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Conflicts between groups of people plague us. Nations wage war. Neighboring cities compete. Allegiances to political and religious institutions divide.

I’m already beginning to see the havoc in the first weeks of a history class about early and medieval Christianity. Of course Christianity is not the only religion to experience conflicts. Just glance through a good introduction to the major religions (something like Stephen Prothero’s God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World), and you’ll see what I’m saying. And of course we see intergroup conflict between other kinds of establishments.

Group of People Standing Holding Culture

Christianity isn’t the only conflicted religion, but its story certainly has its fair share of the mess. And I get to learn about it this semester.

(Although I haven’t always appreciated church history, I’m enjoying this course. Over the last 15 years, as I’ve seen history explain contemporary experiences and even provide some possible responses, I’ve grown to value it. For example, why do Churches of Christ typically worship with voices unaccompanied by other musical instruments? How should church leadership be done? What do I pray when my life is falling apart? Church history addresses all of these and more.)

There’s a lot of positive in the story of this religion. There’s also plenty of negative. But I want us all to understand that the negative doesn’t discredit Christianity in relation to alternative worldviews. All the options have imperfections.

Questions of Culture

One of the imperfections in Christianity (but not just here) is conflict between cultural groups. In the early church, we see this between Jews and non-Jews. (Nothing against Jews here! Jesus is a Jew.) There also was conflict in the church between Jews who wanted to welcome non-Jews and Jews who weren’t so open to that. (Remember that this kind of thing happens everywhere. If the church had started in my home state of Texas instead of Israel, I’m sure there would have been cultural conflicts between the Mexicans and the white folk and between people open to intergroup relations and those preferring monoculturalism.)

This is a struggle in the early life of the church. How can we worship and work together if we’re so different from each other in our talking and thinking and eating and other cultural practices? We still ask similar questions today. What worship songs can connect with all the cultural groups represented in our communities? Where can we find preaching styles that connect cross-culturally? How can we get past the excessive whiteness of our traditional worship styles? (Not to ignore churches that deal with other cultural limitations or have learned to worship and minister in more diverse ways.)

In response to all these questions, we need to hear two answers. One is beautiful but theoretical, and the other is more practical but not as easy as you might want.

Answer One: Jesus

The first answer is that Jesus is our peace and has broken down the dividing wall of cultural hostility (Ephesians 2:14). Some people joke that, when you’re asked in a church Bible class a question to which you don’t know the answer, the answer probably is Jesus. In a sense Jesus is the answer, but in many cases other answers might better respond to the questions. Here, however, the answer is Jesus, who has destroyed the dividing wall between people groups. The people addressed in Ephesians 2 are cultural groups. In the struggle to worship and work together as members of Jesus’ church, we should remember that Jesus “is our peace,” a peace that we are to embody and enact.

Answer Two: Ministry

The second answer responds to questions of how we live out that peace. Should we worship and work in separate communities of Jesus followers, with people of one culture in one congregation and people of another culture in another congregation? Should we strive to incorporate people of diverse cultures in the same congregation? If so, how should we navigate cultural differences? The answer is neither singular nor simple. Church leaders must wrestle with these questions, praying for divine direction, in their respective cultural contexts. What works in Memphis, where I live, might or might not work in Los Angeles or Singapore.

A Needed Conversation

Congregations of Jesus’ followers must proceed through these issues prayerfully and carefully but intentionally and actively. Choosing not to wrestle with matters of cultural reconciliation is choosing not to participate in the peace that is Jesus. When we move forward, with guidance from the Holy Spirit, in efforts to bring diverse cultural groups together in the church, we live out God’s mission of reconciliation (Ephesians 1:9-10).

This was not easy in the early church, and it’s not easy today. Not all cultural groups connect well with all styles of preaching, music, and leadership. One cultural group might benefit from sitting on pews and listening to a lecture, while another might worship more meaningfully when sitting in a circle and engaging in a conversation. One group might experience God through slow, meditative hymns. Another group might more likely encounter the Divine through energetic praise songs. A group might function well with hierarchical leadership, and another might function better with more egalitarian leadership.

And these differences exist not only along cultural lines but also along lines of age, sex, economics, education, and other demographics. There is no single answer that fits every context. I encourage church leaders to study their respective cultural contexts as they study scripture and theology. The best course of action in any situation arises from a conversation between these voices. The point here is to have the conversation, to pray about what needs to be done, and to take action in partnership with God who is reconciling the world through Jesus, our peace who has knocked down the wall.

Churches need such conversations in every generation. If a church had this kind of conversation decades ago, that’s great; but the church needs to regularly ask the questions in order to faithfully and responsibly embrace changing cultures with God’s love.

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Bread and wineMy wife and I like our son to eat food that’s nutritious and good for his development. We allow ice cream once in a while, but we know that giving our child a steady diet of junk food would be parental malpractice. He needs vegetables, vitamins, fruit, protein, complex carbs, and a reasonable dose of fat.

When he gets bored at mealtime and doesn’t want to eat the rest of his green beans, we encourage him to finish eating. We tell him that eating his food will help him to be big and strong like his daddy.

Maybe you’ve heard the saying “You are what you eat.” That doesn’t mean that you become green beans if you eat green beans. It means that eating healthful food empowers you to have a healthy body and a healthy life, while eating too much junk food empowers you to have a junky body with a junky life. This observation reminds me of another saying: “Input equals output.”

My congregation’s sermon this weekend comes from Romans 8, and in verses 1-11 we find a similar inside-outside connection.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. (ESV)

What goes into us shapes how we live. “You are what you eat.”

When the Holy Spirit lives in us, God transforms our lives. “Input equals output.”

The Spirit enters us in various ways.

We “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” when we believe the good news of Jesus and when we are baptized (Acts 2:38; Ephesians 1:13).

The Holy Spirit enters people through the laying on of hands (Deuteronomy 34:9; Acts 19:6).

The Holy Spirit can enter people who are around others in whom the Spirit is working (1 Samuel 19:18-24).

The Holy Spirit fills followers of Jesus when they speak (Acts 2:4; 4:8; 13:9) and when they are persecuted (13:50-52).

God gives the Holy Spirit to people who ask (Luke 11:13).

The Holy Spirit can even enter people before birth (Luke 1:15).

Beyond these ways, the Holy Spirit can operate in ways that are unexpected and unexplainable (John 3:8). As the hymnist William Cowper penned in the 18th century, “God moves in a mysterious way.”

I look forward to listening to tomorrow’s sermon on Romans 8. Before that sermon, I get to say a few comments to prepare the church for communion. As I get ready for that privilege, my meditation on verses 1-11 leads me to see communion as one way in which the Holy Spirits enters us and empowers us for life in God’s mission.

A long-held belief in Christianity is that Christ is somehow present with his followers in communion (also called the Eucharist and the Lord’s Supper). Although great thinkers in the history of the church have disagreed about exactly how this presence operates, many Christians have believed that in some way Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, is present when gathered communities of Christian faith consume the bread and cup, commemorating Jesus’ crucifixion and celebrating the hope of his return.

Through this process of remembering and celebrating, the Holy Spirit continually fills the body of Christ (the church) and empowers that community of Jesus-followers to carry out God’s mission of blessing the world.

When we eat the bread and drink the cup, we do more than eat crackers and drink wine or grape juice.

When we participate in this event, the Holy Spirit enters us yet again and strengthens us to live for God.

As a child, I experienced amazement when the bread and cup were served. When I looked at the people around me, I could tell that this practice was something special, something mystical. I didn’t understand what was happening, but the holiness of the moment drew me in.

I have not always experienced that amazement at communion. The Lord’s Supper has not always seemed special. I have not always noticed the mystery of the Eucharist.

So I pray for the ability to see the mysterious transformation that God is working through the Holy Spirit when followers of Jesus take the bread and cup together. Through the Spirit, the bread and cup become more than a snack and more than an ancient practice the meaning of which we’ve forgotten. They become a meaningful meal that fuels us for life.

When we eat the body of Christ together, the Spirit empowers us to be that body.

We are what we eat.

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Life in God’s mission doesn’t let us just hang out in our homes or offices or church buildings with people who talk and act like we do and make us feel good about ourselves.

When we look at the life of Jesus, we see him spending time with people. We see him touching people’s lives. We see him talking with social outcasts and eating with people who are despised by the religious establishment. When he’s asked about the greatest commandment, he says basically, “Love God and love others.” And Jesus does more than say it; he lives it—a love that rescues individuals and revolutionizes societies and redefines realities.

New Testament scholar N. T. Wright says, “Jesus was going around ‘doing the kingdom’, healing the sick, cleansing lepers, feeding the hungry, he was celebrating at a party with all the wrong people, transforming people’s lives and saying cryptic things such as: ‘Let me tell you what the kingdom of God is like.’”

That was a radical way to live. Imagine the people’s shock when they heard Jesus say, “…whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” That life might seem strange, but it’s the life Jesus calls us to. And it’s still radical today.

This post is a modified part of my sermon, “The Immediate Kingdom,” in Memphis, TN, on Sunday, January 13. You can click here to listen to it.

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Soon people will list blessings for which they’re thankful. As Thanksgiving Day approaches for my country, I likely will hear such lists in conversations, read about them in newspapers, and scan them on Facebook. I won’t publish a list, but I will thank God yet again for my billions of blessings.

Millennia ago God promised to bless Abraham, and the man experienced blessings galore. Notice the closing words of that ancient promise: “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen 12:3). God blessed Abraham for a purpose.

God blesses us for a purpose: so we can be blessings to others. How can you use your blessings to bless the people around you? How can your faith community use your combined blessings to bless your city?

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This Sunday I was standing with one of my new elders in front of my family’s new house in Memphis. A local newspaper lay near the driveway. He picked it up and showed me a page of sadness. 10A was a full-page ad “paid for by Memphis churches of Christ and interested individuals” (whatever that means) and detailing God’s hatred of homosexuality.

The ad is a long article of shoddy grammar, absent transitions, and awkward biblical passages from archaic translations. It claims to be “paid for by Memphis churches of Christ,” but not all Churches of Christ in Memphis were aware of its publication before seeing it in the paper. Also, as Chris Altrock points out in his response to the controversy, “Each congregation in Churches of Christ speaks only for itself.” The ad quotes the second half of Romans 16:16, but the rhetoric’s salute is far from a kiss. The sexist language includes generic masculine pronouns and  even an indication that men should use women: “What is God’s assessment of homosexuality? 1. It is men leaving the natural use of the woman.” The biblical interpretation is irresponsible, assuming the Jude 7 explanation of the Sodom and Gomorrah story but neglecting Ezekiel 16:49. (For more on this, click here.)

The ad, intentionally or otherwise, communicates hatred to Memphians and any others who happen to read it. God, however, loves all people. God calls and empowers people to love each other. I appreciate these words from Bud Wilson in a response to the ad: “And if I want to hate any sin, Jesus suggested I should start with the sin in my life, ‘the beam in my eye’ (Matthew 7:3). That in itself is a full-time, lifelong undertaking…” Instead of ripping biblical words out of their literary, cultural, and historical contexts to condemn other people’s actions, let’s focus on how we, the church, can positively participate in the healing transformation God is working in our city and world.

Another respondent writes that we can “hate the sin” and “love the sinner,” but same-sex attraction is not that simple. We’re talking about an experience deeper and more complex than gossip or speeding. Furthermore, listing a bunch of Bible verses to condemn people doesn’t show love. It expects people outside our respective faith traditions to think and read as we (or at least some of us) do, but written love is reader-oriented.

The ad author’s approach doesn’t show love, but relationships can. Instead of publishing scathing ads, let’s befriend the people whom our society might label as “sinners.” That’s what Jesus did. Discussions about right and wrong happen best in developed friendships. Altrock continues:

So, if you’d like to know what people in Churches of Christ think about an issue like homosexuality, don’t look for an answer in the paper.  Visit a minister or elder at a local congregation.  Go to lunch.  Have coffee.  Talk one on one with a real person.  Who knows, you may just be pleasantly surprised at what you find.

Lunch, coffee, and conversation also are good ways to get to know new friends whose sexual orientations may seem strange to you. Church, let’s not wait for people to come to us and ask about our beliefs; let’s go to people and learn about them.

To everyone experiencing oppression and hatred at the hands of this ad or other voices, let me assure you that the life of Christian faith has a place for you.

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“Be merciful to those who doubt…” (Jude 22). Doubters often feel that they are a marginalized minority in the church. The reality, however, is that most of us experience doubt. Faith is not the absence of doubt. Faith often happens through doubt. When we suffer the depths of doubt, we need the community of faith to embrace us as members who belong and contribute. We need people to love us. We need them to pray and praise on our behalf when we cannot.

(Day 357: Second John – Jude)

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The [person] who eats everything must not look down on [the one] who does not, and the [person] who does not eat everything must not condemn the [one] who does…

The above verse talks about a controversy that doesn’t directly apply to most of us, but the principle remains. If you do something controversial responsibly and in good conscience, don’t push your view on people who don’t share it. If you choose not to indulge in that controversial something, don’t condemn people who embrace it.

When discussing this, however, we need to pay attention to verse 19: “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification” (encouragement, building up). Living for peace in the community of faith requires us to think and care about others. Yes, we should avoid applying this in extreme, oppressive ways; but we mustn’t neglect the call to “peace and mutual edification.”

(Day 331: Romans 14-16)

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