I preached yesterday on the contrast between Power and Humility. Specifically, I pondered how Jesus could fully embody both simultaneously.
Much of Jesus birth narrative places him at odds with the political powers of his day.
Augustus Caesar was the most powerful man in the world at the time of Christ’s birth. After the death of Julius Caesar, Augustus had defeated the armies of all his rivals. He had only to sign an edict and people like Joseph and Mary would travel from one end of their country to another, just to be counted.
“Augustus proclaimed that he had brought justice and peace to the whole world. He declared that his father, Julius Caesar, was a god, therefore he was a ‘son of god’. Augustus, people said, was the ‘saviour’ of the world. He was its king, its ‘lord’. And over time people increasingly worshiped him as a god.” (Wright, Luke for Everyone, 22-23)
Then Luke’s gospel tells us that angels broke into the earthly sky proclaiming to shepherds that that “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” Later, Jesus would be called the “Son of God” but the angels announce that he is Savior and Lord. Augustus is not.
Matthew’s account focuses upon Herod, the non-Jewish king of Judea. Hearing from traveling magi that they sought a newborn king, Herod becomes enraged. When his plot to identify the child fails, Matthew describes the slaughter of children in Bethlehem as Herod sought to eliminate all rivals to his throne.
Jesus flees to Egypt as a political refugee.
At the same time, Luke tells us that the evidence a rival to Caesar has been born can be found in “a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” If not for the angels, no one would have noticed this family in Bethlehem that night. Such was Jesus humble entrance.
Luke previously laid the groundwork for this contrast when he included Mary’s song in his gospel. Mary had no pretensions of grandeur as she praised God for noticing “the humble state of his servant.” She goes on to celebrate how God “has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.”
Jesus challenged the existing power structures of the world from conception. He came to humanity with all the power of the Godhead, yet practiced humility and exalted the humble.
When our society combines power with humility it is most often expressed as the powerful demanding humility from the powerless. “Know your place.” “Don’t get too big for your britches.” “Leave this to the experts.” The powerful can demand humility from everyone except themselves. And when the people without power rise up to claim some of that power for themselves, more often than not we find ourselves in a situation abounding in conflict and violence.
Our society equates power with force, with violence, with coercion, with the biggest guns, the biggest muscles, the most money and influence. Power it seems doesn’t require wisdom, because even when foolish actions are taken that person, that organization, that nation, still has power. And power doesn’t need humility, because humility is weakness.
We face the temptation at this point to rail against power as an evil force, yet God is all-powerful. Like wealth, power has no intrinsic value as either good or evil. The person exercising power determines its character.
On the other side of the equation humility also creates temptations:
- The temptation to sugar coat abuse and discrimination as humility.
- The temptation to accept false humility as true humility both in ourselves and others.
- The temptation to equate powerlessness with humility.
Jesus expression of humility didn’t make him powerless and passive. Throughout Jesus’ ministry he refused to allow outside forces to distract him from his mission. He expressed himself assertively and directly challenged those who opposed him. Jesus was humble, but never powerless.
Living humbly means that those of us with power have a responsibility not just to use our power for the benefit of others, but to share that power with those who have little or none. Many people willingly hand over money to assist those in need. But this act of benevolence does nothing to change the power structure that created the inequality. This natural urge to cling to power makes the example of Jesus truly revolutionary. Philippians 2 frames the entire existence of the human Jesus as an emptying of power and an empowering of humanity.
Jesus came to the powerless, to the sick, an poor, and he reflected God by healing them, by forgiving them, and by giving them hope. Jesus left the throne room of heaven to allow humanity the opportunity to become fellow heirs with him. Jesus empowers his followers with the presence of the Holy Spirit within them. Jesus empowers his followers by creating a church that welcomes each person regardless of the way society describes and segregates them.
Ultimately Jesus empowers each person by emphasising the basis of all humility. Each person is made in the image of God. Each person is a child of God, and is precious to God. Each person has access to God and all power comes from Him. All gifts, talents, abilities and blessings come from Him. We give up our power and exercise humility as we share this message and embody it in our relationships with all.
We all have power in some sphere of our lives. The question we must answer is whether we use it to exalt ourselves, or others?
No other New Testament passage addresses race relations in the church as directly as Ephesians 2. In verses 11-22 Paul addresses both Jewish and Gentile Christians urging them to adopt an attitude of humility. Both groups depend upon Christ for their salvation and in that truth both groups should find unity.
The key verse found in this passage is verse 15b-16,
His desire was to create in His body one new humanity from the two opposing groups, thus creating peace. Effectively the cross becomes God’s means to kill off the hostility once and for all so that He is able to reconcile them both to God in this one new body. (VOICE)
For most of my life I have focused upon the role Jesus’ death on the cross plays in allowing God to forgive our sins. Forgiveness and restored relationship with God epitomise the cross.
So when I read these verses in Ephesians 2 I’m forced to expand my understanding of the cross. We’re told here that Jesus died to break down walls between Jews and Gentiles. To welcome them both in to the kingdom of God.
This is where the Bible gets tough for us. If Jesus died to remove barriers and dividing walls. If Jesus came to preach peace. Then this is an element of the Gospel that we must proclaim also. If God could make one new humanity out of Jews and Gentiles, what can he do with us?
The church doesn’t have the luxury of preaching oneness in Christ and peace with God while having nothing practical to say to our society caught up in racial tension in cities across the country. However, the church has a credibility problem. We want to tell Charlotte, Baton Rouge, Ferguson, San Diego, etc that Jesus brings peace and removes the “dividing wall of hostility”, but in too many cases the church is as segregated, or more so, as our communities.
If Jesus died to remove barriers between people so that people could be reconciled to God, then what are we doing about that?
As a first baby step we challenged the church to make October a “Month of Hospitality”. Over the next 30 days we propose to remove some barriers by having each member enjoy a meal (or coffee, etc) with another member on the other side of a common dividing barrier:
- Racial divisions;
- Age divisions;
- Education divisions;
- Income divisions;
- Political divisions;
- Marital status divisions; and
Why only apply this challenge to members in the church? Because, if we can’t overcome the barriers that exist within the church, we have no credibility to tell the world that we bring a message of God’s peace and reconciliation.
What will you do to live out the Gospel that breaks down barriers?
I consider myself blessed to work in a church fairly evenly distributed between white and black members. As an international preacher I feel at home in this small church with other members and students from Canada, Jamaica, Panama, China and India. The world seems a little smaller, and God’s kingdom seems considerably larger, when we sit in a room together.
Each year we celebrate our diversity with what we call HARMONY Sunday. I’ve previously described our weekend events HERE.
Lawson Rd Church of Christ became racially integrated in the early 1990’s, long before I arrived here. This integration occurred when of a group of African-American members left another local Church of Christ and joined the predominantly white Lawson Rd Church of Christ.
As part of our weekend events our guest speaker facilitated a roundtable discussion on Saturday evening. A group of about 15 people from a variety of backgrounds met to share and discuss our life experiences.
The speaker’s theme for the weekend was “Church as Family”. His first question was simply, “How big was your childhood family, and would you describe it as closeknit?”
Bear in mind that this church has been racially integrated for over 20 years. We’ve formally celebrated racial diversity five times over the last 8 years encouraging communication and bridging cultural divides. Yet as we took 30 minutes to go around the circle and answer this simple question it felt as though something sacred took place.
In this moment of disclosure no one confessed any sin. No one invoked the spirit of Dr King with emotional speeches. No one made any earth shattering revelations. But the simple question allowed us to deepen our relationships with each other. We gained a glimpse into the events and people that formed each of us into who we are today.
In some cases people who had worshiped together and attended Bible class together for a decade or more now know one another more deeply because we took the time to sit down together and talk.
If we’re to be God’s family together. If we’re to love one another. If we’re to demonstrate acceptance and grace to the world. We must first take the time and effort to know one another.
I find that in talking to friends and members of color, I often want to immediately address bigger issues of justice. Saturday night’s simple question reminded me that before addressing issues I need to simply know my brothers and sisters. I was reminded that before addressing my church on national issues I need to remind them to eat, play, and work with those whose story and culture differs from their own.
I needed to be reminded that even heart surgery begins with an incision that breaks the skin.
Sometimes I feel woefully unequipped to minister in a racially diverse congregation. There are so many issues for which I can’t provide any deep or radical solutions. I know we have an opportunity to make a difference but identifying the next step is difficult. So I often resort to the simple advice, “take time to talk to someone of a different race/culture than yours.” It’s not creative. It’s not profound. Saturday night reminded me that it’s still necessary.
Now, who can you share a coffee with as we break down dividing walls together? Go ahead, make that call, send that text, now!
I have regrets. I’m not immune to errors in judgement. I’ve made mistakes.
Even worse, I’ve done things wrong that weren’t mistakes. They were deliberate words and actions that I knew were wrong and I did them anyway.
I’ve accomplished things. There are things in my life that make me proud. Degrees I’ve gained. Friends I’ve kept. Family I’ve loved. Trophies for this and that. Not perfect, but proud.
When I look back on my life, some days I see the warts. Sometimes I see smiles.
The problem when my regrets fill the horizon is that I don’t look back far enough. I only look at my life. My disappointments. My hurts and pain over the last 40 years. If only I would look further into the past. 2000 years further…
When I look deeper into the past I see Jesus. I’m reminded that as he wept in the Garden of Gethsemane he looked 2000+ years into the future. He saw my shortcomings. He knew I’d disappoint him and others. He knew that at times I’d choose to ignore him. Knowing all this he still took the actions necessary to forgive me. He died for my benefit. He welcomed me into his family.
The attitude that I bring with me today often reflects how far I look into the past. Can I look backwards past my regrets just as Jesus looked forward past them? Can I look back far enough to see Jesus, or will I allow my regrets to block that view? Will I move through today with the baggage of yesterday or the freedom given me by Christ?
Each January I lead the Lawson Rd Church of Christ through a process of reflection and projection that we call Vision Sunday.
When we reflect on the past year there are always things we wish we’d done differently. Situations that we could have handled better. People we could have loved more. How we view the past has a big influence on the future. We can criticise it. We can become discouraged by it. We can learn from it. We can be motivated by it. Or we can focus on the places God’s hand is obvious and praise him.
Today is Martin Luther King Day in the US of A. We face the same process and the same choices. MLK Day prompts us to spend time looking both backwards and forwards. When we do so…
- We can criticise Dr King for his shortcomings.
- We can criticise the day.
- We can be discouraged by aspects of the past or the lack of progress of the past 50 years.
- We can continue to learn from the civil rights movement.
- We can be motivated to continue the work of those who’ve gone before us.
- Or we can look for God’s hand in our history and praise him.
I am firmly in the camp of the last three. Dr King’s vision of equality and love for all neighbors comes from the pages of Scripture and the heart of God. We’re not there yet, which means we all still have roles to play in standing against discrimination and racism. Don’t just read this and do nothing. I encourage you to take a moment and write down something you can do to encourage racial harmony.
How we look at the past, individually, as a church, or as a society, will influence the way we view and live the future. As individuals we must believe that we can make a difference. As a society we must admit the wrongs of our past and work to right them. As Christians, we acknowledge our regrets, but move forward in the power of Christ, filled with hope while working for a better tomorrow.
The psalms provide a wonderful example for using the past to motivate the present as we move into the future. They contain many examples of praising God for past faithfulness that inspires confidence in His future faithfulness. Yesterday during worship we read the first few verses of Psalm 21 and I’ve copied them here for your encouragement.
The king is glad because You, O Eternal, are strong.
In light of Your salvation, he is singing Your name.
You have given him all he could wish for.
After hearing his prayer, You withheld nothing.
True blessings You lavished upon the king;
a crown of precious gold You placed upon his head.
His prayer was to live fully. You responded with even more—
a never-ending life to enjoy.
With Your help, his fame and glory have grown;
You raise him high and cover him in majesty.
You shower him with blessings that last forever;
he finds joy in knowing Your presence and loving You.
For the king puts his trust in the Eternal,
so he will not be shaken
because of the persistent love of the Most High God.
This blog post was previously published here.
Jesus knew the truth that what we celebrate matters. Shortly before his death Jesus instructed his disciples to remember his death through a simple meal. (Luke 22:14-20) I imagine that without this instruction the disciple may have decided to celebrate other aspects of Jesus’ ministry. Earlier the apostle Peter had wanted to construct shelters to memorialise the spectacular event of Moses and Elijah appearing and talking with Jesus. Other disciples could easily have chosen to celebrate Jesus healing ministry or concern for the poor.
How would the history of Christianity differ today if the first followers of Jesus decided to politicise His criticism of the religious establishment? Would they have sought revenge against the pagan Romans? Would they have sought to initiate an uprising and seize control of the temple, freeing it from apostate religious leaders?
Instead, Jesus preempts these possibilities by establishing a celebration of his death and his resurrection. This move required the first Christians to pursue understanding of his death. Why did it happen? Do you remember what he said? Do the Hebrew Scriptures speak of a resurrected Messiah? How does this impact us? Does this change our relationship with God?
The simple meal. The memory. The celebration. The understanding. Jesus directed the focus of future generations for thousands of years to the thoughts that are most important.
Our churches still face the same opportunities. In addition to the Lord’s Supper, we get to decide what and who to celebrate.
I once visited a church and watched an elder call every one 18 and under who had a birthday that month to the front of the room. As they stood on the stage with him he prayed over those children. What an affirmation that these children matter to God and to the church!
I know of a church that hosts a VBS each year for special needs children. This event shines the spotlight of love and grace upon these children and their families, letting them know that they’re valued and important.
Last October, the church a friend of mine attends encouraged everyone to wear purple one particular Sunday in support of Domestic Violence Awareness Month. This topic seldom receives attention from churches and this congregation sought to publicly stand with victims of abuse.
I recently saw a church workshop advertised with the theme, “Reprove, Rebuke, & Exhort”. This celebration clearly communicates what matters to them: Reproving and Rebuking. Getting things right. Doing things right.
I’m aware of many churches that have special “Mission Sundays” or “Ministry Fairs” as they highlight the need to send and support missionaries around the world, or the importance for members to involve themselves in church ministries.
Each of these churches chose to express issues, topics, causes, and people that they view as important through celebration.
It would be overly simplistic to infer that the reverse is true. Just because a church does not celebrate a particular cause or person does not mean that they don’t care. No one church can emphasise every issue. If they try to acknowledge everyone, eventually no person or cause is particularly special because everyone’s treated the same.
Which brings us back to where I began: What we celebrate matters!
With this in mind, I’m thrilled that my church celebrated our racial diversity last Sunday through a special day that we call Harmony Sunday. I’ve been part of multi-ethnic churches in the past who preferred not to acknowledge their diversity. Taking one day to celebrate the reality we see each Sunday communicates to the church and the community that each person matters. It reinforces God’s vision for his kingdom as a house for all nations. And most of all, it communicates that this topic is important, not an accident.
I am convinced that events like Harmony Sunday are vital for the good health of multi-ethnic congregations and those seeking to broaden their membership. Among many other benefits, this type of celebration gives permission for conversations about race to take place. It communicates a desire for the church to provide a safe place for dialogue.
We all have dreams, ambitions, and goals for our lives. Some of us have written “bucket lists”. We think of things we’d like to do, and perhaps people we’d like to do them with. God wants us to expand our dreams.
I didn’t really plan this intersection, but the day before Martin Luther King Jr. Day I spoke on the topic of “Love Your Neighbour.”
We all have dreams, ambitions, and goals for our lives. Some of us have written “bucket lists”. We think of things we’d like to do, and perhaps people we’d like to do them with.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus challenges us to expand our dreams.
At times, we can get so caught up in “loving one another” (Jn 13:34) that we fail to raise our vision outside ourselves. God’s mission isn’t neat. God is holy and pure, but his mission is messy. If we’re going to join God’s mission we’re going to find ourselves with people who need rescue, not just with those who God’s already rescued.
Children of God experience so much of God’s love and grace, but what will we do with these blessings? Will we sit around congratulating ourselves that God loves us, or will we allow God to use us in spreading his love and grace into a hurting world? Will we sit on our pew and criticize the world “out there”, or will we work to make a difference? Will we highlight hurt, or will we provide healing?
Sadly we often spend more time pointing at problems than loving those people.
What are your dreams? We all have some sort of dreams and ambitions don’t we? Meet the right person? Find the right job? Fund my retirement? Travel? See my Grandchildren? Pay off my mortgage? Get out of school?
Jesus’ dreams featured making the lives of others better. In Jesus’ dreams he died for me. He also died and for you. Do you have a dream? Do you have a dream not only for your own life, but for the life of your community, for the lives of your neighbours? Do your dreams include your friends? Do your dreams include the Samaritans in your life? The people you don’t like, or the people you don’t care about?
Loving our neighbours means including Samaritans in our dreams. It means making our neighbourhood, our community, our world a better place for everyone.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Do this and you will live.
The life of Martin Luther King demonstrates what it means to include your neighbours in your dreams. Here are some of his famous speeches and writings.
The full version of King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.
The following is excerpts from Dr King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and will take about 10 minutes to listen to. But you need to listen. Here is dispassionate discourse. Here is why Dr King was, and is, necessary. The person reading is not King. The images are commentary on the text. Please do yourself a favor and take the time to listen and watch.
The full recording of Dr King’s final speech before his death in Memphis. “I Have Been to the Mountaintop.”
- My sermon on HARMONY Sunday (20 October, 2013) HERE
- Don McLaughlin “Jesus Teaches the Unclean” (9 March, 2013) HERE
- Dan Rodriguez “Multiracial & Multigenerational Ministry in the 21st Century” (9 March, 2013) HERE
Do you know that only 8% of all churches in the United States meet the definition of multi-racial churches? THAT’S EIGHT PERCENT!! (Yes, I’m shouting that in shock and horror.) I’m blessed to serve one of those 8% but we need to keep reminding ourselves of the value of our racial makeup. It’s far too easy to take our racial harmony for granted.
DEFINITION: According to George Yancey a multiracial church is defined as “a church in which no one racial group makes up more than 80% of the attendees.
Racial harmony is not the Gospel of Jesus. Racial harmony is a powerful response and witness to the Gospel of Jesus and the power of God.
On Sunday our church celebrated it’s 4th Annual “HARMONY Sunday”. This special day celebrates God’s work not just in bringing two racial groups together 20 years ago, but on keeping them together for 20 years. Today our church consists not only of Anglo & African-Americans, but some Hispanics, and several other nationalities. We have members raised near the Gulf of Mexico, and others in the Dakotas. Undoubtedly, the Holy Spirit is the glue that keeps us together.
Our church forms part of the Restoration Movement. This group of churches has spent the past 200+ years calling the broader Christian community back to the forms and teachings of the first century church as described in the New Testament. This mission has been carried out more successfully in some areas than in others.
One aspect of the earliest church that the restoration movement has given little acknowledgement is the area of race relations. The pages of the New Testament are filled with examples and teaching relevant to Jew and Gentile relationships, but little application has been made to contemporary racial tensions. Churches of Christ are still as segregated as any other denominations in the United States.
I love God’s vision of his church as described by John in Revelation 7:9,
I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.
God’s kingdom is multi-national, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and multi-lingual. That crowd at the throne of the Lamb is our goal and destination, and there’s only one building. (See also Rev. 5:9-10 and 14:6) If it’s Jesus prayer, and it is, that “God’s will be done on earth as in heaven” then this vision of God’s throne, must be part of our vision for God’s church.
One of the problems churches encounter is that our vision for the church is too one-dimensional. We focus on doctrine over practice. Where we do focus on practice we often limit it to corporate worship. It’s interesting that throughout Revelation the throne scenes don’t describe a liturgy (order of worship), but they take considerable time to describe those present and worshiping.
That the church in eternity appears as a unified body should not describe those of us who’ve studied the first century church. Acts 2 describes how the crowd on the Day of Pentecost, which became the first church, consisted of at least 15 language groups. Although they held Judaism as a commonality, one can only imagine various cultural customs and values this crowd brought with it from across the Roman Empire. It’s no surprise that one of the first church arguments involved the distinct cultural groups of the Hellenistic and Hebraic Jews. But they didn’t split!! They didn’t form distinct Hebraic and Hellenistic churches. That came years later. Rather, they worked to find a solution to the issues at hand.
God’s vision for a racially inclusive kingdom and therefore a racially unified church is found throughout the Bible. Here’s a just a few passages to consider:
- Genesis 12:3 All peoples on earth will be blessed through you. [A messianic promise made to Abraham]
- Psalm 67:2 May your salvation [be known] among all nations.
- Isaiah 56:6-7 My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.
- Matthew 28:19 Go and make disciples of all nations.
- John 3:16 God loved the world so much…
- Acts 11:17 If God gave them the same gift he gave us… who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way? [The apostle Peter after baptising the Roman, Cornelius]
- Galatians 3:8 Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith…
- Revelation 7:9 I saw a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language…
Perhaps the greatest challenge most churches face is overcoming indifference with intentionality. Most churches I’ve visited will say “Blacks, Whites, Indians, Chinese, Hispanics… Anyone’s welcome here.” But this is a very passive statement. What most of these churches don’t realise is that they’re really saying, “Any Black, White… person that comes here and fits into our existing culture is welcome here.”
Hispanics may be welcome, but we’re not printing anything in Spanish anticipating their arrival. African-Americans may be welcome here, but we’re not learning any Gospel songs or celebrating Martin Luther King Day. Chinese Christians may be welcome here, but we have no clue when Chinese New Year is, and little interest in learning much about it.
If existing churches are to represent the kingdom of God as seen at the throne of the Lamb they must learn to be become aware of different cultures and cater to them. We must admit that our way of doing things is not the only way of doing things, even if it’s the way that makes us most comfortable.
WE MUST BE INTENTIONAL.
What does intentional look like? Mark DeYmaz describes how in the early days of Mosaic Church in Little Rock they were starting to attract Hispanics. They began printing their church bulletins in Spanish as well as English. One week a well-meaning volunteer separated the different language bulletins to different sides of the entrance. Yes, this is only a small thing but DeYmaz notes, “Think about it: two separate tables, two separate groups.” That’s intentionality.
I love that as chapter 21 of Revelation (v1-5) describes God consummating his relationship with redeemed humanity, there are no longer any nations, races, people groups or languages. Rather, God’s dwelling place is simply “among is people” and “They will be his people, and God himself will be their God.” The only distinction among people are those with God in his dwelling place and those outside his city who rejected the forgiveness he offered.
Now there’s a vision for the church.