Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Purpose of the Church?

In most Evangelical circles, I suspect the initial answer to the question in the title would be “preach the Gospel.” After that though, we might hear someone offer the alternative of “relieve suffering.” While I suspect that the real answer is somewhere in the middle where both the spreading (not necessarily preaching as we understand it) of the Gospel, and relief of suffering together make up the mission – or the purpose of the church.

It is true that the disciples were told to preach the Gospel, and Paul was specifically selected as the Apostle to the Gentiles. Paul, and either congregations or other Apostles sent other men to preach and establish the church throughout the known world. Preaching then is clearly a part of the church’s purpose.

Preaching though is only a part, and cannot be said to be the primary purpose of the church. When Jesus told us what his mission was, he said it was to “proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God, preaching relief to people.” After convincing a new group of people of Jesus’ Messiahship, he then moved to teaching and urging transformation. Was this transformation the production of more preachers or was it something else? It was clearly something different than equipping preachers. Paul’s teaching of transformation contained two aspects. The first is a complete submission to God, and the second grew out of that submission. This second was the development of God character and the practice of blessing those who were on the fringes of society.

We are challenged in fact in at least one place where we are told that it isn’t sufficient to say “go and be filled.” No, that simply won’t do. We must feed those with whom we come in contact. James tells us that pure religion isn’t preaching, but caring for widows and orphans. Good thoughts toward those less fortunate than ourselves isn’t proof of faith, but meeting with them, touching them, feeding them. These are proof of faith. The fruit of the Spirit do not include oratory skills, debate techniques, or even book knowledge, but love, kindness, and compassion. This has always been so. Micah tells us what God wants from his people: mercy, justice, and humility. Israel wasn’t castigated because she lacked preachers, but because she lacked leaders who trained her people in the finer arts of giving of self to others.

How then is it that we pay more attention to developing and sending preachers rather than helping others in need? Why do we build edifices to showcase oratory and allow us to practice worship, and yet short change the care of the less fortunate? Worship, according to God, is not what we call corporate worship but rather lives given in service to others. Somebody has said that this is our spiritual act of worship. This serving of others is, after all the core meaning of ministry.

We are told that we need worship edifices to draw people to God, but God seems to think that his people, shining light in a dark and broken world by giving to others will draw people to him. In fact, our own studies validate this truth. Why do people come to God, and why do they stay with a group of people? Because they see Jesus, and they connect with others who reflect him.

Can people be brought to God through debate? Absolutely. Paul used that art to good advantage to make an opening. Then he instructed his churches to love people in the midst of this dirty world. Oddly enough, Jesus did the same. He would skirmish with the Pharisees, but revert to actions that cared for people. Jesus tells us that we can tell he is Messiah because of the works he does. This has less to do with the flash-bang aspects of his works than it does the healing and compassion demonstrated in them.

What will it take to get God’s people out of our comfortable buildings with multiple staff that command the vast majority of our wealth, and instead put that same wealth directly into helping others who are less fortunate than ourselves? When will we learn that participation in ministry isn’t about Christmas programs but about the actual serving of others? Church work is fun – and clean and safe. It is also done for those who are themselves clean and safe. Are we growing Christians who expect professionally done “worship” services, or are we growing Christians who worship God through their lives, through getting dirty with people in the messy parts of this world?

This ministry to others is important in good times, but becomes even more critical in economic down times. Should we be investing in worship facilities and staff for our comfort, should we be creating more preachers, or should we be directing more and more of our wealth to those who have none? When it comes to being God’s people in our community and the world, which of these activities should take priority? Which of these would Jesus urge us to do more and more?

I support more ministry to people who are in need rather than more ministry to us. Organizations such as World Concern which is primarily a relief organization, but whose work results directly and intentionally in more followers of the Christian God. These people, and others like them in other relief organizations put their transformed lives to work with the poorest of the world’s poor and oppressed. In our own backyard, we might select the Albuquerque Christian Children’s Home or the Rescue Mission. Both of these intentionally and directly provide relief to people on the fringe of our society, daily directly affecting the welfare of children and homeless people, pointing them to that same Christian God through compassionate and faithful modeling of Spirit-filled lives.

Let’s help them continue to impact the world and our community for God.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Luke 22.39-46, concluded

This leads us to a second instructive aspect of this text. Jesus urges the disciples to stay awake and pray that they not fall into temptation. Then he moves away from them, leaving them to pray. What happens when the physical Jesus leaves their presence? When they lose sight of him, and they can no longer hear his voice, the disciples fall asleep. Rather than praying that God keep them from temptation, they succumb to it. Apparently they have full stomachs and they are tired and so taking a short nap while Jesus is off doing whatever it is he’s doing makes sense. The problem is that napping is not what Jesus had asked them to do, and it isn’t what he asks us to do. The disciples are to remain in prayer even when it is not apparent that Jesus is around. So are we. Scripture asks us in another place, “will God find faith on the earth when he returns,” asked in the context of prayer. Separate from whether prayer “works,” prayer is an indicator of our faith. If we believe there is a God out there; if we believe he hears and responds to us, the expectation is that we will speak with him.

Jesus asked his disciples to pray that they not fall into temptation. This is another way of wording Jesus’ own prayer that the will of the Father be done rather than his own. Praying not to fall into temptation is essentially the same as praying to be in the center of God’s will even if it doesn’t look like that is the place we want or should be. Later in the evening and after a short show of bravado and violence, the disciples are going to abandon Jesus to the arresting mob. They will all run, one even losing his clothes. True enough, some will follow from a distance and witness the evening’s and early morning’s trials. But one of those will end up denying any association with Jesus three times with increasing frustration and anger.

It is important here to note that he does not tell them to pray for what they want or even for the salvation of the world, but that they not fall into temptation. Our prayer is primarily to be the same. While we are encouraged in other passages to ask for what we want, that wanting must yield to the will of God. It is critical that we understand the difference between being in the will of God and God actively willing whatever is befalling us at the moment. Primarily the will of God is summed up in Micah 6.8 – we are to be people who love (extending) mercy, who act justly (toward others), and who walk humbly with God (even when we don’t quite get it). When we have allowed ourselves to be transformed, we can see more clearly the will of God but even if we can’t, we rest in the belief – the knowledge – that God knows what he’s doing. We avoid the temptation of judging God and we live in his will and presence.

The example of Jesus in this passage provides us a window into the way of life for a God follower. We are called to works of goodness, we are called to tell others of God, but our primary calling is to remain in the will of God even when it may seem that he isn’t listening or even there. Our ability to and habit of prayer are intended to keep us in step with God and they are direct indicators of our faith in his existence and his faithfulness to us.

Luke 22.39-46

This passage recounts our Lord’s agony in the garden. Having left his disciples in the garden with instructions to pray, he has moved away from them to speak with his Father. He returns at one point to find the disciples sleeping rather than praying, and he urges them to pray that they not fall into temptation. His own prayer takes the form of pleading, of searching, that there could be found some way that he would not need to endure the crucifixion. His last comment on the topic though, is that it should be the Father’s will that takes precedence rather than his own.

There are two aspects of this passage which are instructive for us. The first is Jesus’ agony over the Father’s will. It is clear that Jesus does not want to go through being scourged and killed, and he is in agony or distress over his immediate future. Despite having come to this world knowing this was intended, despite sharing in the divine essence and will, despite knowing he would return to the Father, Jesus asks that the plan as it now appeared could be changed. Even in the midst of his inner turmoil, Jesus places his will – his desires – his fears, to the will of his Father.

In some aspects, this reminds us of David’s all night vigils for Bathsheba’s son. In sackcloth and ashes, emptying his emotional and physical reserves, David begs that God’s mercy would prevail and the child would live. After the child dies, David brushes off the dirt from the floor, gets up, takes a bath, and gets on with his life. David had an intense desire to have that cup removed from him, but accepted the judgment of God when it came.

In this passage, Jesus behaves similarly. As long as there was some chance of changing the plan, he would pray and seek the face of God, but when the answer came, he submitted himself to what the Father wanted. This is instructive for us as followers of God. We are called primarily to submit ourselves to the will of God, even if that takes us through agony and seeming abandonment. Scripture intimates unbounded blessing for God’s followers and many people attract masses of followers offering the riches of God in exchange for faithful performance. It is almost as if Scripture has somehow lost touch with reality in a fallen world. We seem to have erased those parts of Scripture that just as forcefully intimate hardship not just because we are human, but because of the faith we proclaim.

If we are to minister to people who subsist in garbage dumps, we (well, someone) are going to have to wade into the dump. If we are going to care for people who have been abused and abandoned, we are going to have to take the risk of being insulted and challenged. If we are going to run an AIDS shelter – or an H1N1 clinic, we will need to accept the risk inherent in those actions. If we are going to live and love in this world, there are risks of doing so. People around us need caring human interaction. Jesus touched those who were hurting and those who had physical illnesses. If we are going to touch them, we have to be with them.

In some cases (although not nearly as often as we might expect), aid workers contract various illnesses, suffer their ravages, and die. Sometimes people who reach out to others are killed by those they seek to help.

In other cases, God-followers seem to fall victim to the vagaries of life. Some contract rapid moving cancers, some are shot by home invaders, some are killed by drunk drivers, some mothers lose children before they are born and some parents lose children after enjoying them for what seems an all too short life. These instances engender questions of why, of the goodness of God, of all the trite promises we express and receive about the blessings of God. How can these things be if God loves us?

It is at precisely this point that our commitment to the will of God is tested most fully. The problem we often have is that we confuse the expectation. Just as Jesus did not want to endure the cross, we are not expected to simply brush off the tragedies of life as though we are unbothered by them, as though we do not have an investment in others, as though we do not care about this life. The key to learning from the passion of our savior is not the specific will of God in any case, but Jesus’ and our willingness to trust God through the hurt, shock, denial, and wondering of whatever we endure. We need not wear fake smiles, throw parties in the midst of loss, or pretend as though everything that happens is alright with us. Jesus did not so act and we are not expected to either. be continued......

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Balloon Fiesta Glow

Albuquerque's 2009 Balloon Fiesta came to an end this morning with winds too high for the mass ascension. Last evening's winds were also too high to conduct the Glow, but there were about twenty balloons that inflated before the winds proved too much. Here are some of the brave balloons being inflated. Had a good time with Ann, Cindy and Malia, Zach, Misty, and Sharon.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Great Communion

This past Sunday there occurred in Albuquerque a historic event. Oh, not quite as historic as putting people on the moon, or even overhauling the medical system in the most prosperous country on the planet, but historic in a minor sort of way. At three o'clock in the afternoon, and in loose cooperation with multiple other venues around the world, there was assembled members of three of the denominations originating in the American Restoration Movement. This is not the first time various members have "crossed the aisle" to worship with others, but it was the first worldwide intentional such undertaking.
At the Montgomery Church of Christ, members and clergy of the Disciples of Christ, Independent Christian Churches, and Churches of Christ assembled for the express purpose of sharing communion with one another. The auditorium was comfortably full (estimates range from low-500s to about 600 attendees) when the service began with a review of Restoration Movement history by the event coordinator and an invocation by one of Montgomery's members. From there, the communion service unfolded with a mixed vocal choir, a Christian Church bell choir, and various clergy (male and female) from area churches. Congregational a capella singing was appreciated by all in attendance with one Disciples pastor opining that "you sing much better than Disciples!"
The communion itself came amidst a series of textual readings, and included multiple communion stations around the auditorium. At those stations, each with two servers, the congregation received communion from members of other traditions. There were more than a few tearful eyes during the service.
Comments during, following, and since have all been positive. More than one person was heard to say "I never thought I'd see this in my lifetime," and "we need to do this again - every year." Others expressed hopes of further joint efforts such as Christmas and Easter services. Perhaps the best indicator of the spirit of the day was that many people remained after the service for an hour or more to talk while enjoying cookies and other refreshments.
The afternoon was a wonderful chance to meet with other Christians with whom we seldom have "official" exchanges, but with whom we share a common religious heritage. While I'm not one to wait until someone official tells me I can fellowship others (I don't have a problem meeting with just about any Christian denomination), I do hope that this event results in broader acceptance of others with whom we doctrinally disagree over secondary questions.

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