Tag Archives: spirituality

The Coming of the Lord

With a few slight changes, this is the message I shared with the Newark Church this past Sunday. The message is called The Coming of the Lord and it’s based on Mark 11:1-11, the New Testament lectionary reading for Palm Sunday. Here is the text:

When Jesus and his followers approached Jerusalem, they came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives. Jesus gave two disciples a task, saying to them, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter it, you will find tied up there a colt that no one has ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘Its master needs it, and he will send it back right away.’” They went and found a colt tied to a gate outside on the street, and they untied it. Some people standing around said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them just what Jesus said, and they left them alone. They brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes upon it, and he sat on it. Many people spread out their clothes on the road while others spread branches cut from the fields. Those in front of him and those following were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessings on the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest!” Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. After he looked around at everything, because it was already late in the evening, he returned to Bethany with the Twelve.

I’m sure I’ve said this before and I’m sure I’ll say it again but I love preaching about Jesus and particularly from Mark’s Gospel. Perhaps it’s because out of the four Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — I’m most familiar with the Gospel of Mark, which isn’t saying much. But I do enjoy preaching from Mark’s Gospel and almost always find writing a sermon from this Gospel to be a breeze. That was until I came to this text, Mark 11:1-11, which we just read.

I don’t know what it is. Preaching is, in one aspect, a form of art, which makes the preacher, in some sense an artist. Not necessarily a good artist but an artist nonetheless and sometimes the creativity involved in artistry hits a wall and that’s what this week has felt like as I have sat with this text. I’ve read and reread over the text, and I’ve read what some other scholars have said about the text. I can tell you some details, factoids you might call it, about Jesus entering into Jerusalem. 

That is what this text is about. Jesus enters into Jerusalem riding on a colt with many people blessing him. That is, I believe, a good one sentence summary of this story that we read in Mark 11. So I ask… What is the message? What is the word from God in this text for us, who follow Jesus? How do we live into the life that this text envisions? These are the kind of questions I ask when I’m writing a message. But as I think about these questions, I remember that today is called Palm Sunday. It is always the Sunday before Easter Sunday, the Sunday that segues into Holy Week. 

In some churches that means the worshipers are given palm branches to hold during the singing of hymns before sharing in the Eucharist of Lord’s Supper. There’s nothing wrong with that nor is there anything wrong for those churches that don’t. But in reading the text of Mark 11, we see where the idea of palm branches comes from. The people in the story have branches. But why? What do the branches mean? Well, for Jewish people, such a gesture was done when welcoming the arrival of a king (cf. 2 Kgs 9:13). That makes sense considering that Jesus has commandeered a colt like the king who comes to save riding on a colt that the prophet Zechariah mentioned (cf. Zech 9:9).

It’s subtle but the people see the messianic signs here. Their response is a blessing. Mark tells us “Those in front of him and those following were shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord!’” That’s a blessing from Psalm 118. The word Hosanna is simply the Hebrew word that means “to save, deliver, or liberate.” That’s what Jesus comes to do… to save, to liberate us. That’s salvation. But before we get ahead of ourselves, there’s the other half of the blessing which isn’t found in any Psalm or anywhere else that anyone knows about. Maybe there’s a reason. Here’s the rest of the blessing: “Blessings on the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest!” Only nowhere in Mark’s Gospel has Jesus ever talked about “the coming kingdom of our ancestor David.” Jesus has talked a lot about the coming kingdom of God but not a kingdom of David.

That might seem like a subtle difference reveals the confusion that exists regarding the mission of Jesus. More specifically, misunderstanding about the kingdom of God and the nationalistic aspirations that so many of the Jewish people had attached to their messianic hope that one day God would restore the kingdom. They’re expecting the militaristic revolutionary that’s going to ride into Jerusalem and kick some… Well, we shouldn’t talk like that but that’s what they wanted. And if we’re honest, it’s what we may want as well. We see the evil all around us. As I heard someone recently say, the pagan worship of Mars, Aphrodites, and Mammon is everywhere. People don’t seem as interested in the gospel anymore. They sure don’t care about offending our Christian sensibilities anymore. So what can we do? 

Let’s call a boycott. If they won’t listen to reason, then perhaps a little coercive power will get their attention. Only Jesus won’t have anything to do with that. According to Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has made it clear three different times that he’s going to Jerusalem but not to conquer with the sword or any other kind of coercive power. He’s going to Jerusalem to die on a Roman cross (cf.8:31; 9:32; 10:33).

Talk about a real buzz-kill. Except it wasn’t. Jesus commandeered a colt so that he could ride into Jerusalem as a king because he actually believed the gospel. That is, Jesus believed the good news of the kingdom of God. So he trusts. He has faith in what his Heavenly Father has sent him to do. Jesus believes the cross is the victory, that the world is reclaimed for God, that is, the kingdom of God is restored not through might makes right but through self-sacrificial love. That in suffering death on the cross, the world will begin will begin to see where true life begins and will come not only to receive that true life but learn how to live it too. 

So as we begin Holy Week on this Palm Sunday, we remember how Jesus entered into Jerusalem. But more than just another Palm Sunday, we are invited to follow Jesus into Jerusalem and witness him redefine what salvation means through “his obedient death on the cross and in the exaltation to God’s right hand that will follow his rising from the dead” (Brendan Byrne, A Costly Freedom, p. 177).

Now if God would be so gracious as to open our eyes and ears, to see and hear, we’ll understand what the kingdom of God really means. We’ll learn what it means for Jesus to truly be God’s promise of salvation. And we’ll know what it means to faithfully follow King Jesus. After all, as N.T. Wright puts it, “The point of trying to understand the cross better is not so that we can congratulate ourselves for having solved an intellectual crossword puzzle, but so that God’s power and wisdom may work in us, through us, and out into the world that still regards Jesus’s crucifixion as weakness and folly. …Jesus died for our sins not so that we could sort out abstract ideas, but so that we, having been put right, could become part of God’s plan to put his whole world right” (The Day the Revolution Began, p. 22).

Americans and the Wisdom of God

Years ago, I went on a college mission trip where we went from house to house, knocking on doors, trying to begin evangelistic Bible studies. One of the questions we were told to ask as an “ice-breaker” was the question of who do you think God is? I can’t remember how anyone ever answered that question and to be quite honest, I’m not sure how I would have answered that question either. Today, is different. Ask me who God is and I will unequivocally tell mention Jesus.

Yes, that’s a very simple answer in needs of further explanation but one of the foundational claims of Christianity is that when we see Jesus, we see God in the flesh. We call this doctrine the Incarnation. The Gospel of John speaks of Jesus as the eternal Word of God who not only was with God in the beginning but was God and who became flesh, making his dwelling place among us (Jn 1:1, 14). Elsewhere in the New Testament, Paul recites an early Christian hymn that speaks of Jesus as the very icon or image of God and in whom the fullness of God lives (Col 1:15, 19). Likewise, the writer of Hebrews describes Jesus as “the imprint of God’s being” (Heb 1:3). Of course, when we consider the many miraculous acts Jesus did, they all point to his divine identity.

So, I am now able to answer the question of who God is. In fact, as I like to tell people, it’s not that Jesus is like God but that God is like Jesus because he is Jesus. That is, God is like Jesus because he has become flesh in the person of Jesus.

This matters much during this season of Lent as we approach Holy Week, during which, many years ago, Jesus was crucified on a Roman cross. Yes, God the Father raises Jesus from death and exalts him as the Lord and Messiah but now our answer to the question of who is God must include the image of Christ, God in the flesh, crucified. As Jürgen Moltmann reminds us, the image of Christ crucified means that God is like this (The Crucified God, 205). God is the one who has become flesh in the person of Jesus, choosing to work through suffering death himself on a Roman Cross.

Yet this just might be our stumbling block. We want to think of God as all-powerful, and he is, but he chooses to exercise his power through the humility of Jesus hanging on the cross. As believers, we’re called to participate in the mission of God by following Jesus and that seems fine until we have to choose between the power and wisdom of God manifested in the crucifixion of Jesus or the power and wisdom of the society we live among.

Remember, how the apostle Paul said, “Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified…” (1 Cor 1:22-23). Well, we might ask ourselves a question: If Jews look for signs and Greeks for wisdom, what do Americans look for? Who knows exactly what the answer is but perhaps science, politics, money, guns, education, and even conspiracy theories. Every day we are then faced with a choice of whether we will choose to live by the power and wisdom of Christ Crucified or will we choose some other power?

That’s a question that needs to be answered by everyone of us, both as individuals and as local churches. How we answer that question will reflect how we embody the gospel and whether our witness will tell the story of Jesus Christ crucified upon the cross or some other story we just slap some religious language upon. What will our answer be?

 

 

Are We Listening?

Per the Western Christian Calendar, this past Sunday was Transfiguration Sunday. The gospel reading, according to the Revised Common Lectionary, was Mark 9:2-9, which is the story of Jesus’s transfiguration. 

Within Mark’s Gospel, this story comes on the heels of Jesus telling his disciples how he will suffer death upon the cross in Jerusalem. This doesn’t sit well with the disciples, so much so that Peter rebukes Jesus. In response, Jesus tells his disciples that any who wish to follow him must first deny themselves, pick up their own cross, and then follow him. That’s the only route to the kingdom of God. So knowing that Jesus is indeed the Son of God, and therefore the true Messiah sent by God to restore the kingdom, matters. This is why God insists that we listen to Jesus but are we listening?

We live in a day and time when more information than we can imagine is available to us through books, podcasts, etc… all at the click of a mouse. Those who know me understand that I don’t have any issues with people listening to a variety of different voices on any given issue. Knowledge, truth, and wisdom are revealed by God in a variety of sources. So while there is nothing wrong with listening to what others might say, our embodiment of the gospel hinges on whether we continue listening to Jesus.

A quote often attributed to Edmund Burke says, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” I often hear this quote cited to justify the Allies waging war against Germany in WWII. Whatever we think about the necessity of war, evil did not rise up in Germany because good men did nothing. Rather, evil rose up because the majority of Christians living in Germany stopped listening to Jesus. Their eye site wasn’t set on the kingdom of God and so a charismatic voice by name now infamous name of Adolph Hitler came along saying exactly what their itching ears wanted to hear. In doing so,  they joined him in leading much of Europe into hell on earth.

If we don’t want history to repeat itself, then we must learn from our history. Such learning should teach us to keep our ears tuned into Jesus and our eyes set on the kingdom of God. The voice of heaven has spoken and he says about Jesus, “This is my Son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him!” (Mk 9:7, CEB).

A lot could be said about how we listen to Jesus today. I’m suspicious of those who claim that Jesus somehow speaks to them directly. I’m not saying that’s impossible but I am highly suspicious. Too many self-proclaimed prophets have attempted to speak for the Lord but have shown themselves to be false prophets, with the latest being those who prophesied this past November 3rd. So how shall we listen to Jesus?

Read the Bible. That might sound cliché but in short, it’s the right answer and I cannot emphasize that enough. So, read the Bible and read it regularly.

However, as we read the Bible, we must also learn how to read the Bible rightly too. We commit to reading the Bible because God has given us these scriptures to tell us about the good news of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God. The Bible is telling a story that centers in on Jesus, whom were called to follow, and is oriented to the coming of God’s kingdom, which we are called to embody. Our reading of the Bible is meant to teach how to live as followers of Jesus bearing witness to the kingdom of God. That’s how we keep listening to Jesus.

Baptism, Temptation, and Mission

I’ve been a Christian for twenty-five years and serving as a minister of the gospel for the last twenty years. I’m ever thankful for the life that God has allowed me to live. Serving as a pastor with a local church is a fulfilling vocation but doing so can be difficult. While some days are filled amazing stories, other days our tragic moments because that is what life really is. One day the sun shines bright while another day the sun is obscured by dark clouds and this is the life that God calls us, as followers of Jesus, to embody the gospel among.

With that in mind, let’s consider the baptism and temptation of Jesus according to the Gospel of Mark. We read in Mark 1:9-13,

About that time Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. While he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw heaven splitting open and the Spirit, like a dove, coming down on him. And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.” At once the Spirit forced Jesus out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among the wild animals, and the angels took care of him.

Unlike the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Mark doesn’t have any interest in telling us why Jesus was baptized or any of the details regarding his temptations. Instead, Mark’s interests is that we know that Jesus is not just a Jewish man from Galilee but that he is the Son of God on whom the Spirit descends and whom the Spirit now leads into the wilderness.

What we see in Jesus is the work of God. This is who God is and what God is doing. If we really want to know what God is about, Mark tells us about Jesus, the Son of God. This is what God is and is about. As Jürgen Moltmann says, “When the crucified Jesus is called the ‘image of the invisible God,’ the meaning is that this is God, and  God is like this” (The Crucified God, p. 295). God is revealed to us in the baptized Jesus who, led by the Spirit, did not retreat into the heavenly realms but was led into the wilderness and beyond into realms of darkness that will take him all the way to Jerusalem where he, the Son of God, will be crucified.

This is this same Jesus whom calls us to follow him (Mk 1:17) and in whose name we are to be baptized.

So what Mark is telling us about the baptism and temptation of Jesus also matters for us who claim to follow Jesus. After all, Mark isn’t telling us about Jesus so that we’ll just have a better Christology. He’s telling us so that we’ll follow Jesus, the Son of God, because where he goes is where we encounter redemption and participate in the redemptive mission of God. That is, after all, what we signed up for when we were baptized into Jesus Christ and received the Holy Spirit.

As a church, this is not a choice we have. The Spirit, which we have received, will always lead us in the way of Jesus, the Son of God, to the glory of the Father. So either we follow Jesus into the realms of darkness or we don’t follow him. Participating in the mission of God isn’t limited the heavenly realm of worship in a place we might call a sanctuary. Rather, joining in the work of God means following Jesus out among places where darkness persists with people whose struggles evoke grief and pain. That’s where the Spirit led Jesus and that where’s the Spirit leads the church. 

This is what living as faithful followers of Jesus involves and it is how the church embodies the gospel in a meaningful manner to those we encounter. The gospel that we call the good news of Jesus Christ isn’t a slogan. It’s a storied message about Jesus Christ but it takes a community of people faithfully committed to that storied message as followers of Jesus living among people for it to mean anything more than a slogan in some ancient sacred text we call the Bible.

May we remember our baptism and let the Spirit lead us as followers of Jesus among places with people where God seeks to extend his love and grace!

Believe: An Message for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

It’s the Fourth Sunday of Advent and the message is called Believe.* Let’s read from the Gospel of Luke and I want to read two passages today, Luke 1:26-38 and then Luke 2:13-14.

As I mentioned, today is the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the Sunday before Christmas. Or perhaps better said Christ Mass. We join in the heavenly chorus of praise for the good news that God is fulfilling in the coming of his Son, Jesus Christ.

But far from the setting of some grand cathedral with shining lights and the ringing of bells echoing throughout, the story unfolds in Nazareth. It’s a city but more like a small village in the Galilean region of northern Israel, far from Jerusalem — the center of Jewish social-culture and political power.

That’s where God sends this angel known as Gabriel. He’s sent to visit Mary. Except before Luke ever identifies her as Mary, he identifies her as “a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph.”

Now the story is getting good. Although Mary is a virgin, which will be even more clear as the story gets told, the word virgin also implies a young woman who is of a marriageable age. It seems like a small but important detail because now, the story not only takes place in a setting of no significance but we also have a woman of no social significance.

Think about it for a moment. Before this story, Luke tells us about the foretelling of Elizabeth giving birth to John the Baptist. Elizabeth is said to be “righteous” and “blameless” before God and in regards to the Law (1:6), but Luke doesn’t offer such commending words for Mary. She’s just a young woman and in a strong patriarchal society that values age, is ruled by men in a stratified economy, she’s a powerless poor young woman for a little town that anyone would miss with the blink of an eye. 

So it’s understandable why Mary is confused. The angel comes to her saying, [v. 28] “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” But then immediately Luke tells us that Mary was “confused” or as the NRSV reads, “perplexed.” The greeting of the angel may sound fairly emotionless but the greeting is literally one that speaks of grace, of bestowing a favor upon someone. Yet the angel is speaking to her, a young virgin woman without any social-standing among her society.

Sensing her confusion, the angel says to Mary, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you.” It’s almost humorous because in the same breath that he tells Mary not to be afraid, the angel continues says that she is going to conceive and give birth to a son she is to name Jesus. He then says to Mary that her son will be the “Son of the Most High” and will receive the throne of David, ruling over the house of Jacob forever without any end to his kingdom.

That’s messianic language right there. Such language invokes the message of Israel’s prophets and the promise of messianic hope that the prophets proclaimed to exiled Israel. Essentially, the angel is announcing the fulfillment of this messianic promise that God is going to send a Messiah to restore the kingdom. It’s a message that says God is making good on his promise of salvation.

But I’m not sure Mary heard a single word after the Angel told her she was going to conceive a child. After all, Mary’s only response is, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?”

It’s a good question. After all, she’s a virgin. 

When my brothers and sisters and I when we were young, my mother would always say keep those pants zipped up and you won’t have to worry about having a child. She was right. Biologically, it’s impossible to be a virgin and conceive a child. Which begs the question of how is this even possible?

It’s a fair question to ask. In fact, it’s fair to ask the other important question too. How is a child born to Mary going to restore the kingdom of God and make good on the promise of salvation? That might seem like a simple question to us but in Mary’s day such a question was legit because the powerful Romans were in charge and they ruled with brute force. Even King Herod was in bed with the Romans and only had power because of the Romans. Added to this is the fact that other Jewish leaders, some even claiming to be the Messiah, attempted to lead revolts, only to be crushed by the brute force of Rome. So to hear the angel say what he’s saying raises the question of how is this even possible.

But  listen again to how the angel responds. He says to Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son. Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant.” 

That’s how. It’s the work of God through the Holy Spirit, not the work of humans. God’s work. And there’s one more thing the angel said to Mary, “Nothing is impossible for God.”

With those words, Mary believed. Her response to the angels words are, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.”

But how about us? Do we believe? As I ask that knowing how sometimes people want rational arguments for the credibility of faith and I get that, to a point. But if we’re not careful, such a demand can actually be a way fo resisting faith.

Mary didn’t get the luxury of having all the scientific and philosophical arguments for how God could restore the kingdom through the birth of Jesus through her virgin body. The angel simply told her that God was at work just as he was with Elizabeth becoming pregnant and that was enough. Mary believed. That is, she trusted God enough to say “Let it be…” even though everything about this story is beyond all possibilities to the human mind.

But isn’t that what it means to believe? Isn’t that the kind of faith we’re called to have? To believe God can accomplish what is impossible for us to even fully understand?

The season of Advent is to remind us that the Lord, Jesus Christ is coming to restore the kingdom, so that there will be “on earth peace among those whom he favors.” But it’s easy to wonder sometimes if that’s really so. We’re twenty years removed from the most violent, war-waging, century in world history. We live in a nation that has been at war for about 225 years of its 244 year existence, where a hymn, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, sang “Glory!Glory! Hallelujah!” were first sang as a song of victory during the American Civil War. 

That’s why, at least sometimes, it’s really tempting to wonder if this is at all possible. To wonder if God can really bring about his peaceable kingdom through the birth of a baby to a virgin woman of no social-political significance at all. And sometimes in the wondering, God, in his grace to us, reminds us that nothing is impossible with God, that God is restoring his kingdom through Jesus. Perhaps such a reminder is this song, Your Peace Will Make Us One, by Audrey Assad.

Believe! In the form of a helpless baby, Christ has come. His name is Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. Born to Joseph and Mary but born so that God and sinners may be reconciled; born so that man may no more die, to raise the sons of earth, to give them second birth. Through crucifixion, resurrection, and exaltation, this is more than possible because it is the work of God. So believe and let this bread and wine that we are about to share in together remind us all that this salvation is possible because it is the work of God and nothing is impossible for God.


* This message was originally preached for the Newark Church whom I serve with as Lead Minister/Pastor.

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.

A Sanctuary for Healing

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.

A Sancturary for Healing

This embodiment of the gospel requires becoming honest with the truth. This honesty with the truth opens space for repentance, the letting go of the false narratives we have believed and receiving the truth revealed in Christ as the narrative we now participate within. As this happens, further space is opened for the church to be a community of healing, justice, and reconciliation, which is the embodied gospel.

So what might it be for a local church to be a community of healing? To answer this question, let’s recall the story of Jesus restoring the life of a dead man in Luke 7:11-17. The focus of the story seems to be the interaction between Jesus and the dead man’s mother, whom Luke also identifies as a widow. That’s an important detail because in her patriarchal society, she was depended on her son for economic survival and now that is gone. In the interaction, Luke tells us that 1) Jesus sees the woman, 2) he has “compassion for her,” and 3) he says to her “Don’t cry.” In other words, Jesus sees the circumstances of the woman and rather than ignoring her, he is moved to help her. To say it another way, full of compassion, Jesus acknowledged (validation) the predicament and despair of this woman in a manner that resulted in him showing her mercy.

In response to Jesus, Luke tells us that the crowd is overcome with awe or reverence for God, praising God. But why? Because Jesus had compassion for this widowed mother that moved him to care enough that he tended to her suffering before restoring the life of this dead man? Perhaps that’s part of the reason but it can’t be the entire reason. In the enchanted world that this healing is taking place, where secularism doesn’t exist, any form of healing or good is assumed to come from a god or gods. So that the crowd is now apparently praising Israel’s God is not a surprise. What is surprising is that the crowd knows, according to v. 16, “God has come to help his people.” Because of the compassion of Jesus, the people see God as a helper. The idea that this passage implies is that God actually comes to offer help and that is what healing is about. Healing is about being present with people, tending to their needs as a helper just like Jesus does.

This kind of healing makes us vulnerable because it requires us to open ourselves to others, which is always risky. Consider trying to comfort those who are grieving. There’s an article in Christianity Today that lists awkwardness, discomfort with our own mortality, and unrealistic expectations as the three reasons why Christians fail at times in helping those who grieve. That’s certainly understandable but we can bear this difficult burden if we’re honest with the truth revealed in Christ. Whether facing the haunting terror of not understanding why a young child has died or the discomfort of our own mortality because we have the truth — hope in Christ. Becoming vulnerable for the sake of others like this allow us to be a community of healing for those who are hurting.

So Jesus helps us reimagine what being a community of healing means. I want to end with three suggestions to remember that I believe will enable Christians to facilitate such healing:

  1. Listen well and don’t attempt to theologize or defend God. God’s big enough that he doesn’t need us to defend him and if you remember the story of Job, it all went downhill when his friends opened their mouths and began to speculate about Job’s suffering.
  2. Be willing to entire the pain of people, acting for their well-being. I need to say a word about prayer and healing. I believe in both prayer and healing but there is nothing in scripture that says God’s response to prayer and his healing excludes medical intervention, counseling, or any other sort of professional help. So when we encounter others who are sick or going through some emotional difficulties, a good way of helping might be offering to go with them to the doctor or counselor as support. Prayer is necessary but it seems rather simple and shallow to act as if prayer is all a person needs when their dealing with an illness, physical or mental.
  3. Don’t judge or pour guilt and shame on people. Most people, in my experience, who are going though a divorce, struggling with addictions, and so on, already have enough guilt and shame as it is. They don’t need anyone to pile more on them. What they need is someone to remind them that God is here to help.

Few people, if any, make it through life, without encountering some struggles and pain. So while we desire, as local churches, to be a community of healing, we’ll need such a community of healing too. So be gracious, just as the Lord has been gracious to us.