Tag Archives: spirituality

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)

That’s why I love the story I heard in the news last week about Giuseppe Berardelli, a priest in Italy. He died from the Coronavirus after giving his respirator to a younger person in need. Now a younger me would have said “But he’s a Catholic…” Today though, I say, “Yes he was a Catholic, but  what matters is that in his death he showed us another example of what it looks like to be sanctified and sent into the world just as Jesus was.” Shaped by the virtues of humility and servitude, he loved someone younger than him with the love of Jesus because he knows that such love is the embodiment of the truth God has revealed in Jesus. 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.

One: On Mission with God

This is the prerecorded message that I preached for the Newark Church of Christ this past Sunday. The message, One: On Mission with God, is based on John 17:15-24 and is about the church being sanctified and sent as followers of Jesus united in our participation in the mission of God. The message is also challenges the notion that the basis of Christian unity is based on adhering to a list of dogmas and rules that have often divided churches, hindering their participation in the mission 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!

Post-Christendom America: Living as Church in the New Reality

In the new post-Christendom society of America, Christianity has lost the positional power of having dominion over society as it once did in the days of Christendom. Without the positional power, Christians are only left with the power of witness. Yet many Christians are in denial of this cultural shift in America. Though nothing speaks louder to Christianity’s loss of dominion than when certain leaders tell Christians that they must attempt to exercise positional power by voting or lose America.

Empty Church Building

I’m referring to an example I shared in my previous post Post Christendom America: Understanding and Accepting the New Reality in which Franklin Graham saying urged Christians to vote on a Facebook post saying, “Make sure that you are registered to vote, otherwise we will lose our country.” That Christians must vote or lose is telling. That is, if the only way we believe that voting is the only way that some “Christian” goal is achieved, then we’ve already lost (and if we don’t see the loss then why must we vote or lose?). We’ve lost our influence in America and we’ve lost the way of God’s kingdom which only comes by way of the cross.

All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them.” – Jesus of Nazareth, Mark 8:34-35.

These were the words that inspired the slain missionary Jim Elliot to write in his journal “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” Yes, Jim Elliot penned was writing in a very different context but I believe they are appropriate for Christians facing the challenge of a post-Christendom society and the loss of Christian influence. Why? Because I believe that by understanding and accepting the loss of Christendom power, new space opens for thinking about how to live as faithful followers of Jesus in a post-Christendom society. By understanding and accepting the loss, we can return to the way of Christ and learn to regain the power of the Spirit-filled witness by following Jesus. So there’s a paradox at work here in that by losing, Christians stand to gain which is also a gain for our local churches.

The question we must ask is whether we can let go of the assumed right to win, carry instead the cross and follow Jesus to his cross? Doing so is how we embody the gospel  because the good news of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God. Because the wisdom of God is Christ-crucified (cf. 1 Cor 1:23-24). It’s not by adopting any political power or platform and voting so as to see certain laws pass, it’s by laying down our need to win and trust that God can bring about his kingdom through our willingness to carry the cross of Christ.

Now I’m not opposed to voting nor am I saying that Christians can’t vote. But there’s a difference between voting and spending our energy trying to convince other Christians to not only vote but also who to vote for (and who they shouldn’t vote for). The later makes us part of the world manifested in serving as an extension to the political parties of society, which obscures our identity as the church because we can’t embody the gospel if when the focus is winning a political election.

So here is how we live as the church in the new post-Christendom reality. We make following Jesus our singular focus so that we may learn to embody the gospel he proclaimed—the kingdom of God—in the new context, the new reality. That means getting more involved as a local church and not just for worship and fellowship but also serving together in the local community. A good place to start might be going on a prayer walk together, not stopping people to pray for them but praying quietly for the people and places you see. Out of this praying together, comes listening and learning for the ways in which God is already at work in the local community and how God is gifting the local church to serve. This means becoming present in the community but not as heroes, experts, and authoritarians, instead just as servants seeking to do good and even collaborate with the community where that is possible.

Here are some of the ways we do this in the church I serve, the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, Delware:

  • The People’s House: A ministry that works with the local hospital by providing free housing for families from out of town who have a loved-one staying in the hospital.
  • Blue Hens for Christ: This is our campus mission on the University of Delaware but in addition to leading students to follow Jesus, we help international students learn English and the BHC students also engage in service-oriented projects.
  • Food-Run/Pantry: The church operates a substantial food pantry for families in need and every Friday we take additional food into a couple of nearby neighborhoods. The groceries from our food run is supplied by supermarkets through a rejoined food pantry.

These are just some examples and I’m only sharing them as an example. Doing so doesn’t mean we have fully figured out how to navigate the new post-Christendom reality as follower of Jesus but we are learning.

At the end of the day, there isn’t any going back or turning the clock back to the era of Christendom, so the only way is forward into the murky waters of a post-Christendom and post-Christian society. The way forward isn’t promised to be easy and the good that God can and will bring, is not likely to be fully seen in our lifetime. But like all the people of faith listed in Hebrews that didn’t receive what was promised, let’s run this race with our eyes fixed on Jesus and not on the temporal positional power of state politics.

Post Christendom America: Understanding and Accepting the New Reality

Christianity in America is currently in somewhat of a precarious state. Many local churches are declining, with some even closing, and while the influence of Christianity’s past is still evident, it is increasingly contested and rejected by the populace. The beliefs and values embraced by society reflects a growing acceptance of religious pluralism. We now see the convergence of humanism and secularism expressed through the American lens of individual liberty, which is welcomed under the rubric of tolerance.

Empty Church Building

Now I’m neither celebrating nor lamenting the changes that have taken place in America. I’m simply trying to name what is happening with the intention that I might be of some help to Christians and local churches in navigating the new challenges we face in the wake of such changes in culture.

One of these challenges is facing the reality that Christendom is over. By Christendom, I am talking about the importation of post-Constantinian Christianity from Europe into America in which the culture of society was heavily influenced by the power and prevalence of Christianity. By saying that Christendom is over, I am speaking in a proleptic sense in which its future death is already a conclusion or prognosis like that of a person diagnosed with stage-4 pancreatic cancer. That is, even though the vestiges of Christendom are still visible in America, the future fate of Christendom is already known and it’s evident by loss of Christianity’s influence in American culture.

The challenge for local churches and the Christians who make up those churches is learning to live as faithful followers and witnesses of Jesus in a post-Christendom society. Part of that challenge is overcoming any denial, though that is easier said than done. As Douglas John Hall points out:

In some places, including much of our own continent, it can even appear that Christendom is alive and well, unless one looks beneath the surface. In such contexts, Christian congregations and even whole denominations are able to carry on as usual, as if nothing had happened. But this response is often visibly contrived, and it is viable only as long as the economic conditions of churches are relatively sound. With each new decade, more and more Christians are driven to realize the watershed through which Christendom is passing (“The End of Christendom and the Future of Christianity,” p. 4).

In other words, the relative “success” of a local church is enough to obscure the reality of what is taking place. Christians are likely only hit with the post-Christendom reality when they see the decline of Christianity’s influence in visible manifestations. These manifestations might be the realization that once effective evangelism programs are no longer effective, that the small crowd of gathered worshipers are mostly over the age of fifty, or even seeing a church close for good.

Another challenge, it accepting the loss of Christendom and learning to live as the church in a post-Christendom culture. Many Christians are still trying to preserve a Christendom culture and in doing so, hinder learning how to live as “exiles” participating in the mission of God among a secular society that once was Christian but is no more.

One recent example is Franklin Graham encouraging Christians to vote saying, “Make sure that you are registered to vote, otherwise we will lose our country.” Can the post-Christendom reality not be any more clear when the suggested way for Christians to avoid losing is voting in an election? Can we not see the death of Christendom when fear is the motivation for engaging in state politics, a coercive form of power, in an effort to retain Christian interests?

Now don’t misunderstand me. I’m neither opposed to Christians voting nor am I trying to suggest whether Christians should or should not vote. Voting isn’t the problem per se. What is the problem is the suggestion that Christians must vote or lose. Franklin Graham’s plea begs the question of what is it that Christians stand to lose? A worldly kingdom or the kingdom of God? Which kingdom are Christians really fighting for if the fear of losing America, or any other nation, is what motivates their political engagement?  The suggestion is just another example of the way Christians fail to understand and accept the post-Christendom reality that is America in the twenty-first century.

But in coming to the point where Christian are implored to vote if they wish to win, perhaps we can see the futility in clinging to the vestiges of Christendom. If so, then there might just be some space opening up for reimagining how local churches can live as faithful followers of Jesus in a post-Christendom society. For that, stay tuned.

Don’t Let The Political Tail Wag The Dog!

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

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

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

Politics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Scripture as Followers of Jesus

Reading the Bible is as necessary to living as a Christian as sleep is in living as a healthy person. Continuously deprive ourselves of sleep and it’s our health that suffers. As Christians, deprive ourselves of reading the Bible and our faith will certainly suffer. But just as we can have habits that make sleeping more difficult, like eating right before bedtime, it’s possible to read the Bible in ways that actually makes living our faith more difficult. This is why it’s not just important that we read the Bible but it’s also important to think about how we read the Bible.

Coffee and BibleIn my experience as a pastor, there are some ways in which Christians read the Bible that are unhelpful, at best, and may in fact hinder discipleship. These include readings that ignore the context, dogmatic proof-texting or cherry-picking, and readings that focus simply knowing the times and dates of presumed prophetic event to come, and prosperity readings, to name a few.

Part of the problem is that there just does not seem to be enough attention given to thinking about and learning how to read the Bible. There’s plenty of encouragement towards reading the Bible but seemingly little attention given to the how of reading the Bible. That must change and it must change because as Christians, we are called to follow Jesus.

So as followers of Jesus, we ought to read the Bible in order to become more like him so that we may more faithfully embody the good news of the kingdom of God like Jesus did. That means we must go beyond just a reading of scripture that says, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.” The Bible says a lot of things but that neither settles the matter nor does it mean we just automatically do ________ because the Bible says so (which is impossible anyway). Instead, I want to propose that we must ask about how Jesus lived the ________ teaching in ________ passage of scripture from both the Old and New Testament.

Take for example two passages of scripture, one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament. First, Jeremiah 29:4-7

“The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims to all the exiles I have carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare.”

and then, 1 Peter 2:11-12

“Dear friends, since you are immigrants and strangers in the world, I urge that you avoid worldly desires that wage war against your lives. Live honorably among the unbelievers. Today, they defame you, as if you were doing evil. But in the day when God visits to judge they will glorify him, because they have observed your honorable deeds.” – 1 Peter 2:11-12

The historical context for each passage is different. Jeremiah is addressing how the people of Judah should live in exile, whereas Peter is addressing how Christians in Asian Minor should live as people whose faith makes them exiles among society. The common thread in each passage is that both passages are addressing the way God’s people should live within a society that is not their true home. Another common thread is that as we read each passage, we know that we are not facing the same exact circumstances as the people of Judah and Asia Minor.

So instead of reading each passage and literally transposing it’s instructions onto our own circumstances, I believe we must start with the question of how do we see the teaching of these two passages lived out in the life of Jesus. Answering this question is far from settling the matter of how we live (embody) these teachings and it is is a question that is better discerned within a community of believers. However, once we discern this question then we can also ask how Christians have embodied this teaching throughout history (tradition) and what/where God is working in our local community (culture).

This is the missional hermeneutic, in which Now we engage scripture, tradition, and culture together in a conversation. I believe this is where God opens space for us to reimagine what it means to embody the gospel. The result is a new way forward, that is both coherent with the life Jesus calls us to follow him in live and relevant for the local community we live among. As we do, we live the teaching of scripture among the community as followers of Jesus bearing witness to the kingdom of God.‬

Tell me what you think?