Category: Church (page 1 of 49)

The Only Thing That Counts

“In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” ~Galatians 5:6

There’s only one thing that matters; don’t mess it up. There’s only one thing that’s important; don’t miss it. Our forgiveness, formation, and eternal life, our righteous relationships with God and with all people hang on just one thing; pay attention to it. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

Circumcision? Doesn’t count! Uncircumcision? Who cares? In Christ, none of that stuff has any force. It doesn’t exercise any power. It’s got nothing. Christ Jesus, the crucified and risen Lord, has all power and all authority. He alone saves. So our faith, focus, and attention is only and always on him.

“There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” ~Romans 8:1-4

God in Christ has fulfilled the entirety of the law’s purpose on our behalf. Not individual commands — not circumcision, not the Ten Commandments, not purity rituals, not feast schedules — the singular requirement, the whole point of the law is fulfilled for us by Jesus. That’s the whole point of Jesus.

Do we trust that or not?

The perfect Son of God, the only one who’s never broken the law, became sin for us. He became your sin. He took on your sin. He took your transgressions with him to the cross. And when your sin is condemned in him, you become in God’s eyes as if you’ve never sinned. Jesus intervened to do what you can’t do. Christ became what you are so you can become what he is. Jesus is the ultimate sacrifice and he has taken care of absolutely everything to set you totally free from sin and death. Now, is your faith in that, or is it in something else? The only thing that counts if faith. That’s the only thing we need to be concerned with. That’s the freedom for which Christ sets us free.

But for some reason, we feel more comfortable in the chains. We have a very difficult time with the only thing that counts. We’ve got a whole list of things that count! We’ve got dozens and dozens of things that count!

It’s not circumcision; it’s acappella. It’s not food laws; it’s weekly Lord’s Supper. It’s not feast days; it’s Wednesday nights. It’s not you must become a Jew; it’s “Is he a member of ‘The Church?'” And it’s baptism by immersion and women’s roles and bishops and kitchens and KJV and crosses in the sanctuary, um, I mean, “auditorium.”

We judge people and we draw lines and label others and decide who we’re calling brothers and sisters and who we’re not when there’s only one thing that counts! We’re paying too much attention and spending too much energy on the things that don’t count!

We are freed from all that. We don’t have to worry about those things. Having the same worship styles and the same church structures and the same name on the building is not how we’re united. Or saved. That’s not what makes us brothers and sisters. We are united in Christ alone! We are made one in Christ alone!

The Bible says there is one body, not just one expression of that body. There is one faith, but not just one expression of that faith. There is one baptism, yes, but not just one expression of that baptism. These are the very things they’re discussing in Jerusalem in Acts 15 and the decision is “We should not make it difficult for the people who are turning to God.”

We spend valuable energy debating worship styles and doctrinal positions and denominational differences, but there’s only one thing that matters. We fuss and divide over methods and traditions and structures and rules, but there’s only one thing that’s important. We get worked up over interpretations and translations and obligations, but only one thing counts: faith expressing itself through love.

That’s true freedom. When we give ourselves completely to the fact that our salvation has already been secured, that there’s nothing left to do, it’s all been done, when we embrace that in faith, then we’re living in freedom. We’re free from our sins and anything that’s ever happened in our pasts. We’re free to stop worrying about ourselves and our rights and our honor to serve other people so that walls are torn down and wounds are healed. You’re not anxiously fretting about your standing with God. You’re not looking for physical signs or proof of who’s in and who’s out. You are free to become what God created you to be, what you always wanted to be — you just didn’t know what it was!

And whatever rules there are, whatever obligations remain, we’re free to live above them and through them. We don’t worry about any of that because our faith in Christ has us loving others.

The Gospel truth that you are righteous because Jesus Christ has become for you your righteousness, holiness, and peace compels you to love God and others. It moves you to defend the weak and stand with the accused and speak up for the oppressed. It motivates you to give and forgive. It empowers you to let go and live the way God lives, erring on the side of grace and giving everybody the benefit of the doubt.

Whatever you do, don’t mess it up. It’s the only thing that counts.

Peace,

Allan

Out of Line with the Gospel

When I was in elementary school, I remember several conversations I had with my friend Terry. Terry lived around the corner from me, we played together almost every day. And I remember several times telling Terry he was not going to heaven because he didn’t go to church. I also remember telling Sherry across the street she wasn’t going to heaven, either. Sherry did go to church. She just didn’t go the right church.

This was the way I was raised.

We were focused on our Church of Christ distinctives. We were obsessed with what makes Churches of Christ different from everybody else. We took pride in it.

It’s “gospel meeting,” not “revival,” because “revival is not a biblical word. Although, it is.

It’s “preacher,” not “pastor,” because the biblical word “pastor” is really for elders. But we don’t call our elders “pastors” either because that’s what the denominations say.

Oh, the denominations! We are NOT a denomination! We’re different from everybody else!

We baptize by immersion. We do it the right way. And, yeah, we know there are some denominations that immerse the right way. But they do it for the wrong reasons. So we’re still more right.

We eat the Lord’s Supper every week and we only sing with the instruments God gave us in our throats. We call it an “offering,” not a “tithe.” It’s an “invitation song,” not an “altar call.”

Some critics have said, “If we’re so obsessed with seeing just how different we can be from everybody else, why don’t we put bars on all the church doors and go in and out through the windows?”

Well, no, that would be silly. But we call it an “auditorium,” not a “sanctuary.”

Our focus on our distinctives, our obsession with what separates us from the rest of the Christian world, has resulted in several generations of us referring to the CofCs as “The Church.” You know what I’m talking about. “She was raised in the Church.” “They’re members of The Church.” “Does he belong to The Church?” We say “The Church” and we’re only talking about us!

We’ll admit that folks in other churches are Christians, we’ll admit they’re saved. But we’re not so sure we should be calling them brothers and sisters in Christ. The way we talk and the way we behave, we’re claiming to be more saved. We’re claiming to be better, more correct, and closer to God’s will because of our Church of Christ culture.

If you want me to call you a brother or sister in Christ, you have to belong to MY group. You have to conform to OUR rules and adopt OUR customs and embrace OUR traditions. We’re saying that salvation and the unity of God’s people is based on methods and interpretations and not grace and faith.

When that’s the case, we are clearly in the wrong. In Paul’s words, we are not acting in line with the truth of the Gospel.

“We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know that a person is not justified by works of the Law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by the faith of Christ and not by works of the Law, because no one will be justified by works of the Law.” ~Galatians 2:15-16

We are not justified by perfectly obeying God’s Law or by being in the right group, we’re not saved by our own merits or works; we are justified by the faith of Jesus. That was true when Peter was differentiating between Jewish and Gentile Christians back then and it’s just as true today when we’re differentiating between Church of Christ Christians and Methodist Christians and Presbyterian Christians.  We are all saved by the exact thing in the exact same way: by Christ’s death and resurrection through faith. Period.

If we are justified by the faith of Jesus Christ, then all Christians are included in the Christian community on no different level and by no different terms. That means we accept Christians with a different history, a different tradition, a different story to tell.

And, yeah, it’s not easy. It’s almost offensive. God’s matchless grace totally disregards human merit, his mercy and love totally break down barriers that are socially acceptable. And that kind of unity is hard to swallow.

Jonah got ticked off at God’s grace because the Lord showed favor to the Ninevites. The older son refused to join the family feast when the Father invited the runaway little brother. The Pharisee stands in the temple and thanks God he’s not like this other guy. But this is God’s way: He unites us as he saves us; he saves us as he unites us.

It is wrong to say your kind of church is God’s true church and demand that others come to your kind of church to find the truth and criticize other kinds of churches because they do things differently. That’s denominationalism and it’s a perversion of the Gospel. We can’t ever try to make people join a specific group in order to be acceptable to God.

Peace,

Allan

Ushers, Not Bouncers

We’re going to get criticized no matter what we do. Our Lord Jesus didn’t do anything non-controversial. The people he touched, the places he went — there were always people talking and griping, somebody always got offended, somebody always fussed.

Jesus starts a spiritual conversation with a Samaritan woman by asking her for a drink and she says, “You’re not even supposed to be talking to me.” Peter knocks on Cornelius’ door and, when the Gentile soldier answers, Peter tells him, “You know, it’s against the law for me to even be here.”

If we’re going to get criticized anyway, let’s get criticized for doing the things Jesus did. Let’s love people. Let’s accept people. Let’s show mercy and grace to all people.

I think Billy Graham said something like: “It is God’s job to judge, it’s the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, it’s our job to love and accept.” But sometimes I think we want to do God’s job. We’re trying to do what only God does.

You and I are not the ones who decide who gets to go to heaven. But sometimes we act like we’re the bouncers at the pearly gates. It’s like we’re standing behind some velvet church rope and checking IDs, letting some people in and kicking others out. We’re not bouncers! We’re ushers! Our God is inviting everybody to his table and we’re ushers, not bouncers. We’re grabbing people by the arm and showing them to their seats that somebody else paid for.

Peace,

Allan

Church Habits

I have no idea why Jerry Seinfeld is playing in Midland, Texas tonight, but I do know Carrie-Anne and I will be on the floor of the Wagner-Noel Performing Arts Center in our seats in the middle of Row 12! It’s a Christmas present from my super-cool wife and I’m excited beyond description. I’d drive to Midland to watch Seinfeld read a phone book.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Once a month our covenant group gets up early and serves breakfast to the folks staying at the League House. We hang out for a couple of hours and pray with people from out of town who have relatives in the hospitals here. A couple of weeks ago we met a guy named Jeff (not his real name) who’s from the Austin area. He and his wife and three kids had come up to be with Jeff’s brother who was in serious condition after suffering a terrible brain aneurysm.  As we’re talking with Jeff and hearing his story, he mentions that his wife is from Vietnam. Then, later in the conversation, Aleisha asked him, “How did you meet your wife?” And he told us a fascinating story.

The company he works for in Austin is headquartered in the D.C./Virginia area and they regularly send a woman from there to train the employees in Austin. This woman’s originally from Vietnam. So Jeff and this woman get to know each other in a friendly, working relationship kind of way. And one day she calls Jeff from Virginia, from completely out of the blue, and says her family is looking for someone to marry her sister so she can come to the states.

“What?”
“Yeah, my sister can come to the U.S. if she has an American husband. So, if you know anybody who might be interested in helping us out…”
“I don’t know anybody who’d actually want to get married.”
“No, they don’t have to stay married. Only for a year or two. Then they can get divorced and she can stay in the U.S.”
“No, sorry, I don’t know anybody.”
“We’d pay him money.”
(short pause)
“Um… How much money?”
“We’d pay him $30,000.”
“Well, I think I might could get interested in that!”

So, Jeff agrees to do it. He’ll marry this lady from Vietnam, pocket the $30K, and they’ll split up later.

Now, here’s the catch. Jeff had to take three or four trips to Vietnam to sell everybody over there that it was legit. The family paid for the trips, but Jeff had to go to Vietnam to spend time with her. They had to go on dates together, eat dinner together, spend time with her family. They had to take a lot of pictures together and post them on social media. And the most important thing: when he’s in Austin, he had to write her letters. He had to call her and facetime her and send her gifts. He had to act like he was in love with her. He had to do things a guy in love would do.

And in the middle of all that, Jeff fell in love with her. For real.

He never would have thought himself into loving this young lady. He never could have studied himself into loving her. But he acted himself into it and he didn’t even know it was happening. He was forced by the circumstances into some habits that actually changed his feelings and his thinking. Doing what people in love do shaped him into a guy in love. They were married 14-years ago, they have three children, and he never took the $30,000.

Why do we go to church? We go to church because it makes us more like Jesus. Church is one of the main habits, one of the critical spiritual practices that shapes us into the people of God.

It’s hard to think yourself into loving others. It’s difficult to study yourself into considering the needs of others more important than your own. Being together around Word and Table puts us in the circumstances and into the habits that will, by God’s grace and the power of his Holy Spirit, actually change our feelings and thinking. Doing what Jesus does shapes us into the image of Jesus.

So many of us grew up going to church. It’s a habit of our lives that started before we can remember and possibly one that we sometimes see as very ordinary. Maybe even humdrum and boring. We can do church with our eyes closed, and sometimes do.

But what if we understood our church gatherings as sacramental encounters with our Lord? What if we believed God’s Spirit was powerfully at work during our songs and prayers, during the Scriptures and the meals, to transform us into the image of Christ? What if we allowed ourselves to be swept up into the habits of the church as formation practices through which our Lord meets us and moves us into better fitness for eternal life? What if we were filled with awe at the possibilities in front of us? What if we were filled with awe in the face of a vision of how we can be and how the world will be in the future? And what if that awe increases as the power of God’s Spirit heals us and transforms our lives?

Peace,

Allan

God at Work: Sacrament

Sacrament: A physical symbol that acts as a means of God’s grace by which we participate in a spiritual reality.

This Sunday at Central we’re beginning a 13-weeks Bible class series on the sacraments of baptism, communion, and the Christian assembly. Our intent is to move more toward viewing these special moments together as places and times when our God is redemptively present and seriously at work. We want to learn how to focus more on what God is doing and less on what we are doing in these practices. And the word “sacrament” is significant for our understanding and growth.

The definition above is my own version of how the Church has understood the term for centuries. Let’s explain it using each of the divine ordinances.

Baptism – The physical symbol is the water. The water is real, it’s tangible. You can see it, you can feel it, you can experience it. It’ll ruin your phone, it’ll go up your nose — it’s real. But the water also represents a reality beyond itself. It points to something bigger. The water symbolizes the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. What makes baptism a sacrament is that, by God’s Spirit, we actually participate in the reality it symbolizes. In baptism, we are buried and raised with Christ Jesus. Baptism connects us to Christ’s death and resurrection.

“Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.” ~Romans 6:3-5

Lord’s Supper – The physical symbol is the bread and the cup, the cracker and the juice. Those are concrete, real things, physical things. You can smell the juice, you can crunch the cracker; it gets stuck in your teeth, it can stain your slacks — it’s real. But the meal represents Jesus eating and drinking with his disciples. What makes the communion meal a sacrament is that, by God’s Holy Spirit, we actually are participating in the thing it represents. We are literally eating with the Lord. Somehow, mysteriously, yes, he meets us at the table and eats with us.

“Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?” ~1 Corinthians 10:16

Christian Assembly – The physical symbol is the people in the room. It’s us. Real men, women, and children, wearing clothes, laughing, singing, whispering, chewing gum, praying; babies crying and people sneezing — it’s real. And it symbolizes something bigger. It represents the heavenly assembly around the throne of God. By God’s Spirit, we join that heavenly chorus — we are actually participating in what we can’t see yet. We are singing and praying with all the saints of all time in heaven, in the eternal presence of God. That’s what makes the Sunday morning worship gathering a sacrament.

“You have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the Church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all people, to the spirits of righteous men and women made perfect, to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant…” ~Hebrews 12:22-24

God is present with us, saving us, nourishing us, changing us. When we view these three ordinances as merely commands to obey, we’ll focus on what we are doing. When we understand them as sacraments, we’re better able to focus on what God is doing.

Peace,

Allan

What If It Happened Here?

“My Kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my Kingdom is from another place.” ~Jesus

The headline on the front page of today’s Amarillo Globe-News asks the question in bold print: “What if it happened here?” with the subheading: “Local churches eye security measures in wake of massacre.”

The paper quotes a couple of local pastors who are considering changes to their church’s security plans in light of last Sunday’s horrible shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs. One of the pastors is hiring an armed Amarillo Police Department officer to be present during their worship services, claiming it will put the members of his church “at ease to see a uniformed officer” and that he wants his people to “feel safe and secure.” This pastor is also considering hosting an active shooter seminar for his congregation. Another pastor expresses the need for an active shooter seminar at his church “as soon as possible.” All of the pastors in the story have some type of armed security personnel in and around their buildings during services. We do, too, here at Central.

The headline asks a question the story never answers: What if it happened here? Maybe the reporter never asked the question and the headline writer was having a rough night. It’s a good question. What happens in your church building if — God forbid — an active shooter begins opening fire? What happens at Central?

If the Church of Jesus is established by God to serve as a light to the world, as an alternative community in contrast to the values and priorities of society, as a scandalous counter to the ways and means of our culture, then we would all keep our guns in our holsters. If God’s Church is established to witness to the “other” way, to proclaim and live out the teachings of Jesus, the true interpreter of God’s Law, then the shooter would not be shot — at least not by a Christian.

Which serves as the more powerful witness to the world: a Christian blowing away a non-Christian in the middle of a worship assembly inside a church building in the name of self defense or Christians praying for and forgiving the one who is shooting them, refusing to kill him, asking God to, instead, have mercy on him, in the name of Jesus? I know the world will laud the Christian who kills in the name of self defense. That same world will lament the misguided Christian sap who refused to meet violence with violence in the name of Jesus.

What if it happened here?

Nearly two years ago The Christian Chronicle published a front page story about church shootings, quoting a dozen ministers from a dozen different congregations in several states who believe and, apparently, teach that carrying a gun and being prepared to use it against another human being is a good thing to do.

Those preachers were asked the question, “What if it happened here?” A minister in Florida said, “walking in with the intent to harm our congregation would be like walking in to harm someone at an NRA rally or gun show.” A minister of another church told the Chronicle that lots of people in his congregation are packing and “someone would be sorry to try anything here.” Some of the preachers interviewed even attempted to say that shooting a criminal inside the church building is the “Christian” thing to do. One preacher from Houston said, “There is a world of difference in being ready to die for your faith than to die at the hands of a crazy man simply because he’s crazy. I believe God would permit me to protect myself and my family in cases such as that.”

A minister in Kentucky went so far as to claim that Christians are required to shoot when he said, “We believe theologically we have an obligation to protect and defend our church membership, especially children, against a stranger or angry member who was to come in and begin shooting.”

A preacher in Alabama who admits to bringing his own Ruger .380 to the church building on Sundays invoked the name of Jesus in justifying the use of deadly force by a Christian: “I do not believe that Jesus — or even the old law — taught members to cower in the face of danger. It was Jesus who told his apostles to take a sword in Luke 22.”

OK. Stop right there.

Two things.

One, you cannot use the name of our Lord to justify the killing of anyone under any circumstances. Ever. Yes, Jesus moves to protect those under attack, not by killing the attacker but by stepping in front of the bullet. And he would forgive the attacker and pray for him while he was dying. I’m always surprised to hear Christians say, “Jesus would not allow himself to be a victim.” Actually, our Lord willingly left his home in glory, put all of his trust in the One who judges justly, and purposefully submitted to being the worst kind of victim. He blessed those who attacked him, he loved those who hated him, he forgave those who killed him, and never lifted a finger against any of them in self defense. I’ve heard other Christians acknowledge that truth about our Lord and then add, “Well, Jesus wouldn’t shoot anybody, but I would.” That actually makes you, by definition, not a Christian.

Two, Jesus’ words in Luke 22 do not authorize the use of gun violence in any way. Jesus is telling his disciples that things have changed. The first time they went out, they were all welcomed with goodwill and hospitality. But now, when they are scattered, they are going to face opposition. They’re going to be ridiculed, rejected, and maybe even killed. Now, Jesus says, you’re on your own out there. Don’t count on other people to help you. You’re going to need a purse, a bag, a sword, whatever. He’s speaking figuratively. He doesn’t discount in this moment every word out of his mouth for the past three-plus years against violence. He’s not saying the opposite now of his every teaching against violence. He’s speaking symbolically. How do we know? Because when the disciples reply, “Look, Lord, we’ve got two swords right here,” Jesus rebukes them. “Enough, already! Stop!”

Yes, Jesus says, you’re going to face intense opposition to me and my message, your very lives are going to be endangered. But you don’t respond with self-defense and violence. Enough! You’re missing the point! Jesus will have nothing to do with swords, even for defense. How do we know? Because later in this same chapter, in the very next scene when Jesus is being arrested, one of the disciples asks him, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” And Jesus says emphatically, “No!”

One of the Christ-followers uses his sword to cut off the ear of the high priest’s slave. And Jesus sharply rebukes him. “No more of this! Stop!” And he heals the injured attacker. He ministers to and heals the one who came to harm him. In Luke 22, literal armed resistance as self-defense is exposed as a foolish misunderstanding of Jesus’ message.

Of all the ministers quoted in the Christian Chronicle article, only one expressed a theological and scriptural objection to the use of gun violence by Christians in self-defense. Tyler Jarvis, the student and family minister for the Oak Ridge Church of Christ in Willow Park, Texas, said, “I think that the church should trust in the protection and mercy of God, even if it means not being able to defend against an attacker or intruder. The church ought to be able to extend love and forgiveness to those who wish them harm, even if it costs them their lives in the process.”

There are many reasons Christians in the U.S. believe it’s OK to kill people in self-defense. Culture plays a role, society has something to do with it, fear informs our understandings, and there appears to be a general unwillingness to carefully think things through and reflect. Gun violence is normalized as if there’s no choice. We accept the culture’s position and then approve it for God’s Church. There’s no theological challenge, just an out-of-context proof text.

Since when is showing unconditional mercy and love and grace and forgiveness in the face of danger and death labeled as cowardly and weak? Since when is praying for our enemies and refusing to repay evil for evil and sacrificing self preservation for the sake of the sinner viewed as unrealistic? Our Lord was not cowardly in the Garden of Gethsemane that night. And he wasn’t weak when he willingly submitted to the cruelty of the cross. Neither are Christians who reject the use of violence to get their way. They are courageous and brave, faithful and true.

Christians, leave your guns at home this Sunday. Practice prayer. Practice forgiveness and mercy. Practice discipleship and obedience to The Way. Pray to God that nobody with violent intent ever attacks your church family in the sanctuary. But also pray to God for the courage and strength, should it ever happen, to respond in ways that will honor our Lord, the Prince of Peace.

Peace,

Allan

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