Category Archives: Church Identity

In search of Christian community: What happened to our life together?

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This is not what I had in mind.  When I became a Christian, I though that I joined a family, that we all loved each other.  Have you ever tried to get all the Christians in a room?  I thought we were a body.  But, not just any body– Christ’s.  Far from his truth, we talk as if reconciliation is the hardest part of the Christian life.  I beg to differ.

Death, dying to self, is the most difficult thing we will ever have to do.  Here are the instructions Jesus left for us: “Take up your cross and follow me” (Matthew 16.24).  Jesus says that if we are traveling with him, then the only thing we need is the means by which we will die.  “Pick up a cross and let’s get going.”

Because we have some dying to do.  There should be little grave markers along the way.  “Here lies pride.”  “Arrogance, 1970-2018.”  “Jealousy, never satisfied.”

Coming to terms with who we are is the real “come to Jesus meeting.”  Two enter, one leaves.  “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3.30).

Still, there doesn’t seem to be much room for Jesus or his cross.  Sunday services become pageants and the building is another money- making machine.  I can’t wave and smile while being crushed.  Tonight, I am questioning Christian community.  Surely, this is not what Jesus had in mind.  Christ did not die for our divisions.

While each ministry context is different, with its own interests and challenges, our goal as believers is to create authentic community, to emphasize our commonality in Christ. But, we do not create commonality around our cultural traditions, our socially constructed identities and affinity groups.  Instead, we create community around the body of Christ.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together, “Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ.  No Christian community is more or less than this. … Christian community is only this.  We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ.”

For Bonhoeffer, membership and belonging are found in Christ.  And there is no Christian community apart from him.  His body is what brings us together.  There are no cultural middle-persons, no priestly barterers that can provide or prevent passage into Christ’s presence.   While multicultural/ intercultural churches are not the norm, it should be expected that persons from all walks of life can and do walk through the doors of the church.  And if they don’t, why not?

I thought that we were a Christian community.  When did we stop going from house to house?  Why don’t we share all things in common?   What happened to our life together?

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No enemy lines

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I hate you.  Three words that we do not expect to hear from a Christian and certainly not from the pulpit.  This is why we use other words to cover them up.  Because it doesn’t sound good.  And it’s not a good look for those who would profess to be in relationship with the God of love.

So, we say, “I don’t hate anyone.  I just dislike them strongly, wish I had never met them and would be glad if I never saw them again.  No, I don’t hate anyone; I just can’t be in the same room with them, have to bite my tongue when they come around, can’t think of one nice thing to say about them.  I don’t hate anyone.  Still, I won’t miss them when they’re gone, won’t sing a sad song because I am better off without them, wish they were never born and won’t shed a tear when they die.

But, I wouldn’t say I hate them—because that is such a strong word.

Actually, hate is defined as “a passionate dislike” and is a common occurrence in our vocabulary.  So, we may not hate the person, but we hate their guts.  So intense is the dislike that we hate the very sight of them.  For some relationships, there is a balance of devotion and hatred, described as a love- hate relationship.

And there are those we feel justified to hate.  It is a hatred that is long- standing and well- founded, well- grounded in points that have led us to this place.  There are hatreds we love and people we love to hate.  Villain and hero, they are in every story.  Strangely, we can only see ourselves riding in on a white horse.  So, we imagine ourselves saving the day and thus, loved by everyone.  We have no enemies.

***

But, even Jesus could not and would not make this claim.  While on earth, persons tried to stone him and throw him off a cliff.  He was run out of town on more than one occasion.  While we imagine Jesus knocking on the door of our hearts, I can see doors being closed in his face more often than not.  Jesus told a scribe who wanted to follow him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”[i]  Homeless, the creatures were living better than the Creator.

And please don’t choose the Jesus Way if you want to be well- liked.  I assure you that Jesus’ yearbook did not include him as the most popular or even class president.  The Lord’s Table was not the cool kid’s table.  No, our leader was the laughing stock of his community.  Jesus goes home to preach and people were offended that he presumed to know more than them when he had grown up with them.  Jesus says of the incident, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown and among their own kin, and in their own house.”[ii]  Jesus makes it pretty clear that this was a packaged deal: “You will be hated by all because of my name.”[iii]

Like those who lived during Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s time, we pretend that we would have walked with Jesus, been found alongside him.  But, the truth remains, that all of the disciples left him.  “No not one” was at his side or would cross the line between crowd and crucifixion.  Instead, they stayed silent.  Because though they hated to see a good man die, they loved their lives more.

So, they turned their backs on him and his back is torn to pieces, whipped.  They hide behind closed doors as he cries out for help.  We hate to hear the truth but even those disciples Jesus hand- picked would not pick up a cross to follow him.  He taught them to turn the other cheek and they turned and walked away not long after Judas kissed his.  All seeking to save their own skin, there are no heroes here.  But, are they villains too, enemies of Christ and his cross?

If so, we don’t hate them.  And why is that?  Is it because we can identify with them?  We can see ourselves in them?  Because if the truth be told, our response would be the same, which is why we love Jesus so much.  Jesus knows that they don’t know any better: “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.”[iv]  Jesus does not hate us, but he loves us and forgive us, his enemies.

Perhaps this is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes,

“Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end, all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross, he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause, he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God.  So, the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. There is his commission, his work.  (Quoting Martin Luther, he continues,) ‘The kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies. And he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the Kingdom of Christ; he wants to be among friends, to sit among roses and lilies, not with the bad people but the devout people. O you blasphemers and betrayers of Christ! If Christ had done what you are doing who would ever have been spared’.”[v]

Jesus loved his enemies from the beginning and until the very end.  And he commands us to do the same: “Love your enemies.”[vi]  Described as a hard saying, love is often viewed as failure.  We think, “Where is the win in turning the other cheek,[vii] in suffering and forgiving, in serving someone who has wronged us?[viii]  From the cross, Jesus would point to all of us.  Jesus didn’t come to win a game but to win souls.

These days, it is hard to know whose side the Lord is on.  Perhaps, it is because Jesus takes no sides but desires to bring everyone to his pierced and bleeding side.  He died not to score political points but for our salvation.  And he did not die only for those we love and who love us, but Jesus lived and led, loved and died for our enemies.  For him, there was no difference.

Because in our sinful state, we were all behind enemy lines.

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[i] Matthew 8.20, NRSV

[ii] Mark 6.4, NRSV

[iii] Matthew 10.22a, NRSV

[iv] Luke 23.34

[v] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

[vi] Matthew 5.44

[vii] Matthew 5.39

[viii] Romans 12.20

Doing justice to our bodies: How race wrongs us (Part Two)

See the source imageWith an increase in the surveillance of bodies socially colored black, I feel it necessary to talk about the valuation of the human body and the Church’s role in such a conversation.  With some persons feeling it necessary to call the police as if a customer service agency for humans they deem damaged due the social construct of race, it is important that we not only talk about race but speak to its theological implications.  Made in God’s image, it would seem like an easy one to have.  The silence around the visibility of whiteness and the socially desired invisibility of those labeled and socially assigned the identity of black is dumbfounding.

Thus, I submit a second section of the paper I presented at the Baptist World Alliance in Zurich, Switzerland just a few weeks ago:

There are several familiar passages of Scripture that praise the creation of human beings, namely the Genesis account: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; … So, God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. … God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.”[i]  Noteworthy, the narrator does not describe any physical characteristics or distinctions, not even based on their gender differences.  Unlike our hyper- body conscious society, there are no measurements, no height or weight, no mention of size, shape or any other perceived physical trait.  Man and woman, animals and insects, trees and rivers, they are described the same: “very good.”

God praises the work of God’s hands and the psalmist chimes in, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; I know them very well.”[ii]  Made in God’s image and identified in Christ, the believer’s identity has divine boundaries.  Buried with Christ, our new life with Christ is not expected to resemble the old self or its nature.  In Christ, we are new creatures.  “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.  So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”[iii]

Paul’s point cannot be overstated. Even though they knew Christ “from a human point of view,” even though they knew his mother, Mary and his stepfather, Joseph, his birthplace, his siblings, his habits and human needs, they don’t know him in this way anymore.  There is a change in the way that they relate and desire to know Jesus.  This new creation does not require the information that the cultural, personal or social self might need.

For the new creation, it is unnecessary and dare I say, irrelevant. And it is a choice.  While they have personal information about Jesus, that perspective is not helpful to the work of ministry that he has entrusted to them, to the community that they have been called to serve, to the gospel they have been charged to share with the world.  They must know him and consequently, each other differently.  This is not human being as usual.

While the early Church initially wrestles with cultural inclusion as recorded in Acts 15 at the Council at Jerusalem, revelations given by the Holy Spirit make the gospel’s goal clear: “And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between us and them. Now therefore why are putting God to test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?  On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord, Jesus, just as they will.”[iv]

The presence of the Holy Spirit makes evident those who God has saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. No physical marking of the flesh, it is the work of the Holy Spirit.  It is a distinction not made with human hands but much like the children of Israel, it is a matter of the heart.  Anything more would be making salvation more difficult than it needs to be, harder than God has made it for them, the writer of Acts says.

They are identified by the Holy Spirit and found in Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul writes to the church at Galatia of their identity in Christ, which the outside world has nothing to do with it.  Baptized, believers rise with Christ no longer to be identified as they have been by society: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”[v]  Baptized into Christ, there is a depth of identity to which all others will not survive.  This is more than an immersion; it is a death, a burial with Christ to rise to new life in him.

Theologian William Willimon makes a fine point in this regard,

What are we to do with a church that speaks to people on the basis of their gender or race, all the while baptizing them on the basis of Galatians 3.28?

In baptism, the text becomes Scripture for us, canon, laid on us as a new story that illumines our stories. In baptism, we are adopted into the people who answer to this story and are held accountable to its description of reality… Scripture suggests that authority has shifted from ourselves to Scripture’s use of us… Baptism asserts that we meet and speak under an identity that challenges and endangers all other identities.[vi]

If we profess Christ as Savior and Lord, then there is no longer black or white, red or yellow, brown or beige people. There is no longer immigrants and strangers, marginalized and centered, minority and majority, privilege and oppressed people; we are now one in Christ Jesus. Like Paul, we are to count as loss all that brought us gain so that we might know Christ.[vii]  Accepting race and its socially constructed identities ensures that we “boast in the flesh” and maintains our confidence in it.[viii]  But, baptism erases the lines and destroys our boxes. T.B. Maston asserts, “God is not a racial, national or denominational deity… so there is no racial discrimination in God’s family.”[ix]

When we accept the transformative power of baptism, the social construct of race will lose its grip on our skin and slip away.

Because we cannot serve God and race.[x]  When we are baptized, we must die to our racialized selves, drowning out the voices of culturally justifiable hatred, prejudice and supremacy.   Race cannot go down with us and come up in Christ Jesus— because race has no resurrection power.  If we are baptized and remain people of color, then we may need to stay under the water a little longer.

The point is made again to the community of believers at Colossae: “…seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal, there is no longer Greek or Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!”[xi]

How then does the Church in North America continue to speak of God and God’s people in color- coded terms, to speak of people of color and people of God interchangeably?  Because we cannot credit two creators.  Why does the Church in North America continue to employ the social distinction of race though we identify ourselves as people who are “led by the Spirit”?  How does the use of the social construct and its progeny, namely prejudice, stereotype and white privilege, survive baptism and continue to participate in our life with Christ and with other believers in community?  How does race help us to sing God praises for our creation and the creation of our neighbor?

Known for having all the answers, the Church in North America and communities of faith across the world must begin to question its long- standing relationship with race.

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[i] Genesis 1.26, 27, 31a, NRSV

[ii] Psalm 139.14, NRSV

[iii] Second Corinthians 5.16-17, NRSV

[iv] Acts 15.8-11, NRSV

[v] Galatians 3.27-28, NRSV

[vi] William H. Willimon, Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 7,

[vii] Philippians 3.8

[viii] Philippians 3.2

[ix] T. B. Maston, The Bible and Race: A Careful Examination of Biblical Teachings on Human Relations, (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1959), 24-25.

[x] Matthew 6.24

[xi] Colossians 3.9-11, NRSV

It takes a village

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In recent weeks, God has been seen in public or at least those who claim to represent the deity.  And there is this debate as to whether or not the name of God should be invoked at all.  With the needs of people politicized, it is hard to know when to speak for or against anyone.  These times, they are confusing because there are persons who are loving and hating each other in the name of God.

What shall we do then? God, give us the strength to love when we prefer our arguments over action, our perspectives over people.  Give us the strength to love as the temptation increases to be conformed to this world and its patterns.[i]  But, we cannot do it alone.  Dr. Maya Angelou wrote:

Now if you listen closely
I’ll tell you what I know
Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan,
‘Cause nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

It takes a village to raise a child, to raise a community, to raise the consciousness of a nation.  It takes a village—not an individual or an ideology—to raise our awareness so that we can see each other apart from the categories that attempt to combine us, enshrine us against them.  Because God’s love is uncategorical and defies our descriptions, our color codes, our prejudicial treatment of agape.  It takes a village to push back against the normalizing of alternative realities.  Only God is real.

It takes a village for us to gain momentum, to ensure that we do not get tired of doing what is right.  It takes a village to keep us moving forward, less we backslide to our darker and more dangerous selves, our hidden and hurting selves, our fictional selves.  It takes a village to point us back less we slither into back room deals that only sell us out and sell us short.  Coming together “for us four and no more,” we come up short of the glory of God.  Because we will only get to holiness and to heaven together.

Still, we are so tempted to resort to our corners where we are encouraged to hide our light under a bushel—until our so- called enemy shows us theirs.  But, we are called to be the bigger person, to be a bigger people—not to be overshadowed by, overpowered by the powers that be—because these powers will not always be.  God’s kingdom is coming.  God’s kingdom is coming.  God’s kingdom is coming.

The Bible says, we are called together, to “be at peace with one another” (Mark 9.50), “devoted to one another” (John 13.35), “to live in harmony with one another” (Romans 12.16), to be kind and compassionate to one another” (Ephesians 4.32), “to forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another” (Colossians 3.13).  The Scriptures teach us, “Don’t grumble against each other” (James 5.9).  Be “patient, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4.2) and “make your love increase and overflow for each other” (First Thessalonians 3.12).  We gather not to sharpen our favorite scriptures to attack each other but to learn how to “love each other deeply,” “to live in harmony with each other” (First Peter3.8) and to lose the taste for our favorite hatreds.  Instead, we have gathered to eat from the table that the Lord prepares.

Do not be deceived.  This faith is one; but, it is for all.  It does not work without each another.  We have no testimony, no witness without one another.  The gospel of Jesus Christ is not individualized; this gospel is not a part of some government deal.  Christ’s gospel will not bear the seal of society’s approval.  And if we are looking to politicians for how we should practice our faith, then we are doing it wrong.   No, we are Christians together or not at all.

We need a village to move us beyond these divisions.  We need a village to move us beyond the cycles.  Because we have gone this way before.  We’ve had these fears before.  We’ve said these words before.  We’ve hated and judged like this before.

A nation and its people on edge, the psalmist was right, “The nations rage; the kingdoms totter.”[ii]  Who can find a virtuous people, a righteous equal?  Who can find their voice to speak truth to power, truth to the lies we face day in and day out?

In love with Caesar, help us to cut the ties, cut the puppet strings that pull us apart.  Let our relationship with God go deeper than our political party affiliations.  As they drive the wedge deeper, let us remember the nails that were driven deepest into Christ.  Because we are not blue and red Christians, conservative, moderate and liberal believers.  God can not be divided and God’s people must be undivided.  We pledge allegiance to “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.”[iii]

Because “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”[iv]  Because a faith divided against itself does not speak well of its leader.  Because where are we going, who are we following if our faith goes in political cycles, if every four years, we change directions.  Chaos or community, which way are we headed?  As people of faith, I call you to head off those who we lead us to the former, to cut off conversations that do not lend themselves to reconciliation, restoration and transformation.  But, you cannot do it alone.  Take your village.

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[i] Romans 12.2

[ii] Psalm 46.6

[iii] Ephesians 4.5

[iv] Matthew 12.25

Who is my neighbor?

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The early Church shared all things in common; but, the Church in North America remains stingy and divided, only willing to see our differences (Acts 2.44).  One community: in Christ.  One confession: “One Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4.5).  Still, the divisions seem to intensify as the Bible is politicized and the people we have been called to serve are increasingly demonized. 

Questions like “What would Jesus do?” and “Who is my neighbor?” are harder to answer without starting an argument.  While Jesus’ story and subsequent record are clear, our explanations often are not.  It’s complicated by a national narrative that continues to keep its citizens in conflict.  But, living as Christ did and calls his disciples to doesn’t just lead us to church on Sunday mornings.

Instead, he leads us into places and among people we are called to love but whom the current administration of American government and its leaders prejudice as dangerous and a threat, who argue that their presence attacks and eats away at the very fabric of American life.  But, things seem to be unraveling.  It feels that we are hanging on by a thread and on the verge of chaos.

Chaos or community, these were the two options offered by civil rights leader and preacher, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.  As the nations rage and the kingdoms totter, every tribe is for themselves.  Moving farther apart, we know the answer to the questions.  We know what Jesus would do because of what Jesus has done.  And in a nation that prides itself on individualism and independence, we know how to love ourselves if no one else.  The problem lies in seeing our neighbor as ourselves.

Because this would require the acceptance that we are all neighbors, all tenants and not the owners of the earth we pretend to be.