because the American story is not the Gospel story told within the narrative of scripture and blending the two together isn’t the Gospel story. Blending the two stories together either adds to the Gospel story, which itself is a problem, or forms a civil religion out of America, becoming an expression of Christian Nationalism. Either way, this is a problem rife with idolatry because we live according to the stories we tell ourselves. These are the stories we accept and entertain.

Simply put, we are the stories we tell ourselves. As storied people, we live according to the stories we embrace. Like any narrative, the stories we embrace shape our beliefs, values, and practices. That’s how we become the stories we tell ourselves. The problem is that we’re trying to live two different stories simultaneously. Try as we might to convince ourselves otherwise, we don’t live two stories well — if at all. One must concede to the other and the story of Christendom, the melding of church and state, is the history of Christianity’s concession to a state narrative. Christianity in America has not been any exception. 

As I said, we don’t live two stories well but that shouldn’t surprise anyone. In fact, attempting to live both the Gospel story and the American story is a rather confusing witness. Just imagine Hans Solo, played by  Harrison Ford, within the story we know as Star Wars. There the Captain of the Millennium Falcon is with Princes Leia and Chewbacca. Immediately following the scene, Hans Solo begins talking about traveling to Nepal to recover the headpiece of the “staff of Ra” (taking up the role Harrison Ford played as Indian Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark). That wouldn’t make a lot of sense, would it? Yet, that’s what Christians do when they try living both the Gospel story and the American story or the blending of the two. 

Some will wonder about Paul invoking his Roman citizenship to question the legality of the guards who were about to flog him without any conviction (cf. Acts 22-25). However, acknowledging his legal citizenship in this world hardly constitutes living according to the story of the Roman Empire. Paul was about to be flogged because he was living the Gospel story, which ran afoul with both many of his fellow Jews and the Roman Empire. Here in America, things are different. The American story has been allowed to shape the Christian life. It’s why many Christians have justified the wartime sword in furtherance of American interests, despite claiming to follow Jesus who chose the way of the cross rather than the sword. Now, as we enter the home stretch of year 2020, we are left wondering why Christianity has become so anemic in America. Perhaps part of the reason is that we have been living an alternative story to the Gospel Story, with just enough of the later sprinkled in so as to make the alternative story seem Christian.

By the way… most states have passed laws making the use of hand-held mobile devices illegal while driving. Why? Because we can’t drive well while trying to fix our eyes on both the road ahead and our smart phones. Maybe it’s time to say we will fix our eyes on Jesus alone. Not Jesus and Old Glory, just Jesus alone. Perhaps become a one-sport people and run only that race which the writer of Hebrew speaks of because we sure aren’t doing well trying to run two entirely different races at the same time.

“So then, with endurance, let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter. He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God’s throne.”

– Hebrews 12:1-2

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.

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

Poetry In Motion: A Vision for Being Church

Two weeks ago I began a new message series with the Newark Church called Poetry In Motion. The series is about being the church based on what I regard as a visionary passage in terms of ecclesiology. According to Ephesians 2:10 “we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for those good things to be the way that we live our lives.”

Poetry In Motion

There are a couple of points to note about this passage that have to do with the way we embody this visionary purpose here.

  1. The says that “we are God’s accomplishment…” That’s how the Common English Bible renders the text. Other translations render the text saying we are “God’s handiwork” (NIV), “God’s workmanship” (ESV, KJV), or “God’s masterpiece” (NLT). The word in the original language is poiēma which is where we derive our English words “poem” and “poetry” from. It’s a word that describes a piece of art, like a sculpture, a painting, or even a poem. That’s why the New Jerusalem Bible renders the text saying that we are “God’s work of art…” The claim here, I believe, is that God’s intention for us is that we will be a living portrait of the new creation he is bringing about in Christ.
  2. The good works we are created to do as our way of life is best understood in relation to the context which has to do with God making both Jews and Gentiles into one new community. So rather than just having an abstract idea of doing good, such as being a nice person, our good works nurture our fellowship with God and each other. Nurturing this fellowship does not mean agreement with each other on every issue, as unity is never about uniformity (which is virtually impossible). Instead, knowing the grace God has extended to us, we also extend that grace to others. That’s how we live as God’s accomplishment on display so that others will see there is hope beyond all the suffering, racism, and violence that exists around us.

This ecclesiological vision is what it means for local churches to live as God’s poetry in motion. Understood within the narrative of scripture, it’s historical arch and destination (telos), our ecclesiological vision is Christ-centered and kingdom-oriented. In other words, the church, both locally and universally, is a community in which the fulfillment of God’s redemptive mission in Christ is manifest.

I need to say more about the church as a manifestation of God’s redemptive mission in light of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement. This movement has focused on restoring the past of first-century ecclesiology. However, if the ecclesiological vision is about portraying God’s redemptive mission, then churches are to be a people in whom the future is discernible. This means that the embodiment of the gospel is proleptic reflection. It also means the purpose is not about restoring the past, first century or any other historical period. Instead, the church as God’s accomplishment of everything he has brought together—the things of heaven and of earth. In this regards, the church embodies the gospel as a living portrait so that others might begin to see what new creation is and will be.

This is what I mean then by describing the church as poetry in motion. The question is how do we go from the ideal to actually putting this vision into concrete practice. To answer that question, the series focuses on truth, healing, justice, and reconciliation and I will address these matters in subsequent blog posts. In short, when we can learn to be honest with the truth, then space opens for becoming communities in which healing, justice, and reconciliation can be practiced which then concretely becomes God’s poetry in motion.