Tag Archives: Scripture

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.

Let Us Fix Our Eyes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Hebrews 12:1-2

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.

Do Justice, Be Righteous

As I have stated in my last few posts, I believe the church is the living portrait of what God is accomplishing in Christ. Simply put, the church is the artwork of God which depicts the new creation God is bringing about in Christ. As the church follows Jesus in embodying the gospel by means of doing good works. the church serves as God’s poetry in motion.

Do Justice, Be Righteous

Our embodiment of the gospel as followers of Jesus happens as we become honest with the truth. In becoming honest with the truth, space opens for us to live as a community of healing, justice, and reconciliation. So let’s think a little more about what it means to live as a community in which there justice exists.

Let’s begin with the prophets of Israel, who did much more than just foretell future events to come. While the prophets proclaimed hope for the future, they also called people into repentance in regards to idolatry but also regarding corruption and injustice. For example, in a well known passage from Amos, the prophet says “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). This passage is one of thirty-four times in the Old Testament where the words “justice” (mishpat) and “righteousness” (tzedek). In short, speaks more of the resolutions and policies in governing and rendering judgments, where as righteousness speaks more about the character and conduct or the moral/ethical practices that people live by.

     “We read scripture to follow Jesus and so the Christ-Centered and Kingdom-Oriented life that scripture proclaims must shape our imaginations for doing justice and being righteous as followers of Jesus.”

In surveying the way justice and righteousness are used as a pairing, Moshe Weinfeld says they refer not only “to the proper execution of justice, but rather expresses, in a general sense, social justice and equity, which is bound up with kindness and mercy” (Social Justice in Ancient Israel and in the Ancient Near East, p. 36). This is the thought world that Jesus speaks and acts from throughout his ministry and in his Sermon on the Mount when he says, “desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt 6:33, the word dikaiosunē may be render as both “justice” and “righteousness”).

Thus far, I have only used the words justice and righteousness without any adjective, such as social-justice and biblical-justice. I’m reluctant at times to use the phrase social-justice because it often comes with a lot of ideas backloaded into the expression that have more to do with ideologies than the gospel. I’m also reluctant in using the phrase biblical-justice because the word biblical often gets used to claim support for whatever ideas people already hold.

That said, the prophetic call for justice and righteousness in the Hebrew Bible has social implications. In fact, God has always expect his people to live as a blessing to others, which has everything to do with justice and righteousness in a social-sense. However, our social practices of justice and righteousness must derive from the good news of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God as it is narrated to us within scripture. We read scripture to follow Jesus and so the Christ-Centered and Kingdom-Oriented life that scripture proclaims must shape our imaginations for doing justice and being righteous as followers of Jesus.

This is why Jesus tells us to “desire first and foremost” the kingdom of God. However, that can’t happen if our sense of justice and righteousness is filtered through Democrat and Republican politics, or any other ideology. When political ideologies frame our understanding of justice and righteousness, the only thing we end up seeking is what we deem is good for us and the politic idol ideology that forms our thinking.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus goes on to say “you should treat people in the same way that you want people to treat you; this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 7:12). As followers of Jesus, doing justice and being righteous begins with our own character and a commitment that we will love every person, treating them with honest, fairness, kindness, and dignity. Regardless of a person’s race, religion, sexual orientation, or national origin, we must have the character to do for others what we desire for ourselves if we are truly seeking first the kingdom of God and his justice/righteousness. That is why we have to listen and care for the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed, just like Jesus did in his ministry.

This is what it means to do justice and be righteous, God’s poetry in motion.

The Honest Truth

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

The Honest Truth - Philippians 3.5-12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poetry In Motion: A Vision for Being Church

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

Poetry In Motion

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

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

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

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

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

A Little Musing on Sermon Preparation for Pastors and the Church

I’m a pastor who preaches. Like many other pastors, most Sundays I will be preaching a message to the church I serve. I’ve been doing this for over twenty years now and still love doing so. Although I cringe sometimes when I read some of the sermons I wrote when I was younger, I’m thankful to God for his grace upon both myself and the churches I have preached to.

preaching-errorsAlthough my approach to preaching has changed over the years, the message strives to faithfully take what the scripture says and bring it to bear upon the life of the church. This is so much more than just exegeting a passage of scripture. You see, I believe that preaching is a way of helping lead the local church in following the way of Jesus by proclaiming the word of God as both a pastoral affirmation and/or prophetic declaration that is an invitation and challenge spoken in love and seasoned by humility, grace, and truth.‬ While that work is dependent upon the Holy Spirit, it does require sermon preparation on both the part of the pastor and church.

Preparation in preaching begins with following Jesus. Both the pastor and church must share a commitment in living as a community of disciples. How can a pastor lead people in following the way of Jesus if the pastor isn’t striving to follow Jesus? How can a church follow the way of Jesus if those who gather together on Sunday as the church are not following Jesus? I begin here because we all know examples of nominal Christianity in America, examples of Christianity in which consumerism, nationalism, and traditionalism have eclipsed the mission of God. Such idols obscure our eyes and hears from seeing and hearing the gospel. So good sermon prep begins by following Jesus in seeking first the kingdom of God (cf. Mt 6:33).

Preparation for the pastor also involves listening to people and reading books. First, let me say that reading theology, philosophy, etc… does not mean ignoring scripture or regarding the Bible as deficient in some manner. What reading does is allow the consideration of perspectives that otherwise might go unnoticed, cultivating a depth of knowledge and wisdom that shapes the message being proclaimed. In my own experience, such reading opens space for seeing more clearly how God might be at work in the world so that the church might continue participating with God in that work. However, in addition to reading and the exegesis of scripture, I am convinced that good preaching requires time spent with people, listening to their desires, struggles, and so forth. Listening to people is how the Spirit, in revealing the things of God (cf. 1 Cor 2:10), enables us to hear the word of God as a word to the people who will hear his word preached.

As suggested earlier, good sermon preparation isn’t just the work of the pastor. The believers who will gather for worship to hear the word of God proclaimed also have some preparation to do as well. The, whether as a monologue or dialogue, is not a passive occasion just to receive a “booster shot” for the week ahead. If preaching, as I contend, is to help the church follow in the way of Jesus, then our preparation as hearers of God’s word begins with the regular prayer of the psalmist, “Teach me your way, Lord, so that I can walk in your truth” (Ps 86:11).

Good preaching will always proclaim the word of God that we need to hear, which is not necessarily the word we will always want to hear. While hearing that word of God is impossible apart from the Spirit, preparation is a means in which the Spirit works so that pastors will have a message to preach that the church will hear. 

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.

Truth: A New Way, New Life

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

truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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