New Creation

October 31, 2019

Creation is good, but new creation is better. The present creation, though it retains its inherent goodness, is presently frustrated because it is bound over to corruption. It awaits something better; it awaits a glorious liberation. The present bondage will pass away even as the creation itself is gloriously transfigured when the new heaven and new earth appear.

As the present form of the world is even now passing away, the new creation is already present. The children of God experience the first fruits of the new creation through the presence of the Spirit who transforms them from glory to glory. By this, the children of God are new creatures renewed in the image of their Creator. Yet the children of God, along with the creation itself, groan for full adoption through the redemption of their bodies. This new humanity, already present by the Spirit through sanctification, will fully appear in the resurrection.

New humanity is grounded in the new human, Jesus the Messiah. The glorified Lord is new creation. He reversed the brokenness under which creation groans as the kingdom entered into the world through his ministry in the power of the Spirit. He transformed death as the firstborn from the dead by the will of the Father. His Adamic body was transformed into a new body animated by the Spirit of God through which the ascended Messiah reigns in the heavenlies. At the right hand of the Father, ever interceding for the people of God, he has poured out the Spirit upon the church in order to transform them into new community, a new creation. Jesus, as the glorified new human, will return to redeem humanity and inaugurate the new heaven and new earth so that the glory of the God may fill the creation.

This new humanity embodied in Jesus is the ground of new creation. That new life is our life. Jesus’ new creation kingdom ministry is our ministry. The second Adam’s life-giving body is our future body. Just as the old Adamic life passed away in the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, so our lives—inwardly renewed and outwardly redeemed—participate in the new life revealed in the new humanity of the ascended Lord. Just as our old Adamic life is transformed into a new and glorious freedom, so the creation itself will share in the joy of the children of God.

This story—the movement from the old age to the new age—is pregnant with meaning for church, ministry, and life. As new creatures, we live by the ethic of the new creation. As people translated into the kingdom of God, we live as if the kingdom of God has already come and, in some sense, it already has! Anticipating the renewal of creation, we pursue environmental care. We embrace the vision, ethic, and mission of the new creation embodied in the incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus the Messiah.

For these reasons, and more, in Galatians 6:16, Paul identified not only the cross but new creation as the rule or canon by which Christians walk. The richness, depth, and visionary importance of this theme defines Christianity. It points us to the future when God will fully realize the goal for which God created us.

The Messiah Enthroned as Lord

October 28, 2019

Jesus, resurrected from the dead and exalted to the right hand of the Father, is the fountainhead of new humanity. He is new humanity and thus the ground of new creation.

Jesus was not resuscitated from the dead, but transformed from an Adamic, dying humanity to a glorious, resurrected humanity.  Born within the Adamic world and thus bound over to death, he was raised from the dead to live in a new creation. His resurrection is the beginning of the triumphant renewal of creation. His resurrection body is new creation.

The body of Jesus, just as our bodies, is deeply entangled with the creation. Our bodies are from the dust of the earth. We, as flesh and bones, are part of the creation. We are the material imagers of God within the material creation. But within the present age–this present evil age, as Paul calls–our bodies are degenerating, declining, and dying.

The resurrection of Jesus, however, is the reversal of this decay. It is a new creation through the transformation of that broken, dying body into a glorious body. It is not the creation of something new, however. Rather, it is the renewal of something old. Through the resurrection, the Father by the power of the Spirit made the body of Jesus new. It is regenerated, renewed, and living–never to die again.

The resurrection of Jesus has injected a regenerating virus into the cosmos. The newness and glory of the resurrected body of Jesus is the beginning of the newness and glory of the new creation which will remake, renew, and regenerate the cosmos itself. Jesus is “firstborn from the dead” not only in the sense that he is the first, but he is “firstborn” because he has the preeminence as the one who sustains, grounds, and empowers the new creation itself.

Just as resurrection is new creation, so also the exaltation of Jesus to the right hand of the Father is the reign of Christ over the old creation until all things become new again. Jesus will reign until the last enemy–which is death–is destroyed, and the death Jesus will destroy is that power of death that reigns not only over humanity but over the creation itself.

The exaltation of Jesus is the assured word of God that death will be defeated, the creation will be redeemed, and humanity will be restored to its co-regency with God in the cosmos. Humanity will sit on the throne with Jesus to reign over the new creation, and as humanity, along with Jesus, we will share in the materiality of that new creation with resurrected bodies.

Eden–with all the symbolism attached to that name–will be restored, but more than that. Eden will be glorified as new creation just as the body of Jesus was glorified.

The resurrection and exaltation of Jesus are the “already” of our “not yet” future and the future of the creation. God has accomplished redemption in Jesus. The act of God in Jesus, this act of resurrection within history, is the assurance of the future. And the Spirit of God bears witness to this assurance as the gift of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, the presence of the future.

The Messiah Commissions His Disciples

October 24, 2019

Between his resurrection and his ascension to the right hand of God, Jesus spent forty days with his disciples teaching them about the kingdom of God and his messianic role. He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, to understand everything that was written about the Messiah in the Torah, the Prophets, and the Psalms.

In essence, Jesus gave them a message to share. They were to proclaim the name of Jesus to all the nations. This involved announcing the good news of the kingdom of God, the death and resurrection of Jesus, the forgiveness of sins, and the end of Israel’s exile, as well as the inclusion of the nations in the kingdom of God. The disciples, however, would not do this alone but in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus prepared them for their anointing in the Spirit when God would pour out the Spirit upon them. They were told to wait in Jerusalem for the promise of the Father, which was their baptism in the Spirit. Just as Jesus was anointed with power in the Spirit at his baptism, the restoration of the kingdom to Israel would begin when God anointed these disciples with power in the Spirit. This anointing would empower them to become witnesses to the work of God in Jesus and testify to the reality of the kingdom of God, beginning in Jerusalem and extending to the ends of the known world.

God, according to Isaiah 49:6, commissioned Israel to be a light to nations and to extend the salvation of God to the ends of the earth. This is also the mission of Israel’s Messiah, and, as disciples of Jesus, it is also the mission of the church (Acts 13:47). As God pours out the Spirit upon the disciples, God empowers them to continue the mission of Israel, which is to bring salvation to the ends of the earth.

The Gospel of Matthew records this commission in its last few verses. Though the ministry of Jesus was primarily to the lost house of Israel, when Jesus gathered his disciples for some final words, he commissioned them to “make disciples of all nations.” Jesus tells his disciples to take his message to all nations and to disciple the nations just as he had discipled them. The mission of Jesus is not stationary or passive. Rather, it moves throughout the world and proactively invites others into the community of Jesus.

From the beginning, God intended to fill the earth with God’s glory as human beings, the imagers of God, flourished. God chose Israel to renew that glory not only in their own land but to the ends of the earth. God sent the Messiah to give abundant life, and the Messiah sent his disciples among the nations to proclaim that life.

Just as Israel was baptized in the sea and under the cloud in their Exodus from Egyptian slavery, and just as the Messiah was anointed with the Spirit at his baptism, so Jesus commissions the disciples to baptize those who seek to follow Jesus and teach them how to live as disciples of Jesus.  When they are baptized, they are included in the community or the fellowship of the Father, Son, and Spirit. They become part of the kingdom of God; they become part of Israel’s story.

As part of Israel’s story, they are called to embody and practice the ethics of the kingdom of God. Included in the communion of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, they are called to imitate God and invite others into that community by making disciples of all nations.

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.