Tag Archives: racism

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. 

Welcoming Reconciliation: Embracing Christian Unity

As I have stated in the previous four posts, I believe the church is the living portrait of what God is accomplishing in Christ. That is, the church is the artwork of God which depicts the new creation God is bringing about in Christ. As the church follows Jesus in embodying the gospel by means of doing good works. the church serves as God’s poetry in motion. However, embodying the gospel means welcoming the reconciliation that God has accomplished in Christ but that is a challenge.

Welcoming Reconciliation

Whether we are talking about different races and ethnicities, different nationalities or  different Christian denominations, divisions and even hostility exist. That’s how it was for the Jews and Gentiles that Paul is writing too, that’s how its been in America, and in other parts of the world — past and present. Yet God has tore down these walls of division so that we can leave our racism, nationalism, and every other form of tribalism behind, if we’ll just see what God has done in Christ.

The apostle Paul says “Christ is our peace, He has made both Jews and Gentiles into one group” (Eph 2:14). The same is true for Blacks and Whites, Americans and foreigners, and even Democrats and Republicans or whatever affiliation we have. Christ is our peace, who has made us into one but we may never understand that if we don’t give our attention to what God has done in Christ, particularly in the crucifixion of Christ.

By giving our attention to the work of God in Christ, I don’t just mean reading the Bible more. Yes, read the Bible but remember that the Bible is like a window through which we are able to encounter the gospel Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God. Too many times people have failed to do this, turning the Bible into a weapon to justify prejudices and sectarianism. That’s why it’s not enough just to read our Bibles. We must read our Bible to encounter what God has accomplished in Christ. 

     “God has already accomplished reconciliation that we speak of — oneness and unity in Christ. It is an ontological reality already in existence, not something we must achieve but that which we must receive.”

We know from other writings of Paul that righteousness or justification is based on faith in what God has done in Christ. That is, having a right relationship with God is a result of what God has done (grace) through the faithfulness of Christ which we trust in (faith). Realizing this, knowing how God has graciously made us a part of his new creation, then who are we to hold any sense of animosity, superiority, and exclusivity towards someone else because their skin is a different tone then ours? Knowing this grace of God, who are we to deny fellowship to another believer because they gather for worship in a church building that has a different name on the marquee than our church building?

In Christ, God has already created “one new person out of the two, making peace. He reconciled them both as one body to God by the cross, which end the hostility to God” (Eph 2:15-16). God has already accomplished reconciliation that we speak of — oneness and unity in Christ. It is an ontological reality already in existence, not something we must achieve but that which we must receive. The question for us is whether we’ll welcome such reconciliation. Will we welcome the peace of Christ that allows us to live as one with God and each other, saying no to the wall of tribalism, be it based on our race, our national origin, or even our denominational affiliation?

I’ll be the first to admit that welcoming reconciliation isn’t easy. That’s why we have to be honest with the truth. That means first we have to be honest with the truth of ourselves, whatever animosity, superiority, and exclusivity resides in our hearts. Once we can be honest with that sinful truth, then we can be honest with the Truth that is Christ by receiving the grace God extends to us and extending that grace to each other. As Christena Cleveland says, “We must do the difficult work of examining our hearts and reflecting on our attitudes toward other groups in order to uncover, uproot, and repent of the deep biases that self-esteem and identity processes have ingrain in us. Then we must affirm our truest, common identities as members of the body of Christ” (Disunity in Christ, p. 111).

So what is does it mean to welcome reconciliation, embracing our unity as one body that God has made us to be in Christ? To answer this question, let me first say that I don’t believe welcoming reconciliation means becoming colorblind in a manner that denies the reality of our race and ethnicity. (read Nijay Gupta’s article Neither White Nor Black”?: Paul’s Case Against Being Colorblind). Similarly, I don’t believe reconciliation demands social homogeneity, which means we can disagree on politics and still be siblings in Christ. I also don’t believe unity is uniformity in matters of Christian faith, in which we must agree with each other on every matter of doctrine and practice.

Then how do we welcome reconciliation and embrace our unity? Ephesians 4:2 says, “Conduct yourselves with all humility, gentleness, and patience. Accept each other with love.” I suggest this requires listening to each other and serving one another by submitting to one another and praying for each other. If you’re not sure, go read the rest of Ephesians. This is how we welcome reconciliation. It happens by treating each other as though we both belong together, all belonging to the household of God, as people saved by the grace of God who have become a temple which God dwells among though his Spirit.

A Gospel Affirmation: Christ is our peace. Yes, we are different skin colors and different nationalities but we call each other brother and sister in Christ and that signifies us God’s poetry in motion. That’s a living demonstration of what God has accomplished in Christ. Come November, we may cast different ballots but we’ll still regard each other with humility, gentleness, and patience and that signifies us God’s poetry in motion. That’s a living demonstration of what God has accomplished in Christ. As we read the Bible, we may disagree on  different passages of scripture but from our common confession “Jesus is Lord!” we’ll accept each other with love and that signifies us God’s poetry in motion. That’s a living demonstration of what God has accomplished in Christ.

That’s becoming reconciliation, because Christ is our peace.

The Honest Truth

The church, universally and locally, is the artwork of God. Basically this claim implies that the church lives as a portrayal of the new creation God is bringing about in Christ. This happens as the church follows Jesus in embodying the gospel by means of doing good works. This is what I mean by speaking of the church as God’s poetry in motion, which you can read more about in my previous post.

The Honest Truth - Philippians 3.5-12

The challenge we face is with the truth of ourselves and the truth of Christ. We have to be honest with the truth of ourselves so that we can receive the truth of Christ. This was the challenge the apostle Paul faced when he encountered Christ while traveling on his way to Damascus (cf. Acts 9, 22, 26). He thought he was right in his loyalty to Judaism and persecution of the church. However, his encounter Christ resulted in a collision of the truth for Paul. What he believed was right and what he thought made him righteous, his Jewish pedigree (cf. Phil 3:5-6), was in fact wrong. 

Paul came to the conclusion that the truth according to his Jewish pedigree, the story he told himself, was wrong. So in being honest with the truth of himself, the truth of how wrong he was, Paul was able to receive the truth of Christ. Having received this knowledge, Paul reveals what honesty with the truth means as he compares his previous life to the life he now has in Christ:

“These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ. But even beyond that, I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have lost everything for him, but what I lost I think of as sewer trash, so that I might gain Christ and be found in him. In Christ I have a righteousness that is not my own and that does not come from the Law but rather from the faithfulness of Christ. It is the righteousness of God that is based on faith.” ~ Philippians 3:7-9

His honesty with the truth allows him to name what he once regarded as righteousness as nothing but “sewer trash” (other translations say, “rubbish” (NRSV) or “garbage” (NIV) but the word skubalon actually means bowl excrement).  It can’t be anything other because, for Paul, knowing Christ is to participate in the life which Christ has inaugurated through his crucifixion and resurrection. When comparing the truth that Paul lived by verses the Truth of Christ, there is no comparison. In fact, the story that Paul used to tell, the truth that he lived by, is now counted as a loss. 

However, Paul isn’t the only one faced with the question of truth. So are we because we are the stories we tell ourselves. Our truths, if you will, are the stories we tell ourselves and they include the multiple American stories, good and bad, even though these stories are increasingly in competition with each other. Yet, if we truly believe in Christ then we must see the deception in this kind of pluralism. If we confess as a matter of faith that Christ and the gospel he proclaims is the truth then the American stories we tell ourselves are not the truth. Whether these American stories are written in red or blue ink or with any other ideological pen, we must regard them as a loss compared to knowing (participating) in the gospel life of Christ. Such stories are certainly not anything we should be fighting for, as though participating in those stories is going to embody the gospel.

By naming these American stories as “sewer trash” in comparison to knowing Christ, space opens for us to participate in Christ in ways that were impossible before. The entrance into this new space is called repentance, in which we leave the stories we once lived behind so that we may fully participate in the story of Christ and his kingdom. In embracing this honesty with the truth, we need not protect any conservative image of America that denies the injustices of America, such as systemic racism. Nor do we need to jump on the liberal bandwagon, as though a better (progressive) America is the means by which we enter the kingdom.

This is call to be honest with the truth is a challenge for sure. The good news is that this call opens space for us to be people in which healing, justice, and reconciliation can exist. That is what I mean by the church living as God’s poetry in motion.

“The righteousness that I have comes from knowing Christ, the power of his resurrection, and the participation in his sufferings. It includes being conformed to his death so that I may perhaps reach the goal of the resurrection of the dead. It’s not that I have already reached this goal or have already been perfected, but I pursue it, so that I may grab hold of it because Christ grabbed hold of me for just this purpose.” ~ Philippians 3:10-12

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!

 

Christianity and Racism: What Might We Do Next?

On Monday, May 25, 2020 I watched the video clip of George Floyd being murdered by a Minneapolis Police Officer. It was horrifying to see the officer so callously keep pressing his knee upon the neck of George Floyd while Mr. Floyd was struggling to breathe and began crying for his deceased mother to come help him.*

Multi Ethnic Hands

Words are inadequate to describe what happened. I can only imagine how the family of George Floyd feels as well as the many black Americans who witnessed yet another black person unjustly killed in America. George Floyd’s name joins a long list that includes recent names like Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Botham Jean, Philando Castile along with other well known names like Martin Luther King Jr., Emmett Till, Mary Turner, and many others.

Since the murder of George Floyd, protests have erupted across America and even in other parts of the world. We see the frustration and hear the cries for justice. It is unfortunate that along with the protests, violence and looting has also occurred but we cannot allow that to silence the righteous protests against systematic racism and police brutality.

America has a long history of systematic racism rooted in white supremacy. Denying this history or downplaying the problem only makes matters worse. With the way that systematic evils work, people can unknowingly be complicit in maintaining this injustice without having a shred of racial bigotry in their souls and regardless of their race/ethnicity. That, of course, only makes addressing the problem even more complex but that should not never be a deterrent. I want to be clear though that I unequivocally condemn racism and racist acts, and stand in solidarity with all who are striving for racial equality in all of life — especially my neighbors who are black. Those who are racists must repent [full stop].

Having a black nephew, having witnessed overt racism among a church years ago, and having served as a minister mostly in multi-racial congregations, the Spirit has routinely convicted me to speak out against the evil of racism with whatever platform I have. However, I am also understand the need to be constructive and help cultivate justice and reconciliation. So this is my concern and when Christians ask about what they can do, I want to say “be the church” but that requires some explaining too.

When I say that Christians need to be the church, I have in mind the life that the gospel envisions. This is rooted in a conviction that the church, manifested in local congregations embodying the gospel as followers of Jesus, is the living portrayal of true life where justice and reconciliation exist.

As people learn to follow Jesus, they begin embodying the gospel and in doing so, other people of different races and ethnicities are seen as people made in the image of God. Embodying the gospel also allows people to be honest with the truth, including both personal and corporate sins, which opens space for confession and repentance. That’s because in this new open space of confession and repentance, the gospel is also the grace of God which forms people to forgive and receive forgiveness. From the gospel, people also learn how to love one another so that a community of justice and reconciliation forms.

In the meantime, one practical step that Christians can take is becoming more informed about the issue of systematic racism in America. First, have a conversation with other church members, coworkers, and neighbors who are black. Ask questions, listen and learn from their experiences. Sometimes doing so might come with other pleasant surprises. With one church, I was visiting with an elderly black couple who migrated from Georgia to New Jersey when they were young. Their basement was a display of all the pictures, tools, and other artifacts that had been passed down in the family. It was quite a history lesson on what life was like for black sharecroppers working on peanut farms in Georgia during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Reading books and watching films are also another way of becoming more informed. So I would like to make several recommendations:

  1. Here are some books I recommend which are all written by black authors.
  1. Here are several fairly recent movies I have watched that reveal the struggles that black people have lived with in America.
    • Just Mercy, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, Warner Bros. Pictures, 2019.
    • Hidden Figures, directed by Theodore Melfi, Fox 2000 Pictures, 2016.
    • Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay, Paramount Pictures, 2014.
    • The Blind Side, John Lee Hancock, Alcon Entertainment, 2009.

May the church of Jesus Christ live with humility and love, in the power of the Spirit, so that by the grace of God, his kingdom, in which there is true justice and reconciliation for all, may flourish! Amen.

____________________

* This post is a slightly revised article I wrote and sent to the Newark Church of Christ on Tuesday, June 2, 2020. The revision is the italicized portion in the fourth paragraph.

The Pentecost Message Today: Becoming The Alternative to Racism

This past Sunday was Pentecost Sunday. Many churches corporately observed Pentecost Sunday because it’s on the liturgical calendar that is followed in planning worship. Even so, #PentecostSunday is hardly trending news. For me though, as a pastor, the day is one of my favorite Sunday’s to preach because the more I learn about that day and texts like Acts 2, the more the events of the first Pentecost Sunday matter.

Pentecost Sunday

Since I wasn’t in Jerusalem for the event, it’s hard to know what the mood of the people was like then. What we know is that the apostles Jesus had selected were in Jerusalem, just seven weeks from when Jesus was crucified as an insurrectionist by the Jewish authorities conspiring with the Roman authorities. What they witnessed—Jesus being beat and whipped, publicly humiliated, and viciously crucified—was a vivid reminder of Roman rule.   

The events of that Pentecost Sunday began with an accusation. Speaking about the works of God in the tongues of all the different languages present on that day, some said that the apostles had too much to drink way too early in the morning. So Peter spoke up and began to quote from the Prophet Joel and the Patriarch David, quoting passages of scripture every devout Jew was familiar with. His message to the people was that the day of God’s salvation was upon them. What they were witnessing, with the fierce wind blowing and the apostle’s speaking in the different tongues, was the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon all, male and female, young and old. And it’s happening because the Jesus they crucified has been raised from death and exalted as Lord and Messiah.

Convicted as they were, they wondered what they should do. So Peter’s response was to call them to repentance and to baptism in the name of Jesus Christ (for the remission of sins) and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. It was an invitation to participate in God’s kingdom, the new creation that God was ushering in as a new covenant made by the body and blood of Jesus Christ. And participate they did, so much that within one-hundred years this Jesus movement went from virtually nothing to a movement so large that a philosopher named Aristides spoke of Christians as a new human race alongside of Barbarians, Greeks and Jews (Aristides, Apology, 2).

The Jesus movement from the get go was envisioned as an all-inclusive movement in which all participants were regarded as equals. Pursuing that vision wasn’t without struggle but as the apostle Paul later insisted, what mattered was their baptismal identity as all who were baptized into Christ—Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female—  were one (Gal 3:27-28). So whether people realize it or not, the Pentecost message matters because it serves as a catalyst for a new community where all people are loved as equals.

But this is where we run into a problem. Two-thousand years ago, the Pentecost message was new. Today though, it’s not and that’s not for a lack of churches. In fact, many Americans have experienced American Christianity, in its more liberal Protestant expressions and in its more conservative Evangelical expressions. What they found though didn’t seem much different from the rest of society. Apart from a few religious phrases unique to Christianity, what people found was a worldly church of individuals driven by consumer appetites clamoring for political power so that they can have everything their way.

The Spirit Poured UponIn fact, the gospel experienced among many churches, though not all, doesn’t resinate as good news. Instead, it’s become like a television rerun aired one too many times and now the people are changing the channel. Right now, America is slow suffocating under the weigh of systematic racism that has existed from the beginning, though it has certainly changed in the way it manifests its evil presence. Sadly though, the church in America has largely failed in embodying the equality of the gospel message proclaimed on Pentecost. Instead of existing as the alternative to the racism (and other inequalities), Christianity in America has often compromised with racism. Too often, Christianity in America has failed to see that God has poured his Spirit upon black people too.

So may I suggest that the Pentecost message today is a message for the church to hear again. If churches are going to embody the gospel that Peter proclaimed in his Pentecost message, then change is required. That’s because the gospel can only be embodied by a church that lives from its baptism, living in the name of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. The gospel message can only be truly proclaimed by people who regard all people equally and therefore embody the prophetic life that brings justice and equality for all into the present reality. Anything less is why Christianity in America is increasingly irrelevant.

Pentecost is the day when God poured out his Spirit upon all flesh, including black people. The Hebrew word for Spirit is ru’ach, which may also be rendered as “breath.” We may think of the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit as God breathing new life in Christ upon all people. How ironically tragic it is that the week before Pentecost a black man named George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis Police Officer by means of asphyxiation, prompting the protest of “I can’t breath”. It’s past time that the church in America hears the chants of “I can’t breath” and hears once again the Pentecost message, so that black people and other minorities may find a community where they can breathe.

Lord, have mercy!

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.

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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

Misreading Scripture

Christians believe the Bible is about the creative and redemptive work God is fulfilling in Jesus Christ. With all of the different stories and teaching told through different genres written in specific historical contexts, the Bible, stated in the most simplest of ways, is about Jesus. In fact, this is so fundamental that I can’t imagine any Christian who would disagree. Yet it’s still possible to read the Bible and miss Jesus, or at least miss what it really means to believe in and follow Jesus.

The Bible - Living As Participants in the Mission of God

In the message I preached to the Newark Church of Christ this past Sunday, I mentioned three lenses that Christians sometimes read the Bible through. Each lens appears legit because there is enough scripture and Jesus in the lens that the problems are easily overlooked by the indiscriminate reader. The three lenses I have in mind are:

  1. The Prosperity Lens. This lens, sometimes called The Health and Wealth Gospel, is based on the belief that God promises material wealth and physical well-being to those who seek him. Receiving this promise is a matter of faith. One major objection is that such a notion fails to account for how many faithful seekers of God, including Jesus and his apostles, all suffered on account of their faith. Right now, there are many Christians in countries like Iran and China who are suffering persecution for following Jesus. The fact is, that following Jesus just might result in suffering physically in some manner as well as enduring material poverty.
  2. The Soterian Lens. This lens is what Scot McKnight refers to as the soterian gospel in which the gospel is equated with salvation (The King Jesus Gospel, p. 29). The gospel is reduced to a concern of just getting people saved and thus about sharing the Four Spiritual Laws. The problem with this lens is that it relegates discipleship as secondary, creating a false-dichotomy between believing in Jesus and following Jesus. Thus, a person can come to faith in Christ and thus “get saved” but not necessarily become a disciple. 
  3. The Blueprint Lens. This lens, which is particular to my own history within the Churches of Christ and the larger Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, reads the Bible, and particularly the New Testament, as a blueprint or constitution for the church. The problem is that the New Testament, a collection of twenty-seven different occasional writings, becomes a new law focused on restoring an assumed ecclesiological pattern. Faithfulness to Jesus is about keeping this pattern rather than following Jesus and embodying the gospel he proclaimed as the real pattern for how his followers should live. (As a side for those among the Churches of Christ, to learn more about this hermeneutic and a better theological hermeneutic as an alternative, I highly recommend the new book by John Mark Hicks, Searching For The Pattern, 2019.)

As I said earlier, we can proof-text enough scripture and sprinkle in enough Jesus to justify each lens. One problem with each lens is that they shift the aim or the end (telos) of scripture away from the gospel that Jesus and his apostles actually proclaimed. Though the shift often seems subtle, the significance is important because it may (and has) hinder our participation in the mission of God.

In a conversation Jesus was having with the Jewish leaders, who wanted to kill him, he observed how they read the scriptures but missed Jesus. John 5:39 says “Examine the scriptures, since you think that in them you have eternal life. They also testify about me.”  Yes, that was possible then and is still possible now. Christians may not wish to kill Jesus but they certainly have killed in the name of Jesus because their view of Jesus looks more like a John Rambo than the King who became a slaughtered lamb on a Roman cross. Missing Jesus is how some Christians of the past justified segregated churches while saying that Civil Rights was not the business of Christians. It’s how some Christians today downplay the continued problems of racism or pretend that racism is a “political issue” that has nothing to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In some upcoming posts I will explain why the Bible is centered in Jesus Christ and oriented toward the kingdom of God. In more theological terms, the Old Testament and New Testament present a narrative that is Christiologically centered and eschatologically oriented. This narrative, read through the lens of Christology and Eschatology, provides the script for and hence opens space for discerning how our local churches might contextually embody the gospel on mission with God. But first, there may be some lenses that simply need to be discarded if we’re going to read the Bible in order to live as participants in the mission of God.

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.