#BlackLivesMatter is a gospel issue

At The District Church, we’ve just started a series entitled “A Call for Racial Reconciliation.” Matthew kicked us off powerfully this past Sunday by talking about “Why Race Matters to God,” and included the unqualified statement that “Black Lives Matter is a gospel issue.” You can listen to that here.

How John Lewis ended up at our screening of Selma, a.k.a. A Go(o)d Step



I was standing by the entrance of the cinema when I recognized him — John Lewis, long-serving congressman from Georgia, civil rights champion, and personal hero.

I was at the theater because The District Church was hosting an advance screening of the new movie, Selma, together with two other churches — Restoration Arlington and The Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church. David Hanke (rector of Restoration), Kendrick Curry (pastor of PABC) and I had met in October as part of a Micah Group (designed by Fuller Seminary to help local pastors engage and grow in the intersection of worship, justice, and preaching). And as events in Ferguson, Staten Island, and more had hit the national headlines, bringing widespread attention to issues of race and justice, we’d naturally been talking about what our response was as local churches and as the Church.

IMG_8741Through a connection with Values Partnerships (thanks, Scott!), the organization started and led by Joshua Dubois (the former head of President Obama’s Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships), the opportunity arose to jointly host a screening of this new movie, centered around the civil rights movement and the significant events that took place in Alabama. The event was designed to bring different congregations together, to begin a conversation our role and responsibility as followers of Christ seeking the kingdom of God together.

So there we were, waiting for the event to start, checking people in, getting folks seated. And in walks John Lewis, who lived through the events portrayed in the film, together with a few other members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

My first thought was, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t go to our church! Is he coming to our screening?!

My second thought was, What are the odds? On the night you’ve scheduled a joint screening of Selma with two other churches seeking to work together toward racial reconciliation, a hero of the civil rights movement walks into the same theater?

IMG_4991It was absolutely a God thing. Josh asked if the congressman would be able to take a few moments to speak to our gathered congregations, and he graciously agreed, sharing for a few minutes about being beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, about walking with Dr. King and meeting Rosa Parks, and then speaking of the work of justice and reconciliation that continues today. He said:

We had faith. We kept our eyes on the prize. We were ready to die.

It was a challenging word, an inspiring word, a providential word.

Selma is an intense, moving, and at times overwhelming film. To know that this is part of the fabric of the history of the United States is both heart-breaking and hope-filled. Heart-breaking because of the depth of sin. Hope-filled because of the power of God working through faithful men and women.

After the movie, we set aside time to talk and to pray together, because the purpose of gathering was to begin a conversation, not just about a movie, not just about something that happened 50 years ago, but about what we’re called to as Christians, which is to see the kingdom of God come on earth, to see more of up there come down here. We want to see in the here-and-now what Dr. King called “the Beloved Community,” where “our loyalties … transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation.”

In Revelation 7, the apostle John sees “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” And they were worshiping God. That’s the future we’re moving toward.

So we broke up into small groups, got to know each other, and prayed together: three churches, from different locations in the DC metro area, with different demographics and different pastors, but “one body, one Spirit,one hope,one Lord,one faith,one baptism,one God and Father of all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).

David and Kendrick and I are continuing to talk about next steps, ways in which we can continue to partner together for the cause of the gospel. But last night was a good first step.

All thanks be to God.

The District Church’s response to Ferguson

I wanted to share with you that this afternoon, The District Church pastoral team issued the following response to recent events in Ferguson, Mo., and the issues it has brought to the surface.

You can read it on Facebook here.

Dear District Church family,

This past week, we have spent much time praying and talking together about how to respond to the latest developments from Ferguson, Mo., the grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown, and the racial divisions that this incident has exposed. We acknowledge that no response will fully encapsulate all that needs to be said, but we felt compelled to say something.

The purpose of this response, though, is pastoral and intended to talk about how we as a church and the body of Christ can respond in a prayerful, gracious, prophetic, and godly way to issues that the events in Ferguson have raised.

We are a community of faith centered on Jesus. Christ has been and must continue to be what grounds us and unifies us—not our ethnicity, race, language, political leaning, gender, sexual orientation, nation or state of origin, documented status, or current neighborhood of residence. In a nation and world inflamed by division, we are to be a living witness that in Christ there is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all (Eph. 4:3-6).

Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). As the church, we are called to live out a foretaste of this grander, God-sized vision—to be the beloved community, where the divisions that we know all too well would no longer keep us from loving one another (Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11). We seek to be a community where when those who are different from us are mourning and grieving, we also mourn and grieve—because “if one part suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Cor. 12:26).

As a diverse church, we should always be seeking to learn from one another and sharing with one another, believing that without hearing the voices of those who are different from us—and particularly the voices of those who have been oppressed or marginalized—we are less than we should be. In the wake of Ferguson and the widely divergent responses, the need and opportunity for these kinds of interracial relationships and conversations is starkly apparent.

At The District Church, we are committed to the work of justice; it stands as one of our core values, one of the central tenets of a life lived in service to God (Mic. 6:8). In response to God’s generous justice to us, our efforts at justice are not only about the work that we do in working for justice but also about the kind of people we are becoming in the process. How we respond to unjust situations—and our city’s and nation’s history of injustice—matters. As followers of Jesus—the only just and righteous one—we have been given the ministry of reconciliation and the responsibility to become more aware of the sin in our hearts and in the world, even as we pray for the Spirit of God to effect the work of redemption in us and through us for the sake of justice and God’s kingdom.

Specifically, we must learn the insidious story of racism in the United States and in Washington, DC. It is a cancer that affects everything from politics to education to poverty to HIV/AIDS to the criminal justice system. Without an awareness of the most prevalent, underlying issue in our city, we cannot hope to make any significant impact on the very place we claim to be for. More significantly for this current situation, we will fail to understand and empathize with the deep-seated pain, grief, anger, and confusion felt by the African-American community, including many in our own church. The reality is that race still matters, and that throughout our nation’s history black lives have been treated as worth less than other lives.

We inhabit what is called the already-but-not-yet, the time when Jesus has already come to inaugurate the kingdom of God on earth but he has not yet returned to bring the fullness of heaven down to earth. Much progress has been already been made in terms of civil rights for African-Americans but we are clearly not yet free from racism. In light of the fuller gospel story that we have been learning (Creation, Fall, Redemption, Renewal), we must remember and remind ourselves that we have been sent together to heal and be representatives of Christ’s renewing and reconciling work in the midst of a broken and fallen world (2 Cor. 5:20).

Therefore, understanding that injustice will never be eradicated until Christ’s return but that our calling is to seek justice anyway, understanding that the sin of racism will not be wiped out until Christ’s return but that our calling is to work toward that goal in the meantime, what are we to do?

First: Pray together. Prayer is the most powerful weapon we have in our arsenal against the principalities and powers against which we struggle. Ephesians 6 says that our struggle is not against “flesh and blood” but against these principalities and powers. In other words, this is not a fight against specific people, groups of people, political parties, or media outlets. This is a battle in the spiritual realm against Satan and the ways he seeks to rob, steal, destroy, and counter Christ’s mission to seek, save, heal, and unite. We encourage you to pray together, with those from whom you are different, hearing one another’s perspectives and coming together to talk to the same God and Father. We believe God is glorified and his kingdom advances when the body of Christ unites to pray and to seek his face and his will together.

Second: Listen, learn, and share. If you don’t understand the depth of the emotion felt by the African-American community, take time to listen. And then listen some more. Don’t jump to conclusions. Don’t act like you know it all. In humility, genuinely seek to learn, opening your heart and your mind to the possibility that things may not be as you always thought them to be.

For the African-American members of our family, we want you to know that we grieve with you and that we hurt with you; our hearts are heavy. We understand that the emotion is raw, that the pain is deep, that discouragement may seem ever-present. We ask you, in your own time, to be open to walking with the wider community of faith as we move toward better understanding and empathy for one another, and justice for all.

To all: remember that we as Christians can agree that ending racism is good, and disagree about how to best achieve this. Remember that we are all sinful, broken people, with limited perspectives; no one but God has the whole picture. Don’t be afraid to be have difficult conversations in love, offering grace to one another and seeking to understand more than you seek to be understood. Be humble. Our God desires to reconcile all people to himself and to one other. We are called to be a church that embodies and displays that reconciling gospel. Such a display is deeply needed in this moment.

There are many things we can do in light of our nation’s recent events to increasingly reflect Christ’s coming kingdom here in our city and across our nation and our world. These are just the beginning.

In unrelenting hope because of everything Christ has already done and everything Christ has promised to do,

The District Church Pastoral Team

Aaron Graham | Matthew Watson | Amy Graham | Justin Fung

Ferguson, a broken world, and the authority of Jesus

On Sunday, I preached from Luke 4:31-44 on Jesus’ authority and healing. Last night, the grand jury returned a decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown. I’m still processing and praying through this, still figuring out how I’m supposed to respond. I didn’t write my message or preach with the Ferguson decision in mind, but I guess there was a reason God wanted me to be thinking these things through before yesterday evening. What I do know is that we live in a fallen world, where authority is not always exercised justly and healing is an ever-present need.

So here’s an excerpt from Sunday’s message — “The Authority of Jesus, a.k.a. Kicking Butt and Taking Names.” (You can listen to the full sermon here.)

Preaching, Nov 23, 2014

I’m sure we can all call to mind people in positions of authority; we might think of the President, Members of Congress, judges, police officers, teachers, or doctors. And we might also be able to call to mind what it looks like when folks abuse their authority—the Watergate scandal, for instance; corrupt government officials who line their pockets at the expense of those they’re supposed to be serving; doctors who take advantage of their patients or teachers who take advantage of their students.

But just like sin is not just the things we do but also the things we should do but we don’t, when those in authority don’t exercise it when they should, that’s also a problem: recently, the police in Hong Kong chose not to intervene when peaceful protesters were attacked; or the last four years have seen the most unproductive sessions of Congress in recent history—and, given that there’s so much still to do, I think we have the responsibility to call our elected representatives to use their authority to better serve the common good. Because, in fact, everyone exercises some sort of authority: parents over their children, celebrities over their fans, pastors over their congregations, voters over their representatives, and so on.

The biblical understanding of authority is much like the non-biblical understanding of authority, in that it’s connected to power, particularly to the legitimate use of power, and it could simply be defined as the “right to effect control over objects, individuals or events.” But the biblical understanding of authority is much more than that, too. It goes right back to creation, when God created human beings in his image—to be like him—and said to them, in Genesis 1:28:

Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.

That’s God delegating power so that the world might flourish, so that God’s kingdom might be seen on earth, so that all might be in right relationship with God, with one another, and with creation.

That’s the purpose of authority: that humanity might flourish.

That’s how authority should be measured: does it move us closer to God’s kingdom on earth?

In Jesus, we find the truest embodiment of authority rightly and responsibly exercised. Everything Jesus said and did brought more of up there down here. Theologian Darrell Bock writes:

Evil has severe angst in the presence of righteousness ready to be exercised.

When authority is rightly and responsibly exercised by a president, by a legislator, by a judge, by an officer of the law, by a teacher, by a doctor, by a nurse, by a famous person, by a parent, by a pastor, by you in whatever capacity you have been given a measure of control—when authority is rightly and responsibly exercised to bring more of God’s kingdom to earth, evil has severe angst.

Think about that: what you do matters; what you do with your life on the big picture level as well as what you do in your everyday has bearing on whether the kingdom of God advances or not. How you treat the homeless person you pass on the street; how much effort you put into your work; how much attention you give to your spouse; how you respond to people who are different from you or who disagree with you; how you forgive those who wrong you; how you deal with messing up—these are all instances where you can exercise the authority you’ve been given, and they all have bearing on whether the kingdom of God advances or not. What you do matters.

We inhabit what some theologians call the already-but-not-yet. See, the kingdom of God is at the same time past, present, and future. We know that Jesus came to earth, 2,000 years ago, and at that time, the kingdom of God entered into human history in a way it had never done before—the demons were cast out, the sick were healed, the truth of God and the word of God were embodied in a living, breathing human being—that’s the already. We know that Jesus will come again, to finish the work he started, setting all things right, reconciling all things to himself, bringing the fullness of heaven down to earth—but that is not yet here. And so in the present, in the here-and-now, the Holy Spirit is at work in us and through us—as the people of God and the body of Christ—revealing more of that same kingdom, proclaiming the good news of that kingdom, in the midst of the ravages of the Fall in sin and sickness and death.

Any healing that happens this side of Christ’s return points toward the story of the gospel and the renewal that has not yet come but is promised. But any healing that happens this side of Christ’s return will always be incomplete. We and our loved ones will still get sick, we will not always be healed, we will still die. But God’s story moves toward ultimate healing—no death, no sickness, no tears. It’s coming.

Lord Jesus, even as we give you thanks for living the life we could not live and dying the death we could not die and being raised to life that we might be made new, we long for you to come back.

In the here-and-now, break the chains of our sin and sickness and death. Heal us from the ravages of our wounds both physical and psychological, both mental and emotional. Liberate us from our addictions. Be the light in our darkness; be the hope in our disappointment; be the joy in our loss.

Set us free so that we might walk in the life you desire for us to live—life to the full, eternal life. Remind us that we live and move and have our being in Christ, that we have been given authority as image-bearers of the Most High, authority as redeemed children of our Father in heaven, authority as ambassadors of Christ in a hurting and broken world.

We pray these things in the name of the One who was wounded so that we might be made whole, in the power of the name of Jesus. Amen.