the church and injustice

Nowadays there is nothing more hot among many professing followers of Jesus than addressing injustice, and there’s no end to that, in either number of items to address, nor the depth to address in any one item. Human trafficking, slave trade, need for water wells in villages, continued discrimination against people of color– particularly those of African descent, refugees from war torn countries being turned away, and the list could go on and on, even if I would need some help in making it.

And part of what has happened in recent years is the withdrawal of younger people from the church, thinking the church itself to be irrelevant in their passion and pursuit for justice. And really, can we blame them when we consider just how absent the church has been oftentimes, probably even complicit in injustice as during the days of the American Civil Rights Movement when black people were not allowed into white churches.

The question is being raised nowadays: Has American Christianity failed? I’m not sure I like the question altogether, because normally every church has its strengths and weaknesses (see the the Lord’s letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3), and in the end the Lord is the one who makes the final judgment. But in the meantime with the Lord’s help by the Spirit, we in him are to judge ourselves, and seek to be discerning. So that quest is not necessarily amiss, though it can easily become amiss, I’m afraid.

The problem which has some tensions with it, is that the church has been all too quick to give its voice to the voice of a party or platform of this world, so that the church is a mere echo or extension of whatever the party is saying. That has been true of both the Christian Right, and Christian Left. Instead of grappling with issues, and being a prophetic voice from God to both sides of the aisle, and to everyone else.

The gospel of Christ is central to how we should address everything. And it’s as big as the story of God that this good news in Jesus is the climactic turning point of and end to. And it’s always in and through Jesus, his life as God becoming human– one of us, his teaching as in the Sermon on the Mount, etc., his wonderful works pointing to the great deliverance/salvation in him, and his death and resurrection, which marks the beginning of when this new life takes hold, the new creation breaking into the old. And his ascension and the outpouring of the Spirit, which resulted from, and accompanies that. With the promise of his return, when heaven and earth will be one in him, and all things will be made new.

The vision is shalom, translated “peace,” but meaning much more than the absence of conflict, but especially human flourishing and in terms of love in relationship to each other. And if at the heart of that vision isn’t reconciliation of all peoples together in Jesus, then the vision falls short of that which we find in scripture, fulfilled in the gospel (see Ephesians especially, but other places as well, and really the entire story found in scripture). The church through the gospel is to be ground zero in seeing the beginning of this new life in Jesus, and from that reality, the church is to reach out to the world in its unique contribution, which no government or political system can emulate or duplicate on earth. Yes, the gospel is political, but never as an entity of this world since it’s not of this world, yet is in and for this world, to be sure. It is the good news of God’s grace and kingdom come in Jesus.

And so we need to point toward the right direction, and get to walking. Not thinking we’ll arrive, or there won’t be plenty more along the way for us to learn. But doing so, completely committed to God’s call to us in Jesus in a gospel/good news which is not idle in the face of injustice, but sees the answer to be found in and through Jesus, and the new life and community that he brings. In which we’re to live, and welcome all others in with us, in and through King Jesus.

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the center for the new year

As we enter into a new year on our calendars, and reflect on the past year, as well as this new year to follow, we do well to consider just what is central to our existence, and to the world’s existence, and what’s not.

For children, especially toddlers, often they are the center. It is what they want or think they need that counts, and nothing else. And babies necessarily need special care, along with children, to be sure.

All of us enter into the new year with either new or renewed concerns. And we tend to center on the factors, oftentimes people, who are involved in those matters. And naturally we are often trying to figure out just where we fit, or what our response is to be. Or it may be responsibilities we have, which can be in the mix with the concerns. We either don’t know what to do, or we might in panic try to fix everything, or whatever else might go on in how we process and work out things.

In Colossians in particular, but also in Ephesians, we find the center, as far as scripture and the story there, the gospel (good news) puts it. It is no less than Jesus himself, who brings us and the world into the very life of God, the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is the case of the new creation breaking into the old, and to actually be completely in place, making all things new when Jesus returns.

The center is not any given mess in the world, in our world or the world at large. It is not the immediate concern we have, nor perhaps something at best hard, that we’re trying to navigate in our life. The center is always and forever, Jesus. Jesus is in the midst of everything, yes in the mess. And also according to scripture, the church is intricately woven into that (see the end of Ephesians 1). And so here’s probably the most important point, so that this post won’t be misunderstood: Jesus is the center, but it is always through the church and the gospel that this is so.

That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church,23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

Ephesians 1

That is our only real hope on a personal, family, neighborhood, local, state, national, and international level. Jesus somehow is in the midst of all of this, but always through the church and the gospel. Yes, mystically by the Spirit, but also through his teaching, like the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), through his death and resurrection. And though it’s always through the gospel and the church, yet in some sense Jesus is at work in everything. God is sovereign over all, and that sovereignty now is always and forever in and through Jesus. Even though there’s a day coming when the Son turns over the kingdom to the Father so that God might be all in all (1 Corinthians 15). Whatever that means, we can be sure that Jesus will be at the heart, and in the center of it all.

And so I look to the new year, wondering about some things. But not wondering about one thing: just who is at the center of all of this, who is in control even when things seem out of control, chaotic, and maybe heading in a bad direction. Not to ignore the things which are good. It is Jesus himself, who is with us through the good news of God in him. And through us and that, for the world. Jesus being the center.

Mary’s song

And Mary said:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
    and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
    of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
    for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
    holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
    from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
    remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
    just as he promised our ancestors.”

Luke 1:46-55

Mary’s song, called the Magnificat, most certainly has a political vision not only in line with the kingdom of God, but of and from, as well as in anticipation of that kingdom. In church tradition, it is not like that part has been ignored, but it seems to have been largely displaced in many circles as simply a religious ritual to help the worshiper. While there can indeed be value in that, the reality of what Mary is saying is evident in this song, reflecting her own scripture: the law, the psalms, and the prophets. We might say particularly the prophets, because they had to address the mess in Israel, as well sharing God’s promise for the world even through Israel, ultimately through Jesus.

The church through the gospel is the beginning of this kingdom under King Jesus, a kingdom in which needs are met through God’s provision given. It is a spiritual kingdom, but that doesn’t mean it’s not down to earth where people live, to help them in their material need. A thorough reading of the New Testament will plainly bear that out.

So Mary’s song is political. And remember, with Joseph, but probably especially she herself had a formative influence in the upbringing of Jesus. To think that this song is an aberration that was corrected along the way maybe even by her own Son, would be a failure to understand just how rooted in scripture that song is. And it would also fail to see how Jesus’s own ministry in his teaching, life, and acts were in harmony with it. In this same book, Luke 6 makes that evident. As well as throughout the gospels and the rest of the New Testament.

This song is political in part, because the gospel is also political in part. It is about all of creation in the new creation, including all of humankind’s interactions with others. It is not just about a lot of individuals being blessed. But a community for each other and for the world. Through the good news of this little Baby who would be the King in the tradition of shepherd. God’s grace and kingdom present in and through him.

every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low

“Every valley shall be raised up,
    every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
    the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
    and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

Isaiah 40:4-5

This time of the year (along with Easter and other times) I listen to one of my favorite musical pieces, Handel’s Messiah. Two pieces which point to God’s fulfillment of Advent are Every valley shall be exalted and And the glory of the Lord.

Someday God’s kingdom will be entirely present, and God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven. Something we’re to pray for now in the present age, but which will be completely fulfilled when heaven and earth become one at our Lord’s return in the new creation.

Meanwhile part of our passion and message is to proclaim this salvation to the world, and to be a people who show the world what this salvation looks like both in how we are as the church and how we extend that to the world.

Of course we would like governments in place which will be advocates and helpers of the poor, oppressed and helpless. And we should pray for and encourage such policies. But until our Lord returns, we the church, the people in King Jesus are to demonstrate to the world what this kingdom is like, how it is different in and through King Jesus.

And the Bible makes it clear that at the heart of this good news of the Messiah is a righteousness which is just, a justice which is righteous. And that this good news, this gospel brings with it a passion for those in need which proves itself in good works. And does not ignore corruption in high places, especially at the expense of others.

Every valley shall be exalted, and mountain and hill made low. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed. And all humankind will see it together. That is in the heartbeat of God and God’s people in and through Jesus.

 

the true blessedness

[Jesus] said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Matthew 5:2b-12

Jesus began the Sermon on the Mount explaining to his disciples and the crowd who really is blessed which was in marked contrast to the ideals held among the Jews and Gentiles(/Romans) at that time. Jesus begins to reveal both the counter-cultural aspect of God’s kingdom come in him, how it would run against the grain of the world, a hint to where he was going, what we might call the cross culture, which at that time was not only avoided, but even despised. Only the lowest of the low were nailed to crosses.

Of course, what we call the Beatitudes gets specific enough and is interesting.  According to the Collins Dictionary, beatitude means “perfect blessedness or happiness.” There has been debate on precisely how to translate the Koine Greek word transliterated makarios. What is meant is more than just happiness, but that is certainly a part of it. It would go much deeper though, than what the world often seems to mean by the word, happiness, which is often superficial at best, and deceptive at worst. It is definitely a blessing and resultant happiness that is again, in contrast to what the world holds dear. And yet often admired by the world, with the attempt to emulate such, which apart from Jesus cannot fulfill what Jesus is getting at, and cannot be Christian.

We do well to remain in them for a time, so that they can get into our mind, our heart, and out into our bones in how we live. It is definitely part of the lifelong ongoing process to which we’re called in this life, a kind of goal. But more apt, this is really a description of Jesus’s followers, those who are part of God’s kingdom come under the Savior and Lord, King Jesus.

This helps us to see what the Spirit is working in us, and what we’re to work out of that as believers and followers of Jesus. In and through him.

In Luke there is a parallel “Sermon on the Plain” (Luke 6:17-49), good to read along with the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).

prayer for Christ the King Sunday

Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Book of Common Prayer

the idolatry of the cross with the flag

While there may well be a subtle critique going on in the New Testament of the idolatry of the state in light of the gospel, and the kingdom that brings, I think by and large the Christian faith was meant to be planted in a way that transcended any nation or government, internationally, and yet not tied down to any one nation or all of the nations put together, but very much on its own, in our American terms today: independent. The church was to be submissive to rulers and authorities, or at least those making up the church, but only insofar as that submission is faithful to the lordship of Christ. We bow the knee in the end to one Lord, and are submissive to those placed in authority insofar as they remain in their place.

In the beginning America was kind of a breakaway from the old world of church and state, but in another way, not. Yes, many people came here to have religious freedom from the state which imposed on the church much of its will in the old world, in fact we might say all of it. The roots of that is back to the Constantinian shift which began what was called the Holy Roman Empire in which only Christians could serve, everyone else essentially excluded. The Reformation in large part was responsible for this shift, though it was the Anabaptists and Baptists who pressed that. Infant baptism, except for Jews was required in the old world and was part of what it meant to be a member not only of the church, but a citizen of the state. In the complexity of that time, many came over with no axe to grind on that score, but to put their roots into the new world. Many of them were of the Church of England, Anglican, called Episcopalian here. While the new world in theory would hold to religious liberty, it was not practiced until the 1830s except for the Quaker state of Pennsylvania. This was a huge shift from the old world, yet almost the same allegiance of the church to the state remained in place. Of course with all kinds of varying understanding as to what that meant depending on the tradition, but except for the Anabaptists who were surely a relatively small minority (Mennonites, Amish, Hutterites, and the like), the state in some measure and degree could be considered Christian.

Fastforward to today. There are many who find no problem at all with pictures of the US flag draped over the cross, maybe with an image of Christ hanging on it. And even for Christians who would be uncomfortable with that, there is little or no hesitation to see the United States in its best version to be a Christian nation. Of course the US always had both believers and nonbelievers in its mix, and while scripture was pointed to as part of its original understanding of what is right and wrong, there was never any pretense on the part of the founding fathers (except for a very few) that the United States was to be a Christian nation, but quite to the contrary. They more or less invoked, or wanted the blessing of the church and of Christianity on and in their endeavor, but this was wholly another experiment entirely, steeped in the Modernist Enlightenment which was still relatively new and fresh at that time.

We have those today on the left and on the right as it’s called, who both make the case more or less of what the United States ought to look like, yes, as a Christian nation. And neither vision is the vision we find in scripture, and specifically in the New Testament in which we read of God’s grace and kingdom come in Jesus, and what form that takes through faith and baptism in the church, and instead of what place that has in the world, how the nations and the world should be seen in light of that. One might say the place the state has in the picture in which the gospel and Christ’s kingdom is the main point of it all.

And so the idea of draping a flag over a cross, or for that matter even having the US flag to be understood as basic to the identity of any church, or of course any other national flag for that matter, is idolatry at its core, or at least in danger of bowing the knee in worship to something other than the Lord Jesus. Due respect, honor and submission is one thing. But amalgamation is quite another. Churches, denominations, and individual believers have to make difficult decisions related to this, like whether or not one can be Christian and serve in the military, or in the political arena, and to what extent. But there should never be any question in all of the due submission to the state just who is lord. It is never ever the state, and never the state with the church. Christ is Lord over all, King of kings and Lord of Lords. The gospel is at the heart of our existence as Christ followers, as Christians, whether we recognize that or not. And nothing else can be a part of that.