the center of God’s work

God raised him from death and set him on a throne in deep heaven, in charge of running the universe, everything from galaxies to governments, no name and no power exempt from his rule. And not just for the time being, but forever. He is in charge of it all, has the final word on everything. At the center of all this, Christ rules the church. The church, you see, is not peripheral to the world; the world is peripheral to the church. The church is Christ’s body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence.

Ephesians 1:20b-23; MSG

There’s not many concerned citizens in the United States who aren’t biting their nails right now. If you pay attention to the news, you know some of the many reasons why. And what happens in those places is important. We don’t do well to shrug it off and say for one reason or another that it doesn’t matter.

But we don’t do well, either, if we think or at least act as if that’s all that matters, specifically what people are doing in these civic and political affairs. We may advocate for good, important causes, raise legitimate concerns, and have our feet on the ground, somehow active in the political process. And there might well be some good that comes out of that.

But unless we remember where the center of God’s work actually is, we might become lost in all of that. Lost in not having the proper focus. Of course I’m talking about those of us who are Christ-followers.

I think we would do much more good if we made a concerted effort to focus on just where the center of God’s work is. It’s in Christ no less. And on God’s grace and kingdom present in him, found now, or at least primarily evident in the church. So that whatever we are about and do has both its vision and energy coming from that.

This doesn’t mean for a second that we should disengage in neither paying attention to events, nor failing to do anything. But it does mean that our passion and effort needs to come from the center of God’s activity: Christ himself. As the church, the body of Christ in the world, made up of all believers in local expressions of that, we need to center ourselves in that space and reality to find our place in what God is doing today.

This will help us be concerned about what God is actually concerned about, and less on what so many others, including many Christians, really, any of us might be concerned about. For example, it’s not about the preservation of human constructs, whatever good they might represent or accomplish. Nor for that matter are we about trashing such. Instead our focus is on God’s revelation and will found in Jesus. That brings a vision we gather from Scripture, fulfilled in Jesus, in God’s grace and kingdom come in Jesus. So that no matter what might happen elsewhere, that remains intact in our faith, because in actuality it will. But our participation in that will depend on our focus and response.

This hopefully can help us learn to relax more, fret less, and do what God has called us to do in Christ. Simply be who we are: together, Christ’s body in the world. Under Christ’s rule, who alone is sovereign over all things. Realizing that God can bring about more good through our prayers, love, and good works than we might imagine, or compared to just being even fully engaged in the political process. We want to follow Jesus, the politics of Jesus, and participate in God’s good work in and through him.

one note often missing in church life: we need each other

No prolonged infancies among us, please. We’ll not tolerate babes in the woods, small children who are an easy mark for impostors. God wants us to grow up, to know the whole truth and tell it in love—like Christ in everything. We take our lead from Christ, who is the source of everything we do. He keeps us in step with each other. His very breath and blood flow through us, nourishing us so that we will grow up healthy in God, robust in love.

Ephesians 4:14-16; MSG

From [Christ] the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

Ephesians 4:16

In our individualistic culture, we Christians too often look at church as being by ourselves in silence before God to hear a good message from God’s word, from Scripture. That’s good. But what might be more vital than that for our spiritual growth, our growth in grace is the realization that we’re in this together, that we need each other, and that God designed it to be that way.

After all, we are one body in Christ, the body of Christ. We get our life and directions from the one head, Christ, by the Spirit. But that’s intended primarily to be experienced together. But it really seems hard to crack that nut in today’s individualistic culture. And sadly to some extent western missionaries have imported something of that culture all over the world, though much of the world does better in this.

What is needed is not some great knock out message, or someone greatly gifted, though those things are good in their place. But what’s essential week after week, on a regular basis is the growing awareness of the reality that we’re all in this together, no one excluded. That we all have our part, even if it is “just” a smile and silent prayer.

We can’t make it ourselves, indeed we’re not intended to. Or at least we won’t do nearly as well, and we’ll be like fish out of water in trying. This is why commitment to the church really amounts to commitment to each other. It’s not just something we confess or acknowledge, but something we need to put into practice. And when that’s beginning to happen, we’ll begin to see the difference and grow up together in the way that God intends. In and through Jesus.

incarnational communities not popular

There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance,
nothing to attract us to him.
He was despised and rejected—
a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief.
We turned our backs on him and looked the other way.
He was despised, and we did not care.

Yet it was our weaknesses he carried;
it was our sorrows that weighed him down.
And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God,
a punishment for his own sins!
But he was pierced for our rebellion,
crushed for our sins.
He was beaten so we could be whole.
He was whipped so we could be healed.

Isaiah 53:2b-5; NLT

God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world.

1 John 4:16b-17; NLT

This prophecy refers to Christ of course. But some application can be carried over to Christ’s body in the world, the church. Christ alone saves us, but today this is done in significant part through the church. What Christ was in this world, his body is supposed to be now. This involves taking our crosses and following in God’s love for all. Again, it is Christ who saves. We participate in the outworking of that salvation through living out the message and sharing it with others.

The church is supposed to be Christ’s body, not something else that might be more popular to the masses. And actually the church is Christ’s body. We are ordinary, with glitches and struggles, sometimes erring. But present for each other, and for others, for the world as God directs our participation in that.

To be God’s incarnational presence in the world in Christ means to be human and the more Christ-like, the more fully human. We want to be the light of Christ in this world in love and good works. It’s not about programs, even lights out preaching and teaching, great worship music, none of that, although any of it might be good in its place. No, instead it’s about Christ’s presence among us and through us to each other and to the world. In and through Jesus.

“we all need a home”

Someone recently told me that. It is wonderful, the family settings we can live in. But even the best of them is not without some hurts and wounds along the way, even with some cracks and brokenness. And tragically, sometimes those fractures are not mended and there can be a parting of ways. Home together as family does involve a commitment.

When it comes to church, we Christians at least here in America I think have some difficulty seeing it as family or being comfortable there. Why? It could be in part because of our own experience as family. And churches in our society are like a dime a dozen. Unlike days of old when there were parishes, and you had your church according to your location, in which you may well attend and be part of for a lifetime, now people so to speak go shopping for church. Wherever it’s the right feel, or serves the needs of one’s family, or their own needs, we stop and shop there. Maybe for a few years, maybe more, but often less. Until we move on to our next church and church experience. The older I get, the more I value the practice of those who have been in one church for decades, even entire lifetimes. Unfortunately not true of myself. Though there are times, sadly, to leave a church.

But the church in Jesus is meant to be our primary family, in a certain sense more family than our own family. Though of course each have their unique special place. Jesus made it clear that his sister, brother, and mother were those who did God’s will. And we find in the New Testament letters an emphasis on a community held together in the bond of love in Christ, with the fruit of the Spirit moving that fellowship, and the gifts of the Spirit helping it, all toward growth together into maturity in Christ.

We need a home where we don’t have to perform and have it all together. Where we can be our honest, even broken selves. I’m not saying at all, excusing our sin. But really being honest with ourselves and others. Just that sense given to us together by the Spirit who leads us to the broken body and blood of Christ for us individually and in our relationships with each other.

We need a place where we’re at home. Where people really care for us. Grace-oriented, so that by and by we can start measuring up, but not at all about measuring up, even while there is loving accountability. Where we realize that we’re all in this together, that when one suffers with whatever, we all suffer. Where when one rejoices and is happy, we all are happy for and with them. The sense that we’re indeed not in this life alone. But we’re present and in place for each other. And together for a broken world. In and through Jesus.

the Anabaptist (Mennonite) difference

Dirk.willems.rescue.ncs

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 5:3-12

For some time on my spiritual journey, really beginning around 2000 or so, I’ve been nudged back toward my Anabaptist, specifically Mennonite roots. Now no church or denomination or tradition has got it all right, in fact I prefer to insist on the thought that none is better than another. And that we’re all in this together, for better or for worse. But the Anabaptist tradition has a history to appreciate, and I would like to say, a difference, too. Not unique to itself in that it has never existed elsewhere. But stamped all over its origins.

Back at the time when the church and the state were essentially one in the “old country,” Anabaptists and especially their leaders were persecuted, specifically, executed either by drowning, or being burned at the stake (or even racked, I read) by both Catholics and Lutherans. Yes, it was a different time, and this was the punishment then for “heretics.” The Anabaptists learned the wisdom of being explicit about their acceptance of the creeds of the church. But the hot button issue was their refusal to submit to the baptism of babies. All who lived in a nation then had to submit to that, at least for the most part. And the Anabaptists would not fit an exception to the rule.

The picture above is that of Dirk Willems, a Dutchman who escaped prison, but rescued the one chasing him who had fallen through ice, only to be tortured and executed. This epitomizes the heart of Anabaptism in the best sense of its tradition: Seeking to follow the way of Jesus come what may. As some like to say, not just the religion about Jesus, but the religion of Jesus. With an emphasis on the way of the cross, love for one’s enemies, love for all.

So I’m getting back to my roots: Mennonite. Yes, it’s not exactly the Mennonite I was raised in the first seventeen or so years of my life. But probably with more of an emphasis at being distinctly Anabaptist in a Sermon on the Mount kind of way especially with the distinctives of love for one’s enemies, and never resorting to violence. As well as seeking to be peacemakers. But minus the emphasis on rules of what was thought to be literal obedience to Scripture such as distinctive dress. And more, I’m sure. I have some catching up, and actual learning ahead.

Certainly on many things we are in agreement with the Church. That our salvation is through Jesus in his incarnation, life and teachings, death and resurrection, ascension, and promised return. The promise of the kingdom of God in the new creation. Whatever tradition, through faith and baptism we are all one body in Christ. We’re in this together, in spite of what differences we have.

I’m thankful for my upbringing, and now would like to end there. In that expression within the full body of Christ. In and through Jesus.

we are one body in Christ (even when we disagree)

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

1 Corinthians 12:27

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

Ephesians 4:4-6

The church consists of various traditions, obviously quite a few, some of them varying among themselves, even at times sadly divided. Maybe the most notable divisions in church history are the Great Schism between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Church that still remains to some extent to this day. And the Protestant Reformation in churches splitting from the Roman Catholic Church. Within the Protestant Reformation was what is called the Radical Reformation of Anabaptists who were persecuted by both the Roman Catholics and Lutherans for not submitting to state enforced church baptism of infants. And within the Anabaptists themselves are a number of divisions, some for understandable reasons more or less circumstantial, and others for less fortunate reasons, although even some of that makes sense or seems right from their standpoint, even if not from ours, I think here of the Amish forming after leaving the Mennonites.

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians probably refers mostly to local congregations, whereas the letter to the Ephesians is referring mostly to the church at large, Christ’s body throughout the world. The point is that there is just one body of Christ, one church, regardless of all our divisions.

Today we divide to some extent over issues which in themselves are really not a big deal, even if they once were, although we can still make them fundamental. I think of Calvinism versus Arminianism, and a whole host of other issues which gave rise to various church denominations. Sadly we have not broken racial divisions very well overall. Then there are more controversial issues today, like women in the ministry, what to do with committed gay Christians and what to make of that issue, whether or not we welcome LGBTQ into full participation in the church community. Issues that often we would rather not touch, and that are sure to cause even sharp division.

Well, we need to step back and remember one thing in the midst of all of this: Through the gospel and in Christ we are all one body in spite of all of these differences. We have to look for the signs of the life of Christ within a church, in individual lives, the fruit of the Spirit and the gifts as well. We have to keep going back to the Bible as our source of knowledge and wisdom, together by the Spirit seeking discernment especially in the more difficult issues, as well as in all of life. When we do that, we’ll come to recognize that although there are often significant differences among us, and that some and to some extent all of us will be mistaken along the way, we still are one body in Christ.

That may be hard to recognize given the sometimes marked differences in our traditions, the misunderstandings, and the problems which accompany controversial issues in which there may be error on one side or the other, or to some extent on both sides. But we must keep front and center, what is front and center. We are on body in Christ. God is faithful, Christ builds his church, and the Spirit is at work, so that we’ll be a viable witness of Christ for each other, and to the world. In and through Jesus.

None of my thoughts represent Our Daily Bread Ministries where I have done factory work for some twenty years now, and for whom I’ve never written a line.

Christ speaks; the church listens

I love this post entitled “The Catholic Sex Abuse Scandal” from a Roman Catholic sister in Christ, actually giving me hope for the Roman Catholic Church. Well worth your time to read it, not really that long, and tells a bit of her own story. You can skip this post and read that to save time.

Revelation 2 and 3 contain the seven letters of Christ to the seven churches. It is so vital for the health of any church to listen to Christ. Christ speaks to each church through scripture within the context of the gospel, by the Spirit, and through church leaders, but also through so-called laity. The church together is given discernment by the Spirit, not minimizing the important role leaders play. But leaders too are always subject to Christ’s words, and the others can be involved in discernment, and holding them accountable. But it’s always together, certainly including the gifts of all.

I would like to say, and I strongly believe it, that in the end I don’t care at all what the church says; I care what Christ says, period, the end. But Christ does choose to speak through his body. And that’s where it’s so necessary for the church to listen well to Christ, so that it can both be corrected, as well as encouraged, and speak in word and deed, God’s good news in Jesus to the world. In and through Jesus.

remaining faithful (and seeing the big picture)

“See, the enemy is puffed up;
    his desires are not upright—
    but the righteous person will live by his faithfulness[g]

Habakkuk 2:4

Sometimes it feels like nothing is left so to speak, that at least everything is in shambles. And life itself does not make sense. If you read the three chapters of Habakkuk (you can through the link above), you’ll find that precisely to be the setting for the prophet Habakkuk’s complaint to God. Injustice was rife among God’s people, which made no sense, since God wasn’t doing anything about it. And then God’s solution in response to Habakkuk’s request as to what God would in time do made no sense to Habakkuk, either. God bringing on a nation, an empire of that day, which acted even worse than God’s people, and was less righteous in Habakkuk’s eyes.

What are we to do in such circumstances? God’s answer to us is that the righteous will live by faith, or more precisely by their faithfulness. Actually without faith, it’s impossible to be faithful. Both faith and faithfulness are tied to commitment in response to God’s word, promise, and command. We can say, covenantal in nature. Of course one has to believe God’s word. But within that belief has to be a trust which is a commital of one’s entire life to God. So that all depends on God, but we are in it for the long haul, through thick and thin. A covenant is a binding agreement between two parties.

For Habakkuk in a way that seemed easier since he was part of the covenantal people, Israel. But simply to be part of that nation did not mean at all that individuals lived up to that covenant obligation. So even then the call to the individual within community was in play. Today there is the challenge among many evangelicals to see God’s covenant in terms of a people, the church. We often don’t put sufficient emphasis on church, but see it more as a good help to our faith. But church is indeed a part of our faith in that the covenant we have before God in Christ is both individual and communal. That covenant is broken if we consider it nothing but individual, “between me and God.” We’re in this together. In New Testament terms, we are indeed one body, so that while each part has its place, and is important before God, we are important for all the others, as well. It’s never only about us and God. It’s about us and God and others in Christ.

So the call to faith and faithfulness is both in response to God’s word, God’s promise to us in Christ, and together with others in Christ, and not just for the sake of each other, but in our witness of the gospel before and for the world. We remain faithful when life around us makes no sense and seems to be falling apart. But we trust God in all of that, and are committed to the good news of the gospel which is breaking in through God’s saving work now. God’s judgment at work in the world now, too, as needed. But an emphasis on God’s salvation, “today” being that time.

We all have part in this, so that we live now with that in mind. Through our faith and faithfulness. By God’s grace, God’s gift and giving in Christ. Assured that God is at work now and to the end, in and through Jesus.

simply Christian

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”

Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

1 Corinthians 1

It seems like it holds true to the present: there are a number of Christian denominations and traditions which remain essentially divided over this and that, sometimes what appears to be significant matters over the gospel, and yet in the end, they would acknowledge that the ones they are dividing from are likely in Christ.

What if we simply got rid of the idea that we have to be united over this or that nonessential? But for many, unless one believes that the bread of Holy Communion becomes Christ’s body, and the wine is blood, then they can’t be in any kind of fellowship and working relationship. Or churches remain divided over this or that. It seems impossible to break the division.

We need to center on the gospel, and live with our differences around that. Maybe challenge each other in the process, but make it a priority to be united, insofar as we possibly can for our witness to the world, as well as the good of our own faith.

Reports from China years back said that the church was growing exponentially until they began to get divergent directions from different Christian bodies in the free world. The simplicity of the power of the gospel, and God’s grace in that was disrupted by human made rules and tradition. The work of the Spirit was thus undermined, if not thwarted altogether.

When it’s not the gospel that is central, or when there are certain aspects of our participation in the gospel which end up dividing us, we have work to do. We need to make provision for all who are in Christ to be united as one in faith and practice.

That is what I’m coming to now. We might want to bring a believer along to understand and practice or even not think they have to practice certain things, arguably, but as long as they have faith in Christ, that should be enough for them to be fully united to us in our church body and witness to the world. The New Testament doesn’t know any believer who isn’t baptized, at least not as a rule, but differences there should not cause us to exclude each other.

What we need to press for is to maximize our oneness in Christ through the gospel. That needs to take priority over other matters. In spite of what differences we have, we ought to make provision for that. In the grace of God in and through Jesus.

the oneness of all who are in Christ and therefore his church

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 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—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

John 17

When I read or hear of the divisions within Christendom, or I mean the traditions of Christianity, then I want to think of it as something less than Christianity. Conservative Lutherans within a denomination which ironically is a member of the National Association of Evangelicals don’t consider themselves in full fellowship with Reformed people, since the Reformed supposedly divide Christ in their view of the Eucharist, not accepting the body and blood of the Lord in it. And therefore they won’t participate with them publicly. The Eastern Orthodox Church won’t seriously consider uniting with Roman Catholics, even after the overture for such from the latter. I wonder if all such in reality are the ones who are sinning against the Lord in not discerning his body (1 Corinthians 11).

I might hold myself to something of what Anglicans hold to in Holy Communion, that according to the teaching found in 1 Corinthians 10 and 11, something of the body and blood of the Lord is present in the Eucharist. And I might especially like John Calvin’s explanation of that more in terms of the Spirit’s presence in it, of course the Son and the Father also then being present by the Spirit. So that this presence is indeed spiritual, as opposed to physical. Hence I suppose the Lutheran charge that the Reformed reject Christ’s humanity in the Eucharist. I see Holy Communion myself as a sacrament, and more than just a symbol, and wish the Bible church where we’re taking our grandchildren, and where we’ll probably become members would hold to the same view, and practice Holy Communion once a week rather than once a quarter.

But regardless of our views on the Lord’s Table, all who are in Jesus by faith are one with him, and with each other by the Spirit. We are one, period. How dare we deny that oneness for the sake of tradition, or our interpretation of scripture? I notice that churches like the one we’re attending do not at all deny the oneness of all who are in Christ, and would fully participate with such, or at least let any professing believer participate in Holy Communion with them.

Also while I understand the view by which neither the Lutherans mentioned above, nor Roman Catholics (and I’m guessing neither the Eastern Orthodox) don’t allow Christians who don’t hold to their view of Holy Communion to participate with them in it, I am with the Christians who believe this is a case of tradition gaining the upper hand on scripture, and actually nullifying the word of God. Or what do the Lord’s words in the prayer quoted above mean?

This leaves me with an empty feeling as we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation when Martin Luther nailed the 95 theses to the door of the Roman Catholic church in Wittenberg. And it makes me less apt to want to attend a Roman Catholic service. And in some ways even less interested in attending an Eastern Orthodox one. And I feel sad over all of this. Because I believe every person who by faith, and we might add baptism (the New/Final Testament essentially does not divide the two, but I would settle for by faith) are one with Christ, period. And therefore ought to be treated as such, especially in the sacrament in which this oneness is celebrated, remembered, and in a sense renewed, Communion. Christian traditions ought to figure out how to lay aside their tradition in honor of that oneness, yes, during the Eucharist, so that all in Christ can participate in that. The only explanation needed would be the reality of the grace of God in Jesus.

Until they do, I for one have a hard time taking them completely seriously. They see other Christians as sinning against the body and blood of the Lord, when the great sin in 1 Corinthians 11 was the failure on the part of some Christians to act as if other Christians were members of Christ’s body. Enough. Christ is not divided, period. Nor his church. They should adopt grace as overriding the letter of their tradition, even while they still hold to it. Are traditions set in stone? I believe in the gospel, and in the written word of God. I’m sure some Christians would pick at that statement. Regardless, let’s quit doing this, would be my plea, and let’s fully accept all who name the name of our Lord Jesus, and hold to that gospel as given to us in scripture (example: 1 Corinthians 15). Otherwise we fail to live according to our Lord’s words in his great high priestly prayer prayed on the eve of his crucifixion and death.