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Exploring the Heart of Restoration

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Scott Johnson

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By Scott Johnson

Jesus said, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” (Mark 8:36-37, NIV). I like the way Bob Dylan paraphrased it in his song Masters of War: “And I think you will find when your death takes its toll, that all the money you made will never buy back your soul.” There is nothing we can exchange for our souls.  No amount of goods, power, services, or money can secure them.  Only Jesus’ death and resurrection can. 

Yet here we find ourselves in the year 2020. As a people, the Church is scrambling for relevancy in post-Christian America. We are jockeying for power to maintain a kind of Christian status quo in the United States. We are shouting to still be heard over all the noise in our nation.  

I certainly understand it.  We’ve held a sort of “special” place in the United States. Just a few decades ago almost everyone went to church. We were a “Christian” nation if you will. I think collectively, we are grieving our loss of privilege and have begun to draw lines in the sand. We are now the minority, and in an effort to be in control, we are squandering the very thing that matters in pursuit of power: our soul. 

Let me be candid. We have been duped. We believed that good people who professed to be Christian should be put into power to preserve our way of life. We believed that those people really did believe in Christ and let Him transform their hearts.  Some genuinely did. We believed that those people were pro-life.  Some were. We believed these people of power cared about us and our faith. Maybe some still do. But our faith has been hijacked. 

Our faith has been commandeered by people that hold up Bibles in front of recently tear-gassed churches for a photo op. They scream against abortion while dropping bombs on innocent civilians on the other side of the planet. They create a system in which the poor stay poor while the rich get richer.  They perpetuate a justice system that sides with the person with the most money or the right color skin. In the wealthiest country in the world, people are starving.  

Are we siding with people who under the guise of “fairness” would take what another has earned and forcibly give it to another? Are we siding with people who believe it is okay to take the life of a baby in utero under the charade of “choice?” Has life really become all about convenience? Are we part of the cancel culture that indiscriminately obliterates anything contrary to popular opinion?  

Are we siding with people who routinely marginalize women, shut out minorities, are blatantly racist, and who are rotten from the inside out? Scripture says they “are dogs with mighty appetites; they never have enough. They are shepherds who lack understanding; they all turn to their own way, they seek their own gain” (Is. 56:11, NIV).  

If we find ourselves siding with any one of those things, then my brothers and sisters, we are in trouble. We say things like, “I don’t agree with everything that person stands for, but they are the lesser of two evils.” I disagree.  Charles Spurgeon wrote, “Of two evils, choose neither.” Evil is still evil. There is no “lesser evil.”  

So, what are we to do? Throw up our hands and walk away?  Stop voting?  Step out of politics?  No.  However, I think a deep look into our priorities and whom we support is in order. We just might find we have been worshiping on the altar of nationalism.  In creating a dynamic where we are dividing churches over political parties, we have effectively begun to kill the witness of the American church. Worst of all, we’re hurting each other. 

My brothers and sisters, we have gone the way of ancient Israel, demanding an earthly ruler who will save us. Instead of the Good Shepherd leading us to pasture, we’d rather be corralled by a human authority.  Rather than be led by the Spirit, we’d rather play games with the “principalities and powers of this dark world” so long as we can remain comfortable and “at ease in Zion.”  

Instead of seeking justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God we have turned to partisan politics to feel validated and safe from the encroaching “liberals, socialists, right-wingers, and communists.” We “went a whoring after other gods, and bowed themselves unto them” (Judges 2:17, KJV). Those gods are the gods “Republican” and “Democrat.”  

What’s worse is that a watching world sees us biting and devouring each other on social media about these things.  We have turned into an “Us vs. Them” culture and church.  We must change. We must repent. We must turn back to God! Jesus said “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35, NIV).

The world will not know you’re a Christian by your political affiliation.  They will not know you’re a Christian by where you live.  They will not know you’re a Christian by how loud you are about your opinions.  They will only know that we Christ-followers by how we love. 

I’m tired of politicians abusing my faith to get votes. I’m weary of a system that tells me what I want to hear and then does the exact opposite.  No, Washington, D.C., you may not use my faith to further your agenda anymore. I’m a Christian. I follow Jesus. I am not of this world. I will non-violently resist when you conflict with my God. Do what you will, but I will not bow down any longer.  

I understand the repercussions of making such statements.  I’ve thought long and hard about it – believe me. We must wake up, brothers and sisters. We are heading down a dreadful path. We are about to lose our collective souls.  

Jesus stood face-to-face with the Empire and declared to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place” (John 18:36, NIV). Kings and rulers will all die. Nations will fall. But the Kingdom of God reigns forever. Stop playing the games of this world and its authorities. You are subject to a higher law – the law of Christ. Let us not gain the whole world and lose our souls.

I’m working from home. I’ve got a card table set up in the corner of my bedroom. On it are books, my laptop, and some snacks. I’m sitting on an old (very uncomfortable) wooden chair. 

This isn’t where I thought I’d be. 

Two months ago, I had no idea something like COVID-19 was coming along. I was so ingrained in a routine and rhythm of the past eight years of ministry that I just couldn’t see it being any different. Yet, here I am, in my bedroom, ministering from a distance. 

I miss my people. I miss singing together. I miss being together. I miss preaching to real, live people – not a phone via Facebook. I lament the loss of a lot of the aspects of the gathered church. I’m sure you do, too. 

As I’m sitting here, the question is running around Christian circles is “What’s next?” Where do we go from here? I’ve attended no less than four (4) webinars this week on answering that question. That means I’ve spent over six hours listening to leaders talking through the answer to that question. My cup runneth over on information. It is good stuff, but it taxes on you after awhile. 

What I’ve noticed is that the speakers on this are from giant churches. They’re great and charismatic speakers who lead thousands of people every week in giant worship centers. They have a set of challenges for sure, and I value their wisdom, but they think in models, systems, and modes that are much larger than most churches of average sizes will be able to utilize. 

So, what’s next? I think for our flock at Crosspointe, this holy “pause” has created a new opportunity. I think the “What’s next” for us is to prayerfully seek out this one thing:

Who is God asking us to be now?

Who is God asking us to be now? Let’s be honest: we’re not going back to normal anytime soon. We may never get back to the way things used to be. I think as we grieve that, and as we wrestle with that, we’ll find that we’ve awoken in a new land that’s got some of the same components from the old one, but requires a lot of retooling. 

Paul talks about this in Philippians. He’s just got done reminding the church to rejoice in her trials, to watch out for false teaching, and that everything but Christ is rubbish. He writes :

12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 3:12-14, NIV) 

We must press forward. God is calling us to care for and lead people in a whole new way, and we need to praise Him for that! This is a season to serve and it will redefine a lot of the methods we know as Church. What will change? Doctrine won’t. The Bible is the same. Our beliefs are the same. The Spirit is still the same. The Church is still the Bride of Christ. 

When we seek to answer the question, “Who is God asking us to be now?”, we will find out what’s next much more quickly. If we try to jump back into the way things were pre-COVID-19, then we will find ourselves in a place that no longer exists. We’ll find ourselves in a place that rest of the world has run away from. 

In the rush to answer, “Who is God asking us to be now?,” let us be thoughtful. In the rush to get back to “normal,” let us purge all the things we’ve slowly realized aren’t “normal” over the past month and a half. It’s not normal to burn out volunteers. It’s not normal to make people more busy. It’s not normal for us to view attending church as optional. It’s not normal to run the church like a business. It’s not normal to be disconnected from your church family. 

So, what’s next? Let us sit an discern prayerfully who God is asking us to be now. Not who we once were, not who we want to be – who God is asking us to be in a post-pandemic world. As we slowly dip our toes back into this vast ocean that seems so alien now, let us not be naive and think we’ll be back to business as usual. Things are more digital now – but if we’ve learned something, my prayer is that it is this:

We need the gathered Church

We need to be together. We need to sing together. We need to worship and commune with Christ together! Who God is asking us to be will always flow out of the gathered people of God. It is in the gathering that we find life, community, belonging, and purpose. It is in the assembly of God’s people in the local churches that we find who God is asking us to be for our community. That may look different for everyone – that’s okay. 

Trust, however, that the witness of the gathered Church brings life and mission to our purposelessness. It brings hope and peace as we work as agents of reconciliation. It flows through the streets of our cities when the gathered people of God are confident in who they are. When we are confident of who we are and whosewe are, we will be unstoppable. 

So take heart. We will get through this. God will see us through. We will emerge. It will be different. There will be a lot of change. But by God’s grace, we will prevail. 

God loves you, 

Scott

Catch more from Scott at his blog – https://turningovertables.wordpress.com

As a congregation, we have been following the Narrative Lectionary this year.  We’ve been going through Mark’s Gospel. One of the striking things about this fast-paced narrative is how so many people misunderstood who Jesus was. I suppose we’re not so different today.

Throughout Mark’s gospel account, we see the disciples chiding Jesus to “do more” or to “heal more.” My mind wanders to the eighth chapter of Mark. So far, Jesus has cast out demons, healed lepers, raised a little girl from the dead, healed a woman with a bleeding disorder, exorcized Legion, and taught some amazing things – with authority! Jesus then feeds thousands, warns about the Scribes and Pharisees and Herod, then heals a blind man. His ministry is really picking up steam! 

Then we come to Mark’s account of Peter’s confession.  

“27 Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?” 28 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”30 Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him” (Mark 8:27-30, NIV) 

It seems we’re finally getting somewhere.  The disciples, or at least Peter, are finally catching on! In this moment I imagine Jesus seeing this breakthrough occurring. He then tells them the real plan – what He came to do – and His expectations are, in a way, dashed on the little rock named Peter.

31 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 32 He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.” (Mark 8:31-32, NIV) 

Don’t miss what’s happened. Peter confesses Jesus as “Messiah.” Jesus refers to Himself as “Son of Man.” The two are interchangeable to us but carry vastly different meanings to the Jewish world. The Messiah would come in the spirit of David, it was believed and be more a political/military hero-king who would throw off the oppression of Rome and restore Israel to her golden-age status. He would reign on David’s throne and usher in a time of peace and restoration to the Jewish Nation.

The Son of Man (which Jesus always calls Himself in Mark), however, carried no such connotations. It comes from the seventh chapter of Daniel where we read:

13 “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. (Dan. 7:13-14, NIV) 

There was no political fanfare, or militaristic pride in this moniker. Instead, the Son of Man is imbued with the authority, glory, and sovereign power of the Ancient of Days. All people worshiped Him in every language. His kingdom will be one that lasts forever. It is a beautiful vision. It is not a vision that Peter, and maybe even us, are ready to embrace. 

Jesus says the Son of Man must suffer and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again (Mark 8:31). At this, Peter has had enough. He rebukes Jesus. Yet, Jesus retorts with a stronger rebuke:

33 But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” (Mark 8:33, NIV) 

Herein, we find that we might have a little more in common with Peter than we thought. If I’m honest, I want – I need a conquering hero right about now. I want a Messiah to clean house of the Coronavirus and the tragedy we’re all living in. I want a military/economic powerhouse to lead the charge right about now. We want the happy ending. Yet, that’s not what we get.  

The back half of Isaiah’s prophecy reveals something seemingly Inconceivable about the Messiah. That He will be a suffering servant. It defies all expectations of how the Anointed One will rule and administer justice throughout this coming kingdom.

In Isaiah we read:

See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. 14 Just as there were many who were appalled at him— his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness— 15 so he will sprinkle many nations, and kings will shut their mouths because of him. For what they were not told, they will see, and what they have not heard, they will understand. (Is. 52:13-15, NIV)

And of course, in the next chapter:

4 Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.5 But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him,and by his wounds we are healed. 6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Is. 53:4-6, NIV) 

In these chapters of Isaiah, as well as other allusions by other prophets, we find the suffering servant. My! What a difference from the grandiose visions and political hopes placed on the Anointed One. But don’t miss the point. God will use Jesus to show Peter (and us) something. That co-suffering love turns the power systems of this world on their heads and philosophically shifts everything we thought we knew about power upside-down.

This idea of co-suffering love is found on most pages of the New Testament. Jesus promises that we, just like Him, will suffer for the sake of the Kingdom. In Mark’s gospel, after Jesus’ chat with the rich man in chapter ten, the disciples grapple with just who can be saved, if the rich can’t.  Peter, as usual, chimes in reminding Jesus of how much they’ve given up following Him.  Notice what is sprinkled in Jesus’ promised reward:

29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” (Mark 10:29-31, NIV) 

See what he said? That along with all the happy stuff, part of the reward is persecutions (v 30.) How I wish this were a theme that was only mentioned once or twice. This article would be five or six times longer if I put down every scripture in the New Testament that had to do with the inextricable connection between being a disciple and suffering. 

God never promises us an easy road. He never says that we won’t suffer or fall ill or experience tragedy. Instead, He promises:

33 “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33, NIV) 

Paul, a man all too familiar with suffering, writes this:

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. (Rom. 5:1-5, NIV)

The Apostles teach us, just as they were taught by Christ, to rejoice in suffering.  No where is this more apparent than when Peter writes:

12 Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. (1 Pet. 4:12-14, NIV) 

We shouldn’t be surprised when suffering comes. It’s part of the deal.  You choose to follow Jesus; you lose your life to save it. You pick up your cross daily. You reject the ways of this world and embrace a cross of your own in order to glorify your Lord, Jesus Christ. You need not be taken aback by trials and troubles.  Instead, realize they are producing in you a work of God that gets you ready for the great glory that is to be revealed: the full resurrection of Creation and inauguration of the Kingdom of God. 

As James writes:

2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. (James 1:2-3, NIV) 

If our Lord, the Creator of the Universe, was not exempt from suffering, how can we expect to be?  Instead, let us take up our crosses, embrace with love those going through fiery trials, and help people realize hope is real.  Let us stop crying, “Why?” and instead walk tall with hearts ablaze by the Spirit of God who is leading us to green pastures. 

Let us realize that one day, the sufferings of the human condition and the tragedy of this world will be swallowed up and we, like our suffering servant Messiah, will be resurrected bodily into a place where God will wipe away our tears Himself. It was all made possible on the wonderful promises of Jesus and His suffering on the Cross. It all came to fruition at His resurrection. And it all was because the servant was willing to suffer. May we be willing to do the same for His name’s sake.

If you’ve been around the Bible a while, or you’re new, here are six things to know. These are important. They will help you understand Scripture in its proper context.

1. Language 

First things first: the inspired writers recorded Scripture in ancient languages. Three, to be exact: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. The Old Testament (the first 39 books) is mostly written in Hebrew. There are a few chapters in the Book of Daniel that appear in Aramaic. We find that section in chapter 2 through chapter 7:28. Aramaic is a different dialect only used in the Middle East at the time. The writings of the New Testament (the last 27 books) are in Greek. Why? It was the most common writing language in the Roman Empire

2. It isn’t a Single Book 

Even though it’s bound under a single cover, the Bible isn’t a book. The Bible is a library sixty-six individual books. It’s a library, not a novel. But, it is fascinating that it builds on itself and tells a seamless narrative from beginning to end. The composition of the Bible took place over a period of roughly 2,000 years. Forty different authors from three continents, wrote in three different languages. It never once contradicts itself. I admit that some will claim that it does, but a critical examination of the text shows otherwise.

3. Literary Types 

The Bible isn’t written in a singular literary style. There’s poetry, wisdom literature, history, Gospels, Law, proverbs, songs, letters, and apocalyptic literature. There are parables, psalms, narratives, prophetic writings, and instruction. Each of these need a different approach to understanding the text in proper context and form. For instance, you can’t read poetry the same way you read history. You can’t read a narrative like you would a parable. Keep that in mind as you read through the Bible.

4. Historical Context 

Approaching scripture through the historical-critical perspective is a must. Remember, it wasn’t written in the 21st Century. They didn’t have cars, smartphones, and sophisticated medicine like we have today. Instead, Scripture rings with the cultural assumptions of the original audience in mind. We filter the text, then, through the lens of history.

One should keep in mind and explore the cultural differences and phrases that occur. To neglect this is to miss the beauty and intensity of the text. A word about culture: There are some things that Scripture points out that are cultural. Some things won’t make a lot of sense to us because we don’t live in the ancient Middle-East. Cultural norms and societal understandings have changed. Keep history at the forefront when reading the Bible. Without it, you’ll come to some…interesting conclusions.

5. Covenant Theology 

There are two sections of the Bible: the Old Testament and the New Testament. Summing up the Old Testament goes like this: Jesus is coming. A summary of the New Testament is this: Jesus is here and Jesus is coming back! Is there a difference between the two testaments (covenants)? A big difference. The same God wrote both, yet their applications and your responsibility to God differ in each. This is where things get muddy when we interpret the Bible. The word for this is hermeneutics.

Hermeneutics are the systematic framework one uses to interpret the Bible. Since there are two testaments, how they apply matters. Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished”. (Matthew 5:17-18, ESV). Jesus fulfills the requirements of the Old Testament that humanity could not do. Jesus came and lived a perfect, sinless life in obedience to God. Thus, He fulfilled the Old Testament. That means He brought it to completion. It’s no longer binding. It no longer saves us. Jesus does.

There are lots of great principles that we still strive to live by. But, what the Law could not do – restore us in a right relationship to God – Jesus did. He accomplished it through His death and Resurrection and Ascension. So, the 613 binding commands of the Old Testament are no more on us who follow the Messiah, Jesus Christ.

6. Context, Context, Context 

These are the three most important words in Bible study. I tell our congregation this on an almost weekly basis. Approaching the Bible can seem daunting. Yet, if we apply all the rules of literature and history above, we’ll be able to see it in its proper context. If we take it out of context, we can get a wrong interpretation of the text.

For instance, I often hear something like this: “Christians are such hypocrites! They don’t even do what their own book says. It says they can’t eat shellfish (Leviticus 11:12) but to stand against homosexuality (Rom. 1; 1 Cor. 6:9-11; 1 Timothy 1:10, etc.) But they eat fish, shrimp, and mussels! What a bunch of hypocrites!”

First off, you’re trying to cram the requirements of the Old Testament into the teachings of the New. It doesn’t work. Ever. These are two different contracts (Testaments) between God and man. Two different purposes. Two different ball games. Cherry picking scripture shows complete ignorance on the part of the person speaking it. The next thing it does is ignore the context of the Bible as a whole. That’s why context it paramount to successful reading of Scripture. Without it, you can make it say anything you want.

These are simple things to keep in mind when reading the Bible for yourself. It’s not an exhaustive list by any means, but these six things will get you started in a right direction.

What would you add to the list?

The first Christian heresy was an idea called Gnosticism.  It held that a human is a divine soul trapped in an evil, material world and body. In order to free yourself from the evil matter of the world, you had to acquire special knowledge that was available only to a chosen few.  If you were one of the “enlightened ones,” after you died, you would escape this world and turn into a spiritual being finally freed from the sinful and evil flesh. Simply put:  all matter is bad, spirit is good.

For the Gnostics, the flesh was the product of a bad creation.  They viewed God’s creation as such a bad thing that they began the narrative that  Jesus didn’t actually come in the flesh – that He was, in fact, just a spirit…since the evil, material world was bad, God obviously wouldn’t have come to earth in physical form.  This world, our bodies, and how we live our lives become irrelevant, because the real human mission and purpose of God are somewhere else – in the future after we die.

That is the heresy of Gnosticism. 

The Scriptures vehemently teach us this as absolutely false, like John writes:

By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. (1 John 4:2-3, ESV)

To the contrary, Scripture teaches us that God entered this world to redeem it, in the flesh, as matter, physically, as a human.

Gnosticism was, in fact, a form of escaping reality by completely (and psychotically) pretending it didn’t exist. For example, the Gnostic view and idea of afterlife was that one day we will become liberated spiritual beings because we have this secret knowledge, and start living outside this world as spirits in another realm…

…sound familiar…like “going to heaven?”

Remember…this was the firstt major heresy of Christianity.

Thank God we have the Scriptures, which start with a God who repeatedly says that Creation is “good.”  He even says, “It is very good.” God loves the creation.

Moving through the Bible, the writers and prophets never wrote about heaven as a kind of recondite realm beyond Neptune.  Rather, they spoke of a new heaven and a new earth, speaking of a time in the future when this earth would be restored and renewed. Isaiah writes:

For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth,
and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind
. (Is. 65:17, ESV)

It is followed up by a litany of amazing promises that run identical to Revelation 21. At that time, all things and people would be reconciled to one another and to God, and the creation will again be “very good.”

Jesus Himself spoke of Heaven in a like manner.  In Matthew 19:28 he says:

Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and the last first. (Matt. 19:28-30, ESV)

Another translation of “in the new world” is “at the renewal of all things” and the word is fascinating in the Greek:  “Pali-Genesis.”  Genesis meaning beginning and Pali meaning “again.”

Literally “Genesis again.” 

We have to understand that God has never given up on His original creation, but we have often overlooked the vocabulary of Scripture that describes God’s plan for us. This includes words like redeemrestore, resurrect, renew, recover, reconcile, and regenerate.

Every one of these words in Scripture means to “restore to a former state.”

That shows us a HUGE piece of God’s character – that He is the ultimate American Picker…the ultimate salvage restorer…that He loves to renew and restore the things everyone usually calls  junk or dead. God loves resurrection…He showed us by the empty tomb, right?

But certain teachings downplay this legitimate biblical teaching in favor of the coming destruction of the world.

For almost 200 years now, Christians have been influenced by the end-times teaching called “the Rapture.” This is not a word that appears in the Bible, by the way, but the idea it infers has garnered great appeal in American churches.

We should understand that this idea has been around only a very small portion of church history.  Prior to that, the accepted theology and eschatology (study of last things) of the church was that Jesus would return and restore the world back to its perfection at the end of time after the Judgment.

Revelation is a complex and robust book. I believe it a great misnomer to look at a passage and insert a “rapture”  into it that has prevented Christians from engaging and participating in the very world God says is good.

When Christians believe that God will judge the world but that they will be removed from the worst judgments, it moves their focus off of God’s restoring work on earth.

This whole idea began with a guy named John (J.N.) Darby who taught that Jesus would come back again…twice…the first 2nd Coming would be in secret to “escape” or “rapture” the church, and the second 2nd coming would be to destroy the world. He gained favor with a Bible editor named Scofield, and coincidentally, this teaching wound up in the early editions of the Scofield Reference BIble.

Though this idea has NO biblical precedent, nor was it taught until 1830, it caught on like wildfire.

Here’s why this matters: A belief that emphasizes the stealthy escape of believers from earth before a global, end-times cataclysm that destroys what God created is not consistent with historical, biblical Christian doctrine. At all.

Why should Christians care for anything if God is just going to zap us all to heaven to get out-of-the-way before he nukes the universe?  Why should we fight for justice and compassion on earth if God’s bigger plan is to wait until eternity before anyone can actually live or achieve it? Why should we seek mercy and reach out to help the hurting of the world if the world is just getting microwaved? This escapist theology contradicts not just Jesus’ teachings, but also His earthly life and practices.

Jesus taught his closest disciples that He would return to His Father. Meanwhile, He emphasized their role and involvement in God’s Kingdom on earth.

He did not minimize the needs of people by pointing to a future paycheck in heaven.  Working for justice, being guided by compassion, sacrificing yourself for the good of others in this life – all of these were modeled by Jesus and manifest in the lives of the first Christians.

So, then, is heaven a place that is far removed from earth?  An ethereal, otherworldly realm that has little resemblance of this world?  Let’s look at Scripture to see.

Jon Storment and Josh Ross write:

“Paul talked a lot about the resurrection of Jesus…and most of the time, he framed it in the context of the Exodus story.”

In Romans 8:26, he writes that creation is groaning, longing for its redemption from slavery.

In 1 Corinthians 15, the longest discourse in Scripture about the resurrection, Paul wrote that the resurrection of Jesus is the “first fruits” of a larger thing God is going to do.

First fruits is reference to a holiday the Jews celebrated, one that centered around the Exodus Narrative

“This is really important b/c after the Israelites were freed from slavery, they went up to meet w/ God on a mountain:”

16 On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. 17 Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. 18 Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. 19 And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. 20 The Lord came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. (Ex. 19:16-20, ESV)

God met w/ Israel on a mountain, in a cloud, and there was a trumpet. If we keep that in mind, 1 Thessalonians 4 has completely different ring to it:

13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.18 Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1 Thess. 4:13-18, ESV)

When you read that passage with the Exodus narrative in mind, you’ll be less likely to hear something that Paul isn’t saying.  We too often act as if Paul said, “Just hold on until God gets us out of here.”

Are we in danger of falling back into the very heresy the Apostles and church Fathers began to stamp out?  Are we in danger of embracing an “escapist” theology that not only endangers the very good creation of God, but also our own souls?  Will it cause us to forfeit the God-given mission of being “ministers of reconciliation” and “ambassadors for Christ?” I think it bears thinking about, especially a teaching such as the Rapture that has led so many astray through something that’s not even in the Bible at all?

We were not meant to “escape” the world, but to redeem it in the Church through Jesus Christ!  That’s something we can live for!

I hesitate to add my voice to the area of women’s roles in the Churches of Christ.  I say that, as a man, who gets to preach, and has no restrictions placed on him. I feel unqualified to add my words to the already full pools of thought going on in our congregations. Yet, sometimes you must speak.  There are times in our lives where we will feel like Jeremiah when he says, “ But if I say, ‘I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,’ his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot” (Jer. 20:9, NIV). I believe fear, for the most part has kept me quiet on this issue.  I repent of that fear right now.

In my experience, there are places you don’t want to tread in a Bible study on a Wednesday night or Sunday Morning. The role of women is one of them. I have found that when even when the subject of the role of women is broached from a distance, it is immediately shot down with fury. Immediately the proof texts from 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy are bandied about and slammed on the table. This is where the terrible way of reading the Bible that says, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it,” comes into play.

These moments have become gatekeepers in our congregations that we have allowed to persist. Many of our congregations can’t even enter into any sort of meaningful dialogue, let alone serious studies of these passages without it devolving into an argument – an often-times very loud argument. This is tragic among a people who are born out of reconciliation and resurrection.

We’ve held our positions on the roles of women in the assembly and the church for a long time now. I don’t expect my voice to change your mind. Our heritage, which is a beautiful one, has preserved some of our general positions.  That’s commendable. I love our faith heritage and am proud to serve within it. Yet, on the roles of women in worship, let me just ask a simple, yet loaded question:

What if we’re wrong?

No one among us would even hesitate to admit that Jesus elevated the status of women in the first century.  They were integral in his ministry (Luke 8:1-3), and they were participants in some of the greatest moments in Jesus’ ministry. We read that they had an active, participatory role in the early church’s worship services (1 Cor. 14:26). Women even had leadership roles recognized by an Apostle (Rom. 16:1). I’m not advocating crazy changes – not at all.  I’m just asking if we’re honestly reading the text without dodging the uncomfortable parts.

I’m not promoting that churches begin immediately putting our dear sisters at the pulpit or to pass trays or lead singing or pray.  Instead, I’m trying to wrap my head around an idea; a question, really. First, let me bring up another Scripture before I bring out my question.  Writing to the Thessalonian believers, Paul writes, “Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thess. 5:19, NIV). In context Paul is speaking of not treating the revelations and things of God with contempt.  He’s admonishing the believers to trust the Spirit, don’t block Him. Let Him lead. Don’t put Him in a box of “theology.” I know we’re all guilty of this from time to time, and repentance is required.  Here’s my question:  Are we quenching the Spirit?

Let me ask it in a way that terrifies me:

Are we keeping an entire group of believers from exercising their God-given abilities by hiding behind tradition and comfort?  Are we handicapping our women in their service to God?

These are honest questions.  And, if we find ourselves to be wrong in this, a deep repentance is required. How do we know God hasn’t spoken a word through a sister that someone needs to hear but never will because we don’t allow her to speak in front of everyone?  How do we know God isn’t raising up women with something burning in their hearts that we all need to hear? Are we so arrogant to hang our theological hats on one or two Scriptures that when read in the proper context reveals quite a different picture than we’ve been presented with?

We can go around and round on whether Scripture advocates an egalitarian view or a complementarian view. We can say, “Let’s talk about what women can do, not about what they can’t.”  To me, that’s become a fancy way of dodging the issue entirely.

The role of women in our assemblies will continue to be a contentious issue so long a we hide behind the demonic tyranny of statements like, “That’s the way we’ve always done it.” Being closed-minded or too sure of our positions gets us nowhere.  This is a big issue, church.  It isn’t going anywhere.  Maybe its time we sat down and talked about it. Publicly. Humbly. Together.

Look, I’m not advocating a massive, church-wide change. I’m not saying we throw everything we’ve ever known in the trash and walk away.  I’m not pretending that there aren’t many brothers and sisters who sincerely believe with their entire being that God has set up women’s roles in a certain way. I’m certainly not going to force women into something they don’t want to do.

What I am asking is that we sit down with open Bibles, open hearts, and open ears and listen to God.  We need our sisters.  We need to hear their prayers. We need to hear what God is speaking to their hearts.  We need the collective wisdom God has given His people through His Spirit to guide us in these tenuous days. We need each other!

We must have this discussion.  We must stop labeling each other liberal, conservative, progressive, or traditionalist.  We are dividing the Body when we do that. Instead, we must come together and discern through the Spirit and the Word, what God wants us to do in our congregation – not everyone else’s. We cannot ever change just because.  Yet, we cannot afford to stay the same if we are perpetuating a sinful tradition. This is where clarity and wisdom must come into play. 

I plead with you, brothers and sisters, that we come together and ask ourselves, “Are we quenching the Spirit?” If we find ourselves to be in that position, then it is our Christian duty to change. May we pray that we can empower our sisters and let them be who God created them to be.  May we all humble ourselves and pray for wisdom on this issue.

What is next?  What’s in the future for Churches of Christ? Some would say that’s the million-dollar question.  I, myself, would like to know, too.  There are so many trends to observe.  There is a litany of directions we could go. The answer is, I’m sure, multi-faceted. I will not claim to have any answer, let alone the answer

What I hope to do is to help direct our current culture’s aggression that has permeated the church to a healthier place.  I believe part of our future as a people is going to be found in mourning. Call me crazy, but there’s no shortage of things to mourn in our day. Instead of taking the world’s bait and responding in outrage, perhaps we ought to join with our ancient brethren and regain the lost art of lamentation.

I’m not talking about just being “sad” at the state of the world.  I’m talking about learning how to re-enter into the middle of the messes of the world.  I’m talking about taking up the mantle of the ministry of grief again.  Co-suffering love is the cruciform symbol of our faith.  So, I believe part of the future in the Churches of Christ is relearning how to mourn with one another and for the world.

When I talk about mourning, grief and lamentation, I’m not speaking of the kind we do at a funeral. I’m looking directly at the paradox when Jesus says, “Blessed are those that mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matt. 5:4). I love how Brian Zahnd translates this passage. It illustrates the depths that Jesus was plumbing when he let this statement out into the world.  Zahnd writes, “Blessed are the depressed who mourn and grieve, for they create space to encounter comfort from one another.” I like that.  I mean that we’re intentionally entering a space to give and receive comfort from one another. 

So, just who are those who mourn? Scot McKnight says: “Those who mourn,” are those who both grieve in their experiences of sin, tragedy, injustice, death – but also those who reach out to others in compassion when they experience sin, evil, tragedy, and death, too.” That blows the paradox wide open, doesn’t it? It adds a depth that I never realized before to what I thought was self-explanatory.

Brothers and sisters, should we not mourn and grieve for our world and with our world?  There is no shortage of things to grieve over in our nation alone.  We should be falling on our knees, weeping that racism is still as prevalent, even in our churches, as it always has been.  We should mourn with the mothers struggling to feed their babies.  We should lament that our nation – the most prosperous and wealthiest in history – is tearing itself apart in anger and hatred. We should be knocked to our faces with the fact that people believe the church ‘hates’ anyone, whether real or perceived. We should mourn with those who mourn things we don’t understand – issues like race, equality, sexism, and justice.

We should sit in the candlelight vigils of those who are taken before their time in tragic circumstances. We should wail when justice is withheld because of corruption. We should mourn when people are exploited, children are trafficked, and drugs kill our neighbors. For too long we’ve sat in judgment of things we know nothing of.  It is time to humble ourselves and admit that while we might be ignorant at present of many things, ignorance is not an excuse to ignore and avoid. To enter mourning means we must first mourn the existence of our own prejudices and stereotypes.  To enter compassion, we must again embrace the ministry of grief.

The prophet Joel records God’s message on how to get there: ““Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” 13 Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity” (Joel 2:12-13, NIV)

We must return to grief – a chief ministry of the church – and we must begin with ourselves. It is in the ministry of grief that we cut profundity into our souls and make room to be filled with comfort from one another. In this way, grief is understood, not as a reality to be denied, but as a work to be attended to by the church.

Brian Zahnd puts it like this: “In a simple-minded, paper-thin, pseudo-Christian culture where banal happiness seems to be the highest goal, we don’t want to attend to the work of grief; we put it off as an unpleasant task or something beneath our station.” That has costs. If we refuse to attend to the work of grief in our spiritual life and as a body of believers, our soul becomes a austere, infinite, dull wilderness – a kind of barren salt flat where nothing grows.

Maybe that’s been the problem. We’ve lost our ability to ‘feel’ the pain of ourselves and our neighbors.  How then, can we love them if we refuse or forget how to enter the most sacred of spaces – grief and mourning with them. Our neighbors and brothers and sisters are mourning so much:  marriages, prodigal children, lost causes, broken promises, death, injustice, racism, prejudice, anger, discrimination, and so much more.

Perhaps more, we should grieve the sin of ourselves and the world as we try and lull ourselves into a state of plastic happiness.  It is not our Christian duty to enforce a kind of dopey, all-is-well, I’m-just-fine, pretend happiness where we all say a shallow ‘hello’ and then try and get one another to ‘buck, not for their sakes, but for our own because we’ve forgotten how to mourn.

Maybe if we set aside a few times a year to come together and lament – not complain – about the state of the world, then perhaps we could learn to reinsert ourselves into the vocation called ‘mourning.’ When we learn that again, I believe our future will be incredible bright because we will have relearned what it means to truly be human.  We will reassume our God-ordained role of “grieving with those who grieve” and in that we will find that we are the recipients of the incredible announcement that, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

I haven’t always been associated with the Churches of Christ. I didn’t know much about our roots or where we came from. I didn’t really care too much about our heritage until I heard Patrick Mead speak on it at a Campus Ministry conference.  When I was introduced to the Declaration and Address of the Campbells and The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery, I saw how beautiful our tradition was.

Perhaps the thing I gravitated toward the most was our foundation. We are a people of the Bible – a people of the book – and we all seek to live out the Scriptures. The other feature of our movement that lit a fire in my heart was the fact that we are a unity movement. Many different streams of Christendom converged in unity and purpose.  The beauty of so many coming together from divergent backgrounds under the banner of Christ and His Church – it’s miraculous. That is why I’m proud to be a part of the Churches of Christ.

Yet, somewhere along the way, many left unity and pursued uniformity. There’s a vast difference.  Uniformity is a concept where everyone is the same. They share the same views, thoughts, opinions, and interests.  While that seems like a noble thing, it isn’t biblical. I’ve heard several well-meaning ministers conscript Acts 2:42-47 where “all the believers were together and had everything in common,” to make a case that all churches everywhere must be the same. That concept is foreign to Scripture. Uniformity creates clones.  Unity – well that’s something far more mystical.

Look to Jesus’ prayer in John 17.  After Jesus prays for the twelve, he prays for you and me.  He asks the Father that, “that all of them may be one, just as you are in me and I am in you.  May that also be in us…I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one…” (John 17:21, 22). He goes on to pray in the following verse, “I in them and you in me – so that they may be brought to complete unity.

That begs the question:  Why? Why is unity the thing Jesus asks for.  If you’re about to die, you have the right to pray for just about anything you want. He could have been selfish with His prayer.  He chooses to pray for unity in you and me.  Why?  Keep reading: “Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” Wow! 

Here’s why this matters deeply to Christ:  His church that will be made up of billions of people from every tribe, language, and background, will somehow come together in unity.  That unity will provide the greatest apologetic to our faith that has ever existed.  We can try all kinds of outreach and evangelism methods, but the one that counts is having unity, not uniformity in the church. Our unity provides the greatest evidence that Jesus is the Son of God.

Paul’s ‘body’ treatise in 1 Corinthians illustrates unity over uniformity.  Everyone, though different we be, comes together to form one cohesive functioning body. Every part different. Every part essential.  That God could do that, with so many different people, is truly miraculous.  That is why a watching world needs to see our churches in unity. Each church must evaluate its cultural context, adapt, and love one another with everything they’ve got.  If we can, by the grace of God, pull that off, then a world so desperate for hope and love will see the greatest display of preternatural power the world can ever witness. 

The roots of unity run deep in the Churches of Christ.  It is my challenge to you, wherever you find yourself, to seek unity.  To, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). To fiercely protect the beauty that God has provided through our diverse unity.  After all, the world will know Jesus is God’s son when we live in unity.

A Minister with Depression

I have depression.

I have for years. I’m told it’s a consequence of all the drugs that fried my brain and altered the chemicals whooshing around in there–I’m told. I go to a Psychiatrist. I have a counselor. I take antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication. In 2019 I will take 2,145 pills to battle my depression and anxiety. 

A lot of folks view depression as a character flaw; something you should just “get over.” I wish it was that easy. I honestly have nothing I should be ‘depressed’ by. I have a great life, an amazing wife and beautiful kids I’m so proud of. I’m not homeless. I’m in good health. I have what I need and then some. It isn’t like a I have some kind of “feeling” I can turn off and on.  It’s not that simple. I’ve prayed and screamed to God so often that I wish it could be like that. It isn’t. 

My depression has profound impacts on my life. It makes me not want to get up. It makes me stay up late. It makes me treat my family poorly because I’m irritable. I’d rather stay home and do nothing than go out. That’s pretty hard to pull off if you’re a minister. Most days I feel like I’ve run a marathon when I haven’t even hardly done anything. I prefer quiet. I need a lot of alone time. That’s difficult when you’re a pastor. 

I love my calling. I love my job. I love my church. Yet, depression still tries to strip a lot of that away. A lot of folks may misunderstand me because of my depression. I may not seem to pay attention, or I may come across as distant or rude. That’s not on purpose. Some days, it’s all I can do to just breath. I’m often irritable and snap. I promise I never want to hurt anyone, but I am not a social butterfly. 

I’m not one of those ministers who can smile all the time and be friendly to everyone at a moment’s notice. Members have even told me, “You know, for a minister, you’re not too friendly.” Part of that is my introverted nature. The other is just trying to get through the day. 

Sometimes I’ll forget to call you or check in if you’re going through something. Some days I might forget many things. Things you asked me to help you work through, things you asked me to research for you, or to get you something you needed.  

I struggle to get up and preach on occasion because I feel so exhausted that all I want to do is go back to sleep. I struggle to pray–A LOT. Don’t misunderstand. It isn’t because I don’t believe in the power of prayer–I absolutely do! I struggle because I can’t pay attention or I’m fighting being irritable, sleepy, and groggy. 

There’s a lot of undesirable effects of the medication. Forgetfulness. Nausea. Headaches. Spacey-ness. Drowsiness. Stomach issues. However, they outweigh the negatives. They also cause seeming anti-social or uncaring behaviors are not on purpose. The LAST thing I want to do is appear uncaring, inattentive, or hurtful. But understand that’s just going to happen. 

I sometimes wish I could switch my depression off. I hate the feelings it brings. Sometimes it makes me doubt God, but mostly it makes me want to be alone. I love playing with my kids. I love hanging with my wife. I love my friends. But, I have depression, and sometimes, without me knowing, or despite my best efforts to fight back, it gets the best of me. 

If you’re reading this and struggling with depression, know that you are not alone. Let’s get coffee. Let’s chat. But don’t suffer in silence. There are a lot of myths and stigma associated with mental health issues. There shouldn’t be. We don’t stigmatize people with high blood pressure or diabetes. Why would this be any different? 

If you’re a minister and reading this, know also that you are not alone. You aren’t the only one feeling this way. We take on some of the heaviest burdens and when you add that to your own, it can be overwhelming. Talk to your doctor. Pray with your wife. Speak to your shepherds. Pray. Depression doesn’t disqualify you from the ministry. Lying about it might. 

If you want to help, then bring attention to mental health in the church. Let us de-stigmatize it. Let us know that almost everyone in the room on Sunday morning (statistically) has some sort of mental illness. Let us get comfortable in sharing that and helping each other. 

I want to close with a story, then a scripture. When I first became a Christian and when I was really struggling with depression and panic attacks while still experimenting and trying to find the medications that worked, I cried out to God. One night, I was so distraught and depressed, and I said, “Jesus, why aren’t you helping me? You don’t know how horrible this feels!” I had the Bible in front of me and I opened it up. This was the Scripture my eyes went to: 

He [Jesus] took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” – Matthew 26:37-39 

That’s when I knew that Jesus knows. That He experienced it. He went through it. That’s why the writer of Hebrews says: 

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. – Hebrews 4:14-16 

Jesus knows. And one day, I won’t have depression any more. But today I do, and I will live to help and serve those who do, and those who have anything else. 

The biggest lie Satan tempts you to believe is that you are alone. You’re not. You never were. God walks with you. He hasn’t forgotten about you. He loves you. He weeps at the pain we go through. He holds us. He carries us. He is with us. He is God, and He will see us through. Don’t give up.

Who are we, brothers and sisters?  Now, more than ever, the American Church needs to answer that question.  A cursory answer you might pose is, “We are the Church.”  You might say, “We are Christians.” The response might even be, “We’re God’s people.” While those are true, I’ll ask again.  Who are we?

One need only look around the assembly on Sunday to see that partisan politics have found a willing home within our congregations. Republican or Democrat? I contend that the idol of politics has become the real dividing issue of our time. 

These divisions are not new among God’s people. Jesus’ world included four partisan parties among the Jewish people: The Zealots, the Essenes, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees. Each had its own ideology about how the world should work considering Roman occupation.   Zealots were coercive revolutionaries. Sadducees were collaborators. Pharisees were the separate and pure; superior and far apart from sinners. The last group is the Essenes who withdrew from social and political affairs. 

All but the Essenes practiced a fierce belief of the national superiority of Israel.  The Essenes hyper-spiritualized the concept. They did not put as much stock in the physical, but they were nonetheless following the same ideology to their chagrin. You cannot blame them at all.  God had told them they would be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6). They received the Promised Land to dwell in.  So, when foreign interlopers defiled the land by their presence, it’s understandable that it would offend them. 

The power struggles and hateful interactions between these sects of the Jewish people created the toxic environment into which Christ was born. It is into this charged, divided world that Jesus stepped into history and with Him brought a new approach. He lived in a time consumed with the damnable idol of nationalism – not unlike the place we live today.

His death and resurrection birthed the Church.  God introduced the Church as an alternative to partisan politics. He raised up his Son to set the standard that crushed nationalism and bred brotherhood. The Church had, as Scot McKnight writes, an “Ethos from Beyond.” This Kingdom of God that Jesus brought was that it was so revolutionary that even today we cannot comprehend its scope and implications. 

One of the great things that drew me to the heritage of the Restoration Movement was the desire to be like the first Christians.  We’ve made great strides and for that I am grateful to God. In the realm of politics, we have in our time, undone thousands of years of Christian progress. Again we find ourselves stuck in the irresistible pull of political power and nationalism.  Our divisions have caused the Body a great harm to ourselves and to our witness. We have done great harm to one another. We have divided the body.

Political process cannot ever build God’s kingdom. That does not mean that political processes cannot be a force for good.  It means we cannot put our hope there. Ever. A nation and its politics are just that – a nation.  A nation cannot submit to God as it isn’t human, therefore it cannot be part of the Kingdom of God. We must come to grips with the truth that nationalism is idolatry. Why?  Because it stifles the Kingdom.

How can we be salt and light if we side with political power? How can we have a single-minded allegiance to God, while grasping on to earthly structures? Forgive me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t God demand and command allegiance to Him alone and not to a fallen human, state, flag, or political party? Does He not introduce an alternative Kingdom called the Church?

The State is part of the world, and God’s Kingdom never can be the state, part of the state, or a tool of the state. It would do us well to retrace history and see what has happened when the church has given herself to the State.  The Crusades, the Middle-Ages, the Salem Witch Trials, Segregation, Slavery, and racism. Atrocities like this happen when God’s people drink the maddening wine of nationalism and partisan politics.

Instead, we present an alternative – a new social order as Viola states, and an ethic from above. Instead, the ekklesia is a place where racism, social prejudice, sexism, discrimination, etc., are absent (Gal. 3:28). Instead, justice, mercy, reconciliation, love, forgiveness, and unity are the law. We do not belong to the world (John 8:23, 15:19, 17:9, 17:16). 

When we try to be part of two kingdoms, we poison the Lord’s Supper. There is “death in the pot,” (2 Kings 4:38-41), and though wine doesn’t mess with the poison, the poison makes the wine toxic.  Being consumed with politics makes us useless in the Kingdom. I must be a citizen of Heaven, and only then, can I be a part of the alternate Kingdom of God. 

I am an American citizen by birth, but to a degree I am not. My citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20). If my country asks me to do something or go along with something that is at odds with Scripture, then I have an obligation.  I am obligated to renounce my citizenship as an American for my true citizenship. We must always remember that every political system is threatened by the radical message of Jesus. When the threat grows large enough, they will crucify our Lord all over again; even if it calls itself a “Christian Nation.” Every government will eventually find itself at odds with God’s Kingdom.

Let us remember that the Church is the alternative to all the political divisiveness and partisan politics.  It is above the fray of mudslinging.  Christ gives His Church a distinct role to shine our light and point to Jesus.  The Church speaks to earthly powers, not for them.  We speak for God.  God’s power and God’s Word are the final authority and therefore, are superior to anything or anyone.  

Instead, may we remember who we are instead:  Christians.  We are the bedraggled underdogs of the world in which God has given the Kingdom to.  We are ambassadors of a higher ethic, an alternative one. When we stoop down to nationalism and partisan politics, we divide Christ. Scripture is clear on this:  dividing the Body is a sin. We can do better. We can dialogue better.  We can love one another, even if we disagree. We must.  For if we do not, it is my fear, that we will continue to speed toward irrelevancy in an already doubting culture. Even worse, my fear is that we will repeat atrocities of the past.

Let me close with the timeless words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his 1954 sermon: “Paul’s Letter to the American Church”:

“But American Christians, I must say to you as I said to the Roman Christians years ago, “Be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Or, as I said to the Philippian Christians, “Ye are a colony of heaven.” This means that although you live in the colony of time, your ultimate allegiance is to the empire of eternity. You have a dual citizenry. You live both in time and eternity; both in heaven and earth. Therefore, your ultimate allegiance is not to the government, not to the state, not to nation, not to any man-made institution. The Christian owes his ultimate allegiance to God, and if any earthly institution conflicts with God’s will it is your Christian duty to take a stand against it. You must never allow the transitory evanescent demands of man-made institutions to take precedence over the eternal demands of the Almighty God.”