Comfort, or Cold Comfort?

“Hear what comfortable words our Savior Christ speaks to all who truly turn to him.” (from The Book of Common Prayer). Hear Jesus: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest ... Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.” (Matthew 11:28, Luke 6:20)

Contrast words now spoken to those the USA government wants to turn away. In a radio interview, Ken Cuccinelli, acting head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, was asked if he agreed that the words of Emma Lazarus at the base of the Statue of Liberty are a part of the American ethos. In reply, Cuccinelli tweaked Lazarus’ words:
"Give me your tired and your poor … who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge."

Such a jarring contrast with Jesus’ words that offer comfort and hope. Emma Lazarus came from a large Sephardic Jewish family of immigrants, and wrote her sonnet
The New Colossus in 1883 to draw a contrast between Lady Liberty and the ancient Colossus at Rhodes. "Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame … a mighty woman … her name Mother of Exiles."

I often tell international students, our legal guests on American campuses, that I serve as an ambassador of God’s Kingdom, not American culture. As St. Augustine observed in his classic work
The City of God, there is an Earthly City and the City of God. There are two kingdoms. God’s Kingdom overrules all lesser kingdoms, empires, and nations in this passing world.

I grieve for my terrestrial nation. She is no longer
Mother of Exiles. My family’s ancestors might not be welcomed today. We were 18th century immigrants from France, 19th-20th century poor immigrants from Italy, and a 4th great-grandmother who was a political exile at 5 years old, expelled from French Acadia. The Chinese name for my nation is: “měi guó,” the “beautiful country.” And America has been a beautiful hope for generations to those who seek a better life on earth.

Nations and governments set immigration criteria and policy. They regulate citizenship and borders. Governments decide at what level they will offer refuge to the world's poor, tired, and oppressed. But the USA’s acting Director of Immigration has now confirmed the larger point.

Do you want a glimpse of God’s kingdom? Then seek out a welcoming community of Jesus’ followers called by God to belong and serve in local embassies of God's kingdom. Jesus' disciples live as exiles and ambassadors even in their own countries.

But do not look to this current American government. Unless you expect cold comfort.
LORD, have mercy. Make America GOOD again. So that we may become a beautiful beacon again.

Jesus, the Bible, and Xenophobia

The US Supreme Court has ruled on two cases that are different, but have an affinity. One case ruled on gerrymandering on the state level, to promote or protect a partisan majority in a Congressional district. The second case ruled on the legality of a “citizenship question” in the 2020 census.

What is the affinity between these two cases? Both are driven by fears of changing electoral demographics. As has been forecast for decades, the USA has now become a diverse and multi-hued nation.

Fear-mongering is a common and crude reaction to changing voter constituencies. Gerrymandering, using sophisticated computer analysis, helps politicians to maintain control and remain in power. A citizenship question can generate fear to suppress voter registrations — but reduce federal funds in under-counted congressional districts.

At the turn of the 20th century, a huge influx of Italian, Polish, Russian and Eastern European immigrants transformed the electorate. By 1910, 13.5 million immigrants were in the USA. Between 1892 — 1954, Ellis Island processed about 12 million immigrants.

Fears of demographic change often produce a backlash of xenophobia. There was the Know-Nothing movement of the 1850’s, especially in the East. In the West, following the California Gold Rush (1848–1855) and construction of the Transcontinental Railroad with cheap Chinese labor, the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) barred Chinese immigration.

In John 4 we read that Jesus
“had to pass through Samaria.” While “Jews do not associate with Samaritans,” Jesus welcomed a minority woman into a gospel conversation. Jesus didn’t overlook their religious differences: “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.” But an entire Samaritan village came to confess Jesus as the “Savior of the world,” not just the Savior of Israel.

From Acts 16, I often remind friends that the first Christian in Europe was Asian. Paul and his team obeyed God’s vision and guidance to take the gospel to Europe for the first time. But the first person to become a disciple in the Roman colony of Philippi was not a
“man of Macedonian,” but Lydia, an Asian immigrant who was in Europe to pursue economic opportunity.

With the Samaritan woman, and with Lydia, the majority populations of Palestinian Jews or the European Philippians could have taunted, “Send her back!” “Samaritans don’t belong here!” And “Lydia, you sell duty-free fine linens in our local markets.”

But Jesus is sovereign over all the movements of all people groups. His
“all authority in heaven and on earth” is the basis for our “going and making disciples of all nations.” And "all nations" includes unwelcome political exiles expelled from Mesopotamia and ambitious Asian immigrants.

Should Christians try to preserve the dominant culture, suppress voter registration, or scapegoat immigrants? For Jesus' followers, there's a higher citizenship, not based on maintaining political control. There's a Gospel way. Hospitable love, not hostile fears.

Mass chants have degenerated from “lock her up” to “send her back.” The 2016 race invoked anti-corruption. The 2020 campaign may stoke xenophobic scapegoating, justified as patriotism. “MAGA” can become “MAWA” — make America white again.

The Bible challenges all Jesus’ followers. You may be a proud citizen of Rome — or of the USA. But
“our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 3:18-20). There is a higher obligation than nationalistic patriotism: “let your manner of life (politeuomai) be worthy of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27). So, if you are a citizen of God’s kingdom, your life must reflect the gospel — the good news of God’s love, and not exploiting human fears.

Reflections from the PCA sidelines

For two weeks, I’ve reflected on the recent national meeting of my Presbyterian denomination. I’ve listened to thoughtful comments and read the posts from my friends and fellow ministers.

Now retired, I chose to not participate in floor debates, nor to cast votes. But, as a septuagenarian minister from the PCA sidelines, I am constantly drawn to Jesus’ prayers for his church in John 17.

Jesus’ high priestly prayers for his people are both timeless and timely as the PCA considers the identity, ministry, and mission of the church at this time and in our broken world. From John 17:

verse 9: “I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me …”
What should the church and its ministers (not cultural leaders) say and do?

verse 11: “I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world.”
Jesus’ church is not siloed from a place and ministry in our world.

verse 15: “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.”
The church's greatest vulnerability, therefore its greatest need, is spiritual protection, not cultural isolation or disengagement.

verse 17: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.”
The church is spiritually distinct only if faithful to God’s Word.

verse 18: “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”
The church should not turn away from a broken world. Jesus sent his church into the world — to embody God’s love and God’s truth. The church’s great co-mission reflects Jesus’ own mission.

verse 21: “May they all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you … so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
Visible church unity is what makes the good news of Jesus Christ demonstrable, plausible, and credible to the world.

Decades ago, John R. W. Stott expounded John 17:

“There are two distinct human communities … spiritually distinct … not socially segregated.”
“Remaining in the world [the church] should be … by the power of God, ‘kept’ a distinct people …”
“If we are sent into the world, we cannot withdraw from it. If we are sent into the world, we cannot conform to it either, or we shall lose both our message and our power.”
“The principle of incarnation challenges us not to cut ourselves off … nor to become assimilated … [but] to accept the pain and the peril of entering [the world] … understanding its thought forms and learning its language, while remaining ourselves distinct from it.”
“This is the ‘sanctification’ for which Christ prayed … summed up in the three prepositions … the Christian is ‘IN’ the world, not ‘OF’ the world, but sent ‘INTO’ the world.”

I have convictions and concerns on human sexuality, views that are not detailed here. I prayerfully await and eagerly expect a PCA Study Committee Pastoral Statement that is gospel based, that speaks the truth-in-love, and that reflects the heart of Jesus Christ.

But John 17 offers boundary constraints on our motives, processes, and goals. Will the church reflect Jesus’ incarnation, not assimilation or isolation? The prayers of Jesus in John 17 form my heart and shape my prayers for my church family.

May the church not separate what Jesus Christ has joined together. May God sanctify us — set us apart. First, for Christ-like character, “kept” spiritually distinct. And for Christ-like mission, to be “sent” and socially engaged. God sanctifies the church for both distinction and mission — to be "in," not "of," but sent "into" our world.

Holy Week and Unholy Politics

I was honored that my pastor invited me to preach on Palm Sunday. The topic I chose was hard: How does God’s Gospel relate to Politics? Well, as they say, “It’s complicated!” God’s King and God's Kingdom are above and beyond the world’s politics. You can hear or download my message on “The Gospel According to Caiaphas.”

What might we have read in a Jerusalem newspaper published just after Jesus rode into Jerusalem with crowds shouting,
“Hosanna — God, please save us!” We have no digital archives. But you might have read something like this in the print edition:

Jerusalem Post. Dateline: Spring AD 33. 5 Days before Passover

Yesterday, the Capital City was shaken. A Prophet from Galilee entered the city on a donkey, causing a major stir. Citizens were overheard asking, ‘Who’s this?’ Crowd size estimates differ widely. But all agree that a man named Jesus was greeted like a new king David.

This newspaper asked various citizens for opinions and comments. Herod’s officials already knew about this so-called Prophet. They had recently challenged Jesus on the legality of paying Roman taxes. King Herod is appointed by Caesar, and so his political cronies don’t want anyone to upset Rome.

Our Post reporter also talked to a few firebrands just added to Rome’s terror watch list. These zealots claim that Jesus can provision a small army by multiplying scarce rations. One of them said, ‘If Jesus doesn’t overthrow the puppet Herod, we must start to plan a violent revolt against Roman occupation.’

We asked some aristocratic rulers of the Temple. The High Priest would not speak on the record. So we interviewed some other mainline liberal priests. They are very upset by recent reports that Jesus raised a man from the dead out in the city suburb of Bethany.

To get a middle class perspective, we talked to leaders of the local houses of worship. We thought that these family-values conservatives would be more sympathetic to Jesus. And they do believe in miracles. But these popular Bible teachers are also upset — since Jesus is cozy with so many sinful people. And Jesus apparently has claimed that he plans to fulfill God’s law.

We sent a Post reporter into the desert to talk to a reclusive group that won’t come near Jerusalem. They think Judaism is beyond redemption. But, from their study of sacred books in their caves, they say that one of last prophets wrote that Israel’s true king would ride on a donkey — like a Prince of Peace, and not like a Roman man of war.

So everyone is now asking: “What will the Roman governor do?” Pilate and Herod seem to be talking once again. Jesus may think that he is a Prince of Peace. But all hell may break loose — and very soon — right before the Passover.

Sometime around AD 33, King Jesus was crucified by Bible-believing, family-values moral conservatives. But he was also crucified by secular, liberal, well-connected elites. And executed by the deep state of imperial colluders. To understand how the Gospel of God’s Kingdom is above and beyond the world’s politics, I invite you to listen to “
The Gospel According to Caiaphas.”

God's Resident-Foreigners

The first Hee-Haw of 2019 is based on words from the donkey’s owner, Balaam. Although a pagan seer, Balaam recognized a unique place for God’s people in this world. “From the hills I behold him; behold, a people dwelling alone, and not counting itself among the nations.” (Numbers 23:9)

Jesus prayed for his followers to be
“in, but not of” the world. As people “set apart by God’s Word of truth,” Jesus sends his people “into” the world. (John 17:11-18)

Jesus’ later spoke to Pilate, Rome's Procurator:
“My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting.” (John 18:36) As I look back on 2018, I often saw Jesus’ followers fighting over political loyalties.

If the church's highest loyalties are shaped by the world's politics — conservative or progressive — this represents a sad misconception of the church’s identity and calling in the world. Do the values, norms, and goals of our culture supplant the Gospel in shaping our mindset and agendas? This new year 2019, our society will increasingly politicize. Jesus’ followers will speak truth to power, even to Caesar. But will Christians be identified by Gospel words and deeds, or by political agendas?

The Apostle Paul challenged Jesus’ followers in the city of Philippi. What shaped their values, mindset, and agendas? Philippi enjoyed a special status in Macedonia, a directly governed Colony of Rome
(Acts 16:12). Philippians enjoyed all the freedoms and legal protections of Roman citizenship. Paul urged them to divest themselves of pride in any worldly power or social status in order to share and reflect “the mind of Christ.” (Philippians 2)

A more ultimate loyalty, a kingdom agenda is offered.
“Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 3:20) The word “citizenship” here relates to “politics” or “polis” [city]. The church is a political entity, but a polis shaped by the Gospel, not by government granted or legally protected status. Jesus’ followers are Citizens, Ambassadors, and a Colony. But of God’s kingdom, and not Caesar’s Empire.

I am reading a 25 year old classic:
“Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony,” by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon. It is a book that speaks incisively about the church’s relationship to the culture around us. Is the church shaped by political agendas (Left or Right) or by God's truth that sets apart his people in this world. Each week of 2019, I plan to post a short quote from this insightful book. For starters:

“God, not nations, rules the world ... the boundaries of God’s kingdom transcend those of Caesar ... the main political task of the church is the formation of people who see clearly the cost of discipleship and are willing to pay the price.”