what does Christian mean?

…for an entire year [Barnabas and Saul] met with the church and taught a great many people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called “Christians.”

Acts 11:26b

We can ask over time what anything comes to mean. There’s always inevitably the baggage of history, and some of that behind the name Christian is not pretty, including right up to the present day. I’ve heard that it may have been derogatory when first coined in Antioch. True Christianity for sure would upset the status quo.

Christian has basically meant those who adhere to and practice Christianity. And so much can get lost in that, as well as there being different emphases in different traditions of Christianity. In our time, in my lifetime, it seems to mean those who follow certain traditions such as Sunday gathering and whatever else might follow from that. There’s usually a profession of faith in Jesus and often an emphasis on the impact the faith has on the life to come, at least in the minds of many. Yes, teaching might bring focus into the present life, and often does, but it seems to me based on observation and on what much more knowledgeable and wiser people have said that there’s a missing piece, arguably the most important piece of all in one aspect.

Yes, it’s all dependent on God and on God’s grace. But what I’m referring to here is the simple goal of following Christ, becoming like Christ. From my nearly five decades of being a Christian, that doesn’t seem to me to have been much of an emphasis, not much in our minds at least from what we were taught or at least in what really hit home to us. What should people think of ideally when they hear the word Christian? And what do they think of? And that includes not only those who are not Christian, but those who are.

I’m afraid being a follower of Christ not unlike the Sermon on the Mount has at best been put on the back burner, if not taken off the stove entirely, as something just not for us today. This is a grievous error because what follows the gospel accounts Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in our Bibles comes from and is based on what Christ taught, the Spirit directing the churches through leadership on how this worked out after Christ’s ascension and Pentecost.

All of our prayer, reading of Scripture, gathering together as God’s people should be to the end of helping us become true and better followers of Christ, growing together into maturity in Christ, yes into Christ likeness. Anything less than that is missing the mark and what it truly means to be Christian.

their hearts right, their heads wrong

Then Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me,  for it is written:

“‘I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’

But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.”

Peter replied, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.”

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.”

But Peter declared, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the other disciples said the same.

Matthew 26:31-35

Peter’s heart was entirely right, but his head was entirely wrong. And the other disciples with him. Jesus had already made them clean through the word (John 13), I take it meaning regeneration, new birth. But little did they know or understand either Jesus’s words, or what was happening before them right at that time, the momentous event, and the shaking and sifting, along with the tragedy.

Earlier we remember that Peter had roundly rebuked the Lord for saying that he would have to die on a cross, that such a thing would never happen to the Messiah. The Lord summarily dismissed that, and made it plain that not only would he be taking that route, but that all who really follow him would as well.

Peter still had it in his head that there was a place for the sword. He is the one who cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant. Jesus ends up healing that ear, and makes it plain that all who draw the sword will die by it. And that he had come for this, that the prophecies of scripture were being fulfilled (big in Matthew).

This can be so much like us. Yes, the Spirit in Pentecostal fullness had yet to come. That would make a big difference. But everything had to unfold before them, Jesus’s resurrection, and post-resurrection appearances, and his ascension. Yes, we have the benefit of this now, both in hindsight, and the Spirit’s ministry to us today. But we too can easily not begin to understand what we’ve gotten ourselves into. As Jesus told Peter, along with James and John at the Garden of Gethsemane, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

So our hearts can be right. But are we being changed by the renewing of our minds, so as to know God’s will, and not be conformed to the world (Romans 12:1-2)? That’s the question.

 

the neglected Person of the Trinity

The Holy Spirit, called the third Person of the Trinity: the Triune God- doesn’t call attention to itself/himself. The Spirit glorifies the Son who in turn glorifies the Father, all sharing in the same glory which is inherent in God alone. The Spirit has been characterized as the shy Person of the Trinity and likened to the Love which passes between the Father and the Son. And all Three in their Eternal Oneness are said to be in a Perichoretic dance, each not only in Communion, but in Union with the other.

The First/Old Testament which sets the stage for everything has been said to be the age of the Father. The Final/New Testament begins with the age of the Son, when Christ came and was present with us as God-in-the-flesh. And through his death and resurrection, and after his ascension, the age of the Holy Spirit in the Spirit’s descent in power upon the church remains to the present day until Christ returns.

Actually it is important to think in Trinitarian terms, since God in God’s Oneness, can’t be separated. God is revealed as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Through Jesus we know the Father, in fact Jesus said that to see him is to see the Father. Through the Spirit, we know Jesus.  And the Father gives the Spirit through the Son. And so the Triune God wonderfully works as Diversity in Unity.

Tomorrow is Pentecost Sunday, and as my friend Allan R. Bevere points out in a most interesting post, this ought to be for the church a day on par with Christmas and Easter. We remember and celebrate the coming of the Blessed Holy Spirit in whom dwells the Father and the Son. New life and resurrection power comes through the Blessed Holy Spirit.

We do well to bow down and cry out in worship of the Trinity, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God of Hosts.” And to remember that our life existence in creation and new creation, as well as our Help is in the Blessed Holy Spirit: God.

See another interesting post by Stephen Bilynskyj which I think helps us get a nice glimpse into the work of the Spirit in the church.

do we make much of the Holy Spirit?

We just experienced, if you can say that, Pentecost Sunday. Actually it was an experience for me, although not enough out of the ordinary, but somewhat. Our Pastor Jack gave a good message on the Holy Spirit and Pentecost (Acts 2). And afterward people were waiting on the Lord in prayer in a prolonged time after the service. I would have remained, but it was my week to do coffee ministry. Later I went to the nursing home and spoke on the same subject from the same passages of scripture.

And I just had a sense of the refreshing of the Spirit. It was good. And that leaves me wondering. Do we make much of the Holy Spirit, indeed, do we do that enough? My answer for myself is no, I don’t. I think good liturgy steeped in the Trinity can help. One of the prayers I recite is the simple prayer, “Come Holy Spirit.” We need the new creation life breath of the Spirit which may be a renewal of vocation in call in God’s image, and is certainly related to the church’s call to proclaim and teach the gospel and confirm the faithful. And we need to be clothed with power from on high to be Jesus’ witnesses from where we live in our homes, workplaces and neighborhoods, to the very end of the earth.

I would hope that looking to God for more of the Spirit would become a regular habit of mine. And that this would be exponential in helping me grow in the fruit and gifts of the Spirit, along with others in Jesus. As we seek to live in and out from the gospel of Jesus. In and for the world.

prayer for the Day of Pentecost: Whitsunday

Almighty God, on this day you opened the way of eternal life to every race and nation by the promised gift of your Holy Spirit: Shed abroad this gift throughout the world by the preaching of the Gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

or this

O God, who on this day taught the hearts of your faithful people by sending to them the light of your Holy Spirit: Grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgment in all things, and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Book of Common Prayer

Jordan Seng on supernatural ministry for today? yes, but…*

One final thing that supernatural ministry may require of you is what you might call the faith to discover—or to rediscover, as the case may be.

I’m often asked this sort of question: if supernatural ministries are so useful and have been as prevalent as many claim, then why don’t all churches and traditions use them today? It’s a good question that actually reflects a profound historical reality. The truth is, while supernatural ministries have been both common and enormously fruitful in church history, they’ve never been what you would call steady. Over the centuries we see great renewals of supernatural ministry followed by long droughts of disuse. It’s up and down, here then there, a consistent inconsistency. You can focus on regional revivals and conclude that supernatural ministries have been constant, but you could just as well focus on down times and conclude that supernatural ministries ended with the first apostles. Really, it’s the variation that needs explaining. Why do supernatural ministries surge so often only to dwindle so frequently?

Since supernatural ministries have never been entirely absent, it’s hard to argue that God decided to stop empowering them, so the cause for variation must lie with us. My theory is this: groups of believers frequently figure out how to do supernatural ministry, but they have a hard time figuring out how to live with the ministry. Revivals come with great exhilaration and fruitfulness; downturns come when people tire of the level of weirdness, vulnerability and sacrifice that supernatural ministry demands.

One result of this variation is that very few believers have had the benefit of what you could really call a tradition in supernatural ministries, so each new generation has to do the work of rediscovering the ministries for themselves.

It’s always been this way. For example, the use of supernatural ministry by first-century believers is well-chronicled in Scripture and elsewhere, but by the late second century the church father Irenaeus in his Against Heresies actually had to reassure his readers that supernatural works were still practiced fruitfully in his jurisdiction. “For some do certainly and truly drive out devils,” he wrote. “Others have foreknowledge of things to come: they see visions, and utter prophetic expressions. Others still, heal the sick by laying their hands upon them, and they are made whole. Yea, moreover, as I have said, the dead even have been raised up, and remained among us for many years.”

In the next century the seminal theologian Origen wrote from Alexandria of “traces of that Holy Spirit” among Christians who “expel evil spirits and perform many cures, and foresee certain events,” but it was only “traces.” A century later, in the same city, Bishop Athanasius extensively documented the miracles of his Egyptian contemporary, Anthony of the Desert, but his whole project was based on the notion that only exceptional monks were doing such ministry.

The great Augustine of Hippo totally dismissed the possibility of supernatural ministries initially, but then he encountered them during a fifth-century revival in his native North Africa. In the last section of The City of God he offers gushing accounts of healings, concluding “even now miracles are wrought in the name of Christ.” He reportedly collected accounts of recent miracles for pastors to read aloud in the churches he supervised in order to rekindle the ministries.

We have rather detailed accounts of the use of supernatural ministries by Patrick, Columba and other monk evangelists of the western European outreach. In a wonderfully personal letter to Augustine of Canterbury in A.D. 601, Gregory, bishop of Rome, acknowledged the use of miracles to attract English natives to Christ, and even offered advice for handling the pressures of being a supernatural minister. But by the later middle centuries, as central church leaders focused on governance rather than outreach, supernatural ministries seem to have survived only on the fringes.

Early Reformation leaders strenuously dismissed miracle stories as a ploy by Catholics to legitimate their dominance, but it didn’t take long for Protestant pioneers to rediscover the usefulness of supernatural tools. Scottish Reformers John Knox, Alexander Peden and George Wishart had highly regarded prophetic ministries in their day. (Wishart even predicted his own murder.) John Welch, a leading Reformer at the turn of the seventeenth century, was recognized as a man of “prophetic utterance” and was credited with raising a man from the dead. Seventeenth-century biographers of reform clergyman Robert Bruce systematically collected eyewitness accounts of the many healings, deliverances and other supernatural manifestations linked with his evangelistic meetings.

And yet less than a century later, the great British revivalist John Wesley was shocked to find “that signs and wonders are even now wrought by his holy child Jesus.” His revered journals are spiced  with accounts of deliverances and healings , and also of the opposition he experienced from “formal, orthodox men [who] began even then to ridicule whatever gifts they had not themselves and to decry them all as either madness or imposture.” Wesley’s New England contemporary, Jonathan Edwards, often called the dean of American theology, wrote some of his most ardent essays to fend off Christian critics who didn’t trust the supernatural manifestations that characterized his revival ministry. Even her wife was called to defend what was called her “joyful view of divine things.”

Francis Asbury, the first American Methodist bishop, was so passionate about supernatural ministry that he used to command his preaching protégés to “Feel for power, feel for power!” Two Methodists and a Presbyterian touched off the Cane Ridge Revival on the American frontier in the early 1800s—a movement that  popularized the phrase “slain in the Spirit.” But today few Methodists or Presbyterians are aware of this movement, and neither of those denominations is known for practicing supernatural ministry.

Supernatural ministries played a big role in the establishment of the early church, the birth of monasticism, the expansion of the faith to Western Europe, the spread of the Reformation, the great revivals of the Atlantic and American frontier evangelism. And yet in each instance, practitioners had to discover it anew for themselves.

So, what does this pattern of atrophy and rediscovery mean for you?

Well, it mean that while you may or may not have had some supernatural experiences with the Lord, you probably haven’t benefited from a lot of examples of living with supernatural ministries. If you’re at a church that practices supernatural ministry, the church is probably relatively new to it. And even if you church does have a strong supernatural tradition, chances are the congregation has experienced some dramatic waxing and waning in the effectiveness of its supernatural ministries. In all, if you’re interested in supernatural ministries, it’s likely that you’re in a place of rediscovery or renewal, and that requires a certain sort of faith.

There’s a style of Christian discipleship that is conservative, in the literal sense of the word: its emphasis is on preservation, affirming what’s proven and familiar. There’s another sort of discipleship that presumes new things and experiences—not liberal, in the sense of giving license to violate the old or established, but progressive, in the sense of Jesus’ teaching on “new wineskins” for “new wine.” To embrace all the works of the kingdom, we have to be willing to expand our containers of knowledge and experience. To pursue supernatural ministry, we need the faith for this progressive sort of discipleship. We have to be willing to try things, to reach for things we’ve only heard of, to explore and discover, to act without being totally sure how to act. Supernatural ministry entails adventure.

Jordan Seng, Miracle Work: A Down-to-Earth Guide to Supernatural Ministries, 25-29.

*Could have been entitled, “renewal of a supernatural people,” in keeping with the titles of the chapter and section quoted, but that raises questions which are not answered well by what is quoted here, though in my view are indeed answered well in the book as a whole.

Eugene H. Peterson on the Holy Spirit’s conception and birth of the resurrection community of Jesus’ followers

…the last words of Jesus to his followers are, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1:8). Jesus’ friends are going to get their start the same way he got his, by the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ followers are going to become a resurrection community in the world (“when the Holy Spirit has come upon you”) in the same way that Jesus became the Savior of the world (“the Holy Spirit…upon you”). The operations of the Holy Spirit upon and in that septet of marginal Jews assembled in Luke 1-2 is about to be reproduced in Jesus’ followers who are gathered in Jerusalem waiting for Jesus to send them “what my Father promised” (Luke 24:49; cf. Acts 1:4-5).

Fifty days after the fateful Passover in which Jesus was crucified, and ten days after his ascension into heaven, the Holy Spirit descended on the waiting believers in Jerusalem. On that day, the Day of Pentecost, the holy community of the church as we now know it was conceived. Mary the mother of Jesus is the only member of that core group of seven who was in on the conception and birth of Jesus who is also now present at this conception and birth of the community (Acts 1:14). The Holy Spirit that conceived Jesus in Mary’s womb now conceives Jesus’ community with a charter membership of 120 (at least) of Jesus’ followers. And Mary is there to see and be a part of it.

References to the Holy Spirit now quicken. The seventeen references to the Holy Spirit in Luke’s Gospel increases to fifty-seven in Acts, a document about the same length as the Gospel. We are not to lose sight of the fundamental story line: what the community does and says and prays is continuous with what Jesus does and says and prays. This is the same Jesus story that we read in the Gospel but without Jesus being visibly and audibly present. The Holy Spirit is God’s way of being present and active among us in the same way that he was in Jesus.

Eugene H. Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology, 270.

prayer for Pentecost

Almighty God, on this day you opened the way of eternal life to every race and nation by the promised gift of your Holy Spirit: Shed abroad this gift throughout the world by the preaching of the Gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Book of Common Prayer

prayers for the Day of Pentecost

Almighty God, on this day you opened the way of eternal life
to every race and nation by the promised gift of your Holy
Spirit: Shed abroad this gift throughout the world by the
preaching of the Gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the
earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns
with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever
and ever. Amen.

or this

O God, who on this day taught the hearts of your faithful
people by sending to them the light of your Holy Spirit:
Grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgment in all
things, and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort; through
Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with
you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and
ever. Amen.

Book of Common Prayer