Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Pushing Boundaries - Spreading out the Body-Life

Preached on Sunday, August 14, 2016
Scripture readings: 1 Corinthians 12; Acts 6:1-7
I can remember back to when I was a baby. I can remember learning to walk, and being fed in my highchair, and I can remember having a bath in the kitchen sink.
Opening Day for Vacation Bible School
Desert Aire/Mattawa WA
Hund Memorial Park, Mattawa
August 8, 2016
I can remember being barely able to walk when I learned that God made the flowers in our yard, and God made the grass, and God made the sky, and God made me. So I also have a memory of a book my parents gave me when I was about two years old and that book was about becoming an older brother.
The book showed pictures of a very little boy looking at the crib being set up for a new baby in the family. The little boy learned that it would be his job to love, and play with, and help care for that baby.
And after we went to the hospital to pick up my mom and my first baby sister, I took my new job very seriously. I hope I did a good job for both my sisters, in turn; but I also confess that I did learn how to say the famous words: “It’s not fair!”
The first church in the world was still a baby church when it learned how to say: “It’s not fair!” It wasn’t a protest by older brothers and sisters, or by younger brothers and sisters. When the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the apostles, making them witnesses to Jesus on the streets of Jerusalem, we know, from the second chapter of Acts that there had to be both Hebraic Jews and Grecian Jews coming into the baby church at the same time.
It’s hard for us to define the difference between the two groups. Paul, who comes into the picture later, had part of his upbringing in the Greek city of Tarsus, on the Mediterranean coast of what is now the Turkish peninsula. Paul was fluent in Greek and he understood a little bit of Greek philosophy. He could quote Greek poets. (Acts 17:22-28)
But Paul, in one of his letters, described himself as “a Hebrew of Hebrews”. It would be simplest to say that his family raised him to be very, very Jewish; very much a Hebrew, Hebraic Jew. So he would have learned how to speak Greek, and to know how the Greeks thought, but not be culturally Greek. He didn’t identify with the Geeks, until God told him that he needed to identify with them in order to faithfully share Jesus with them.
The Grecian Jews had lived long enough in the Greek and Roman world to have assimilated themselves to it, even though their Jewish faith was so strong that it motivated them to migrate to the Holy City of Jerusalem so that they could live out their days in that special place. They were very Jewish in faith, but not very Jewish in their language and culture. They were spiritual tourists in a Hebraic world.
They didn’t quite fit in, and the two groups tended to cluster among themselves. The Grecian Jews tended to be just a little bit invisible to their Hebraic, very, very Jewish sisters and brothers in Christ, and they perceived that their people were a bit neglected, and “it wasn’t fair”.
That’s the background of the problem behind the story. An important part of the story is how this protest was handled. I want us to see that, and also to go on to the most important lesson. The most important part of the story was what the apostles, and the whole early church together, learned about ministry and mission in the body of Christ.
The handling of the protest was important. Maybe protest is too strong a word? I’m the one using the word protest. The Scripture tells us that the Grecian Jesus did this thing that could mean nothing more than murmuring and grumbling.
It wasn’t loud the way I could be when I thought my parents weren’t being fair. It was quiet. It was under the surface: just enough to so that they could fulfill their desire make themselves clearly heard, and just quiet enough (they thought) so that they couldn’t be blamed for what they were saying. They were trying to have it both ways.
The important point is that apostles didn’t let it stay quiet with the hope that the complaint would quietly go away. They dared to do the incredibly scary thing, and so they brought the problem out into the open; out in front of absolutely everyone.
They didn’t make excuses. They treated the problem as something that deserved an honest and direct and measurable solution.
At first sight it looks like they put the complainers in charge of the solution, because all of the committee of seven have Greek names, but that doesn’t prove anything. Most Jewish people had three names: their Hebrew name, their Greek name, and their Roman name.
But we have no idea of any Hebrew name, at all, for two of the original twelve apostles. Andrew and the first Phillip had perfect Greek names. And yet they were Jewish fishermen, or some such common thing.
In a strange way Jesus himself gave another apostle, with the very Hebrew name Simon, the famous Greek name Peter (or Petros), the rock. So Peter had a Greek name, but there was nothing Grecian about him.
The apostles called the whole church together (the whole fellowship no matter whether they were Hebraic or Grecian, and no matter whether they had Hebrew or Greek names). They called everyone together to work as one, in order to come up with nominations for the committee of seven. Surely the whole church (both the Grecian Jews and the Hebraic Jews together) came up with the list we are given in Acts.
All of this teaches us, as a church, to push beyond our familiar boundaries to value the people in our fellowship who might be the least like us, and think the least like us; on the condition that they have a good reputation, and are full of wisdom, and full of the Holy Spirit. We are taught to value them. We are taught to give them ministries among us, and to listen to them, and to learn from them.
And we are taught to not put this off. We are taught to push beyond our familiar way of being a Christian, right from the start, and to let others in.
 But the very most important part of this story is the discovery that the apostles made about themselves, and about their ministry, and what ministry should be in the church. The twelve apostles discovered that they couldn’t do it all. They saw that they had failed to do their job because they couldn’t do it all.
They needed to learn how to share the ministry. They had to spread the ministry to others if they truly wanted the church to be strong.
We lose sight of this because we have distorted the meaning of the word minister, and Christians have been distorting this word for a long, long time. The word minister has nothing to do with some concept of a thing that the world and the church calls “clergy”. Speaking as a Presbyterian, I want you to know that there is no mention of any such thing as clergy in any documents, or standards, or rules of the Presbyterian Church.
In the Presbyterian Church, clergy do not exist. I’m an elder. Who else, here, is an elder? Who’s the boss here? Jesus! We hope!
It’s also important to remember that, in our church, there are no rules or standards where anyone is ever called a “layman”. Sometimes that has been forgotten and it has needed correcting. Officially speaking, everyone in the church is a minister. Every follower of Jesus (every one of you) is in the ministry.
The word minister has been distorted to mean leader. It really means servant. The biblical concept, and God’s design for the life of his people (whether we call it our church, our congregation, our fellowship), is servanthood. And when you are a servant, you have to admit that you can’t do it all.
In families, who is the one who is the servant who tries to do it all? It’s usually the mother; isn’t it? But it always holds true: you can’t do it all. Health comes to families, and to mothers, when everyone is a servant.
As I got to a certain age in my childhood, I began to acquire jobs in my family: making my bed, keeping my room and closet straight, taking out the garbage, cleaning up after the dog, mowing the lawn and other duties as required. I stopped having to wash dishes because it gave my hands a rash and I was also allergic to rubber gloves: so I couldn’t do it all.
Some people think it sounds like the apostles looked down on delivering food to the widows. “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry (or the servant-work) of the word of God in order to wait on tables.” (Acts 6:2)
The real point is that they had been waiting on tables all along, and that they clearly weren’t good at it. Well, they weren’t good at doing it all.
Waiting on tables was actually noble work because caring for those in need is a big part of the Jewish faith, as well as the Christian faith. The reason why it is a big part of the Jewish faith is that it is a big part of the Old Testament law and prophets. The same standard applies to us.
When you look at the Jewish people, they are famous for their charities. They are required to take special care of widows, orphans, and even aliens, because God does. Deuteronomy says: “He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothes. And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:18-19) These things are just as spiritual as serving the word of God. These things are just as spiritual as prayer.
The apostles saw they couldn’t do it all. They saw that they had to grow the ministry; share the ministry; spread the ministry. This sharing and spreading of the ministry became the model for the church.
Paul says it in First Corinthians: “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God who works all of them in all people. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” (1 Corinthians 12:4-7)
I’ve called this new group of seven “the committee of seven” but there is no evidence for committees in the New Testament. The seven have no title, but even the title of apostle isn’t a title; not in the sense of holding office or having a job description.
It seems to be an office and a job description because of what the Book of Acts tells us about the process of choosing a replacement for Judas Iscariot; the one who betrayed Jesus and hanged himself. Judas’ role is traditionally translated as “office” in Acts 1:20, but the word simply means an area of oversight and responsibility.
They looked for a replacement among those who had been with Jesus from the beginning and who had met the risen Jesus in the flesh. Those were the people who had the authority that came from being first-hand witnesses. That was a level of authority that couldn’t last for more than a generation. And Paul, who had not followed Jesus, and who had not met the risen Jesus, in flesh and blood, became one of the next generation of apostles. Paul met the risen Jesus powerfully, but also spiritually.
That needs to be our authority. We need to meet the crucified and risen Jesus powerfully and spiritually. When we know Jesus this way, then we can be safely sent to do the servant-work of Jesus and be his witnesses through that servant-work.
The word apostle means a person who has been sent. All Christians are sent on a mission by the Lord. The apostles were only the first example of what it meant to be sent by Jesus, and we follow their example.
Even the apostles’ work is described as servant-work, because they have a ministry of the word of God and prayer. All ministry is servant-work; and we have to learn to be servants, or else we don’t know what it means to serve Jesus at all, and we don’t even know who Jesus is. Jesus called himself a servant and he told us that we have to be servants like him.
Children are good at asking the question: “Do I have to?” It’s our fallen human nature to think that being a servant is a form of punishment. Children start their life being totally served by their parents, and parents keep it all together by remembering that all the work of serving their children is not a punishment. As hard as that service can be for the parent; the power of that service is love. Servant-work is, or should be, love.
Well, we mix it up because, in families, we dish out servant-work as a form of punishment to children when they misbehave. We’ve all been given servant-work as punishment, and we know it. It’s a lesson that’s hard to forget.
Maybe the punishment of servant-work is a lesson to teach children the meaning of love. They are given the work because they haven’t learned how to love to the full measure of love. Servant-work teaches you what love is in a way that can only be gained by experience.
The servant-work of marriage can only be learned by living in marriage. The servant-work of parenting can only be learning through the experience of parent. Growing up to be the kind of human being that other human being want to be around can only come through the experience of servant work. Being a Christian and following Jesus can only be learned through the servant-work of ministry.
Maybe even parents, in the midst of their servant-work forget this, sometimes. Husbands and wives, in their lives together, sometimes forget that serving is loving and being served is being loved.
If we love Jesus we have to be servants of Jesus. If we love Jesus, we have to love each other, and that means we have to serve the servants of Jesus; and they are also called to love us by serving us.
This could be beautiful. As the servant-work was shared and spread among them, the followers of Jesus didn’t get weaker. They got stronger. Being a servant is part of the message. When they spread the ministry, and when they shared their servant-work more and more, the message got stronger and stronger. It says this: “So the word of God spread.” (Acts 6:7)
Being a servant isn’t easy. Taking food to those who have empty cupboards is a big challenge. The question is how to do it right, how to do it responsibly, and smartly, and compassionately, and wisely. It’s just as hard to do the nitty-gritty practical stuff as it is to do the stuff that seems to get the most attention. And all servant-work for Jesus, and for the love of others, is spiritual work that requires the fullness of the Spirit and wisdom.
All servant-work needs the Holy Spirit. All servant-work needs the mind and counsel of God. It all needs the inspiration and power of God. Whoever gets a slice of the servant-work needs to be clearly known for the fullness of the Holy Spirit working in them, and known for wisdom. I think that this suggests that they should be known for looking like Jesus, in their lives, because the Holy Spirit is also known as the Spirit of Jesus. (Romans 8:9)
The ministry of all Christians is servant-work. It is love built on the love of Jesus. Jesus said: “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:43-45)
Ministry is not an office or a job. Ministry is sharing the work of Jesus who served the world by dying for the sins of the world. Ministry is living and speaking the message of Jesus who served the world by dying for the sins of the world.
Ministry requires fellowship with this Jesus. Ministry means loving this Jesus, and being empowered by him to bring Jesus into the world through his servant-image in you, and in the family of Christ, the household of God, the church.
The people of Jesus made the message stronger and clearer when they spread out the ministry, when they opened the servant-work to more and more of the family of God. We are called to find ways to spread the ministry of going out into the world for Jesus. This is what I pray for and strain for with all my heart.
Each one of you is designed for the servant-work of ministry through the power and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps you already know what your ministry is, or what it might be becoming, and you need to tell us. Please tell me if I don’t already know it. Or else it is the work of all of us together to seek out what special work the Spirit wants us to spread to you and what work the Spirit wants you to spread to us.

This gift came to the church through the complaints of its members. It came through the honest admission that no one can do it all. It came through the ability to see what needed to be done. It came through the prayerful search for those who would share the calling with the help of the Holy Spirit. Let’s prayerfully search for those ministries, and let’s please put them into action.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Pushing Boundaries - The Gutsy Life

Preached on Sunday, July 31, 2016

Scripture reading: Acts 5:17-42
There was a family with two little boys, about eight and ten. They were full of mischief. That’s putting it nicely. Their parents were at their wits’ end, how to deal with these boys.
Each Photo Is Different:
May and June 2016
Then they heard that a minister in their town had a technique for straightening out kids like theirs. When they met with him, the minister asked to see the boys individually, and they sent their eight-year-old first.
The minister sat the boy down and asked him sternly, “Where is God?” The boy didn’t know what to say, and the minister repeated that same question louder, “Where is GOD?” The boy squirmed and the minister shouted, “WHERE IS GOD!”
The boy was scared to death. He ran home all by himself, and hid in the bedroom closet. His older brother went to be with him in the closet, and asked him what happened.
The younger boy answered, “We’re in big trouble this time. God is missing, and they think we did it!”
The Book of Acts is about the first followers of Jesus, and what their lives were like knowing that God is never missing. Jesus is the evidence of this. Jesus is God in the flesh. In Jesus, God came to be with us. He was born to be with us in life. He died for our sins on the cross in order to be with us in our sins and to take them upon himself. He also died for our sins on the cross in order to with us in our death. He rose from the dead to be with us in a life that is stronger than all evil and injustice; and stronger than death and stronger than hell.
Paul said it, “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Romans 8:37) Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) The angel who opened the jailhouse doors for the apostles told them to “tell the people the full message of this new life.” (Acts 5;20) Wonderful words of life!
Now this life, following Jesus, and living as one in what the Bible calls “the church” is described all the way through the Book of Acts, and in all the letters of the apostles, and even the Book of Revelation. This life is described as a life together: “All the believers were one in heart and mind.” (Acts 4:32) It was also a life of miracles, with God, in Christ, constantly interfering in their lives in wonderful ways.
The old, full, traditional name of the Book of Acts is the “Acts of the Apostles”, but some people have wisely said that it should be the “Acts of the Holy Spirit”. It could just as well be called the “Acts of Jesus”. It’s about everything that Jesus continued to do, and to teach, after he was taken into heaven. (Acts 1:1-2)
In some way that you cannot understand until it happens to you, this life is a new way of life because it is simply life with Christ, and life in Christ. We belong to Jesus, and we are never alone. Again Paul says it in an amazing way: “For me, to live is Christ.” Then, the rest of Paul’s sentence is more amazing still, “and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21)
That whole sentence is very important, because it relates to the story we have just read in Acts. Jesus was with the apostles when the angel opened the jailhouse doors. Jesus was with them when they went back to share the wonderful words of life again, in the Temple, where they would be found and arrested again.
Jesus was also with them when they were being threatened with death, and when they all got the forty lashes less one; the standard maximum whipping, like the bloody whipping Jesus got before he carried the cross. They rejoiced over that whipping “because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name (the name of Jesus). (Acts 5:41)
You have to see that the angel opened the jailhouse door so that the apostles could be re-arrested and whipped till they bled. I don’t think the miracle happened because they had faith. I think the miracle happened because the Lord wanted to accomplish something. The Lord has a purpose, and part of that purpose was (and is) to make his kingdom come, and part of that kingdom coming needs to happen now; through us and in us.
There’s a sorting out that goes on in the coming of the kingdom now. The priests who had sent Jesus to be crucified didn’t seem to realize that they were guilty of shedding Jesus’ blood. The kingdom continued the process of sorting them out by letting them act out, more and more, who they truly were.
They were seeing the truth about themselves less and less, and that is part of the blinding that comes from sin, or what we might call the life of going our own way. They were seeing the truth about themselves less and less, but they were making themselves more and more into the very enemies of the kingdom of God that they would never have recognized in themselves. The truth was becoming truer and truer. And that’s part of the kingdom of God coming now.
For the apostles, Jesus, through his Holy Spirit, was making them more and more truly what he is. For the apostles, the kingdom of God was coming into their lives now, in order to make them more and more clearly part of the new life. More and more, Jesus was Lord, and Savior, and Christ in them.
In a period of about twenty-four hours, they were all free men, and they were arrested and jailed, and they were freed and sent back to certain arrest and to an uncertain fate, and they were all whipped until they bled.
It was all so unpredictable: so many ups and downs in twenty-four hours.  But it was a holy unpredictability. It was all in Christ.
In freedom, and in torture, and in danger of death, they were not in charge; they were not at the center of their own lives. Their lives were not about themselves. Their lives were about others and, most of all, their lives were about Jesus. The kingdom coming now meant that they were learning more and more who Jesus is, and that Jesus is good, and that Jesus can be praised.
This was not easy. They had to be willing to go back into danger. They had to bleed. They had to suffer. They had to say “yes”, and not find reasons for saying “no”. There were solid reasons for saying “no”, and they had to be determined to say “no” to saying “no”.
The scriptures are not only God’s words. They are God’s words to us. They are God’s words to you and to me.
These words in Acts tell you and me that it’s typical for the Lord to send his great joy and a holy arrangement of our lives, to include the sure and clear experience of his power, and love, and deliverance. It also tells you and me that it’s typical for the Lord to send his people into difficulties and troubles, and into dangers and pain.
Otherwise we would stop having the deepest unity and fellowship with those who don’t know Jesus. Otherwise we cannot be one with them, as Christ came to be one with us, and with the whole world.
In all of this, you and I are never alone. We have each other. Most of all, we have and share Jesus. Jesus (being Jesus) is Lord, and we have to always be ready to say “yes” to the next thing, because Jesus is Lord. We have to say “yes” and be willing to live into the next thing the way Jesus would have us to do.
In my life, I find that there is always something that needs my attention. Sometimes it wears me out to think about it. The Book of Acts presents us with an account of the Christian life where there is no pause, there is no let up. The next thing always comes promptly along, and the people of Jesus are always having to say “yes” to the next thing.
One of the disciplines in the prayer journal of the book our adult class is studying is the discipline of asking the Lord what to do next. What is the next thing?
It can be surprisingly difficult. But it’s good to visualize the next thing as God’s next thing, and say “yes” to it as such. It’s definitely the new life that the angel told the apostles to tell the people about. Like God’s holy unpredictability, it’s our form of a holy insanity that makes our offer of a new life credible and believable to others: our willingness to say “yes” to the next thing in a way that looks like Jesus.
We have learned, in Christ, to not find reasons for saying “no” to people and plans. We have learned, in Christ, to say “yes” to people and plans.
We have faith because we know God in Christ, and we are learning to know God in Christ all the time. We can know God in Christ all the time We can know God in Christ in the places of deliverance and possibility. We can know God in Christ in the hard places where we are sent: even in those places where we can see good reasons for saying “no”.
God came to share our temptation to say “no”. In Jesus, God deeply desired to say “no” to his own plan to die under the burden of our sins. The Son prayed to the Father, “Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark14:36)
Jesus said “no” to himself and “yes” to the cross. He said “yes” to the cross in order to say “yes” to us.
The apostles rejoiced to be counted worthy to share the sufferings of Jesus by suffering for his sake. They said “yes” to sharing life with Jesus on the cross. If we say “yes” when we are tempted to say “no” then we can know that we are with Jesus, and that we truly belong to him all the time.
Wonderful things happen because the kingdom of God is on the move now. Jesus is Lord. How does the kingdom of God want to shape us now? What is the next thing the Lord is telling us to say “yes” to? What does he want to help us become?
We may be saying “no” to some wonderful and joyful things. We may be saying no to going back to a place where we got in trouble before; like the apostles being sent back to preach in the Temple. We may be saying “no” to something dangerous and difficult; something that is still God’s next thing.

Each of us, as individuals, have such next things. So does the church, the body of Christ. Our message is about life. We can say “yes” to whatever the next thing is, and find life there. We will find Christ there. What is it?