“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!  It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes!  It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion.  For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.” ~ Psalm 133

I have always been a guy who was passionate about unity.  Maybe it’s some dysfunction from my middle child syndrome.  I’m not sure, but it has always been a deep conviction for me.  Maybe its because I’m an enneagram 2, and we hold on to our friendships from Kindergarten with dear life.  Again, I’m not sure, but it has always been a deep conviction for me.  I think it is because I grew up in the Stone Campbell Restoration Movement, which at its core, is a unity movement.  Of all of my core convictions, UNITY may be my strongest dogma!  Dogma is known to separate believers, but what would happen if our strongest conviction as Christ followers, was UNITY?

Paul wrote, I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” ~ Ephesians 4:1-3

Notice, unity isn’t commanded, it is assumed as if it is the D.N.A. of believers.  It is expected as if it is at the core of Christian convictions.  It is as if unity is the nature of one who has been touched by the Holy Spirit.  There is something stronger than commands in the Bible, there are divine assumptions.  For instance, Jesus says in the sermon on the Mount, “And when you pray.”  He doesn’t ask them to pray, praying for the Christian is like breathing to a human.  We can learn to be better at breathing, but breathing is what humans do.  I believe the same to be true of unity.  This is why Joni Eareckson Tada  says, “Believers are never told to become one; we already are one and are expected to act like it.” 

Paul highlights the nature of our unity and the correct disposition for unity.   We are eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit, which is the same as saying, we are passionate to keep the Spirit’s unity!  We could say welcome to the house of God, or interchangeably, we could say welcome to God’s house.  This literally means that the Holy Spirit is the possessor, or more strongly stated, the owner of unity.  Unity is the prized possession of the Holy Spirit.  Meaning, we have no right to steal from God, that which never belonged to anyone of us.  Unity is God’s.  Dr. Doug Foster says, “Unity is already in existence, we do not create it.”  It not only exists, it belongs to God.  Tampering with it, is burglarizing the bond of peace.  In all of our convictions, unity must be one our core convictions, a dogma even!

Edmund Burke stated, “Whatever disunites man from God, also disunites man from man.”  If we disunite from God, we walk in disunity with man, and if we disunite with man, we trouble the unity we have in Christ.   J.C. Ryle says,“Unity without the gospel is a worthless unity; it is the very unity of hell.” I include his words to highlight that I do not speak of a unity without divinity, neither do I speak of a unity without doctrine. 

So, let me say it plainly, we do not have a right to walk in disunity.  Disunity is not merely sin, it is a sin against the DNA of who we have been created to be in Christ.  We, the body of Christ, reflect not only the unity of being in Christ, but the triune unity of the Godhead.   

This is not only theological for me, it is also sentimental.  For the next few moments I’m going to get personal.  I’m going to use my journey and Christian tribe to speak my experience.  My roots run through two of the three major streams of what’s known as the Stone Campbell Restoration Movement.  I adore this unity movement!  I love this beloved body of believers.  Yes,t is personal for me that all Christians are ONE, but  for the sake of authenticity, I’ll focus on the one I grew up in. 

As a kid, I didn’t know the names, Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell, but I am now grateful for them both.  I grew up running the halls in the non-instrumental Churches of Christ.  I not only grew up singing a cappella songs of worship, I also served as an Associate Minister for seven years at the Metropolitan Church of Christ.  My brother, Fate Hagood, continues to serve as the Lead Minister there.  If that is not enough Church of Christ love for you, I have traveled the country raising money for Southwestern Christian College, a Church of Christ school, where I received my first college degree.

My roots don’t end there!  I currently serve as the Lead Pastor at University Christian Church.  In the recent past, I have served in supportive pastoral roles at Independent Christian Churches such as Shepherd Church, and Discovery Church as well as others.   I have two degrees from Hope International University which is an Independent Christian Church school.  One of the most rewarding things that I get to do, is to go back to my alma mater, and speak to 100’s of kids at Hope International University for Chapel services.  Is that enough Independent Christian Church love for you?  I told you, I adore our unity movement!  This is not only theological, this is sentimental for me.

I want you to know the depth of my roots within our beloved family of churches and the deep places of my heart which yearn for the essence of who we are.  We are a unity movement!  We are founded on the oneness of the Church, reflecting the triune unity of God within the ONE body of Christ! 

I now speak to you as one of two brothers, who both pastor churches from different streams of one movement.  The irony of that is palpable.  Let me be clear, it is not the streams that separate us, It is the fish who refuse to swim against the current of division to walk in unity with each other.  The pursuit of unity is one of the main reasons our movement exists.  Yet, Fate and I have both experienced the pain and stress of division within our movement, and I will assume that you have as well.  If you haven’t, maybe it is because you refuse to swim against the current in order to return to the source of our streams. 

Certainly, this season of aggressive bipartisanship and racial division, pulls the rug out from under the feet of our glossed over divisions.  If you, like me, are a true “Restorationist,” division tugs at your convictions violently.  I’m unaware of how you react to John 17:20-23, but the prayer of our Lord Jesus Christ absolutely wrecks me!  It says;

“I do not ask for these 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 even as you loved me.”

As I highlight just four verses from this divine prayer, our souls know that the objects of division Jesus cries out to God about, is us!  He’s like a Dad on his knees praying to God for his children who are missing.  Yet Jesus is praying to His Father for his little brothers, and sisters.  Jesus is praying due to oxymoronic Christian divisiveness.  I can’t help but wonder if Jesus had 2020 in mind as He prayed.  Dr. Martin Luther King said, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”  I write to us today with love that we might be ONE in Christ, that we might fully live, and not be fools.

Considering my own story, as a product of distinct streams of our unity movement, I have experienced the stress of being shunned based on secondary theological convictions.  Although one of our earliest mottos was, “We are Christians only, but not the only Christians.”  I know what it feels like to be looked on as less than or even not a Christian based on debatable Christian doctrines.  Yet I hold to, of all of my Christian convictions, unity must be one of my core convictions.

Continuing to speak personally, as an African American, I have experienced the trauma of racial tension, within the Restoration Movement.  I know what it feels like for my God given ethnicity to be a minimizer of my competency.  I share the same story as other pastors of color who had to wade through the discussion of if a church was “ready” for a Black pastor.  Yet, with these disparities in experience, of all of my convictions, unity must be one of my core convictions.

Jesus prayed for our oneness even though He is fully aware of the mosaic of our humanity.  Distinctiveness is not divisiveness.  Color blindness is a myth.  Rather, we require vivid cultural awareness to better view the canvas of God’s fully expressed creativity.  Distinctiveness is the full expression of the beauty of the image of God.  Yet, distinctions have often lead us toward divisions.  

Theology has been a reason to divide.  Yet, theology must be our primary reason for uniting.  Regardless of political, cultural or theological distinctions, true followers of Christ are eager to maintain unity!  That is the reason I haven’t given up on ALL of us.  I don’t have a right to steal from God what never belonged to me.  UNITY is not mine to put down.  Unity is a core doctrinal distinction of our Christian faith.  It is partially what it means to be a “Restorationist.”   

Don’t forget the words I previously shared from J.C. Ryle.  I am not preaching a flimsy unity that disregards the gospel.  Yes, convictions are necessary.  Yes, convictions must be stood on.  Yet, whatever those convictions are, UNITY MUST BE ONE OF THEM.  Unity is not about some of us.  Unity is about ALL of us.  Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!

The post “UNITY AS A CORE CONVICTION” appeared first in the December edition of the Christian Standard

Let It Do Its Work: Faith Has Its Own Goal

What if I told you that FAITH, has its own goal?  James, the brother of Jesus has this curious idea about faith, he says, we have to LET IT do its work.  There is a war going on within us.  It is a war between what we want, and what our faith wants.  That’s why James says, Let it do its work.

What we want, gets in the way of what our faith wants.  It’s things like convenience that war against our faith.  It’s things like “What we’ve always been used to,” that war against our faith.  It’s things like the good life that war against our faith.  Because those are the things that we want. But faith has its own goal.

Let me make an admission, it is people like me, pastors and teachers who have reinforced these ideas of the good life, when we are supposed to call you into, as Paul calls it, the good warfare.  How have we done this?  We have called you to the Savior, that’s GREAT, but we haven’t called you to the STRUGGLE.  Philippians 1:29 reads, “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.”  TODAY, I want to invite us into the blessed struggle. James 1:1-12 begins, 

1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings.

If you have read the book of Acts.  This letter is written regarding the scene of Acts 8 which begins at Acts 6.  It includes the persecution of Stephen.  At this time Nero was literally burning Christians alive on poles and feeding them alive to lions.  By the time we get to chapter 8, Saul is included in the persecution of the Christians.  This is the situation in which they were called to “count it all joy.”  Acts 8:4 states, Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.”  The persecution did not minimize the mission!

Although God’s people were scattered, they were not lost.  God had a messenger to deliver to them this message.  My brothers and sisters, this global pandemic, this economic crisis, and the racial division may be making you feel scattered as well, let me assure you Child of God, you are not lost.  God knows exactly where we are and He has a message for us too.  That message is found here in verse 3.

3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

Brothers and sisters, God’s desire is not to make us HAPPY, God’s desire is to make us HOLY.  God gives us this gift of faith, but faith has a purpose, and we have to let that gift do its work.  My prayer is that you will vacate this message with… 

  1. Two things to do (Count & Ask) and;
  2. Two things to be (Tested & Blessed).

The first thing for us to do, is to count.

2 Count it all JOY, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds,

This initial encouragement is cognitive.  It means to calculate, to reckon, it means to think about trials in God’s way, rather than to think about trials in our own more natural way.  Through James, God is offering us the mind of Christ!  THIS IS THE KIND OF MIND THAT WOULD LEAVE HEAVEN AND COME TO EARTH.  In other words, prior to holy speaking, and prior to holy acting, we must first have holy thinking.  The primary obstacle to holiness is our minds.  Or as the older sisters in the church used to say, “its that stinking thinking baby.”  WE DON’T COUNT IT ALL JOY, we go on Facebook and Instagram where we complain and grumble.  Our tests today don’t seem to produce growth, they usually produce groaning and complaining which actually minimizes our maturity.  We’ve got to change our thinking CHURCH, Trials are not to be seen as troubles, but as tests.  The purpose of a test is to see if a student can pass, and let me say it in the voice of the older ladies at church, the test is not to make you feint baby. 

Child of God you’re gonna be ok.  The Global Pandemic is a test for growth.  The Economic Crisis is a test for growth.  The Racial Division is a test for growth.  This is not just for us individually but for the church collectively.  Maybe you’re thinking, Rudy, I see what you’re saying but I… I just don’t think like that.  That’s why there is a 2nd thing we need to do.

The second thing for us to do is to ask.

5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ASK God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. 6 But let him ASK in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.  

9 Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, 10 and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. 11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.

James uses two illustrations to get us to understand how to ask.  We ask without doubting, and we ask from the reality of our situation.  This is not the wisdom to get activities done.  This is the wisdom to let faith do her work.  To receive this kind of wisdom, the child of God must be prudent in the asking.  First, we must ask from what faith wants, not from what we want.  Doubting, in this context, is when what we want disagrees with what faith wants.  Doubt (diakrinomenos), in this context means wavering and vacillating.  We dare not come to God being tossed side to side like a wave of the sea, or thrown up and down being blown and tossed by the wind.  Our God finds no joy with thedouble-minded (dipsychos)  which literally means two souled in this passage.  That person is unstable in all he/she does, he/she is like a spiritual staggering drunk.

One soul wants to make you happy, the other wants to make you holy

Second, we must ask from the reality of our current situation.  Poor & Rich represent the current and actual reality of those who have been scattered.  James is not saying the poor should desire to remain poor or that the rich should desire to give up being rich.  He is saying each situation creates the posture of prayer (asking).  By the way, if you look in the closet and you have 20 shirts and you say, “I have nothing to wear,”  you are the rich in this scenario.   The poor should post because his/her situation in life is a constant trial from which God is using to create growth.  From that place one should pray.  The rich should boast in their humiliation because they must push away from, or humiliate themselves by creating situations from which to struggle.  They must be generous, walk away from constant convenience and learn to depend on God.  The best situations are not always what’s best for us.  The easy life creates flowers that wither away.  God’s trying to create silver that lasts forever.

The first thing we have to be is tested.

3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.

12 Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.

Testing is what silversmiths would do to purify silver.  The word James uses was common amongst the profession.   They would ignite the fire and at a certain temperature, the impurities would rise to the top.  The worker would look at the silver and say the silver is not ready.  So they would initiate the process again.  If the silver was ready this time, they would initiate the process again.  On the third time, if the silversmith could see his reflection, then they would know it was ready.  God takes a similar process with trials for us, His children.  He places us in the fire.  He looks and says, we’re not ready.  He turns up the heat, He looks and says we’re not ready.  Then on that third go around, He looks and sees the image of God!  Now He knows that we are ready! Tested became simultaneous for proven!  The Silversmith would know it was pure, when he could see his own reflection in the silver, in a similar God uses this process for us.  God doesn’t want the low goal of making us happy, God wants to make us holy.

The second thing we want to be is blessed.

James uses the beattitudinal structure of, happy is he in verse 12.  He’s making a play on this word happy to get you where God wants you to be, which is holy.  Let me say it this way, If you get the test, you get the blessed.  I know this isn’t good English, but it’s good preaching!  Blessed comes from the test.  Now you see why we can count it all joy when we face trials of many kinds?!  Blessed is not the comfortable life.  Blessed is not the convenient life.  Blessed is not the easy life.  Blessed is the Holy life!   We just gotta let it!  Let It Do Its Work!  Faith has its own goal!

Let me calm down.  There is a war going on within us.  It is a war between what we want, and what our faith wants.  That’s why James says, Let it do its work.  God’s desire is not to make us HAPPY, God’s desire is to make us HOLY.  Oh and by the way, Holy people are usually happier people too.  Because faith is ALWAYS fruitful.

Well, If you let it…

The post “Let It Do Its Work” appeared first in the December edition of the Christian Standard