Tag Archives: spirituality

A Little Truth On Loving Our Neighbors

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

Bulletin Message Picture

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

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

But, but but…

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go and do likewise.” ~ Jesus

 

Promoting Peace: Churches Living in a Post-Christendom Society

This past Sunday I began a new three-week message series with the Newark Church of Christ called Neighbors: The Church Among Society. The idea of the series focuses on the question of how does the church, as followers of Jesus, live among society as neighbors. At face value, that might seem like a simple task and in some sense it is. However, now that many churches in North America, including the church I serve, find themselves living in a post-Christendom culture, the task becomes more challenging.

Neighbors - The Church Among Society

The challenge of a post-Christendom culture is that Christianity exists more and more on the margins of society. No longer is Christianity at the center of society and no longer is Christianity attached to the state so that the policies of society favor a Christian view. I happen to believe that is a good thing because there are beliefs and values intrinsic to the gospel that were lost, or at least diminished, when Christianity moved from existing as a mission-movement into a Christendom culture. However, with the post-Christendom shift, it requires churches to rethink what it means to live as followers of Jesus in a society the beliefs and values of the church differ from society.

So as followers of Jesus, how do we live as neighbors among society? Well, the prophet Jeremiah has a word that can help us reimagine our role as God’s people in a post-Christendom society:

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.

This text is important because it’s a word for how Israel should live in a society not of their choosing. In a nutshell, Jeremiah tells Israel that they should get used to living in Babylon and make the most of it because they’re going to be there for a while. That’s also an important word for churches living in the post-Christendom culture of North America today. Get used to it and make the most of the opportunity because it’s going to be this way for awhile.

Of great importance to the prophet is that Israel should “Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray for to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare.” The idea of promoting the welfare of the city is to “seek the peace” (NIV) of the community and doing so requires a particular posture.

To begin with, there isn’t a word in the text about retreating or resisting the changes taking place in society. Withdrawing from engaging in society is out of the question but unless a church is careful, that’s what happens. I know because I once remembered eating in a restaurant owned by a Muslim family that catered to the small population of Somalian refugees. The restaurant had been open for about four to five years. So I was astonished when the owner told me that I was the first Christian to ever come in and eat at his place. Such avoidance of engagement with non-Christians is the sort of retreating that churches must avoid. Just the same, churches must avoid resisting the changes. Promoting the welfare of the community doesn’t happen by boycotting Starbuck or protesting the local PRIDE parade. Doing so only helps erect obstacles that places Christianity in an unnecessary adversarial relationship with society at large.

Promoting the welfare or seeking the peace of society requires learning how to exercise good table manners. We enter and engage our neighbors as neighbors who listen to understand before we attempt to contribute to the good. We do so by extending to others the courtesy and respect we hope they would extend to us (and do so even if they won’t). In doing so, we avoid offering banal answers to difficult questions and challenging issues. Instead, we are able to contribute by becoming what Tomâś Halík describes as “competent partners respecting the rules of dialogue” (Night of the Confessor, pp 134-135).

Taking such a posture doesn’t mean or require churches to abandon any convictions. Instead, the local church is able to discover where God is already at work in society and participate in that work for the sake of the kingdom — the will of God done on earth as it is in heaven. This approach is possible in a variety of different avenues, from partnering with local agencies that serve people in need to planting new churches that also seek to serve their neighbors as they lead people to follow Jesus.

Whatever form promoting the welfare of the city takes, it will involve prayer. So I’ll end this post with the Peace Prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi:

Lord make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light
And where there is sadness, joy
O divine master grant that I may
not so much seek to be consoled as to console
to be understood as to understand
To be loved as to love
For it is in giving that we receive
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned
And it’s in dying that we are born to eternal life
Amen

The Spirit and the Mission of God

Last week I finished reading the book Poured Out: The Spirit of God Empowering the Mission of God by Leonard Allen, the Dean of the College of Bible and Minister at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee. If you’re looking for an accessible and very good introductory read on the work of the Holy Spirit, look no further. I really recommend this 208 page book.

Poured OutMy intention here is not to offer a review of Allen’s book but I do want to draw some attention to the connection he makes between the outpouring of the Spirit and the church’s participation in the mission of God. Before doing so, it is important to understand that the Holy Spirit is the third-person of our Triune God and therefore remember that God is Trinitarian: One God in three Persons, the Father, Son, and Spirit. Allen is right to ground his understanding of the Spirit in Trinitarian doctrine and I do so as well.

By grounding our understanding of the Spirit within the Trinity, we have a guard against certain abuses and claims that are sometimes attributed to the work of the Holy Spirit. This is because the Holy Spirit will never lead us to say or do anything that is contrary to the will of the Father that has been fully revealed in the Son. So if we want to know how the Spirit is leading, we must look to the will of God revealed to us in the life and teachings of Jesus (which scripture faithfully bears witness to). This will is about forming us to live as his people, following Jesus as we participate in the mission of God. So in Trinitarian language, as Allen puts it, “we can say that Christian discipleship means following the risen Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to the glory and praise of God the Father” (p. 71).

Understanding the work of the Spirit within the Triune Godhead won’t eliminate every potential controversy but it does help because it points us toward the mission of God. However we understand this or that text within the Bible or lean a certain way on some difficult theological issue, we know that our calling is to live as followers of Jesus. We receive the Spirit of God to participate in the mission of God as followers of Jesus, which is really the key focus of Allen’s book as it should be for us too. So when reading the book of Acts, what we have “is a commentary on the Spirit’s unrelenting focus on Jesus and empowering the proclamation of Jesus” (p. 103).

This commentary on the work of the Spirit must open our imaginations for the way the Spirit is seeking to work in our local churches participating in the mission fo God. Allen suggests that the difference sometimes experienced between the work of the Spirit in churches today and the work of the Spirit in Acts stems from the loss of mission. With the onset of Christendom, the role of the church aligned with the state so that the church served as a chaplain to society rather than as the prophetic witness to the inaugurated kingdom of God. Consequently, Allen writes, “With the receding of the church’s mission orientation, the doctrine of the Spirit was constricted, now redefined by the settled caretaker role that the empire required. The loss of mission correspond to a narrowed and tamed doctrine of the Spirit” (p. 116).

A local church cannot fully participate in the mission of God as followers of Jesus without power of the Holy Spirit. However, the catch is that if a local church wants to experience the power of the Holy Spirit at work among them, the community of believers must commit themselves to living on mission with God. What that looks like will differ, in particularities, from one church to the next but it will always be a faithful-yet-contextual embodiment of the gospel. Is that not what every church wants?

Come, Holy Spirit!

The Outpouring of the Holy Spirit Again?

Last year Jonathan Merritt wrote a piece for The Atlantic discussing then decline of Christianity in the US. The article was titled America’s Epidemic of Empty Churches and based on Lifeway research, Merritt mentioned the fact that roughly 6,000 – 10,000 churches discontinue to exist every year here in the US. This grabs my attention because I once helped close one of those churches. So now that churches in the United States find themselves living amidst a postmodern and post-Christendom society, the question faced is how do we continue participating in the mission of God?

The answer to the question of participating in the mission of God is huge but a significant part of the answer is the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit that forms us and animates us to live as followers of Jesus, to be the church on mission with God. Yet, in more than a few churches the work of the Holy Spirit is neglected and even suppressed at times.

The prophetic vision declared in Acts 2 is the outpouring of God’s spirit upon all people, men and women as well as people of every race, ethnicity, and nationality. The Spirit gifts these people to live as faithful followers of Jesus so that, as local churches, we may continue stepping forward on mission with God. But our need to be in control has a way of stifling the Spirit. So even though we neither own God nor rule over Christ but that doesn’t stop us from wanting to control the Spirit.

Here’s how that happens: With a proof-text of two from scripture and an ad hoc argument, many churches have silenced half the believers simply because they were born female. Then with other finely crafted rhetoric, movements of the Spirit among followers of Jesus are shut down simply because they don’t fit within the tradition of the church. What’s left is a stagnant church living in the boundaries of its own comfort-zone while admiring the acts of the Holy Spirit in Acts but never realizing that God is pouring out the same Holy Spirit again and again and again and… Then unexpectedly, the same local church is added to the list of 6,000 to 10,000 disbanding churches.

It doesn’t have to be that way though. I recently heard another pastor say something along the line of “Every church has a decision to make about the book of Acts: Either it is a historical documentation of the early church or it is a vision for the church in every generation.”

So what if the acts of the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts became a vision for our churches? What do we have to be afraid of in praying for God to fill us with his Holy Spirit? What might happen when we pray for God to pour out his Spirit again upon our churches?

Table Manners: Tomáš Halík and Cultivating Culture

Everyone knows that American society as a culture is undergoing massive changes. Like it or not, the social-political, religious, and economical landscape of America is different than it was twenty years ago and the end of this metamorphosis taking place appears nowhere in sight. The one certain descriptor is that America is a pluralistic society with a wide-ranging set of beliefs and values. Our understanding of the Christian faith and the sort of life that defines for us is just one understanding among many. So what shall we do?

I’ve been reading Night of the Confessor by Tomáš Halík, an ordained Catholic Priest in Czechoslovakia who once worked as a psychotherapist. In the tenth chapter, titled “God Knows Why,” Halík is getting at the different and often complex questions that people are asking. In response, he writes:

“We shouldn’t let banal questions (or only seemingly banal questions?) provoke us into giving banal answers. The self-assured gesture of evangelical Christians who place a Bible on the table in response is rather tawdry in its theatricality. The old saying “It says it in the Bible so it must be true” is not so easy to apply in this case. We are confronted by a whole set of specific questions that did not confront the people of the Bible, and if we substitute our problems for theirs, and relate answers to other questions to our own problems, then it is not the ‘Bible itself’ that speaks from our words, but instead our all-too-human manipulation of God’s word — and such manipulation is unavowed, unthinking, and often simpleminded. Such overuse and ab-use of the Bible is irresponsible not only vis-à-vis Scripture, but also toward those with whom we still have sufficient credit for them to invite us to dialogue and joint quest.

…There is only one realm that can, to a certain extent, be formed and influenced by the decisions of parliamentarians and individual consciences, and that is the ‘moral climate’ of society, which is a somewhat broader concept than “public opinion” (that other pretender to the throne of infallibility). The moral and spiritual climate of society can cultivate public debate — but again only to a certain extent. That is where believers should be involved, as competent partners respecting the rules of dialogue and conscientiously using all the resources at their disposal: Scripture and reason, tradition and the study of present-day sources of knowledge, awareness of responsibility before God and people, and the thoughtfulness that prayer and meditation confer on human reflection and behavior. (pp. 134-135)

Now if you’re scratching your head and wondering what he is saying, don’t fret. I had to read this again very slowly and think about it. What Halík is saying is that society is asking questions and as we enter into conversation with these questions, we should avoid offering cheap and simple responses. Society is asking questions today that were not necessarily asked in Jesus’ day, so we can’t simply impose the questions of Jesus’ day upon the questions of today and then apply the answers to the questions of Jesus’ day to the questions people are asking today. Doing so is disingenuous and simply saying something like “The Bible says, I believe it, that settle’s it” is an abuse of both the Bible and of those who raise difficult questions.

Rather than resorting to the “banal,” Christians must use the resources of knowledge available to reflect and critically engage in dialogue with these complex questions. The resources that Halík has in mind are scripture, tradition, reason, and culture (what he calls “present-day sources of knowledge”) which kind of makes him, a Catholic Priest, a good Weslyian too. However, most importantly, is the manner in which we engage the dialogue as Christians. We enter the dialogue not just prayerfully, which every Christian would agree with, but we also enter the dialogue “as competent partners respecting the rules of dialogue…”

For sometime I have imagined this dialogue as a large table conversation taking place. Fifty years ago in America it was a given that almost everyone at the table had the same basic worldview that the God spoken of in the Bible is the only God and his word, the Bible, was the ultimate authority on all matters of life. Today, things have changed and the conversation partners at the table are not just Christians, they also include Muslims, Bhuddhists, Hindus, Atheists and Agnostics, Secularist Democrats and Republicans, a wide-variety of social-political activists, and so forth. Some of these partners would even be happy if we Christians would just get up and go off to our own table (and some Christians would be happy to do so as well) but that isn’t an option if we are to participate in the mission of God.

So how do we enter into this dialogue taking place at the cultural round-table? We need to learn good table manners, which includes respecting the rules of dialogue. This means entering the dialogue with a posture of humility that listens to understand before speaking and it certainly excludes any sort of posture that demands others listen to us. Shouting at and ridiculing others we deem to be wrong won’t help at all. Furthermore, when we come as humble yet “competent” conversation partners willing dialogue about complex questions, we are able to have a say in shaping “moral and spiritual” climate of culture. That opens space for God to work through his Spirit, slowly cultivating a new culture as others make decisions about the direction of life. That is the keys to the kingdom!

Grace and Peace,

K. Rex Butts