Is the Church Radical? Jesus Was

Reposted from my Maple Ridge News article July 27, 2012.

Jesus was radical, but you wouldn’t always know that by looking at his followers. I am consistently amazed at how Jesus re-envisioned the heart of the scriptures.

Radicals are scorned, hated, attacked and persecuted. Jesus was, as were the early Christians, but most of us today (save those facing intense persecution in places like China) are generally unaware of persecution due to our radical Christianity.

If these are true statements, we need to ask two questions: what was radical about Jesus? and, what isn’t radical about our Christianity?

When Jesus was asked what is the greatest commandment, he replied with two. Both of them came direct from the legalistic laws of his misguided adversaries. “Love the Lord your God…and love your neighbour as yourself.”

This is not new information to his audience. They know these laws forwards and backwards. The message, however, has been re-envisioned and radicalized. Jesus expands neighbour to include the broken, the impoverished, the outcast foreigner, and even your enemy.

Jesus consistently asked his audience to pause and rethink the religious order, not to refute the law, but to challenge his listener to a higher authority found in the author and the intent.

He was scorned and hated, because his message challenged the status quo and threatened authorities. Jewish leaders feared the passion and challenge, and Roman authorities feared the threat of disruption to societal order.

Christians do have a growing sense of persecution in North America, but I’m pretty sure it’s not because we love our neighbour in a way that threatens the fabric of society.

What if it was?

A recent Nat Geo documentary (When Rome Ruled: The Rise of Christianity) had an interesting story to tell of the early Christians. The radical Christianity, inherited from Christ, which led to their persecution and scorn, may also have had an impact on the growth of the church.

They even suggested that Christians lived longer, fought off diseases more frequently and survived better in harsh times. This documentary attributed much of Christianity’s growth to how they cared for their community, the poor and the outcast.

That is to say that, “love your neighbour as yourself” was a radical message that caused both growth and scorn, liberation and hatred.

What if we did love our neighbour in a way that threatened the fabric of our society? What if the scorn Christian’s faced today was not because of our piety and condemnation but because of our radical love, passion and care for people?

Is there a problem with that? Sure, in the process we will also disrupt the religious order, the status quo of our churches. In the process of living our faith, we’ll probably give in to all of society’s pressures and fall victim to secular culture. Well, that’s what I’m told.

Radical faith has to constantly fight against the human desire to create a new law that makes obsolete the radical message and love of Christ.

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Asset-Based Ministry (Part 2): Biblical Perspectives on Community

The concepts of Asset-Based Community Development has been effectively used by churches and faith communities to engage their congregations, explore new outreach opportunities and transform communities. While the approach is primarily practical, there are some key biblical concepts that corroborate ABCD principles. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’m going to provide some of these connections to aid others in bringing ABCD into faith communities.

Pivotal to asset-based principles is the assumption that every person has not only value but also assets beneficial to the community. So use them. There are two biblical areas that I’d like to highlight. 1) Jesus spends a great deal of time calling us to see value where it was, and is, traditionally ignored. 2) The process of community throughout the Bible, and particularly the early church, gave rise to natural solutions through engagement. When finished, I believe we’ll see that not only are ABCD principles valuable to health and life of the church, but they are actually core Christian values found first in the life and teachings of Jesus and the early church.

On multiple occasions, Paul likens the church to a body, giving readers a vision for both the value of the individual and a vision for working within the community. 1 Corinthians 12:12-14 reads:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.

This illustration highlights both the individual and the community aspects of ABCD. We must identify the unique gifts of every individual if we are going to be faithful to the call of community. As Paul continues, he clearly notes that the body of Christ can only function in this way. Even those who appear to be weak or of lesser value, he writes are to be lifted up with even more value than the others. We cannot deny anyone in our community of their gifts and talents.

If we understand this as properly restoring dignity to those in our community who are often left behind, then the function of the body must also be one of engaging the parts of the body. Just as ABCD calls for the engagement from the unique gifts of the community, so does Paul’s body illustration. What good does it do to identify the value and skills of an individual if we fail to engage them and provide a space for those gifts to be used? A body must engage all of its parts to function in the most fruitful and impactful ways.

The greatest struggle for the church in engaging these people might not be in finding value but in releasing control. It is certainly difficult to look beyond our social structures that relegates certain people in our communities, but once we do it is even more difficult to relinquish some of our control to allow these individuals to have a true stake in the community. Only through a sense of ownership can someone have a stake in the community, and that requires church leadership to let go of some of the power and allow more involvement as individuals (especially those relegated into the background) shape the identity and direction of the church.

This is asset-based ministry, and it is not simply a practical method for growth and engagement, it is a core value of Christianity and a central theme throughout the Bible.

Pink Shirt Day: Lessons from our Youth

Source: pinkshirtday.ca

Source: pinkshirtday.caIn 2007, a 9th grader wore a pink polo shirt on the first day of school, and the bullying ensued. He was physically threatened and called a homosexual (probably not the bullies’ chosen verbiage) because he wore a pink shirt. Two older students had heard enough and decided to buy 50 pink shirts from a discount store for students to wear the next day. They contacted as many students as they could to provide a “sea of pink” the next day in an effort to stop bullying in its tracks. In addition to the 50 discounted shirts, literally hundreds of students showed up to provide a truly unique “sea of pink” to support victims and to stand up to bullies. There was never another comment about the pink polo.

This “sea of pink” envisioned by these two (17/18 yr. old) boys has sparked a movement, and yesterday was the 5th annual Pink Shirt Day, where more than 160,000 students and teachers across Canada will wear pink to demonstrate support and to shed light on the serious nature of bullying.

Fast forward to 2010, when another 18 yr old boy, Dharun Ravi, took a different road when he chose to use the webcam on his computer to view his gay roommate with another man, tweet about it, and invite others to view. As his trial gets underway, it is still unclear if there were any criminal actions involved; however, the intent to mock and bully (regardless of the reason) certainly appear to have been his motivation. Unlike the first story, nobody stood up to this bully. Instead of setting an example to follow, he followed the example that was set.

The truth is that bullying doesn’t stop when you turn 18 or 19. Some grow up and mature, but many more discover that institutions, politics or accepted beliefs can be used to mask their bullying as legitimate responses to minorities and outcast. Disparagingly, the church is often one of these institutions and Christian faith is often one of these belief systems manipulated to mask hate and bullying.

Ironically, it is the central figure of our Christian faith that is most notable for standing up against hate and discrimination. The shame of persecutors who marginalize and bully in the first century is consistently brought to light in our gospel accounts. Whether it be a Samaritan, a child, a sinner, a hated tax collector, a disabled beggar, an unclean disease ridden man or a woman, Jesus teaches through his actions of love that we are not to live with hate and superiority that has captivated the world. It is a constant in Jesus’ ministry.

This may be best exemplified by a woman caught in adultery in John 7:53-8:11. As the story goes, the woman is brought before Jesus, having clearly sinned and broken a Jewish law that is punishable, according to the law, by death through stoning. Jesus calmly receives the crowd, asks “he who has not sinned” to throw the first stone, and tells her to be on her way and sin no more. She is at fault. The crowd has reason to hate. Punishment is written in the law books. Yet Jesus stands in opposition to hatred, even when it is masked by religious tradition.

I don’t know if the two boys with a vision for a “sea of pink” were Christian. I do know that they resemble Jesus better than many Christians. Our youth yesterday stood up against the oppressive powers and the passive bystander. Jesus taught us to learn from our children; however, we often fail to see their value in our society and expect little from them. In response they often live up to our expectations.

Protecting Faith in Egypt

Egyptian Coptic Christians and Muslims raise a cross and Koran

Egyptian Christians and Muslims Protesting Together (source: NYDailyNews - Abed/Getty)

One of the most uplifting stories I have ever read:
The NY Daily News reports that Egyptian Christian protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square joined hands to encircle and to protect praying Muslims on Friday, the holy day of Islam. When Sunday came, Muslim protesters returned the gesture to Coptic Christians so that they could observe Mass.

You may have to read that again to allow it to sink in. Muslims put their physical bodies between danger and Christians in an act to protect their commitment to faith. Christians stood between danger and Muslims to protect their fellow protesters’ time with God.

Given the less than cordial history between Islam and Christianity, the mutual respect shown this week is a testament to the promise and love that each of our religions calls us to. Always thinking in terms of ‘the other,’ Jesus called us to redefine our neighbor to include also the stranger, and we are to love, care for, protect and respect everyone…regardless.

Community plays a significant role in my theology. As I read and understand the Bible, God’s acts in creation and salvation and the relationship with humanity throughout the scriptures illustrate God’s passion and longing for community. As a relational God, and we being made in the likeness of God, I understand community to be the call of humanity, that is both a community with God and community with God’s creation. In fulfilling our call to community, we are to “love our neighbor as ourself.” When that plays out in the real world around us, our community (local and worldwide) is enhanced with every act of faith as we lift up, help out, encourage, liberate, offer mutual respect and discover ‘the other.’ Not to be lost in that process is our commitment and call to be in community with God. Without doubt when we offer our servitude and humility to all we come in contact with, we also serve and come closer to God.

The events this past weekend provide the epitome of illustrations in living out humanity’s call to community. As Christians on Friday protected the faith and prayer time of ‘the other,’ they extended an unprecedented bridge to community between Muslims and Christians. Furthermore, they were able to provide for that group time to deepen their community with God. Their actions worked in sort of a threefold manner by deepening their relationship with God’s creation, their own relationship with God and allowing others the opportunity to do the same. When Sunday came, the Muslims present were given the opportunity to reciprocate the act of community, and likewise their actions worked threefold in creating and extending unprecedented community. This all of course is without even mentioning their shining example to the world, as this is a story we need to tell again and again as examples of true faith in a world void of the radical respect for one another that we are called to.

It is easy for those of us in the U.S. and other Western countries to dehumanize all Muslims, to strip them of their faith and theology because of our experiences with fundamentalist terrorist groups. It is easy for us to abuse those experiences for political, social and religious gains. It is difficult and trying to “love our neighbor as ourself” and to see the faith and commitment of devoted Muslims. It is difficult to hear and answer God’s call to community through radical respect and love.

Few and far between are the stories of reconciliation between Christians and Muslims, but these faithful followers who understand the theology of community and neighbor give us hope for a more peaceful tomorrow. These Christians and Muslims remind us that we are capable of this respect and community, and our influence can be immediate and far-reaching. How can you display this faith in your community? What would our community or our church look like if we could muster the courage to have this faith daily?

A Story on Hospitality

After a recent sermon on radical hospitality, I made a new friend, Jim. He’s an older gentleman and a little rough around the edges. He shared a story he recalled from his childhood, the perfectly kept memory of radical hospitality…Christ-like hospitality.

Jim met Alfred as a kid, and they quickly became good friends, playing together after school almost every day. It donned on Jim one day that they always went to play at his house, and he realized that he had never even seen Alfred’s house. The next day, he asked Alfred, “Hey, we always go to my house, can we go to your house today.”
“No,” Alfred said, “we can’t play at my house.”
Jim asked, “Why not?” But he was never given an answer. He didn’t mind playing at his house, he just thought it was odd. Jim knew Alfred didn’t have a lot of money, but he didn’t know what that meant.
One day, Alfred broke down and told Jim why they can’t ever play at his house. “Every time somebody comes over to my house,” he said, “they stop being my friend, because we’re poor.”
Jim said, “Dude, I don’t care. You’re my friend.”
Later that summer, before heading out on a camping trip, the boys stopped by Alfred’s house to pick up his gear. Supper was almost done cooking, and Alfred’s family was ready to eat. When they arrived, Jim realized what poor really was. Alfred’s house…was made out of cardboard. From Jim’s telling, I got the sense that this wasn’t a cardboard box, but literally more like the structure of a house built out of cardboard with a sheet metal roof. Instead of just running in, Alfred’s mother wasn’t going to let them leave without having a proper dinner. With everyone standing around, she had Jim sit down first as the celebrated guest. Though he was an unexpected guest, she made sure he knew he was special and welcomed. She took a small amount from each of the servings from the family until Jim had the largest and the first portion. Jim was beside himself.
After they left, Alfred said, “Well, I guess your gonna stop being my friend now.”
“Are you kidding me Alfred? Your family is great. Dude, I’m gonna have to go get baptized for all the love in that house. Dude, my family doesn’t show love like that. Both my parents are alcoholics, and we don’t show love like that, and I’m gonna have to go get baptized before I can go back to your house for all the love in there.”

Young Jim’s response showed the maturity of his current age, and the hospitality he felt might have been equally felt by Alfred, given Alfred’s history of “friends.” When Jesus redefine’s neighbor to include the stranger, and even the enemy, we see our radical call to hospitality. When Jim’s mother redistributes the already small portions of her family to treat Jim as one of her own, we see what it means to live out that radical hospitality today.