Get Out! Really?

I wrote this when the events related herein were fresh, but I decided not to publish it at that time because frankly when anxiety is up, we don’t hear well. Now that the election is behind us, perhaps we can re-engage in a more civil discourse.

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Perhaps you have seen the recent pontifications of the Rev. Dennis Terry:

“I don’t care what the liberals say, I don’t care what the naysayers say, this nation was founded as a Christian nation…There is only one God and his name is Jesus. I’m tired of people telling me that I can’t say those words.. Listen to me, If you don’t love America, If you don’t like the way we do things I have one thing to say – GET OUT. We don’t worship Buddha, we don’t worship Mohammad, we don’t worship Allah, we worship God, we worship God’s son Jesus Christ.”

See it for yourself at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/19/dennis-terry-rick-santorum_n_1364414.html.

When I hear stuff like this from those who openly confess to follow Jesus, I think of the quote attributed to Thomas Linacre (c. 1460 – October 20, 1524) who, upon reading the Gospels in Greek instead of the Latin Vulgate, said:

Either this is not the Gospels… or we are not Christians.

When I hear Christians saying the kind of vitriol Rev. Terry spouted, I think

“If this is the Gospel … I’m not sure I want to be a Christian.”

One would think that as a preacher Rev. Terry’s first commitment should be to represent the Gospel of Jesus Christ—first and foremost; all lesser loyalties are idolatrous compared to loyalty to Jesus. What Rev. Terry proclaim was not the Gospel of Jesus Christ . . . not even close.

The rhetoric of a Christian America has become so pervasive—and normalized—that indeed the Gospel now sounds odd even to those who think they are Christians. Furthermore, for all the concern that Christians are not allow to speak in America, I find that this kind of pseudo-gospel talk get a lot of public air time.

Given the continued strength of America’s Civic Religion (often cloaked a patriotism), it comes as a surprise to most American Christians that God already has a nation! That nation is the church universal. Every time I hear “God bless America”—and I do want God to bless the country of my birth—something deeper inside me screams, “God bless the Church!” While I don’t disagree that the America is morally bankrupt, a concern closer to the heart of the Gospel is the that church is also wasting away.

Some years ago Gordon Scoville wrote a small critique of the American church in a slender volume called Into the Vacuum: Being the Church in an Age of Barbarism. His thesis was simple: American culture is going down the tube. The American (namely, Protestant) church is deeply intertwined with American culture. Unless the church somehow finds a way to separate itself from American culture and rediscover its true mission, it too will go down the tubes. And so it has happened. Scoville published his little book in 1989. Things have not gotten better.

American evangelicals seem not to see that saving America is simply the wrong mission. The church’s mission has never been to save any country or government. That mission is far too small for the Church. Furthermore for a God who seeks to save people from ” every nation and tribe and language and people” (Rev. 14:6), a church that favors one nation, one race, one language, or one people group, has not caught God’s mission. A hymn that can only be sung in one country is not universal enough to be consistent with the Gospel or God’s mission to save the “world.”

As I said, God already has a nation, the church. This “national” language grows out of the church’s early identity with the people of Israel of whom God said:

Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites. (Exodus 19:5–6 NRSV)

The Hebrew Bible offers the vision of Israel being the priestly nation to bear witness of God’s goodness to the world. As such a nation, one of the overriding principles of that nation was to welcome the stranger and the alien and to bear witness to the nations far and wide of God’s goodness. However, the storyline, as it gets played out in the Bible, is that Israel was unfaithful to God’s mission and so at the end of the story, the once proud nation finds itself grasping to hang on to its national identity—while exiled hundreds of miles away from their homeland. Despite this exile, and no doubt, with the help of God, the Jewish people were able maintain a national identity even apart from the physical land.

In the New Testament—which most Christian groups claim as the only guide for the church’s faith and practice—the language of nationhood was applied to those who found themselves exiled in a world often hostile to their faith.

In one place, the New Testament says,

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9–10 NRSV)

These words described not some physical nation with land, leaders, and legislators, but to the church, that is, those who have committed their lives to the way of Jesus. The language of this church is inclusive: people who were once outsiders are now insiders. (Strange, isn’t it, that is only takes a few generations for immigrants to forget they were immigrants?)

When Christians can no longer unmask the rhetoric of power, they will no longer be able to tell when the Christian mission has been compromised. Manifest Destiny was an American doctrine not a biblical one.

Oh, Jesus certainly had imperialistic goals, to be sure, but they took a cross-shaped form where losing is winning. Jesus’ kingdom was not of this world and he stated that before the powerful of his day. Jesus told Pilate,

“My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?”

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Pilate asked him, “What is truth? (John 18:36–38 NRSV)

Like Pilate, American Christians have a hard time hearing the truth of God’s way. The way of conquest is not the way of Jesus. Yet, despite what Jesus himself says about the nature of his kingdom, political pundits still tell us we need to take back America for God. (I’m never quite sure who this “we” is: we Americans or we Christians?).

I find it oddly convenient that Rev. Terry’s rhetoric hides certain realities. For example, America was not just a “Christian” nation from the beginning; it was a denominational nation but not a Catholic nation. So, more precisely, America was a Protestant country. Neither Catholics nor Jews necessarily found the New World congenial to their faith.

The early colonial revivalists continually complained about how debased the American populace was. More honest to history, America has always been a mixed nation. Rev. Terry represents Protestants are upset, and perhaps a bit dumbfounded, that they have been marginalized from the mainstream culture. Speaking louder, as Rev. Terry did, will not somehow save the day or the nation.

The Five Most Important Questions

When Jesus formed the church, he had at least two aims in mind. Church would first of all be about loving God with heart, soul, mind and body (or strength) and, secondly, that this group of people would love their neighbors as themselves (Mark 12:28-34). While “neighbor” might include other church members, Jesus nearly always used the term to push us toward those who are different from us. Given the centrality of this teaching for Jesus, it would be hard to suggest that the church should be doing something other than fulfilling these commands.

Since Jesus says these are the most important commands, any other command we find in the Bible must somehow fit under these. Additionally, any understanding of any of the lesser command that ignores or bypasses these two must be seen as an misinterpretation of the lesser command.

So, if these are the core values of Jesus for the church, how are we doing?

I have found Peter Drucker, the well-known business specialist, to be helpful in this regard. He once framed what he called “The Five Most Important Questions” any organization must ask if it wanted to remain true to its mission. I think you might find them instructive as we seek God’s specific missional vocation for Tammany Oaks.

  1. What is our mission?
  2. Who is our customer?
  3. What does the customer value?
  4. What are our results?
  5. What is our plan?*

I have found these questions very helpful in thinking out where God might be leading us. While the church is not a business, it is in the business of announcing the kingdom of God and our “success” can be measured in how well we are doing that and lives that are transformed because of it.

So what is our mission? While each congregation needs a specific focus, we can be sure that it involves loving God and loving “other” people. So who are the church’s customers? Again, Jesus helps us here: God and “other” people. When the church views her members as the primary “customers,” her mission will always get redirected to “our” perceived needs. Members should see themselves more as customer service representatives who are eager to please God and serve others.

The final two questions are the hard ones, and as such, deserve more of our attention than I can give here. However, we should be able to see that the answers lie near the two greatest commands.

What are the markers of a “successful” church? Two of the makers, of course, would be that a successful church loves God and other people.

So what is the church’s plan? While the answer to this question needs to have specifics based on where God has placed each congregation, we can be sure the plan should be the outworking of loving God and others.

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* Peter F. Drucker, The Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask about Your Nonprofit Organization (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993).

Our Role in the Mission of God

A favorite New Testament book of mine is 1 Peter. I’m drawn to it often because the world it imagines is so much like the one I experience. In this letter, Christians are called to live as a contrast society to the world around them. The world around the Christians consisted of an evil empire, many forms of idolatry, and wild parties every weekend, if not every night.

Living among people committed to empire, idolatry, and indulgence, the author of 1 Peter commissioned his readers with these words:

Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. (1 Peter 2:11–12 NIV)

Framing our relationship to the world, even empire, as “aliens and strangers,” the writer reminds us that we are “only passing through” this world, but more so, since Jesus’ kingdom does not belong to this world, neither do we. If we are indeed “aliens and strangers” to the empires of this world, we should not over-invest in them but rather give much more attention to the kingdom that will never end.

The biblical writer calls on his readers to do two things. 1) Give attention to spiritual formation; and 2) live out that formation among those who live around us. Regarding the first task, God seeks to remove the war within our own lives. Therefore, we should “abstain from sinful desires.” However, there is the second and larger concern here: That our lives (now at peace because of Jesus) might announce the kingdom of God to those who might even accuse us falsely. The end result of our lives, according to this text, is that others might be prepared to worship God when he comes again.

So let’s commit again to live the good life for the good of others.

Reconciliation

What a strange word! Not one I use in casual conversation and I suspect this is true for you as well. We might use it of a shaky marriage that has come back together but outside of that the word does not carry much weight in our daily lives. However, God meant reconciliation to be his primary mission in the world.

Imagine for a moment a life that is shattered into a thousand little pieces, a life that lacks any sense of coherency, filled with unconnected and unmanageable busy-ness, multi-tasking randomly through life. We call the pieces family life, church life, recreational life, work life, educational life, spiritual life, Christian life, etc. Yet, nothing seems to hold the threads together.

This sense of undone-ness is not only an individual thing; it affects our relationships, too. We, though surrounded by people in nearly everything we do, have never felt lonelier. Not only this, we have days when God feels so far away that life does not feel worth living.

However, Jesus came to give a new way of being, under a new covenant, one that gives life not death. In accepting this new covenant, we come into a new mission or ministry of new life and new creation undoing fragmentation and brokenness. To us, as new creations, all things become new and the old, though still present, is already disappearing.

Though we can still feel the tension between the brokenness of the past and the wholeness of the future, we know that we live for the future, not the past—for God’s future. Paul captures this tension well when he speaks of his ministry in these words,

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. (2 Cor. 5:8-12)

This life can be ours because Jesus died for us, one for all. This conviction is the center and core of our confession. Since Jesus died for us, he invites us to die to the brokenness of our lives, to repent of holding on to the old world, and allow the new world to invade our lives. This new life, however, does not end with us. God then turns us into agents, or ambassadors, of reconciliation. Our ministry to others brings life to them.

As Paul continues,

We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. (2 Cor. 5:20)

Help the Lost Children

In yesterday’s sermon I told a story from my daughter’s childhood—it is always good to check with your spouse or kids before using them in an illustration, but Rachel signed off on this one years ago.

When Rachel was about two, maybe three, we moved to the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina. I was serving as the part-time outreach minister for a church just off the campus of UNC. Pat was seeking whatever work she could find as a teacher. We had just enough to survive so we found ourselves often window-shopping in the malls. On one particular occasion, the mall was hosting a sports card show. Since my wife loves sports, it did not take long for her to lose herself in the moment. Because of her excitement, I was soon there, too.

However, in a short period of time, Rachel slipped away from us. She was gone. We panicked and began a frenzied search for her, enlisting along the way any that would help us. During moments like this, time seems to stop and last forever. To this day, I can’t really tell you how long it took for us to find Rachel. Anxiety had seized us so that we were immobilized. Worse case scenarios began to fill our heads.

Time snapped back to normal when our daughter’s laughter came filtering down across the mall hallway. You can always distinguish your child’s laughter in much the same way that you can hear her in a room full of children. It was a joy to hear her laughter, but we were amazed to see her walking between two women. These strangers had found her and were seeking to help her. I never knew the strangers’ name; I wish I had. On that day they were some of the most important people to have entered our lives. They reunited our lost child with her parents.

Later, as I have reflected on this event, I’ve begun to see it as a parable for the church. In the same way these women restored our daughter to us, so it is God’s mission for the church to bring lost children back to their Father.

The Continuing Conversion of the Church

Church is suppose to be the place (people?) of new life, but so often we experience it as the place of old habits—both personally, because our habits are rarely challenged, and, corporately, because “running” the church trumps “being” the church. Furthermore, in so many places, saving the church has replaced the church’s mission of saving the world. Many have commented on the malaise found in the churches today.

For example, Darrell Guder in a book entitled The Continuing Conversion of the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000) charts how the church came to be in this place. In sum, it has to do with the church’s confusion between church member recruitment and making disciples. After years of recruiting members to maintain the institution of church, there should be no surprise that Jesus’ call on our life sounds strange and demanding.

Guder further suggests that most ministers should first focus on the conversions of the church before embarking on the mission of converting the world. Rob Bell may be right that “God wants to save Christians, too.”

Back in the colonial period of American history, a revivalist preacher named William Tennant had the nerve to preach a sermon entitled “The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry” which was aimed at ministers of established church who had exchanged comfortable salaries for preaching the way of Jesus. Of course, there was a considerable backlash—but that is the way it is for prophets, right?

It may be the time for the sermon “The Dangers of an Unconverted Church.”

So what is the path forward? It really is quite simple. Be re-converted. God’s goal is to transform each of us to the image of Jesus. While there are instantaneous moments along the way, Jesus usually works through the ordinary and mundane tasks of life. However, for those who like steps, Jesus began his ministry with these action words: Repent (for the kingdom of heaven is near); Believe (the good news); and Follow (me). And when we get off track: Repeat.

I’m ready to begin again. Are you?

Do I Have a Witness?

Several times in his letters, Paul will give a personal reflection or testimony (as he does in Ephesians 3:1-13). There are several aims for why Paul would use a personal testimony.

First, it bridges the gap between Paul and his readers. In effect, Paul not only invites the readers to participate in his story but his story also serves as an exemplar of how God’s story frames our individual stories. Simply, God did this in my life; he can also do it in yours.

Second, by showing that God is actively involved in his life, it become more real. This is not just theory (though, in the Ephesians reading there is plenty of that). What God has done is actualized in the life of a real person such a Paul.

Finally, Paul will use testimony to give context to what might be an embarrassment in Paul’s story (see Eph 3:13). Paul is in prison; he is suffering. This does not square well with resurrection power that Paul had so confidently announced earlier (see Eph 1:19-20; 2:4-6).

When the chips are down is where the “theory,” or more accurately the “theology” part comes in. God has already acted; what that means is not yet fully clear. In this text, Paul believes that what God put into motion in the past was becoming a reality in Paul’s ministry.

Those formerly excluded from God’s people are now invited in. The big story in Paul’s testimony is that God was using him to announce that non-Jews (Gentiles) are now co-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in God’s promise (Eph. 3:6).

Paul has a testimony because his ministry is to announce this move of God. Paul understands that through him God is setting something big in motion—the implication of which were not yet visible.

This “not yet” part of God’s plan is bigger than we usually think or teach. It involves not just history (see “ages” in Eph 3:9) but future ages (see Eph 2:7). What God is up to is cosmic, universal and eternal—not just personal and individual.

Yet, God has called the church, the people of God, to be the instrument through whom God will announce his wisdom (Eph 3:10). This not merely evangelism, either, since the ones hearing the announcement from the church are “the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places,” or angelic and demonic forces at work in our world. This is where our story ties with Paul.

We are that church and we have, as the text says, access to God. Thus we can walk in boldness and confidence through faith in him even when the circumstances around us suggest otherwise.

When we do this, we too have a testimony.

Can I have a witness?

Tear Down This Wall!

In 1987, President Reagan challenged the Russian leader: “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity … Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Walls are rarely good things. They are usually marked with signs saying: “Keep out!”

Such a sign was discovered in 1871. It marked the boundary of the temple in Jerusalem before the Romans destroyed it in AD 70; it warned non-Jews that they could not enter.

Let no foreigner enter within the partition and enclosure surrounding the temple. Whoever is arrested will himself be responsible for his death which will follow.

Quite a few words to say, “Keep out!”

In the book of Acts, Jewish opponents of Paul charged that his gentile friends had violated this boundary (see Acts 21:27-28). They had not of course, but no wonder Paul found the demolishing of every wall separating Jews and Gentile to be central to the mission of God (Eph 2.11-21).

While Paul probably has this temple boundary in mind, the real wall is whatever divides God’s people from one another. In this case, the biggest divide among the ancient Christians would have been this Jewish-Gentile divide. So, if God has removed the biggest wall imaginable to a first century Christian, what does that say about any of our lesser divides?

Jesus, according to Paul, tore the wall down. Outsiders—formerly known as those without Christ, aliens to God’s people, and strangers to God’s promises, people with no hope and no God—are now invited to join God’s people. Jesus in giving his life paved the way for outsiders to become insiders. What Jesus did on the cross now creates equal access to God. So now the outsiders are no longer strangers or aliens, but full citizens of God’s kingdom, members of God’s household.

Moreover, there is no longer the recognition of two groups but one group who are joined together to form one new temple. It is fitting then that this text should end with an image of a single temple, don’t you think?

Formerly the insiders denied admittance to those who were outsider. Now, together, hand-in-hand, the two have come together to form a holy temple where God lives.

So if God through Jesus can remove the barrier between Jews and Gentiles, what should we do to the lesser walls we sometimes construct in the life of the church between ins and outs, rich and poor, African-American and Caucasian, males and females, young and old, and so forth?

And the church said, “Tear down this wall!”

And the Greatest of These is Grace

Recently Fox News personality Brit Hume suggested on national TV that fallen golf giant Tiger Woods abandon Buddhism and embrace Christianity. Hume reasoned that Christianity allows for forgiveness and redemption, concepts not at home in Buddhism. Hume added that as a Christian Tiger could start over, find forgiveness, and possibly reconcile with his wife and children.

While such a move on Tiger’s part would seem to be self-serving, the suggestion is not unlike what the Bible actually says. The apostle Paul in the second chapter of his letter to the Ephesians paints a picture not unlike where Tiger finds himself. Lives without Jesus are empty: we were dead in our sins, following the ways of evil, and chasing after our passions and desires.

BUT—so begins the scandal of biblical Christianity in v. 4. In a decisive reversal of fate, so to speak, God acted. After all, God had to act; we could not. We were dead. God intervenes because he is “rich in mercy” and loves us despite our deadness.

This is a hard notion to embrace and so I can understand why most non-Christians misunderstand what is meant by salvation—because most Christians don’t really get it either. Salvation is not based on human action or worth.

It really is a free gift. Therefore, it is not like a home which I “own” but which I will spend the next 25 to 30 years paying off. And because it is a free gift, it has some of the embarrassments that are normally attached to free gifts.

For example, if someone gave me a free suit, I would be appreciative to be sure, but I would be uncomfortable wearing the suit to an event where I knew the giver would be present. I would be even more self-conscious if everyone in the room knew about the suit.

Also I would be bit suspicious. I would wonder what did the suit-giver want from me? Are there any strings attached? I would want to somehow pay back in some way the one who gave me the suit.

Furthermore, like all free gifts, it can be misused. The free suit, continuing our analogy, should probably not be worn to work on the car or to mow the yard. Nor would it be fitting to speak evil of the one who gave the suit especially while wearing it.

Anyway, analogies generally break down so I will not push this one too much more, but the point is clear: a free gift can be misunderstood. Yet, endure one more point: the acceptance of the gift is never seen a meritorious act on the part of the recipient.

Salvation, says Paul, depends on God’s initiative. Using resurrection language, Paul announces that God has made us alive, raised us, and seated us in a position of power—notice the threefold “with Christ/him.” Thus, what God did for his Son, he does for those who believe in the Son—for the sake of his Son (see Eph 1.20).

Paul beautifully simplifies the profound nature of God’s saving work in the formula: “For by grace you have been saved through faith.” Grace is what God has done; faith is our acceptance of what God has done; and works or deeds grow out of the dynamic interaction of the first two. Paul stresses salvation is not the result of human work or people really could say they saved themselves.

However, there is room for human effort—one can reach out and receive the suit, so to speak—if human effort is kept in its proper place.

Grace, Faith, Works. That must be the proper order.

However, the key note is grace. Grace is the engine that drives both faith and works. To misquote Paul just a bit: Now there remains three great truths: grace, faith, and works. But the greatest of these is grace.

When a person comes to God (or returns to him), it is like starting over or, as Paul says, being recreated. However, the end result of being recreated is that we become people, who like God, do good works which is precisely why God created us in the first place: to live as God would live for the sake of others.

So what do you think? Should Tiger become a Christian to deal with his mistakes? Should you?

In on God’s Plan?

I can answer that question in only one sentence. Well, it’s not really my answer. I find it in the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. However, the sentence is a long one as it begins in 1:3 and goes through v. 14. Most English translations will break this into smaller sentences since English does not bear the weight of the original well.

Not only is this a very complex sentence, the content is some of the richest in the entire Bible. The text (1:3-15) takes the form of a synagogue blessing. Paul begins this letter with a call to worship that blesses God for blessing us with all spiritual blessings.

In what follows some of those blessing are enumerated with potent verbs: God chose us (v. 4); he predestined us (v. 5); and he freely gave or bestowed his grace on us (v. 6) because of Jesus.

But more so, he chose us with particular outcomes in mind: he chose us to be holy and blameless and he predestined us to be adopted as his children. In other words, God has called us into a certain kind of life, a different way of living, that is, to live like God would live.

Paul further describes in 1:7-11 what it means to have God’s grace poured on us. Thus we have what the Bible calls “redemption.” This means that the world no longer has a claim on us, God has “bought us back” so we now belong to him to live out his purpose.

Furthermore, we now know that our sins, faults, and trespasses are forgiven because of God’s rich grace. Yet, Paul pushes us beyond an individualistic reading of the text; he forces us beyond the capacity of human imagination. As believers in Jesus, we now have an inside track on what God is up to. God’s plan includes the entire universe, not just individual humans. It involves pulling the broken universe (whether in heaven or earth) back together again (see v. 10). Paul is insistent that it is because of Jesus that all of this is possible.

Thus, in this context of God’s cosmic plan, we are “heirs” invited to participate in reclaiming the world for all that is good and right. We can be sure we are heirs because God has given us the symbol of the future. The Holy Spirit “seals us” or marks us as heirs, as those who belong especially to God.

While this passage is a long and winding text, the point is simple: God had a plan, Jesus made it possible, and the Holy Spirit guarantees it . . . and . . . as believers in Jesus we are not only a part of God’s mission but participants in it.