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.

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