Tag Archives: Love

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’s Not Turn Love Into a Platitude!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Christian Unity and the Embodiment of Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Let The Political Tail Wag The Dog!

One of the blessings of preaching before the Newark Church is looking at the faces of those gathered for worship and seeing the diversity. Before my eyes are one church composed of people with different colors of skin, different nationalities, and even people who root for the Dallas Cowboys sitting amongst many fans of the Philadelphia Eagles. That sort of diversity is a beautiful thing and a living expression of the gospel.

115041Within the church I serve there even exists some theological differences. While we all share the same common confession of faith that Jesus Christ is Lord, there are other issues where you will find different perspectives. Creation, Election, and Spiritual Gifts, to name a few. That’s a victory there because there was a time when it was thought in our tribe, the Churches of Christ, that Christians must agree on nearly every matter of doctrine for there to be any fellowship. Today though, like the Newark Church, many churches understand that there are a number of different theological issues which Christians can differ on and still share in fellowship as they serve King Jesus together. Yes, there are some that still believe unity means uniformity but thankfully most churches recognize that it’s the blood of Christ, not our theological positions, that make us one in Christ.

That said, I sense a challenge that churches are going to increasingly face when it comes to embodying the gospel by living as a unified community of believers.

Politics.

“Just as we embrace the peace of Christ when we serve together as people of different skin colors and theological differences, so we must by joining together with people who hold different political views than our own.”

Unless you’ve had your head buried in the sand, you can already see the growing political division taking place in the United States. We also see that the gap in this division is growing as the differences on a variety of issues becomes more and more pronounced. Regardless of whatever political views we hold, what should alarm us is the impact that political division is having upon churches. According to research from two years ago, “More than half (57 percent) of Protestant churchgoers under 50 say they prefer to go to church with people who share their political views. And few adult Protestant churchgoers say they attend services with people of a different political persuasion.”

This is what I call allowing the political tail to wag the dog. Now don’t get me wrong, we all have political views and so we are going to hold different opinions. However, we are refusing the peace we have received in Christ, which he brokered upon the cross (cf. Eph 3:14-16), if we allow differences in political views to determine who we will break bread with. Just as we embrace the peace of Christ when we serve together as people of different skin colors and theological differences, so we must join together as people who hold different political views than our own.

Now I’m not suggesting that unity means we must suppress our political views, which is unlikely to happen anyway. What we must learn to do with any matter of difference is to speak and act towards others in a charitable manners, which is likely the biggest challenge. My hunch is that the reason why more people prefer a church where their political views are shared is because each side, to use the binary language of left and right, increasingly looks at the other with contempt and thus an enemy. And when people do express a political opinion, it is often met with some degree of vitriol — spoken or unspoken.

Is it any wonder why more people are basing the church they serve with upon whether the people of that church share their political views? This is all the more reason why we must listen to the instructions from that say, “Conduct yourselves with all humility, gentleness, and patience. Accept each other with love…” (Eph 4:2). Taking those instructions seriously means rethinking our political conduct. If the way we express our political views make people with a different view afraid to express their point of view too, then we are the problem. If we speak of people with pejoratives like “cuckservative” and “deplorable” or “libratard” and “snowflake,” then we are the problem. If people are weary of sharing their views because they know that rather than listening first, we will only shout louder the same old tired talking points, then we are the problem.

Humility, gentleness, patience, and love is the way we live into the peace of Christ, uniting with our political differences rather than allowing those differences to divide. And as a contentious election year is upon America in the midst of an impeachment trial, this matters now. Don’t let the political tail wag the dog! Though we will hold different political views, let’s stand on the side of Christ by leaning into the virtues of humility, gentleness, and patience as we accept one another with the love of Christ.

Mercy Without Justice?

Tim Tebow and Colin Kaepernick are both well-known former NFL quarterbacks and to some extent, cultural icons in our present-day society. Many people have admiration for one and disdain for the other, and this ying and yang reflects much more about where people land on the social-political spectrum that it does about either former quarterback.

mercy_justice_banner

You may not know this but both Tim Tebow and Colin Kaepernick are professing Christians. Tim Tebow endeared himself to many evangelical Christians and other conservatives for his willingness to express his faith in a public manner, for his pro-life stance, and holding to other traditional Christian values. I have nothing against Tim Tebow and if you’re a Christian, even if you disagree with Tebow on some issues, you shouldn’t either. But on the same hand, you shouldn’t have a problem with Colin Kaepernick either. Yet when Caepernick began protesting the racism and numerous police shootings of black men in America by kneeling during the performing of the National Anthem, many of the Christians that lauded Tebow expressed anger towards Kaepernick. Why?

While the differences between Tim Tebow and Colin Kaepernick might be categorized as a conservative versus liberal difference, I want to think from theological perspective. Specifically I’m thinking about the categories of pastoral and prophetic gifts. The pastorally gifted person comes along encouraging us to live more deeply into what we already believe to be true, which is exactly what Tim Tebow exemplified. There’s nothing wrong with that either, as we all need such encouragement at times. At other times we need the prophetically gifted person to help us see the injustices that exist, injustices that we tolerate and even sometimes accommodate. Denouncing injustice, the prophet calls us to repentance. Whether we like it or not, we need Colin Kaepernick as much, if not more these days, as we need Tim Tebow.

Our challenge is receiving the message of a prophet which is disruptive, certainly not what we want to hear. With few exceptions, only the oppressed seem welcoming of the prophet’s protest. The privileged and powerful become defensive and dismissive of the prophet because the prophetic word is a rebuke calling for the privileged and powerful to repentance. That’s the way it was when God sent prophets to speak his word to Israel and that’s the way it is when prophets speak today.

Consider the case of Botham Jean who was fatally shot in his own apartment by former Dallas Police Office Amber Guyger. After Ms. Guyger was convicted, Brandt Jean, the brother of Botham, chose to forgive Ms. Guyger and give her a hug. The moment was captured on video, a video that instantly went viral (I shared it too) and may prove to the most shared video ever. There’s much to love about that moment and the extension of mercy that Brandt Jean offered to Amber Guyger. It’s a pastoral moment, reminding us of the grace and forgiveness that every Christian believes is right.

However, after Amber Guyger was sentenced to prison, there was a video of Botham Jean’s mother pleading for justice. Her plea was aimed at the underlying racism that played a part in this entire case and has plagued the city of Dallas. In comparison to the video of Brandt Jean forgiving and hugging Ms. Guyger, the video of Botham Jean’s mother was seen and shared by very few people. Why? I believe the answer is that we, the mostly white Christians who have the privilege and power among society, don’t want to hear her prophetic pleas for justice. And it seems like we never do.

The other day I was rereading through Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From Birmingham City Jail. Dr. King wrote this letter, in part, as an explanation to the white moderate pastors who have grown tired of his protests, remarks:

“You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstration into being. I am sure that each of you would want to go beyond the superficial social analyst who looks merely at effects, and does not grapple with underlying causes.” (A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches, 1986, 2003,p. 290)

His critics were more concerned with the civil unrest that was taking place in the quest for civil rights than they were for the injustices of racism and lynchings that oppressed people of color. The prophetic voice of Dr. King was too much for too many and we know this because we all know what happened on the morning of April 4, 1968.

I am a minister of the gospel who serves as a pastor with the Newark Church of Christ but I also believe my calling must bear an occasional prophetic voice too. So let me say unequivocally that mercy is a beautiful gift to offer but it should never diminish or neglect the need for justice. The vision of the gospel is one that offers both mercy and justice, not one over the other. But too often in America, where racism and racial injustices still exists, white Christians have clamored for grace and mercy while remaining silent when it comes to justice. It’s time for this posture to end. Mercy without justice must end.

This calls for repentance.

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” – Micah 6:8, NRSV

Be The Church!

Like others, I am tired of turning on the news only to hear that another mass-shooting has occurred. With the most recent shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio taking place within twenty-four hours of each other, it seems as if such violence has become an epidemic. Maybe that’s more perception than reality but nonetheless what is reality is the fact that more innocent lives were harmed and killed.

It is beyond me to understand how anyone could so maliciously plot and carry out a deadly attack on other people. Yes, I am aware of the anger and extremism, the hatred and racism, the mental health and emotional trauma, and the many other factors that come into play, including the easy access to certain firearms — assault weapons designed simply to kill with efficiency. I’m frustrated that elected officials just keep offering their “thoughts and prayers” without undertaking any reasonable solutions. I’m frustrated that, fifty-one years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., racism still has a grip on America and my frustration doesn’t end there. As a White person, I am also frustrated with many White people who either don’t seem to care about racism or seek to downplay it and even want to disassociate from the racism (a White privilege), failing to see how systematic racism still exists even if they don’t personally discriminate against any person of color. And if the truth be told, maybe I have been one of those White people too. I try not to be but I am a sinner too.

So what can I do?

What can we do?

As followers of Jesus, what must we do?

Be the church!

I know, I know… It sounds simple and even trite because for far too long “church” has been nothing but a place where people gather on Sundays. Our traditional understanding of Church in the west has often become an impotent caricature of the ekklēsia that Jesus called us to be as his followers. It’s the reason why many of the Sunday parishioners “go to church” and then leave an hour later as the same people they were before and as the same people they were when they first started going to church many years ago. Let’s be honest, this understanding of church is a place for people to sing songs about Jesus, hear a message about Jesus, and pray but not necessarily follow Jesus. I’m not against singing, preaching, and praying but such worship loses its way when those gathering for “church” leave only to sound more like an echo-chamber of whatever news-pundit they listen too as they continue pursuing a life shaped more by their own individualistic desires.

But that is not what I mean when I say “Be the church!” What I mean is hopefully a little more profound because it is about following Jesus and serving as a living embodiment of the gospel Jesus proclaimed. That means living as a people who gather, in the name of Jesus and by the power of the Spirit, with others, including people of other colors, nationalities, social-political viewpoints than our own. As we gather together, we do so as people learning to be practitioners of the Jesus way (discipleship) in which we embrace each other with love. This is a love that is full of the grace and truth that opens space for us to confront our sin with repentance and forgiveness so that we all may journey forward as reconciled brothers and sisters. This love is a fellowship in Christ that we have pledged ourselves to in baptism and that we continuously acknowledge together in the Eucharist. This vision of church, which Jesus has called us to be, is one that bears witness to an alternative kingdom — the reign of God — and becomes the beacon of light in a society shrouded in darkness.

This is the kind of church we are called to be and it is this kind of church that I believe God is working among to offer hope in the midst of despair and peace in the midst of violence. That’s why I posted on Facebook the other day this word for pastors, saying:

Pastors, the best response to a society boiling over with hatred and violence is for you to cultivate a living embodiment of the gospel among the church you serve so that there will be a community bearing witness to the way of peace in Christ.

This kind of church doesn’t effect change like a tsunami crashing upon the shore. Rather, it is a patient approach that doesn’t force its way of life on others but becomes such a beautiful portrait that others are captivated by it and want to become a part of this life. It is a life that flows from the prayers of those who are committed to living. So I leave us with the Peace Prayer attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi…

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Amen.

A Little Truth On Loving Our Neighbors

“What must I do to gain eternal life?” It’s a question that many sermons, evangelistic tracts, and other church literature has answered. And if you’ve been around any church, you know how the answer goes. In the churches I have been a part of, the answer has always seemed to include teaching about the necessity or repentance and baptism. But when a Jewish lawyer came testing Jesus by asking the same question, the conversation about gaining eternal life went in a very different direction.

Bulletin Message Picture

In Luke 10:25-37 we have a well known story that has traditionally been known as The Good Samaritan. But the story, as Luke tells it, doesn’t begin with a man encountering assailants along a desolate road. It begins with a Jewish lawyer asking “What must I do to gain eternal life?” So Jesus answers the lawyer but not in a way that most Christians would expect. Jesus simply asked the lawyer “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”

There are two observations worth noting here. First, Jesus seems to assume that knowing what is necessary for gaining eternal life is found in the Law of Moses. If living the eternal life is understood in terms of the kind of life we live and not just the length of life, then it makes sense. We can begin knowing how to participate in the kind of life Jesus is offering by reading the Old Testament. Why? Because the Law in its essence is about loving God and neighbor (we cannot do one without doing the other), which the Lawyer knows. So when he answers Jesus’ question by reciting the two great commands, Jesus replies “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”

But, but but…

The lawyer wanted to justify himself, so perhaps with some chutzpah he asked “And who is my neighbor?” That brings up the second observation about Jesus’ question. How one reads the Law of Moses, or in our case, the entire Bible, will indeed shape how we define our neighbor. If we are followers of Jesus then we must read the Bible in light of who we know Jesus to be, the life we know that he lived, and the aim (telos) for which he lived his life — the kingdom of God.

Lest we misunderstand, Jesus tells the story of the good Samaritan. The Samaritan was despised and seemingly beyond the boundaries of God’s kingdom in the eyes of the Jewish people. Yet this Samaritan became The Good Samaritan or the one who was a neighbor because he exemplified love for his neighbor. Perhaps if Jesus was telling a story today, perhaps he might speak of an American Evangelical Christian and a “Truth-defending, Sound-Doctrine” Preacher as he tells a tale about an undocumented immigrant or a Muslim loving their neighbors (like Imam Abubakr Absullahi, an 83 year-old Muslim Cleric who is being honored by the US Government for hiding 262 Christians to protect them during an attack in Central Nigeria last year).

I mention this because we all have known of Christians who have made defending Biblical truth and sound-doctrine, which always seems to be their own dogma, the essence or primary focus being a Christian. Don’t misunderstand me. Truth and doctrine matter but when such concern is elevated about loving God and neighbor (and history is replete with examples), not only does such a pursuit become an idol but it takes a wrong turn away from eternal life.

Yes, I just said that. When our concern for sound-doctrine is elevated above or ignores loving God and neighbor, we turning away from participating in eternal life. That doesn’t mean we can’t turn around and get back on the right path. The grace of God says we can. That is why, when the Jewish lawyer recognizes that the neighbor is the Samaritan “who demonstrated mercy,” Jesus says “Go and do likewise.”

To love our neighbors as ourselves is to love God and if we love God with all our heart, being, strength, and mind, we will delight in loving our neighbors. But let’s also remember, that it’s possible for a Samaritan, an undocumented immigrant, or a Muslim just might be closer to the kingdom than some Christians because of the way they love their neighbors.

So what must we do to gain eternal life? And what does the Bible say? How do we read the Bible? Well, here’s a little truth on these questions that we should notice. In essence, the answer is that we should love God and love our neighbor. But to be clear, Jesus tells us a story of about loving our neighbor and how that involves extending mercy. Then Jesus simply says, “Go and do likewise.” Stop trying to justify ourselves like the lawyer, saying “Yes, but…” and just hear Jesus say “Go and do likewise.”

“Go and do likewise.” ~ Jesus

 

The Church: God’s New Future Unleashed

It isn’t any secret that Christianity in the United States is facing some challenges. In a post-Christendom society churches are getting smaller and even closing. There are likely many reasons for this but that is also why there continues to be a market for books on growing churches, connecting with the unchurched, and reaching the next generations (Millennials, iGeneration, etc…).

Now I love reading and have nothing against such books per se. However, when we open our Bible up to the book of Acts, what we have is a summons to receive the Spirit so that we may fully live life as a follower of Jesus. That’s what repentance and baptism is (Acts 2:38). Nothing said about growing churches, reaching the next generation and so forth, just a summons to repentance and baptism. That’s because the way we participate in the kingdom and journey on mission with God is by the power of the Spirit under the authority of Jesus Christ. That is, we submit our lives to Jesus and are formed by the Holy Spirit to live life as Jesus lived.

Luke gives us a description of what happened with the community of believers in Jerusalem when they responded to this summons. Acts 2:42-47:

The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. All the believers were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.

I believe we should read this as a description rather than a prescription. In other words, rather than trying reduplicate or mirror everything we read exactly as we think it was done then, Luke’s description is meant to evoke our own imaginations. What might happen when we allow the Holy Spirit to (re)form us as people living in the name of Jesus?

The answer to that question will vary from one local community to another, though I do believe that there will be some commonalities. Commonalities like remaining committed to apostolic teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer, as well as demonstrating the goodness of God — loving God, loving neighbor — to everyone. The result will always be putting into motion the kingdom way of life that Jesus proclaimed and faithfully lived, even to the point of being put to death on the cross. It is a way of life shaped by the cruciform-character and kingdom-oriented life of Jesus.

Bottom line, what we read in Acts is what happens when we are formed by the Spirit to live as faithful followers of Jesus. As a church on mission with God, we become the new future that God has unleashed into the present.

Let’s be this church!