Fearless and Free During Economic Storms III

May 14, 2009

Note: This is the second of six small group studies that are coordinated with a sermon series by Dean Barham, the preaching minister at the Woodmont Family of God. Eventually, his sermons will be available here. The first small group study lesson is here and the full series is available on my Serial page.

Let Go, and Use It: The Parable of the Unjust Steward
Luke 16:1-15

Although the NIV leaves out the word, the text begins with an “also” as if this parable is an addendum to the parables Jesus told in Luke 15 (the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost boy). Those parables were directed, at least in part, toward the Pharisees (Luke 15:12). Interestingly—and confirming this point—Jesus’ application of this parable is directed toward the Pharisees as well (16:14-15).

While the Pharisees scoffed at the parable and many believers have wondered about the propriety of the parable (it uses a dishonest servant as a model!), Jesus is very clear and decisive about the point of the story (16:9): “I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” The NIV actually softens the language here a bit—the text reads “unrighteous wealth” rather than merely “worldly wealth.”

Money is viewed in this text as “unrighteous” and as a god that competes with the Lordship of God.
At one level Jesus advises his disciples (“people of light”) to use their money shrewdly (wisely, intelligently) as this dishonest servant did. As disciples we neither waste nor hoard money. Rather, we see money as a resource for eternal benefit; we see it as a way to further the kingdom of God. In particular, the children of light use their money to serve the kingdom of light which has eternal consequences for others as well as ourselves.

At another level Jesus critiques the idolatrous nature of loving money. The Pharisees loved money and served it. When we love money we bow before it and it controls us. Instead, we are called to serve God without our money—and to serve him shrewdly (wisely).

James A. Harding (1848-1922), co-founder of Lipscomb University, constantly emphasized these two principles. For example, he applied them to whoever operates their “business, whatever that may be, solely for the advancement of God’s kingdom; if [everyone] should consider [themselves] as being in the world simply and solely for that purpose, what a wonderful change we would have in the world!”[1] “I believe,” Harding wrote, “that Christians should use their surplus promptly for the poor, the sick and the kingdom of God.”[2]

The wise manager of their money, Jesus seems to say, will shrewdly devote to the interests of the kingdom of God rather than hoard it as a lover of money or waste it through self-indulgence. Even “unrighteous wealth” may serve the kingdom and the disciples of Jesus do not use it for the sake of the kingdom of light they may find themselves worshipping mammon rather than serving their master.

The deceitfulness of this mammon means that we often find ourselves in a self-justifying and defensive mode. Jesus reorients us to the use of money, a shrewd and wise use, for the sake of the kingdom of God as a way to invest in God’s eternal kingdom project. Here is where discipleship lies when the choice is between mammon and the master.

Questions:

  1. What was it about the Pharisees that moved them to scoff at the parable and its meaning?
  2. What is that Jesus commends about “shrewdness”? What would contrast with “shrewdness” in the use of money?
  3. What do you think about the sentiments of James A. Harding? In what ways do they resonate with you or not?
  4. What is the propriety of using “unrighteous wealth” for making “friends”? Does something about that run against your values?
  5. What are some “shrewd” or “wise” ways to use money for the benefit of the kingdom of God?

References

[1] James A. Harding, “The Contradictory Theories,” The Way 3 (4 April 1901) 4.

[2] James A. Harding, “Reflections Suggested by My Trip to Odessa, MO,” Christian Leader & the Way 22.8 (25 February 1908) 8.


Fearless and Free During Economic Storms II

May 8, 2009

Note: This is the second of six small group studies that are coordinated with a sermon series by Dean Barham, the preaching minister at the Woodmont Family of God. Eventually, his sermons will be available here. The first small group study lesson is here.

Free From Greed, Free to Share
1 Timothy 6:2b-19

Free From Greed

There are those who love money so much that they think “godliness is a means to financial gain,” but “godliness with contentment is great gain.” Greed distorts what is really important; it perverts the pursuit of godliness into a financial adventure. The love of money corrupts everything it touches.

The love of money—the idolatry of money—is expressed in a desire to “get rich” which is the flip side of a lack of contentment. “Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income” (Ecclesiastes 5:10).

The pursuit of wealth without contentment results in “many griefs” because that agenda is a “trap” that leads to “ruin and destruction.” It blinds and ensnares us. Wealth without contentment is sinking sand whereas generosity is a “firm foundation.”

Free to Share

The freedom to share is nurtured by the development of a character that pursues “righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.” Formed by these virtues disciples are “generous and willing to share.”

The pursuit of wealth without sharing is arrogance and trusts wealth rather than God. Stinginess, the inability to share, indicates stunted spiritual growth; it is ungodliness—to be unlike God himself.

The wealthy are commanded “to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.” To “do good” is a Jewish expression for benevolence as in, for example, James 4:17: “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.” The heart of the wealthy is tested by whether it shares or not, whether it can be generous like God.

Godliness the Key

Godliness—living as God’s partner in the present age—frees us from greed so that we are free to share. This freedom is the “treasure” that offers a “firm foundation for the coming age.” This “treasure” enables us to “take hold of the life that is truly life.”

Contentment, character and charitableness are intimately woven together in the freedom of godliness. Dissatisfaction, arrogance and miserliness are intimately woven together in the snare of greed.

Greed enslaves but godliness liberates, and when godliness liberates, we become generous people just as God himself is generous with us in providing “us with everything for our enjoyment.”

Questions for Discussion

  1. What are some of the characteristics of those who use godliness for “financial gain”? What are some of the characteristics of a godly person? What does this text say about who God is?
  2. Given 1 Timothy 6:17-19, what “sermon” would you share with the “rich”? Do you sense a measure of discomfort with that sermon? Why?
  3. Why is the pursuit of wealth a snare? What makes it a snare? Is there a pursuit of wealth that is not a snare? Why do you think so? Why are human beings so susceptible to this snare?
  4. How do we know whether we are “loving money” or not? What “tests” or “questions” can we apply to ourselves to discern this in our character?
  5. What does contentment mean? What does it look like in our lives?
  6. As wealthy Americans, do we find ourselves defensive when it comes to how we use our wealth? If so, why?

Fearless and Free During Economic Storms I

May 3, 2009

Note: This is the first of six small group studies that are coordinated with a sermon series by Dean Barham who is the preaching minister at the Woodmont Family of God. Eventually, his sermons will be available here.

 “His Righteousness Endures Forever”: Two Hymns

Psalms 111 & 112

 

Vers

Psalm 111

Psalm 112

 

 

1 

 

 

 

 

2

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 

 

 

 

4 

 

 

 

5

 

 

 

 

 

6

 

 

 

 

7

 

 

 

 

8

 

 

 

9

 

 

 

 

10

Praise the LORD.

 

I will extol the LORD with all my heart in the council of the upright and in the  assembly. 

 

 

Great are the works of the LORD; they are pondered by all who delight in them. 

 

 

 

Glorious and majestic are his deeds, and his righteousness endures forever. 

 

He has caused his wonders to be remembered; the LORD is gracious and compassionate. 

 

 

 

He provides food for those who fear him; he remembers his covenant forever.

 

 

He has shown his people the power of his works, giving them the lands of other nations. 

 

The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy. 

 

They are steadfast for ever and ever, done in faithfulness and uprightness.

 

He provided redemption for his people; he ordained his covenant forever—holy and awesome is his name. 

 

 

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding.  To him belongs eternal praise.

Praise the LORD. 

 

Blessed is the man who fears the LORD,

who finds great delight in his commands. 

 

His children will be mighty in the land;

the generation of the upright will be  blessed. 

 

 

Wealth and riches are in his house, and his righteousness endures forever. 

 

Even in darkness light dawns for the upright, for the gracious and compassionate and  righteous man.  

 

Good will come to him who is generous and lends freely, who conducts his affairs with justice. 

 

 

Surely he will never be shaken;  a righteous man will be remembered  forever. 

 

 

He will have no fear of bad news; his heart is steadfast, trusting in the LORD.

 

His heart is secure, he will have no fear; in the end he will look in triumph on his foes. 

 

He has scattered abroad his gifts to the poor, his righteousness endures forever; his horn will be lifted high in honor. 

 

The wicked man will see and be vexed, he will gnash his teeth and waste away; the longings of the wicked will come to nothing.

 

 

God created humanity as his representatives (“image of God”) to partner with him in caring for the earth, in co-creating the future with him, and sharing the joys of life. We are called to “mirror” God in our lives. Psalm 112 “mirrors” Psalm 111 and offers insight into how we are to become like God, particularly in the use of our resources and wealth in relation to “others” (creation, poor, community, etc.). We are called to partner with God in the use of our resources to pursue the righteous task that God has given us as his “imagers.” The blessed believer has “no fear of bad news” and is secure in trusting God.

 

Questions Based on Psalms 111 & 112 

 

1.  Noting that the subject of Psalm 111 is God and the subject of Psalm 112 is the blessed believer, what parallels can you see between the way God is extolled in Psalm 111 and the life of the blessed believer is celebrated in Psalm 112?

 

God is  ________________________      

The believer is ___________________

 

God is _________________________     

The believer is ___________________

 

God is _________________________     

The believer is ___________________

 

God is _________________________     

The believer is ___________________

 

God is _________________________     

The believer is ___________________

 

God is _________________________     

The believer is ___________________

 

God is _________________________     

The believer is ___________________

 

2.  What is the relationship between Psalm 111 and 112?  Why do you suppose they appear back-to-back in Israel’s hymnbook?  What does the Psalmist want to teach by putting these two together?  What is the relationship between praising God and the blessedness of his people?

 

3.  Does the “blessedness” of the believer scandalize you in any way? What is the blessed person’s relationship to wealth and poverty? What does the blessed person fear or not fear? How does this relationship give the believer freedom to become like God?

 

4.  Paul quotes Psalm 112 in 2 Corinthians 9:8-11 as part of his attempt to persuade the Corinthians to contribute to his fund for the poor saints in Jerusalem.

 

And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.  As it is written:  “He has scattered abroad his gifts to the poor;  his righteousness endures forever.”  Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness.  You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.

 

What is Paul’s application of this Psalm to the Corinthian church?  How does this inform our use of wealth in our context?  Where is the theme of generosity in both Psalm 111 and 112?

 


Holy Saturday: In the Grave He Lay

April 10, 2009

Good Friday and then Easter!

But a day is missing in that story. To move from Friday to Sunday one must walk through Saturday.

Saturday, however, is a lonely day. Death has won. Hope is lost. Jesus of Nazareth lies in a tomb. His disciples are afraid, hiding and deeply depressed. Everything they had invested in for the past three years seems pointless now.  They are leaderless, hopeless and aimless.

Holy Saturday is the day we sit by the grave. It is the day to feel the gloom of the grave, to face the reality of death itself. It is a day to weep, fast and mourn. The late second century church (e.g., Irenaeus) fasted from all food on this day because it was a day of mourning. They did not break the fast till Easter morning.

Those of us who have spent time at graves–in my case the grave of a parent, wife and child–understand this grief, the despair of the grave. I have spent much of my life running away from graves, and have rarely spent much time thinking about Holy Saturday.

It is much easier to skip from Friday to Easter than to dwell on Holy Saturday. It is like, as happened in my life, skipping grief as much as possible. It is easier to run from grief, escape it rather than face it.

Holy Saturday reminds me to grieve, to lament. It reminds me to rail against death, the enemy of both God and humanity. It reminds to protest death and renew my hatred for it. It reminds to feel again and sit with the disciples in their despair.

Indeed, to sit with the disciples in their despair is to sit with humanity in the face of death. When we sit at the grave we recognize our powerlessness. We cannot reverse death; we cannot defeat this enemy. Holy Saturday creates a yearning for Easter. We need Easter for without it we are dead.

Today (Friday) we remember the death, tomorrow we sit at the grave, but on Sunday we are renewed by the hope of the resurrection. 

Jesus walked that path and we follow him.  We, too, will have our Friday, one day we will be entombed in a grave, and–by the grace and mercy of God–on that great day we will rise again to walk with Jesus upon the new heaven and new earth.

That is the meaning of Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter.


Palm Sunday: Mark 11:11

April 6, 2009

This past Palm Sunday Dean Barham, the pulpit minister of the Woodmont Hills Family of God, challenged me to reflect more deeply about the function of Passion Week.

Using Mark 11:1-11 for his text, he recounted the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. What caught my attention in particular was his comment on Mark 11:11. While Jesus entered Jerusalem as the Messianic savior, when he visited the temple he just “looked around at everything” and went home. Dean raised an intriguing question:  what did Jesus see?

As we know, Jesus became a “testy guest” (to use Dean’s phrase) in Jerusalem that week. He questioned the authorities, scandalized the teachers, debated the Pharisees, announced the destruction of the temple, and “cleaned house” (another Deanism). In effect, he inspected the fruit of Jerusalem and found it wanting. Just as he ecountered the barren fig tree on his way into Jerusalem and cursed it, so also Jerusalem–despite its regal temple and courtyards, despite its air of religiousity, despite its learning in Scriptures–lacked God’s heart. They knew the Scriptures, but they did not know what “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” meant. There was no fruit, no mercy. Their temple was a “den of robbers”–a hiding place for sinners–rather than a place for prayer and devotion to God for the nations.

Only a few bright spots emerged in that final week. A widow gave all she had though others were only making a show of their wealth as they gave out of their abundance. Mary showed her devotion to Jesus by anointing his head with expensive oil. On the whole, however, Jerusalem–just like its temple–needed cleansing.

It gives me pause to mediate. When Jesus enters my heart, what does he see?

As I walk through Passion Week over the next few days, I will read the Compline Prayers for Holy Week and Easter as well as follow the Divine Hours of the week. These thoughts will guide my meditation as I search out my own heart.  Is my heart more like the squabbling and squawking teachers of the law or is it more like the selflessness of the widow and the devotion of the one who anointed Jesus?


Acts 2:42 – Practicing the Kingdom of God

March 18, 2009

They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship,

to the breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts 2:42, NASV)

Borrowing from Brother Lawrence, I have been using the language of “practicing the kingdom of God” in recent years. I don’t mean that as an alternative to or a substitute for Brother Lawrence’s “practicing the presence of God,” but as a specific way of talking about a communal discipleship which is a mode of living in the world for the sake of the world. I might even think of it as a subcategory of practicing the presence of God or as an expansion of the idea itself. I am open to thinking about it either way or both, or perhaps another relation. Whatever….

Acts 2:42, I believe, is one way of describing what it means to practice the kingdom of God as a community. Indeed, the story of the church in Acts describes how the disciples, at least in part, practiced the kingdom of God. Acts 2:42 is a summary which contains elements which are a consistent part of the story throughout Luke’s narrative. The disciples were constantly devoted to their practice–communal habits which embodied the kingdom of God in the world.

Kingdom language is present throughout Acts–from beginning (Acts 1:3) to end (Acts 28:31). Philip preached the good news of the kingdom (Acts 8:12) and Paul continually proclaimed the kingdom of God (Acts 20:25) in his ministry. Just as Jesus in Luke (4:41-43), so the church in Acts, they proclaimed the good news of the kingdom in word (teaching, prayer, praise, etc.) and deed(table, ministry, miracle, etc.).

Actually, each element in Acts 2:42 reaches back into the Gospel of Luke and projects foward into the rest of Acts.  Acts 2:42 becomes a practical “hinge” between Luke’s two narratives. Just as the church continued to teach and do what Jesus did concerning the kingdom of God (Acts 1:1), each of the particulars in Acts 2:42 were part of his ministry–teaching, community (fellowship), breaking bread and prayer. The church continues what Jesus began.

Luke’s summary assumes that readers have a way of identifying the meaning of the particulars–they are known not only by the rest of Acts, but also through the previous narrative in Luke as well as the present experience of the community to which he is writing.  What the apostles taught is found both in the teaching of Jesus himself and in the preaching of the apostles in Acts. The nature of the “fellowship”  in this context is shared resources (property, money and food), and this continues throughout the rest of the narrative as well as in the minstry of Jesus.  “Breaking bread” occurs three other times in Acts (2:46; 20:7,11; and 27:35) and always involves a meal (“food”)–indeed, every occurence of “breaking bread” in Luke also involved a meal (9:13; 22:19; 24:30). Breaking bread is a meal (perhaps more on that in another post or two). The prayers were a common feature of Jesus’ ministry as well as the Lukan church in Acts.

Theologically, James A. Harding called these practices  “means of grace.” I think there is merit in that description which reminds us that to practice the kingdom of God is to open our lives to the inbreaking of God’s kingdom as he acts through appointed means. God comes through the teaching of his church; he comes through the fellowship of his people; he comes through the breaking of bread; and he comes through the prayers.  Consequently, these are not merely obedient acts on the part of God’s people as it they are simple prescriptions (laws) in the kingdom of God, but they are modes of divine action. They are the means through which God comes to his people in order to transform and by which his kingdom breaks into the world.

Exegetically, I would suggest that (1) teaching and (2) fellowship are broad categories.  Fellowship, then, is illustrated or partly itemized by (a) breaking bread and (b) prayer. Technically, note that there is no “and” (kai) between “fellowship” and “breaking bread” in the text. The absence of the conjunction probably indicates that breaking bread and prayer are subcategories of “fellowship.” Otherwise we would have a successive “(1) and (2) and (3) and (4)” rather than the “(1) and (2), (a) and (b).” 

If this is the case, then fellowship–as a broad idea–includes not only eating together at meals and prayers, but also sharing material resources with each other.  Fellowship broadly conceived–meals, prayers, sharing resources–is teased out in 2:43-47.  There are both lexical and thematic connections between Acts 2:42 and Acts 2:43-47. Their koinonia (fellowship) is experienced through having everything in koina (common), by breaking bread in their homes, and by praising God at both temple and home.

Luke’s description in Acts 2:42 is not primarily about assembly (though it applies to it), but about a discipled lifestyle. It is a communal way of living in the world by which God himself is present and dynamically transforming his people into the fullness of his kingdom. The people of God learn of him and live in community with each other which includes sharing their resources with the poor, sharing their food together and praying together.

Understood in this way, Acts 2:42 is a summary of communal spiritual formation, a mode of communal sanctification. These are the communal habits by which the people of God are formed and shaped into the image of Jesus–to be like the Jesus who ministered in the Gospel of Luke, that is, to be the body of Christ in the world. Through these communal habits they embody the life, ministry and mission of Jesus as Luke pictured him in his Gospel.


Jesus, the Unlikely Apprentice VIII

March 17, 2009

Enlisting Other Apprentices

After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” And leaving everything, he rose and followed him. Luke 5:27-28

And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Luke 9:23

Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple…So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:25-27, 33

And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” Mark 1:17

He also told them this parable: “Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.” Luke 6:40

Jesus, God’s apprentice in human life, apprenticed others. He mentored Peter, James, John and other disciples. As he followed God by imitating and imaging God in a truly human life, so Jesus called others to follow him.

“Follow me,” Jesus says. To follow him is to deny ourselves. To deny ourselves is to take up our cross and die to ourselves. To die to ourselves is to open ourselves to becoming like Jesus who is our life, our mentor for a new life. To become like Jesus is to give ourselves to others through mentoring others in this new life.

Our life in Jesus means imitating Jesus by entering into his life. We follow Jesus into the water and are baptized. We follow Jesus into the wilderness and seek solitude with God. We follow Jesus into intimacy with others and seek out friends with whom we can reveal our true selves. We follow Jesus by taking up his mission in the world. We follow Jesus by apprenticing others just as he apprenticed his own disciples.

The mission of Jesus depends on apprenticing others, mentoring others in the faith. We do not become disciples of Jesus in solitude or alone. We become disciples through community and apprenticeship. Others took us under their wing. They taught us, modeled life for us, invited us to walk with them and mentored us. The faith is embraced by others through disciples become like Jesus and apprenticing others in the Way.

“Fully trained” means fully equipped or qualified. When disciples complete their training, they are models of their teacher. When one completes an apprenticeship, they pursue their assigned tasks fully equipped to become like their teacher. They are equipped to be mentors as well. They tutor others whom they apprentice in the life of faith.

The call to discipleship—the invitation to participate in the life of God through Jesus—involves discipling others. Following Jesus entails inviting others to follow him as well.

Apprentices become practitioners, and practitioners become mentors.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Who has mentored you in the faith? Who was your first mentor? What qualities did they have? Who is your mentor now?
  2. What does it mean to be “fully trained” in order to be like Jesus as a mentor?’
  3. Whom do you mentor now? Do you feel qualified to mentor? Why or why not? If not, what do you lack to be a mentor?
  4. How can the church encourage mentorship? How can it equip others for mentoring and encourage apprentices?

Jesus, the Unlikely Apprentice VII

March 11, 2009

Shaped by Gathering

That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.”  Hebrews 2:11b-12 (quoting Psalm 22:22)

Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He taught in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. Luke 4:14-16

Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for a feast of the Jews. John 5:1

Jesus habitually attended weekly Sabbath synagogue meetings (Mark 1:21; 6:2; Luke 4:16; 6:6; 13:10). The synagogue functioned as a community center throughout the week, but on the Sabbath it was a place of prayer, Scripture reading and teaching. Jesus participated in the weekly communal life of the people of God.

Jesus celebrated the mighty acts of God at the festivals in Jerusalem (John 2:13, 23; 5:1; 7:14; 10:22; 11:55). Jesus joined other believers for the priestly rituals of sacrifice, praise and prayer in the temple. He ate the Passover lamb, prayed in the temple, and discussed the kingdom of God with the people and their leaders. Jesus participated in the communal life of Israel.

In community—both at the local synagogue and at the national temple—Jesus communed with his brothers and sisters through word (teaching), table (sacrificial meals), prayer, and praise. In the temple he stood with his brothers and sisters to hear the reading of the Torah. He listened to the praises of the Levitical choir that reverberated through the temple courts. He watched the sacrificial rituals and ate with his community at God’s table. In the synagogue he repeated the benedictions, said the prayers and listed to the reading of Scripture. He was both student and teacher at the synagogue. Jesus entered the presence of God at the temple with thousands and prayed with tens and hundreds in the synagogue. Jesus worshipped the Father with his brothers and sisters.

This communal life rehearsed the mighty acts of God in the history of Israel. As a participant, Jesus was shaped by this hearing and rehearing of God’s redemptive work in history. Again and again Jesus renewed his mission, remembered his identity, and communed with fellow-believers as he stood for prayer and praise in the both the temple and synagogue.

This communal life was no mere addendum to his mission nor was it incidental to his faith. It was an intricate part of his spirituality. Participation in the larger community is an anticipation of the community that surrounds the throne of God. Indeed, it is more than an anticipation, it is a foretaste—an actual participation—in that heavenly assembly. Our earthly assemblies are participations in the heavenly reality; to gather here is to assemble there. To praise God in the midst of the congregation here is to stand before the face of God there.

Assembling before the face of God is not the by-product of God’s salvation or our solitude with him, it is actually the goal of God’s creative and redemptive work. God celebrates his victory over sin and death by gathering his people around him. When we assemble, we celebrate that victory with God.

This is the experience of Jesus himself. As he hung on the cross, he felt forsaken as the darkness enveloped him. God himself mourned as Jesus lamented, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” But embedded in the lament is also a hope, an expectation. Jesus hoped in God’s redemption; he knew God would deliver him. Jesus lament is the first verse of Psalm 22, and that lament also cries out for rescue and salvation (22:21). Jesus expects to again stand in the midst of the congregation of God’s people and praise the Father. He will declare the name of God to his brothers and sisters as he testifies about God’s redemption (22:22). In the assembly Jesus will celebrate his deliverance and the victory over sin and death.

This is one of the reasons I love to assemble with the saints. As part of a community, I remember that I am not alone.  Worshipping as community, Iam reminded of the story. And especially when I have a difficult week–whether with grief, or resentment, or anger, or tragic circumstances, or job hassles, or family strife–intentionally coming before the throne with others encourages me, empowers me, and ultimately transforms me.  The move from Friday to Sunday, the move from hurt to praise, the move from loneliness to community is what I experience when I assemble with my brothers and sisters; it is where I, like Jesus, join the communal anthem of praise and testify to the mighy works of God in the past, my present experience of them, and the coming of God’s kingdom.

The preacher of Hebrews encourages his hearers that Jesus is honored to call us his brothers and sisters and even now stands in the midst of the assembly to declare the praise of God. As we assemble and sing God’s praises, Jesus sings with us. He stands at the center of the assembly to declare the victory and praise the Father. When we assemble, we gather around him and follow him in celebration and praise. Wherever two or three are gathered together, Jesus is present with them (Matthew 18:20).

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What did you find interesting about the habits of Jesus in terms of gathering with his larger community?
  2. Why do you think this was important to Jesus? How did it shape him as a human being?
  3. How does the use of Psalm 22 on the lips of Jesus and in Hebrews 2 give you a vision for what assembling (gathering) means?
  4. What is your experience of assembly? What does it mean to you?
  5. What is the function of the assembly for the people of God today?

Jesus, the Unlikely Apprentice VI

March 1, 2009

Connected Living: Levels of Community

The Triune God, of course, lives together in perfect unity, transparency and intimacy. The Father loves the Son, the Son loves the Spirit and the Spirit loves the Father. They are one (John 17:20-25). Their community is unbounded; it is infinite.

Living life as a human, however, Jesus learned to live in community in bounded ways; he lived as a finite human being. He could not be intimate with everyone; he could not share his day-to-day life with everyone; and he could not even speak to everyone. Rather, he lived out his humanity as we live out ours—he connected with others at different levels of community.

We may call these “circles of fellowship” or “levels of community.” Whatever we call them the Gospel narratives indicate that Jesus experienced communal life in various ways and at different times. His experience is a model for reflecting on our own experience as we seek to become fully and authentically human ourselves.

The Levels

Solitude. Jesus took time to be alone with God—the Father and Spirit. This was foundational for everything else in his life. This time confirmed his identity and focused his mission. In this time we face our true selves and learn to love ourselves because we are loved by God.

Intimacy. Jesus shared life and feelings with Peter, James and John. They were his intimates with whom he could share experiences, burdens and fears that perhaps he could not share with others. We need people who know our secrets, to whom we confess our sins, and who will hold us accountable. We need people who know our stories, our true selves and before whom we are emotionally and spiritually “naked and unashamed.” Many have “covenant groups” but sometimes they are too large. Intimacy happens with three or four people, perhaps six, but rarely much larger than that.

Relationship. Jesus traveled with the twelve and a few female supporters. He ate with them, prayed with them, recreated with them, and served with them. They were his “small group” – a group of people which numbers between 10 and 20. These groups are not intimacy groups, but they are relationships which supply mutual support, social interaction, and even fun. These are the people who surround us with their love in times of tragedy and join us in celebration in times of joy. They share life with us. These are the people with whom we eat the “last suppers” or the “Passovers” of our life.

Community. Jesus also spent time with larger groups of disciples than the twelve. He gathered seventy disciples to send out two by two in Luke 10. In the setting of most of our congregations, these are the Bible classes we attend or the ministries in which we serve. They are twenty to a hundred people whose names we know and with whom we share a common interest or task. This level of community is generally task-oriented with less focus on inter-personal interaction.

Assembly. Jesus also went to the Temple to worship with the people of God, with the crowds and multitudes. He attended the festivals and synagogue assemblies. He stood in the congregation and praised the Father. Assemblies, of course, range in size from small communities (30-100 people) to crowds of people (thousands). But the focus of community here is not interpersonal interaction as much as the presence of God within the community. Here, together, we encounter God as one people; here we join the heavenly assembly of saints and angels to praise Father, Son and Spirit. And we are thereby encouraged and empowered as a community to embrace and pursue the mission of God in the world.

Living Community in Levels

At different times in our lives we emphasize different levels. Someone who has been hurt or abused by intimacy may only desire anonymity in the assembly for a period of time. Someone who has experienced loneliness in assembly may want to focus on developing intimacy with others. Someone who has for years focused on community tasks may discover a need to focus on solitude for a period of time.

There is no single way to slice this pie. Everyone is different and at different times has different needs. That is fine and leaders should have the patience to let people be where they are instead of forcing them into particular molds or church programs.

At the same time while community can happen naturally at all these levels, leaders may encourage believers to seek out community at every level in appropriate ways at appropriate times. Healthy congregations provide opportunities for the experience of community at every one of these levels. Leaders strategize how to best promote these experiences for their flock.

We cannot expect one form of community to supply the need for which another level is designed. We cannot expect a Bible class (community) to provide the intimacy that a group of three or four friends can. If we do expect it, then we will be sorely disappointed. Neither can an assembly be a “small group” where we know everyone. However, we can seek out each level of community so that our lives find balance, nurture and fulfillment just as Jesus found in his human relationships.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Identify what you find most valuable and helpful about each level of community?
  2. What do you think makes each level of community different from the other? Why is it important to recognize those differences?
  3. On what level of community do you need to focus more of your attention at this moment in your life?
  4. How can the church guide people to or help them discover these different levels of community as part of body life?

Jesus, the Unlikely Apprentice V

February 27, 2009

Road Trip: Shaped by Mission

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.”  Luke 4:18-19 (quoting Isaiah 61:1-2)

Early the next morning Jesus went out to an isolated place. The crowds searched everywhere for him, and when they finally found him, they begged him not to leave them. But Jesus replied, “I must preach the Good News of the Kingdom of God in other towns, too, because that is why I was sent.”  Luke 4:42-43

One day Jesus called together his twelve disciples and gave them power and authority to cast out all demons and to heal all diseases. Then he sent them out to tell everyone about the Kingdom of God and to heal the sick…So they began their circuit of the villages, preaching the Good News and healing the sick.   Luke 9:1-2, 6.

These text raise some interesting questions.

  • What is the good news of the kingdom of God?
  • What is the mission of Jesus?
  • How does healing the sick embody the good news?

All these texts in Luke come before Jesus ever turns his face toward Jerusalem; they come long before Jesus announces to his disciples that he must die and rise again. So, the questions cannot be answered in terms of the death and resurrection of Jesus except that the death and resurrection of Jesus are the climatic fulfillment of what it means to preach “good news and heal the sick.” After all, the death and resurrection of Jesus are God’s Yes to the prayers “Your Kingdom Come.”

But the ministry of Jesus is also significant for mission and not simply his death and resurrection. The mission for which Jesus was sent into the world is summarized as declaring the good news of the kingdom and—to say it broadly—“heal the sick.” If the good news is not the death and resurrection of Jesus, it is the announcement of the coming reign of God and the in-breaking of that reign through Jesus’ healing ministry, through his ministry to the poor and oppressed, through his ministry to the “outsider” in Luke.

Jesus practiced this ministry; he was apprenticed into this ministry. He took it as a mission from God and lived it out in his life. Disciples are called to do the same.

The disciples of Jesus are a missional community. The disciples take up the mission of Jesus himself. They are also to declare the good news of the kingdom and heal the sick. Jesus sent out the twelve on this mission, and then also the seventy (Luke 10). Ultimately, he sends his church.

The mission of Jesus is the mission of the church. The church discovers its mission by immersing itself in the life and ministry of Jesus. The church, as the body of Christ, continues the mission of Jesus himself. The book of Acts tells the story of how the church continued what Jesus himself “began to do and to teach” (Acts 1:1).

Healing the sick, releasing the imprisoned, freeing the oppressed—the mission of Jesus—is the mission of the church. The good news (the gospel; the evangelistic message) is not simply about saving souls but also about saving the whole person, body and soul. It is good news for the poor not only in their spiritual emptiness but also in their material poverty as the church feeds, clothes and heals.

If the church really took up the mission of Jesus in its wholeness, what would “doing church” look like? This is the challenge for the church and its mission in the 21st century—the challenge to embody the ministry of Jesus in our world and to become Jesus to our world.

Just as Jesus was sent into the world for the sake of the world, so the church is also sent into the world for the sake of the world. Jesus was blessed to bless others, and so the church–blessed with the riches of God’s grace and mercy–is sent into the world to bless others with the good news of God’s reign.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What was the mission of Jesus? What is the good news of the kingdom of God? (Caution: Jesus is preaching this good news long before he ever begins to tell anyone that he is going to Jerusalem to die and rise again.)
  2. How was Jesus apprenticed in this mission? Was Jesus ever tempted to shift his mission or emphasis? What kinds of temptations do you think he might have faced?
  3. If the disciples were sent to tell the good news and heal the sick, how does that epitomize Jesus’ mission? How do we implement this mission as we follow Jesus? What does that look like?
  4. What are the implications of saying “the mission of the Jesus is the mission of the church”? How might that change the way we “do church” or think about “church”?