The Terror of the Lord

Lord, there is no one like you to help the powerless against the mighty. Help us, Lord our God, for we rely on you, and in your name we have come against this vast army. Lord, you are our God; do not let mere mortals prevail against you.”

King Asa’s prayer in 2 Chronicles 14:11 as he prepared to defend the attack of Zerah the Cushite. Asa defeated Zerah and his armies, “for the terror of the Lord had fallen on them,” which would also be a happy answer to this prayer tomorrow.

A Sermon: Waking from the Dream

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1 In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2 So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of Godin order to wait on tables. 3 Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” [Acts 6:1-4]

As the pastor of a multi-ethnic church, I’m regularly asked about the reasons our congregation regularly talks about race, racism, and reconciliation? I’ll do my best to answer this question today.

The Acts passage shows the early church facing some of its first divisions. At this time, it was common for converts to Christianity to be disowned by their families. The radical care shown by the early church that we read about in Acts was an expression of the church acting as a new family. This was especially important for widows who relied on family members for their wellbeing. Our passage reveals that a disparity was growing between the Hebraic Jewish widows and Hellenistic widows. The Hellenistic Jews had taken on much of the surrounding Greek culture while the Hebraic Jews had maintained much of the culture and tradition of their ancestors in Palestine. In Jerusalem, where our passage takes place, Hebraic Jews would have had a higher status than the Hellenistic Jews.

From our perspective maybe this division doesn’t seem so big. In a country like ours where a white officer can shoot a 12-year-old Black boy with impunity; in a country that singled out Chinese immigrants for legal exclusion; in a country that vilifies Latino women and men while depending on their labor; in this country a disparity based on culture between those with a common ethnic and religious background might not seem like a big deal. And maybe that’s true. We could find more obvious threats to the family of God later in the New Testament, but this is the first division faced by the church so it’s worth paying close attention to three things about how they faced potential divisions.

First, they expected justice. They expected equity within this new family that God was creating through Jesus. This might seem small, but do we expect justice in our churches? Don’t we expect that churches in wealthier communities will have budget surpluses while churches in poor communities struggle? Don’t we expect that predominately white churches will be ignorant of the struggles experienced by black, brown, and immigrant congregations? Don’t we accept as normal that those in our own church who have access to generational wealth and cultural acceptance will have greater wealth and health? But early church expected justice to be exhibited between its members. Which leads to the second thing we should notice.

They told the truth about injustice. When it was clear what was happening, people spoke up. They could tell the truth because they expected, within God’s family, that justice would be done.

And third, when injustice was revealed, they organized for justice. The injustice was identified and the church organized itself so that justice would be done. In this case, widows who had been abandoned by their families would be cared for with dignity regardless of their cultural background.

Hopefully all of this sounds very straightforward, simple: they expected justice, told the truth about injustice, and organized for justice when necessary. As the church grew and came to include not just Hellenistic Jews but actually Greeks, Romans, Africans, and Asians, this would only get more important. How is it that what seems like such a simple and effective strategy seems impossible for churches and Christians in America to grasp? Or, to put the question more positively: What allowed the early church pursue relational justice with such clarity and courage?

We could answer this from a variety of passages, but Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is a helpful starting point.

16 If the part of the dough offered as first-fruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; if the root is holy, so are the branches. 17 If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, 18 do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. 19 You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” 20 Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but tremble. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either. 22 Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. 23 And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. 24 After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree! [Romans 11:16-24]

Gentiles Christians were wondering whether the Jews would have a place within Jesus’ kingdom. Paul begins with a sacrificial metaphor about first fruits- those Jews who have submitted to Jesus are proof that the way remains open to Israel. He then switches to an agricultural image of a cultivated olive branch being grafted into the root system of a wild olive tree. This was a common practice to increase the olive harvest; two distinct trees became one, but the grafted branch was dependent on the original roots.

Paul says a lot here, but one important thing for us is this: For Gentile Christians there must always be a visceral memory of our inclusion into God’s family through Jesus. The roots of this family are God’s election of Israel as his means of redeeming the world. Jesus stands in for Israel, receiving the consequences of her rebellion and fulfilling her vocation to bless the world, and through him makes possible Gentile inclusion into God’s family. To say it more simply: Unless you are a Jewish Christian, you were an outsider to God’s family who has been graciously and radically welcomed into the family by Jesus.

This is important because Paul explains and the church in Acts demonstrates that relational justice is not peripheral to the gospel, it’s not a distant implication of the gospel… relational justice & reconciliation are central to the gospel because they are evidence of what God has done through Jesus. Our being grafted into God’s family tree demonstrates the power of the gospel. The welcome we outsiders have received into the family of God is the immediate outworking of Christ’s atoning death and victorious resurrection. This reconciling gospel was at work among the Hebraic and Hellenistic Jews in Jerusalem as they pursued justice for their widows. This same reconciling gospel would be at work in the first multi-ethnic church in Antioch, a congregation made up of Jews, Africans, Arabs, Greeks, Romans, Syrians, and Asians.

Throughout the NT we see the Gospel grafting outsiders into God’s family tree: the Gospel overcomes divisions between ethnicities, cultures, and classes. And when relational injustice appears it is confronted by appealing to the logic & power of this gospel, this gospel that has made outsiders and enemies into members of God’s family.

Of course you won’t find any mention of the gospel overcoming racial divides. Race, as we think of it, hadn’t been invented when the NT was written. Tragically, race as a social construct, was birthed from heretical Christian theology. This theology replaced the Jewish roots of God’s family tree with European whiteness. There are theological terms for this heresy, but what matters for us is that when the powerful European church traded God’s specific redemptive movement through Israel for a racial construct that was built on privilege and oppression, the gospel itself was undermined.

With whiteness replacing Israel as the roots of God’s family tree, not only were racial divides impossible to overcome, they were actually created. And the cultural, class, and ethnic diversity that proved the gospel in the early church also became unbridgeable chasms. And from this heretical foundation was built an entire social science that categorized and divided people based on imposed racial categories, categories that were compared to whiteness to determine how entire cultures and ethnicities would be treated. No longer was it God’s grace that opened the door to God’s family, a family that expected relational justice within its diversity as evidence of the gospel. Now it was whiteness with its languages, cultures, social norms, and warped theologies that became the doorway to Christianity.

The ugly consequences of this heresy are all around us, from politicians who can, in one speech, proclaim their Christian credentials while articulating xenophobic and nationalistic policies to public schools that can safely be ignored and dismantled by the powers that be because the black & brown students they represent were never supposed to attain the American Dream in the first place. But most tragically is the way this heresy has immobilized so many churches from expressing the full power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

For this reason we must regularly and intentionally make plain the beautiful truth that generations of warped theology and blind practice have obscured. We must wake from the dream that is in fact a nightmare; we must wake to the gospel with all of its implications.

This means that those of us who find our socially constructed race affirmed and normalized by a society built on white supremacy must come to church and hear the call to repentance. We must come to rejoice in our complete unworthiness and in God’s complete grace, that he would graft us into his family.

This means that those of us who find ourselves dehumanized and illigetamized on a daily basis must come to church and hear the old story about how, in Christ, there is no hierarchy, there is no privilege, there is no prejudice; we must hear how, in Christ, the beauty of our God-given humanity as expressed in the particularities of our bodies, languages, cultures, histories, and struggles is a reason to celebrate and take pride.

This means that those of us who have been made invisible by a black & white society must come to church and find the space to remember what has been forgotten, reclaim what has been stolen, and restore the memory of God’s presence to previous generations whose culture was tied not to deceitful racial constructs, but to the creation itself- to geographies and landscapes that bear witness to the Creator.

This is why racial righteousness & reconciliation are so important to us. One the one hand, a diverse and flourishing community that is rooted in the One who grafts us into God’s family, is repentance and resistance to the heresy that has wreaked so much havoc. And on the other hand, a reconciled community bears powerful witness to our segregated and devastated city that the living God will make all things well. More simply put, we care about racial righteousness and reconciliation because we are captivated by the gospel that has made strangers and aliens into family and friends.

“A deeply segregated church does not appear without history.”

Self-absorbed Christians who are apathetic toward injustice do not emerge from a vacuum. A deeply segregated church does not appear without history. In the United States, grief and pain related to race are often suppressed, and the stories of suffering are often untold. Our history is incomplete. The painful stories of the suffering of the African American community, in particular, remain hidden. Often, American Christians may even deny the narrative of suffering, claiming that things weren’t so bad for the slaves or that at least the African Americans had the chance to convert to Christianity. The story of suffering is often swept under the rug in order not to create discomfort or bad feelings. Lament is denied because the dead body in front of us is being denied. But the funeral dirge genre of Lamentations 1 requires the telling of the full story of death – the cause of that death, the history surrounding that death and the historical effects of that death – because a dead body cannot be ignored.

In this section of his essay-like commentary on Lamentations, Dr Soong-Chan Rah is reflecting on the imagery of the funeral dirge that is found at the beginning of the book. While the tendency to downplay our country’s historic racist underpinnings may be an understandable American practice, it is a distinctly unBiblical one. For Christians to overlook or deny our ugly history requires ignoring entire sections of the Bible that make practices like lament and repentance normal for those who worship the God of Scripture.

Playing God

Andy CrouchPlaying God by Andy Crouch is a really good book. I’d heard the author allude to this project a couple of years back, if memory serves, and had been anticipating it ever since. As a white man who serves a multi-ethnic church in a predominately African-American neighborhood, I’ve thought about power a lot. I was curious what Crouch would say about it and am happy to report that his insights are fresh, theologically nuanced, and utterly intelligible. I assume many people will read this book and be helped by it.

There will be plenty of thoughtful reviews of Playing God; rather than add to that pile I’ll share a few reasons why this book benefitted me and a few questions it raised.

As Crouch points out repeatedly, power, when it’s talked about at all, is generally perceived negatively. For most of us, power is assumed to be a a zero sum game: one’s attainment of power is equal to another’s loss of power. Crouch points back to the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche as the most influential proponent of this view. In Nietzsche’s world we each strive to extend our power over all space, competing with others on the same quest. In intentional contrast to Nietzsche, Crouch describes true power as the process of creating space for others to flourish. This, he says, is the vision we find in the Bible and represents power’s gift.

Many readers, like myself, will not have realized how influenced they have been by Nietzsche’s cynical view of power until they read Crouch’s compelling case for a much more hopeful perspective. Later in the book the author helpfully (very!) differentiates power from privilege, dynamics I’ve made crudely analogous in the past. This is a somewhat common topic in our church; I’m convinced that white privilege is the achilles heel of most multi-ethnic churches. Playing God, with it’s more hopeful view of power, gives me more nuanced ways of pointing out the destructive traits of privilege while making space for the positive uses of power that are worth moving toward.

The same paradigm-shifting nuance is true in the chapter about institutions. As a church planter, I’ve interacted with a lot of people who express particular wounds from experiences with churches. I’ve come to believe that every institution and organization is bent toward this sort of wounding potential. Institutions, after all, are made up of people capable of inflicting harm on others, sometimes intentionally and oftentimes not. (A note: I was glad the author devoted a chapter to the “principalities and powers” as this theological insight about systems is often neglected by evangelical-ish authors. I’d have liked there to be more about this; perhaps some interaction with Jaques Ellul on this important subject.) While acknowledging the strong tendency for institutions to slide toward self-preservation and the harm such a slide entails, Crouch remains  – here it is again – hopeful:

Institutions are the way the teeming abundance of human creativity and culture are handed on to future generations. So posterity, not just prosperity, is the promise of GOd to Abraham: countless descendants and blessings poured out on entire nations not yet born. Posterity, not just prosperity, is God’s promise to David, a succession of sons in his line on the throne. And posterity was what the average Israelite prayed for as well – “may you see your children’s children!” – a wish that before death one would see the evidence that shalom and abundance would continue in one’s own line after death. There is nothing quick about shalom. True shalom endures.

Playing God has much to commend it, far more than the few examples I’ve pointed to here. It also raised a few questions for me.

As much as I appreciated the hope about power that spills from the pages of this book, I couldn’t help wondering about how optimistic the author is. OK, optimism probably isn’t the best word and Crouch does a great job of outlining the abuses of power with personal stories and cultural observations. But still, from where I stand, and despite the compelling case made by Crouch, it’s hard to share his hope about power. In the structures and systems of our city, power’s evil offspring (Crouch very helpfully identifies these as injustice and idolatry) simply seem to morph from one form to another over time. The results are generations of disenfranchisement, violence, and oppression. Not only these of course; there are always instances and communities of goodness and beauty. And yes, there are many, many people and churches using their power to create space for flourishing. But these individuals and institutions always seem, sometimes quite literally, outgunned by other sources of power.

I wonder too about the way Crouch talks about the distinction between evangelism and justice. While strongly affirming the need for both, he makes the same move other evangelical-ish folks do. He writes, “In short, working for justice is cool. Proclaiming the gospel is not.” This, I think, is quite incorrect. Many of the examples Crouch gives about justice work take place outside the USA. They are wonderful examples of the sort many Christians (these days, at least) strongly support. But the notion that justice is cooler or more acceptable than evangelism seems to expose a narrow (or geographically distant) view of justice. When I think of justice for many of my neighbors I think of changes to policy – education funding, gun control, law enforcement, economic development, drug policy – along with robust acknowledgment of and response to historic injustices that would be far from popular or cool with the majority of those holding the bulk of our culture’s power.

But these are mostly quibbles and I’m reading Playing God from my own biased location. I hope many will read this book, that it will start many conversations, and, best of all, call churches to steward the power promised us by God’s presence for the flourishing of all our neighbors.