Monday, January 31, 2011

Apostles' Tweets: Church of the Long Haulers

Preached January 30, 2011
Scripture readings: Jude 1-4 and 12-25; Mark 3:13-19

A long time ago I was talking to a member of the church I served on the Oregon coast. Her name was Margaret. She was in her eighties.

One day, when I was at her house, we were talking about this and that, and Margaret began to talk about age and time. She told me that as long as she wasn’t trying to move around too fast, and as long as she wasn’t looking in the mirror, she felt no different than she had felt when she was sixteen. I think this is normal.

More than once, I have had another kind of conversation. It is usually with someone in their twenties. There will be a twenty-something who is very discouraged about their life; about their education prospects or their job prospects. Or they are discouraged by other issues that seemed to be going against them. I try to listen and be encouraging. And, more than once, I have found myself telling a person who is going through this that this will all change, and the reason for this is because they have one special thing going for them. They are still young.

When I say this they give me a funny look because they don’t feel young. I think this is normal, too.

I have been looking at the Letter of Jude and the situation that Jude and his friends found themselves to be in. And it strikes me that Jude was writing to a church that did not feel young any more. Here was a group of people who gathered together to be the followers of Jesus, and they felt old. Their situation seemed to be against them. They felt they were falling apart.

The gospel (the good news of Jesus) told them that they were part of a great thing that God was doing in a dark and tottering old world. The good news told them that they were part of God’s new life in an old world that was falling apart. They were part of a new world that was coming.

But now they were falling apart themselves. Was there anything really different about them? What could they hope for, and what did they have to give to the world; since the world outside seemed to have come inside the church? For the older people it may have seemed that they had been present at the birth of the gospel, and now they were present at its old age and decline.

The reason they felt this was because they found that some of their leaders were saying and teaching things that had not been taught at the beginning. Jude wrote it this way: “They are ungodly men who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only sovereign and Lord.” (Verse 4) (The word “ungodly” here translates a Greek word that describes people who have no true reverence for God in their lives.) Changing the grace of our God into a license for immorality and denying Jesus Christ our Sovereign and Lord, works in a couple of ways.

A simple way to explain it is to say that these leaders and teachers claimed that since the Lord is gracious and forgiving, it doesn’t matter what you do or how you live. There are Christians today who claim that it is enough to accept Jesus as your Savior without accepting him as your Lord, or that you can trust him without having to follow him.

Another thing to notice is the phrase about denying “Jesus Christ our Sovereign and Lord.” Sovereign and Lord are God-words. They always applied to the God who made heaven and earth; and, when they are applied to Jesus, they mean that when the apostles’ met Jesus after he was crucified and risen from the dead, they realized that he was one with the maker of heaven and earth. The Father who created us, and the Son who died for us, are (together) the one and only God. It is right to call them both Sovereign and Lord.

The one who owns us by his death for us on the cross is the same one who owns our bodies and our minds because he is our creator. Our faith in the gospel and our life in our body (our marriage, our family, our community, and our world) are all one and the same thing. To use your mind and your body in a way that does not respect God’s design for you is to deny that Jesus Christ is your only sovereign and Lord.

This was basic stuff. It was serious. But the most serious thing of all, for Jude and his first readers, was the fact that there was confusion about this most basic stuff in the church as they knew it. They could see and hear it going on around them in the church that had received its teachings and practices from the first apostles.

It would be an understatement to say that they were disturbed by this and that they wanted to know what to do about it. Jude, in his letter, answers the question of what to do when you see error and confusion about the Christian faith and the Christian life in the church.

What do you do when the church is not at peace with the truth? What do you do when the church is conflicted about its most basic truths; about what a Christian is to believe and how a Christian is to live? Jude tells you what to do.

First of all, though, we need to see what Jude did not say. Jude did not tell those who were holding onto the truth of the apostles to leave or to start a new church.

We need to see that this applies to us as a church that comes down through history from the Protestant Reformation, when the church divided into Catholic and Protestant. The fact is that Martin Luther, and John Calvin, and the other reformers never wanted to leave the church or divide the church. In their heart of hearts, they never left.

They went their separate way only when the church they were trying to reform tried to kill them. The only historical justification for being divided from your fellow Christians, even when they are in serious error about the Christian faith and the Christian life, is when those other Christians try to kill you. I’m serious. This is what I believe.

The Second Letter of John tells us not to join in with those who are teaching a different faith and life than the apostles taught. This means we are not to be partners with them. It does not mean that we are to leave them. The ones who are faithful are never the ones who are supposed to go away. That never happens in the Old Testament or in the New.

What you are to do is “contend for the faith”. Jude writes, “I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.” (Verse 3) Contend means: “struggle, wrestle, agonize.”

Personally, I hate contention. I hate conflict. I hate raised voices. I hate accusatory and indignant tones of voice. I hate anger. And I hate hate. If I thought I hated someone else, I would get even by hating myself. But I believe that one can contend for what one believes without ever resorting to any of that.
Now I want to apply this to something that most of us dearly want, and yet something that we cannot always expect. In a world, so full as it is, of anger and injustice and conflict and selfishness and brutality and confusion, I want the church to be a sheltering place and a sanctuary from the world. I want it to be a place of serenity and joy and harmony. I want it to be place where things are sure and certain. I want it to be a sanctuary for truth and goodness; a place where truth and goodness are safe. I am thinking here of the church as a congregation, the church as a denomination, and the church as a whole (all the members, congregations, and denominations as a whole).

Sometimes I find that the church is a kind of sanctuary of truth and goodness, in certain places and times. But I cannot always expect this to be so. It’s not really so even in a single congregation, and certainly not in the church at large.

The church as Jude and his friends knew it was no such shelter or sanctuary. The church of the time of the apostles themselves was no shelter. Read the letters of Paul and Peter and James and John.

The Old Testament church (the chosen people, the family and nation of Abraham, called and set apart by God to be a blessing to the world) was no shelter for truth and goodness. Neither truth nor goodness were safe with the people of Israel.

The church where truth and goodness should have been safest of all was the Church of Jesus Christ in the form of Jesus, himself, and the twelve disciples or apostles. Apostle, by the way, is a word that means anyone who is sent. It is not a term for a particular leader or office (like a president or a treasurer). Apostle is a term for a role one plays, or a purpose or mission one serves. In the New Testament apostle means a person who has a mission to carry the message of Jesus.

Think of the little church of Jesus and the twelve as a sanctuary for truth and goodness. Read the place where Jesus chooses the twelve, and calls them, and gives them the invitation to be close to him. The whole point was for them to “be with him”, and learn from him, so that they would know what to say and do when Jesus sent them out for a purpose. (Mark 3:14) Think of the church as a sanctuary of truth and goodness as you read the last name on the list: “And Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.”

Jesus sent his apostles out into a dark world, but the darkness was within them. The church that stood the greatest odds of perfection, because Jesus was visibly and audibly present, was not a perfect church.

OK Judas sold Jesus to the authorities, but who did Jesus call “Satan”? It was Peter, the leader of the Apostles, who became the devil one day.

When Jesus warned them that he was going to be turned over to the authorities and killed, Peter took Jesus aside, and Peter rebuked Jesus. So Jesus turned around and rebuked Peter back, “Get behind me Satan. You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of man.” (Mark 8:31-33)

The church was never infallible. The apostles were never free from error. Think of the time when parents were bringing their children to be blessed by Jesus, and the apostles tried to stop them. (Mark 10:13-16)

The apostles continued to be capable of saying and doing what was wrong even after the resurrection, and to the end of their lives. Paul wrote about catching Peter first serving the non-Jewish Christians and then distancing himself from them. What a hypocrite Peter could be. (Galatians 2:11-14)

Jesus called imperfect people and never expected the church to be perfect, not even as a sanctuary for truth and goodness.

Sometimes the apostles seemed to act as if they thought they were perfect. But those were the times when they were at their worst, and Jesus would see to it that they were set straight. (Mark 9:33-41)

If you think you find the perfect church, it is only an illusion. Preachers like to say it this way: if you found the perfect church and you joined it, it wouldn’t be perfect any more.

The friends of Jude were afraid that the church was getting old and failing apart. How could they go on when they seemed to be going backwards? How could they keep going for the long haul?

It was important for them to know that the church was not a place where God’s truth and God’s way for our life were safe. Jude gave them examples that served as warnings (from the history of the scriptures) that they were not safe: the people of Israel in the wilderness who grumbled at God; the angels in heaven who joined Satan in a rebellion against God. These examples were warnings, but they also served to show that God’s work always went forward. They tell us that, while God’s people are never a safe sanctuary for truth and goodness, God can be trusted to keep truth and goodness alive and safe.

Jude wrote of the bad examples from the past, that they were, “Grumblers and faultfinders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage.” (Verse 16) Have you ever, in your life, buttered someone up? Have you ever grumbled? Have you ever followed your own desires? I have! The name of the sin, here, is pride, and if we had the church we wanted we would become proud and we would fall.

If you want to “contend for the faith” as Jude tells you, then you have to contend with yourself as much as with anyone else. If you want a church that contends for the faith, then that church has to struggle with itself, if it wants to find any truth or goodness in itself. It cannot be the sanctuary and shelter that we all want it to be unless it struggles within itself and this is what Jude called his friends to do.

Jude talks about “the faith that was, once for all, entrusted to the saints.” (Saints by the way, are not people with halos. Saints means people who have been set apart for a purpose and people who are called to be different from others.)

But the fact that the faith, “was, once for all, entrusted,” can be a problem. It carries the danger of feeling second hand. It becomes the kind of thing that gets taken for granted. It becomes a matter of assumptions and a matter of talk, instead of a matter of experience.

The Apostle Paul says, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him – but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 2:9-10) God has given us something in Christ that is very nearly beyond human expression. It is almost beyond human ability to communicate it to others. Only the Holy Spirit can plant the seed of what we try to share and make it real. Only the Holy Spirit, can make it sprout, and grow, and live in any human life.

Sometimes this discovery seems to happen all in one moment. But really it takes a lifetime to grow and make itself fully known; and, even then, not until we meet God face to face. (1 Corinthians 13:12; 1 John 3:2)

Jude gives us ways to contend for the faith. He says to build yourself up in your faith. (Verse 20) The whole letter sheds light on this.

The old comedienne Gracie Allen used to say, “I never know what I think until I hear myself saying it.” Watch the clues of your talk. What do your harsh words say? (Verse 15) Where do your grumblings come from, and where do they lead you. What are the desires that you follow, without caring what affect they may have on others? (Verse 16) These tear down faith.

There are other ways of tearing down your faith. There is the way of wallowing; wallowing in your frustrations, your worries, your hurts, and your doubts.

You can build up faith when you realize that the love of God does not change; and, because of that, there is something you still can do, there is something you still can be, because God enables you to be made new by his grace.

Let God make you new. This is the same as what Jude says, when he says, “Keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life.” (Verse 21) Keep yourselves in God’s love.

Jude points us, “To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore!” (Verses 24-25)

This is like a song, and Jude says it all comes through Jesus. Coming into the presence of God no longer fallen; coming to God as if you had no fault: this is what it means for the gift of Jesus (who died for you) to fill you with grace as you trust his extreme and crucified and resurrected love.

We can contend for the faith. We can wrestle for it as a church, as we keep the experience of this extreme grace fresh before our eyes. Everything that will make us able comes through Jesus.

Jude says that he “is able to keep you”. Keeping is guarding. The Lord himself keeps us and guards us all the time.

His faithfulness is unchanging. It is, “before all ages, now and forevermore!” just as Jude says.

This is the gift of God to his imperfect and struggling and contending church forevermore. This is the source of God’s grace and freshness in your life, for the long-haul, through Jesus Christ.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Apostles' Tweets: The Church of the Mix Master

Preached January 23, 2011
Scripture readings: 3 John; Mark 9:38-50

In the first church I pastored, after I was ordained, I was the only young adult in that congregation. I was about fifteen years younger than the next youngest member of that congregation.

I tried to change that. In the end it turned out that there were a few people who didn’t want me to change this; and, few as they were, they succeeded instead of me.

One of my first clues to this situation was a conversation I had with one of my elders, who didn’t believe in dancing. This elder expressed a concern that, if we had a young adults’ group in the church, they might want to have a dance in our building. My answer was that, if they wanted to have a dance, we could meet somewhere else. To which the elder replied, “But if you meet somewhere else, how will we know what you’re doing?”

As events later turned out; the issue was not so much the issue of young adults, or the issue of dancing; it was the issue of control. One of the reasons I know this is that I recognize this in myself. There is a personality type that is called an obsessive/compulsive personality. And I am sort of that personality. Not that I try to control you, but I get obsessive about controlling the things that affect my life. I am sorry. But I am also thankful that you have the good grace not to let me get too far out.

Now, what I have just said about my being that sort of personality and you having the good grace to not let me go too far is part of the essence of the scriptures we have read this morning. Both passages tell us something of the ugliness of the drive to be in control.

The Apostle John, in his letter number three, discovered that there was a church in his sphere of influence where one of the church leaders wanted to be in control. And this was not to be allowed.

We don’t know, for sure, where this church with the control issues was. John lived in the great and famous city of Ephesus, in the ancient Greek lands, in what is now western Turkey. And, so, the conflicted church must have been somewhere in western Turkey.

The time of the greatness of the Roman Empire (which was also the time of the early generations of the church) was a good time to be mobile. People moved. Christians moved; they circulated.

The early church had a lot of mobile people; and some particularly so. Some of them had a calling that motivated their moving around. Quite a few of the Apostles, who were the first followers of Jesus (and included a few others, like Paul, who hadn’t been one of the earliest followers, but who had a specially recognized calling), who were the primary authorities in the church, tended to be mobile people.

A few of them tried to stay in Jerusalem, but persecution made that a dangerous, unstable place for them to live, and the Roman army came and destroyed Jerusalem in the year 70 AD. John had tried to stay in Jerusalem and, when he was forced to leave, he ended up staying in Ephesus for most of the rest of his life. John was not very mobile. He was a stay-at-home at heart.

The apostle Paul was on the move most of his Christian life. In the end, the apostles all got separated. But then Jesus himself had told them, “Go and make disciples of all nations.” (Matthew 28:19)

This is what they did. Some went west. Many went east. John stayed in one place as long as he could. He must have liked stability.

There were other persistent wanderers in the early Church: teachers, prophets, evangelists, people escaping from persecution in one place and in search of safety someplace else. Some of the wanderers were solid, trustworthy people, and their mission was healthy for the churches.

Some of them weren’t so good. There were some who went around spreading false teachings. Some were freeloaders and con artists. Some were just flighty, eccentric gadabouts. The early church had rules and warnings about such people. (See the “Didache”)

The wandering teachers, and prophets, and evangelists were supposed to be freely and lovingly welcomed and provided for, for a few days. But if they showed signs of wanting to stay longer, then they would also have to show signs of being willing to work for their own room and board. The pagan Romans wrote at least one comic novel about the gullible Christians, and the wanderers who took advantage of them.

There was also a settled ministry growing in the church. The Apostles had appointed elders who would stay where they were put; and some of these elders had special tasks of preaching and teaching. Paul said that such elders (and I’m one of them) were to be supported by their churches. (1 Timothy 5:17-18 and 1 Corinthians 9:7-10)
But stability brought along with it the danger of the temptation to be in control, and there was someone in one of the churches (that John knew about) who really was trying to be in control. He was probably one of the elders of his church, and his name was Diotrephes.

John had no complaints about the content of what Diotrephes taught, but Diotrephes didn’t like the wanderers. He didn’t like the mobility of the church. It was dangerous and risky, and he couldn’t keep track of what the wanderers were up to. He wanted a safe church. He wanted a predictable church.

He resisted John, even though John was an apostle. John supported the principle that the church benefitted from the unpredictable, and benefited from the element that was beyond its control. John, the Apostle, represented to Diotrephes the element of risk, and freedom, and the uncontrollable, and the unknown.

In the Gospel of Mark, the disciples (including John) were afraid of a man they met who was doing the work of the kingdom of God, speaking and working for Jesus. And yet they had no idea who he was, or where he came from, or how he had gotten involved.

There are a number of times in the gospels where strange people come in, and they become a part of the story, and then they completely vanish, and we have no idea what they represent. Not even the disciples of Jesus know who they are.

There were the men who were watching the donkey that the disciples found to carry Jesus into Jerusalem in the final days before the crucifixion. Jesus knew who they were and where they would be found. Jesus didn’t tell his disciples who to look for, but just to look for the donkey that belonged to someone they didn’t know. (Luke 19:30-31)

When it was time for the Passover (the day before the crucifixion), Jesus told the disciples to look for a man carrying a big water jar on his head or his shoulder. He would be easy to spot, even in the crowd, because men didn’t carry water jars. That was a women’s work. That man would lead them to a house with an upper room where they would celebrate the feast. (Luke 22:10-12)

These strange people, who were complete strangers to the disciples, were a lesson to John. They may not have been mobile people to themselves, but they were mobile to him. They came and they went. They represented something bigger that Jesus was doing, beyond their own little set; beyond the little congregation that they knew as their own. John had learned his lesson, and so he would not allow Diotrephes to engineer a little congregation of his own choosing.

Jesus is doing great things beyond our horizon, and beyond our imagining. We cannot follow Jesus without knowing him; and we cannot know Jesus unless we know that he is doing something much bigger than we are: bigger than our congregations, bigger than our communities, bigger than any denomination, bigger than any nation, bigger than our planet.

Jesus made that bigger thing come into the little world of his disciples, and we have to let that world in, ourselves. The kingdom of God was much bigger than Diotrephes wanted to let it be, and so Diotrephes was a danger to his church as well as to himself, in many ways, and he was probably getting his way more and more, day after day. He could not be allowed to succeed because it represented a dysfunctional faith.

There was no faith in what he was doing, and he would rob his people of faith. We have to be aware of great things God is doing beyond us, and if we won’t open up to these big things we will only be content with littler and littler pieces of God at work among us; until he disappears. We will talk the right talk but, deep down, we will lose touch with the reality of how great our God is.

The disciples in the gospels, and Diotrephes, wanted to belong to a church of their own designing and choosing. We are tempted to want the same. Both Jesus and John tell us “no”.

We do have choices to make as the church of Jesus. We are to resist people who bring false teachings. We are to resist people who are divisive and work against love and humility. We are to resist those who want to put themselves first, as John described Diotrephes. But I am sure that John was not going to throw the bum out.

John tells us what he planned to do. He would just call attention to what was wrong and fix it. It was up to Diotrephes to respond. In some sense, even Diotrephes was necessary.

The issue was that Diotrephes was trying to build a resisting church of his own designing. He was not paying attention to the materials of Jesus’ choosing.
Both of the scriptures we have read teach us that Jesus is the one who brings people together, and creates a church and a fellowship of members of his own calling and designing.

If we think of our part of the church, in terms of what we have read this morning, we can see that (from the very start) the church (as the disciples around Jesus also thought of themselves) was not adventurous enough. They saw this man who didn’t fit their mold claiming to work for Jesus, and it confused them. They didn’t have enough imagination to think outside what they knew.

In the years that followed, the church (as John had to deal with it) was apparently divided between wanderers and stay-at-homes. To me this is like the situation between the circle of the disciples that surrounded Jesus; and these other people who were over the horizon but who also belonged to Jesus.

We have the stable people and the adventurers. John was the stability lover who saw the need for both; because he had spent enough time with Jesus to know this. The stable people, seeming to want control, are probably, really tempted most by fear. (I can say this because I know it for myself.) The adventurers, who seem to be irreverent, are probably most tempted by…what? (I have no idea at all, because I don’t know them from the inside. What do you think? Could it be impatience?)
John tells one of the other leaders, or elders, in Diotrephes’ church to welcome the adventurers. John wrote to Gaius: “Dear friend you are faithful in what you are doing for the brothers even though they are strangers to you.” (3 John 5) The brothers, in this case, were wandering Christians who were known and loved by John. Gaius was a stable, stay-at-home Christian who was also known and loved by John.

The wanderers had no salaries paid by a regional or national office. They were “paid” by being taken care of by the churches in the communities where they were wandering.

The stable Christians and the adventurous Christians needed each other. The adventurers’ very lives and well being actually depended on the fact that someone else would be dependable, and steady, and stable: even though they couldn’t understand such people. The stable people needed the adventurers to stretch them and give them imagination and vision; maybe even to stretch them in the challenge of their faith.

The adventurers might underestimate the spiritual quality of the stable people. The stable people (on the other hand), in their lives and their sense of well-being, have absolutely no apparent need for the adventurers: none at all. But the stable Christians tend to be too grown up for a gospel (and for a Lord) who tells us to be like little children. (Mark 10:15)

The upshot of this is that all Christians are tempted to want a certain kind of church, and a certain kind of brothers and sisters, and the Bible (and the God of the Bible) tells us to stop wanting that. Jesus tells us that we do not have any right to the church we think we want. The word of God tells us that we probably need the church that will make us uncomfortable. From the way that Jesus arranged his disciples we can see that God’s way is to match us with other people who do not completely suit us. That is how we grow and follow him.

Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me; he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34) The cross is a blessing to us. We need the cross of Jesus. Jesus on the cross takes us out of ourselves and into a new life.

Jesus engineered his gathering of followers to do the same work of taking us out of ourselves and into a new life. Even when the church feels as undesirable as a cross, it is still a cross that belongs to Jesus. The strange mixture of the church, according to the strange recipe of Jesus, can lead us to a truth and love which are much deeper than anything we would ever know without it.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Apostles' Tweets: Church of the Love-Truth

Preached on January 18, 2011
Scripture readings: 2 John 1-13; Mark 8:27-38

A philosopher once said, “Love is a state in which a man sees things most decidedly as they are not.” (Attributed to Nietzsche) I don’t quite agree with that.

I think that it happens sometimes, maybe at the start of love. When I was young (and maybe since then too) it only took a pretty girl smiling at me and touching my arm to make me crazy in love for days.

When I was serving my first church, after I was ordained, there was a girl I went out with a lot who apparently saw my interest as nothing more than friendship. And then she met a guy who had just gotten out of the state prison after serving a sentence as an accomplice in an armed robbery. They got serious about each other, and I ended up doing their wedding.

I think that love made them both rather unable to see things as they really were.
But I do believe that (with time) love takes a strange twist. With time love enables a person to see what nobody else may be able to see, and yet those things are the true things. Those things are the truth that matters. So, in the end, love and truth go together; or they ought to, especially in God’s scheme of things.

It is the problem of making sure that love and truth match up that is at the heart of the tiny Second Letter of John. It begins: “The elder: to the chosen lady and her children whom I love in the truth.” (2 John 1) Among the brothers and sisters in Christ, in the body of Christ that we call the church, love and truth are supposed to go hand in hand in what we believe, and in the way we live together, and in the way we serve God in this world.

Before we look at the marriage of truth and love in the church, let’s look at some of the mechanics in the letter. “The Elder” is the Apostle John. Sometimes apostles called themselves elders. (1 Peter 5:1)

The Chosen Lady, to whom John wrote this letter, was (as they say) no lady. She was a church, a congregation of Christians in some town, somewhere. We don’t know where. The pronouns and the verbs that apply to the lady are plural pronouns and plural verbs. She was not an individual.

She was a church, and her children were her members. Some of her children (her members) had come to see John, and he complimented her (the church) because he found those members “walking in the truth.” (2 John 4)

This letter was a short note, a tweet, from John to their church. He wrote the letter, or dictated it, and he put it in their hands, and they took it back home to their church (the chosen lady). This was how the whole church of many scattered congregations maintained itself, as one body, as one church, united together across the ancient world.

The peace and order of the Roman Empire, and its interest in trade and security, required the building of roads and the establishment of regular shipping and trade routes. People could communicate, and travel, and move freely from place to place over wide parts of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.

The apostles were mostly scattered or dead by the time that John wrote this letter (probably toward the nineties of the first century). He doesn’t write as if he were still part of the circle of apostles who stayed in Jerusalem until just before the Roman destruction of that city in 70 AD. And John lived at least to the time of the reign of the emperor Trajan, who ruled from 98 AD to 117 AD.

Some apostles had been killed by the Roman authorities. Peter and Paul had been killed in Rome. Some had gone east to Persia and India. There were elders in each community who were becoming known as bishops. There were wandering evangelists, and teachers, and prophets. Churches (congregations) sent delegations and letters to each other and brought letters and visitors back.

When we read the documents of the earliest years of the church, we see that it was marked by a constant coming and going; constant letters and contacts. This unity was created by the commandments of Jesus, and it was an answer to the prayers of Jesus.

Jesus had commanded them to love one another. In the Gospel of John, Jesus said: “A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35) The ancient church was motivated by love to keep in touch. It kept them one in the Spirit.

And, in the Gospel of John, Jesus prayed like this: “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:22-23)

The glory Jesus prayed about is the divine presence. The glory that makes God’s people one is the presence of the living God working to make his will known and to make his work possible. The love of God in Jesus opens our shared life together to the presence of God, who makes great things possible.

The early church scared those who did not know Jesus, because those who did not know Jesus could not understand the depth of interest, love, and sacrifice that kept them together all across the empire. All that the pagans could see was some sort of dangerous conspiracy.

There was no formal structure. I mean, by this, that there were no established lines of communication. There was no flowchart for the church. There was no organized hierarchy from bottom to top; or from top to bottom. There were no central or regional offices. There were no by-laws and no by-laws committees.

The Book of Acts and the Letters of the Apostles tell us how the oneness of the church was maintained. And the way it worked did not change much in the next several decades or even the next few centuries.

The unity happened because all the loose collection of churches worked hard to maintain the ties of love. An inspired love and a great deal of effort brought them together, by the power of the Holy Spirit. You can read the documents of the late first century, and the second century, and beyond, and see how it worked.

It worked, but it wasn’t perfect. The tweets of the New Testament (the four shortest books or letters of the apostles) are like informal snapshots that show us the world of the ancient Christians. They show their concern for maintaining the unity of their love, and how it didn’t always work; and they show their concern for maintaining the truth of their message, and how it didn’t always work. The tweets of the New Testament show how the church went to work on the problems that came up when things didn’t work. And, for our purposes, they show us how the early Christians struggled to make sure that, among the churches of the Church, love and truth would match; love and truth would stick together and not get separated.

The love of the church worked through hospitality. They would welcome any traveling Christian (whether an apostle, or an elder, or an evangelist, or a teacher, or a prophet, or just an ordinary, plain-old Christian). They welcomed all of these into their homes, and into the fellowship of the church that would meet in their homes. These people could speak, and report, and find eager, listening, loving ears.

The truth in the church worked through elders who had been taught either by the apostles (like John, or James, or Paul) or by partners of the apostles (like Timothy, or Titus, or Philemon). And the elders taught their congregations. They tried to stay true to what they had been taught.

Except when they didn’t! Sometimes they went wrong; and badly wrong. Sometimes someone would think they had found some better way. They thought they could improve on the message that had been passed on to them.

Sometimes those who went wrong took their new ideas with them on the road. They tried to spread what they saw as their improvements to the gospel. Love required the churches to receive them; right? How will anyone know that we belong to Jesus unless we love one another and welcome one another?

This is the problem we see in the tweet of the second letter of John. There were people that he called deceivers. In fact some of the members of the church to which he was writing probably were sent by that church to John, in order to seek his advice about this problem. What should they do about these people who did not seem to teach the message they had been taught, from their first acquaintance with Jesus?

John called them deceivers. We tend to think of deceivers, or liars, as people who know they are telling a lie. They surely knew that they were teaching something different, but they probably taught it because they thought they had found something better than the old message of Jesus that was going around the churches from the first apostles.

They were self-deceivers. They were antichrists because they found reasons to correct or oppose what John and the other apostles had taught about Jesus Christ.
John pinpointed the problem at this point. Their problem was the most basic problem of all. They had gotten it all wrong about whom Jesus was and what Jesus had done.

The fault of the deceivers was rooted in their teaching that Jesus Christ had not come in the flesh. The errors we are most to fear are the errors that lead us to misunderstand who Jesus is and what Jesus has done.

What they taught was that Jesus Christ was not really a human being. We know about these people in the history of the church. Some of them taught that Jesus Christ was really a spirit that only appeared to be human. The other way the deceivers put it was to say that there was a difference between Jesus the human and a spiritual Jesus Christ who sort of possessed the body of the human Jesus, like a ventriloquist controls a dummy, so as to be able to use him to speak to humans. And this spiritual Jesus abandoned the human Jesus just before Jesus was nailed to the cross. They believed that the cross had nothing to do with the mission of the real Jesus.

The purpose of this non-human Jesus, was to give us spiritual understanding and knowledge to realize that the world we live in and the bodies we live in were not made by God at all. For them this world was ugly, and our bodies only got us in trouble. The world and our physical bodies were all a mistake, and these false teachers wanted us to know that we were made for better things, and that we should be free from all ties and obligations in this world.

The upshot of all this is that we should know that (just like the non-human Jesus) we are not really created beings at all. We are really all divine beings, and we exist for the purpose of knowledge and understanding.

If Jesus Christ had come in the flesh, he would have entered the error of the material world, and the deceivers believed that this would have dishonored him and his message. This would have dishonored the true God, and served no good purpose.

Now, in what we, as Christians, believe, the world we live in has been made by the real God and it is not a mistake. Our world is messed up. It is a confused and fallen world, but it is not a mistake. Our world reflects the glory of God in spite of the ugliness of evil in the world. Our human life reflects the glory of God in spite of the ugliness that rears its head in us.

And, according to the Christian faith, God does not stand for knowledge and understanding, as important as those may be. God stands for love. And we, as humans, are made for much grander things than knowledge and understanding, no matter how important those may be. For instance, knowledge and understanding can devise cures for cancer, but there are much more important issues in life than the cure of cancer.
We have been created for love: to love and be loved forever. That is the truest truth. Truth is married to love.

The Christian gospel marries truth and love to each other. We say, with the New Testament, that Jesus is the Word, which means that Jesus is the self-expression of the God. Jesus is God (who is love) speaking himself. The Gospel of John says this. “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” (John 1:1-4)

God expresses himself (and speaks himself) through love, by entering the world he loves in the flesh, as a human being, in order to die for the sins of the world and in order to give all who trust in him a new life that will never end. And God rose from the dead, in his risen flesh and blood, in order to defeat a fallen world and make a new creation possible; a new creation that is yet to come.

All of this is summed up in what we read in the Gospel of John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

If Jesus Christ did not come in the flesh, then he did not come to die for our sins. If Jesus did not come in the flesh, then he came only to give us a message of knowledge and understanding. Maybe we could call this enlightenment and enlightenment is good.

But enlightenment is different, for us Christians. We know that the real enlightenment is that God loves us even though we are sinners.

The truth is we are rebels through and through, who are lost because we cannot set ourselves free. And we will perish in our lostness, unless we are set free from our sins by God, working in Christ, in our human nature, on the cross, to take our sins upon himself; to take our alienation upon himself and give us life, and make us new, by taking away our sins.

This truth is all about love and faithfulness. This is not the self improvement that comes from growing in knowledge and understanding. If it were all about this self improvement; the cross might serve as a noble example, but not as a necessity.

But, for Christian truth, God, in Christ, dying on the cross, is a necessity. It is truly a matter of life and death. It is a matter of love at its most basic level.

The deceivers denied the very nature of God as love. In denying this, they did not deny a religious doctrine or a set of morals. They denied God’s identity and God’s creation. They denied everything.

Now there are those who believe absolutely that God is love; but they also seem to say that if God is love, then nothing else that we teach really matters. This is also wrong; and not the truth.

The coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh means that very specific things become important. Every thing that you do, every relationship in your life, everything you say; everything is important.

Everything is important not just in the sense of being serious. Everything is important also in the sense of thanksgiving and joy, because God is love. But we also have to remember that all of our thanksgiving and joy are possible because the faithful love of God made a specific action to be an absolute necessity. God made specific actions matter by dying in the flesh on the cross.

There is something in us that does not love the cross. There is something in all of us that would like to live as if Jesus Christ had not come in the flesh to die for us.

If we think we are immune to this, or that we are safe from this, all we have to do is to look at the gospels. The gospels tell us that Peter could say that Jesus was the Christ, but that Peter did not want Jesus to be a crucified savior. Peter did not want Jesus to hang on a cross and die for his sins, or for the sins of the world. (Mark 8:27-38)

If God is a love that is so costly; if God is a love that will focus itself on a single life and live to be a sacrifice; then that love (living in us) may have radical consequences for our own lives. If the love of God takes specific form in flesh and blood, then our love will have to take specific forms and actions in our own flesh and blood.

The sacrifices of marriage and parenthood require this. The sacrifices of serving the church and the community require this. The sacrifices of serving our nation and our nation’s safety require this love in flesh and blood. These things require specific actions from us.

This is an awesome truth. The gospel of knowledge and understanding does not require this; but the gospel of the word made flesh does require it.

In the history of the Roman Empire, the supposed Christians who denied that Jesus Christ came in the flesh became known as the Gnostics. Gnostic is a Greek term that means people of knowledge. The Gnostics claimed to be the people who had acquired special spiritual knowledge through a spiritual being called Jesus. They were never persecuted for their faith, because their faith was not seen as dangerous. The consequences of their faith made no difference to the empire.

But the Christian faith, as we have inherited it, did make a difference in the empire and in the whole world. The cross and the resurrection bring truth and love together in action.

The sad fact is that Christians have often destroyed love, even in the church, for the sake of truth. Christians have often made their truth into an unloving weapon in the world at large; a weapon of judgment; a weapon of separation; a weapon of pride.
We have divided ourselves from others when the issues at stake were far less important than the flesh, and the blood, and the cross of Jesus Christ. We have divided ourselves from our brothers and sisters in Christ even when we and they both held to the cross where truth and love were equally at home.

The Jesus of the Bible insists that we must always keep truth together with love. The cross is all about this. Other people will only see Jesus and his truth in us when we stick together and do this.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Apostles' Tweets: Church of the Refreshers

Preached January 9, 2011
Scripture readings: Philemon 1-21; Mark 9:33-37

If the internet network called Twitter had existed in New Testament times, Paul’s letter to Philemon would have been as close as Paul (with all his wordiness) could have gotten to a tweet. During the next few Sunday’s we will look at the four tweets of the New Testament; the letters that are so short that no one ever thought about dividing them into chapters.

I love Paul’s letter to Philemon. It is beautiful. It never sets out the plan of the gospel. It never describes or explains much about who Jesus is, or what Jesus has done; except to tell us that Jesus is the Christ (the King), and that Jesus has good things for us. But it is full of the consequences of the gospel. It is full of the changes that happen in people whose lives are touched by the love and the good news of Jesus.

There is a word that is used a couple of times in this very short letter; and that is the word “refreshing”. Apparently Philemon was a person you could count on to be simply a refreshing person. It was typical of Philemon to find a way to do the thing that refreshed others. (Verses 7 and 20) Paul was asking Philemon to be refreshing again under very prickly, and emotional, and dangerous conditions. The danger came because Philemon held the life of an escaped slave in his hands.

Onesimus was legally a slave. Legally he was owned by Philemon. Apparently, Onesimus had hatched a plan of escape in which he robbed his owner, used the money he stole to travel to Rome, and created a new identity for himself as a free man.

The Roman Empire was a slave-owing society. Some historians estimate that there were about sixty million slaves in the Roman Empire during New Testament times.

In a slave-owning society, it is very important to make a strict example of escaped slaves. Acceptable punishments for escaping ranged from branding, to being sent to labor in the mines, to death by crucifixion. Not being firm in enforcing the penalties for escaping would encourage other slaves to take a chance for freedom.
Philemon was a slave-owner: a wealthy man; probably an aristocrat. His family had always owned slaves. All his friends owned slaves. If his friends got word of any kindness on his part to an escaped slave, they would see his action as a betrayal of the code by which they lived. They would see it as a betrayal of the standards that held the whole empire together.

To not punish Onesimus would make Philemon an outcast within his social class. He would lose face. It would cost him in his financial relationships.

It would draw unwanted, official attention to his Christian faith and this would endanger his life and wealth. It would endanger his family, and the Christians who worshiped in his house.

Paul, in this letter, did not ask Philemon to grant Onesimus his freedom, but he asked the slave-owner to do much more than that; and he said that he knew that Philemon would do more than he asked. (Verse 21) Paul promised to repay Philemon for anything that Onesimus had stolen from him (and Paul inserted the form of a contract within this letter, and signed it). Paul asked Philemon to accept Onesimus back as a brother in Christ; for the slave had not been a Christian when he first escaped. Paul asked Philemon to accept Onesimus back just as if Onesimus was Paul, himself.
Paul did the most daring thing by writing this request to the slave-owner, and making the slave Onesimus the very person to carry the letter across the Mediterranean and put the letter, bearing Paul’s signature, in his master’s hand.

Think of the gesture that Paul was setting in motion. Think of the confrontation into which Paul deliberately sent a brand-new Christian, toward whom he felt like a father.

For a slave to escape was an attack on the honor of his owner. It was like a slap in the face. What would you do if someone slapped you in the face? What if you extended your hand to shake another person’s hand and they pulled their hand away from yours. Jesus said, “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:39)

People seldom slap anyone in the face any more, but plenty of us have had outrageous and offensive things said and done to us, and we have done such things to others. We all have.

These are slaps in the face. I had a friend who explained to me that he was learning karate so that he would know what to do when he ran out of cheeks. Onesimus had virtually slapped both of Philemon’s cheeks; first by robbing him, and then by escaping him.

Now Onesimus took a long journey back to face those cheeks again. It took him weeks. He boarded a ship at Ostia, the harbor of the city of Rome, at the mouth of the Tiber; sailed east to the old Greek lands that are now called Turkey; landed at Ephesus and took the road inland through the mountains to Laodicea.

Onesimus knew the daily drill of his master, and others of his social class. Even the rich got out of bed at dawn.

The rich had followers called clients. They supported him, and he took care of them.
An hour after sun-up the clients of the wealthy man would call on him. He was their “patron” or “patronus”.

They would line up at the door of the patronus’ mansion. There a slave would lead them in (one by one, or group by group). The master and patron Philemon would be seated in the big central room called the atrium. A slave with paper (or papyrus) and pen and ink would sit at a small desk, within reach, to write notes or make records of any business that took place.

Onesimus stood in that line of clients, one morning. A fellow slave, who remembered him, met him at the door, with a surprised and rather frightened look, and led him in to see the master. Surprise is the least of the emotions that appeared on the patronus’ face. Onesimus would bow, and hand the letter to his master, who would hand it over to the slave at the desk, who also looked surprised (and more than a little frightened), and that slave would read Paul’s letter to their master.
Philemon heard the words of his friend Paul, telling him: “I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains….I am sending him – who is my very heart – back to you….So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.” (Verses 10, 12, 17)

There is a story behind this story (although we know nothing about it); how Onesimus escaped from his Christian owners and used the money he stole from them to make his way to Rome. Rome was the center of all legal authority in the empire, but it was also one of the best places in the empire where one could create a new identity for oneself. Onesimus had seen the Christian faith and life in his owners (the ones who were so good at refreshing others) and in the people who met to worship Christ in their home; but he was not aware of anything about their faith that he was not willing to leave behind for the sake of his freedom.

Paul may not have known or even noticed Onesimus in Philemon’s house (because, as a slave, Onesimus had mastered the art of invisibility). But Onesimus had known Paul; had seen and watched him, had heard and listened to him, without any apparent affect. Onesimus made his way to Rome, and something must have happened to him there.

Something went wrong. We don’t know what it was. But whatever happened to him made him look for Paul.

Paul was probably under house arrest at the time. The Book of Acts (28:16 & 30) tells us that the first part of Paul imprisonment saw him renting a house, or an apartment, at his own expense, under guard. Whether or not Paul wore real chains at that time, he was not a free man. He was under constant surveillance and restraint.

Something happened to Onesimus that led him to look for Paul in that great city of perhaps a million people. But Paul wouldn’t have been hard to find, because the court knew where he was, and Paul was someone who could not be kept quiet.

Somehow Onesimus knew that Paul had the answer to what he needed. Perhaps he needed to be refreshed, and he knew that his own master had learned the art of refreshing from Paul. Paul praised Philemon for lessons well learned: “Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.” (Verse 7) Onesimus found Paul, and was so deeply refreshed by him that he became Paul’s baby boy.

It takes scarcely five minutes to read Philemon. Read it for yourself.
Paul was on trial for his life. And yet Paul took upon himself a responsibility for the life and faith of a fugitive slave. He made himself responsible for making things right between the slave and his master.

Read how painfully polite Paul is; how playfully polite he is; how careful he is about Philemon’s feelings and sense of honor. Read how extremely careful Paul is to show Philemon what a very important person the fugitive slave is.

Onesimus is a slave’s name. He must have changed it (taken on an alias) when he escaped, or else his name would have actually given him away and gotten him arrested.

But now Onesimus carried his slave name again: which means “profitable”, “useful”, “helpful”. And Paul made word-play upon the slave name in order to make the offended owner smile. (I read it and think, “Good old Paul!”) Paul said it like this: “Once, old “Useful” was useless to you; but now he has become useful both to you and to me.” (Verse 11) Paul would seemingly say or do anything to bring grace, and mercy, and peace to a poisonous relationship; an offended honor; a matter of law and conscience; a matter of life and death.

Here we see that Paul is a master of refreshing. Knowing what it means to be a brother or sister in Christ is the powerful secret that motivated Paul. It surely came from what Paul hoped that Philemon would learn: “a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.” (Verse 6) This is what filled Paul with all that courtesy, with all that generosity of spirit that Paul showed, and what he begged for from Philemon. “Philemon, please refresh my heart in Christ.”

And this tweet from Paul is what the church is to be. We are to approach problematic relationships, and offenses, and scandals, and slaps to the face within the church, in the exact spirit we see in Paul. The family of Philemon, and his wife Apphia, and their son Archippus were leaders in the church; and this same spirit is essential to the heart of leaders in the church. This is the spirit that turns leaders and simple Christians into servants.

The New International Version has Paul saying this about Philemon: “I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints.” Faith in the Lord and love for our brothers and sisters in Christ are a single package. As Christians, our love for others is indispensable to a living faith, if we claim to be people of faith.

But this translation is not as good as it could be. It could be better translated as: “I hear of your love and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and all the saints” (Revised Standard Version): faith toward the Lord and all the saints.
Somehow both love and faith apply to Jesus and to our brothers and sisters. Yes, we even apply our faith to them. Paul tells the slave owner, “Welcome him as you would welcome me.”

Imagine how difficult this would be. For a slave owner to welcome a fugitive slave and thief, like that, would take real guts. It would take a deep and determined faith. And this is how the church and its teachers and leaders and members are to be.

It is even more daring than that. We are to see others as Christ: even the people we think of as the littlest, and who are least able to give us anything, or do anything for us. Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:37) This is not just an instruction for the treatment of children. The disciples were arguing about which them, as grown-ups, was better than the others.
The identification of Jesus with other people, the littlest of people, is something that no human being can ever outgrow. It is all about who is great and about who is least, no matter how old, or young, or talented, or rich, or well connected, or not.

When your love and faith toward the Lord Jesus is also focused on your brothers and sisters, and toward your potential brothers and sisters, then you are sharing your faith. What comes from Jesus is flowing through you. And then, and only then, will you get what Paul wanted Philemon and you to get, “a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.” (Verses 5 & 6)

We only think that we understand every good thing we have in Christ. We do not really understand, at all, until we let the love and faith we have in Christ brim over toward others.

That is the faith, and that is the love, that takes the risks that carry us beyond our limit. It is only when we cross the limit of ourselves that we will come to the end of our own resources; and only then do we get into the good things of Christ. Only when we understand every good thing we have in Christ will we truly be refreshed with the gospel. Only then will the good news of Jesus refresh us. We don’t know anything or have anything worth giving until then.

Tradition has it that, by the end of the first century, the fugitive slave became the bishop of the church in the city of Ephesus. It was there, in Ephesus, that the Christians, toward the end of the first century, organized the project that gathered together all the letters of Paul that could still be found; that had not been lost or destroyed. Onesimus would have played an important part in having this short letter, this tweet, that he had held in his own hand, be copied and joined in the beginning of the book we call the New Testament.

The Lord’s Supper is the place where we meet every good thing we have in Christ, and Jesus the Christ comes to us as our refreshment. When we know that every good thing we have comes from him then we will be able to refresh others, and to be the church of the refreshers, and give to others what we have received.