Life with God Week 3: Hol(y)istic Unity

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And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own; but all things were common property to them.

And with great power the apostles were giving witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales, and lay them at the apostles’ feet; and they would be distributed to each, as any had need. And Joseph, a Levite of Cyprian birth, who was also called Barnabas by the apostles (which translated means, Son of Encouragement), and who owned a tract of land, sold it and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet. – Acts 4:32-37 NAS

 

Business leadership, both today and in the past, has placed an emphasis on maintaining unity within the company. This concept of unity carries over beyond corporate leadership into politics, military, social organizations, families, and the church. There are at least two specific purposes for this unity. The external purpose is to show their clients and potential clients a unified front. This communicates that the team is greater than the sum of its members. It also communicates that dealing with one member of the team is the same as dealing with the whole team. The internal purpose for unity is to promote greater efficiency and productivity for the company as the whole. The idea is that if every worker puts the interests of the company above their own personal interest, the whole company will prosper more (including themselves ideally) than if every person works just for themselves. This is the lens through which we often view unity.

 

The Roman Empire enforced this sense of unity by point of sword or spear. You either put the goals of Rome first they put you down. The Jews also held a similar sense of unity (albeit to a lesser degree) and this was (at least in part) why they appreciated Jesus’ (and the apostle’s) miracles, but would not tolerate His teachings. He claimed to be a Jew, yet He would not fall in line with them for the sake of the team, and so to maintain unity, they expelled Him from their community, publicly discredited Him, and ended His life in the hopes of permanently silencing Him. Unity was important to both of these teams, the Romans and the Jews.

 

With so much of this emphasis on unity it is hard not to read this passage about the early church as these early Christians putting forth their own attempt to be a successful organization out there in the world, trying to compete with all the other religions out there for the hearts and souls of the largest amount of people… or at the very least, enough to maintain, enough to be legitimate, enough to matter. It is hard not to view them as simply giving all they have, 110% for the team… putting aside their own ambitions and hopes and dreams for the sake of the greater good of the group. We can view the growing persecutions as examples where Christians were willing to “take one for the team”.

 

However, this concept of unity is not entirely in line with God’s purpose for us as the Church. Business leadership says if one or two sheep wander off, you stay and take care of the 99 for it is better to lose one sheep than to lose the whole herd. That was precisely the logic the Jews used in sending Christ to the cross. However, Jesus taught that God’s heart looks out specifically for the least, the last and the lost, that He, as our shepherd will always leave the 99 and seek the one that has strayed away. Business leadership says that you need to cut out parts (people) from the organization whose productivity, or at least potential productivity does not exceed the amount of resources invested in them. In contrast, Paul writes to the church at Corinth that the Church is like a body and that the eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you”, nor the ear to the foot “you are just not necessary”. He explains that some parts of the body are stronger and that an important part of their purpose is to protect and honor the weaker or less dignified parts of the body. Business leadership says, we need to be investing in clients (people) who have enough resources to help the organizations ‘get ahead’. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall inherit (not buy mind you, but be given by the real owner) the earth.”

 

So how then, do we understand this unity here in the birth of the Church? We can view it in two ways. The External purpose of this unity, which Paul would elaborate on later in his letters to several churches was not to show the world the shining face of a group that could compete, but rather that in every individual, Christ would be seen. Even hundreds of years later, when official statements of belief were written down, the express purpose of this external unity was not to impress the world with how well the church “works”, but that in them, in us, all those on the outside looking in, would see Christ and that they would turn to Him, and He would transform their lives. How is this different from ‘worldly’ unity? It means we do not find our identity in who we are as a group, but in Who Christ is, and in faith, we understand that He holds all of our differences together and makes it all work. We do not do things just because everyone else is convinced it is the best thing to do for the group… we all take our direction from Christ, the head that holds us all together. We respect the authority figures that God puts in our lives, and listen and obey it diligently – unless it comes into conflict with Christ (and yes this does happen from time to time even in the Church).

 

Secondly, the Internal purpose of unity in the church is to help us all mature in Christ, to be drawn closer to Him and discover and become the people God has always intended us to be. Oddly enough, this does not always look like “productivity”. Some of us find that the maturing process does not always make us look, act, or feel bigger or stronger over time. In fact, it is often just the opposite that happens. The longer and closer we walk with God, the more we lose that childhood sensation of personal invincibility and the more often we find ourselves weak and helpless against the evil, brokenness, and desperation in the world. Helpless… but not Hopeless, for as we grow with God, we also see that for Him, nothing is impossible, and that His love motivates Him to do all things for our benefit. Not just for the benefit of His team as a whole, but for each and every single person – whether they play for His team or not. It is only through loving Christ first, before ourselves, before the Church, that we can truly pour out ourselves as an offering to Him, knowing full well that our blessing may pass on into the very hands of our enemies – just as Christ taught us to love our enemies and to pray for them. Worldly wisdom tells us that the Church is only shooting itself in the foot by blessing its enemies, yet that is precisely what Christ did throughout his ministry and the whole reason we have salvation at all. He took their “better that one should die than the whole group perish” notion and turned it on its head by willingly going through it (much to the chagrin of his followers), not because it was His desire to die, but because He trusted that His Heavenly Father could take His life, poured out in front of His enemies, and bless the entire world through His loss. But even more than that, He did it because His Heavenly Father asked Him to… and God asked Him to because He thought you and I were worth it. He thought that however many people would accept salvation, whether it be a large number or only a few, would be worth it. God gets no big return on His investment, for we have nothing to give that He does not already own. The only way that we, as the Church can truly be the Body of Christ and live and give that selflessly, is if we find our strength, our wisdom, ourselves in Christ and in Christ alone.

 

 

 


 

Life with God: Week 2 – Stumping the World with the Mystery of God

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The priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to Peter and John while they were speaking to the people.  They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people, proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead.  They seized Peter and John and, because it was evening, they put them in jail until the next day.  But many who heard the message believed; so the number of men who believed grew to about five thousand. – Acts 4:1-4

 

Jesus spent the majority of his three years of preaching and teaching using parables: stories told to illustrate a point. In doing so, he was often able to get the message across with a bit more subtlety than by explaining things more directly. Sometimes I wonder why Jesus was so mysterious at times. Sometimes his own disciples wondered why He was so mysterious at times. The further we get into the gospel, and the more explicit Jesus gets in His teaching and preaching, the more the world seems to fight back against Him. Whether through the chief priests and elders, the gentile authorities, or the people in the crowd shouting “Crucify Him!”, the world does not always appreciate hearing the Truth.

Jesus promised His disciples that they would receive the same treatment that He did. Would a servant be treated better than their master? No, and sure enough, not long after Peter and John started preaching they were met with confrontation. First the world was confused by them. Then they were mocked as being drunk men. However, when they began to back up their words with their actions, and a lame beggar received the ability to walk again, something more had to be done. The power manifested by the Holy Spirit not only proved their claims about Jesus being the Messiah to be true… it also convicted the world of murdering the Son of God. This talk had to stop. The shame had to be hidden, quickly, and quietly. So they threw Peter and John in jail and went home to think about what to do about them.

Politics – the art of covering one’s tail.

In the midst of the very political situation in Jerusalem, the Jewish leaders played politics with the Romans and with their own people to try to maintain a very tense peace. The Romans had destroyed other cities and had threatened to take away the few freedoms the Jews enjoyed, and these leaders refused to let Jesus or His followers upset their apple cart. Jesus had been their scapegoat, and now it appeared His disciples had not learned their lesson in His example, but would have to learn the hard way. It was their hope that a night in prison might cool their heads and help them see reason.

It didn’t work. It had not worked with Jesus because He was not interested in saving His own skin. It didn’t work with His disciples because they shared the same Spirit that Jesus had Himself. The worst the world could offer them was death, for themselves and those they love – yet they had seen death turned upside down and inside out by the power of their Lord and Savior. They themselves were witnesses to the Truth of God in Jesus Christ, and although they did not fully understand all that had happened, the Truth had a way of revealing itself as more powerful, more real, than any of their former attempts at surviving life under the thumb of Rome. In fact, the Truth had revealed to them that the real slave drivers were not Roman soldiers, but the sin and shame in their lives. There was no longer any need to try to hide that sin or shame, for they had at last found the cure in Christ.

I wonder if anyone tried to buy the beggar off – to offer him money to pretend he was still paralyzed. They threatened Peter and John, would it be long before the beggar would have been threatened as well. We don’t care what really happened, what is important is that you don’t make a fuss and upset the tenuous balance we all live in… Would you sell your newfound freedom for the promise of security?

Living in freedom is not easy. The ancient Israelites, following God through the wilderness, complained many times that things were easier when they were the slaves of the Egyptians. They were fed, clothed, and sheltered from the storms of life. They did not have to think for themselves. They did not have to stand up for anyone or anything. They simply had to do as they were told. Joshua told them, as they entered the Promised Land, to be bold and very courageous. Jesus told His disciples, as you have trusted in God trust also in me. We don’t have all the answers to the mysteries of God, but we are witnesses to the Truth. We know more than we can understand or explain. We are simply called to be faithful with the Truth we have as God continues to draw us near, filling us with His Spirit, and sending us to spread that Truth to the rest of the world.

The world’s plan of trying to keep things quiet backfired, as it often does, and the arrest of Peter and John probably did more to draw attention to them than in shutting them up. Indeed, some people there may have thought that it was specifically because they were thrown in jail that their message might be worth hearing. In a world filled with politics, it was probably refreshing to hear Truth, even if no one completely understood it, for there is something in each of us that desperately yearns for Truth. The world can try to drown it out with noisy chattering and accusations. It can try to threaten the messengers that bring it. It can even attack it, cover it up, and bury it… but the Truth always makes its way out and will win out over lies like the sun casting away the darkness of night. The Truth does not stay down or play dead, but rises in victory over every threat that comes its way. What is more, with every attack it endures, it turns the hearts and minds of those deceived who witness its suffering, so that, just as the soldier who pierced Jesus’ side on the cross declared “Truly, this was the Son of God.”, so the 2000 witnesses to the healing of the beggar and the arrest of Peter and John, gave their lives to Christ and became witnesses of that same Truth.

Therefore, let us patiently endure our trials, and rejoice in our weaknesses, for it is in these that God’s strength is truly shown to be perfect.

Life with God Week 1: The Honeymoon

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They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.  Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.  All the believers were together and had everything in common.  They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.  Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. – Acts 2:42-47

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.  Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. – Romans 12:1-2

 

There are a lot of non-denominational churches today, and I have participated in the ministry of several of them. Like mainline churches, they all have their strengths and weaknesses, and God somehow manages to further His kingdom through them by His grace and power. None of them are perfect. No church is perfect. I have thought for many years now that if I ever did find a perfect church I would leave immediately lest I taint the place – being a work-in-progress myself. What strikes me about many of these churches, and especially those trying to distance themselves from church traditions, is the emphasis on going back to the book of Acts, and specifically the passage above (Acts 2:42-47) as a blueprint for the way things should be when the people of God gather together.

So what did the church look like in the days and weeks immediately following Pentecost? It says the people devoted themselves to the Apostle’s teaching (which would largely have been the teachings Jesus gave them and the explanation of how Jesus fulfilled and transformed the Jewish religion by which most of them had been raised. They also spent time in fellowship (visiting and caring for one another), done specifically in having communion together (in common meals) and praying together in groups. That sounds like an excellent way to start ministry together as God’s people. Furthermore, everyone saw this community of several thousand people living together and caring for one another, working together, and putting all their wealth and resources together so that no one was poorer than the rest… and the outsiders looking in were amazed. Not only were there supernatural miracles being performed, but it looked as if there was a place on earth where people lived in peace and harmony with God and with one another – a place where sin was no more. They continued to meet in the temple courts to worship God and give Him praise and they seemed to get along with everyone as the Spirit filled them with peace and joy, and the best part to many young churches: “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

Who wouldn’t want this as a blueprint for the way church should be? Everything was going right. Everyone was getting along. Every day they all discovered something new and wonderful about what it meant to be the church. However, this is only the second chapter of a much, much longer story. This was the honeymoon period.

While the foundations that were set here are wonderful things, we need to be careful not to be overly critical of ourselves as congregations when we compare ourselves to this first congregation and realize we look quite different. As in marriage, we want to express the same love, if not more so, for our spouses as time goes on, but the particular forms in which this love is expressed change over time. It is important that they do. We cannot love our spouses on good days the exact same way we love them on bad days. The context is different and our needs change. Likewise, the church cannot act the same in good times as in times that are tough. A mature love and a mature church knows how to alter the form of its love to suit the times it is in. For example, eating meals together as a church family is an excellent form of fellowship, but when we have members sick in the hospital, our first priority is not getting them out of bed and to our church kitchen table. We find more suitable ways to extend the value of fellowship to them, usually by visiting them in the hospital. I do not specifically see “hospital visits” in this passage from Acts, but that does not mean they are not necessary or valuable. We need a mature love that takes the values that the Holy Spirit gave the early church and lives them out in our own time and place.

I think that is what Paul meant by offering our bodies as “living sacrifices”. God wants us to give our bodies and minds, all of ourselves, to Him, so that He may work through us right where we are. When we let God lead us, in all that we do, He can put us in the right place at the right time and work miraculous signs and wonders through us. Perhaps He will give you a healing prayer for a stranger in a waiting room that will open their eyes to God in a brand new way. Maybe you will have just the right word of wisdom for someone crossing your path, struggling with a particular problem. Maybe you will meet someone today who just needs to know that someone cares about them. Or maybe, God will take your “ordinary” life and show someone outside that there is a better way, and that through you, they will see Him.

 


 

A Life of Holiness: Week 6 – Blessings and Curses

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“‘Do not make idols or set up an image or a sacred stone for yourselves, and do not place a carved stone in your land to bow down before it. I am the LORD your God.

“‘Observe my Sabbaths and have reverence for my sanctuary. I am the LORD.

“‘If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands, I will send you rain in its season, and the ground will yield its crops and the trees their fruit. Your threshing will continue until grape harvest and the grape harvest will continue until planting, and you will eat all the food you want and live in safety in your land.

“‘I will grant peace in the land, and you will lie down and no one will make you afraid. I will remove wild beasts from the land, and the sword will not pass through your country. You will pursue your enemies, and they will fall by the sword before you. Five of you will chase a hundred, and a hundred of you will chase ten thousand, and your enemies will fall by the sword before you.

“‘I will look on you with favor and make you fruitful and increase your numbers, and I will keep my covenant with you. You will still be eating last year’s harvest when you will have to move it out to make room for the new. I will put my dwelling place among you, and I will not abhor you. I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt so that you would no longer be slaves to the Egyptians; I broke the bars of your yoke and enabled you to walk with heads held high.

Leviticus 26:1-13

 

In ancient times, kings often made covenants (what we might compare to a treaty) with other people in return for his protection and provision. These covenants were usually written on something that would stand the test of time and detailed the expectations of both parties. Generally, the recipients of the covenant had their specific duties laid out in the middle section of the covenant. The end, however, almost always listed the particular blessings of staying true to the covenant, and the curses for failing to live up to the king’s expectations.

This was the means by which YHWH, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, met and started relationship with the people of Israel upon their deliverance from Egypt. This is why the first five books of the Bible have so many lists of laws and ordinances. God was not simply out to make friends with the Israelite people. He could have been friends with them just as well in Egypt. No, God wanted to extend His heavenly kingdom over them, so that they would be part of His kingdom and no longer of the kingdom of Egypt. Does this sound a bit more political than spiritual? Perhaps, but recall that Pharaoh, king of Egypt demanded to be worshipped as a god himself, so if it is politics, it is spiritual politics. If that is not a scary term by today’s standards, I’m not sure what is…

Essentially, God promises three things to His people: provision, protection, and freedom. God promises to provide food and shelter for them, year in and year out. God promises to protect them from the enemies which surround them. God also promises to keep them as free servants, not as those in bondage to forced slavery. God’s love is unconditional, but these particular promises are not. These promises are contingent upon the people following His laws and continuing to serve Him as their Lord.

Perhaps that sounds a bit arrogant or mean of God to impose His will on others and bless them only if they are obedient. Recall with me though, the story of the Prodigal son, from Luke 15, where the younger son grows weary of being under his father, demands his inheritance, and sets out to live life under his own rule. What did the young man gain? Nothing. What did he lose? His provision, his protection, and finally his freedom. He discovered that life on his own was worse than being a slave in his father’s house. Jesus told that story to show the way God loves and treats His people. If we choose to go our own way, He leaves us to it.

If we look further down in Leviticus 26 and the curses for disobedience, we see that it is simply God letting us go our own way and letting us suffer the consequences of our own actions. The punishment for sin is ultimately death, and while that sounds harsh at first, we must remember that death is the natural result of unplugging yourself from the source of all life. When Jesus announced that He was “the Way, the Life, and the Truth”, he was not simply speaking in poetic metaphors. He is our connection to the God of life and there is no other way to the Father but through Him. It is a fact, like gravity, that I can complain about all day long and find ways to show it to be unfair, that it holds me back from my life ambitions and desires – but that doesn’t change it one bit. If I leap from a rooftop I can expect pain, suffering, and perhaps even death… every time.

Does that mean God’s love really is conditional, since we only experience blessings if we are obedient to Him? No. Remember, Israel cried out for help from God, for deliverance from Egypt for many years, and especially when their children were slain during the time Moses was and infant. They did not give God anything in return for their freedom. They did nothing to be offered a land of their own. They did nothing to earn God’s presence, leading them, and fighting for them in battle. In fact, if we read Israel’s history, they were far more often unfaithful than they were obedient to God’s covenant. God did not have to put up with them. Yet He still did.

More than simply tolerating, we always see God acting first in the salvation of people in the Scriptures. We get ourselves into our own messes much of the time, but God has plans in the works for our salvation and deliverance even before we mess up. You see, He wants us to be His people, but He wants us to come willingly, not under force. Revelation describes the final city of God – a vast and beautiful place, yet it has no walls for God preserves our freedom even then. We are never “stuck with God”. On our worst days, when we cannot understand what His will or His ways, we simply reply with Peter “Lord, where else can we go?” He does not try to con us into the Kingdom by offering things He cannot provide. He never promises that we will always be happy. He never promises that life will be easy. He only promises to be our Lord. He only promises Himself – His life for ours, and He has proven that in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. He is more than able. He is more than worthy. He is more than good.

Trust and Obey.

A Life of Holiness Week 5: Holy Reflection

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“‘So beginning with the fifteenth day of the seventh month, after you have gathered the crops of the land, celebrate the festival to the LORD for seven days; the first day is a day of sabbath rest, and the eighth day also is a day of sabbath rest. On the first day you are to take branches from luxuriant trees—from palms, willows and other leafy trees—and rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days. Celebrate this as a festival to the LORD for seven days each year. This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come; celebrate it in the seventh month. Live in temporary shelters for seven days: All native-born Israelites are to live in such shelters so your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in temporary shelters when I brought them out of Egypt. I am the LORD your God.'”

So Moses announced to the Israelites the appointed festivals of the LORD. – Leviticus 23:39-44

 

I have noticed that many towns find ways to celebrate their heritage, typically at the end of summer or early fall. I remember growing up celebrating Old Settlers Days in Toulon where we brought in a carnival, set up a stage for musical guests, had pageants and concerts and contests… we even had a big parade through town. Fifteen miles north of us, Kewanee, a larger city celebrated Hog Days, in many of the same ways, only on a larger scale. Israel too celebrated their heritage each year in their seventh month (which falls between September and October by our calendar). For them it was eight days of celebration, beginning and ending on a Sabbath, and was called the Feast of booths.

‘Booths’ may be a strange word for us, giving us images of carnival booths with games and snacks, and although I am sure there were plenty of games and snacks to go around during this festival – the “booths” mentioned here are more like tents – temporary shelters that can be moved from day to day. God instructed Israel to remember, every year, that He took them out of Egypt and cared for them in the wilderness for forty years. This was not a request for the people to remember “how much harder life was back in the day when your great, great grandparents were homeless, wandering in the desert…”, rather it is a call to remember God’s goodness – that even though their situation seemed hard and at the very least, not ideal, God provided for their every need, every day. God didn’t want Israel moving into the Promised Land, with all its vineyards and fertile farms, hanging out with the neighboring Philistines, and deciding they were grown up enough as a nation to no longer need God anymore. He wanted them to remember Him. In fact, being the excellent teacher He is, God instructed the Israelites to relive those precious years in the wilderness by gathering up their children, packing their bags, leaving home, and camping out in tents for the week. Only after the second sabbath were they allowed to go back to business-as-usual.

Business-as-usual is our problem. Sin boils us slowly so that we don’t know to jump until we’ve been thoroughly cooked through. God is certainly not opposed to working, in fact Scripture fully expects us to keep busy six days out of each week. The problem arises when we stop asking ourselves what we are doing and how productive we have been and instead ask ourselves when was the last time we heard God speak to us? When was the last time we met with God up close and personal? When was the last time we made time for God and let Him do with that time as He pleased?

In the wilderness, Israel had that every single day. They never ate a single meal without recognizing that it was a miracle from God. They never went to sleep at night without the knowledge that it was God who kept them safe from the armies around them. They raised their children on stories of promise – stories about a land they had never seen, but were promising to give to their children… and whenever doubt reared its ugly head in their lives, they simply had to look up – and there He was. God, in the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night, led the way.

You see, this is about more than simply stopping to smell the roses (which I also recommend). This is about remember who and Whose we are. It is about stopping to see the hand that has been at work along the way on the long journey we are on, and perhaps, seeing that same hand at work in our lives today. It is about realizing that God is our journey and that everything else is just the details we allow ourselves to get caught up in. This time of Holy Reflection helps us to remember that someday every valley will be filled, every hill flattened and the mighty mountains will be eroded down to piles of grey sand, but we will still be young by eternity’s standards, sitting at the feet of our Heavenly Father, telling our stories to each other, trying to remember what ‘hurt’ and ‘sadness’ were.