You Gotta Serve Somebody

Sermon on Romans 6:12-23

In this passage in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, Paul is inviting us to explore the paradigm of the process of our sanctification—becoming who God has called us to be. He uses loaded terms that bear a different meaning to modern-day Americans. When we hear the word slavery, we think of the elements of our own nation’s history of which we need to repent.

However, this is not exactly what Paul was talking about. He has in mind the slavery of the Israelites under Pharaoh in Egypt, and their liberation from that. As Paul goes through the Book of Romans, he is drawing a comparison from that part of Israel’s history, saying that now we have a new “exodus” taking place with the coming of the Messiah.

The new exodus isn’t liberating us from a human tyrant, but rather from an even greater tyrant: sin. The fundamental problem of humanity is an issue of sin. Sin, like Pharaoh did to the Israelites in the Old Testament, enslaves people as instruments to carry out its will in the world. So the gospel of Jesus Christ is a call to a new exodus from the bondage of sin as a tyrannical oppressor.

The word “sin” in our modern context is another loaded word, so let me clarify what Paul means when he talks about sin.

Sin is universal. All people have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). It doesn’t matter where you come from, what color your skin is, how much money you have. Every person ever to dwell on this planet is alike in the condition of sin. Humans have a tendency to single out particular sins as worse than others, and by doing such moralizing, all you are really doing is blinding yourself to your own depravity by minimizing your own sins as not as bad as others.

I think this concept is reflected in the movement in America today to tear down the statues of some historical figures because of the offensive beliefs and behaviors they committed as part of their success. The thinking is that we should purge ourselves of the celebration of these sinners. I definitely understand the feeling behind this, and I’m not saying it should or shouldn’t be done. However, the sins of these people are no worse than the sins of everyone else. If we tear down the statues of every sinner, we would have no statues left. If we change the names of every building that was dedicated to a sinner, we would have no name to change them to, because every other candidate would also be a sinner.

One thing I love about the Bible is that it deals honestly with humans. For all of the heroes, it gives us an honest account of both their successes and their failures. David was a “man after God’s own heart,” but also an adulterer and murderer. Paul himself was a great Apostle and missionary, but he was also a persecutor and murderer. Anybody that we can pick throughout the pages of Scripture—except Jesus—is a mixed bag of victories and sins. It helps prove to us that every single person is the same in this condition of sin.

And that’s what sin is, a condition. All of the evil behaviors done by people: racism, malice, anger, violence, murder, adultery, greed, envy, deceit… They’re all outward symptoms of the root condition of every human being. So what Paul challenges us to do is to be honest about the condition of every human heart.

One thing I love about the U.S. Government is that it takes the sinfulness of human nature into account. Our system of checks and balances acknowledges that our government is being run by a bunch of sinners, and so we can’t universally trust any of them. We cannot allow any one person or party or branch to acquire too much power, because they’re all sinners. And as voters, we can decide to vote out all the sinners and replace them with a whole new bunch of sinners. It’s not a perfect system, but it does acknowledge the universal sinful condition of the human heart.

Then in Romans, Paul challenges us to accept that as believers in Christ, we are no longer slaves to the bondage of sin. We have been liberated to follow a new ruler, the ruler of righteousness (Rom. 6:19).

Going back to the story of the first exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, Moses was frustrated with the people because they kept looking back and longing to return to Egypt, to go back to the familiarity of that old lifestyle. In the new exodus, we are the same way, tending to look back at our old sinful lifestyles and want to return. We are in the difficult in-between period where we have been freed from the tyranny of sin but not fully released from its effects, and we are torn, often wanting to go back. We have to be intentional about looking forward, focusing on letting go of the old way of thinking and relating, and intentionally placing ourselves under the authority of Jesus Christ.

I love the old Bob Dylan song that expresses this perfectly:

You’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes
Indeed you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

Bob Dylan, “Gotta Serve Somebody,” Album: Slow Train Coming, 1979

This is fundamentally what Paul is saying here. As human beings, we’re going to be instruments of something. Either we will be instruments of sin, or we will repent of that and become instruments of righteousness. But no matter what, we will be serving somebody.

When we were under the tyranny of sin, we didn’t have choice in the matter. Scripture says that we were in bondage, slaves to sin. But thanks be to God that Jesus sets us free and give us the ability to choose, repent, and turn away from that bondage.

Paul sets out that choice before us: which will you serve? If you go back to the slavery of sin, ask yourself the question, “How’s that working for you?” What benefit do you get from being a slave to sin? If you look at it honestly, you will know it’s not much. We tend to look back as our life in sin as a time of license and freedom from rules. But when we face the truth, we realize that all we get from that life is shame, and ultimately death.

Choosing a life of righteousness in the service of Christ is all that will give life, eternal life. God is the only one who gives abundant life, significance, meaning, and ultimate freedom through Jesus Christ. He pours out his Spirit and his love into our hearts, and we get holiness and eternal life.

Every single day, as we walk on this earth as humans, we have moments when we have a choice to turn back to the old ways or to come out from under that tyranny and choose Jesus Christ. I encourage you to give your heart to Jesus, to seek after his will for your life by asking his Holy Spirit to fill your heart and make you new, to set you free from bondage to sin to eternal life and holiness.

The Gospel of Grace

Sermon on Justification, Peace, and Grace

The more I read the Bible, I am continually reminded how relevant God’s Word is to our current circumstances and current events.

This Sunday’s Gospel passage says:

And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

Matthew 9:35-36

The word “harassed” struck me as particularly relevant right now. The definition of harassed is “subjected to aggressive pressure or intimidation.” It has to do with being attacked or bullied, under stress and pressure. In addition, “helpless” means “unable to defend oneself.”

As we look at the state of affairs in our country, many of us say that we have never seen it so bad. So many people are legitimately “harassed and helpless.” So much is being stirred up; so many are crying out for something they do not have; mutual recriminations are being lobbed across partisan lines; we are fearful and isolated because of disease.

In the middle of this time, our Gospel passage assures us: No matter who you are, Jesus sees you, and he has compassion for you.

Then this Sunday’s Epistle passage says:

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.

Romans 5:1-2

The words that stand out to me from this passage are “justified,” “peace,” and “access.” They are relevant to the discussions around race relations that we are having right now. As I learned in my conversations with black pastors after Trayvon Martin was shot in our community in Florida, both sides were often so busy trying to prove their own points that we didn’t actually listen to or understand what the other side was saying. We were trying to justify ourselves, but self-justification is how we get off the rails with one another. When we try to justify ourselves, we do that by judging others.

We point fingers at someone else or some circumstance outside ourselves, saying “There’s the problem.” Religious people have a strong tendency to do this, claiming that we are the solution rather than part of the problem. The Apostle Paul shuts down this way of thinking by saying, “None is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10) and “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). We are all alike under sin. You know the old saying that says that whenever you point a finger at someone else, you have three fingers pointing back at yourself. We are all to blame. We are all the problem. None of us will find justification in ourselves.

But Paul goes on to say that although we can’t justify ourselves, thanks be to God that he provides justification freely as a gift through Jesus Christ. So there is no room for boasting or self-righteousness (3:27).

Justification isn’t the full answer, though. The Epistle passage also talks about peace. We can’t talk about healing relationships until we talk about justice.

In 1956, Autherine Lucy became the first black student at the University of Alabama. However, after only one day of classes, such violent protests broke out on campus that they revoked her admission. In response to this situation, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said this:

I agree that it is more tension now. But peace is not merely the absence of this tension, but the presence of justice. And even if we didn’t have this tension, we still wouldn’t have positive peace. Yes it is true that if the Negro accepts his place, accepts exploitation, and injustice, there will be peace… But it would be a peace that boiled down to stagnant [complacency], deadening passivity and if peace means this, I don’t want peace.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “When Peace Becomes Obnoxious,” March 8, 1956

In the same sermon, Dr. King referenced the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:34, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Dr. King was quick to say that neither he nor Jesus were advocating violence as a way to promote justice. Rather, they were advocating creating tension in order to aspire to the full vision of the Kingdom of God.

When Jesus spoke those words, he was speaking in the context of the Pax Romana, which was an enforced peace that harassed and bullied people into submitting to Roman rule. Disruption and tension were not tolerated. Sure, it created peace on the streets, but it also created extreme injustice.

In today’s world, we are in those moments again. We need to have difficult conversations about justice and equality, but we have a fear that if we allow these conversations to go to far, they will spiral out of control into violence. When we get too much tension, we end up with anarchy and chaos. And yet we have to allow some level of tension in order to bring about change that promotes the Kingdom of God here on earth.

The tension between peace with justice and peace without justice creates a real challenge that we must face.

One of the problems with many of the solutions this world has to offer is that the number of solutions are quite limited. Often our solutions are legal – policy changes, government changes. You can’t change a heart by changing a law, and this is a gospel message that the world desperately needs to hear. This world will not be changed by law, but by grace.

When Jesus looked out upon the “harassed and helpless” crowds and compared them to “sheep without a shepherd,” he knew he was there to be their Good Shepherd. He knew he was going to lay down his life for his sheep, die for all of their sins. And he knew he was going to die not only for the harassed and helpless, but also for the harassers and oppressors. He died for them all.

He laid down his life in order to offer us a type of access that this world can never offer us, a type of justification this world can never offer us, and a type of peace this world can never offer us. We have justification before God as a gift of God through the righteousness of Jesus. We have peace with God through Jesus and access directly into the presence of the living God through Jesus.

Paul goes on to say:

God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Romans 5:8

Oh, how this world desperately needs to hear that message of grace. I know I need to hear it. It is the answer to the root problem of humanity.

After Jesus looked with compassion upon the harassed and helpless crowds, he issued this challenge to his disciples:

“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

Matthew 9:37-38

He challenged his disciples to pray earnestly for workers who would go out and take God’s miraculous message of grace, justice, peace, and access out to the world. When we begin to pray this prayer, we gain the heart of Jesus and we take on the mission of Jesus.

When we find ourselves making it a battle against flesh and blood, arguing with and judging others, we need to back up. We need to remember that we are united as a human family in our need for salvation and grace, and God has given us a Good Shepherd who laid down his life for us.

River of God

Day of Pentecost Sermon on Justice and Hope

After a week like the weeks our nation has just had, when we see injustice and violence on the streets, racial tension building, protests erupting, and even rioting and looting, I’m always nervous when I get up to preach on a Sunday following that. Even though I have seen this before in my 22 years of active ministry, there’s still always a fear that I’m going to say the wrong thing or that what I say would not be helpful or cause more division. However, I can always return to the Scripture, the words of the Lord. It’s not my eloquence needed in these moments, but we need to hear from God. He is the source of hope and truth.

I see those who are raising their voices in protest, and I feel a sense of solidarity with them. I’m not of the same skin color or background or socioeconomic class as many of them, but I firmly agree with them that things are not right in this country. Although our country and government are very good, we cannot be satisfied until we have justice for all. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. put it perfectly in his “I Have A Dream” speech:

No, no, we are not satisfied and will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.

We need to acknowledge those who suffer under oppression and injustice, but we need to make sure to place our hope in the right thing. Our hope is not in a president or a political party or a change of government; our hope can only be in the gospel of Jesus Christ and his Lordship, in the plan of God for this world manifested on the Day of Pentecost and the outpouring of the Spirit of God.

The Day of Pentecost represents a reversal of the divisions among men. The Apostle Paul puts it plainly:

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.

Ephesians 2:13-18

Paul says that through the work of Christ on the cross, Jesus created even ground on which all of us stand, regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or even our sin. We are all standing at the foot of the cross on the same ground. We are equals in our need for grace and forgiveness.

We all receive that grace and forgiveness freely through Christ, and therefore that same grace and forgiveness must be manifested in our lives in the way we treat each other. Paul’s vision of a unified body of Christ must happen now, in our day, through the ministry of the Church.

The Day of Pentecost represents the culmination of the story of the people of Israel that began with the first Passover, their deliverance from slavery in Egypt. Then they went through the Red Sea on dry ground. They are brought through the desert to Mt. Sinai, where they are given the Law of Moses, instructions for how to be the holy people of God. Then much of the rest of the story of the Bible tells how ultimately there is no sacrifice and no law that will truly and finally deliver people from sin and reconcile them to God. We need a new covenant that will be based in better blood and a better law.

This new covenant was foretold by the prophets:

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

Jeremiah 31:31-34

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.

Ezekiel 36:26-27

The prophets recognized that external law was not sufficient for our ultimate deliverance. We need God to do his work inside us by his Spirit. Without the gift of the Holy Spirit, human beings will forever be trapped in bondage, injustice, unrighteousness—our sin nature. External human leadership and governance is irrelevant because only the power of the living God being poured into human beings by the Holy Spirit will bring ultimate deliverance.

This what we see manifesting on the Day of Pentecost—the outpouring of the new covenant, the fulfillment of the prophecies, even the fulfillment of the Law. We see Jewish people from everywhere—different races, different languages, different cultural backgrounds—coming together to celebrate the giving of the Law—the Old Covenant. But instead God institutes his New Covenant. He declared that it is time for the dividing walls to come down, so he can bring peace to those of different languages and backgrounds.

I remember 8 years ago, when Trayvon Martin was shot in my neighborhood in Florida, my first instinct was to stay out of it. However, as I saw it enveloping my own community, I realized that as a pastor, I needed to step up on behalf of the Gospel. I asked a black pastor friend to explain the situation to him from his perspective, and he explained to me the way the justice system was failing the black community, especially young black men. I had to enter that uncomfortable place and truly just LISTEN, to try to learn what I did not naturally understand. Only then was I able to engage in the circumstance with any kind of effectiveness.

The Lord calls us into uncomfortable places, Pentecost moments, when we have to go across divisions—across race, across language, across background—to hear things we would not naturally hear. On the Day of Pentecost, they were declaring the deeds of the Lord, not making a name for themselves. God ordained that those who were divided would be united, but only in the worship of his name and praise in the power of his Holy Spirit.

So in these moments we have a choice and an opportunity. We may choose to devolve, to hunker down into our divisions and tribalism, our political party’s talking points and our own limited worldview. Or we can step out in faith, listen with the ears of the Holy Spirit, and call upon the power of God to do mighty things that none of us could do on our own.

I got a tiny taste of this in Florida, when a large gathering of black pastors and white pastors all came together to pray for our community and nation, that God would heal us and reverse the effects of sin—injustice, divisions, unrighteousness. It was a powerful moment in which I experienced the power of Pentecost, and I believe it was a glimpse of God’s ultimate plan for all of creation.

In Ezekiel 47, Ezekiel writes of a vision he was given by the Lord. A stream begins at the temple of God, and it flows out of Jerusalem toward the Dead Sea. It gets bigger and bigger, eventually so large that it cannot be measured, and as it enters the Dead Sea, the water becomes fresh and life erupts, abundance overflows.

The Jews would commemorate this prophecy at an annual feast, where the high priest would pour out a pitcher of water at the altar of the temple in Jerusalem, symbolic of beginning the flow of that river in Ezekiel’s vision. The Jews knew that the flow of abundant life hadn’t begun yet, but they celebrated it annually in the hope that it would. It was at this very ceremony when Jesus stood up among the crowd and said these words:

“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’”

John 7:37-38

Jesus explained that he was the source of abundant life, and the source of the living water that would flow out and renew the whole world. When Jesus poured out his Spirit at Pentecost, that’s when he began the flow of that river of Ezekiel’s prophecy.

Acts 2:37 says that those who were there on the Day of Pentecost, who heard Peter’s sermon, were “cut to the heart.” They were deeply affected and convicted within of their need for God. My prayer is that we will be affected the same way.

May we all be “cut to the heart” at what we see in the world around us. May we feel convicted of our need for God. May we not be satisfied with what we see, but feel the urgency and the desire for justice, righteousness, peace, reconciliation, and healing. May we cry out to God from a posture of humility and repentance. May we repent and turn to the God who alone can save us, who alone can heal our divisions.

Only then will “justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).

What Are Christians to Do?

Like many of you, I am deeply grieved by the continuing tension in our nation—shootings involving police and race in Baton Rouge and St. Paul, protests around the country, and more violence targeting the police in Dallas and other areas. All of this follows the recent mass shooting in my own city of Orlando. What is happening to our nation, and what are we as Christians to do?

A Christian citizen of the United States can’t help but feel discouraged.

The Scriptures describe how, in the last days, there will be an unholy trinity that takes the form of a seductive harlot, a politically appealing anti-Christ, and a violent beast. Throughout the history of the church, people have believed these three entities to be manifest in various people and movements. What is important is, until Jesus returns, there will be an ever-present manifestation of evil in various worldly forms. Behind all of it is the evil one himself, Satan. I believe our country is being stirred up by this evil one.

We know from Scripture that these sinister powers and principalities cause tremendous distress for the people of God and the people of the world. We also know that they are defeated foes! The promise of God in the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that the days of evil are numbered. They will come to an end.

In the meantime, what are the people of God to do?

The answer is simple: Go on being faithful—endure. Do not allow intimidation, discouragement, despair, or weariness to keep you from maintaining a vigilant zeal in the Lord. The Gospel of Jesus remains this world’s only hope. We are the stewards of that message of eternal life and peace.

Now, more than ever, the people of our nation are open to solutions other than the ones the world has to offer. Let us be diligent and sober-minded in prayer. Be quick to give a reason for the hope that you have in Jesus. Enlist in the fight with the weapons of the Spirit. Pray for our nation. Repent of your own sin and anger.

The founders of the United States knew that for freedom to flourish in this government they devised for us, two other pillars also were necessary: virtue and faith. These three “goods” are interrelated and interdependent. All three are under assault today from every side. We need to rekindle them.

We rekindle faith and virtue by standing firm in the Gospel. The only thing that will reconcile the divisions in our nation is the Gospel of peace. There is no black or white, male or female, nor any other political or human division at the foot of the Cross. Jesus died for sinners, all of us. Faith in that radical grace has the power to dissolve anger, heal hurts, forgive wrongs, purify sin, and reconcile enemies. When faith and virtue are rekindled, real freedom for all can thrive.

We need spiritual renewal, revival, and reform in the United States of America. Pray for it. Work for it. Yearn for it. The work that we are doing as the body of Christ is mission critical. Commit yourself to standing strong as a representative of Christ’s freedom, virtue, and faith, no matter what the enemy does in this world.

The Banner of Christ Alone

Part 3 of 3

The vision of the New Humanity voiced in the New Covenant does indeed express a vision that includes people from every tribe and nation. Praise God for that!  It also is a call to be willing to die to those cultural and genetic identities along with all of their badges and symbols. This is precisely what Paul is getting at in the verse from Philippians that I quoted here. We all have reasons in the flesh for which to be proud and for which to be ashamed. (Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.)

Paul was saying that as far as his essential Jewishness, he had much to be confidentPaul didn’t get any more Jewish both genetically, religiously, culturally and practically:

  • circumcised on the eighth day,
  • a member of the people of Israel,
  • of the tribe of Benjamin,
  • a Hebrew born of Hebrews;
  • as to the law, a Pharisee;
  • as to zeal, a persecutor of the church;
  • as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

This is a description of the “banner and mantle of Jewish identity.” He could just as well be raising the flag in pride of his Southern credentials. Notice that some of these things on Paul’s list, he could never actually change about himself; he could not change his Jewish DNA any more than any one of us could change the color of our skin.

Yet Paul regarded even this badge of birthright (ie. his skin) as “rubbish” (Phil. 3:8) because of Christ. Moreover, he counted that entire list of confidences in the flesh as loss for the sake of knowing Christ. He was not going to let his Jewish nature and identity get in the way of knowing and pursuing Christ. He certainly was not going to allow his tribal roots and identity as a Jew compromise and affect his fellowship with non-Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ.

What lessons can we learn as white and black Southerners who are also followers of Christ?

Circumcision is a badge, like a flag. It is a symbol of identity—Jewish identity. It says, this is who I am—and this is who you are not. For Paul, neither circumcision nor circumcision matters in light of the coming of the Messiah.  Paul pleaded with the Jewish Christians to let the badge of their genetic, cultural and religious identity go for the sake of unity in Jesus Christ with the Gentile believers. And he pleaded with Gentile believers to do the same.

We are in another one of those times as the nations, ethnicities, races, tribes are culturally colliding. We all need to be willing to “put no confidence in the flesh” and regard our genetic heritage as “rubbish” for the sake of Christ and the Kingdom of God. Genetically, religiously, culturally and practically—will we lower the banners and badges of our tribal “rubbish” in exchange for the glory of being considered a Child of God and co-heir with Christ?

You ask me to set aside my white Southern family heritage for your sake and for the sake of Christ. I tell you that I am willing to do it and that I have done it with loss. And on the other-side of that loss, new creation and new life in Jesus Christ springs forth in me.

If there is anything offensive in me that would cause a brother or sister in Christ to stumble, I want to see it and have it removed from my life. To all of my brothers and sisters in Christ, I give you my permission to point it out. I want to be a person who is known not for my tribal family or racial heritage, for good or for bad. I want to be known as one who bears Jesus Christ alone.

There are so many banners and credentials of fleshly authenticity under which I could so easily fly. Many of them I have used to my advantage and found privilege and favor in this world. And sometimes it is not wrong to do that, just as the apostle Paul used his credentials as a Roman citizen or a Hebrew of Hebrews. (See Acts 22:25-26.) Yet in the end, there is only one banner and one identity that truly matters to me: the cross of Jesus Christ. I am called to be in this world, but not of it.

The racial divisions find their end in Jesus Christ alone. We are all equally in our need of salvation at the foot of the cross; there are no other flags flying there. At what point do we release ourselves and each other from pride, honor and shame? For Paul, the Resurrected Life in Christ far surpasses any momentary glory or shame that we may derive from our distant history or recent past. So we press on toward that prize, leaving all else behind.

Have you given your life to Jesus and surrendered all things including your family heritage, your racial identity, your flags, badges, banners and certificates of authenticity and privilege? He would replace them all with the cross, and give you a new family and a new life in him. Pick up your cross and follow the one who gave up everything that rightfully belonged to him—for your sake and for mine.

I am faithfully yours in Christ Jesus our Lord,

Charlie Holt+

What “badges” of this world do you find yourself taking confidence in? What would it mean to you to declare them of no value compared to Christ? What practical steps can you take to show to others that Christ is the only thing about yourself that is of ultimate worth? Are there others in your life that will be offended if you do so? How can you talk to them about it?

The Banner of Christ Alone

As I have worked on racial reconciliation here in the community of Sanford following Trayvon Martin’s shooting and the trial of George Zimmerman, I have seen a lot of bad and good in national discussion on race. I want to be reconciled with all of my brothers and sisters in Christ. To me, the main thing that prevents us from being united is the fact that we find our identity in the things of the flesh. (Read Part 1 here.)

There is an African-American Ministerial Association in Sanford. Following the Trayvon Martin shooting, we all expressed a desire of working together for peace. While the larger integrated group meetings were happening, it came to our attention that the African-American Ministerial Association was also meeting apart from our larger meetings to strategize and talk. (BTW, there is not a White Ministerial Association.)  I, along with others, asked to be able to attend. We were told that we were not welcome because we are not African-American.

I pleaded with them that my congregation is integrated. The shooting happened 1 mile away from St. Peter’s—we are one of the closest churches to the shooting. I have black members who live in the apartment complex where Trayvon was shot. Who would represent their voice in that discussion? Yet after explaining all of that, I still was unwelcome at the meeting because I am not black. With some, the discussions retreat to issues of hurt, fear and mistrust, even as others call to them with a desire and open heart to move forward together in truth and love.

Two of the other ministers who had requested an invitation with me to the African-American Ministerial Association forced their presence into the meeting anyway. I did not feel that was an appropriate action, and I did not join them. However, I have continued to been outspoken in my objection to the dividing of the Church by race and will continue to do so. I recognize that hurt, anger and mistrust run deep, but we have to get past this somehow as a unified people under the banner of the cross if we are to realize the Kingdom of God in our midst.

The deep mistrust and suspicion is a major part of the problem on all sides. We will forever be locked in our safe huddles if we are not willing to leave them and view others and reality in the light of God’s reality. We cannot continue to run others through racially-biased grids of hurt and betrayal; otherwise every slight or disagreement can and will be perceived as racist and prejudiced, as evidenced by the way the discussions on race so often devolve. On the other side is a perpetual walking on eggshells so as to never offend the aggrieved. And so the conversation stays on the surface, shuts down and comes to a halt. What a shame!

While I think it is healthy to vocalize that mistrust, I personally am asking for it to be surrendered at the cross as well, especially among us who wear the yoke of Christ as pastors and church leaders. It does not further the Kingdom of God for us to take offense at one another.

We must not be so afraid of being taken in that we cannot be taken out of our protective tribal huddles. All of these identities in the flesh, including our Southern heritage are to be counted as rubbish in order that we might gain Christ and be found in him.

How have you seen communication breakdown as people retreat to safe huddles of worldly identity? Would you say Christian reconciliation is the way forward? How so or why not? Some would say the banner of Christ is the only true unifying banner for every tribe, race and nation; do you agree? (Read Part 3 HERE)

The Banner of Christ Alone

Some of the national debate which has ensued following the shooting of nine Christians in Charleston revolves around whether to furl the Confederate flag, as it is now being used as a banner under which many of the white supremacist groups fly.

I want to add to some of the thoughts on heritage and the banners under which we fly, but from a different angle.  I believe that flags, badges and symbols of our heritage matter, but they should not be our primary and defining identity any longer as Christians. And neither should the color of our skin for that matter.

Paul writes to the Philippians:

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. – Philippians 3:4-11

There are a lot of reasons for me to take pride in my heritage in the flesh. Like Paul, I can make great boasts of my heritage as an American, as a Southerner, as a descendant of pioneer Floridians. There are amazing things about my heritage in the flesh. The Holt family was in Virginia before the Mayflower landed. Yet as I have learned more about my family line, there were some real victims and scoundrels too!  The first Holt in America was an indentured servant to the first doctor of Jamestown, and yet his great-great-grandson left slaves to his heirs in his will.

Holts were personally responsible for killing many Native American Indians following the Indian massacre of 1621. The Holts helped burn Jamestown to the ground during Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. I had great-great-grandparents on both sides of the North-South war—which ones should I identify with? I have family that emigrated from Germany, my grandfather flew 30 bombing missions over Germany killing at least hundreds, if not thousands, of Germans. Another grandfather, a ship captain in the Navy, hated the Japanese for their atrocities in the Great War. Two generations later, I drive a Japanese-made car. My ancestors were instrumental in founding Princeton University, Washington and Lee University, and Union Theological Seminary. At least one of my ancestors was a member of the KKK. Articles about his death and funeral describe how white-robed hooded men burned a cross on his grave in his honor.

In my ancestry, there are war heroes, victims of injustice, victims of abuse and violence, pioneers, racists, slaves, doctors, pastors, college deans and presidents, missionaries, and the like. I personally was trained by the best seminary professors and am the third generation to graduate from the University of Florida! (Go Gators!) How am I to define myself, and how are you going to define me?

If anyone has reason to be confident in the flesh, certainly I do. If anyone has reason to be ashamed of the flesh, I do too. We learn our history in order to learn from it.  But as followers in Christ, it must not be what defines us. Can I, with Paul, sacrifice my confidence in the flesh?

Does that mean, that I have denied my southern heritage, yes and no. I know my personal history and my family heritage, I can evaluate it and myself. I see how I have been shaped in my attitudes and heart dispositions in both positive and negative ways by my inheritance in the flesh. But however I am identified by my inheritance in the flesh, it must now be redeemed and subsumed in the Lord. I am a new person in Jesus Christ. As a follower of Christ, I want to be known by Jesus Christ. May others see Him lifted high in my life! So if you want to know my identity, I would display my banner of Christ alone. All other loyalties are submissive to that one allegiance. With Paul, I would become all things to all people that I may win some for the cause of Christ. I would gladly furl any flag that is a barrier to Christ being glorified in me.

What about you? How has your heritage in the flesh shaped your own understanding of yourself and your own identity? Can you with Paul count all confidences in the flesh (race, historic heritage, nationalism or tribal identity) as a loss for the sake of knowing Christ? What makes it so hard to let go of worldly pride of heritage? (Read Part 2 HERE)