Church 101: Can’t Go Over It; Can’t Go Under It; We’ll Have to Go Through It

This is my last post in the Church 101 series, a series in which I consider how we as the Church–one global, historical community made up of believers saved by grace through faith in one Christ and indwelt by one Spirit–continue Christ’s work to redeem and restore humanity and, in fact, all of creation; how we serve a Warrior God who saves and chooses for his kingdom the fallen, the hurt, the poor, the slave, the misfit, and the outcast; how, empowered and guided by the same Holy Spirit who empowered and guided Christ, we overcome racial, socioeconomic, and gender barriers as we embody God’s kingdom.

So we come to the post that I dread, because we serve a king who, overturning worldly wisdom and the expectations of the religious leaders, humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross! We serve a crucified Christ, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. Our king pursued his journey to Jerusalem, despite the warnings of the religious leaders and his own disciples, to his rejection, suffering and death, and he told his followers to expect the same.

When he tallied those who should consider themselves blessed, he finished his list with those who are hated and excluded, those socially ostracized because of their allegiance with Christ, those who would be considered traitors to their nation, those who would find their reputations ruined, their businesses boycotted, their families hostile toward them because of their identity in Christ. Blessed are you, our king said, because this means you’re on the right journey–my journey–and God will reward you for it.

When his followers recognized him as king and Messiah, he corrected their understanding of kingdom politics–that redemption and divine vindication travels through suffering. He called them to a life rejected by the world but embraced by God. Deny your own rights and desires, your ethnic, family, political and religious communities, and construct and new identity, community, and life in Christ, he said. Live dead to this world and its values, risking your reputation and even simple rights in order to live in submission to God. This is the nature of God’s kingdom, our king taught, and as we refuse to engage in worldly power games, selfish ambition and material gain at the expense of others, God’s kingdom will spread.

When we live topsy-turvy as Jesus lived, we can expect isolation, conflict, social dishonor and rejection from the world as Jesus did. Will we reject the world’s comforts, though it means experiencing rejection in the world, or will we reject Christ for the comforts of this world, which means experiencing Christ’s rejection? For we know this is not the end. We know that when Christ comes in glory, God will reveal that Jesus served his purpose. And we have the opportunity to join this purpose and this kingdom now, but it means suffering. This suffering uncloaks the depth of the disciple’s love and commitment, and a proper attitude toward suffering and persecution frees us from fearing what the world can do to us and frees us from worrying over possessions so we can live generously and hospitably with our lives and everything we own.

This is our call.

Luke shows this in the lives of the disciples throughout Acts, people who leave their communities for the community of Christians, living generously and hospitably toward all even in the midst of their own need. We see James’ death because of his faith. We see Paul’s journey to Jerusalem that, like Christ’s journey, results in rejection, suffering and imprisonment.

This is not so different from any good story. The way of God’s kingdom is dangerous. The journey of a citizen of this kingdom is full of suffering. But it ends in glory.

As I sit in my comfortable suburban home in a country that teaches me to fight for my rights because I deserve a break today, or at least a Kit-Kat bar, I reflect on what this means for my life. What does it mean to deny my rights? To experience rejection? To journey through suffering?

At the very least, I believe it means treating my possessions as instruments of God’s kingdom rather than as instruments for my own comfort. I don’t mean that I can never enjoy the fruits of God’s creation and of my (and my husband’s) labor, but I am to live generously and hospitably, even if this means giving up some of my own comforts.

I believe it means refusing comforts especially when gained at the detriment of others. If my consumer habits imprison or take advantage of laborers, I must change them. If a career opportunity means throwing someone under the bus, I must skip it. If my work takes away from God’s mission rather than contributes toward his mission of restoring human dignity and redeeming creation, I must reconsider it.

I believe it means offering grace–individually and corporately–when others take advantage of us instead of fighting for our rights.

I believe it means recognizing that sometimes we’ll be seen as the bad guys, that sometimes our reputations will suffer, that sometimes even our families will turn against us when we live as Christ lived.

I don’t know what this will mean always, but maybe it comes down to expectations. Christ did not call me to pursue happiness or my own earthly rights. He called me to something far more joyful and liberating. And as I continue his work of proclaiming good news to the poor, releasing the captives, restoring sight to the blind, and setting free the oppressed, I do so hopefully with earthly ramifications but knowing that Christ’s good news, restoration and freedom is much more than we could ever expect in this life. We’ll experience the fullness of his kingdom when he returns to earth in glory. Any suffering, inconvenience, or rejection I experience now will pale compared to the joy of living in his kingdom.

Church 101: Insert Wind Metaphor Here

I am a cynic.

I am especially cynical about “Holy Spirit leading” language. Too often we use phrases like “God called me to” or “the Holy Spirit led me to” or, my favorite, “the Holy told me to tell you” to abrogate responsibility, follow our own desires carte blanche, recuse ourselves from situations we fear or just don’t prefer, or even control the behaviors of others. In so doing, we shortcut wisdom, amputate freewill, and cause undo stress at discovering God’s will, as if he’s hidden it and we can find it only through a series of secret handshakes.

Oh, we don’t do these things maliciously or even knowingly. We honestly believe that God works through concealed messages that require Holy Spirit decoder rings or that Christianity is like a Bourne movie. But it all becomes suspicious when God seems to change his mind about what we should be doing or when he doesn’t seem to want us to do something uncomfortable or when waiting for “the one” (whether “the one” be a person, career, or ministry) keeps us from ministering to those around us.

You can see why I’m cynical.

But my skepticism created a doubt that we can ever know the Holy Spirit’s work. I continued to believe that we feel the Holy Spirit’s comfort in hardship and grief. I continued to believe that the Holy Spirit labors in us and in the world for God’s kingdom but that we’d only understand what he’s done in hindsight. I distrusted our ability to follow any guidance. It’s all so nebulous, wrapped up in our own desires and fears. In other words, I believed in the Holy Spirit’s power but discounted his guidance. He orchestrates events but we can’t know or follow that.

Then I read Luke and Acts.

There’s more Holy Spirit in Luke’s writings than ABC stores in Waikiki. Trust me, that’s a lot. As in, two per block a lot.

As I read, God reminded me: that Jesus’ fulfilled his journey through the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit, that Jesus gave this same Holy Spirit to empower and guide his followers on the Christian journey, and that first-generation believers acted according to the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit.

But he also showed me that this guidance came for the purpose of ministry and in the midst of ministry. While Paul was teaching in Antioch, the Holy Spirit called him to overseas work. Paul, along with the community of believers in Antioch, made a plan, and for the most part, Paul ministered according to that plan. On his travels, the Holy Spirit called him to Macedonia, diverting Paul from his original plan. In other words, the Holy Spirit’s guidance did not happen in a vacuum of wisdom and action. God used wisdom, action, and the Holy Spirit to spread his kingdom.

Also, the Holy Spirit’s guidance didn’t seem to lead to a more comfortable lifestyle. He led Jesus into the wilderness to fast for 40 days and be tempted by Satan (don’t worry–I don’t believe this is a model we are to follow but a model Jesus followed). He led Jesus to Jerusalem so that he could die and be abandoned by the Father. He led Paul into a ministry that resulted in rejection, beatings, and imprisonment. The Holy Spirit will not make our lives easier. (Now that I think about it, do I really want to feel called by the Holy Spirit?)

The encouraging thing is we don’t have to decipher the Holy Spirit’s work alone. We do so most often in community through prayer. (I should say we do so always through prayer and most often in community.) As the early church worked out the implications of ministering to the Gentiles, they relied on understanding the Holy Spirit’s work, and they came to this understanding in community. The Holy Spirit’s call to Paul and Barnabas came to a community of believers worshiping and praying together.

Aye, there’s the rub, for we are Americans, taught to revere our independence in action and thought (to say nothing of our pursuit of happiness, but I’ll save that rant for another day). We depend not only on our Creator and Savior but on his body. We submit to one another and together understand God’s revelation.

God revealed his will in Scripture: to continue Christ’s ministry of restoring dignity, freeing the oppressed, and bringing in the outsiders. As we reorient our lives to this purpose, God will empower and guide us through the Holy Spirit.

For me, this starts with an openness to the nudges and promptings of the Holy Spirit. To do so is not to throw wisdom into the sea with cement shoes but to bring together godly wisdom, prayer, and the mystery of the third Person of the Trinity. I don’t believe every choice depends upon hearing from the Holy Spirit, but neither do I doubt our ability to know specific leadings in our lives.

I don’t know that I’m any less of a cynic, but I don’t cringe every time I hear someone use the words “called” or “led.” Not every time.

Church 101: Rethinking a Women’s Place

Confession: I am usually barefoot because I dislike shoes (and if I must be wearing shoes, they will usually be of the flip-flop variety–one of the perks of living in Texas); I am pregnant; and I am often in the kitchen for a variety of reasons (some of them even related to cooking).

Confession: I am a conservative evangelical who believes in the divine authorship and infallibility of Scripture.

Confession: I am egalitarian (1).

The Church has struggled with the place and role of women in the church. All agree that women and men come to Christ equally in regards to salvation (or, at least, all orthodox views), but churches disagree as to how and where a women may serve in the kingdom of God. Is it limited to other women and children (and if to children, at what age is it no longer appropriate for a woman to teach male children?)? Are women inherently more suited for more “hospitality” or children’s ministries while men are more inherently suited for leadership roles? Should women be limited because they are more prone to deception (and if this is the case, should they even be teaching other women and our children?)?

I have been hurt by a church who asked someone to teach who was untrained and had no desire to teach, though I had offered to fill the need. Their explanation: I am a woman. I find it odd that some churches will sing lyrics written by women but will not allow a woman to lead the worship, or that they will allow women to teach topically (such as Evangelism) but not through a book of the Bible, or that they will learn from a woman in some settings (such as through books or blogs or in informal dinner settings) but not if she stands in front of them, or that they will report to a capable woman CEO in a business setting but not to a capable woman in a church setting. I find it odd that the early church restricted women less than we do today.

I find it odd that we don’t question learning from Miriam’s, Hannah’s, or Mary’s writings (in song) while we deny women the opportunity to do the same today.

But I have been healed, challenged, and freed in my reading of Luke and Paul as I’ve studied what they (and indeed many writers of the Bible) have written about women.

Luke highlighted women in both of his narratives. Just as he demonstrated the unexpected faith of the antiheroes (the Samaritans and Gentiles), he demonstrated unexpected faith in women. Just as he showed the misfits and socially ostracized ministering to Jesus and the disciples, he showed women ministering to Jesus and the disciples. Women learned alongside the disciples (and often got it before the disciples; i.e. the resurrection story); women taught; and women led.

Some notable examples:

Mary–Obviously. Her theological treatise in the Magnificat sets the stage for the rest of Luke and Acts, which unravel the themes she stated in this overture. Most scholars (complementarian and egalitarian) agree that Luke’s gospel is, in a sense, Mary’s story. She was one of the primary witnesses (Luke 1:1-4). We can see her theological influence in the teachings of Jesus and the writings of James. She remained faithful when many of the disciples fell away. God has used the lyrics (as well as her example) to teach men and women in the Church for 2000 years.

Priscilla–Luke always presents the husband-wife team of Priscilla and Aquila as one unit. Together they ministered alongside Paul, and together they taught. (The fact that Luke lists Priscilla’s name first prompts some scholars to believe that she took the lead in their ministry.)

Lydia–Lydia was a well-to-do business woman receptive to Paul’s preaching. (Interestingly, in Philippi, where Lydia worked and lived, Paul and company went to a customary place for prayer to preach the gospel. Luke notes that they sat down and spoke specifically to the women.) Lydia invited Paul (and company) into her home, which became the place of worship for the first church in Philippi. Also, her entire household believed.

These examples sit alongside other influential women throughout the Bible who taught, led, and saved God’s people, such as Deborah, Esther, and Miriam.

But what, then, do we make of Paul’s writings that seem to restrict women?

For the past several years, I undertook a study of the various passages debated by complementarians and egalitarians. At first glance, many of Paul’s writings seem to limit women in their ministry, but further study of the churches to whom he wrote (and the cultures in which they existed) as well as of the Greek language, showed me that there’s more than meets the eye. As I studied Acts and the Pauline Epistles recently with a group of women at my church, I understood Paul’s heart–and his letters–in a way I had not before.

I used to wonder how this man and I could ever be friends on the new earth. He seemed so arrogant, a man with Napoleon’s syndrome, a man full of himself and his ministry. I couldn’t be more wrong. Now I can’t wait to meet him.

In this study, I got to know a man who loved the Body of Christ, and specifically the people of the churches in which he’d ministered. I got to know a man concerned for the reputation and witness of the Church and for the love of believers for one another. I got to know a man often brokenhearted.

In this way, I came to understand his letters. These letters are not theological treatises but gritty notes addressing real-life situations of real-life people. To know the larger message for the Church, we must first know the specific messages to the churches. This means knowing why Paul wrote: what situation was he addressing?

I will not endeavor to go case by case through his letters every time Paul referenced women. I will say that he addresses men and women leading churches to encourage them in their ministry (2). He commended some men and women for their ministry and chided others (3). Paul did not limit women because they were women but addressed situations in which false teaching infiltrated the churches. In fact, Paul encouraged women, as he did all believers, to use their gifts to serve the Church–the whole Church. As men and women in Christ, we live victoriously over the Curse, reclaiming God’s original intention for humanity to serve, man and woman, in God’s image as God’s stewards over creation.

As I come to this conclusion, I reflect on what this means for me personally. I don’t feel called to pursue ordination or lead a church, but I feel called to teach in whatever opportunities God gives, whether with youth in our church, other women, or–gasp–even a mixed group of men and women. And I feel called to encourage called, gifted, and trained women to use their gifts to serve the Church–the whole Church–in whatever capacity God has for them.

I believe the Church limits itself when it restricts women from certain roles, and like Paul, I want to see a transformed Church transforming the world–healing the hurt, ministering to the brokenhearted, and freeing the oppressed. I want to see God’s truth redeeming his creation through the Church, and while I would never argue that complementarians intend to limit God’s work or the service of men or women, I believe that this often becomes the case when men are expected to take certain roles (despite talents, training, or calling) because they are men and women denied certain roles (despite talents, training, or calling) because they are women.

So I look to Luke and Paul, who encouraged the women around them and shared the stories of women who led the way in faith and ministry, and I hope to do the same.

___

(1) To borrow from the journey of Philip Payne (a fellow conservative evangelical who believes in “both inerrancy and the equality of man and woman” [Man and Woman, One in Christ, p. 27]):

In 1973 at a New Testament Seminar in Cambridge, England, my assumption of male headship was challenged when a scholar stated that no passage of Scripture properly understood in its context excludes women from any form of Christian ministry…I read 1 Timothy in Greek daily for several months. Soon I felt with Paul the urgency of counteracting the false teaching that was threatening the life of the church in Ephesus. Key word studies in 1 Tim 2:12 and some shocking discoveries (such as how English translations have introduced a dozen or more masculine pronouns into 1 Tim 3′s list of qualifications for overseer and deacon, where the Greek text has none), convinced me that 1 Tim 2-3 is not a solid foundation for restricting women’s ministry (pp. 28-29).

(2) I.e.: In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul addressed men and women who were prophesying and praying (i.e. leading worship services) to make sure that they did so in a way distinct from cultic practices to preserve the witness of Christ.

(3) Including Junia, whom Paul calls a fellow apostle (Romans 16:7). Many scholars believe she is Johanna, who ministered to Jesus (Luke 8:1-3), was among the group of women who were the first resurrection witnesses (Luke 24:1), and may have been one of Luke’s witnesses.

Church 101: Blessed Are the Poor

We drank our sodas from Ziplock bags with straws because that’s how the villagers drank them when they wanted a special treat. They couldn’t afford the bottles. The village was what you’d expect of a third-world village: one- to two-room houses where women cooked on open fires with water they’d tapped from shared outdoor pumps. Our group worked construction during the day at what would become a retreat center for churches. We had two outhouses that we poured kerosene down at night to burn off the methane gas. Some of the women from the village served us our meals. I fell in love with empanadas there. After dinner, they led us in song. We alternated verses: a verse in Spanish, one in English. The joy in their music made me jealous.

We had traveled to Honduras to give to the less fortunate, but I went home taking so much more from them, and I wondered, who are the fortunate ones?

Almost twenty years later, I come to God with the same question. Who should thank God every night in their prayers for the lot he’s given them?

“Blessed are the poor,” Jesus said, “for God populates his kingdom with them.” Blessed are the hungry; blessed are the rejected; blessed are those who suffer injustice; blessed are those who are socially ostracized. Jesus turns the worldview of the Pharisees upside-down.

The people of God are those who though marginalized, forgotten, and discounted in this world, depend on God alone.

Still, the Pharisees didn’t get it. “Why the heck are you eating with these people?” The spittle of the their disgust smacks Jesus in the face.

Jesus answers with three stories, each one upping the stakes of the previous: the story of a woman who lost a coin precious to her retirement and to her ability to care for her family, found it, and celebrated its discovery with her friends, most likely over a meal; the story of a shepherd who lost one of his sheep, found it, and celebrated its discovery with his friends, most likely over a meal; the story of a man who lost his son, found him, and celebrated his recovery and reconciliation with his friends over a feast.

This is the heart of God: finding that which was lost and celebrating the recovery and reconciliation over a feast.

We want to be popular. We want to be trendy. We want to have discovered the band before anyone else heard of them. But building a church is not about having the hipster band leading worship or the pastor preaching from an iPad or the dry ice spilling from the stage during the music (seriously, I’ve seen it). Paul didn’t gather people with free giveaways, the latest technology, and the coolest youth group activities. (In fact, neither Jesus nor Paul were very popular at all.) I wonder if we’ve made ministry about being attractive to the cool people so that the cool people will be attracted to us.

This is not the message of Luke. Jesus attracted not the trend-setters but the outcasts, the socially unacceptable, dare I say it, the unhip. He went to the periphery of society and ministered to the forgotten. He gathered in those who the religious and the rich and the hip considered a menace to society.

We see the Corinthians struggle with this. They wanted to find and follow the most charismatic leader. They used the church for their own agendas of finding some sort of status. And when it came to celebrating the Lord’s Supper, they used it to exclude the less-than-worthy.

Paul reminded them that they were all less than worthy. They were all nobodies in society, but that’s who God calls. The intelligentsia and fashion setters and politicians considered God’s ways unwise and unhip and unpatriotic.

God brings into his kingdom the helpless, the misfit, the hurting, the poor, and even the sinner. He brings into his kingdom those who recognize that they can’t rely on their smarts or wealth or piety or position but on God alone. He brings those who have nothing to offer him. And when they return to him, in their spent and tattered rags, smelling like the pigs, he runs out to meet them, embraces them, and does the most elaborate, excessive thing he can to celebrate: he slaughters a calf and throws a feast.

Jesus asks the Pharisees, “Are you willing to join in the celebration for the recovered no matter who they are?”

God’s kingdom transcends income brackets. It transcends the kind of kitchen countertops we have. It transcends housing square footage, clothing brands, and vacation photos.

Our churches do not.

In my suburban life, I don’t pass the homeless on my way home as I once did when I lived in the city. Flowers and shops line the streets, and it’s easy to think this is all there is. My life is not made up of the marginalized, poor, and forgotten as much as it is by the social, political, and economic decision-makers.

True, my church crosses to the other side of the highway on occasion to “do ministry”: to serve a meal at an emergency youth shelter, to rebuild a fence for a poor widow, to take donations to the Samaritan Inn, but Jesus’ gospel calls for more from me. He asks that I eat with the hurting, as he ate with the hurting. He asks that I befriend the forgotten, the periphery of society, those who can’t repay me, those who’s favor won’t gain me any public recognition or status.

It’s easier to hang out with people who dress how I dress, read the books I read, enjoy the Broadway plays I enjoy, but that’s not the model I find in Luke.

As I type this post at 3:26AM, my insomniac heart cries because I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know how to tear down the Berlin Wall of my suburb. I’ve looked at churches in the poorer section of my suburban town, and the question comes down to the ol’ ecumenical issue: when do you sacrifice theological agreement with church leadership in order to celebrate unity? I am not willing for my children to be taught that there’s a second baptism of the Holy Spirit. I am not willing for my children to be taught that King James is the only inspired text. I am not willing for my children to be taught that they must attain forgiveness through church ritual. These are the churches I find where the poorer reside. Can this be the only answer?

I know it must not be. I know there must be other ways of transcending socio-economic status without either swooping in with the intermittent ministry fix-it or immersing my family in theology with which I don’t agree.

So I pray: God, help me build unexpected friendships in unexpected ways. Help me to live out your all-embracing kingdom in my oft-exclusive life. And I go to places like Rhyme Time for the toddlers at my library hoping that one day I’ll venture a hello to the mom next to me (which might cause this introverted heart to fail right then and there), and maybe someday I’ll take my kids to the emergency youth shelter to serve and eat meals with the forgotten kids awaiting CPS rulings (if I can stop procrastinating the mound of paperwork required), and I’ll stop worrying about how to bomb the Berlin Wall but allow God to work through small friendships.

Church 101: International Man of Mystery

Terrorists had taken control of the country. Immorality had tainted the people. They needed a leader who would return them to their foundations.

They got a Messiah who ate with the sinner, healed the enemy, and talked about the good old days when prophets of old passed on serving the Israelites to serve the foreigners.

When God made his covenant with Abraham, promising to create a nation and bless them, he did so in order that “all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:3). Jesus wept over Jerusalem and indicted its leaders for losing this purpose. Instead of being a house of prayer for all the nations, a place that drew all people to God, a place where all people of the world could come to worship God, Jerusalem, and specifically, the temple, because a place of boundaries and burdens. Herod had taken God’s plans for the temple and tweaked them. He built divisions: the Court of Gentiles, the Court of Women. Between the Court of Gentiles and the Jewish section, he hung a plaque that threatened death to any Gentile who entered the Jewish section. The Gentiles could no longer come to the temple to meet God because of the strict lines separating them as unacceptable status, as outsiders.

To make matters worse, the Pharisees and merchants used the Court of Gentiles to sell items necessary for pilgrims to offer sacrifices and to change money from Roman and Greek coins to the half-shekel required for the temple tax. The only place given to the Gentiles for worship was filled with the commerce, the clink of coins, the bleating of sheep, and the smells of animals.

Luke reveals Jesus’ heart for all people. (I should note that Luke wrote to Gentiles so that they might understand God’s salvific kingdom plan for them. Oh, and Luke was a Gentile, so there’s that.) Jesus proclaims the gospel to Samaritans and Gentiles. He heals them and their households and finds in them examples of faith when the Jewish leaders failed.

Then God brings out the big guns. In part 2 of Luke’s story (aka Acts), Luke narrates Peter’s vision from God that he could eat anything, not just kosher food. As Peter contemplated the meaning of this vision, messengers came from a Gentile (who had his own vision from God). At this Gentile’s home, Peter witnessed something astounding: God had revealed himself to them, and they believed.

“I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism,” Peter said, “But accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (Acts 10:34-35). God’s kingdom includes all God-fearers, not just Jews. Not only that, but as Peter had this ah-ha moment, the Holy Spirit–the same Holy Spirit that empowered Christ and now empowered the disciples–came to these Gentiles and empowered them.

Well, then, Peter went on, since they believe and have the Holy Spirit, let’s baptize them so they may be included in our community, so we can have true fellowship with them. And the practical application of Peter’s vision comes into play for previously, Jews could not eat with Gentiles. After all, the Gentiles would most likely serve something unkosher and unclean. Now, though, God had freed Peter to eat with them, to truly fellowship with them and demonstrate in this simple action of sharing a meal that they were no longer outsiders.

Yes, the Pharisees missed the all-inclusive point, but besides that, something had changed with Jesus. No longer did the Gentiles need to become circumcised or eat kosher or keep the Sabbath to approach God. In fact, neither did the Jews. Jesus became the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

As Americans used to an amalgamation of nations, messages of tolerance and fusion cuisine, I don’t think we can grasp the shock and discomfort this caused the Jewish people. What, then, made them distinct? How could they stay clean? How did they know how to act? Could any crazy fool access God from anywhere?

Enter Galatians. Even Peter, in what I’d like to believe was his concern for ministering to the Jews, misstepped. He forgot his vision from God and ate with the kosher Christian Jews, separating himself from the Gentile Christians and their unclean foods. He didn’t practice meal-time fellowship with the Body of Christ. Paul reminded the Galatians that since we all come to God on equal footing (aka grace), we can enjoy fellowship with all. The rules from the law didn’t matter anymore. Because we’ve all been reconciled to God, we are reconciled to one another.

Or as Paul wrote to the Gentiles in Ephesus, Christ nullified the requirements of the law, which separated and even cause hostility between the Gentiles and Jews, and reconciled them into one body since both have access to the same Father through the same Spirit. Jews and Gentiles are fellow citizens of God’s kingdom with equal standing.

If in Christ, two groups as distinct as the Jews and the Gentiles, the chosen and the, well, unchosen, now have equal access to God and fellowship with one another, how much more do all nations, all people groups, all ethnicities have fellowship with one another? Paul (Philippians 2:10-11) and John (Revelation 21:24-26) give us a vision of every nation gathered together to worship Christ.

Our churches should practice now for the ultimate performance at Christ’s return.

I worry that we find unity not primarily in Christ but in nationalities, political parties, and race. I worry that our American patriotic concerns cancel out our fellowship with the Palestine or Iranian Christian, that our economic distress ruins our unity with the Christian immigrant, that our voting habits create hostility between Christian Democrats and Christian Republicans.

I think of the suburbs as standard-issue, average income, Suburban-driving white. That’s not true. As Keegan and I run through the neighborhood (stopping to greet every dog), I see Muslims, I see African-Americans, I see Indian-Americans. (Thankfully, I do not see dead people.) A woman in my Bible study hails from China. Churches only blocks from me minister to Korean Christians, Filipino Christians, Hispanic Christians.

My church doesn’t reflect this diversity as well as toddler rhyme time at the local library does. (The woman in my Bible study attends a Chinese church.) How do we gather my church and the Hispanic church and the Chinese church, breaking down the language and cultural barriers to celebrate our unity in Christ?

I have friends from South Africa who, though they are white, attend a primarily black church because of their concern for reconciliation. Another friend, though she is Mexican-American and comes from a church that ministers to Mexican-Americans and Mexican immigrants, attends a church with a Swedish background (which, of course, makes me think of the Swedish chef from Muppets, though, what doesn’t make me think of the Muppets?). A few couples in our church from Nigeria joined my church. These friends made themselves the minorities in these churches because of the fellowship we have in Christ.

I don’t know that it’s practical right now to think of changing our church membership, but I’d like to find small ways to celebrate the international unity we have in the kingdom of God. Maybe I can invite the Chinese immigrant in my Bible study and her husband to dinner. Or ask our worship team to work in a song from Nigeria. Or visit the churches to immigrants in the area every so often to worship with them, even if I don’t understand the lyrics to the music.

Who knows what such craziness could lead to. Perhaps one day even Christian Republicans and Democrats will eat at the same table.

Church 101: Pass the Salt

The kids sword-fight with sticks while Carlos turns the meat over the fire. He’s making a traditional Argentine meal for us. Sergei regales us with a tale of the time he accidentally drove his 18-wheeler down a private driveway into some Texan’s ranch. The Texan met him with a rifle and asked if the Cold War was still going on. We laugh at how when Sergei and Muriel fight, they can’t understand each other because he gets mad in Russian and she gets mad in French but they only share the English language. Charl shouts something to his kids in Africaans when they get too close to the edge of a ridge that drops down to the lake.

As we feast on sausage (the first of many meat courses) and wine, I think, this is a glimpse of the Resurrection: nations gathered, laughing, worshiping our Creator.

Luke gives us a view of the kingdom that is inclusive and universal. The religious leadership didn’t get it. They limited their idea of Messiah to a political leader who would free Israel from Rome’s rule, but Jesus had come to free the whole cosmos from every force of evil (hence the healings and exorcisms and raisings from the dead, which demonstrated his power over these evil forces). He wants to liberate all people for all time. God’s kingdom includes Jews and Gentiles, women and men, blue collar and white collar, homeless and patron.

Luke uses the motif of meal-time fellowship to trace this all-inclusive theme, a motif I can appreciate since I love food so much. I believe this is somewhat true of all cultures but especially true of the 1st century: meals established community and demonstrated who was in and who was out.

Think high school cafeteria.

And Jesus showed his willingness to eat with anyone. He displayed hospitality to all, not just to those who could repay him or help him attain a higher position or had good conversational skills. More than that, he taught that in God’s kingdom, we will all feast together at the same table no matter our backgrounds. The popular girl and the math club nerd (I might have participated in a math competition in junior high, but let’s keep that between us) chat it up and share make-up secrets over a pizza.

In his narrative (part 1 and 2, or, as some like to call them “The Gospel of Luke” and “Acts”), Luke concerned himself (because Jesus concerned himself) with the Gentiles, the socially unaccepted and women. I believe Paul influenced a lot of Luke’s theology, especially in these areas, since Luke was from the church in Antioch, Paul’s home base where he spent much time teaching, and traveled with Paul on some of his missionary journeys. I say this because we see Paul concerned with including on equal footing the Gentiles, the socially unaccepted and women.

photo by Bethany Nauert, orinigally used in apartmenttherapy.com

Which means that we as the Church, which is God’s mission in the world to work out his kingdom plan until Christ returns, should be concerned that all people can not only come to God on equal footing despite ethnic and racial backgrounds, social and/or economic standing, music preference, gender, political leanings, national heritage, bathing habits, baggage, dress, parenting strategies, and education, but come together now in fellowship and friendship.

We should be marked by our hospitality toward all.

I want to learn how to better practice this, how to open up my life and my house and my table to all, not just those whose company I find pleasant, who are easy to converse with because we have so much in common, like life stage or interests or economic bracket. I want to struggle over idioms until we figure out each others’ meaning. I want to uncork a good bottle of wine for those who could never appreciate it. If I will be eating with them at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, I want to get to know them now.

As I continue in this series, I’ll look at the threads woven in Luke’s tapestry, at how the early church grappled with these ideas of inclusion and fellowship and unity, and at how we (really, I) can consider them in our own lives and churches.

I want to know: how do you do this? Where have you seen God’s ministry of reconciliation practiced?

Church 101: The Crazy Kingdom of God

If I were a billboard, I’d call it the Krazy Kingdom of God, but I’m not, and as much as possible, I appreciate correct spelling.

To understand the nature and mission of the Church, we must understand God’s larger kingdom plan, a plan that encompasses the entire story of the Bible. Not to worry: I don’t plan on giving you the entire story of the Bible. Just Luke’s interpretation of it. Rather, a supersonic review of Luke’s interpretation of the kingdom plan. Beginning with the Magnificat.

Why I love the Magnificat: it’s the Broadway overture for Luke’s book, providing a foretastes of the themes Luke develops: joy; justice for the poor, hungry and oppressed; God’s use of ordinary, everyday humans who fear him to accomplish his plan (read: you and me, unless you have superpowers beyond simultaneously writing a short story in your head, cooking dinner, and reading to your child); and the role of the Holy Spirit.

Like a jazz musician, Mary quotes and pulls from at least a dozen Old Testament passages, riffing on themes and forms borrowed from Moses, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Isaiah, and other classics. Her reworking of their themes and traditions through Hebraic poetic parallelism lends beauty to her piece and shows how God’s working in the past gives meaning to the present (not to mention displays her comprehensive knowledge of Scripture and understanding of theology, which exceeded the Pharisees’ understanding). She knows that this supernatural conception changes everything. Her song is a beautiful piece of art that connects God’s covenant love and promises to Abraham and David with what he’s doing in and through her. The Warrior God has come to fulfill his promises, sovereignly acting on behalf of all God-fearers, creatively using his power to liberate his people. And this sets the stage for the rest of the narrative.

Fast forward to the beatitudes, where Jesus takes Mary’s song and improvs. He borrows Mary’s theme of the oppressed, humble, and God-fearers to describe the citizens of this crazy kingdom of God—poor, hungry, mourning, rejected and outcast. God doesn’t build his kingdom on those who can offer piety, material assets, or intellectual attainments but on those who fear him and trust Christ alone. How many nations welcome the debtors, the known criminals, the unhip, and the blue-collar worker? (How many of our churches do?)

Jesus goes on. God brings justice to those who hope in him and overthrows those who find comfort in their own power, wealth, and status, those who exclude the less fortunate and socially unacceptable. Jesus takes the bastardized theology of the spiritual leaders of the day and reminds them of God’s concern for the oppressed, the misfits and the outcasts who trust him.

This thing we call the Fall corrupted all of humanity, but the person of Jesus Christ brings hope and transformation in every area of life so that the hungry will be satisfied, the mourning will have joy, the outsiders will find a home, a place of belonging. As Jesus journeyed from Galilee to Jerusalem, he gave us a foretaste of the kingdom of God as he preached the good news, healed the sick, restored life to the dead, and forgave the sinners. Then he became the blood of the new covenant, the New Exodus, dying for us and bringing us into his victorious life. To use terms of Paul (who influenced Luke’s theology as Luke traveled with him), we become the Body of Christ, a new community where the old barriers of religion, gender, socioeconomic status, ethnicity mean nothing and being in Christ means everything.

And so we understand Luke’s theme. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, Christ brings outsiders in, restores dignity, and lifts up the oppressed. This changes everything. Darrell Bock puts it this way: “The reality of God’s plan influences how individuals see themselves and the community to which they belong. Old barriers of race are removed. New hope abounds…Anyone…can belong” (Luke: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, p. 43).

You can see why this is crazy, at least according to the world, and you can see why it gets me so jazzed (I’ve been listening to a lot of John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, and Trombone Shorty lately).

The gospel is universal, powerful, personal, and communal. It breaks down barriers and inequalities and inaugurates a new community under the authority of Jesus Christ. This is the message of salvation. Jesus calls for faith in him and a commitment to the lost.

God’s kingdom bleeds into the Church, forms the Church to continue Jesus’ ministry of healing and restoration, of breaking down barriers and embracing the socially unaccepted, the rejected, and the misfit. We are ambassadors of his reconciliation message, fellow workers of Christ for the kingdom, and this kingdom work is risky, exciting, and amazing stuff.

Luke scats on this theme through his two narratives. It weaves itself through all of his motifs (some of which we’ll explore in upcoming posts). In his gospel, Luke uses a journey to structure his piece, namely, Jesus journeying to Jerusalem. Acts picks this up, showing the journey of the apostles from Jerusalem to Samaria and to the ends of the world. Jesus calls us to deny ourselves, relying not on social, economic, or religious status, not on material attainments, piety, or intellectual ability, but on Christ alone to enter God’s kingdom; to take up our cross, daily living dead to the world’s values and risking reputation and even simple rights in order to live in submission to God; and to follow him on his journey. This kind of living finds opposition in the world but ultimate joy in Christ. Luke portrays different reactions to Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit: those who risk everything to follow him, fickle masses who only want easy miracles, and those who feel threatened by him and look to destroy him and his followers. He then poses the question, what will your reaction be?

With that question, my excitement comes to this place of wondering what this means in my suburban life and my suburban Church.

Jesus asks for a costly commitment to God’s kingdom, but too often my life looks like the comfortable lives of everyone else. I suppose this explains why I want to work through this with you all. The women and men in Luke, Acts, and Paul’s letters—married, single, parents, employers, employees, masters, slaves, businesspeople, agriculturalists, soldiers, prisoners—lived transformed in Christ and sometimes lived according to the world, risked and sometimes cowered, gave generously and sometimes lived selfishly. In their neighborhoods and in their churches, Jesus called them (and Luke and Paul echoed) to something greater, to kingdom living.

This kind of living contrasts the ways of the world, ways that we too easily baptize with spiritual waters: God helps those who help themselves, God demonstrates his blessings through influence, power and wealth (or through church position and recognition, Internet hits, a large congregation and larger offering plates, a stress-free and fulfilling job, a happy family, and a good parking spot), and I deserve this and should fight for my right…to get that job, to receive recognition, to hang the ten commandments, to pray around the flag, or, you know, to party.

But this kind of living heals the hurting, proclaims good news of freedom to the oppressed, the downtrodden and the trapped, and restores dignity no matter what someone’s gender, race, social or economic standing, intellectual ability or sins.

This, too, is my journey: to deny myself, take up my cross, and follow him.

Church 101: Here Is the Church, Here Is the Steeple

I have a love-hate relationship with the Church for one main reason: when I open the doors and see all the people, I discover that they’re mostly like me. Serving and selfish, loving and condescending, hurt and hurtful. Turns out, I’m not always a big fan of people like me. Worse, I’m not a big fan of people whose fallenness happens to express itself differently than mine.

But no matter what I think or how I feel about the local expressions of this idealistic, historical, universal community called the Church, God chose to establish it over 2000 years ago during the Jewish celebration of Pentecost to do his kingdom work. While the Church is not the kingdom in its fullness, it is God’s manifestation through the power of the Holy Spirit of his salvific, kingdom work on earth until Christ returns. I suppose I have to accept that.

I shared recently how teaching through Luke and now co-leading a small group through Acts and selected Pauline letters has done something to me (studying God’s word tends to do that). God put together all these things I’ve known in new ways and added a dash of salt, and now this concoction simmers in the Crockpot, the scent of the flavors filling the house with anticipation. Ah-ha, I said. This is God’s kingdom, and this has ramifications for both the Church and for the church.

I saw that Luke is the story of the Warrior God coming to earth to do his salvific, kingdom work, reclaiming his people and saving them from oppression and evil through the power of the Holy Spirit. I saw that Acts is the story of God continuing his salvific, kingdom work in the Church through the same power of the Holy Spirit. And I saw in Paul’s letters local churches struggle with what this means and how to work it out and live it out and be God’s unified people, coming together on equal terms in the face of persecution and in the midst of cultures that valued things not of God’s kingdom.

And now I take this, alongside thousands of theologians (meaning anyone, whether lay or professional, who has thought about who God is and what this means, though, for me, I mean this specifically in the Christian sense) across time and space to figure out what it means in my little suburb and in the world.

As a friend in college used to say, it’s el fuego!

Sometimes when we hear the stumblings of pastors or the missteps of churches (of which, let’s admit, there are many), we forget that God is doing a powerful work. I easily list how the church has failed me and communities of people. It’s important to address these things, but for now, I want to look at what God accomplishes through this clay jar.

Hence, this new series, Church 101. I haven’t done much in the line of series on my blog before, but these thoughts lend themselves to just such a form, and I look forward to working through them together, with the community who from time to time gather at this space called L’Chaim (or on the local Facebook expression the blog), just as I have worked out and am working out these thoughts in my local non-virtual church. Each week, I’ll take a theme or motif from Luke and Acts to explore, peppered with how we see the first churches working these out through Paul’s letters. As I learn more about the Holy Spirit (more on this in a future post) and how he’s working in churches, I’m anxious to hear about his work in your lives and in your churches, ministering to the people around you in your communities and across the globe. (If I were cool and trendy and hipster, I’d try to get some sort of hashtagged to-do around all this, but since I’m just me, we’ll see where this goes on its own.)

(Nerdy footnote: As I taught through Luke, I depended mainly on Joel Green’s commentary, The Gospel of Luke, in the NICNT commentary series [not to be confused with NCIS commentary series, which as far as I know, doesn't exist, but someone will at some point come up with a Gospel According to NCIS, I'm sure] [further proof of my unhipster status: I like NCIS, although I haven't watched it this past year because my husband is more hipster than I am and likes to discover new shows, especially ones that no one's heard of or watches because he's cool like that], with some help from Darrell Bock’s commentary on Luke. For Paul’s letters, which our small group has looked at briefly [read: one letter per week alongside our Acts reading], I’ve drawn from Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Kevin Vanhoozer; The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley; and several books and articles by authors including, but not limited to, Drs. N.T. Wright, Philip Payne, and Tom Constable. Also, my reading of A Community Called Atonement by Scot McKnight complements this study on the nature of God’s kingdom work through the Church.)

(Not-so-nerdy footnote: A great companion to this series is Belonging on Ed Cyzewski’s blog.)

Let the games begin.