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: 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.

Belonging: Finding a Home in Church

Ed Cyzewski has been doing a series on Belonging (I highly recommend following both that series as well as his Women in Ministry series). Inspired by his words (as I often am), I decided to give you a snippet of my story and how I’ve learned that I can belong in a church that hurt me.

A few years ago, our church canceled the service my husband and I attended.

A word about this service: it was more than a place that played the kind of music with which we connected, that worshiped the way we wanted to worship, that included people who looked and thought and felt like we do. It was a place of community, a place where we belonged. I hadn’t felt like I belonged in church–or really anywhere–in over a decade. But in that service, in that community, we belonged. We ministered there, and that service, which was more than a service, became the gateway to our connection with the church.

When the leadership canceled the church, it tore open old wounds and for good measure, added a dash of salt. I had worked and volunteered in churches, served and served and served and finally found that no place like home. Now it was gone.

Several people in the service left the church. Some planted a new church. Chris and I looked and prayed: where do we go?

We stayed.

We stayed because a couple of our closest friends stayed, and we stayed because we didn’t know where else to go. The new church plant was a little far and a little trendy (my friends will tell you I’m no hipster Christian). There’s nothing wrong with trendy and hipster, but we didn’t know how to serve there, how to belong there.

Not long after that happened, on a road trip, Chris and I listened to Life Together by Bonhoeffer. I remember Bonhoeffer talking about these moments when you taste eternity in community, when you meet with Christians and everything is beautiful and ideal and home. But these are not the everyday. We treasure them, we suck nourishment from them, and we go back to our ordinary, hard lives.

That service had been my taste of eternity, I thought, and now I must return to the ordinary, the hard, maybe even the place of unbelonging.

We leaned on each other and the few friends left, and we complained a lot. Sunday after Sunday, we attended service, we read the Scripture and prayed and took Eucharist with this group of strangers in this larger, stranger service. We sang to music that sometimes made me want to take a mallet to the speakers. Chris got involved in men’s ministry; I had my book club (which, in part, got me through that difficult time).

I don’t know how it happened or when it happened, but love snuck in.

One day, as I approached the altar for communion, I looked up and saw the church–followers of Christ who loved and hurt and made mistakes and sometimes hurt each other. People like me. In a mass of strangers, I saw people who knew and loved me, and I knew that somehow, in this place where it made no sense to belong, where a bookstore sold Christian kitsch next to C.S. Lewis, where sometimes the approach to missions made me want to take my theology degree and my cross-cultural studies and tell someone off (on my more mature days), where women wore wide-brimmed hats on Easter Sunday, I belonged.

Because the truth is, this church does amazing work for Christ through Christ. This church loves and serves God, hungrily leans into him and into what he has revealed about himself through Scripture and the Holy Spirit and church history.

I think of the Jerusalem church, making their way in the mess of Jews and Gentiles becoming this new thing, this Church, as fellow followers of Christ, how they both sacrificed for the sake of fellowship and unity and mission.

And I fell in love again with my church. Some days I have to remind myself of that (especially when the choir strikes up a Maranatha song again), but all I have to do is see the people who pray for me and laugh with me and stood with Chris and me as we baptized our son and rejoice with me and cry with me.

And sometimes I even like the hats because the hats tell stories.