So Great a Cloud of Witnesses

Today is Halloween, or as the church has historically recognized, All Hallow's Eve or All Saints' Eve -- the day of preparation before All Saints' Day. The church has had a rich history with death and what it means to those in Christ, but it is lost to many of us today. Since death seems nearer to us in these past months of pandemic, I believe we can draw richly upon the witness and testimony of the church that has lived out its faith through the observance of All Saints' Day.

When I first watched Pixar's Coco, a film about Día de Muertos ("The Day of the Dead," which is concurrent, perhaps not coincidentally, with All Saints' Day), I was surprised that the portrayal so accurately captured aspects of our Christian hope associated with death. The observance of this holiday typically takes the form of celebration, rather than mourning -- acknowledging that death is not the end and those who left this earth before us have not left us completely. In the story, Miguel Rivera, the main protagonist goes on a journey between the land of the living and of the dead and discovers a richer understanding of himself, his family, and the beautiful and storied inheritance he has as a member of his family. While it is unlikely that Disney/Pixar would put an explicitly religious backing to their films, we in the faith know that it is because of Christ, the living and the dead are not forever separated, and we live out our faith "surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses" (Hebrews 12).

In the Apostles' Creed, we affirm this in the line, "I believe in... the communion of saints," which confesses the truth that both the living and the dead share a fellowship in Christ that cannot be broken. Our practice of communion (The Lord's Supper) touches upon this truth every time we partake; we do not partake alone, but with all the saints present, past, and future. At the table, every time we eat this bread and drink this cup, we do it with all the saints -- including those recently departed -- proclaiming the death of our Lord until he comes again in glory.

I know for many of us, there are many whose presence is sorely missed. As the holidays approach, the heavy presence of empty chairs in our homes is a weight we'd rather not bear; the idea of observing All Saints' Day seems too painful in light of our grief and fresh wounds. For some of us we'd rather keep feeling that pain, because we think without that feeling, we'll lose what we have left of those who died. Sometimes we only dare to take sips of our grief for fear we'd be overcome with despair and spend all our grief at once and then forget. In Pixar's Coco, Hector, a character from the world of the dead, explains the conflict to be resolved when we says, "If there's no one left in the living world to remember you, you disappear from this world. But you can change that!"

But the gospel that proclaims the communion of the saints gives us a better promise and hope than Hector's. The lives of those we have loved do not exist based on our keeping of them in memory; surely there may come a day when we will adjust to our grief and "move on" in some form or another. The gospel gives us confidence to mourn and grieve deeply because it is Christ who remembers our names and knows each of our souls better than we know ourselves. Because of Christ, we can mourn deeply and fully, not worrying if we will drown ourselves in our grief or expend all our sadness at once because we are completely sustained by the grace of God.

I invite all of you to observe All Saints' Day. Not to focus primarily on our friends and family who have passed, but to turn that longing-for-their-fellowship to worship of our loving and gracious Savior who sustains our communion. In both the Apostles' and the Nicene Creed, we affirm the resurrection of the dead/body and life -- full and vibrant life -- in the world to come. Our Savior and fellow saints cheer us on in faith. "Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith."


On Individual and Institutional Racism

Dear King’s Cross,

I, along with our session and pastors, wanted to help put some theological clarity as to what and why we feel convicted to denounce certain evils and injustices that we see in our present day and land. I hope that in reading this, it will hopefully give clarity where there might have been ambiguity, and reason where there has been a sense of skepticism.

RACISM
In 2004, our denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America was just starting to come to grips with ways we had promoted and aligned with racism particularly towards Black Americans. The definition given, states, “racism is an explicit or implicit belief or practice that qualitatively distinguishes or values one race over other races.”

Therefore, the inherent evil and sinfulness of racism is that we are distinguishing, favoring, judging and categorizing people and people groups by their particular physical features, particular ethnicity, cultures, and characteristics that God created, sees, and calls equally good, beautiful, honorable, and resplendent with His divine reflection. In other words, because God imbues his own glory into the uniqueness of being human, when we treat one another with anything less than the honor and dignity he has spelled out in Scripture, we are ultimately making judgement calls and estimations of God’s worth, beauty, and honor. That’s not to eclipse the real and tragic damage racism has on people—but I say that to show how offensive and personal God takes racism. When we are not in the wonder and awe of God’s character, we are bound to demean the realities he shows up daily in our lives through people.

INDIVIDUAL AND INSTITUTIONAL RACISM

One of the questions people at our church are wondering about and could be struggling with is the concept of institutional or systemic racism, (which are not precisely the same thing, but I am using them interchangeably here because they both refer to larger, culture-shaping means such as the education system, justice system, media, etc.) Institutional Racism is often seen as the systemic, unequal distribution of resources, power, and opportunity in favor of one race over another. Whereas, Individual Racism is often thought of as the acts and thoughts and beliefs that individuals harbor.

I think there is a very unhelpful “either/or” mentality when it comes to these notions of racism, which only sees two options:

  • Some people believe that racism is only an institutional problem. But the problem with this is you are relieving individuals from the responsibility of being good citizens, and bringing change to their lives.
  • On the other hand, some people believe racism is really just an individual’s aggression and bias towards those different than themselves. However you’re failing to see the greater cycles of culture that continue to influence and shape the way we see and treat and oppress others.

For many of us, because we don’t see a third option, we tend to go with whatever option makes us look less ignorant, and more informed and compassionate. However—how much of our responses are shaped out of genuine love, and not fear? Fear of being wrong, fear of being seduced by a political agenda, fear of being a bigot, etc.

I’d like to propose a third option. It’s the option I believe God lays out consistently from beginning to end in Scripture. The fact is, God always holds both individuals and institutions responsible for sin. From the first fall of Adam and Eve, you have individuals being held accountable for their actions—and yet, the entire institution of humanity is corrupted. In Joshua 7, you have a man named Achan, acting out of greed and breaking societal rules God set in place for Israel. And while he and his family have to face the consequences of his sin—it’s not before all of Israel experiences loss and breakdown and failure in their campaign.

For some of us, I can understand that the implications of Institutional Racism may seem outrageous. We love America and American culture—and the implications of Institutional Racism would mean admitting there is a malicious and grotesque mindset, pervading so deeply behind every chapter of our history. How could we ever take that sitting down? I get that, accepting this, paints a bleak alternative reality compared to how some, if not many, of us grew up seeing and understanding America.

However, it seems to me that the Bible actually paints a far darker picture of human beings than maybe we’ve been paying attention to. Somehow, I wonder, if Satan has painted little flowers and puppies throughout our bibles, when it’s really the story of the desperately tragic state of humanity’s wallowing in vile filth and corruption—from the individual human heart, (Jeremiah 17:9) to the cosmic and spiritual forces of darkness ruling over principalities, powers, and institutions of this present world (Ephesians 6:12). This is why we need a powerful Savior.

And something we have tried to stress in our proclamation at King’s Cross is that Jesus is not merely your individual savior—he is a kingdom savior, for a kingdom people. He is coming to overthrow not just your and my petty individual rule of our own hearts; he has come to overthrow the rules and authorities and principalities and yes, institutions of this world. He will bring all things under his good and righteous reign.

Friends, that is the gospel of the kingdom. That allows us to pursue individual reformation, while seeing that there is a constant need for Jesus to come in kingdom power to restore broken institutional standards made by broken, sinful people.

So, yes, because we believe the whole gospel that says the whole world is broken. Therefore we ought not be surprised or utterly crushed when we find human institutions failing us. The idea that a human institution (including the institution of American law and governance), where mere humans are the ruling heads and authorities could be free from bias, greed, slavery, and racism—ought to sound wrong to Christian ears.

We see how some people have come to the conclusion in our day, in a fit of despair, that the enemy is actually the very existence of institutions, themselves, and these people have turned to various forms of anarchy. But as Christians, we know of only one institution that has the power to repent and turn from its wrong doing. The Church is the only earthly institution that has its authoritative headship in someone who is absolutely perfect, and in whom we can completely trust.

Now, the Church body is composed of sinful broken people like you and me—and that means we have the potential to fall and fail just as hard as anyone else—and we do quite often. But when we are aligned to his will, and walk in the ways of his Holy Word, we begin to reveal something that the world is starving for more than ever, in this present age. And that means there is hope in this dark world as we live out the grace of Jesus offered to any and all who would see they are in need of so great a Savior.

Yours in Christ,

Pastor Rob


The EmbRACE Study / 02

This is our second post in our monthly church-wide study called EmbRACE, a repentance and study on race, society, and culture. You can find the first post here.


Revisit our foundational calling.

As we start our second study this week, we must not forget the foundation for bearing with one another in love from the first study. We will come back over and over to remember it is Christ who has brought us together. So no matter how different our views may be, we are called to strive to bear with one another for the sake of the gospel. Before you begin on any "hot topics" we must remember to recommit ourselves to the gospel and to one another.

Separation, Assimilation or Embrace.

From our second EmbRACE sermon, there was a calling on us to not give into two typical ways that society tends to deal with diversity: (1) separation: maintain a "negative peace" by minimizing the likelihood of conflict, (2) assimilation: require that those who are different conform to a particular way of life. Instead the gospel calls us to embrace one another because of our differences and celebrate them. The end of all things points to worship by "a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb." (Revelation 7:9).

In John 4, Jesus enters into a private (1-on-1) conversation with a Samaritan woman. The text highlights how taboo this was in the dialog and the framing of this conversation (for example, see v.8, 9, 27) By entering into this situation, Jesus put his reputation at risk -- even his disciples were confused. But through his actions, Jesus shows us that our confidence in the gospel frees us to move boldly into unpopular spaces. As we follow Jesus, we are called to count the cost while looking at Jesus. For "the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field." (Matthew 13:44). The cost may be high, but Jesus assures us it is worth it. Jesus calls us to associate with the lowly, to seek the sheep who have wandered off, to embrace the outcast and, in so doing, find God more fully. As we seek to live out this implication of the gospel to embrace the other, we become more like our perfect savior who came to seek imperfect and sinful people like ourselves.

Can the church be a place where we recognize and welcome people and trust that the Spirit will do his work in those who he calls to himself? It could be that even those who we'd consider the last to come to faith will ultimately teach us much about our loving God. This Samaritan woman, because she was welcomed by Christ who dared to break social and cultural norms, becomes the first evangelist in the Gospel of John. "In Eastern Orthodox tradition, the Samaritan 'woman at the well' is called Saint Photini and, as Eva Catafygiotu Topping writes in Saints and Sisterhood, she 'occupies a place of honor among the apostles. In Greek sermons from the fourth to the fourteenth centuries she is called "apostle" and "evangelist." In these sermons, the Samaritan Woman is often compared to the male disciples and apostles and found to surpass them.'" (from The First Female Evangelists)

It is my hope that our church can grow in our love and capacity to welcome those who are different. That we would not let our doubts about how receptive or unreceptive we can be hinder the work of the Spirit among us. May God expand our hearts to love as Christ has loved us.