Life in Koinonia: Week 4 – Marks of the Koinonia

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“You shall keep my statutes. You shall not let your cattle breed with a different kind.  You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor shall you wear a garment of cloth made of two kinds of material.

“If a man lies sexually with a woman who is a slave, assigned to another man and not yet ransomed or given her freedom, a distinction shall be made. They shall not be put to death, because she was not free; but he shall bring his compensation to the Lord, to the entrance of the tent of meeting, a ram for a guilt offering.  And the priest shall make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt offering before the Lord for his sin that he has committed, and he shall be forgiven for the sin that he has committed.

“When you come into the land and plant any kind of tree for food, then you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden to you; it must not be eaten.  And in the fourth year all its fruit shall be holy, an offering of praise to the Lord.  But in the fifth year you may eat of its fruit, to increase its yield for you: I am the Lord your God.

“You shall not eat any flesh with the blood in it.  You shall not interpret omens or tell fortunes.  You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard.  You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord.

“Do not profane your daughter by making her a prostitute, lest the land fall into prostitution and the land become full of depravity.  You shall keep my Sabbaths and reverence my sanctuary: I am the Lord.

“Do not turn to mediums or necromancers; do not seek them out, and so make yourselves unclean by them: I am the Lord your God.

“You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.

“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong.  You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

“You shall do no wrong in judgment, in measures of length or weight or quantity.  You shall have just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.  And you shall observe all my statutes and all my rules, and do them: I am the Lord.”

  • Leviticus 19:19-36

 

“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.  For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other,  to keep you from doing the things you want to do.  But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.  Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.  But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.  And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”

  • Galatians 5:16-24

 

I don’t like needles. I know they help save lives in hospitals and doctor’s offices, but I would just as well avoid them if at all possible. I also do not particularly like pain. These things inform my reading of Scripture, so when I come across verses in the Old Testament like Leviticus 19:28 that says, “do not mark your bodies with cuts for the dead or tattoos”, you won’t get any argument from me. However, my understanding God’s Word is rarely most accurate when it is fueled by fear or predispositions. This particular verse is set in the middle of a chapter dealing with instructions on holy living for the Israelites as they set out to start a new community, a new Koinonia, as God’s people. Right along with this rule against tattoos are a series of others – some which I also have no objection, such as no eating blood, and others that do not seem quite as important. The forbidden fruit, for instance…

 

According to the law of Leviticus, if you plant a fruit tree, you are forbidden to eat its fruit until 3 years have passed, and in the fourth year, before we eat the fruit, we offer it all up as an offering to God. Only after 5 years is it permissible to eat that fruit. Now Bekah and I have not planted any fruit trees, but we did plant a small garden patch this year: tomatoes, zucchini, pumpkin, and strawberries, and we have no intention of waiting 5 years before enjoying the fruit of that labor. Now, I realize that, with trees, it makes sense to let them grow for awhile before harvesting them as opposed to garden vegetables, but then, vegetables are not really mentioned – which leaves us with a couple choices. Either we can assume that garden vegetables are fine since there is no Scripture regarding them, or we can choose to play it safe and wait 5 years before enjoying our garden.

 

What about verse 27 that tells us not to “round off the hair on our temples” or trim the edges of our beards? I am pretty sure this would at least put most guys I know in trouble – the same kind of trouble as the tattoo taboo mind you. Perhaps I need to choose my next barber with a bit more care than I have in the past. When confronted with laws like these, that go against the grain of our way of life, we often play the culture card and decide that shaving is acceptable for us because that law was just for Israel, for that specific time. We can look into their history and see that shaving heads and beards were often tied with religious practices, especially among the pagan nations, such as Egypt, and that although it was necessary for them to separate themselves from the pagan nations around them and those specific practices, we live in a different time and place and short hair and shaved faces on men does not mean the same thing today for us as it did for them… therefore it should be allowed. Why not tattoos then? This command is shared with a rule for not cutting marks in your flesh for the dead, as a pagan spiritual practice… why shouldn’t tattoos be allowed as long as they are not done for religious purposes? What is wrong with “I love Mom”, or a tattooed wedding ring, or a cross? Wouldn’t it be perfectly acceptable to tattoo something to remind us of God?

 

I the midst of similar cultural clashing over Scripture, the Apostle Paul wrote this:

“All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything.” – 1 Corinthians 6:12

 

In other words, check your motive for whatever you are doing. If your conscience is not sure, then don’t do it… but don’t judge others who have clear consciences in what they choose to do. God reserves the right of judgment for Himself.

 

So God-honoring tattoos are acceptable then? Perhaps. Let me close with one short story. I thought crosses looked cool when I was a teenager, even before I became a Christian, and I wore a necklace with a cross on it for a number of years. After I became a Christian I continued wearing a cross necklace, although the reason had changed. Rather than look impressive, I wanted to remind people of Jesus by wearing it. However, my first week of college I met a fellow classmate who was a Christian but refused to wear crosses or any kind of Christian symbol. He told me his reason was that he wanted people to know He was a Christian by the way he acted, not by what he wore. I put away my own necklace that day and have not looked back. I have very few Christian t-shirts. I have not Christian tattoos (or any tattoos for that matter). Nor do I have Christian bumper stickers on my car. I want people to see Jesus in the way I drive, the way I act, and the way I treat them, not in something worn, painted, or etched into my appearance. It is not that I think those other things are sinful or wrong, it’s that I think they are missing the real “marks” of Christianity. Paul told the Galatians, the real marks of faith in Christ are: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. You cannot buy any of those things. You can only pray that God will call them out of you so you would live your life in such a way that the world would see them upon you as if they were etched in you in holy ink. The true marks are on the inside, working their way out.

 

 


 

Life in Koinonia: Week 3 – Work in Koinonia

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“For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.  After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.  And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’  So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same.  And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’  They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’  And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’  And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius.  Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius.  And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’  But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius?  Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you.   Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’  So the last will be first, and the first last.” – Matthew 20:1-16

 

“For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” – 2 Thessalonians 3:10

 

“For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.” – James 2:26

 

There are two types of teaching interwoven throughout the Bible, and the New Testament in particular. The first type of teachings, often referred to as theology, are lessons we learn about what to believe or how to understand God, ourselves, and the world around us. This type of teaching is often marked by sayings like “For the Kingdom of heaven is like…” and more often than not use non-literal language such as metaphor and allegory. It is difficult to find descriptive and accurate language to describe heavenly things, to which our own world is but a shadowy reflection. The second type of teaching is ethical teaching which tells us what to do and how to behave. These may come in general terms – such as “Do not lie” (Commandment #9) or in very specific terms (such as the purification rites in Leviticus), but these ethical teachings all use the literal language of imperative and instruction. While these two types of teaching are distinct in their forms, they are rarely found very far from each other in the Scriptures. Theology without ethics is simply a clever way of viewing things without any particular consequence on real life. Ethics without theology is an unjustified, arbitrary list of rules. One informs the other as we move back and forth between them.

 

Work is an underappreciated countermelody throughout the themes Scripture. Typically, we preach and teach about unconditional love, forgiveness, temptation and sin, and when planning out the budget: giving… but it is not all that often that we hear sermons about work. This is unfortunate because it has been a long time since the issue of work has been as influential in our lives as it is today. Amidst an economic recession, continuing layoffs, business foreclosures, and consequent unemployment – coupled with rising insurance, health, food, and gas prices, we live in turbulent and trying times. Politicians go back and forth between trying to provide federal assistance to help the unemployed and underemployed with a higher cost of living and freeing up the corporate tax burden in hopes that they will raise the overall economy with their profits and provide more employment again. It is a heated debate from both sides.

 

Many side with Paul, who told the Christians of Thessolanike, “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.” Many had lost the hope that Christ would return and began taking advantage of the generosity of those around them. The theology backing up Paul’s ethical command to them was to remember that Christ could come back at any minute and we want to caught doing well rather than being idle. He tells them along the lines of a very old adage – old even when the Philosopher Plato was teaching: “Mind your own business.” While we have taken that saying and warped it to mean, “stay out of my personal space”, it was originally used as a reminder that keeping your nose to the grindstone kept you out of trouble while idle hands were the mark of busybodies, gossips, and those who lived dishonorably and unproductively. To Plato, and to Paul, work was a responsibility of all people and a means of living a life of honor.

 

Others however, look to passages like the above from James. While it at first looks like James sides with Paul here, he writes in the context of seeing those in need and not helping them. James reminds the Jewish Christians that caring for the poor, for those whose needs are not met, is a primary work of Christians. In other words, if we work 50 hours a week at a job as a responsible person while neglecting the needs of the poor we pass on the street every day, makes us no better than the poor man who refuses to work and wants to live off what he can beg from others… it’s just another side of the same coin. Work from God’s perspective means more than putting in your hours so you can pay your bills – as important as that may be.

 

Jesus often used work in his descriptions of the Kingdom of God and in the passage from Matthew 20, I think Jesus speaks to both sides of this debate. He tells a story of a farmer who goes to the market to find farmhands during harvest season. He arrives at dawn and hires a crew of workers for a day’s wage. After three hours though, he decides he needs more help so he returns to the market at gets a few more recruits. Throughout the day, he returns and adds more workers to the crew, even up until the last hour of work and then, at the end of the day he has his servants pay the workers, starting from the last hired and ending with the first. Surprisingly though, the farmer pays his workers all the same wage, even though the first worker worked perhaps 10 hours more than the last one. When they question the farmer, as to why they were not paid more, he tells them that it is his money and he can do with it whatever he wants to… that if he wants to be generous with his money, he has every right to and that they should “mind their own business” (ironic, considering this is the crew that spent the day working instead of being idle in the marketplace). They, like the older brother in the story of the Prodigal Son, are indignant that their brothers who did not do the work and put in the time, should be treated the same as them.

 

Here then may be the moral to the story. Work is a gift. We don’t get to heaven by putting in a certain number of hours or by serving a certain amount of people. We will however look back with regret on time squandered away if we live our lives idly and selfishly. A life lived simply for self loses purpose and meaning quickly, whether we have a job or not. There are also types of work that may not provide a paycheck, but are more important in the Kingdom of God, than those jobs that do, and as Christians, we need to be sure we are not neglecting them. Certainly we should encourage those who are down and out to find gainful employment, and perhaps help them in that process ourselves, but to ignore them in their time of need is to be lazy in the things of God, neglecting the love of neighbor. What of our witness? We often wonder why so many people think that you get to heaven by being “good enough”, but what kind of Jesus do we show them when we look down upon them for not working. Certainly, we do no one any favors when we allow them to take advantage of generosity without the encouragement to pass on that generosity to others, but we cannot let a few bad apples prevent us from continuing to bear fruit ourselves. We don’t need to be judges of fairness, because God is not as interested in giving us what we deserve (thankfully), but rather what He desires us to have and what we need, and what is the value of five, ten, or even several hundred dollars compared with the value of a soul – a lost child returned to their Heavenly Father. That is our real job here: Bringing home our lost brothers and sisters. Whenever we let our earthly work, or lack thereof, prevent us from living out the true work we have been called into – we have missed the mark.

 


 

Life in Koinonia: Week 2 – Success in Koinonia

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Psalm 145

A Song of Praise. Of David.

 

I will extol you, my God and King,

and bless your name forever and ever.

Every day I will bless you

and praise your name forever and ever.

Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised,

and his greatness is unsearchable.

One generation shall commend your works to another,

and shall declare your mighty acts.

On the glorious splendor of your majesty,

and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.

They shall speak of the might of your awesome deeds,

and I will declare your greatness.

They shall pour forth the fame of your abundant goodness

and shall sing aloud of your righteousness.

The Lord is gracious and merciful,

slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

The Lord is good to all,

and his mercy is over all that he has made.

 All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord,

and all your saints shall bless you!

 They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom

and tell of your power,

 to make known to the children of man your mighty deeds,

and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.

 Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,

and your dominion endures throughout all generations.

[The Lord is faithful in all his words

and kind in all his works.]

 The Lord upholds all who are falling

and raises up all who are bowed down.

 The eyes of all look to you,

and you give them their food in due season.

 You open your hand;

you satisfy the desire of every living thing.

 The Lord is righteous in all his ways

and kind in all his works.

 The Lord is near to all who call on him,

to all who call on him in truth.

 He fulfills the desire of those who fear him;

he also hears their cry and saves them.

 The Lord preserves all who love him,

but all the wicked he will destroy.

 My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord,

and let all flesh bless his holy name forever and ever.

 

“History is written by the victors” – Winston Churchill

 

Winston Churchill is right. How many American History books are written by men whose ancestors came from Europe as opposed to Native Americans? When was the last time you saw a book on the history of WWII written by a former Nazi? How many Canaanite authors can you recall? Standing in a bookstore with entire sections devoted to Christian literature and Bibles might give Christians cause to believe that Jesus took over the world the day He rose from the grave and that nothing can stand against us anymore. We can even pull out Scripture verses like Philippians 4:13 in an attempt to see Christ as our source of success and good fortune in life. We read Psalms like the one above, comparing it with Romans 8 and ask ourselves with Paul, “if God is for us, who can be against us?”… and the whole concept blurs into the idea that we are untouchable and guaranteed success in life simply because God loves us.

 

That is a viscous, twisted misunderstanding to untangle, and for those who do not find success in their lives… for those who are very touchable and know suffering firsthand, the idea is offensive. Indeed, has there ever been a greater cause that drove people away from church and away from faith in Christ than the broken promise that Jesus would make everything better? The idea that Christianity is that God works to help us become successful has been coined, “The Prosperity Gospel”. From what I have read from the four Gospels in the Bible, I’m not sure if the disciples, who walked with Jesus in the flesh and were trained by Him in person, would want to laugh or cry at this notion. Only one of the twelve died of “natural causes”, the rest were tortured and executed for their faith. Indeed, many of the first Christians had their lives shortened, were cast out of their homes and families, and were thrown in prison with their belongings sold away or stolen… all because of their faith in Christ. That doesn’t sound like success to me. What about the Jews, who upheld this Psalm for perhaps 3,000 years? Was this psalm sung or recited in the concentration camps during WWII – that “the Lord preserves all those who love Him, but all the wicked He will destroy.” If I read my history books right, the Jews did not win WWII. From what I have read, the Russians out-wintered a Nazi Army whose grasp had overextended it’s reach, and Japan was brought low by two gigantic bombs, but not before millions of Jews were systematically executed and worse. Even before that, Israel, the nation God chose to be His personal lighthouse was a force to be reckoned with under the latter years of King David and Solomon, but within two generations, was brought low by civil war, and has never fully recovered that heritage or prominence. Instead, Israel has spent most of its history as the underdog.

 

Perhaps God does love the underdogs of the world though. Most of the heroes in the Bible were plagued with weaknesses that were only overcome by God’s help. David was the last one to be picked. Samson was arrogant and prideful. Moses had a temper problem. Aaron was a people-pleaser. Peter was over-confident. Paul was an over-zealous legalist… and while each of them may have had strengths and talents in certain areas of their lives, they could never have accomplished what God had meant for them, without God’s help – but I doubt that they would have chosen the lives God meant for them. You see, we chase after the Prosperity Gospel like moths to the flame, but true Christian faith follows Christ through the cross before we get to heaven. True faith follows regardless of success or failure, regardless of pain or fortune, and it finds a deeper reward in the suffering knowing that it draws closer to Christ. Certainly, God loves the underdogs of the world, but He loves the rich and famous as well, and sees them all as His creation, His precious children, therefore will not allow anything to come between Himself and us – be it foreign armies, natural disasters, or even our success.

 

Looking back over the ages, I suspect that life is less about learning to be right so that we are worthy of God’s love, and more about learning to be loved so God can make us right. How does that play out in our fellowship, our Koinonia? We rejoice with those who are rejoicing and we weep with those who weep. We stand with them through the storms and we let others stand with us through our own – remembering that we are no more or less loved than those that we serve. We can chase after success and fulfillment our whole life and miss out on the most important love right in front of us. Oddly enough, I cannot recall a single Scripture verse or story that talks about chasing after God, and yet some of the most famous stories are about God chasing after us. We have only to turn and face Him, and in doing so, in being honest in our own faith and faith struggles, we bear witness to the God Who is, Who was, and Who is to come rather than a false idol used to prop ourselves up a little higher.

 

Winston Churchill was right. History is written by the victors. It will not be written by Christians who conquer and colonize the world in their own image though. It will be written by Christ, whose love cannot be stopped.

 

 

 


 

Life in Koinonia: Week 1 – How do you spell Koinonia?

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But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together.  And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.  “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”  And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the great and first commandment.  And a second is like it:  You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” – Matthew 22:34-40

 

Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.  Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.  And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.  Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.  The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.
– James 5:13-16

 

John Wesley, to whom the honor of “Founder of Methodism” is given, was, by all accounts, a bright, dedicated, headstrong, and straightforward young man who sought to escape sin and pave a road of righteousness across Colonial America. Sadly, he had not the humility to truly engage the Native Americans, nor silver tongue enough to charm the colonists – many of whom had come to America to escape from such authorities in their life as the Church of England. John was not the greatest preacher, nor the finest bible scholar, although he was certainly adequate at both. He was well-read and wrote books of his own, although most were forms of correspondence or instructional, rather than theological treatises like many of the former and latter theologians wrote. In many ways, he was just your average, young preacher.

 

The thing that set John apart from others was his determination to rid his life of sin. Few others in history can boast of the attempts at living a life totally committed to God, a life that reflected the words of John the Baptist when he told his disciples, “He (Christ) must become greater; I must become less.” (John 3:30) Even before he truly understood the depth of God’s grace and forgiveness, and the power of the Holy Spirit, John had a firm grasp on God’s holiness and an unquenchable thirst to live a life worthy of God. How frustrating it must have been for him at times, as it is for ourselves, when we want to do what is pleasing to God, but instead find ourselves doing just the opposite. What John Wesley is perhaps best remembered for, and perhaps what he gave most to the church, was the means for Christians to overcome temptation in their lives with Koinonia.

 

What is Koinonia? Koinonia is a Greek word that translates loosely into “fellowship” or “community”. However, it is used particularly of the Church to indicate a joining together of people of all backgrounds, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and the transformation of those people into a holy family, recreated in the image of God. They are the wearers and bearers of God’s love. How do you spell Koinonia? John Wesley spelled it A-C-C-O-U-N-T-A-B-I-L-I-T-Y.

 

Accountability is might best be described as watching each other’s backs or looking out for one another. It is not fault-finding or criticizing one another. It is not done so that we might feel better about ourselves after finding things wrong in those around us. True accountability is motivated simply by love. As we begin to understand that sin is not so much a fault or blemish that we have, it is a hand that the enemy has upon us, love compels us to free our neighbors from the bondage of sin, just as we ourselves desire to be free. Accountability is also voluntary and never forced. John wrote a letter to the early Methodist groups, reminding them to ask their members to be sure they were willing to hear “the plain truth” about themselves, given without reservation, before they entered into an accountability group. Once in the group, the members were to be completely open and honest with one another, answering questions such as:

 

  1. What known sins have you committed since our last meeting?
  2. What temptations have you met with?
  3. How were you delivered?
  4. What have you thought, said, or done, of which you doubt whether it is sin or not?

 

Accountability is essential for us to grow spiritually. John Wesley encouraged people to gather together for prayer and to hear one another’s confessions and receive encouragement, so that we would not be divided and conquered by evil, but overcome evil with the goodness of God’s love instead. Those early Methodists got very personal with each other, not to be nosy or mean, but because they understood that sin thrives and spreads in the darkness, but withers and dies in the light of truth. While the sin in us may kick and scream as we usher it into the light of day, we can rest assured that we will not find condemnation, but rather forgiveness, and power to overcome such temptation in the future – especially when we realize we are not fighting our own battle with sin alone, and, while the enemy may know our own weaknesses, he cannot account for the variety of strengths we exhibit when we stand together and fight for one another.