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K Rex Butts

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​“It is finished.” They’re the last three words of Jesus before he takes his final dying breath on the cross. I’ve read them before, as I’m sure many of you have too, which creates a challenge in reading John’s account of Jesus’s passion. 

​Familiarity breeds complacency, so we’re told. And so it becomes easy to read this passage of scripture from the Gospel of John and not be shocked by these words of Jesus. But let’s try for a moment pretending as though we are one of the bystanders watching as Jesus slowly dies hanging on this Roman cross.

​Here we stand, witnessing a man already bloodied and bruised from the beatings he has received. A sign above him, with the inscription in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek, reads “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Yet the only crown this man on the cross has adorned was one made of thorns, bashed into his skull. And now the guards have taken his clothes; they’re casting lots to see who gets them as though his clothes are a prize. 

​Then after mumbling a few words to some other bystanders, he says “It is finished.”

​It’s almost inconceivable. Crucified on a Roman cross, now this man heralded as King of the Jews is a spectacle of humiliation and a symbol of Roman power. And his last words are “It is finished.”

​What could Jesus possibly be talking about? The obvious answer seems to be that he’s done fighting and now ready to die, that he’s accepting his fate. But that’s rather obvious even if he says nothing. After all, he’s already nailed to this cross and his fate seems sealed. There isn’t any fight left even if he still wanted to fight.

​But step back for a moment. We know what the cross symbolizes: Power. The cross is Rome’s authoritarian statement of rule and control but it is exactly what neither Pilate nor the Jewish authorities have. 

​What little control the Jewish authorities had over the Jewish people, they’ve lost. Jesus  is the one who has amassed a following. So their only recourse is to have Jesus killed. Of course, seemingly powerless to do so themselves, they can only demand, shouting “Crucify him! Crucify him!” to pressure Pilate into having Jesus put to death. 

​Pilate thinks he has the power and authority but in reality, he’s afraid. The last thing he needs is an uprising on—of all Jewish holidays—the Passover. So Pilate tries reasoning with Jesus, explaining how he has authority to release him or crucify him. But Jesus only responds saying, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above…”

​Now Pilate is in a jam. He wants to release Jesus and has the authority to do so but his fear of losing what little control he has makes for a conundrum. Though for different reasons, that fear is the same existential crisis that consumes the Jewish authorities. Listen to them as they shout again, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!”

​Authoritarians love to believe they’re in control. History is full of such examples, including Pilate and the Jewish authorities. They believe they’re in charge but what really has control over them is the existential threat to their own fickle power. 

​The story brings to mind Hans Christian Anderson’s tale The Emperor Has No Clothes. Both Pilate and the Jewish authorities think they are in control but fear actually has control of them. Fear is the impetus for conspiring to crucify Jesus. It’s the grand illusion here. They think they have power but instead they operate under the power of fear. Fear has control of them. They’re like an escaped inmate from prison who thinks he’s free. But he’s really still bound by the fear of being captured again and so everything he does is determined by the fear of going back to prison.

​It’s the tyranny of fear that has the power over everyone in this story, except for Jesus.

​Jesus has already told Pilate that the only power he has is given to him from above. Jesus knows that it’s his Heavenly Father who’s in charge. God has the power here. So Jesus says nothing more to Pilate, not a word of rebuttal to the accusations made against him. Instead, having been turned over for crucifixion, Jesus carries his own cross.

​So here at the place called Golgotha we stand, watching as the guards crucify Jesus with two other insurrectionists beside him. Just as the accusations made against him claimed, Jesus is crucified as the King of the Jews. He says very few words but what does happen, the casting of lots over his cloths and the drink of wine from a sponge, fulfills scripture (cf. Ps 22:18; 69:21).

​Jesus knows “that all was now finished.” So after taking a drink from the sponge, he says “It is finished.” Everything the Father sent the Son to do was finished — “completed” (CEB) and thus fulfilled. Jesus once said, “When I am lifted up from the earth, [I] will draw all people to myself” (12:32). And now, both Pilate and the Jewish authorities have played right into his hands. What Pilate and the Jewish authorities saw as the most expedient action to assuage their fears, Jesus claimed as the victory.

​That’s the irony of the cross and the crucified Christ. What Pilate and the Jewish authorities see as their win, is God’s plan. It’s victory. Beginning with Abraham, God made a promise to bless all nations. And now God has sent Jesus, fulfilling his promise. The day of salvation the prophets of Israel spoke of is being inaugurated there upon the cross by Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.

​The irony though is that in the midst of utter darkness, in the shroud of evil and death, God is at work. It’s called eternal life. Not in the sense of pie in the sky, sweet bye and bye, come get our ticket to heaven so that we can bide our time until we can finally escape the world. No, that’s not the eternal life that Jesus has embodied in his own life. 

​Yes, we believe that Jesus has not only died on the cross but has also been raised from death and therefore, just as he has promised, we believe he will come again. So we rightfully believe we will live in eternity with him in the new heaven and new earth (cf. 2 Pet 3:13; Rev 21:1). But the eternal life Jesus makes possible is an abundant life we can live right now (cf. Jn 10:10). It’s a life of faith rather than fear, a life animated by the Spirit of God rather than the tyranny of fear. So by faith we know that even in the midst of what seems like utter darkness, God is present. Even in what seems like a shroud of evil and death, God is leading us from death to resurrection in the Crucified Christ whom God has raised from death.

​That’s a message we desperately need to hear again these days. I recently read an article on CNN titled Coronavirus Preys on What Terrifies Us: Dying Alone. The author Daniel Burke wrote how “As the coronavirus stalks victims around the world, one of its scariest aspects is how it seems to feed on our deepest fears and prey on our primal instincts, like the impulse to be close to people we love when they are suffering and near death. …In painful irony, the very thing we need in moments of fear and anxiety could also kill us.”

​People are suffering, people are scared, and sadly, some are dying. But we cannot give into fear or any of the pernicious behaviors that fear breeds, because we are not left without hope. Instead we must live in the awareness of our faith. It’s to live knowing that in the midst of suffering and uncertainty, God is still the one who came in the person of Jesus, turning the cross into victory, so that we may carry forth living by faith this eternal life in abundance.

May the grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and the love of our God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all! (cf. 2 Cor 13:13).

Church renewal is always Christian renewal.

            That should be rather obvious but I’m not sure if it is. Having served in ministry as a pastor for the last fifteen years, I’ve heard and engaged in many conversations about church renewal. Numerous books, articles, blogs and podcasts have been published, with many of them addressing the issue of church renewal as it relates to the challenges of leadership and conflict, spiritual formation and the mission of God, as well as even evangelism and reaching the next generation. Such conversations are necessary and generally helpful. If our local churches are to experience any sort of renewal, however, it will happen because the individuals of the church are experiencing renewal.

            This is why it’s so important to remember that church renewal is Christian renewal. Our local churches are us. We are the church. Yes, we organize ourselves in a manner so that we may function as a church community. And yes, sometimes the way we organize becomes a hindrance to our participation in the mission of God. However, before we can tackle the organizational  and theological challenges present in church renewal, we have to ask if we are being renewed by the Spirit in our faith as followers of Jesus.

            Several years ago I went through a series of seminars with Mission Alive, which equips people for planting new churches and leading renewal among existing churches. The seminars I attended focused on the latter and appropriately, the first seminar dealt with our own personal faith. That’s because, as Mission Alive states on their website, “The first ministry of any spiritual leader is to his or her own soul. Your leadership board, group, team or committee cannot lead others into a deeper, more vibrant relationship with God if they are running on empty.”[1]

            To speak of church renewal as Christian renewal, we must talk about the practices or disciplines that open us to the Spirit’s work of cultivating an ever deepening faith among us. Just as the proper disciplines of diet and exercise correlate to good physical health, so does proper discipline correlate to a fit faith as followers of Jesus. We are not talking about earning our salvation in any sense. We are simply talking about participating in the activities that will allow us to live as healthy followers of Jesus, exhibiting a courageous and convicting faith that is fueled by the Spirit of God at work in and among us. There are plenty of books written on  spiritual disciplines such as reading and meditating on scripture, prayer and fasting, solitude and self-examination, etc.[2]

            I’ll confess that I am neither naturally inclined to physical fitness nor to faith fitness. I’m always a few pounds overweight and I’m still struggling to live as a faithful follower of Jesus. The habits of my youth, which were unconcerned with physical fitness, much less faith fitness, are deeply ingrained within me. So I have to become intentional about watching my diet and getting exercise, which typically involves walking (and having a Saint Bernard dog helps). Walking also opens space for me to reflect, become aware of both the ways I see God working and the ways I am struggling in my faith. That open space is where I become intentional about praying, which is a struggle. I also have downloaded on my iPhone several apps for reading the Bible as a discipline, not for sermon and Bible class preparation but simply so that I might hear God speak through his word in anticipation of seeing as God sees and joining in his work as a follower of Jesus.

            I’m neither an expert on physical health nor an expert on church renewal and maintaining a fit faith. Still I am trying to live as a follower of Jesus and I happen to serve as a pastor among a church that has been experiencing renewal. Both are evidence of God’s work and nothing else. But both following Jesus and renewal suffer if I’m not intentional in engaging the exercises maintaining a fit faith.

            One key reason church renewal doesn’t come without Christian renewal is we now live in a time where churches are increasingly made up of Christian consumers. The consumer interest in participating in a local church depends on whether that church provides desired goods. The consumer mindset is not one of how can a Christian serve with their church to participate in the mission of God but instead seeks to be served by the church. Such consumerism, which is antithetical to following Jesus and a hinderance to church renewal, seems especially prevalent among younger adults and students.[3]

            Consumerism is encouraged by our culture, but it is also learned from inauthentic Christianity encountered in church. We must resist the consumer impulses ourselves by attending to our own faith, engaging in the exercises that allow us to maintain a fit faith — a faith that follows Jesus rather than consuming religious goods. Ultimately, the goal of church renewal is participation in the mission of God but that goal begins by attending to our own faith as people committed to following Jesus. Such faith is the authentic Christianity that breaks through consumerism, embodying the gospel and igniting church renewal.


            [1] See http://missionalive.org/renew/.

            [2] For example, there is the now classic book by Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, 25th Anniversary Ed., New York: HarperCollins, 1978, 1988, 1998; also recommended is Ruth Haley Barton, Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006.

            [3] David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock, Faith For Exiles: 5 Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019, 27-28.

Don’t talk about politics and religion. Just don’t! That’s the wise policy if you want to avoid conflict in the break room, not turn the family reunion into a family feud, and so forth. After all, both politics and religion can become so divisive that it seems best just to leave them alone.

Well, I’m a preacher, so I already have a hard time not talking about religious matters. I also have a hard time avoiding politics but probably not for the reasons you might think.

Like most people, I have my opinions about the various political issues facing society and who might best serve as elected officials. Yet, I also know that it’s probably best to keep those opinions to myself and that seems especially true when preaching.

So conventional wisdom seems appropriate. Don’t preach about politics. Just don’t!

What Belongs to God

If we’re talking about politics in the usual sense, then I agree that preachers should refrain from such opining. At least in my opinion, it’s not the place of preachers to say whether or not Christians should vote or who they should vote for if they do vote. And yes, I just sort of violated my agreement that preachers shouldn’t opine about such politics. But that’s the exception. Besides, with only about thirty-minutes of your attention every Sunday, I want to make the most of that time by telling you about Jesus.

Yet it is something that Jesus said that gives me pause and reminds me that I can’t preach about Jesus and not preach politics. 

In the Gospel of Mark, some of the Pharisees and supporters of Herod tried to trap Jesus. So they came to Jesus with a question about the Law of Moses and paying taxes to Caesar, the Roman Emperor. Seeing through their question and recognizing their hidden agenda, Jesus asked to see a coin and then asked them whose image was on the coin.

Acknowledging that the coin had Caesar’s image on it, Jesus looked up and said to them, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (Mk 12:17, CEB).

Jesus’ response is well known to most Christians. In fact, it’s common to hear Christians proof-text what Jesus says in this very passage of scripture as justification for becoming involved in politics. But listen a little more carefully to what Jesus said… Give the coin, which has Caesar’s image stamped on it, back to Caesar because it belongs to Caesar but Give to God what belongs to God.

What is it that belongs to God?

Well, the answer to that question is us. We belong to God. We have the image of God stamped upon us as his creation. So while we’ll pay our taxes, giving the coins that bear the image of Caesar back to Caesar, we don’t dare give our lives to Caesar because our lives belong to God. We owe God our lives, pledging our complete allegiance to him as followers of Jesus.

My Son… Listen To Him!

“Well, of course, our lives belong to God. We hear what your saying preacher,” says anybody. 

Do you? Do you really hear what I’m saying? I ask only because I’m not sure if Christians in America have received this memo. 

This past Sunday, March 3rd, was Transfiguration Sunday according to the Christian calendar. So I preached on the story of Jesus’s transfiguration from the Gospel of Luke. In that story, Peter, James, and John see Jesus along side of Moses and Elijah. So the three disciples want to build shrines for all three, as though they’re all equals. However, that is when God speaks from the cloud and says, “This is my Son, my chosen one. Listen to him!” (Lk 9:35, CEB).

As important as Moses and Elijah seem, they’re not equals to Jesus. Of course, we know that. Jesus is the Son of God, the Lord and Messiah. So despite the numerous names of important religious leaders in the scheme of world history, none of these leaders are Jesus. We wouldn’t dare listen to someone like Mahatma Ghandi or the Dali Llama over Jesus. Yet, from where I sit, it seems like some Christians are building shrines for the politicians they voted for. That is, they seemingly listen to these politicians as much as, if not more than, they listen to Jesus.

Let me say it this way. Right now it seems as though American politics, on both sides of the aisle, has too much of an audience among Christians living in America. It seems as though the voice of Jesus must compete against politicians and political talking-heads for our listening ears. If that’s the case, as I contend, then our confession that Jesus is Lord is in danger of becoming little more than a pious religious expression with little bearing on the life we embody. In other words, Jesus might be our Savior still but Lord? I’m not sure about that. Not when we give to Caesar what belongs to God.

So, Preaching and Politics

So I know that preachers shouldn’t talk about politics. But confessing that Jesus is Lord (and Caesar is not) is unapologetically political and so I must preach about politics. I must because we belong to God and must continue giving ourselves to God, who already has a political claim upon our lives — paid with the offering of Jesus upon a Roman cross.

When it seems that Caesar is receiving what is due to God, I must preach a message that challenges us to reconsider what really matters in life. You see, we can’t tell our neighbors that they should give their lives to God when it is evident that we give our lives to Caesar. In the same way, we can’t lead others to follow Jesus if we ourselves are not following Jesus.

So yes, I know that preachers shouldn’t preach about politics. But sometimes I must and so should every other person called to preach. For only as we give to God what belongs to God do we live as the ekklesia of Jesus Christ in America. And that’s what matters.

~ K. Rex Butts, Newark, DE

“God just needed another angel,” said more than a few people after learning that our son had died.

“No, he doesn’t,” my wife and I would silently scream. “God, doesn’t need any more angels!”

That was fourteen years ago. My wife and I began keeping a list of things people would say, always with good intentions, which were neither helpful nor encouraging. You know, sayings like the one I just mentioned or a saying like “God never gives us more than we can handle” with the implication that God will get us through this. Or saying like… Well, you understand what I’m getting at. These responses might sound good on a Hallmark card and sometimes they are even evoke scripture but like trying to heal a shotgun wound with a mere bandaid, these responses do little, if anything, for the deep grief and pain of losing a child.

In The Wilderness of Grief and Pain

            In the fourteen years since losing Kenny, I have talked with many other parents who have journeyed down this long road of suffering. From those whose children were born silently, to those who lost their children as babies, and those whose children died later in life from illness, injury, etc… The grief and pain is a new season in life more akin to wandering in a wilderness rather than just a bad week or two. Though over time people can learn to live with such suffering, the loss doesn’t disappear and there isn’t any “getting over it.”

While faith in Christ along with the love of God revealed in Christ is the basis for hope, it makes the suffering more difficult in some aspects. After all, where was this loving God and why has he allowed this child to die? This pilgrimage for such suffers, through months and even years of gray skies, carries a burden that often seems almost unbearable.

And sometimes the burden is unbearable!

In my journey down this darkened path, I learned to pray with the words from what has become my favorite hymn, “Be still, my soul, the Lord is on thy side. Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.” But sometimes the journey seemed so difficult and left me without words. My only thought was that echoed by the Psalmist who says, “I was too troubled to speak” (Ps 77:4).

Fortunately though, one of God’s many blessings was expressed by the presence of some caring Christians who journeyed with my wife and I. They didn’t try to theologize for God about why our son died and they didn’t try to heal the pain with quick antidotes. Instead they listened to our pain, our struggles, our big faith questions. They wept with us and mourned the loss of our child with us. And over time, as they walked with us in grief, listening and grieving with us, they were able to empathize. That empathy, which came from enduring this pain with us, gave them the ability to help us navigate the troubling seas we were in. That is, by enduring with us, my wife and I were open to their guidance which they were able to offer because they were with us listening, grieving, and learning to empathize.

Empathetic Presence

            As a minister, I have witnessed other examples of horrific suffering. It’s the sort of persistent suffering that Billman and Migliore describe as creating “an abyss of speechlessness for the person in pain” (Rachel’s Cry, p. 105). It might be the sudden death of a child or spouse but it could also be a young husband and father who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. It might be the college freshman who was sexually assaulted on what she thought was supposed to be a friendly date or maybe it’s that man at church whose wife of fifteen years has filed for divorce after confessing to having a long affair with another man. Perhaps such suffering is the plight of a mother whose life long battle with depression is now at a crisis point as she struggles to care for her new born baby. Or perhaps it is that bachelor who struggles with his sexual identity and attraction to other men but is scared of what others, especially his parents and church family, will say if they knew. Maybe its that friend who has just entered into Alcohol Anonymous or maybe it…

My point is that suffering comes in a multitude of ways and just because I may not have experienced a particular form of suffering doesn’t make it any less real. While there are occasions when people will need some sort of professional help, what all suffers need is a friend or friends who walk with them in their sufferings. Really, what sufferers need is a church who will reserve judgments and patiently bear with them in love.

In discussing how to practice sincere love, Paul instructs the church to “mourn with those who mourn” (Rom 12:15) among other things. Our ability to mourn with those who are mourning is a result of our empathy towards others as we spend time listening and suffering together. This is about the presence of God among us, embodying the grace we have received from God by extending grace to those who are hurting as we walk the road of suffering together.

The difficulty stems in part from the messy and complicated challenges faced as we walk with others on the road of suffering. It’s a journey that will challenge our faith to varying degrees and one that defies any easy answers. But that’s ok! We trust in God even when we have more questions than answers.

Sometimes people wonder about what to say when someone is suffering. But worry not, since other than saying “I’m sorry!” there isn’t anything a person can say that will make the grief and pain any better. Words don’t bring back someone who has died, they don’t erase an act of evil committed against another, etc… But presence, being their to listen and hurt with the hurting, to mourn with those who mourn is the ministry of the church to those who suffer. When those who suffer find such a church, what they find is a people and place where God is with them in the wilderness leading them towards his promise of hope.

Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen.” – Psalm 77:19

K. Rex Butts

Chillicothe, MO

Following the Christian calendar, we are approaching May 15th. That’s Pentecost Sunday, which marks that historical day many years ago when something strange happened.

That day was surprising not just because the people present anticipated the exact events of that day unfolding as they did. No, that day is also surprising because of the events that took place seven weeks prior to Pentecost. Seven weeks before Jewish and Roman political power conspired to crucify Jesus of Nazareth by falsely accusing him of inciting rebellion against Rome (cf. Lk 23:14). On that weekend, during the celebration of the Passover, Jesus was arrested, beat and whipped, publicly humiliated, and then nailed to the cross as a demonstration of power. Rome wins! Or so, that was the message that crucifixion was meant to convey.

And though the Jewish authorities were co-conspirators in this crucifixion of Jesus, many Jews still longed for God to be faithful to his covenant promise and restore the kingdom. So the death of Jesus, as one who evoked the hope that Israel’s Messiah had finally come, seemingly suggested that hope was crushed again. And crushed, nonetheless, by death on a Roman cross!

The Gospel Proclaimed

            Hope crushed… until another Jewish man named Peter spoke up in the middle of a crowd. Some of those people had just accused Peter and his companions, of drinking too much wine so early in the morning.

Rather than mumbling like a drunk, Peter began quoting scripture from the prophets Joel and David. These were familiar scriptures to the Jewish people, scriptures which evoked the promise of hope that Israel believed in. But it was Peter’s way of telling his fellow Jews that the day of salvation they have longed for has come because God has raised the Jesus, whom they crucified, from death. This meant one thing, which Peter boldly proclaimed, “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah” (v. 36).[1]

Try imagining what it must have been like for this Jewish crowed to hear this testimony. What are they to do? What do these Jewish people do when they realized that their own hands have played a part in crucifying the very Messiah they had hoped for? Perhaps that gives some understanding of what Luke means when he tells us that those who believed were “cut to the heart” (v. 37), asking what they are going to do now.

Peter’s response to his fellow Jews seems as simple as it is well known to us. “…‘Repent and be baptized, everyone of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of you sins.  And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call’” (vv. 38-39, NIV).

Repentance, Baptism, and the Mission of God

            As most Christians know, much ink has been spilled over the interpretation of Acts 2:38 and what that means for the practice of baptism, with plenty of differences remaining. I’m not writing this article to address those difference, some of which I consider important and some not so important. However, I do want to suggest that we cannot reduce the call for repentance and baptism to merely “getting saved” or “getting right with Jesus” as those ideas are popularly understood among Christianity. Though salvation is of great importance and a promised reality for those who repent and are baptized, there is so much more to consider.

Repentance and baptism belong to the larger gospel narrative in which God is fulfilling his mission of redeeming and restoring life in Jesus whom God has made Lord and Messiah. Therefore, to repent and be baptized is to become a part of this mission, surrendering our life to Jesus by placing our allegiance to him as his followers. We repent and receive this baptism as disciples, believing (faith) that the hope and salvation of the world is now a reality come in Jesus, the Lord and Messiah. In turn, we are enjoined by God into this new life as servants of this kingdom’s King. Hence, the reason we repent and are baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.[2]

This raises a challenge for us as we approach Pentecost again, a day that seems to have become a rather mundane and mostly forgetful day for many Christians. N.T. Wright observes that in a span of one-hundred years, from AD 25 to AD 125, history emerged from not a hint of any Christian movement to a movement so large and significant that a philosopher named Aristides now regarded Christians as a fourth human race among Barbarians, Greeks, and Jews.[3] The reason for the expansion of this movement must confront us and as it does, we must allow it to renew our gospel imagination if we are to live within the Pentecost story as our story and our way.

A Living Embodiment of the Gospel

            The reason for this revolutionary movement is rooted in the belief that God had indeed made Jesus the Lord and Messiah. Jesus is now the reigning King, not Caesar! In the war of all wars, it is God who has won the the victory, inaugurating the new and last age of God’s kingdom − a world without end! Historically, we know the result is a new life of fellowship and witness, such as depicted in Acts 2:42ff and beyond. In Acts, the life of this movement is characterized by both a common love for one another as they extended hospitality to each another as well as the proclamation of the gospel without any compromise between Jesus and Caesar that entertained some form of a nationalistic civil-religion.

We are called in this text to become a living embodiment of this fellowship and witness. However, this is a challenge among a society where politics, race, and socio-economic differences continuously stir division and hatred. As local fellowships, we must become intentional pursue about extending hospitality to others among our assemblies and our homes where we bear the burdens of each other. This is also a challenge where patriotism is too often assumed and expressed indiscriminately. As disciples, our allegiance is to Jesus rather than a nation and our witness must demonstrate such allegiance as people who have repented and been baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

Such fellowship and witness is only possible by gift of the Holy Spirit we have received, which is the other reason for this revolutionary movement. Just a cursory reading through Acts shows that the Spirit is at work powerfully animating the disciples to live as participants in this mission of God. To say this another way, this movement is not characterized by the conventional reasoning and utilitarian pragmatism that is all too common among us today.

This is why we cannot be driven by growing a bigger church, reaching the unchurched, or some other utilitarian goal that then redefines the way we live to achieve such goal.[4] It is not that a growing church reaching the unchurched is unwanted but that what the Spirit empowers us for is faithful discipleship, whether or not that results in church growth. This is not a reproduction of first-century church forms per se but a living embodiment of the gospel, our fellowship and witness, among our own local communities.

Why It Matters

      I titled this article Acts 2 and Pentecost: Our Story, Our Way because what we read is what happens when we welcome the message of the gospel without compromise to the radical claim of Jesus or the substitution of the Spirit’s power for our own human ingenuity. It will not look exactly the same since we are embodying this gospel in different social contexts but it is our participation in the mission of God. It is an ongoing surrender of ourselves to Jesus, learning to welcome this gospel again and again by living our repentance and baptism. This is what matters, what we are in business for.

May we be the living embodiment of the gospel to the glory of God the Father, Son, and Spirit!

——————–

[1] All scripture is taken from the New International Version, 2011.

[2] See C. K. Barrett, The Acts of the Apostles: A Critical and Exegetical Commentary, The International Critical Commentary, vol. 1., 2nd ed. (Edinburg: T & T Clark, 2004), 151.

[3] N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 359; see also Aristides, Apology, 2, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1012.htm.

[4] Bryan Stone, Evangelism After Christendom: The Theology and Practice of Christian Witness (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007), 125, rightly reminds us that “An evangelistic church is called to patience, obedience, and martyrdom rather than effectiveness, control, or success. It will have to relinquish ‘winning’ as a proper end, along with the logic of agency and causality that go with that end. It will have to relearn the truth that there is nothing we can do to bring about or extend God’s reign, so that we are left with the singular task of bearing embodied witness to that reign.”

Several years ago I was talking with a church about serving with them as a minister. During a congregational question and answer session, one elderly man raised his hand and asked what seemed like a controversial question.

“Liberal or conservative,” he asked.

Without showing any disgust on my face, I didn’t like the question because I thought he was trying to trap me into what surely would be a contentious matter. Instead, I quickly answered his question with the best reply I knew and with what I truly believed (and still do).

“Gospel and Bible, sir! I just want to be a minister of the gospel and teach according to the scriptures,” I said.

He smiled and didn’t say another word. I wasn’t sure what he thought. Did he like my answer? Did he think I was just trying to evade his question? Did he…

I ended up serving with that church as a minister and had the privilege of getting to know this elderly man. He was in his nineties, a widower, and one who spent most of his adult life serving as a church planter and minister of the gospel. On one occasion I asked him more about that question he asked and he told me that he asked the question because he wanted the church to have a minister focused on preaching the gospel and teaching the Bible rather than getting caught up in trying to be liberal or conservative.

 

The Gospel in Scripture

Ideally it would seem that this should be the focus of all Christians whether or not they stand before the church preaching on Sunday’s. If we take the scriptures seriously, they call us into a creative-redemptive story in which people of every nation, tongue, and tribe are reconciled to God and each other.

When we look at the scriptures, reconciliation doesn’t appear as a difficult issue until the apostles began preaching the gospel to the Gentiles. That’s when trouble arose because reconciliation meant that both the Jewish and Gentile believers had to learn how to practice this fellowship they now shared in together, embodying the gospel as the church.

As we read about these challenges the early Christians faced, it’s easy to see how ethnicity creates conflict. Yet, the problems that caused division were as much political as they were ethnic. That is, the division was rooted in ethnicity but played out in political ways.

Being aware of the politics here is important as we think about living as practitioners of reconciliation. Before we get to that, we shouldn’t miss how the apostle Paul responds to this issue. Rather than siding with Jewish nationalism or taking up the cause of the Pax Romana (peace of Rome), Paul remains thoroughly committed to the gospel because he knows that it is Jesus alone through whom reconciliation becomes real. As Paul says, “For he himself is our peace…” (Eph 2:14, NIV). Neither the Torah nor Caesar can offer peace, only Jesus!

 

A Question For Us

Fast forward to the twenty-first century here in the United States of America, the context I write from and the context I assume you are likely reading from. Half way through the year of 2015, nearly a year removed from the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, we have seen similar unrest in the city of Baltimore and most recently have been saddened by the recent mass-shootings in Charleston and Chattanooga.

What should be obvious is that racism remains a big issue but just like the first-century, racial division also plays out in political ways. The polarization experienced today is palpable and it will likely only increase as the nation approaches another major political election.

How should Christians respond? I’ve already demonstrated how Paul responded and how expected the churches he served to respond. I also think we should remember that part of the reason Jesus was crucified was the fact that the message he proclaimed was a subversive kingdom not of this world but one that is meant to replace the kingdoms of this world. So how should we respond as people who follow Jesus, who are called to embody the gospel as his church?

 

The Gospel As Our Cause

The simple answer is that we must live as the church we are called to be. That is, we must live as participants in the mission of God and that means our cause is the gospel of Jesus Christ. If we really believe that it is Jesus alone is our peace who makes reconciliation possible then it is the gospel that should be our cause and nothing else. Remember, just as Jesus says that we cannot serve two masters (cf. Matt 6:24), that very likely includes trying to serve two kingdoms or two causes. So I want to suggest two ways in which we prioritize the gospel as our cause.

First, our local churches must be intentional about practicing reconciliation amongst themselves. This is where the later half of Paul’s letters, as well as other writings from scripture, are instructive because they teach us how to live, loving and serving one another even where there are differences and even when there are disagreements. Practicing reconciliation must happen as we assemble in our church buildings but it must also go beyond the building as we extend hospitality to one another. This not only gives the gospel we proclaim credibility but it models among our local cultures an alternative community where reconciliation is happening. What a beautiful image that is!

Second, we must become intentional about speaking gospel among the different contexts we inhabit. This means speaking as ambassadors of Jesus Christ. That also means refusing to sound like echo-chambers of the partisan politics in America and that includes our social-media presence which, like it or not, has an influential role in culture. Repeating partisan platitudes, sharing clickbait political memes, liking inflammatory photos, and so on only further division and polarization. Our society already has plenty of people doing that. Whether they recognize it or not, what our society needs is people who speak of that which bring peace and reconciliation — the gospel of Jesus Christ. And when we do that, we speaking the one subversive gospel that invites our neighbors, in all of their diversity, into the new world where reconciliation happens.

May God, our Father, by the power of his Spirit, animate us to embody the gospel of his Son, Jesus Christ, in word and deed for his praise, honor, and glory!

In some ways, change is a dirty word among some churches. The mere mention of change jolts some church members so much that extra Lipitor is needed. Yet change is necessary and will happen, whether we are aware of it or even whether we agree with it. Some may disagree that change is necessary but this is just denying reality.

As we grow in faith, our understanding of scripture and how as a church we participate in the mission of God changes too. As our perspectives shift, so comes the need for actual change that can accommodate our new understandings. And for the sake of clarity, I am talking about change that is born out of biblical and theological conviction and a pragmatic need for how our churches live out such conviction.

However, as necessary as change is, it is never easy. The bigger the change, the more stressful and difficult it is. So how can our churches manage the process of change?

I want to suggest that churches need more grace. That is, churches must learn to practice more grace with each other.

Disembodied Gospel

Come with me to the Corinthian church for a few moments. The Corinthians are a pretty messed up church as we meet them in scripture. From what Paul tells us about them, they’re definitely not a model for how to do church.

For the sake of brevity, the main issue with the Corinthians is that they have failed to embody the gospel as their way of life. This has resulted in numerous problems, including selfish behavior as they gather for partaking in the Lord’s Supper together. While they should be gathering for this communion meal where everybody eats and drinks together, there are some who are eating and drinking while leaving others out. The problem is so egregious that some are even getting drunk while others are left hungry.

Paul’s remedy for this problem is reminding them of what the Lord’s Supper is about. In doing so, Paul does a little theology with them so that they might not only understand what they are doing as they partake of the Lord’s Supper but also understand how that shapes their practice with each other.

The Lords Supper and the Social-Practice of Grace

1 Corinthians 11:23-26 is a well known passage in many churches. Here is what Paul says:

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed took bread, and after he had given thanks he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, he also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, every time you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For every time you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.[1]

Our familiarity with this passage may cause us to overlook the deepness of what we are doing and saying when we partake of the Lord’s Supper. According to Paul, we are both remembering and proclaiming.

This act of remembering the body and blood of our Lord is rooted in Israel’s own observance of the Passover in which they would remember the grace God acted with in delivering them from Egyptian bondage.[2] So in partaking of the body and blood of our Lord, we are remembering the act of grace − his death upon the cross − by which God has delivered us from the bondage of sin and death. Yet, as we remember this act of grace, we are also proclaiming this act of grace as our only means of salvation. This proclamation of “the Lord’s death until he comes” looks to the past, present, and future.[3] In making this proclamation, we acknowledge that we continually receive this act of grace as our means of deliverance form sin and death − past, present, and future.

That sounds wonderful. It is very encouraging to know that in all of our struggles, we received this grace of God that assures us of our salvation until the Lord comes again. But then Paul begins in v. 27 saying, “For this reason…” and with those three words, we are reminded that the grace we have received must shape our social-practices as the church.

As Christ, So We

This is where our belief and practice converge. Such convergence involves what Miroslav Volf describes as an as-so structure so that “as God has received us in Christ, so we too are to receive our fellow human beings.”[4] Every Sunday as we gather and partake of the Lord’s Supper together, we are remembering and proclaiming the grace of God that we have received in Christ. So then, we must also extend the same grace towards each other. That is why Paul insisted that the Corinthians must wait for each other when they come together (v. 33).

When I think of church and change, I know it is difficult. There are miscommunications, misunderstandings, and sometimes just some unpleasant ways of treating each other. We come for a meeting tired from the day’s work, sometime bringing a lot of stress and personal struggle with us. Then someone says something but we hear something completely different or someone says something that does not sit right with us. So we are tempted to respond in our own negative way… perhaps saying something we’ll regret ten minutes later or perhaps saying nothing but instead letting a very minor matter fester with anger and resentment.

We need more grace for one another. We must learn to embody an assumption of grace with each other whereby we automatically grant the grace of forgiveness to each other for being less than perfect. This is not to suggest that we ignore those character issues where a Christian is repeatedly abusive towards others, trying to control and manipulate others to his or her own selfish desires. That is an entirely different issue. What I am talking about are the bad days that everyone of us have where we fail to put our best foot forward. It is then, in those moments and times, that we need to know that we are forgiven, that nobody is going to hold it against us. Why? Because we are a family who receives each other with the same grace we receive in “the Lord’s death until he comes.”

Change is never an easy process for any church but it is much easier for when we learn live with an assumption of grace towards each other. May it be so among us just as it is in the Lord, Jesus Christ!

_______________

[1] Taken from the NET Bible (New English Translation), 2005.

[2] Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1997), 199.

[3] Ben Witherington III, Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 251.

[4] Miroslav Volf, Captive to the Word of God: Engaging the Scriptures for Contemporary Theological Reflection (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 46.

Throughout the month of October Wineskins is exploring the future of the Churches of Christ, particularly the more progressive expressions of this fellowship. Rather than knowing just what we are against or have rejected, we need to know what we are for. My hope is that what we are for is the mission of God and how our congregations might participate as followers of Jesus.

In order to talk about participation in the mission of God, we must talk about scripture too. Rightfully so, the Churches of Christ have always held scripture to be the word of God, and therefore both truthful and authoritative. We want to do what the Bible teaches. Yet, besides understanding what the Bible teaches, which is not always easy itself, we must also think of how we interpret scripture − hermeneutics.

The Bible as a Law Book

Perhaps the best way of raising this issue is by thinking in terms of reading scripture. Because the Bible matters to us, we take reading the Bible very serious. And we should. However, as important as reading scripture is, how we read scripture is just as important.

Historically, the Churches of Christ have read scripture as a law-book. Through direct command, apostolic example, and necessary inference, we believed that a once-for-all pattern for the organization and practice of the “New Testament” church was attainable. I can still remember hearing sermons that said just as God gave Noah a pattern for building the ark, God gave us the New Testament as the pattern for building his church.[1] Of course, this pattern also included the law of silence which ironically wasn’t very silent as it said that where there was silence, scripture forbids or excludes.

The basic problem is the assumption that “New Testament Christianity,” as we like to call it, involves adherence to a written law. If being Christian requires living according to a written law, then there already exists a “holy, righteous, and good” written law (cf. Rom 7:12). Rather than adhering to a written law, followers of Jesus are called to live according to the Spirit. While this still involves obedience to certain commands such as loving God and neighbor (cf. Mk 12:28-31), it does not require reading scripture as a law-book.

Many Churches of Christ have tried steering away from this legalism and the sectarianism it produced among us in the twentieth-century. Nevertheless, I still find this law-book reading of scripture at work. Take an issue such as congregational leadership or women in the church and the question still is has to do with what does scripture authorize as though the Bible is a written law. Unfortunately, this hinders congregations from discovering contextualized expressions of the gospel within their own twenty-first century local culture.

The Bible as Story

The quest for a better way of reading scripture begins with scripture itself. According to the apostle Paul, “All scripture is inspired by God…” (2 Tim 3:16, NRSV). This means we must read all scripture, both Old and New Testament, as having authority for how we participate in the mission of God. But how?

As story!

We read scripture as story told through different genres, keeping in mind the historical occasions of every writing and the different recipients of these writings. Like a play, the story of scripture contains different acts.[2] Yet it is a story that is centered in Jesus Christ and oriented to the in-breaking future of God’s new creation where all things are made new (cf. 2 Cor 5:17; Rev 21:5). In other words, the biblical story is a script for following Jesus towards the goal of redemption, reconciliation, and restoration of creation via the cross and resurrection.

It is important that we view ourselves as participants within the story and in doing so, become participatory actors within the mission of God. As actors living out this Jesus-centered and future oriented story, our performance seeks neither to repeat the past performances of the church nor stray from the past confession and way of life. This is why we must read scripture within Christian tradition. For even though we have received the Spirit of God, we are humans nonetheless and are always prone to misunderstand. By reading scripture within Christian tradition, we have an “interpretive tradition” that allows us to read scripture faithfully through that tradition.[3]

Moving from reading to actual participation requires what N.T. Wright describes as faithful improvisation. Faithfulness ensures that our performance continue telling the same story we are part of, the redemptive mission of God. Improvisation ensures that we are not redundantly repeating the past, so that our performance tells the story in contextually appropriate ways that for our own local circumstances. Thus, rather than following an alleged pattern of church, we are poised to be the church following Jesus in our own contexts with the Bible as our script and the gospel or good news of Jesus Christ as the story we tell.

One More Thought

Those who insist upon reading the Bible as a law-book, through the rubric of commands, examples, and inferences, will not like the subjectivity that comes with reading the Bible as story. However, the law-book approach has been very subjective too in its selective application. The problem with reading scripture as a law-book is that it limits local churches to repeating the past. Over time this contributes in the onset of missional paralysis and even spiritual paralysis. As difficult as faithfully improvising the biblical story may seem, through prayer, reading of scripture, and communal discernment, the difficulty becomes a subversive and compelling story.

            [1] The problem with such an analogy is that even if the New Testament is a pattern of instructions for building the church, these instructions are not specifically given in an itemized list like the itemized list of specific instructions that God gave to Noah for building the ark (cf. Gen 6:13-22),

            [2] The following model for reading scripture is indebted to N.T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), 121-127; Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 1, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 139-143. A couple of other popular books suggesting a story reading of scripture that include Scot McKnight, The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 67, who labels the five “elements” (acts) as Creating, Cracked, Covenant Community, Christ, and Consummation; and Craig G. and Michael W. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 27, who divide scripture into six acts consisting of Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus, Church, and Consummation.

            [3] James K.A. Smith, The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 152.

“Because I wanted to tell people about Jesus so that they can follow him too!”

That was the primary reason why fifteen years ago I began pursuing a life that would eventually lead me into congregational ministry as a preacher. There were people who encouraged me along the way, including my wife, and I have always enjoyed helping people as well as studying the Bible and theology. I wanted to tell people about Jesus and believed God wanted me to do so as well. All that to say I believe God has led me to where I am today.

I still believe that.

But in all honesty, there are times when I wish that I didn’t have this burden.

Reality

A few weeks ago when visiting my alma mater, Harding University, I was asked to speak with a small group of students who are discerning if God is calling them into ministry. My impromptu topic was to share with them the reality of the struggles faced in ministry without scaring them too much.

Um… Ok. I can do that.

But the truth is, serving as a minister has been more challenging than I ever imagined it would be. To be fair, I’ve made some mistakes along the way. Ministry is always a learning curve and there’s plenty that I would do differently if I could do it over again.

I’ve also experienced frustrations that were not my own making. Every church says that it wants to grow, engage the youth, reach out to the community, and so on. But not every church wants to let the minister (or ministry staff) lead them in those endeavors because it requires change. That’s frustrating!

Beyond that, as a minister, I’ve learned that not everyone will like me. In fact, I’ve encountered things that were said and done which were discouraging, to say the least, and even hurtful at times. Sometimes I saw it coming and other times it was like being sucker-punched.

That’s not the entire picture of ministry, thankfully. There are many great moments that I’ve experienced in ministry. Every baptism has been a joyous occasion. Every time God has been at work during a sermon or conversation and someone has come to me with a story of how they are trusting more deeply in the grace of God, trying to live more like Jesus, desiring to be a better husband or wife, a better parent, a better neighbor… Every time a church has extended hospitality and generosity to a person or family in desperate need… Every time a church has said “Yes!” to the needs of a missionary or ministry that seeks to serve the world in the name of Jesus…

Burden

Those are some of the great moments in ministry and I’m thankful for them. However, in those frustrating times, and sometimes they seem to come like a tidal wave, serving Jesus as a minister of the gospel is difficult. In fact, I understand why some ministers decide to leave ministry for good and I don’t hold that decision against them at all. But I can’t leave! Nor do I want to!

Since you’re asking why, I’ll tell you. It’s the burden… I still have it and it keeps growing.

That’s why I stay in ministry. Believe me, I don’t serve as a minister because of its cathartic nature (if I can be a little sarcastic) and it’s not because I love what I do, though I do love being a minister of the gospel. I stay for two reasons and they have to do with this burden.

First, I believe God has called me for this ministry. So I must stay. I remain because I still believe in the church. I believe in the Spirit-filled body of people who belong to Christ… his bride! This is not naïveté, which I hope is clear by now. Churches have problems, some more than others. Sometimes the problems seem so numerous and exasperating that you would not believe them unless you saw them for yourself. Just ask the Apostle Paul about the Corinthians. And yet Paul still regarded them as “saints” (cf. 1 Cor 1:2).

That’s because Paul saw the church for what God had made the church to be. Paul understood that Jesus was crucified so that these people could become his holy people. Regardless of the problems, Paul still saw God at work among the church. Paul saw the potential among the church. Paul knew that it was still the church, even in all her weaknesses and follies, but Paul also knew that it was among these people whom God was carrying forth his mission of redeeming the world in Christ.

Vision

I see the same things in the church today, wherever she gathers and lives. Churches will always be less than perfect (and ministers too!) but they’re still the saints. The church, and more importantly every local church, is still the people through whom God is proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. My calling, I believe, is to help lead churches to do just that and be the people who tell their neighbors about Jesus so that they can follow him too. So I stay.

Today I encounter a lot of church members who are frustrated with their church too. I understand most of the frustrations. As I’ve said, I’ve been frustrated too. But if we could recapture the vision of who we, the church, are called to be rather than just seeing who we are, then maybe… Well, maybe, just maybe, being church begins with believing in the church as “saints!” And doing that means extending the same grace that God offers us to the church!

So I say all that to say, I hope you’ll stay with me!