“If you preach the Gospel in all aspects with the exception of the issues which deal specifically with your time you are not preaching the Gospel at all.”
“If you preach the Gospel in all aspects with the exception of the issues which deal specifically with your time you are not preaching the Gospel at all.”
Thoughts and prayers are good. But they are not enough. If all we offer are thoughts and prayers in the wake of yesterday’s horrific slaughter of 19 seven-to-eleven-year-old children and two elementary school teachers in Uvalde, we are right to be criticized for our hypocrisy and have no one to blame but ourselves for turning people off to Christianity.
We have to offer something more than prayers. If all we do is pray, we’re not really Christians.
When we pray to God, we pray in the name of our Lord Jesus. And we are ordained by God’s Holy Spirit to act as our Lord’s body – his representatives, his ambassadors – on this earth. We are the Body of Christ and it’s on us, Christians, to do something. That’s how prayer works. We ask God for the boldness, courage, and power to do what needs to be done. And then, by his grace, we do it.
I think about Jesus telling his disciples to pray for workers. In Matthew 9 and Luke 10 he tells his followers, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” And then the very next word is, “Go!” Jesus says in the very next verse, “Go! I am sending you!”
Pray for God to raise up workers. Oh, by the way, YOU are the workers!
I think about the inspiring prayer at the end of Ephesians 3. The apostle Paul prays to our God who, yes, “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.” But how does God accomplish his will? How does God work in the world? “…according to his power that is at work within us!”
Ronald Rolheiser, in his book The Holy Longing, writes about the Christian’s prayer:
“Not only God in heaven is being petitioned and asked to act. We are also charging ourselves, as part of the Body of Christ, with some responsibility for answering the prayer. To pray as a Christian demands concrete involvement in trying to bring about what is pleaded for in the prayer.”
We must offer more than prayers.
If I pray that young people would be involved in our church, but I don’t seek out any young people for friendship or don’t give young people opportunities for service or leadership, I’m not praying like a Christian. I’m not concretely involving myself in trying to bring about what I’m asking God to do. If my daughter is sick and I pray that she gets well but I don’t drive her to the doctor, I’m not praying like a Christian.
Which brings us to yesterday’s mass shooting, the 27th shooting at a school in the United States this year and the deadliest school shooting in our state. A Uvalde High School student bought two assault rifles on his 18th birthday and murdered 19 second, third, and fourth graders and two teachers inside their classrooms. It is good to pray for the victims of the shooting and their families. It is good to ask our Father to bless that community with his merciful healing, comfort, and peace. It is good to lament the tragedy and it is good to pray for the soul of the shooter and his family. But we’re not praying like Christians if we’re not attempting to do something about the problem.
I understand it seems hopeless. We live in a sick society with a fetish for guns. We drink the water and breathe the air of violence in the U.S. – it’s “our thing.” According to Education Week, there have been 119 school shootings since they started tracking them four years ago. Think about that. A 40-year-old publication dedicated to education matters decided it needed to start keeping a tally on murdered school children. Only in America! There have been 212 mass shootings in this country this year. There are more than 400 million guns in the U.S., with 98% of them in civilian hands, the equivalent of 120 firearms per 100 citizens. One-third of all the civilian guns in the whole world are in the United States. As Lynyrd Skynyrd sang, “Handguns are made for killing; they ain’t no good for nothing else.” And we’ve got more of them here, by a long shot, than anywhere else in the world.
But Christians are a people of peace, not violence. Followers of Jesus are reconcilers, not dividers. What does that look like in your context as it relates to what happened at Robb Elementary school yesterday and what keeps happening almost every day in this country?
I don’t mean these next two paragraphs as prescription, only for discussion and reflection.
If you vote, maybe you cast a ballot for politicians who might change some gun laws. As Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr pointed out last night, more than 90% of Americans favor increased background checks, but 50 senators refuse to bring HB8 to the floor for a vote because “they’re afraid of losing their power.” Maybe you stop giving money to organizations that promote the easy access to and proliferation of assault weapons in our cities and neighborhoods. The NRA convention is in Houston the day after tomorrow. Most of our Texas state-wide office holders will be there and a lot of them are featured speakers.
If you don’t vote, maybe you stop going to violent movies. Maybe you destroy your own guns. You might speak against violence when the conversation at work turns to war or crime. Maybe you take the violent and divisive bumper sticker off your truck. Maybe you stop posting and re-posting violent and divisive messages and memes on your social media. If you’re praying for peace in the world, maybe you can start doing something real by forgiving your own enemies in your family or at church, being kind to people who are different from you, reaching out to the lonely and depressed people around you with love and grace and friendship.
Prayers are good. Of course. Always. But Christians must offer more than prayers.
Jesus willingly rode into Jerusalem to be crowned with this crown. This crown of suffering and pain and anguish and shame is an undeniable statement about the kingship of Jesus. This crown represents a completely different way to experience the world, a totally different way to view success, a whole different way to understand the realities of history. This crown says it all.
Jesus does not enter Jerusalem on a gleaming white charger or a jet-black war horse; he’s riding a common, lowly beast of burden. He’s not carrying a bunch of war trophies, there’s not a train of prisoners or captives behind him. In fact, by the end of the week, Jesus will be the One led down the streets and dragged outside the city gates to be executed.
Jesus does not share the people’s hopes and dreams for earthly glory and power. He’s not establishing a Kingdom to rival the Roman Empire. He’s come to suffer. And sacrifice. He comes to die. He comes as a King to be crowned. With this crown.
The King who wears this crown loves his enemies. His righteousness far surpasses that of the Pharisees. He was rich and he became poor for the sake of the world. As he’s dying on the cross, suffering and suffocating on that tree, he shows us what love looks like when he stares the evil of this broken world right in the face and says, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing.”
This crown is not a hurdle or a barrier or a detour on the way to the Kingdom of God. It’s not something we have to overcome or power through to enter the Kingdom. This crown is not the way to the Kingdom at all.
This crown IS the Kingdom of God. This crown is the Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. This crown says it all. And the One who wears this crown is our almighty and eternal and all-sufficient and only King.
We first suspected it in the early ’90s. We began to see corroborating research in the 2000s. Now the growing evidence is becoming undeniable. In the United States, people are leaving the Church and rejecting Christianity, in large part, because of our unseemly connections to national politics.
Some researchers call it “political backlash” and others refer to it as the “politicization of religion.” But the American Church is increasingly viewed by the general population as being in bed with right wing national politics and it repulses them. They see Christians holding their voting records with the same reverence as their loyalty to Christ. They see us stumping for our favorite politicians with more conviction and enthusiasm than when we’re witnessing for Jesus. They see the Church working harder to elect the “right” candidate than it does to protect immigrants or defeat racism. They see us caring more about state and national politics than we do about the Kingdom of God, even when the national politics are in conflict with obvious Kingdom of God values. So, to avoid the risk of being identified with a certain brand of American politics, to keep from being lumped in with the ways and means and goals of those politics, lots of women and men are opting to stay away from the Church.
We have only ourselves to blame.
Russell Moore, the president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Liberty Commission, told a writer’s conference last summer, “If people reject the Church because they reject Jesus and the Gospel, we should be saddened but not surprised. But what happens when people reject the Church because they think we reject Jesus and the Gospel? That’s a far different problem. What if people don’t leave the Church because they disapprove of Jesus, but because they’ve read the Bible and have come to the conclusion that the Church itself would disapprove of Jesus? That’s a crisis.”
The research is backing that up.
The American Sociological Review published findings twenty years ago that concluded distaste with the Church’s involvement with national politics is prompting people to reject church. Michele Margolis, a political science professor at Penn, writes that Americans are “falling away from religion because they see it as so wrapped up with Republican politics.” Research by David Campbell, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame, claims that “something as simple as reading a news story about a Republican who spoke in a church could prompt some Democrats to say they are non-religious.” Barna Research shows that as Christians display an increased fervor for national politics, the public is increasingly viewing the Church as “narrow-minded,” “homophobic,” “misogynistic,” and “racist.” Studies show that young people especially are rejecting the Church because it looks like an extension of the Republican Party.
Robert Jeffress, the Senior Pastor at First Baptist Church in Dallas, the nation’s largest Baptist congregation, publicly calls all Democrats “godless.” There’s a house two blocks from mine here in Midland proudly flying a large flag containing a profane slogan directed against the current president of the U.S. over a large wooden cross in the yard and in front of another Christian cross on the house’s front wall.
We have no one to blame but ourselves. And it cuts both ways. We hear it from both sides.
“All Christians have to vote Republican because of the gay marriage position of the Democrats.”
“No, all Christians have to vote Democrat because of the military and war policies of the Republicans.”
“No, the Church supports Republicans because of the abortion issue.”
“Wrong, the Church supports Democrats because of the immigration issue.”
It’s easy to understand why someone seeking the Kingdom of God that transcends the kingdoms of the world would be turned off by that kind of talk. It’s no wonder people looking for something better and higher and eternal would be disgusted with that attitude. Using national political goals and means or a party’s platform as an end-all-be-all referendum on the lordship of Jesus is what’s weakening God’s Church. We’re viewing Jesus and interpreting Scripture through our party and politicians instead of vetting our politicians and evaluating our parties through Jesus and Scripture. Jesus did not come so we could create better versions of the kingdoms of this world; he came so we could belong to and participate in an entirely new and eternal Kingdom of God. It’s not that one party is good and the other is bad; it’s not that one party is righteous and the other is evil; it’s certainly not that one party is Christian and the other is “godless.” It’s that both parties belong to one fallen, broken, sinful, corrupt, worldly system. And it’s not going to save you and it’s not going to save the United States.
Jesus Christ is never going to be president of the United States. One, he’s not running. Two, you wouldn’t vote for him if he did. Think about Jesus’ platform: “Sell all you have and give it to the poor. Turn the other cheek. Love your enemies.” If Jesus had a bumper sticker on the back of his donkey, it would say, “Be Last!” or “Vote for Me and Die!” I’m not sure we always recognize that. Ironically, most everyone else does.
When we communicate to the public that we Christians are putting our faith and trust in these parties and politicians to save us, they know we’re on the wrong track better than we do. When we chase after political power and influence, when we sanctify a politician or a party in order to gain worldly control, most people see right through it.
Jesus came to be crowned King, not with priceless jewels but with painful thorns. He didn’t come to sit on a throne, but to hang from a cross. Jesus doesn’t come with t-shirts and stickers and multi-million dollar campaigns. He doesn’t save the world with armies and missiles and markets and policies or power or force or threat. He saves the world through sacrificial love. And suffering. Service. And grace. Jesus rules with a towel, not a sword, He saves with mercy. Forgiveness. Peace.
Our discipleship should be defined by those things. Our identity should be found in those things. Our churches should be characterized by those things. When it is, people will break down our doors to get closer to God. When it’s not? Well, we have only ourselves to blame.
The inaugural issue of the Journal of Christian Studies arrived in my mailbox two weeks ago, the entire issue is now free online, and I’m eager to share it with you today. The Journal is a thrice-yearly publication of the Center for Christian Studies in Austin, of which – full disclosure – my brilliant brother Keith is the Executive Director. In keeping with the long tradition begun by Austin Graduate School of Theology, the Journal of Christian Studies wants to make biblical scholarship accessible and practical for the local church. They’re going to use each issue to focus on a particular topic or theme and unpack it in a way that benefits ministers and lay leaders in their congregations. Keith describes the Journal of Christian Studies as “more accessible than the purely academic journals but more rigorous than the popular-level magazines,” a venue for “thought-provoking writing that instructs and encourages the church at large.”
This vision captures the very essence of the old Austin Graduate School of Theology, where serious scholarship intentionally moved smoothly from the ivory towers into the trenches of church leadership. I remember well my professors at Austin Grad – mainly Michael Weed, Alan McNicol, and Jeff Peterson – after 30-minutes of tough sledding through some complicated theology, taking a deep breath and saying, “Okay, here’s how the Church needs to hear this” or “Okay, here’s why this matters to your church,” then spending the next 30-minutes in very practical and helpful guidance. That’s what Keith and the Center for Christian Studies is attempting to continue, by offering biblical and theological education and training for local churches and church leaders. And this initial edition of the Journal of Christian Studies is a very good sign that they’re really onto something.
This first issue tackles the topic of the Church’s response to COVID-19 and the multiple challenges that lie ahead. It opens with Ed Gallagher’s piece on the local church as a worshiping and serving community of God’s people in which the author reminds us why regularly coming together in the same place at the same time is so important to the formation of Christian character. Relationship, reconciliation, bearing one another’s burdens – God is at work in the hard work of being community together. This is something I believe we have failed to adequately communicate in our churches and the current times demand we step up our teaching.
Keith compares the emergency procedures our churches enacted during the COVID lockdowns to similar emergency situations that forever altered the practice of Christian baptism and the communion meal. He cautions us to engage in serious thought and reflection when it comes to our language and our rituals, especially as it concerns our rapid move into live-streaming our Lord’s Day worship assemblies.
Todd Rester provides some helpful historical reminders that our current day is not the first in which God’s Church has dealt with a global health crisis. It’s almost refreshing to read that church leaders in the Middle Ages also took steps to mitigate the spread of the plague and other horrible diseases, while still maintaining pastoral duties to the flock. At the same time, it’s almost depressing to realize that they were more faithful and brave than we seem to be. There are lessons to be learned from looking at the history.
Todd Hall completes the issue with a focused look at the pandemic’s effect on spiritual formation. How do we recover our spiritual disciplines? How do we deliberately move away from the screens and the earbuds, scrolling through Facebook and binging the latest Netflix drama, isolation and fear of the other, toward more intentional time with God in Word and prayer and with his people in service and worship?
I can’t recommend enough to you this issue of this brand new journal. It’s deep and serious theology of the Church and what our God is doing in and through his gathered people, and how the pandemic has impacted our expectations and experiences. It’s a call to pay closer attention to what we do and why we do it when we come together. Read the whole thing. Start with Keith’s article first.
The Scriptures say that Jesus is the King. That’s wonderful news, yes? In the midst of the violence and turmoil in Ukraine, it is good to know that this world has a King. On election day here in Texas, it is good to know we all have a King.
Except, Jesus didn’t go to Nazareth Prep School or to the Jerusalem Military Academy. He didn’t raise up a militia and march to Rome to confront the head of the occupying forces. The very first thing Jesus did after his coronation was to go out to the desert for a 40-day fast and face-off with the devil.
If you really are the Son of God, if you really are the King, then act like a King is supposed to act. If you really are the Son of God, turn these rocks into Subway sandwiches. I know how hungry you are. Use your power to make yourself something to eat.
If you really are the King, jump off the temple tower and walk away without a scratch. Blow the people away with your power and invincibility. Become a pop culture icon, a social media influencer, with your own reality TV show and a clothing line.
If you really are the King, take charge of all the kingdoms of the world. If you’re really the King, then rule! Take over the world and dominate! Win!
Jesus said, “No.” He straight up refused. Our Lord resisted the temptation to be a King the way all of us understand “king.”
We are so enamored with politicians and their potency. We’re so eaten up with their platforms and powers. We put their stickers on our cars and we stick their signs in our yards. We cheer as they manipulate. We identify as they insult. We exalt in their personality and force.
Jesus looks at all that and says, “No.”
The first things we really see about Jesus are not in what he affirms, but in what he rejects. We know right from the start that Jesus is not going to be a King the way everybody else is a king. It’s going to be different.
What ought to frighten us, or at least us give us great pause and lead us to careful reflection, is that most of us would give our right arm for the very things Jesus rejected. The things we cheer for, the practices we encourage, the ideals we most care about, the lines we draw, the issues that bring us the most joy, the things that cause us pain – I’m not sure they’re in line with our King and his Kingdom.
Jesus told Pilate, “My Kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my followers would fight.”
When you say, “Jesus is Lord,” it means Caesar is not. Jason and the Christians who were meeting in his house in Thessalonica were arrested and charged for that kind of talking and behaving. “They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another King, one called Jesus!” (Acts 17:7)
Jesus says you can’t serve two masters. You’re going to love the one and hate the other. You’re going to be devoted to one and despise the other. You can’t serve both.
Most people I know are trying to serve both.