James’s ending note: community life

Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.

Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.

My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.

James 5

James certainly talks about relationships in the community of faith in his letter. But community life is saved for last, perhaps because that’s where James’s heart is as a pastor.

It’s not like the community of believers are to take the place of God. As James notes, anyone in trouble should pray and those who are happy should sing songs of praise to God. All of this is dependent on God. There’s a dependence on God and from that, an interdependence on each other. God made us for him, and for each other. We can help each other as we receive help from God, or with the help we receive from God.

When someone in the community is sick, they’re to call on the leaders of the church to pray over them, anointing them with olive oil as a symbol of healing. And the leaders are to pray over them, and the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well, and their sins will be forgiven. This implies any needed confession of sin by the one sick. But includes those not aware of any such need for confession, except for acknowledgment of the everyday sins and weaknesses we all carry, which might be affecting us more than we realize. I think of James’s warning against judging each other, and how the Lord judges such. And all his words against loose, careless speech, particularly as described in James 3, straight from the pit of hell. The healing in the context seems to be more or less connected with confession of sin, though not necessarily so.

And then there’s the word of encouragement concerning our prayers, probably especially encouraging the elders who pray, but also anyone else in the community of faith. Elijah is seen as extraordinary, including his prayers and God’s answers, but as James notes, he was just an ordinary human being with the same passions and struggles as the rest of us. If God answered his prayers, God will answer ours. Being righteous in James is more the character of righteousness we receive and mature in, than the standing which especially Paul talks about along with its character. We are always in need of God’s forgiving, cleansing grace, but we are not to excuse ourselves and our sins, and then expect to be heard by God in prayer. But when we are confessing, and doing our best to be obedient people, growing in grace, then our prayers will matter much.

And then the closing word on rescuing the one who is wandering from the truth in the error of their own way. Nothing less than saving their souls from death is at stake here. The community is not to let them go, but to try to bring them back in. And what’s implied here is that we as individuals our involved. One of us from within the community can make the difference as we step in and reach out to help the sinner in need repent. This takes much grace, but we are called to this for each other.

Deb and I are part of an evangelical mega church in which is emphasized the row (weekend worship service), the circle (small group), and the chair (personal devotions). We plugged into a small group early on, and it’s been as great a blessing as all the rest. People can receive some of what James refers to in the weekend gathering, and especially so in smaller churches. But a small group of say eight to twelve people, committed to each other in love and prayer, can make the needed world of difference.

What James calls us to at the close of his letter. What we need, and what the world needs to see from us together. In and through Jesus.

accepting one another, living in grace

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.

Romans 15:7

There is nothing quite like a genuine acceptance of each other in Christ because of grace. And there is nothing quite so stifling and cold as when we refuse to do that, or do it with strings attached.

Everyone alive has their issues. No one has arrived, of course. And we all have our particular struggles, not to mention our blind spots. We are all in process. And in the passage quoted above, it is in the section in Romans 14 and 15 about disputable matters in which Christians can differ. In the context of that day with reference to what was actually clean and unclean in terms of the new covenant replacing the old. And it’s a bit complicated.

But fast forward to where we live today, and it can be in terms of all kinds of things, but at the heart of it is an attitude of judging someone else, so that we hold them at arm’s length, and likely see them somehow as inferior to ourselves, either in their character, or in their faith.

What we need is quite the opposite. If we focus on what’s negative about ourselves or others, then we will likely miss what God is actually doing. And the well is poisoned. Instead we need to accept both ourselves, and each other, just as God in and through Christ accepts us. So that we can be open to the goodness of what God is doing even in us, as well as our brother and sister in Christ. And so we can be hopeful of God’s movement of grace in others.

The only way we can live and go on well ourselves. And something we must apply in our attitude to others as well, in and through Jesus.

the gospel breaks the color barrier

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Galatians 3

Maybe my biggest disappointment with the church as I’ve seen it for the most part, with notable exceptions, is just how monochrome, or segregated most churches are on any given Sunday. It is understandable, yet sad at the same time, in my view. God’s grace covers us, and there’s a history behind it. And it’s not like churches who are white or black want to be segregated. There are different cultures involved, and people are at home in different places.

But the gospel is meant to bring together those who likely would never do so apart from it. What is true concerning Jews and Gentiles being reconciled to God as one body (Ephesians 2:11-22) is also true of all peoples, bringing for example Palestinians and Jews together through the cross, through Jesus’s death, along with blacks and whites, Protestants and Catholics, everyone. The reconciliation to God extends no less to each other through the good news in Jesus, and the Spirit who makes us one in him.

As a witness to the gospel, and the saving power it brings, we need to show the world how we can work through the barriers, whatever they may be. How our unity in God through Jesus by the Spirit in the love of God in Jesus supercedes all distinctions, breaks down all animosities and hostilities, through Christ’s death, and our repentance and faith, and brings the promised healing and shalom. This new world is now present through Christ in his body the church. As a witness to the world, and as part of the salvation we ourselves need, in and through Jesus.

the importance of the church

There is no doubt that the individual and individuals are important to God. In fact we can say that every individual human being matters to God. God created each of us in his image, and treats every human being with respect as such. Even though so many evils in a world of hurt we have to leave with God, since life often seems unfair, quite broken, our own difficulties that way not even close to the plight others experience. So what is said here is not at all to disparage the importance of the individual before God and in the world.

But while the individual in scripture is far from ignored, in fact, just the opposite, there is a clear emphasis on the importance of community, or individals together in communion in knowing each other, living with each other’s interests in view, and not just their own individual interests. On the most basic level this happen in families in which the spouses inevitably should put their partner’s interest at least on the same level as their own, and surely higher, in the way of Christ. And of course good parents inevitably sacrifice their own wants and desires for the good of their children.

In scripture God called an individual, Abraham, to call a people to himself. Yes, a people. Human beings are meant to live in community. To be human in significant part is to be in relationship to another human; it is not good for the human to be alone. God is creating a people in Jesus who not only enter into communion with God, which by the way is a Trinitarian communion of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, but into communion with other humans in reflecting something of that Triune communion in God himself.

We find the formation of the nation of Israel meant to be a light to the world, in showing God’s light of truth and love to the nations. Blessed to be a blessing, that calling realized in its fullness in Christ’s fulfillment of it. And now the church in Jesus together is to proclaim and be a witness to that fulfillment to the world, by gathering together for the word, the sacraments, and the common life. Everyone who is a member of Christ through faith and baptism, is also a member of his body, the church. We in Jesus not only belong to him, but to each other.

This isn’t easy, given our culture in the United States, the first nation built on the Modernist Enlightenment in which at least one of its pillars is indiviual rights. It becomes all about my rights. And we’re already broken because of sin, not only a personal brokenness, but along with that a brokenness in relationships, even if by common grace much good still goes on. We want to be left alone, but that urge mirrors our bent to want God to leave us alone, or meet us on our own terms. But that is not the way in Jesus, as we see over and over again in scripture. It isn’t easy, but there is no other option in really following the Lord, in truly being Christian.


becoming part of the answer

I jokingly told someone yesterday that I would make a good Buddhist. What I was thinking about is what one Roman Catholic spiritual director in my past was trying to help me with, but which I probably wasn’t getting: the need to become integrated, or one in and of ourselves, something scripture talks about in a number of places, and exemplifies especially in the life of our Lord, who reflected in his earthly life the life of the Trinity. And for us in him, we are to wait on God to help us to this, so that we’re no longer double-minded (double-souled, perhaps more literal) in all of our ways, through faith in the midst of trials and through receiving the Lord’s wisdom in answer to prayer (James 1).

Neither the world, nor any of us needs someone who has all the answers, unless you’re talking about the Lord himself, who in a real sense is the answer. But both for ourselves and for each other and for the world we need to begin in and through Jesus to become something of the answer.

The answer lies in God, and a signficant part of that will be simply not knowing, but having peace, along with the knowledge and understanding which brings peace. Instead of running around and anxiously giving everyone answers, even as we continue to search for them ourselves (which I fell into doing yesterday), we need to settle down, and into the one source for all answers, and more importantly for all of life, so that we can begin to flourish while inevitably not having all of the answers. I can’t help but think of the story of Job, and how it ended.

Back to Buddhism, for a moment. It is said that  Siddhartha Gautama didn’t promote any teaching until he had come to thoroughly live in it, and not without numerous setbacks along the way. While I’m not at all advocating Buddhism which I understand to be a philosophy seeing life in terms of both physical and metaphysical, and hence indeed a religion, I think the point of being integrated, though we believe for different reasons, is one where some convergence can be found. We need to become something of the truth we promote. The good news in Jesus is to be truly good news in our lives, helping us toward flourishing, to be the witness we’re called to be to the world.

In Jesus’ words which we in him are to follow: We’re to make disciples of all nations, disciples meaning followers of our Lord, who in turn will make disciples of others, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything he commanded. And we’re to follow Paul’s example, even to follow him and others like him as they follow our Lord.

To become integrated, fully one in our Lord and with others in him. Everyday, at least once, and probably more, I need the Lord to help me back to that. To be still, to cease striving and know that God is God (Psalm 46). Something I want to live more and more in along with others who are a part of that whole in and through Jesus.

unity doesn’t exclude diversity

In pointing toward the desired unity of the church, we must not fall into the idea that our differences have to be muted or neutered into something in which we’re all uniform. Even in the Roman Catholic tradition there is some great variety in the different orders: Franciscan, Benedictine, Dominican, etc. And for all the criticism Protestants receive for their divisions, some of it surely just, there is some wonderful variety: Quakers, Pentecostals, Methodists, etc.

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he makes it clear that though the Body of Christ is one, it is made up of many parts. But to be a full body each of the parts with all of their differences need to be in place (1 Corinthians 12). Something similar should be said, I think, for the institutional church, or if you prefer, the local church/parish and churches at large. We want to work toward the complete unity Christ was praying for. We don’t in the process want to lose the rich diversity, but somehow bring all of it together into a melodious harmony.

This doesn’t mean that just anything goes. And yet within a certain framework there can be an openness to fresh movings of the Spirit in living out and being a witness to the gospel. All of that does need to be sufficiently grounded in scripture and tradition with good reasoning and a testing of the spirits as in experience, following.

In fact this unity does not only preclude divesity, but welcomes and embraces it. And in fact is committed to it. The different cultural expressions of the faith come into play here, the various ethnicities and their expression of the faith among the many gifts that Christ gives to the church. And at its heart gives witness to the full reconciliation the gospel brings to those who in normal life are divided. The Spirit’s work in the church is not about making us comfortable. We  worship and are a part of one body that in the big picture is as large and diverse as the world.

The gospel is central as given in the word, the sacraments, fellowship, and care for each other, all spilling out into a witness into the world first in terms of the microcsosm of God’s grace and kingdom come in Jesus seen in the church, and in terms of the life that is lived out in following Christ in this world. See Scot McKnight’s book, Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church. The point here is that in this diversity there does need to be a unity that in terrms of priorities, givens which should characterize every church in its own unique expression.

Differences again are not to divide us, but to help us toward unity paradoxically, as we see the gift from Christ that they bring.

Lent and community

There is a sense in which we necessarily follow Christ alone. We can’t depend on the commitment of others; we must be committed ourselves. Someone else can’t do it for us, not even by their prayers. In answer to their prayers, we must enter and remain on the straight and narrow ourselves.

Just the same, community is important on a number of levels. We are called as individuals into community. When the disciples followed Jesus to Jerusalem where he had told them he was to suffer, be killed and on the third day be raised to life, they did so together. They were in this together for better and for worse. Each one for sure needed to do their part, but somehow the dynamic of the community they were was greater than the sum total of all their parts.

And so Lent is a personal time of reflection in preparation for Holy Week in which we especially want to be open to the Lord in becoming aware of our sin so that we might confess them and repent, a time of drawing nearer to our Lord to, in the words of the Apostle Paul, become like him in his death. And yet Lent is together, as well. We are never meant to either go it alone, nor are we meant to find our identity only in ourselves and in our Lord. Somehow our identity is found in fellowship with others as well, especially those who with us are of the family of believers, of the faithful in Jesus.

And so both dynamics are vitally important. We need a certain kind of solitude and fortitude that is within ourselves in the grace of God in Jesus by the Spirit. But along with that we were made for communion with the Triune God and the community of the redeemed. Both are essential to the fullness of life that is ours in Jesus.  God calls us in his grace to growth in each. In our becoming more and more like his Son, Jesus.

moorings and fellowship

Moorings is both a nautical term and used figuratively to signify a basis of security. It is known that more important than the actual content of what is presented is the fellowship as in friendships and relationships in helping someone to become aligned with this or that group. I think this has even been said for those in the church.

When I think of this in terms of the church, I’m thinking both of staying as well as entering. At the same time I wouldn’t suggest that one’s faith couldn’t and therefore shouldn’t withstand a barrage of conflict and difficulty from others, and worst of all, neglect. Nor am I suggesting that it’s all about loving others to keep them in the flock. Though love in the letter to the Colossians is called “the perfect bond of unity.”

As humans we have a strong sense of need to belong. Our identities are formed within that context, or malformed when it is lacking. Unfortunately the group or fellowship one might find may not be good.

We in Jesus are supposed to know the greatest love of all, God’s love in Jesus. “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” This is a love which looks for the lost and is one heart with the found.

The gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. So that whatever deficiencies we encounter in the church can be overcome. But a basic way this human need of belonging is met is through the gospel itself. A good news which tells the world and brings into reality through God the basis for this new life in the community, indeed the kingdom of God, the people of God, his sons and daughters, indeed family, in and through Jesus.

the importance of the church

The church takes on many forms and practices. And I would argue that we can see both “high church” and “low church” in the New Testament. I am thinking we need something of both. Baptism and the Lord’s Table do seem to have meaning more than just symbolic. And the church itself is called the pillar and foundation of the faith. The church also is to live out the call and imperatives to love one another in a variety of ways. The fellowship in communion with God in Jesus by the Spirit is experienced in some part by fellowship with each other. For me that is often what can open the door and bring me into God’s presence, it seems, on a Sunday morning. Of course it is not just a matter of conversing. We also are present to help each other in meeting important needs. And in love we hold each other accountable.

Church is not a nice option or help for our journey in Jesus. It is part of who we are. We are members of Christ, and in being so, we are also members of his body, the church. It is less important just what church or denomination we’re part of. It is most important that we are part of a local gathering. This isn’t just theory in thinking of ourselves as part of the church universal. This has to be worked out in practice, where the rubber meets the road in down to earth local congregations. There needs to be a commitment there, grounded in our Lord and in obedience to him. We are in this for better or for worse. We should never easily leave a church. The consumer mindset shopping mentality we need to reject. We need instead to be in prayer with the intention to stay committed where we are, as long as it is a gathering as church in which together we are trying to follow the Lord in accord with scripture. There sadly does come a time to leave, but it should be a last resort, or something not done easily. Although if the church is not really a church, then we need to find a church. Such would be true if the church has apostatized as in rejecting the resurrection of Christ or the necessity of Christ’s death for sins. Or if a church is not living according to the pattern given in the New Testament, perhaps being little more than a social club. Even in these serious cases, we should want to see repentance and change. But there is a time to leave.

In most cases we should leave only for good reasons that have to do with calling. It is true that at times people become convinced of this or that teaching which differs from one church to the next. Or one’s theology may line up more with one church or denomination than another. Even in these cases we should be slow to leave. Often there is room for variance, and sometimes the differences are really not all that profound or may in practical terms matter very little if at all. That may become evident if we can talk it through with the pastor or leadership of the church.

The church is foundational to us in Jesus. Our calling is linked to it, and we should never think of ourselves apart from the church. We are part of it, members of Christ’s body, to be lived out in commitment within a local church. Necessarily together in seeking to follow God’s call in Christ.

the tension between restoration and tradition

I am among those who appreciate restoration movements within the church, such as the Church of Christ, and the Anabaptists- among which I was raised Mennonite. There is something to be said about getting back to our roots and beyond the penchant for equating tradition with the inscripturated word, I mean, the Bible. That being said, in reality we all have and live in tradition, the “restorationists,” no less than all the rest.

It is surely worse than naive to simply think one can start over with the Bible, with the focus on the New Testament, and think one can find the primitive faith. Anabaptists in the stream of Menno Simons, found that out early on. You can’t put aside Christian orthodoxy such as what was hammered out in the creeds, along with the church councils in defining theology to scuttle heresy. Yes, the theology on God (Trinity, etc.) and Christ (two natures, one person, etc.) all has its value. There is no sense whatsoever in reinventing the wheel.

The tension comes with the thought that we need to find a tradition which can be traced back to the early church. Hence the move of a significant number of evangelicals to the Eastern Orthodox Church (while even more Eastern Orthodox convert to evangelicalism). And the search for a stream which would include more of a supposedly restorationist orientation, found in a group like the Waldensians.

To suppose there was one homogenous group of Christians in New Testament times, one church of apostolic purity, is to be rather naive, as we find in the New Testament letters and in Acts- in the witness of scripture, itself. It does become a matter of weighing everything, with a certain respect for the traditions we find within Christian orthodoxy, even while we may engage in some push back, as we together consider the witness of scripture itself. Theology needs to be rooted, pruned, and growing. The process involves many voices ending up with the same tune in different harmonies and variations. It is surely a pipe dream to think there is only one tradition flowing back to and rooted in the New Testament apostolic church. And that the church does not need to struggle through both what the faith means in its original context, along with the context in which the church finds itself, culturally in time. Yet we also need to learn from and respect tradition, yes from “the Great Tradition” (the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic) as well as from other traditions of the faith. Seeing the variants which are part of Christian tradition (such as found in Pentecostalism). Remembering all the while that there is no one set way of being church, even as we hold to and affirm our unity in all its varied expressions throughout the earth, as Christ’s body.