Salvation: Before and After (from Ephesians 2)

I'm preaching on Ephesians 2 tomorrow and, true to form, have way more content than I can communicate in the 30 minutes we have. I thought I might pop it up here to ease my conscience about not sharing it on Sunday. That's how this whole blog got started in the first place anyways.

In the first few verses of Ephesians 2, Paul charts four changes that happen when Jesus saves us. Here they are ...

1) We experience a change in state (from death to life)
2) We experience a change in motivation (from cravings to grace)
3) We experience a change in leadership (from the ruler of the kingdom of the air to King Jesus)
4) We experience a change in community (from those in that former kingdom to the new kingdom created in Jesus)

I'll still talk about the death to life transition on Sunday, though not in the depth I was planning to in my initial draft. This imagery around death communicates the desperation of our situation and our powerlessness to change it on our own. We don't just need a helper or a teacher; we need someone to come and save us. And that's just what Jesus has done. The same One who conquered death in his resurrection triumphs over the death that attempts to hold us still and bound.

The change in motivation corner of the passage is powerful. Paul pictures us as being motivated by the desires and thoughts that fan into flame the cravings of our flesh. Gratifying those cravings lead us step by step deeper into our enslavement. And people have learned to steer and manipulate us via our cravings: marketers, politicians, and even preachers. But Jesus wants to liberate us. He breaks the power of those cravings and gives us grace as a motivation.

We hardly ever think of grace as a driver of behavior (hence Paul's series of rhetorical questions in early Romans), but that doesn't change the fact that God loves to move us forward with grace as the motive power. We don't do the good works that he prepares in advance for us to do because we owe him something or are busy earning our keep. We dive into those good works because God has prepared them for us, the God we love and who loves us has prepared for us the gift of great, good work. And that's a beautiful thing.

Paul bounces off of the ruler of the kingdom of the air comment multiple times in this section of Ephesians. He has throughout the letter the cosmic scope of our salvation always in view, even if only out of the corner of his eye. The spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient leverages our bondage to transgression and sin and uses it against us, to hurt us and do us harm. He's driving the bus - not us - and he's driving it off of a cliff. Thank God Jesus takes the wheel. We can't do it ourselves (remember, we're dead). We need a better leader, one who loves us. We need a leader who has our best interests in mind and who cares for us. That's who we have in Jesus.

Finally, we look at Paul's language of a new community. He hints at it in the first several verses of chapter 2 and then dives fully in in the second half of the chapter (which Alex is preaching on next week). But suffice to say that the community we're a part of apart from Christ is a community marked by transgressions, sins, and disobedience. We drift away from God and isolate ourselves from each other. We form mono-ethnic enclaves and terrorize those who are different from us. We lost touch with compassion, mercy and love and become cold, hard, dead warriors for truth, justice and whichever way gives us power. How different this is from what Jesus offers us in his kingdom and in the new community that he's creating through his death and resurrection!

This is five minutes of rough scattershot, but I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I was sad that I didn't get to preach it.

Dual Identity Crisis

Having white skin and blond hair creates complications if you carry a Latino ethnic identity. That's my situation. And I've been thinking a lot about it during this Christmas season.

People I work with continue to forget that I'm Latino as well as white. There's zero malice there. It's just a challenge for them. I get strange looks and pushback whenever I point to my heritage or Latino perspective. I struggle to explain to others the complex sense of otherness I feel when I spend a lot of time in an all white group.

I feel like the Latino facet of my ethnic identity is being slowly smothered. I wonder if Jesus ever felt the same way with his dual identity: fully God and fully human.

Theologians seem engaged in a near constant tug-of-war over Jesus' dual identity. Some emphasize his humanity; others his divinity. Both sides overstate their case. And this is not a new problem.

Early church history is riddled with conflicting perspectives on Jesus' identity. Arius refused to see Jesus as fully God. Marion refused to see him as fully human. Irenaeus and Ignatius and Athanasius and Tertullian and that crowd pushed back against both of those refusals until we ended up with something that looks like today's Christian orthodoxy.

I find this conflict over the identity of Christ to come as no surprise. People with dual identities know how hard it is to pin them down, to explain them, to communicate them in all their nuance. I can't describe my own identity; how can I expect someone else to explain the complexities that spring into this world as a result of my background?

Multiethnic people (and multiethnic churches) give us a context to embrace both the reality and the mystery of a Christ who is fully human and fully divine.

Four ways ministries grow in ethnic diversity

When ministries grow in meaningful ethnic diversity, God's kingdom advances rapidly. A loving multiethnic community is the most powerful witness to the gospel's power. Our best evidence that Jesus' death and resurrection has made a difference in the world shines forth when people can see racial and ethnic barriers torn down.

Here are four ways I've seen ministries grow in ethnic diversity.

1. Visually

The easiest changes are the optical ones. Put a more diverse cast on your publicity. Use stock photos if you must. Pull a person who looks different from the majority of the group up on stage. At some point or another every ministry that wants to grow more diverse must make this jump.

I've wrestled with this step because so often it merely amounts to tokenism and window dressing. The brochures don't match the boardrooms. The appearance of diversity can actually serve as a roadblock to experiencing true diversity (and the reconciliation necessary to make that happen). But ministries that want to grow more diverse always have to take this step ... and often before they feel ready.

When I served with InterVarsity in South Florida we struggled to get white students involved in our ministries. We had lots of Haitian, Black, Latino and Asian students, but few white students involved. On some campuses, we were the only campus ministry present. And with our vision to reach every corner of campus, we knew we had to make an intentional effort to reach white students. Having white students on our marketing materials and at our events made a small but noticeable impact on our ability to reach an unreached corner of our campuses. But, I'll be honest, it felt uncomfortable to be so intentional about the pictures we used.

2. Culturally

Cultural expressions and artifacts can create space for people to connect across barriers and boundaries. I've argued elsewhere that culture is a gift from God that he can use to guide his people through the debris left by racial and ethnic barriers. Ministries that grow in ethnic diversity will find ways to share and enjoy a diverse set of cultural expressions: languages, musical styles, food, and dress are a few of the expressions I've seen used to help a ministry grow in diversity.

Multiculturalism almost always comes before multi-ethnicity.

I'll never forget the first time I heard musical worship in Spanish. The stadium at Acquire the Fire in Tampa softly sang: "Dame, dame, dame más de ti, bendito Señor" (listen here). I'd heard all kinds of Spanish language music in my house and at my relatives' homes, but I'd never heard anyone sing musical worship in Spanish in the mostly white churches that I went to as a child. This experience had a significant impact on my faith and its integration into my life. I shared something special on that day with my Christian friends from different ethnic backgrounds.

3. Temporarily

This is the most difficult truth about ministries growing in diversity. There's something in the world that pulls us toward homogeneity. As a ministry grows more diverse, people might get hurt and pull back. Other might feel newly excluded and pull away. Building a multiethnic ministry requires constant adjustment and will almost certainly involve seasons of failure.

When I joined InterVarsity at Duke the chapter had just started to grow in multi-ethnicity. My year had a balance of white and Asian-American students. The year that followed me had a few more Asian students than white students. Now, 15 years later, the chapter is almost all Asian and Asian-American. I've seen this pattern repeated time and time again: white flight, black flight, Latino flight ... they're real and really difficult to forestall.

Additionally, I've seen ministries gain momentum in diversity and then lose it. One ministry went from employing one to seven Latino staff in just 4 years. But a series of strategic decisions and some hard realities beyond the ministry's control broke the momentum. Three years late and that ministry now employs three Latino staff. Momentum matters and proves difficult to maintain.

4. Persistently

No ministry will experience long-term growth in ethnic diversity without persistence. 

Growing in ethnic diversity requires work at every level in an organization. Adjustments happen at the leadership level, in recruitment, in teaching and worship style, in marketing, in discipleship approach, in evangelistic communication ... the list could go on and on and on. A ministry must be deeply committed to multi-ethnicity for it to grow in ethnic diversity over the long haul.

This persistence only comes from a conviction that multi-ethnicity is essentially tied to the mission of the ministry. Individual leaders must be captured by the vision of a multi-ethnic community. They have to learn to articulate how diversity and mission are connected with each other. They have acquire stories of victories and failures, sacrifices and blessings, pain and joy.

What else do you see as essential for a ministry to grow in ethnic diversity?

Loving a moving target

Here's a marriage challenge for you: the person you marry will transform into a significantly different person over time.

They will age. Their interests will shift. They will mature, but not at a predictable rate. Life will smack them around a little bit and that will change them. Your love itself will transform them.

A healthy marriage requires people to re-connect and re-engage over and over again throughout their time together. And doing this while juggling work and children and the Sturm und Drang of life will always be a challenge.

But it's worth it!

Revelation and the Challenge of Coded Speech

I've been switching back and forth between reading the Christmas narrative (for work) and Revelation (for my personal study). I've been really struck by the difference between these two stories.

Both Matthew and Luke (the two Gospel accounts that tell the Christmas narrative) tell the story very directly. The characters have names and genealogies. The locations are pretty specific. Almost anyone can understand almost everything in the story.

Revelation, on the other hand, is a cypher. I've found it confusing ever since my first reading of it over 20 years ago. In today's reading, John writes about a woman being chased by a dragon. Is the woman Mary? The church? Israel? All of the above?

The church in the ancient Roman empire found itself persecuted in terrifying ways. Christians were dragged into the courts and into the Coliseum. They were lit on fire and fed to lions. Being caught in possession of the scriptures could have devastating consequences.

Disempowered people have long used coded speech to communicate. From the dog-whistles of modern politics to the code switching in ethnic minority communities, people will find a way to communicate what's most important to them no matter how closely supervised and restricted they may be.

Stumbling across coded speech that isn't meant for you can be extremely frustrating. Especially when it's in the Bible. We have to either do the hard work to understand the speech (ie. to learn the code) or skip it and hope that we're not missing something important.

What do you do when you don't understand the scripture's coded speech? Do you tend to dig or skip?