simply Christian

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”

Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

1 Corinthians 1

It seems like it holds true to the present: there are a number of Christian denominations and traditions which remain essentially divided over this and that, sometimes what appears to be significant matters over the gospel, and yet in the end, they would acknowledge that the ones they are dividing from are likely in Christ.

What if we simply got rid of the idea that we have to be united over this or that nonessential? But for many, unless one believes that the bread of Holy Communion becomes Christ’s body, and the wine is blood, then they can’t be in any kind of fellowship and working relationship. Or churches remain divided over this or that. It seems impossible to break the division.

We need to center on the gospel, and live with our differences around that. Maybe challenge each other in the process, but make it a priority to be united, insofar as we possibly can for our witness to the world, as well as the good of our own faith.

Reports from China years back said that the church was growing exponentially until they began to get divergent directions from different Christian bodies in the free world. The simplicity of the power of the gospel, and God’s grace in that was disrupted by human made rules and tradition. The work of the Spirit was thus undermined, if not thwarted altogether.

When it’s not the gospel that is central, or when there are certain aspects of our participation in the gospel which end up dividing us, we have work to do. We need to make provision for all who are in Christ to be united as one in faith and practice.

That is what I’m coming to now. We might want to bring a believer along to understand and practice or even not think they have to practice certain things, arguably, but as long as they have faith in Christ, that should be enough for them to be fully united to us in our church body and witness to the world. The New Testament doesn’t know any believer who isn’t baptized, at least not as a rule, but differences there should not cause us to exclude each other.

What we need to press for is to maximize our oneness in Christ through the gospel. That needs to take priority over other matters. In spite of what differences we have, we ought to make provision for that. In the grace of God in and through Jesus.

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hanging in there with each other

We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good,to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.

Romans 15

Weak and strong have to do with the changes that were taking place with the coming of the new covenant in which many rules, even the schema of the old covenant, was being put aside since the fulfillment of it in Christ and through his death, had already come. It was not an easy time, a time of change. It was not like Christians at that time had to put all the old practices aside. But they had to accept the new reality that other Christians were not going to practice them, and would still be completely accepted by God, so that they too would need to accept them. They were the majority at first, but in a matter of a relatively short time would become the minority as more and more Gentiles would come to the faith.

We can apply this passage in a looser sense with strong and weak perhaps signifying scruples and religious practices. What might be out of bounds for some, might not be any problem for others. Of course I’m not talking about out and out sin, but rather things that might lead some, the “weak” into sin. What might not be a problem for me might be an occasion of stumbling for them, so that I won’t be acting in love if I flaunt my freedom in their presence.

Also I need to be careful not to judge others on things which in themselves are not sin, covered by God’s grace. I might possibly be termed as “weak” in those situations. God looks at the heart. Some practice might be better than others, and maybe it doesn’t matter. But oftentimes what we know is best for us, or what we’re accustomed to, we impose on others, and judge them according to those standards. Which might in fact not be helpful to them, even if they might possibly learn something from our own practice.

We must accept one another fully, even as Christ has fully accepted us, that we together might bring glory to God. A big part of that is simply learning to get along well with our differences, some of that contrast perhaps being uncomfortable to us like the sound of chalk on a blackboard. For this to happen, we need to pray, and be open to the work of the Spirit in drawing us together in harmony, so that in that, we might bring praise together to God. Getting along with each other is a high priority to God. And the essence of what it means to be “in Christ.” Of course as those who are seeking to live in the grace and truth of our Lord. In and through Jesus.

the oneness of all who are in Christ and therefore his church

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

John 17

When I read or hear of the divisions within Christendom, or I mean the traditions of Christianity, then I want to think of it as something less than Christianity. Conservative Lutherans within a denomination which ironically is a member of the National Association of Evangelicals don’t consider themselves in full fellowship with Reformed people, since the Reformed supposedly divide Christ in their view of the Eucharist, not accepting the body and blood of the Lord in it. And therefore they won’t participate with them publicly. The Eastern Orthodox Church won’t seriously consider uniting with Roman Catholics, even after the overture for such from the latter. I wonder if all such in reality are the ones who are sinning against the Lord in not discerning his body (1 Corinthians 11).

I might hold myself to something of what Anglicans hold to in Holy Communion, that according to the teaching found in 1 Corinthians 10 and 11, something of the body and blood of the Lord is present in the Eucharist. And I might especially like John Calvin’s explanation of that more in terms of the Spirit’s presence in it, of course the Son and the Father also then being present by the Spirit. So that this presence is indeed spiritual, as opposed to physical. Hence I suppose the Lutheran charge that the Reformed reject Christ’s humanity in the Eucharist. I see Holy Communion myself as a sacrament, and more than just a symbol, and wish the Bible church where we’re taking our grandchildren, and where we’ll probably become members would hold to the same view, and practice Holy Communion once a week rather than once a quarter.

But regardless of our views on the Lord’s Table, all who are in Jesus by faith are one with him, and with each other by the Spirit. We are one, period. How dare we deny that oneness for the sake of tradition, or our interpretation of scripture? I notice that churches like the one we’re attending do not at all deny the oneness of all who are in Christ, and would fully participate with such, or at least let any professing believer participate in Holy Communion with them.

Also while I understand the view by which neither the Lutherans mentioned above, nor Roman Catholics (and I’m guessing neither the Eastern Orthodox) don’t allow Christians who don’t hold to their view of Holy Communion to participate with them in it, I am with the Christians who believe this is a case of tradition gaining the upper hand on scripture, and actually nullifying the word of God. Or what do the Lord’s words in the prayer quoted above mean?

This leaves me with an empty feeling as we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation when Martin Luther nailed the 95 theses to the door of the Roman Catholic church in Wittenberg. And it makes me less apt to want to attend a Roman Catholic service. And in some ways even less interested in attending an Eastern Orthodox one. And I feel sad over all of this. Because I believe every person who by faith, and we might add baptism (the New/Final Testament essentially does not divide the two, but I would settle for by faith) are one with Christ, period. And therefore ought to be treated as such, especially in the sacrament in which this oneness is celebrated, remembered, and in a sense renewed, Communion. Christian traditions ought to figure out how to lay aside their tradition in honor of that oneness, yes, during the Eucharist, so that all in Christ can participate in that. The only explanation needed would be the reality of the grace of God in Jesus.

Until they do, I for one have a hard time taking them completely seriously. They see other Christians as sinning against the body and blood of the Lord, when the great sin in 1 Corinthians 11 was the failure on the part of some Christians to act as if other Christians were members of Christ’s body. Enough. Christ is not divided, period. Nor his church. They should adopt grace as overriding the letter of their tradition, even while they still hold to it. Are traditions set in stone? I believe in the gospel, and in the written word of God. I’m sure some Christians would pick at that statement. Regardless, let’s quit doing this, would be my plea, and let’s fully accept all who name the name of our Lord Jesus, and hold to that gospel as given to us in scripture (example: 1 Corinthians 15). Otherwise we fail to live according to our Lord’s words in his great high priestly prayer prayed on the eve of his crucifixion and death.

the ideal church in the US in the present

First of all, right off from the top, there is no ideal church. Unless one is going to push their denomination or way of being church, there are a number of differences, which actually was the case even in the earliest days of the church, once it expanded beyond Jerusalem. And so I’m going to accept those differences which are many, today. As long as we’re united by the gospel, the good news about Jesus, we can live with those differences. I believe that’s the case between Catholic and Protestant; Calvinists, Pentecostals and Anabaptists, etc., etc. As long as the good news in Jesus is intact, the teaching of his incarnation, life and teaching, death and resurrection, ascension and promise of his return, even the details surrounding that we can see differently, provided that we accept salvation by grace through faith with works following. I am not one to quibble over justification with the Catholics, though I myself accept the solos which became theologically prominent through the Reformation. But now to the main point of this post.

We live in a nation which to a significant extent has been built off the backs of slaves. And even after their emancipation through the Civil War, you tell most any black or African-American that they are free, and they will qualify that. And we lived through one hundred years of segregation along with the Jim Crow era. There have been other prejudices, too, and all of that can fit into the point I’m going to make next, but given the history of this nation, and the current controversy over police and race relations, I will put a clear emphasis on blacks and whites and the church.

I believe that in order to be the witness the nation and the world needs from a church here, there needs to be a deliberate change and commitment to a racial reconciliation in which the African-Americans have just as much say and leadership in a given church as the white largely European Caucasians such as myself. In a small church, that might look like a black senior pastor, with a ethnically mixed board of elders and deacons (or deacons, if that’s the way your church runs). In a larger church, it might ideally somehow be two or more associate pastors who share the teaching and pastoral role, black and white, white and black, not in any particular order. But to be sure that the church is not still really run by whites, there ought to be an emphasis given to black leadership.

Of course there are many black churches and denominations. When I was young, blacks weren’t even allowed to step inside of Southern Baptist churches, and I’m sure they were marginalized in many places. But maybe black churches need to pray about their witness, as well. Maybe it’s time for them to purposefully integrate. But I can’t speak for them. If we’re to overcome what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called the most integrated hour of the week, Sunday morning, than your normal church, made up of whites with a few blacks and African-Americans here and there, must take the lead. We are the ones on the side of history of the oppressors. They are on the side of the oppressed.

To be color blind doesn’t mean we just remain comfortably in our place. It means we purposefully integrate, not from some law or order from government, but as part of the heart of the call of the gospel. To express by the Spirit the unity we all have through the good news in Jesus. Regardless of our ethnicity, background, political views, etc. But in the case of blacks and whites, this will require more.

Given our history, this unity is not just something we blithely put in place, even with some hard effort to accept and learn to appreciate our cultural differences. There must also be at the heart of all of this, reconciliation. And this reconciliation must include forgiveness on both sides: the blacks and African-Americans forgiving the whites for slavery in the first place, and all the mistreatment which followed. And the whites forgiving African-Americans and blacks for any and every sinful response that followed. And all of this, while it should be put into place in a church through the gospel, is a process in which we can’t imagine at a given point we’ve arrived. The wall of hostility is broken down through the gospel, through Jesus’s death, but the unity of the Spirit which follows requires every effort to maintain, and grow in. As we grow up together into the mature body of Christ that we’re called to become. A growth that is ongoing, and something we already are in Christ by the Spirit, but learning to live by and into the implications of all of that.

This is a great need in the church today. The way we do church just won’t do, I’m afraid, or at least it will be lacking, if this isn’t a priority well beyond just hoping others who are different might begin to trickle in. All of this in and through Jesus.

the blessedness of unity and the kind of unity that is blessed

How good and pleasant it is
    when God’s people live together in unity!

It is like precious oil poured on the head,
    running down on the beard,
running down on Aaron’s beard,
    down on the collar of his robe.
It is as if the dew of Hermon
    were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the Lord bestows his blessing,
    even life forevermore.

Psalm 133

God seems to put a priority on unity. In Jesus’s high priestly prayer of John 17, that is front and center in his petition for all believers, that God’s people would be one and be perfectly united, even as he and the Father are.

This begs the question just what kind of unity we’re talking about, the answer being self evident already, and especially so when we consider our Lord’s prayer in John 17, along with the context of Psalm 133. Unity is not merely for unity’s sake, as good as that may be. That can definitely be dangerous as well, in a world in which deception and following the crowd, or simply keeping in step with custom is either sacrosanct, or else expected, or at the very least what helps a person fit in and not stand out like a sore thumb.

There is a unity that God brings his people into through Christ, and which God blesses, and is indeed delighted in, and in which we should delight. But it’s not a unity of this world, let’s say some political unity, whether Democratic or Republican, or whatever it might be. Probably many of us are united in things like that, maybe not. But that’s not the unity referred to here. In fact many of the unions of this world are broken down, and shown to be suspect, I think now of such things as reactions to evil which may not be good, and may even end up evil themselves. We have to beware of the human tendency to unite in a way that ends up being in opposition to God, not in harmony with the unity of God, and what God is bringing about in and through Christ.

Only through the gospel, the good news in Jesus, can we enter into this blessed unity of God. This is a Jesus thing. But just because we have entered into it, doesn’t mean that it’s automatic, and we can coast from there. Ephesians 4 makes it clear that our oneness is evident and rooted in a number of ways: one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father. But we’re told in that exact same passage to make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. We are one body already. We’re to live out what we already are in Christ. And scripture makes it clear that this is an important and even vital part of our witness to the world.

We are already one in Christ. We’re to live that out, through all the complexitites and different circumstances and perspectives we find ourselves in. We each have our part in this in working toward a harmonious whole, which is both a witness to the world of the truth of the gospel, but is also central to who we are and what God is making us to be in and through Jesus.

the gospel breaks the color barrier

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Galatians 3

Maybe my biggest disappointment with the church as I’ve seen it for the most part, with notable exceptions, is just how monochrome, or segregated most churches are on any given Sunday. It is understandable, yet sad at the same time, in my view. God’s grace covers us, and there’s a history behind it. And it’s not like churches who are white or black want to be segregated. There are different cultures involved, and people are at home in different places.

But the gospel is meant to bring together those who likely would never do so apart from it. What is true concerning Jews and Gentiles being reconciled to God as one body (Ephesians 2:11-22) is also true of all peoples, bringing for example Palestinians and Jews together through the cross, through Jesus’s death, along with blacks and whites, Protestants and Catholics, everyone. The reconciliation to God extends no less to each other through the good news in Jesus, and the Spirit who makes us one in him.

As a witness to the gospel, and the saving power it brings, we need to show the world how we can work through the barriers, whatever they may be. How our unity in God through Jesus by the Spirit in the love of God in Jesus supercedes all distinctions, breaks down all animosities and hostilities, through Christ’s death, and our repentance and faith, and brings the promised healing and shalom. This new world is now present through Christ in his body the church. As a witness to the world, and as part of the salvation we ourselves need, in and through Jesus.

Paul, a charismatic Anglican

In one of Scot McKnight’s recent books (another good one), A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God’s Design for Life Together, in some good humor Scot suggests “that the Apostle Paul was a charismatic Anglican, who was a mix of routine and spontaneity.” When you look at Paul in the New Testament, there is no escaping the fact that in the biblical sense his life seemed to include all that the Spirit was doing then and is allegedly doing today in some quarters: people praying for the dead to rise and seeing God answer, others healed of life threatening and debilitating illnesses, demons cast out, prophesying occuring, and speaking in tongues as both a gift to edify the church as long as there’s an interpretation, or a prayer language, and surely a few things I missed. Actually I like another point Scot makes in the book that the gift we are given in Christ’s body amounts to whatever blesses the body. For me it has seemed to be more in the line of teaching, but the gift we all have is surely as unique as each one of us is from God both in terms of creation and new creation.

What can be missing in Pentecostal and charismatic churches and circles today, from what I’ve seen, is the humility of Paul. And I’m not referring to the showboating in some places which has nothing to do with the charismatic gift (which actually includes all in Christ’s body, but to that later). But there is too often something of the sense of superiority in looking down on other churches and Christians, so that like the Corinithian church who were overflowing and behind in none of the gifts, Paul might say to some if he were on the scene today that in their divisiveness and attitude that others are beneath them, they are living as if they don’t have the Spirit at all. Although I’m sure that in the grace of the Lord there are many Pentecostal churches and believers who are genuinely humble.

According to the Greek New Testament, strictly speaking, all of us in Christ are already Spirit people, we are charismatic, having the charismata of the Spirit. It doesn’t even matter, I don’t think, if we mistakenly believe some of the so-called charismatic gifts (not really a biblical way of looking at this, I might argue) are really not for today. The Baptists along with the Nazarenes, Mennonites, Methodists, and yes, Roman Catholics, and other traditions and believers are all potentially Spirit-filled, period. And some of the Pentecostal churches and believers who advertise themselves as Spirit-filled may well be not.

I will probably be continuing to think on this subject for a time, so I have to hold on to my hat (I’m a hat wearer, though my wife isn’t crazy about that). There is so much to say on this subject. To come: the fruit of the Spirit is far more important than the gifts of the Spirit, though both surely have their place. And what I think a real Spirit-filled church looks like. For a hint, and actually in large part at least, my answer, look at the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7.