Tag Archives: Jesus

Are We Listening?

Per the Western Christian Calendar, this past Sunday was Transfiguration Sunday. The gospel reading, according to the Revised Common Lectionary, was Mark 9:2-9, which is the story of Jesus’s transfiguration. 

Within Mark’s Gospel, this story comes on the heels of Jesus telling his disciples how he will suffer death upon the cross in Jerusalem. This doesn’t sit well with the disciples, so much so that Peter rebukes Jesus. In response, Jesus tells his disciples that any who wish to follow him must first deny themselves, pick up their own cross, and then follow him. That’s the only route to the kingdom of God. So knowing that Jesus is indeed the Son of God, and therefore the true Messiah sent by God to restore the kingdom, matters. This is why God insists that we listen to Jesus but are we listening?

We live in a day and time when more information than we can imagine is available to us through books, podcasts, etc… all at the click of a mouse. Those who know me understand that I don’t have any issues with people listening to a variety of different voices on any given issue. Knowledge, truth, and wisdom are revealed by God in a variety of sources. So while there is nothing wrong with listening to what others might say, our embodiment of the gospel hinges on whether we continue listening to Jesus.

A quote often attributed to Edmund Burke says, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” I often hear this quote cited to justify the Allies waging war against Germany in WWII. Whatever we think about the necessity of war, evil did not rise up in Germany because good men did nothing. Rather, evil rose up because the majority of Christians living in Germany stopped listening to Jesus. Their eye site wasn’t set on the kingdom of God and so a charismatic voice by name now infamous name of Adolph Hitler came along saying exactly what their itching ears wanted to hear. In doing so,  they joined him in leading much of Europe into hell on earth.

If we don’t want history to repeat itself, then we must learn from our history. Such learning should teach us to keep our ears tuned into Jesus and our eyes set on the kingdom of God. The voice of heaven has spoken and he says about Jesus, “This is my Son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him!” (Mk 9:7, CEB).

A lot could be said about how we listen to Jesus today. I’m suspicious of those who claim that Jesus somehow speaks to them directly. I’m not saying that’s impossible but I am highly suspicious. Too many self-proclaimed prophets have attempted to speak for the Lord but have shown themselves to be false prophets, with the latest being those who prophesied this past November 3rd. So how shall we listen to Jesus?

Read the Bible. That might sound cliché but in short, it’s the right answer and I cannot emphasize that enough. So, read the Bible and read it regularly.

However, as we read the Bible, we must also learn how to read the Bible rightly too. We commit to reading the Bible because God has given us these scriptures to tell us about the good news of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God. The Bible is telling a story that centers in on Jesus, whom were called to follow, and is oriented to the coming of God’s kingdom, which we are called to embody. Our reading of the Bible is meant to teach how to live as followers of Jesus bearing witness to the kingdom of God. That’s how we keep listening to Jesus.

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.

Fellowship in Christ: Grace Received, Grace Extended

A common practice among all congregations within the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement is weekly participation in the Lord’s Supper.* Although once viewed simply as a doctrine that must be obeyed based upon one example of breaking bread on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7), many of our churches have rightfully moved beyond the legalistic approach.  

    
That said, we still see the value in coming together to share in this Lord’s Supper or Eucharist meal. Accompanied by songs, prayers, and time spent in the Word through readings of Scripture and preaching, we still accept this invitation to gather together around the table of our Lord, Jesus Christ. 
    
If we read through the gospels, particularly the Gospel of Luke, we see how Jesus created space for people at the table. From the religious authorities to his disciples and even the “sinners and tax-collectors,” Jesus welcomed all these people to fellowship with him. This hospitality was a way in which Jesus extended the grace of God to both Jews and Gentiles, which pointed to his own death and resurrection so that all might indeed share in this fellowship. 
    
Two-thousand years later, some are still asking who gets to come to the Lord’s table?  Behind the question is an awareness that not everyone shares the same beliefs on any number of different issues, some having to do with matters of Christian doctrine and others having to do with politics, social-cultural challenges, etc… It’s easy to start drawing lines of inclusion and exclusion. Interestingly, we tend to draw these lines so as to always include ourselves. As a result, we see division and wonder how we can build unity. It’s as if we believe that reconciliation is our work rather than what God has accomplished in Christ. 
    
This is where we seem to miss what is happening at the Lord’s Table. When we receive the bread and wine that represents the body and blood of Jesus Christ, we are receiving the same bread and wine that Jesus served to his disciples. Jesus served Peter, who would deny knowing Jesus; and, Judas, who would betray Him. He served the other disciples also, who would all desert Him. Jesus extended his grace to all of his disciples without drawing any lines. What they did with his grace was in their hands, just as it is in ours too. Although Judas turned away from grace he received, the others didn’t and we know what they did with it because we are all beneficiaries of the way they extended the grace they received from Jesus. 
    
So, when we receive the bread and wine, we are receiving the grace of God extended to us even though we too are sinners and are undeserving of such fellowship. Because of that, rather than drawing lines, we can and must extend that grace to others regardless. Such fellowship, and the unity it expresses, is the gracious hospitality of welcoming others without distinction. But this oneness is not something we do as though we are manufacturing reconciliation and unity ourselves. As it was when Jesus first invited his disciples to receive the bread and wine, this is the grace of God that we receive and therefore that which we extend — fellowship in Christ. 


* This blog post originally appeared as a small article on the Common Grounds Unity website, published on November 28, 2020.

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!

Time To Celebrate: The Parable of the Prodigal Son

I grew up hearing the story Jesus tells in Luke 15:11-32 spoken of as The Parable of the Prodigal Son.* It’s a wonderful story that has everything to do with the grace of God. It reemphasizes the mercy and compassion of God, who is patient and full of steadfast love. 

Whenever I read this story, I recall the late Neal Pryor. He was a preacher and Bible professor at my alma mater Harding University. I think of him because I can remember listening to him preach this parable to an auditorium full of college students. About twenty-five minutes later I saw numerous college students  lining up to confess their faith in Christ and give their lives to him in baptism. 

That’s the way the grace of God surprises us sometimes. People, in this case, students, who seem to have their lives all together but know that underneath the masks and veneer they put on, their lost in sin. But when they hear about the mercy and love of God, they come to life as they put their faith in Christ. 

Yet when reading a story like this parable of the prodigal son, it seems that the story Jesus is telling is quite provocative regarding the grace and mercy of God. To hear the provocation, we have to hear the story within the larger story the Gospel of Luke is telling. 

At the beginning of chapter fifteen, we read how “All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Lk 15:1-2).

Apparently, the gatekeepers of the faith missed some Sunday school lessons on the prophet Isaiah as well as Elijah and Elisha. That’s because in Luke 4, Jesus enters the synagogue and reads from the prophet Isaiah. In doing so, he declares himself as the fulfillment of this good news for the poor that is freedom for the prisoners, sight for the blind, and liberation for the oppressed because now is the time of God’s favor (cf. Lk 4:18-21). In proclaiming this good news, Jesus also associated himself with the prophets Elijah and Elisha, who were sent not to Israel but to a widow and Gentile. 

Failing to understand this, the Pharisees and lawyers are displeased to see Jesus  hamming it up with the sinners and tax collectors. Responding to his critics, Jesus begins a little tale about a lost sheep and lost coin. Things anyone can relate to. At least, I can. I mean if the TV remote goes missing at my house, there’s a mini crisis on hand and heaven forbid if we misplace our iPhone’s.

Somehow though when it comes to people, especially “the tax collectors and sinners,” whoever they may be, the concern is usually a measure of judgment and condemnation. Especially the people who can’t cover up the shame of their sin the way most can do with their sins. 

Now these stories Jesus is telling about the lost sheep and lost coin are beginning to make some sense but he doesn’t stop there. Jesus continues on telling a story about a father and his two sons. The younger son takes his inheritance and runs away with it until he squanders it through his “extravagant living” or “dissolute living” (NRSV). After squandering his inheritance, the younger son finds himself at the bottom of the barrel with no place to go except back home to his father. 

Then there’s the older brother, who I like to think of as the pouting brother. He’s not too happy to hear about his younger brother’s return. In fact, he’s miffed that his father would welcome back this rebellious brother so easily with nothing but a big homecoming party. Exasperated, the older brother says to his father “…I never disobeyed your instructions.” His attitude (self-righteous?) has blinded him from seeing that what was a terrible loss has now become a great reunion. 

“The grace of God isn’t just for those who think they are God’s elect but for the rest of us too because the election of God is his desire that we all would come home as recipients of his grace extended to us in Christ.”

That’s the story Jesus is telling to a bunch of Jewish Pharisees and lawyers who are bothered by Jesus spending his time with the sinners and tax-collectors. That’s the larger story which is really about Israel and the Gentiles. In our day, we might say the church folk, perhaps self-righteous church folk, and any number of unbelievers who never ever think about coming to a church service.

The cool thing about the story Jesus is telling is that the younger son thinks he’ll go back to his father except… As Jesus tells the story, the father was already looking for his lost son and when he saw him off in the distance, the father “was moved with compassion.”

Borrowing the langue of the apostle Paul, we Christians sometimes speak of people being dead in sin (cf. Eph 2:1, 5). However, the story Jesus tells should keep us from pressing the metaphor too far because though that is true in a sense, it can’t mean that we literally dead to God. Even when feeling as though we’re drowning in the deepest and most shameful pits of sin, God still knows us. Not only does God still know us but moved by compassion, God is looking for us so that he can lead us home.

A few years back in Chicago, I was sitting with a few pastor friends in the outside patio of a bar. As our waitress, Brittany, was taking orders, it was obvious that she was very pregnant. So to make small talk, I asked her if she was having a boy or girl. The baby was a boy and she planned to name him Brian, named after her brother who died from leukemia a few years prior. 

Well as it turned out, this was Brittany’s last day of work before she went on maternity leave and in the small talk conversation, she learned that everyone at our table was a bunch of pastors sitting at a bar. That kind of took her back for a second and then she looked at the all black outfit she had on as she said, “Don’t think because I’m dressed in all black that I’m some kind of satanist or something. My boyfriend and I have actually thought about finding a church so that we can raise our son right.”

Now being that this was a Thursday evening and we were all planning to fly back to our homes on Friday, the most we could do was get her contact information and pass it along to a local pastor we knew. But don’t miss the fact that here was a young woman looking for God and I like to believe that God was using us pastors siting in that bar to begin showing Brittany that God is looking for her too.

So back to the story Jesus is telling. The father explains to his angry older son how, “we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.” No scolding, shaming, or making the younger son beg for mercy, just a big welcome and party to celebrate the younger son coming home.

The grace of God is that great. No matter the sin and no matter how far down in the pits of sin we climb, the door is open for us to come home. When it comes to salvation, what God has predetermined is the extension of his grace to us in Christ. It’s a standing invitation for all, just as it was for the Gentiles. To say it another way, the grace of God isn’t just for those who think they are God’s elect but for the rest of us too because the election of God is his desire that we all would come home as recipients of his grace extended to us in Christ. 

That’s why Jesus tells us a story like this parable of the prodigal son. It’s because the grace of God is for everyone and when God finds his lost children, it’s not a time for judgment or heaping on a bunch of shame; it’s time for a celebration.

May the grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and the love of our God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all!


* This is a modified manuscript of the message I preached last Sunday to the Newark Church, whom I serve with as the Lead Pastor. You can also watch a video recording of the actual message on the Newark Church Youtube Channel, just click here.

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.

Go and Listen: Racism, Justice, and Christianity in America

The Christian church in America has an image problem of its own making. That was the sentiment I had after reading the book Unchristian: What A New Generation Really Thinks About Christian …And Why It Matters by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons published in 2007. Although perception and reality are not always the same, there is generally some truth to the perception and that is what should concern churches.

Fast forward to the year 2015. Barna released a survey reflecting much of the same conclusions from 2007. However, one conclusion that caught my attention is that 70% of millennials perceive Christians as insensitive to others. The article detailing this research points also to a perception of intolerance and exclusivity, demonstrating “a lack of relational generosity within the U.S. Christian community.” Now fast forward to the year 2020. I don’t see much that might change this perception of Christianity as we live through a pandemic, a tumultuous election season, and the continued struggle with racial justice.

My concern is particularly with the issue of racial justice because I believe the gospel is for justice and opposed to racism, and therefore I also believe Christians should be concerned with seeking racial justice too. As we think about racism in America, we see a variety of responses. In academic and intellectual conversations, Critical Race Theory and Police Reforms has garnered a lot of attention. On the street level, #BlackLivesMatter has become a movement and an organization, with people engaging in protests (of note: though the Black Lives Matter movement and the organization are related, I do believe they are separate and should be engaged as different entities). Unfortunately some of these protests have become violent riots and seem to get most of the media attention. Although it needs to be said that the ACLED analyzed more than 7,750 Black Lives Matter demonstrations between May 26 and August 22 and found at least 93% of the protests have been peaceful. Within the religious sector, some churches have organized rallies and panel conversations to discuss the issue of racism with the intent of getting people to hear different perspectives, particularly those of Black people. I was thankful to be invited to sit on one of these panel conversations as the only white person; it was a learning opportunity for me.

Let me clarify that I unequivocally do not approve any violence, looting of property, and killing. Whether from the left or right, such mayhem is wrong and will not bring about any good. Nevertheless, as I have already hinted, I see an opportunity for Christians because I believe the gospel that Jesus proclaimed and embodied ordains a way of life that seeks both justice and reconciliation. The question I have is whether Christians in America have the capacity to imagine such a gospel life and embody it as local churches? And to be quite honest, sometimes I have much doubt but I won’t surrender to such despondency.

So besides reading the Bible, which is always a necessity, where do Christians start? Before I offer my two cents, let me say that Christians have different views on ideas like Critical Race Theory, Police Reform, and Social Justice as well the Black Lives Matter organization. However, getting caught up in discussing the pros and cons of each is a side distraction that keeps us from addressing the real problem of racism. Though for some, it’s seems to be the side distraction they seek so as to divert attention from the issue of racism. That said, we would do well to remember that most of us affiliate with certain people, organizations, and ideas that are not “Christian” and most of us understand that there are occasions when our conscience will not allow for any affiliation. So how about we let everyone act according to their conscience and don’t pass judgment on others who do differently than what we might do.

Instead of getting caught up in these endless debates and finger-pointing games, I have another suggestion and I offer it especially to my fellow White Christians. How about we become listeners. Go to a Black Lives Matter protest, attend a panel conversation on racism, read one of the numerous books written by Black authors on the issue, which I have done. Just listen. Listening doesn’t require agreement with everything that’s said but it does say that we care and gives us the opportunity to learn. Listening is an act of love that opens space for us to help cultivate racial justice rather than just being perceived as insensitive to others.

According to the Barna research cited above, there is a silver lining of good news. When offered to select an image that describes present-day Christianity, “One in four chose the overtly positive image, the helping hand reaching out to a person in need (24%).” Maybe if Christians could learn to listen more and point less fingers or even worse, dismiss a movement, then perhaps that twenty-four percent would increase. So just go and listen. It’s really simple to do. It’s something Jesus did and so it’s something we, as his followers, should do too. 

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