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The Greatest Defense for Christianity (Part 2 or 4)

The Greatest Defense for Christianity (Part 2 or 4)

On the night of his arrest, Jesus went to the Mount of Olives to talk intimately in prayer with his Father, and Luke even wrote that “his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” as he prayed (Luke 22:44).

John’s gospel gives us a detailed recount of his prayer, which includes what Francis Schaeffer calls the “final apologetic.”

The final apologetic or greatest defense of Christianity that Jesus proposed is probably not what you think.

It is not a philosophical argument, precise theology, or convincing evangelism.

In fact, the disciples’ teachings of truth ignited hatred, according to Jesus (John 17:14).

So what did Jesus pray would be the greatest defense of Christianity to the watching world?

It would be their unity.

“’I do not ask for these [disciples] only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them as you have loved me.” –John 17:20-23

Jesus prayed on the eve of his crucifixion—on the eve of enacting humanity’s reconciliation with God—that the church’s reconciliation would point the world to him more so than any intellectual or emotional persuasion.

Francis Shaeffer wrote, “This [John 17:20] is the final apologetic… We cannot expect the world to believe that the Father sent the Son, that Jesus’ claims are true, and that Christianity is true, unless the world sees some reality of the oneness of true Christians.”

Unity. It sounds so simple. So attainable. So beautiful.

It sounds like Heaven where “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” stand as one before the throne of God in awe and worship (Revelation 7:9).

As I wrote last week, unity amidst God’s image bearers gives a fuller picture of God’s image. But racial unity is not so easily reached in our broken world because of generational, systemic, and individual sin.

The Enemy of the church can even convince us that we are unified because our bodies are next to one another on Sunday mornings when, in reality, our hearts are far from one another.

There is no formula for unity. Christian unity amongst the high rises of Manhattan look different than unity in the flat farmland of the Mississippi Delta.

However, I think Scripture is clear about what Christian unity is not in the church. 

Christian unity does not mean proximity.

Proximity is a deceitful mirage of unity. Proximity convinces me that I am living in unity because I have a black friend, attend a multi-ethnic church, or live in a diverse city.

But proximity is not community.

We are called to community—not proximity—as a church. Proximity only asks that your body show up, but community asks that your heart show up, too.

A community is like a family.

The New Testament is full of evidence for community rather than proximity. Paul even dares to say that we fulfill Christ’s law to love God and neighbor by bearing one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2).

But I can’t bear a brother or sister’s burdens if I don’t know their burdens.

I can’t bear with my black sister if I don’t know why she’s grieved over the shooting of another black teenager close in age to her son.

I can’t bear with my Latino brother if I don’t know why he’s afraid to travel to Mexico right now because of the President’s rhetoric surrounding the border.

Likewise, my brothers and sisters cannot bear mine if we are only in proximity on Sunday mornings, and I live amongst people like me on Monday through Saturday.

Pastor Ed Rene Kivitz of Brazil said, “It’s possible that we’re all together and each one of us is isolated within him- or herself raising up [our] hands to God and not paying attention to who’s by [our] side.”

This is the difference between proximity and community.

Christian unity does not mean uniformity.

God was silent for 400 years between events in the old and new testaments. During that time, religious leaders added extra-biblical “rules” and present them as necessary practice.

But Jesus called out religious leaders who demanded conformity to what was unbiblical:

“’[The scribes and Pharisees] tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger… But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” –Matthew 23:4, 13-15

These are serious accusations from Jesus, and I regretfully believe Jesus’ teachings describe much of the white evangelical church in America.

Church planter Dhati Lewis wrote in a blog, “Rather than becoming students of our context, we develop our organization and try to force our neighbors to fit into it.”

Like modern-day Pharisees, we proselytize normative white culture, perspectives, worship expressions, and so on, often presenting them as “biblical” truths, behaviors, and teaching.

This is the definition of “white supremacy.” Dr. Jarvis Williams of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary defines white supremacy as “the prioritizing of white people, white culture(s), and white perspectives.”

This is so ingrained in our American context that we oftentimes don’t realize, as Jesus said, when we’re “tying up heavy burdens, hard to bear.”

Scripture is the supreme and final Word of God for the church, but Christian leaders and teachers must ask God to expose our tendencies toward demanding unbiblical uniformity.

Scripture celebrates the diversity of God’s church. (Did you notice that Scripture even says we will speak in our our native tongues in Heaven?)

Unique cultural norms, worship expressions, personality differences, and spiritual gifts give glory and praise to God.

The church does itself a disservice when it demands uniformity.

Finally, Christian unity does not mean peacekeeping.

In the American church, I think we oftentimes mistake conflict for disunity and even sin. (I know I have been guilty of this many times.) We think that rocking the boat is not Christ-like, but that is far from the truth. We follow a Savior who turned tables because of his righteous anger at injustice (Matthew 21:12).

Conflict is not inherently bad or sinful, and this is especially evident in Paul’s letters.

Paul was passionate about unity. He even authored the verse on racial reconciliation: “From now on, therefore, we are regard no one according to the flesh… All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:16, 19).

But Paul did not avoid conflict in order to promote unity. Sharon Hodde Miller broke this down on Twitter:

“Here’s the strange thing about Paul: he disagreed with others using intense language & feeling. But he did the same when discussing unity. The call of Christians is to do both well: debate the things that matter, while holding onto each other with all our might. I tend to think most of us choose one of these options—truth at all costs, or unity at all costs. But we have other choices.”

We don’t have to choose one or the other: debating things that matter or holding onto each other. We can choose both.

This is the difference between peacekeeping and peacemaking.

Peacekeepers provide temporary Band-Aids to deep infections such as racism or biases that need surgery.

For the sake of true unity, peacemakers within the church are willing to perform this painful surgery. They are willing to walk through momentary disunity with other brothers and sisters in Christ as they speak in both truth and love.

The unity that results gives evidence to the watching world of the healing and unifying power of the Healer named Jesus.

“Why do you care so much about race?”

Someone recently asked me this question in reference to the increase in my social media posts and in-person conversations regarding race in our churches, communities, and nation.

I realized when she asked that I’d admittedly assumed people were just tracking with me.

So I’ve decided to address this fundamental and important question in a four-part blog series this summer. I cannot speak as a voice of authority on people of color’s experiences. But I can testify to my own experience. Please leave comments or questions, and let’s learn together.

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Why We Must Question ‘The Way Things Are’ (Part 1 of 4)

Why We Must Question ‘The Way Things Are’ (Part 1 of 4)

I grew up in a white community.

My neighbors were white. My friends were white. My church was white. My public school was (very) predominately white.

My small world was white.

This is far from an attack on the people who surrounded me in my corner of Northeast Mississippi. Many of my neighbors, friends, church family, and classmates had an unforgettable impact on my spiritual and personal formation.

This is just the way things were, and no one really questioned why.

You’ve likely heard this statement. In fact, I bet it conjures images of the way things are in some of your communities:

People of color overwhelmingly live in your city’s limits. Black students sit on one side of the cafeteria, and white students sit on the other side. On Sunday morning, black churches and white churches worship separately on the same county road. The way things are—the racial divide—looks different in different places.

When I was sixteen years old, God uprooted me from my Mississippi hometown and popped my homogenous bubble. In 2008, I packed up my bedroom plus some peanut butter and moved to Mississippi’s only public boarding school for mathematics and science.

I lived down the hall from other Anglo American, African American, and Asian American students. I had lunch with peers who vaguely remember their early childhood in China. I edited and wrote pieces for our student newspaper alongside one of my best friends who was Egyptian American. In the classroom, I sat beside classmates whose families were from the Middle East.

I wish I could say that I fully leaned into this multi-cultural space and learned from others’ stories and experiences that were very different from mine. I was heavily invested in my schoolwork and traveled home most weekends. During those two years, my deepest friendships were admittedly those with people who shared my culture and color.

That’s just the way things were.

In 2010, I began college at the University of Mississippi: a university plagued by its complicated history and continuation of racial division. Despite its shortcomings, the campus’ honest dialogue and racialized atmosphere forces its students to confront their hearts’ own prejudices and biases.

In essence, God unsettled me during my time at Ole Miss about the way things are.

Some of us involved in campus ministry asked Ole Miss students, “What do you think promotes or hinders racial unity?”

I began to learn about the doctrine of the imago Dei: a staple of the Christian faith that all people are made in the image (imago) of God (Dei).

This was not news to me. I grew up in the church and had heard many times Genesis 1:27: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

Until college, I never contemplated the weight and implications of the imago Dei: this doctrine that every human being is an image bearer of God.

Reader, can we pause and sit in that truth about the way things are?

EVERY human being is an image bearer of God.

Every HUMAN BEING is an image bearer of God.

Every human being is an IMAGE BEARER of God.

Every human being is an image bearer of GOD.

In seminary, God has continued to challenge whether I truly grasp the weight of this doctrine.

Do I live like this is true that every human being is an image bearer of God? Do I give others the same respect and dignity that I demand? Is my pro-life stance simply a political statement about abortion or a spiritual statement about people? Do I seek how best to “love my neighbor” from the womb to the tomb?

These are not easy or comfortable questions to face because the answer is often a call to die to self, as Jesus commanded of his followers.

As Walter R. Strickland wrote, “[W]e are self-interested creatures. Said differently, people (white and nonwhite alike) are interested in issues that are most pressing to them and are not as likely to contemplate deeply the circumstances of others.”

Left to our own sinful natures, we are indeed self-interested creatures. We are attracted to our likeness in people. We are quick to “other-ize,” stigmatize, and ostracize those who are not like us.

This self-interest is the most basic answer to the way things are.

The question then becomes, “Am I fully experiencing God’s image, or am I simply worshipping my own?”

In college, this question made me rethink the way things are:

Just because things are the way things are doesn’t mean things are the way things are supposed to be.

 I realized why I hadn’t seized every opportunity in high school and college to experience a fuller picture of Almighty God beyond those of a white Jesus (a brown-skinned Nazarene Jew) in nativity scenes and stained glass windows.

To see a fuller picture of your God is to love your neighbor as your self.

I think on this as I read Romans 1 in which Paul describes sinful men and women who “exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen” (verse 25).

This chapter includes a list of sins, but the theme binding them together is self-interest: worshipping and serving the creature (and the creature is me!) rather than the Creator.

One of those ways that I worship and serve myself is by denying—intentionally or unintentionally—the truth that those different from me equally bear God’s image.

Furthermore, I actually miss out on beholding the beauty and fullness of the imago Dei when I do not live in community with the “other.”

Christ is constantly calling on his church to question the way things are. Jesus certainly questioned the way things were during his life.

I get it. Swimming against the current of the way things are is not easy, especially in a hometown like mine where we must intentionally seek heterogeneous spaces.

Racialization is woven into the fabric of our nation. You will easily find this information with a bit of research.

But reconciliation is woven into the fabric of Christ’s church.

My friend has this tweet pinned to the top of her Twitter page: “I am made in God’s image. He is not made in mine.”

This is why God’s children must refuse the way things are in pursuit of the way things are supposed to be: every tribe, tongue, and nation representing the imago Dei in its fullness.

 

“Why do you care so much about race?”

Someone recently asked me this question in reference to the increase in my social media posts and in-person conversations regarding race in our churches, communities, and nation.

I realized when she asked that I’d admittedly assumed people were just tracking with me.

So I’ve decided to address this fundamental and important question in a four-part blog series this summer. I cannot speak as a voice of authority on people of color’s experiences. But I can testify to my own experience. Please leave comments or questions, and let’s learn together.

Please follow and like us:
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