Resurrection Sunday: At the Table with Jesus

October 21, 2019

On Resurrection Day, nearly 2000 years ago, two disciples, according to Luke 24, were transformed by their experience of the risen Messiah at a table in Emmaus.

While walking to Emmaus, they heard the story of a Messiah who must first suffer and then enter glory. The stranger who walked with them expounded Scripture, and their hearts burned within them as they saw the story of God in new ways. As the Scriptures were opened, so were their hearts.

At a table in the city of Emmaus, the stranger took the bread, blessed God, broke it, and gave it to the two disciples. In that moment, the risen Messiah was “made known” to these disciples “in the breaking of the bread.”

What happened in the “breaking of the bread?” What continues to happen “in the breaking of the bread?” At the table, the living Messiah is “made known” within the community of disciples. When disciples of Jesus are gathered around the table, Jesus is present, and—more than present—Jesus is revealed.

Jesus said as much earlier in Luke: “This is my body” and “This cup…is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:19-20).

Of course, the problem is the meaning of “is”? It depends on what the meaning of “is” is, right?

Paul expands the “is” in 1 Corinthians 10:16: is not the breaking of bread a sharing in the body of Christ and “is not the cup a sharing in the blood of Christ? When we eat the bread and drink the cup, we participate or share in the blessing of and commune with the one who gave himself for us. We share in the benefits of God’s work in Christ; we experience the reality the body and blood of Jesus procures for us. We experience peace with God, and at the table we are not only assured of God’s grace but God also gives grace there.

Luke also provides his own explanation in Luke 24:35. At the table, the living Jesus is “revealed” or “made known.” The relationship between the sign (bread and wine) and the thing signified (body and blood) is not merely symbolic or representative, but neither is its nature or substance changed.

The bread and wine become a means by which the living Christ is revealed. It is an “epiphany,” which reveals and visibly communicates the reality of the living Christ in the community. The table becomes more than a cognitive remembrance where we learn something about Christ. The table becomes a means by which we experience the living Christ and participate in the reality of the new creation, inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus.

At the table, Jesus reveals the future, we remember the future, and we experience the future. The table is an “ephipany”—we see the future! Death will not win; Christ has already won!

Every resurrection day, disciples all over the world gather around a table, and there the living Christ is “made known.” We not only learn about Christ, we experience Christ. We not only learn about the new creation inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus, we taste it!

Blessed be the name of the Lord, who did not leave us in the dust of death but has given us new life through Jesus, who is our life.


Resurrection: The Vindication of Jesus

October 17, 2019

The early preaching of the apostles in the Book of Acts has a rather consistent refrain. The Roman and Jewish authorities, the powers that ruled the world in Palestine, crucified Jesus, but God raised him from the dead. They condemned him, but God vindicated him. They rejected him, but God chose him as the chief cornerstone of God’s new temple. In Jesus, God sided with the innocent, the oppressed, and the persecuted. God justified Jesus in the flesh through his resurrection.

According to the apostle Paul, Jesus was delivered over to death for our offenses and was raised for “our justification” (Romans 4:25) so that we might be saved by “his life” (Romans 5:10). But first it was the justification of Jesus himself. When God raised Jesus from the dead the judgment of death (curse) was reversed and the just, innocent one was vindicated. This is the “mystery of godliness” (1 Timothy 3:16). Death did not win. The resurrection of Jesus destroys death, and his resurrection became our resurrection. When Jesus was raised from the dead, it was a pledge of our own resurrection. We were, in effect, raised with Jesus.

This is a significant event in the life of Jesus and in our lives because his resurrection is our resurrection.

First, our resurrection with Jesus is the presence of God’s transforming Spirit. The life we now live is not our own–it is the resurrected life of Jesus (Romans 6:11; Galatians 2:20). We live in the power of the life-giving Spirit who has given us “new life” in Christ. The presence of the Spirit is God’s gift by which God transforms us into the image of Christ. Thus, the present experience of the transforming power of the Spirit bears fruit in us and is a foretaste of our full redemption by the power of the Spirit in the future resurrection (Romans 8:11-12).

Second, our resurrection with Jesus also transforms our experience of death. 
Since God has defeated death, we no longer fear its hostile grip. Consequently, our experience of death is transformed from hopelessness, fear, and despair into hope, expectation, and anticipation. Though we no longer fear death we hate it as it defaces God’s good creation.

Third, our resurrection with Jesus in our “spiritual” bodies enables full communion with God in the new heaven and new earth.
 Since God has raised Christ with a “spiritual body,” we yearn for our spiritual bodies when we will experience the fullness of God’s Spirit in the new heaven and new earth. Indeed, the indwelling Spirit is our promise that we will be raised, and the power of the Spirit that now works in us to transform us into divine glory will transform our broken bodies into the glorious body of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:11; Philippians 3:21). Our present mortal, weak, and broken bodies will be transformed into immortal, powerful, and glorious bodies. We will have bodies energized and empowered by the full transforming presence of the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 15:42-44).

The resurrection is God’s pledge to perfect the world in new creation. God acted decisively to reverse the effects of Good Friday. The resurrection is God’s pledge to birth a new heaven and a new earth and liberate the cosmos from its bondage. The resurrection is new creation.


The Messiah Abandoned

October 14, 2019

Dying on that Friday afternoon, Jesus shouted to God, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). This expressed profound emotion. It gave witness to the depth of his human experience. It was an honest exclamation and an authentic question. But it did not so much accuse as it laments, and this arises from the intimacy Jesus shared with the Father.

Some hear the cry as a kind of relational abandonment where the Father “turns his back” on Jesus because Jesus had become sin in that moment. Others hear the cry as an expression of some sort of tear within the Triune God where God experiences alienation within God’s own life such that the communion between the Father and Son is, in some real sense, broken.

Certainly, the Father mourns the death of the Son, and through the experience of the Son the Father also suffers with the Son because of their transparent, shared intimacy. Also, the Spirit, who has rested upon the Son since his baptism, groans with the Father and the Son in this moment. The pathos of suffering is not alien to God. Through the Son, God suffers, and God suffers as Father, Son, and Spirit. The cross is the mourning of God; it is a divine as well human lament.

But the unity of the Trinity is not ripped apart in this moment. Their communion does not waver. The Son trusts the Father, and, quoting Psalm 31:6, the Son entrusts himself to the Father (Luke 23:46). The Father does not abandon Jesus in death, and neither does the Son lose faith in the Father. The Triune communion remains fully intact.

Rather than relational abandonment, the cross is the moment where the Son is embraced by the Father’s love and the Spirit continues to rest upon him. This is wonderfully depicted by Mashacho’s Masaccio’s fresco (1425-1426) in the Santa Maria Novella church in Florence, Italy.

The fresco is high on the wall. As we lift our eyes we first see Jesus hanging on the cross, then we see the Spirit, as a dove, hovering like a mother bird over the Son, and then finally the Father, facing the cross, extending loving arms toward the Son. We see the Trinity gathered—one on the cross, one resting on the head of crucified one, and one towering in the background.

The Father stands behind the cross with his arms stretched out as if embracing the Son as he hangs on the cross. Far from turning his back on the Son, the Father loves the Son, encircles the Son, and assures the Son of the Father’s love.

The Spirit, as a dove, rests upon the Son. Just as the dove descended on the Son at his baptism and anointed him with power, and just as the Spirit led the Son into the wilderness and throughout his ministry, so now in death the Spirit is still with the Son.

The Trinity is united at the cross; there is no break in the triune communion.

At the same time, the Father abandoned the Son to death, but the Father did not abandon him on the cross. The Father abandoned the Son to death, but the Father did not abandon him in death. The Father abandoned the Son, just like the Father does us, to the grave, but the Father did not abandon the Son in the grave. By the power of the Spirit, who rests upon the Son, the Father raised the Son from the dead, just as the Father by the power of the Spirit will raise us from the dead in the likeness of the Son.

The cross teaches us that God may abandon us to death, but God will not abandon us in the grave. This is our hope, and it is our comfort.


The Messiah on the Cross

October 10, 2019

The death of Jesus the Messiah is an enigma in so many ways. Something happened at the cross that changed the world. But exactly how and in what way is not absolutely clear. On the contrary, whatever happened on the cross between God, Jesus, humanity, and the cosmos lies deep within recesses of the heart and mind of God. It is a mystery that transcends our understanding, but we are not left clueless.

While there are many different ways to understand the cross, and Christian history has debated them for centuries, each Gospel tells the story of the Messiah’s trial and death. Each has their own message and emphasis. Each expresses the mystery in a particular way, and Luke’s Gospel is particularly poignant because, in part, it is particularly enigmatic. Luke’s passion narrative quotes Jesus three times, and each saying of the crucified Jesus points us to both the inscrutability and transformative nature of the Messiah’s cross.

Surrounded by people who falsely accused him, mocked him, beat him, divided his last possessions among themselves, and nailed him to the cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing.” The cross and forgiveness are an unnatural pair, but, in part, the cross is designed for forgiveness. The blood of the new covenant forgives sins, and because of the cross—somehow and in some way—we receive God’s forgiveness.

When one of the criminals crucified with the Messiah, confessed his guilt, recognized the innocence of Jesus, and asked to be remembered when Jesus came into his kingdom, Jesus responded, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” The sign over the head of Jesus read, “The King of Jews.” The cross, as unlikely as it seems, is a kingdom moment. Indeed, it is the moment when Jesus absorbs all the evil that the powers—whether spiritual or political—throw at him. Jesus surrenders himself to the will of God through obedience for the sake of the kingdom of God. The cross is the not the victory that evil powers imagine but the beginning of their fall. Even on the cross, the kingdom of God testifies to its sovereignty over evil. Evil will not win.

When darkness covered the whole land and the sun no longer shined, Jesus, in a loud voice, cried out, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” The cross, we might think, is that last place we might entrust ourselves to God’s purposes and trust that God is able to give meaning even to the most despicable evils committed by the powers. Nevertheless, though the cross had no seeming purpose as an innocent and good person died there, its meaning was global, cosmic, and redemptive.

If we had been standing before the cross some two thousand years ago, there was nothing about that scene that announced the forgiveness of sin, victory over evil, and trust in God’s good work. Crucifixion was a place of imperial vengeance, defeat through death, and mocking by one’s enemies. Indeed, we probably would have wondered, as we often do today, where is God in this? Why does not God save this innocent one from death? Why did God abandon the Messiah?

Whatever our reasonings, the Messiah himself sought forgiveness for his persecutors, hoped in the victory his death entailed, and died with a profound trust in the God of Israel. What gives birth to such merciful love, expectant hope, and trusting faith? Jesus knew that though God abandoned him on the cross, God would not abandon him in the grave. The cross was not the final act in the theodrama; there is more to the story.


When Darkness Reigns—the Messiah Crucified

October 7, 2019

Text: Luke 22:39-23:56

Though there are several aspects of the movie that disturb me, one of the treasures I found in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of Christ” is how darkness pervades the first third of the film. He captures the mood, but not only the mood—he captures the reign of darkness on that Friday.

The account of the crucifixion in the Gospel of Luke begins and ends with darkness. As the temple guards, elders, and chief priests arrest Jesus in the garden, Jesus announces, “this is your hour—when darkness reigns” (Luke 22:52). Darkness reigned till Jesus breathed his last, and Jesus died in darkness as God blocked out the sun (Luke 22:44). Good Friday was a dark day, epitomizing the darkness that enveloped the world; symbolizing the darkness that has choked the world since humanity was exiled east of Eden. Good Friday was the hour of evil’s triumph. On that day, Satan’s reign tyrannized the Son of God, Israel’s Messiah.

The passion narrative provides amble evidence of that tyranny, and unfortunately, it is evident in our own world today. When darkness reigns….

• Good people fail to pray
• Friends betray friends
• Swords are drawn
• Disciples deny their teacher
• The innocent are convicted
• The guilty are released
• The law is subverted for interests of power and control
• The righteous are mocked
• Women weep over the loss of their children
• Soldiers demean and torture others
• The condemned insult each other
• The blameless are executed

Luke’s picture is shrouded in gloom from the garden to the cross, but his canvass also has rays of light. A dawning sun also breaks into the darkness (Luke 1:78-79).

Even as darkness reigns, Jesus reveals the light of the kingdom. Even when darkness reigns, the kingdom of God cannot be smothered and snuffed out. Instead, beautiful and profound colors appear.

Though darkness reigns….

• Kingdom people refuse to use the sword even when threatened; Jesus said “No more of this!”
• Kingdom people pursue the will of God despite the consequences; Jesus said, “yet not my will, but yours be done.”
• Kingdom people confidently anticipate with hope the fulfillment of kingdom; Jesus said, “the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God.”
• Kingdom people weep for the brokenness of the world rather than over their own suffering for the sake of the kingdom; Jesus said, “do no weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children.”
• Kingdom people forgive their persecutors; Jesus said, “Father, forgive them.”
• Kingdom people invite others into the kingdom; Jesus said, “today you will be with me in paradise.”
• Kingdom people trust in God’s work despite the reign of darkness; Jesus said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

Kingdom people follow Jesus. They, like Simon from Cyrene, pick up the cross and follow Jesus. Kingdom people assault the powers of evil by submitting to the will of God and trusting in the promise of the coming kingdom. Kingdom people follow Jesus. Darkness reigned on Good Friday, but the kingdom of God also broke into that darkness. Even as darkness reigns in our day, as kingdom people, we are called to follow Jesus, and it may take us to a cross.


Hermeneutics and Racial Segregation

October 4, 2019

This is an appendix from my recent book Searching for the Pattern: My Journey in Interpreting the Bible.

I have several vivid memories about race relationships in my history. 

I grew up in two very different places. In one city, African Americans lived across the river in a different city. They did not live in mine. I did not attend elementary school with any children of color, and neither did my congregation have any people of color in it. On one occasion, when a minister of an African American church of Christ from across the river visited my father for several hours at our church building, a neighbor called the police.

In the other city, I attended an integrated High School. The congregation where my father ministered was integrated in both leadership and membership. I was too young to understand or know how those dynamics played out in the congregation, but I do know I attended church with people of color. My father ministered in India for six weeks every year for a decade, and my family welcomed diverse guests across all ethnicities in our home for meals as well as lodging them for weeks or months. I learned to respect and love people who were different.

The first congregation I served as a preaching minister was in a northern urban center where half the church was African American and the other half was Caucasian. We were small but enjoyed wonderful fellowship. I officiated my first funeral there. It was the wife of my mentor and close friend, one of the congregation’s African American leaders who had led many to Christ.

When I moved to the deep South, it shocked my system. I remember sitting at a table with some elders and their wives near the Florida-Alabama border where, after talking with them about reaching out to the African American community, one of the wives grudgingly agreed to welcome them into the church but insisted she would not invite any into her home. At a congregation in Mississippi, I was present the first time an African American led singing. In response, three couples walked out of the building and left that congregation. I have known ministers in the deep South who were dismissed because they baptized a black person in the church’s baptistry, preached on racism, or were involved in community efforts toward racial reconciliation. On multiple occasions, I have seen white people flee congregations they had attended for years when African Americans grew in numbers that threatened the balance of power and/or added color to the youth group in an unacceptable mix. Some parents feared their children might date, perhaps even marry, someone of another race.

Racism is alive, and while I hope it is dying, it does not seem to be in its death throes. Indeed, I fear it is raising its ugly head with even more ferocity in the past few decades. Yet, nothing is more subversive of the gospel than racist attitudes and practices. Racism strikes at the heart of the gospel itself!

How does a theological hermeneutic address this problem?

As a matter of perspective, I suggest a blueprint hermeneutic does not address the heart of the issue well. Every congregation should accept every Christian no matter their color, ethnicity, or nationality. But how would the blueprint hermeneutic make this argument? It cannot point to a pattern except that no congregation should accept the ethnic division between Jew and Gentile. That is helpful, but it is insufficient. Might it be that the blueprint hermeneutic is not up to the task? Instead, when the blueprint hermeneutic attempts to tackle this question, it naturally shifts to a theological hermeneutic. In other words, it does not resolve the question in terms of a scripted pattern but with a theological argument, which seems rather obvious to all who love God and their neighbors. To the degree our history has neglected a theological hermeneutic, to that same degree racism is able to get hold of our hearts because we have been more deeply formed by racist social pressures and practices rather than by the heart of God. Like the elder brother who precisely obeyed all his father’s rules but did not know his father’s heart, some are so focused on searching for, arguing about, and precisely obeying a blueprint that they don’t know the Father’s heart.

To make my point, let me rehearse, in a brief way, how a theological hermeneutic addresses racism. I will not fill this out in any detail as I assume (and hope) most will see the point rather quickly. To do this, I will simply walk through the story of God and note a few significant points.

Creation. Every human being is created in the image of God, and, therefore, is crowned with glory and honor (Genesis 1:27; Psalm 8:5). Every human being has the status of a royal priest within the creation, and despite the fact that every human being has sinned and fallen short of this glory, every human being still images God. Consequently, no one should curse, hate, or mistreat another person (James 3:9-10).

God intended humanity to inhabit the whole earth (Isaiah 45:18) and commissioned humanity to “fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28). When humanity fills the earth, humanity diversifies. People do not eat the same food, wear the same clothes, and have the same skin color when they live in such diverse places as Alaska, Guatemala, Singapore, Germany, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Consequently, these geographically diverse peoples created diverse cultures. Just as God created diverse plants and animals with diverse colors, so God commissioned humanity to fill the whole earth. Humanity, by God’s design, grew diverse, and this is as beautiful as what God created in other aspects of nature. God intended diversity, and God loves diversity.

Israel. Racists often appeal to Israel’s distinct role as a holy nation to support some kind of separatism or segregation. But this woefully misunderstands what God is doing in Israel. For example, God chose Israel to bless the nations rather than condemn them, and God ultimately wants to include the nations rather than exclude them. God called Israel to be “a light to the nations, that [God’s] salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6). Further, God invited the nations into community, “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 45:22). God sent Jonah to Nineveh, and Jonah, who did not have the heart of God, objected to the mercy God extended.

In addition, Israel welcomed and included the aliens who lived within their borders. Israel was explicitly commanded, “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien” (Exodus 22:21). Israel was to love the alien just as she loved herself (Leviticus 19:34), and Israel shared its tithes with aliens (Deuteronomy 26:12). Aliens could eat the Passover (2 Chronicles 30:25), offer sacrifices (Leviticus 17:8; 22:18), and were included in the forgiveness God extended to the community (Numbers 15:26). Israel’s status before God did not authorize them to oppress others.

The Ministry of Jesus. While Jesus was sent to Israel in order to announce the coming reign of God, he did not neglect opportunities to serve and love Gentiles. We see this in his healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter (Mark 7:24-30) and the centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5-13). Ultimately, of course, the resurrected Jesus includes all nations as the object of gospel proclamation as he commissioned his disciples to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18). More, of course, could be said.

Church. The church is one race. Believers in Christ share life in a new community that transcends all nationalities and ethnicities. Peter calls the church “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” In other words, they are a new humanity, and they are a race that includes all ethnicities and nationalities. Like Adam and Eve, and like Israel, this new race is a royal priesthood who proclaims God’s “mighty acts” (1 Peter 2:9).

Paul makes a similar point in Ephesians 2. Talking about Jews and Gentiles (the nations), Paul stresses that, through the cross, Christ knocked down the wall that separated Jew and Gentile and created “in himself one new humanity” (Ephesians 2:16). As a result, there are no ethnic or national divisions in the church, and there “are no longer [any] strangers and aliens” but only “citizens” and “members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19).

New Creation. The picture in Revelation 7 is quite clear. There “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” stands “before the throne and the Lamb, robed in white” (Revelation 7:9). Together they sing, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Revelation 7:10). There is no segregation in the throne room of God!

Of course, much more could be said about each of these movements within the biblical drama. But I have shared enough to demonstrate that racism is fundamentally out of step with God’s agenda in creation and new creation as well as throughout the story.

At the center of the gospel is the mystery of Christ rather than a racist narrative. The gospel testifies to God’s love for the whole world through the gift of Jesus (John 3:16), Christ’s death for all (1 Timothy 2:4-6), and God’s inclusion of all within the church, whether “Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free” because “Christ is all and in all” (Colossians 3:11). In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, nor slave nor free, nor male or female because we are all one in Christ (Galatians 3:28).

While this only touches the surface of this topic, a theological hermeneutic is at work here. We discover God’s values, God’s identity, and God’s heart through the narrative, and in Christ God testifies to the “mystery of godliness.” God in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit through the resurrection and seen among the angels as the enthroned Lord, is now “proclaimed among Gentiles” and “believed in throughout the world” (1 Timothy 3:16). With Christ at the center of our theology, there is no place for racism, and racist practices subvert the gospel.

As segregation within the church reared its ugly head in the 1870s, David Lipscomb, the editor of the Gospel Advocate, opposed it. In 1874, when a consultation of church leaders met in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, it passed a resolution that recommended that “our colored brethren who have membership with whites, whenever practicable to withdraw themselves and form congregations of their own.” Lipscomb opposed it, and he labeled it “destructive to the Spirit of Christ” (Gospel Advocate, October 29, 1874, pp. 1017-8, 20). On another occasion, Lipscomb wrote: “The whole idea of churches along race lines is contrary to the spirit and the precepts of the New Testament, and to refuse fellowship to a child of God because of its race or family is to refuse it to Jesus himself” (Gospel Advocate, August 15, 1907, p. 521).

Nevertheless, Jim Crow culture led churches of Christ to segregate into different congregations. They were not alone, of course. It was the dominant culture. Unfortunately, the effects of that segregation still loom large. Indeed, some Christians have believed, as one stated in a letter, too many people “fall for the big lie that segregation is unchristian.”

In this instance, unlike in many cases where churches of Christ divided, the gospel is at stake. Whenever racism dictates and influences our practice, it subverts the gospel, and we proclaim and practice another gospel, which is no gospel at all. In such a circumstance, we find ourselves under Paul’s anathema (Galatians 1:6-9).

May God have mercy!


The Messiah Serves the Table

October 3, 2019

On the evening before his arrest, Jesus reclined at a Passover table with his disciples. At this meal, Jesus is aware of the conspiracy to kill him. This is Jesus’s last meal with his disciples before his death.

“While they were eating,” the Gospel of Mark says, Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to his disciples. By this, Jesus conformed the breaking of the bread to a Passover meal and, at the same time, gave it a fuller meaning when he said, “This is my body.”

Just as the bread of the Passover represented life and liberation, so the body of Jesus does the same. Bread is what nourishes life, and the body of the Messiah nourishes believers in their shared life. Eating together, disciples share a community grounded in the gift of Messiah’s body just as Israel ate with God on Mount Sinai. In effect, Jesus says “my body” will give new life to Israel.

In the same way with the cup, Jesus said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.” Jesus alludes to the sacrificial system of Israel, and the Passover meal gives his words special meaning. The blood of the Lamb gives life. Jesus is the Passover lamb whose blood renews covenant with Israel.

This language, “the blood of the covenant,” takes Jewish readers back to Mount Sinai in Exodus 24 when God inaugurated his covenant with Israel and ate with Israel (Exodus 24:8-11). Moreover, Zechariah 9:9-11 suggests the blood of the covenant frees prisoners; it is liberation. The King who rides into Jerusalem on a donkey is a liberator who “proclaim[s] peace to the nations.” But this king, Jesus, rides to his death rather than into military action. Jesus liberates through suffering rather than through violence.

The blood of Jesus is poured out to free the prisoners, to free the slaves. The suffering servant “poured out his life unto death” and “bore the sin of many” (Isaiah 53:12). Jesus gives life through suffering and deals with sin through dying. Jesus is the suffering servant of Isaiah who suffers the wounds of exilic Israel and brings new life through his blood. Through his suffering, Jesus ransoms Israel from exile.

The Passover meal now has a new horizon of meaning. The Passover lamb died to liberate Israel from Egyptian bondage. Jesus is the true lamb of God. Through his death, he gives new life and frees us from sin and its power. The original significance of the Passover remains (it still tells the story of Israel), but it is transformed by the new reality that dawns in the death of Jesus.

Jesus shares the cup with his disciples. It is the cup of suffering (cf. Mark 10:39-40; 14:36). They drank it that day in solidarity with Jesus as people committed to the way of suffering even though they would shortly falter in that commitment. They drank the cup Jesus drank. But they did not follow Jesus to the cross. And we, too, often do the same.

But there is more to this table. It also bears witness to the reality of the kingdom of God. The next time Jesus eats and drinks with his disciples it will be in the reality of the kingdom of God. While this includes the future messianic banquet in the new heaven and new earth, it is also about the in-breaking of the kingdom of God into the present. Jesus is the reality of the kingdom in the world, so the bread and wine are also the reality of the kingdom. In this new reality—the kingdom of God—Jesus eats and drinks with us. We eat and drink with the living Messiah whose death has transformed life. This calls us to a different kind of life—one that pursues peace and reconciliation rather than violence and estrangement. When we eat and drink together, we recommit ourselves to that way of life.


The Messiah Comes to the Temple

September 26, 2019

Malachi, one of the last of God’s messengers to Israel, prophesied that the Lord would come to the temple and judge it. On Palm Sunday, King Jesus, riding on a royal donkey, triumphantly entered Jerusalem, and he was hailed as the one who would usher in the kingdom of David. Surrounded by an expectant crowd, he entered the temple, looked at everything, and went home for the evening.

What did Jesus see? The next morning we find out. The King who came to make peace went to the temple to judge his people. Apparently, he did not like what he had seen the previous day.

He saw “buying and selling,” the exchange of money and selling animals in the Court of the Gentiles. This merchandizing, this exploitation of worshippers, profaned the temple courts. Jesus, acting out a prophetic judgment, embodied God’s justice by overturning tables.

The Gospel of Mark justifies this prophetic act of judgment by quoting Isaiah and Jeremiah. Isaiah 65:7 reminded Israel that the temple is for prayer, including the prayers of the nations. The Court of the Gentiles, where the merchandizing was taking place, diverted the purpose of the court from prayer to exploitive money exchanges and economic injustice.

Jeremiah 7:11 accused the temple authorities of treating the temple like a “den of robbers.” In one sense, the temple had become a place for thieves because they defrauded and stole from their neighbors through exploitative practices. In another sense, the temple, as Jeremiah noted, had become a place where injustice hides, a den where robbers hide from judgment. The temple, they thought, cannot come under judgment, and therefore people are safe in the temple. But they were wrong; the temple would come under judgment.

The temple authorities understood the implications of this symbolic act. It was a political act that condemned their authority. The kingdom of God judges all other authorities, and because these authorities feared Jesus’ popularity and message, they decided he must die in order to preserve their power. Whereas Herodians and Pharisees had conspired to kill Jesus in Galilee (Mark 3:6), now the temple authorities in Jerusalem do the same. Ultimately, together, they will gather a different kind of crowd than the one that cried “Hosanna” on Palm Sunday. On Good Friday, they will incite a mob to scream, “Crucify him!” The powers of this world, led by the prince of this world, killed Jesus.

God came to the temple and judged it. When Jewish zealots attempted, through violence, to overthrow the Roman occupation and establish their own kingdom, Jerusalem, with its magnificent temple, fell under the weight of divine judgment.

In the wake of such judgment, how do disciples of Jesus respond? As the Gospel of Mark makes clear in chapter 11, disciples trust God. They pray in faith. They forgive their debtors. In the midst of judgment, disciples live by faith rather than sight, seek reconciliation with others, and pray that God would move mountains.


The Messiah is a Suffering Servant

September 23, 2019

As Jesus and his disciples headed to Jerusalem, he reminded them about what lies ahead. The Son of Man will be betrayed, condemned, flogged, humiliated, and executed though raised from the dead three days later. There must have been an ominous foreboding among the disciples, but their focus is not so much on these future horrendous events as much as it is on their role in the coming reign of the Messiah. They anticipate glory, rank, and power.

James and John approached Jesus with a request. They wanted to sit on the right and left hand of Jesus in his glory. When the kingdom fully arrived, they asked for the highest honors in the kingdom. They asked Jesus for hierarchical power.

But they did not understand what they were asking for. Jesus used two metaphors to describe how one becomes great in the kingdom of God. He asked, “Can you drink the cup?” and “Can you be baptized?” Both metaphors point to suffering. Jesus, having just told them about his future in Jerusalem, asked if they are willing to suffer as he will suffer. Are they also willing to suffer for Israel?

Their request angered the other disciples. They have previously, perhaps on many occasions, argued about who is the greatest. Despite Jesus’s focused teaching about greatness and his exemplary life, the disciples still hungered for rank, power, and status in the coming kingdom.

While the disciples thought of greatness along the lines of Gentile kings who exercise power through status and even violence, this is not the nature of greatness in the kingdom of God. A different sort of power-ranking exists in the kingdom of God. It is not rooted in the exercise of power but in service. Greatness is defined by servanthood rather than status.

Jesus did not come to reign like Gentile leaders do. Jesus did not come to be served as if others bowed down to his higher rank and catered to his every need. Instead, he came to serve. He came to die as a “ransom for many.” The mission of Jesus is to serve, and through this service Jesus would become great in the kingdom of God.

That kingdom does call us to greatness through popularity, fame, or even success. The kingdom calls us to greatness through self-giving and service to others. The one who would be first must become last, and the one who would be great must become the servant of all (Mark 9:35).

This is a difficult lesson to learn. It reverses our violent, self-centered human culture; it reverses the American Dream where greatness is about success, wealth, and power. But greatness is not found in awards, honors, and pulpits. Rather, it is found in self-giving service. Greatness is not defined by how many people hear a lesson from a particular pulpit or watch a particular YouTube video; it is defined by those who visit the prisons, the sick, and the oppressed. Greatness is found in service to the least of these, service to those who are last.


Book Review: Visions of Restoration by John Young

September 20, 2019

John Young, an adjunct instructor at Amridge University and a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Alabama, has written a brief history of Churches of Christ entitled Visions of Restoration (Cypress Publications, 2019; 111 pages).  Brevity sacrifices detail and nuance, but that is acceptable when the purpose is to offer something easily digestible for the reader. Young, I believe, accomplishes his purpose and provides readers with an accessible introductory volume.

At the outset, he recognizes that restorationists live in the tension between primitivism (e.g., we are the church of the New Testament) and historical tradition (e.g., our history has defined contours). This is complicated by the fact that the restorationist tradition finds other expressions in Puritanism (e.g., John Owen) and other 19th century movements in New England (Elias Smith) and Virginia (James O’Kelly). Consequently, it is difficult to navigate both the historical tradition of Churches of Christ and its restorationist claims. Young, it seems to me, rightly sees the tension, and he addresses the historical tradition (“present day Churches of Christ are…a modern movement which seeks to restore” the New Testament church, p. 5) without discounting the theological claim itself (he does not argue whether the theological claim is true or not but recognizes the intent and judges that perhaps it is the “most thorough” of restorationist attempts). As such, Young’s book is a history of a modern movement, a historical tradition deeply connected with places, events, people, and ideas.

Young introduces readers to the “Big Four”: Barton W. Stone, Thomas Campbell, Alexander Campbell, and Walter Scott. Recognizing the revivalist context of Stone’s early beginning and the move out of sectarianism by the Campbells, and Scott’s five finger exercise, Young’s brief summaries are helpful.

Young recognizes that the 1832 union between the Stone and Campbell groups was neither simple nor easy. Many in Stone’s group were uneasy with Campbell and some united with the Smith and O’Kelly groups rather than Campbell. Campbell himself, which Young does not note, was not enthusiastic about this union because he was rather suspicious of Stone’s lack of evangelical Orthodoxy (with good reason, especially Stone’s Trinitarianism and Christology). Nevertheless, the united movement became the 5th largest Christian group in the U.S. by 1870.

Though union propelled the movement from the 1820s to the 1870s, “some cracks in the foundation” emerged just prior to the Civil War and exploded after the Civil War. I think Young is correct that the division is both theological (a difference over the application of the received hermeneutic) and sectional (the aftermath of the Civil War—both in terms of politics and sociology). One of the more helpful points Young makes about this division between the Churches of Christ and the Disciples of Christ—formally expressed in 1906—is the role political thought played in the separation, especially as southern congregations were skeptical of government and northern congregations were more nationalistic. The election of James A. Garfield was heralded as a great moment by northern Disciples but lamented by many southerners (notably David Lipscomb).

I do appreciate how Young recognizes both the theological and sociological dimensions of the division. There was a significant hermeneutical chasm between the Disciples of Christ and the Churches of Christ, which resulted in different views on instrumental music and the missionary societies. And there was also a deep sectional, sociological, political, and economic divide as well. Young correctly gives weight to both. By the 1880s, congregations were dividing over the instrument, and by 1906 the Churches of Christ were primarily located in the Confederate states and the Disciples of Christ were located in the Union states. Sectionalism as well as theology had an impact.

Young offers an interesting interpretation of the history of Churches of Christ after their separation from the Disciples.

On the one hand, the one-cup congregations and the non-Sunday School congregations separated themselves from the primary trajectory of Churches of Christ as independent movements.  This happened in the 1900s-1920s. Another group separated itself in the 1990s, and Young helpfully devotes a chapter to the rise of the International Church of Christ  (with its roots in the Campus Evangelism of the 1960s-1970s among Churches of Christ).

On the other hand, other divisions were exclusions rather than separations, and the exclusions mitigated damage to the church’s perceived uniformity, though this was accomplished not only through theological argument but also by personal attacks and political maneuvers (e.g., quarantines and exclusion from places of power in the schools and platforms at the lectureships). In this way, dispensational premillennial congregations were marginalized and excluded as were non-institutional congregations.

Another typically excluded group, to which Young devotes a chapter, are African American congregations. He identifies key figures, and assesses similarities and differences. But they all shared the same problem: Jim Crow culture. In this way, African American congregations were also excluded, though not for theological but racial reasons. Hopefully, that is changing.

Another group, to which Young devotes a chapter, is the history of women among Churches of Christ whose voices have been excluded. There is some diversity in the beginning and among the Disciples of Christ, but Churches of Christ muted female voices in the assembly. There was some pushback from women Selina Holman of Tennessee and—Young does not discuss this—leaders like Daniel Sommer. In assemblies in Sommer’s circles, the female voice was heard in prayer, exhortation, reading Scripture, and leading singing. Generally, women were excluded on the theological grounds: their sex demanded their public silence in both church and society (until suffrage changed the social landscape). Hopefully, that is changing.

The 1960s saw the emergence more educated, socially conscious, and pneumatically open thinkers and congregations who expressed themselves through publications like the Restoration Quarterly, Mission, and Integrity. This was countered by the rise of publications like the Spiritual Sword and Contending for the Faith. This was the beginning of a hermeneutical struggle as the former increasingly rejected the received hermeneutic for what their critics called a “new hermeneutic,” and the latter became increasingly involved in the politics of the evangelical right (which is a reversal of what characterized much of the Churches of Christ in the late 19th century). These two groups within Churches of Christ, as Young puts it, are increasingly “drifting apart.”

Young leaves us with two groups “drifting apart.” The unity movement did not bear the fruit of unity. And this is because, as the title of the book suggests, there were competing “visions of restoration.”

In some ways, this is a sad story. In other ways, there is a freedom that gives birth to the hope of renewing life in God’s redemptive work rather than in our theological opinions. Let us hope, pray, and struggle for that renewal.