Tag Archives: Scripture

A Confession: The Blessing I Forgot

“Rejoice Christian! Your sins are forgiven and you have the gift of eternal life in Christ,” says the preacher.

jesus-crucified-08-2“Good sermon, preacher!”, says me the faithful, church-going Christian. It’s the kind of sermon I want to hear and it’s all true too. It’s nice to be reminded of such spiritual blessings in Christ and it’s good to be so blessed.

Then like a good Christian should do, I pick up my Bible and read. Today I’m reading in Philippians, a letter written to Christians by the apostle Paul.

And so I begin reading about how thankful Paul is for the Christians who partner with him in the gospel and how Paul is in prayer for such Christians. That’s nice. I need prayers and I’m sure there are plenty of other Christians who need prayers too. So it’s good to know that Paul is full of thanksgiving and prayer for his fellow Christians.

And then I read how Paul is actually “in chains” for preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. How terrible it must be for him to be confined to a jail cell like that but I’m thankful for his faith. I’m thankful too that nobody has ever put me in prison for being a Christian.

And then I read how Paul says, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Can Paul get an “Amen!”? Maybe a “Hallelujah!”? Of course he can. Now we got an idea for the next student devotional, the next church retreat. Hey… a good preacher might even develop a good sermon series about living for Christ, knowing that when we die — hopefully a very long time from now when were really old people — that we’ll gain our eternal inheritance in Christ.

Wow… this is going to be a really wonderful book of the Bible to read through.

But then Paul talks about standing firm in Christ and says… “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him…” (Phil 1:29, NIV).

I know those words were not written directly to me or any other Christian living today, yet those words are part of the story we’re called to embody. But when I think about the blessing of being included in Christ, suffering for Christ isn’t a part of such thinking. In fact, my first inclination is to say, “Thanks for such a grant but no thanks!”

Lord, have mercy on me… a sinful man!

Christian Baptism and Christian Identity

Among Churches of Christ, the subject of Christian baptism has always been generated a lot of conversation. Much of the talk has been about the relationship of baptism to salvation in Christ and the question of whether baptism is necessary for receiving the promise of salvation. Less talk, and perhaps very little, has focused on the significance of baptism as it pertains to Christian identity and how baptism initiates believers into a new way of life that is embodied in daily living.

Brueggemann Meme on Baptism

The other day I shared the above photo with the quote from Walter Brueggemann on Facebook. Brueggemann is aiming at the unhealthy and ungodly patriotism, sometimes called nationalism, in which the identity of Christians has been baptized into American values to the point that Christian baptism is failing to yield a new identity of faith and discipline evident in the way Christians live. But notice that the problem is a baptism issue.

I wrote the following article (see below) for the Chillicothe Church of Christ weekly bulletin last Sunday, May 21, 2017. I did so and am also sharing it with you because there is an important aspect of baptism that needs more of our attention. Enjoy!


On Baptism Into Christ

The church of Jesus Christ consists of those who have been baptized into Christ. Notwithstanding all the debates about the purpose and practice of baptism, this is a conviction historically held by all orthodox Christians and is importance for more reasons than we might always understand.

For Paul, the importance of baptism largely has to do with what we have become in Christ which is inseparable form what has transpired in baptism. So even though Greco-Roman society defined people by their social, ethnic, and gender status, the church was defined by equality and mutuality. Why? Because Christians have been baptized into Christ (Gal 3:27-28).

Baptism then signifies a change in our identity but at the same time, a change in the way we live is expected as well. We might recall how some Christians in Rome thought they should continue sinning so that the grace of God would abound. In response to that woeful misunderstanding Paul recalls the memory of baptism into Christ as the reason why Christians should discontinue in sinful living (Rom 6:1-4). However, in doing so Paul also recalls what has transpired in baptism. Namely that Christians have been baptized into the death of Christ where they are buried with Christ and then raised into new life with Christ (note: baptism is not what we do but what God does to us). Thus in being baptized we have been crucified with Christ and then raised in the resurrected Christ by God.

And this changes everything about who we are and how we ought to live!

Consider this… We all come from somewhere and were born into different circumstances. Sometimes we point to our roots, so to speak, to explain who we are. For example, I was born in Arkansas as a caucasian but raised in a small midwestern Indiana town. Having lived the past six years on the east coast among people of different ethnicities and national origins, I see how different upbringings shaped people and that’s okay to an extent.

To use a botanical metaphor, as Christians we have been replanted in Christ and our roots are now being nurtured by a different soil — the Spirit dwelling among the church. Thus we should be growing differently and increasingly reflect a life that is filled with the Holy Spirit rather than the “spirits” of our upbringing. So it’s not okay to justify unChristian living and unChristian values by saying that’s how we were raised because if we have been baptized into Christ then we have been raised anew in Christ.

And that’s at least one important reason for remembering our baptism into Christ!

Disruptive: The Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus

Nobody, or at least most people, do not enjoy having their lives disrupted. But for most of us, it does happen. Think of a horrific car accident, being diagnosed with a terrible disease, etc… When such disruptions happen, one thing is for sure: life will be different!*

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The crucifixion of Jesus was a disruptive occasion for sure. In fact, Jesus dying on the cross is really the preeminent disruption of history as well as the climatic disruption within the biblical narrative. As Jesus hangs nailed to the cross and utters in his last dying breath “It is finished” (Jn 19:30) before finally dying, what has transpired is a horrid and violent moment of injustice. Here hangs in death the Son of God, the one who has unconditionally loved those around him without any judgment. But now this Messiah has been crucified—nailed to the cross—like many other Jews who became a political threat to the Pax Romana. The death of Jesus now seems like a reminder that the power of the sword, wielded by a conspiracy between Jewish religious authorities and the governance of Rome, wins. This death, with its display of power, is symbolic of rulers everywhere.

But then came the third day, which we now call Easter Sunday. On that morning the tomb where Jesus was buried was found empty. The grave of death was powerless to hold Jesus, who has been raised from death. And now vindicated by his Father who has raised him by the power of the Spirit, this only begotten Son of God has overcome. Victory is at hand! The cross, which appeared as the mighty power of human authority on display, is revealed as the power of God that overcomes sin and death.

“No matter how much anyone says otherwise, death has given way to new life as the grim reality of the crucifixion is matched by the promise of the resurrection.”

The Pax Romana, which was never really true peace, has been overcome by Jesus who now appears saying “Peace be with you!” (Jn 20:19, 26). And now having born the sins of the world and suffered the cost of death, Jesus has won the victory through crucifixion and resurrection.

This is the preeminent disruption for sure and life will surely be different but not for the reasons we might think. We live in a world that still clings to coercive power and self-justifying violence as the means of maintaining authority over others. But no matter how the rulers of this world try, it’s a losing effort. No matter how much anyone says otherwise, death has given way to new life as the grim reality of the crucifixion is matched by the promise of the resurrection. The crucified Jesus has been raised from death as a promise of hope for all who believe. The old life of self-serving and might-makes-right governing, of which the powers of this world cling to, is done. The days of that old life are numbered, they are coming to an end. For there is a new life, and eternal life characterized love and peace, of which Jesus is the benevolent king.

Now here is why this disruption matters. It leaves us with is a disruptive question: On whose side will we stand? Will we choose the old life whose power expressed in death has been rendered impotent, or the new life of peace whom the crucified and resurrected Son of God, Jesus the Messiah, offers?

Let us choose wisely and not be stupid!

* A shorter and slightly different version of this blog post was published as an article for the Chillicothe Church of Christ weekly bulletin on Sunday, April 16, 2017.

Worship In Spirit and Truth?

I’ve heard more than a few sermons on the subject of worshiping God in spirit and truth. I’ve even preached a few of those sermons myself. Using the passage of John 4:23-24, the focus of the sermon always presumed a question of what are the requirements that God expects of the church in worship so that the worship is pleasing to God and thus offered in spirit and truth? The preacher then begins proof-texting various Bible verses to clarify what God presumably requires of Christian worship and how the church is to carry out that requirement. And if you’re from my Christian tradition, the Churches of Christ, that sermon will always include an argument for a cappella singing in worship coupled with an argument against the use of instrumental music in worship.

worshipinspiritandintruth

The passage of John 4:23-24 is part of a larger story about an encounter Jesus has with a Samaritan woman. However, the type of sermon I described in the preceding paragraph has very little, if anything, to do with Jesus. The focus of that sermon is the church and specifically what the church must presumably do to worship God in spirit and truth. Yet the focus of John chapter 4 and really the entire Gospel of John is Jesus. So do we see the problem with a sermon using a passage from John 4 that is focused on us, the church, and not on Jesus?

Regardless of what our views our on how the church should worship, John chapter 4 isn’t about that and if we don’t realize that then we’re going to miss the more important point. So moving on…

There’s this woman from Samaria whom Jesus meets at a well and asks for a drink of water. That was a surprise to the woman since Jews don’t associate with Samaritans. As the conversation unfolds, Jesus offers the woman “living water” which will forever satisfy her thirst and everyone else’s thirst who drinks of the water Jesus offers. It is the promise of “eternal life” (v. 14). This intrigues the Samaritan woman but then, and rather abruptly, Jesus points out her marriage situation. Whatever the circumstances are for why this woman has been married five times and is now living with a man who is not her husband, the woman now sees Jesus as a prophet (v. 19). Her marriage history coupled with her identity as a Samaritan raises questions about her suitability to receive the promise of eternal life. But it is these questions that prepare us for the twist in the story.

Jesus offers living water and says, “Come, thirst no more!” Now who are we going to believe?

The twist comes when Jesus says in v. 21-24, “…believe me a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

Jesus says to the woman, “you will worship…” The personal pronoun is in the second-person plural voice. In other words, here is this Samaritan woman with a questionable marriage history who knows that she and the Samaritans are excluded from the temple worship of God in Jerusalem but now Jesus is telling her that she and the Samaritans will worship God. They who were excluded will now be included. Jesus is the Messiah (vv. 25-26) and this Samaritan woman along with other Samaritans now believe in Jesus (v. 39). The assurance of worshiping God in spirit and truth is an inclusive promise because Jesus is the Messiah who comes as God in the flesh, full of grace and truth.

Let’s not miss the irony here either. In John chapter 3 Jesus encounters a Pharisee named Nicodemus, an insider who excludes people like this Samaritan woman and thinks he’s on the inside because he keeps the Law and its traditions… But unless he believes in Jesus (that eternal life is possible because of what God is doing in Jesus), he’s an outsider. On the other hand, in John chapter 4, she who has been an outsider becomes an insider because she believes.

So worshiping God in spirit and truth is about believing in Jesus. This point is underscored from the wider narrative of the Gospel of John when we keep in mind that God is both Spirit and the Incarnate Word. So while in the past God dwelt among the temple, he now dwells among in the person of Jesus and as the Holy Spirt whom the Father and Son have sent. We worship God in spirit and truth not because of how we sing or pray when assembled for worship among our local church. No… we worship God in Spirit and Truth, or even better, in the Spirit and in the Truth because we believe in Jesus and have received the Holy Spirit.

This inclusive promise is the good news for everyone who has been an outsider. Those who have been treated as an outsider because of their race and ethnicity or because of questions about their own marriage history and moral lifestyle are now included in the promise. Here Jesus is offering living water regardless of the past… regardless of whatever circumstances, sins, doubts, and so forth. Jesus offers living water and says, “Come, thirst no more!” Now who are we going to believe?

On Violence and Sacrifice: The Cross of Jesus and the Eucharist

René Girard, in his book Violence and the Sacred, which was published in 1972 and then translated into English in 1977, explores how violence is endemic among all people of every society. When blood is shed, there must be an avenging of that blood in order to bring about justice. Of course, attempting to bring about justice by means of blood for blood… blow for blow, establishes a perpetual and escalating cycle of violence to the peril of everyone. One only needs to read about wars to understand, as nobody really wins in a war since everyone pays a massive toll in the loss of human life.

If a society has a means of sacrifice, a surrogate victim who will suffer the cost of avenging the violence committed by others, the cycle of violence is disrupted. Throughout history societies have turned to religious rituals as the means of sacrifice. However, as Girard observes, the loss of such rituals so that they lose their meaning as they become increasingly banal leads “…to the outbreak of a new sacrificial crisis” (p. 125). This crisis is one of violence, as society turns inwardly and casts its need for retribution on each other.

As a human society, we need not seek to destroy one another for the evil we have done. For we do have a means of sacrifice, a surrogate victim (if you will), who atones for our evil. His name is Jesus, the Messiah. On the cross in which Jesus is crucified, he absorbs our sin… all the hatred, envy, selfish and lustful desires that often lead to violence, as well as our violence too. When we peer into the mystery of Jesus dying on the cross, we see the evil of our sin. However, as we peer into the mystery of the cross, we also see the grace of God, his love and mercy by which we find forgiveness of our sins. By peering into the mystery of the cross, we learn how to let go of our sin and extend such grace to other sinners rather than lashing out with violence upon them. But what happens if we lose sight of this sacrifice in which God offers up his begotten Son as the surrogate victim who absorbs our sin?

“For as we partake of the bread and wine, we remember the words Jesus spoke as he broke the bread and took the cup saying, ‘This is my body broken for you… This is my blood poured out for the forgiveness of sins…'”

For some time, the Christian faith has been in decline among North America. This decline is not something that has happened to us. It is something we, many of whom professed to be Christian, allowed to happen. Somewhere along the way, the mystery of Jesus dying on the cross became banal. Our ritual of peering into this mystery where we gather together in local congregations as the body of Christ to share in the Eucharist (the Lord’s Supper) gradually became more and more meaningless. It became a rote tradition we did at Christmas and Easter or, if you grew up in my Christian tribe, something done weekly merely to obey the command “Do this in remembrance of me!” which was inscribed on the communion table.

All the while, violence is escalating among us. Our society has become tolerant of violence and sometimes even seems to have an appetite for violence when it is taken out on an enemy. We Christians will acknowledge that Jesus teaches us to love our enemies (cf. Matt 5:44) but… we’ll find someway to dismiss what Jesus has said because our need for avenging evil is greater than our desire to extend the grace of God by showing love and mercy. Now the violence is turning inward, seen in the outbreaking of more violent protests and violent rhetoric aimed at cutting each other down. How does it all end?

As a committed Christian, one who believes in Jesus and seeks to follow him, I crisis begins to dissipate as we again learn to peer into the mystery of Jesus dying on the cross. This is why I love that my church shares in the body and blood of Jesus every Sunday as we gather together by partaking of the bread and wine. This is not just some empty ritual we do to check off a box that says we’ve now obey Jesus. No! This ritual, this act of worship, has much meaning. For as we partake of the bread and wine, we remember the words Jesus spoke as he broke the bread and took the cup saying, “This is my body broken for you… This is my blood poured out for the forgiveness of sins…” And so when we share together in the body and blood of Jesus, we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26).

What are we doing when we gather together to peer into the mystery of the cross by sharing in the Eucharist? We see our sin and realize how terrible and horrific it is. We recognize how much we have hurt ourselves and others, and in doing so, hurt God who is the Creator of us all. But we are not burden with this weight of sin that we cannot bear. For as we share in the body and blood of Jesus, we also see our forgiveness. We see that “God has shed his grace on thee” and we see that God loves us more than we can even begin to fathom. As we see the grace of God for us in the mystery of Jesus dying on the cross, we learn to extend that grace to others. It’s not always easy to do but just as God has loved us and forgiven us, so we understand and desire to love others and forgive them of their wrongs too. No longer do we wish them ill, do we seek to avenge their wrong with violence of any kind, for the love of God compels us to love one another… to love our neighbors and even our enemies.

And that, my friends, is how the crisis of perpetual violence is broken and the future of God’s kingdom breaks into our present day!

And Who Is My Neighbor?

Most people have heard the story Jesus told in Luke 10 commonly referred to as The Parable of The Good Samaritan. You can read the story here if you would like to reacquaint yourself with the story, which I would highly recommend. Why? Because despite the casual familiarity society has with this story, which has undoubtedly served as the inspiration for the names of numerous “Good Samaritan” hospitals and other “Samaritan” charities, this story really isn’t about a Samaritan.

Yes, you read that correctly! The Parable of the Good Samaritan really isn’t about the Samaritan whom, by the way, is never described as good (or bad) in the actual text. So while we may derive a side point about the virtuous character of the Samaritan, it’s not the main point of the story.

The story is actually about a conversation between a Jewish lawyer and Jesus. The lawyer approached Jesus wanting to “test” him by asking him a question about how he may inherit eternal life (v. 25). Wisely, Jesus turns the tables on his little religious test and asks him about what the Law says. More importantly, Jesus asks this lawyer about how he reads the Law (v. 26). It’s sort of analogous to saying “What does the Bible say about inheriting eternal life? How do you read the Bible?” That’s important because in becomes clear as the story unfolds that Jesus and this lawyer don’t read the Law exactly the same. Their hermeneutic for understanding what is necessary for inheriting eternal life is different. It begs the question of us, as we read the story, as to whether our hermeneutic differs with Jesus.

The lawyer responds by reciting what we commonly refer to as the greatest commands: 1) love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and 2) love your neighbor as yourself (v. 27) (see also Matt 22:36-40; Mk 12:28-31). If this lawyer was simply taking a test, he would have passed because he is right that about loving God and neighbor. The problem is his understanding of what it means to love your neighbor as yourself. He doesn’t want to really love every neighbor as himself and so to justify himself, he asks Jesus just who his neighbor really is (v. 29).

In turn, Jesus responds by telling him a story… Well you know the story. But the shocking part of the story is that of all the characters Jesus could have chosen to play the role of hero in the story, Jesus chose a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans hated each other with an enmity that was full of mutual distrust, discrimination, and animosity. And yes, Jesus knew this and that’s the point. Because Jesus is saying to this Jewish lawyer is that the Samaritans, whom he hates, are his neighbor too and if he wants to have a place in the kingdom of God then he must learn to love the Samaritans as his neighbor and that looks something like how the hero Samaritan of the story loved the man who was viciously assaulted along the roadside.

“…we may never realize just how much we attempt to justify ourselves, just like the Jewish lawyer, so that we don’t have to love our neighbors as ourselves.”

So where do we find ourselves in this story? Who are we more like? The Samaritan or the Jewish lawyer? Of course, we want to become like Jesus but to do that we first need to ask if we’re not more like the Jewish lawyer than we realize. If we don’t discern that question then we may never realize just how much we attempt to justify ourselves, just like the Jewish lawyer, so that we don’t have to love our neighbors as ourselves.

When Jesus made the hero of his story a Samaritan, he was saying that our neighbors include those we regard as enemies, those we may fear, and even those we may discriminate against in one fashion or another. Had it been a White American evangelical Christian approaching Jesus like this Jewish lawyer, who would have been the hero of the story Jesus told? I think the hero of the story would have been a Muslim father from Pakistan, Egypt, etc… Or a LBGTQ Feminist girl attending college at Harvard, Stanford, etc… or a young Black male living in Chicago, Baltimore, etc… Or a Latino woman originally from Honduras, Mexico, etc… Or a… The list can go on and on and on.

The point is that our neighbors are also Muslims, LBGTQ people, Blacks and Latinos, and whoever else we think of as different from us. Jesus told the Jewish lawyer to go do as the Samaritan did and extend mercy to our neighbors. We don’t have to agree with our neighbor, share their same religious and political views, or even like their way of life but we must love them as ourselves by showing them mercy − doing acts of mercy as we have the opportunity. In fact, we’ll never see the kingdom of God unless we can learn to show mercy and be their neighbor by loving them.

“Until we learn to love these neighbors are ourselves, we are the Jewish lawyer!”

I’ll push this even farther because it is time we get the point. The currency of our gospel, the gospel of Jesus Christ, is that we love God by loving others… we love one another but we also love our neighbors and even our enemy neighbors. It doesn’t matter what we preach and teach if we cannot love our neighbors as ourselves! To paraphrase Paul somewhat, if we cannot love our neighbors then we are as useless as a noisy gong.

Let’s be more than a useless noisy gong. We believe that we are called to be witnesses of Jesus, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God to the world. Very good! But remember that begins by loving our neighbors and the best place to begin is right in our own neighborhoods with the people living next door or just a few doors down no matter what skin color they have, what sort of lifestyle they live, what their nationality of origin is, or what their religious and political beliefs are. Until we learn to love these neighbors are ourselves, we are the Jewish lawyer!

Churches Seeking Ministers: On Renewal and the Way Forward

Over the last couple of years I’ve had the opportunity to talk with plenty of churches seeking a new minister to come serve with them. One thing that nearly every church has in common is they want to grow. They seek both spiritual and numerical growth that will result in fruitful ministry and this is a good desire. However, in my experience, many churches don’t really understand what they are wanting. That’s why I find this cartoon below funny… It’s all too real!

pastor-search-committee

Very few churches, if any, would say it in so many words but the truth is, most churches want growth without having to make any changes. In fact,

One of the questions I like to ask search committees is what sort of goals or outcomes does their church wish to accomplish with the new minister. The answers almost always includes evangelistic growth and getting more church members involved in the ministries of the church. I then follow this response  with another question asking about what sort of changes might be necessary. In other words, what must the church begin doing differently in order to obtain the results it desires? Most of the time the search committee struggles to answer this question, sometimes the answer is an awkward silence. Why is that? Why is there an expectation of the new minister to help the church go forward without any change? In the worst case scenario, any suggestion of change might is an anathema.

It is silly to expect any sort of future growth without change. Actually, it’s insanity. If a church keeps doing the same thing then it will keep getting the same results. Also keep in mind that every church is perfectly organized to get the results it is getting. So if a church expects something different with the new minister, change is necessary. If a church that has plateaued or began experiencing decline want to experience new growth, reach new people, engage in more fruitful ministries, etc… then something must change and that change is much deeper than just finding a new minister.

Without change then, the expectations of the new minister are unrealistic. Yet, at the same time, the new minister may have unrealistic expectations of the church if there is an expectation of change the church is neither ready for nor has had time to discern. And so it becomes a catch-22 with the only likely result being a lot of frustration. Sound familiar?

“The best barbecue is slow-cooked barbecue!”

What I want to suggest is a different way forward with some slightly different expectations of the new minister and church. What if churches and ministers had different expectations of each other? What if instead of expecting new growth and change, the expectation became discernment? This means the minister, along with other leaders (e.g., shepherds), and the church are listening to one another for how God is leading each other forth as participants in his mission? Together in prayer and dwelling in the word  (scripture), the minister helps the church discern how God might be working. Here the minister is helping the church to hear God’s voice as to what sort of changes might be required so that the church may obey God’s voice and continue bearing kingdom fruit. That’s what discernment is… hearing and obeying so that the church might faithfully participate in the mission of God.

This is a different set of expectations that not only opens space for God to work through his Spirit but also gives pastoral consideration to the reality that change is difficult. No longer is the cart placed before the horse, so to speak. The new expectation is discernment − hearing and obeying − rather than growth but with the awareness that such faithfulness will yield the fruit God desires in his own time. The role of the minister still involves preaching and teaching as well as equipping but on a path of discovery with the church, helping the church discern the way forward. Now instead of the minister having the responsibility of trying to facilitate change, for which the church may not be ready for, in order to bring about growth, the minister and church may grow together as they discover together where God is leading

This is admittedly more difficult as it requires patience and time. But keep in mind a little barbecue wisdom: the best barbecue is slow-cooked barbecue! And with apologies to those churches where I attempted change as a quick-fix solution for growth, I’ll admit that I’ve only learned this through some frustrating moments in ministry. But this is where renewal begins. It’s going back to Jesus and the his gospel, wrestling with what it means to follow Jesus as a local church and embody his gospel among the local context. It’s a question of discernment that takes place in prayer and with scripture, allowing God to chart the future of where he wants the church to go.