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New Life Ways 7: All Things in Common

It starts as soon as a child learns to talk. It happened in my home. It probably happened in yours. You and I most likely did not teach this to our children. But they learned the words and the accompanying attitudes.

The words? “My” and “Mine.” Alice Sterling Honig—professor emerita of child development at Syracuse University—said “Mine is often one of the first words toddlers learn…”[1] But you probably did not need a professor to tell you that.

And the attitudes? “What I have somehow defines my worth.” “If I have more it makes me better than you.” “I earned what I have.” Sure, before children work, the only earning came from thinking they were so good that Santa brought them more than the neighbor kid or somehow another year and another birthday merited the gifts.

Often those words and attitudes follow us to adulthood. We start to work and we believe what we have is “mine.” I have what I have because I “earned” it. I worked harder, longer, and smarter than the person who has less.

It comes with our culture. We live in America—the wealthiest nation on earth—and yet our country has the highest wealth inequality. The Global Wealth Report of 2015 listed the U.S. as having 41.6% of the of total global personal wealth.[2] We’ve got a lot of wealth.

But we also have a lot of inequality, especially in the United States. A measure of inequality was calculated for each country. Here’s how the scoring worked: A “0” mark would indicate perfect equality of wealth. A “100” would indicate perfect inequality or one person owning all the wealth. The U.S. earned a score of 80.56 which showed the “most concentration of overall wealth in the hands of the proportionately fewest people.”[3]

The wealth is not owned by one person. But it is owned by just a few.

That picture is not too distant from the one we find in the first century. One scholar describes the inequality in the Roman Empire as follows:[4]

  • imperial elites consisted of 0.04% of the population
  • regional or provincial elites made up 1%
  • municipal elites comprised 1.76%

So far, that means the elite of the society made up only 2.8% of the population. From there he says:

  • there were those with moderate surplus resources (7% estimated): some merchants, some traders, some freedpersons, some artisans (especially those who employ others) and military veterans
  • others were stable near subsistence level with reasonable hope of remaining above the minimum lever to sustain life (22% estimated)
  • even more lived at subsistence level and often below minimum level to sustain life (40%)
  • below subsistence level (28%): some farm families, unattached widows, orphans, beggars, disabled, unskilled day labourers and prisoners.

In summation, one writer says: “Those who had no problems with sustenance were altogether at most 10%, whereas in continuous problems of sustenance were living some 90% of the population, more than two thirds of them in severe or extreme poverty.”[5]

It was a harsh world. And from what we know, it was equally harsh in Galilee. First-century Galilee was mostly an agricultural society with some fishing industry. The population was, as in the Roman Empire, strongly dependent on the wealthy elite.

The elite lived off of the deprivation of the rural Galilean population. They had agents who would collect taxes from the poor. Archeology has revealed there are almost no remains found of storage buildings for grain or other products and no shops at all. This tells us that the Galileans apparently consumed all that they produced. By the time they paid rents, taxes, loan and interests there was nothing left for them to trade with.[6]

Jesus lived in this world. All the archaeological evidence from the Roman period points to a simple peasant existence at Nazareth.[7] Mark 6:3 tells us Jesus was a tekton. Often we understand this to mean he was a carpenter, but the word means a craftsman and included those who worked in stone. Wood was scarce in the area around Nazareth, so most likely Jesus was a stonemason. There is high probability he worked in the Roman construction of the city of Sepphoris, which would have only added to the offense the people from Nazareth had towards him. Jesus was most likely in the group that lived at sustenance level or just below.

Why is the economic setting of Jesus’ world and that of the church important? Look at the early teaching Jesus gave at a synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).

Jesus specifically chose that passage to read to his hometown crowd, a crowd of simple people like himself who were barely getting by. Simple people who worked hard but had little by way of material things to show for it.

Why did Jesus choose this passage from Isaiah 61? He had a passion for the poor. The down and out. The captives. The blind and oppressed. Jesus’ mission was to see the shalom of God present, even in his hometown.

Bishop Curry helped us imagine shalom at the Royal Wedding:

Think and imagine, well, think and imagine a world where love is the way. Imagine our homes and families when love is the way. Imagine neighborhoods and communities where love is the way. Imagine governments and nations where love is the way. Imagine business and commerce when love is the way. Imagine this tired old world when love is the way, unselfish, sacrificial redemptive. When love is the way, then no child will go to bed hungry in this world ever again.[8]

Jesus referred to the “year of the Lord’s favor.” Jubilee. Every fifty years the fields would be allowed to rest. Slaves would be freed. All property was returned to its original owners. (Imagine hearing this in a day the Romans had taken all the land.)

As far as we know, the year of Jubilee was never really practiced. But Jesus taught it, showing us the heart of God. God loves a “0” inequality mark—everyone has enough.

Apparently his disciples got the message.  “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and signs were being performed through the apostles. Now all the believers were together and held all things in common. They sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:42-45). Later, in Acts 6, we read of a “daily distribution” of food. The church took care of its own.

Some get nervous when we read these passages. Some hear “socialism” and start fidgeting. But that is not what is at work here in the early church. The imperfect tenses used in the passage indicate an action that happened from time to time, as need arose. In fact, the NIV translation of Acts 4:34b-35 says, “From time to time, those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet.”[9] “From time to time” indicates the people responded when there was a need.

What the disciples did was voluntary. Their love for each other moved them to, at times, sell possessions and even property so that others would have food and clothing.

What the disciples did was not a response to a universal command to sell property and possessions. We don’t find this practice everywhere in the New Testament. The response is to the universal command to love. At times, love means letting go of some of what we have to give to someone who has little or nothing.

Years ago I was teaching a class at another church. The text was the rich young ruler. He’s the one, you might remember, that told Jesus he had kept all the commandments. So Jesus told him: “You still lack one thing: Sell all you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me. After he heard this, he became extremely sad, because he was very rich” (Luke 18:22-23).

One of the class participants asked me afterwards, “Does this mean we all need to go sell everything we have and give it to a poor person?” He was sincere in his question. And he was well off financially. So I said, “Yes, I think you need to sell everything you have and give the money to me.”

No, that’s not what I said. I said, “Well, I think Jesus said that to that particular man because it is something that stood in the way of his relationship to Jesus. He loved his money more than following Jesus. If we all followed this particular command to this particular person, we’d all be poor and then we could not follow this command. I think what Jesus wants us to do is to be in conversation with him about how much we love our money. And if we start loving it more than we love him, then maybe this is for us too.”

I think I’d say the same today. The early church had all kinds of people in it: rich, poor, master, slave, men, women, Jew, and Greek. They would not reflect the heart of God if the rich allowed the poor to go hungry.

The Apostle Paul spoke to that very issue in 1 Corinthians 11 where the wealthier ate at their meetings while the poor went hungry. Suffice it to say Paul was pretty terse with them about their actions, especially as it pertained to the Lord’s Supper.

The church was to be different. It was to be salt and light in the world. And the world they lived in was one where the Romans had taken everything and left most with little or nothing. There was no welfare. No health care plans. No social security. The Roman government cared little for its own. And in that setting the church looked after not only their own, but those outside their community as well.

And it grew. People were curious about these people who would at times sell their possessions and help the poor, and they wanted to find out what caused that change. Even the Roman government eventually noticed. Rodney Stark states that Julian complained in a letter to the high priest of Galatia in 362: “The impious Galileans support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.”[10] Stark says Julian recognized that his charities and that of organized paganism paled in comparison with Christian efforts that had created “a miniature welfare state in an empire which for the most part lacked social services.”[11]

The Resurrection resurrected love for each other in the church. And when there was a need, they took care of their own first. And then they took care of others.

Professor Honig said that “Mine is often one of the first words toddlers learn.” She also continued: “…and an intellectual milestone; once a child understands the feeling of ownership, he is on his way to learning to share… Identifying ownership isn’t a sign of selfishness—it’s a sign of knowledge. It demonstrates a desire to understand the world.”[12]

Sure, some people are poor because they don’t want to work. But some are poor, as Bono once said, because they are “an accident of latitude.” They were simply born in a different place than we were. And some were born into different systems than we were. Systems similar to the one Jesus and the first church knew.

In a world where inequality existed, Tertullian noted “that it was the Christian communities’ response to the poor people among them that inspired outsiders to comment, ‘Look, how they love each other.’”[13]

God knows what might happen if we attack the inequality number now like they did then.

 

[1] http://www.toddlerapproved.com/2015/06/tips-for-toddler-mine-stage.html

[2] http://fortune.com/2015/09/30/america-wealth-inequality/

[3] Ibid.

[4] See the research Poverty in the first-century Galilee by Sakari Häkkinen at   http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0259-94222016000400046

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/19/style/bishop-michael-curry-royal-wedding.html

[9] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/does-the-book-of-acts-command-socialism/

[10] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, 83-84.

[11] Ibid. and Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity. New York: Atheneum, 1976: 75

[12] http://www.toddlerapproved.com/2015/06/tips-for-toddler-mine-stage.html

[13] Alan Kreider, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire, (Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 2016), 115.

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New Life Ways 6: Fellowship and Prayer

“Fellowship” can be spelled with three letters. Don’t believe me? Jesus’ words show us how: “He said to them, ‘Whenever you pray…’” (Luke 11:2).

You’ve probably read that verse before. Jesus had been praying “in a certain place” and when he was finished one of the disciples asked him, “Lord, teach us to pray…” (Luke 11:1).

Did you catch it? “Fellowship” is spelled “y-o-u” by Jesus. And if you didn’t see it there, maybe you caught what the disciple asked. He did not ask, “Teach me to pray.” He asked, “Teach us to pray.”

When Jesus answered he answered with the “second plural present middle subjunctive”[1] of the word for “to pray.” But you did not need to know that. You just need to pay attention to the “you.”

You see, in the sentence I just spoke and am speaking, you could think I am talking to you—singular. It’s a good device for speakers and writers to make each person feel as if the speaker or author is speaking straight to that one person.

But you could also think I am speaking to the group. “You” in our language can be both singular and plural. It can be confusing. Unless you are speaking Texan and then we just clear it up by saying “you all.” Then you know you are part of a larger group.

Which is the kind of “you” Jesus was speaking to. “Us” wanted to know how to pray so Jesus said “When you…”—as in “all of you”— “…pray.”

Jesus was happy to teach them to pray together because Jesus is fond of his disciples praying in packs. Look through the Gospels and look for Jesus teaching about prayer and his practice of prayer. You—singular or plural—may discover 37 verses. Some are repeated in more than one of the Gospels. But if you pay attention to Jesus’ words you will find that in 33 of them he is addressing a group rather than an individual audience.

What does that suggest? Only that although Jesus would want us to pray in private, he teaches us to pray in packs.

Let’s take Matthew 7:7 as an example. “Ask, and it will be given to you. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened to you.” You guessed it. Even though we tend to read this individually Jesus is telling us that when we ask, seek and knock together, we will be given, find, and have a door opened to us in our relationships with other people. (Just keep reading the context before this statement. Hint: It’ll help if you get the log out of your own eye first.)

More clearly is another passage that is well known. In teaching his disciples how to restore someone who has fallen into a sin, he says: “Again, truly I tell you, if two of you on earth agree about any matter that you pray for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:19-20).

Could it be that something powerful happens when we pray in packs instead of in private? The early church seemed to think so. The Book of Acts is saturated with scenes of people praying in packs.

  • We start with the 120 gathered in an Upper Room. What were they doing? “Praying in one accord” (Acts 1:13; 2:1). No, I don’t know how they all fit into one Honda.
  • When Judas had to be replaced, the disciples prayed for wisdom (Acts 1:24).
  • When Peter and John reported to the church how the Sanhedrin threatened them, the group prayed together. It might be good to note they did not pray for safety. They did not pray for protection. They prayed for boldness to share the story of the risen Christ even more. (Acts 4:24, 31). Incidentally, the place where they were praying together was shaken!
  • When some widows were being neglected the church prayed for what would be the seven men appointed to serve them (Acts 6:6). We’ll come back to this one in a moment.
  • During a period of persecution, James was martyred. Peter was thrown in prison by Herod. And the church ran! No, by now you know what they did. The church prayed. Peter got an angel escort out of prison and as he knocked on the door of where the believers were, he heard their prayers (Acts 12:1-11). When the servant answers the knock and tells the prayer group Peter is there, they think the servant is out of her mind. “It must be his angel” they surmise (Acts 12:14-15). Next time you have a hard time believing God hears your prayers, relax. You are in good company.
  • When prophets and teachers in Antioch were praying and fasting, they heard from the Holy Spirit to send Paul and Barnabas off on the first missionary journey (Acts 13:1-2). Prayer moved the gospel to areas of the world it had yet to reach.
  • When Paul and Silas were in jail praying, an earthquake opened their jail cells and converted the jailer (Acts 16:25). Prison did not cause Paul and Silas to panic. It caused them to pray.

Is personal prayer also encouraged? Of course it is. Jesus was known to go off by himself to pray often. But there is something powerful and important in the life of a church that it’s people devote themselves to the fellowship of prayer.

The Acts 6 story highlights that importance. The Greek speaking Jewish widows were being neglected from the distribution of food while the Hebrew speaking Jewish widows were being favored. The problem came to the attention of the Apostles. Listen to what they say:

In those days, as the disciples were increasing in number, there arose a complaint by the Hellenistic Jews against the Hebraic Jews that their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution. The Twelve summoned the whole company of the disciples and said, “It would not be right for us to give up preaching the word of God to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom we can appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” Acts 6:1-4

Notice the three highlighted words: distribution, wait on, and ministry. They all come from the same Greek word for “deacon” or “ministry.” All that the Apostles are talking about has to do with ministry.

All ministry is important. But there is ministry in the church the Apostles believed they needed to focus on. What ministry would be so important they looked over it themselves? “…we will devote ourselves to [the] prayer and to the ministry of the word.”

You probably don’t see the “the” in your Bible. Kind of like it’s hard to see the plural “you.” But it is there in the original. It just sounds awkward so translators leave it out. But maybe they shouldn’t. Without the “the” it is easy to think the Apostles need time to pray by themselves so they will know what “word” to give the church.

But with the “the” we understand that they are not speaking to prayer in general. They are speaking to something specific about prayer. When we take into account the context of ministries within the church and the syntax of the sentence, the possibility is created that the ministry of prayer and the word are twin ideas. Join to that the fact that every example of the Apostles in prayer earlier in Acts has them praying with the pack instead of privately, we understand that they made it their priority to make sure the church grew its ministry of prayer. Just as Jesus led the way in prayer, so did his first followers.

Jesus wants us to pray in packs. Jesus also wants us to pray persistently for the church. A walk back through these passages on prayer and we find the church praying:

  • They prayed continually united…Acts 1:14
  • They prayed for God to show them leaders…Acts 1:24; 6:6
  • They prayed for boldness…Acts 4:24
  • They prayed for a fellow believer, Peter, in prison…Acts 12
  • They prayed for the gospel to be spread…Acts 13
  • They prayed while in prison…Acts 16

They prayed for kingdom purposes. They prayed in packs. They prayed persistently. And God listened. In five separate instances Luke records the growth of the early church.[1] How did that growth happen? Could we trace it back to the prayers that were made when believers gathered in packs?

I think so. The disciples did exactly what Luke outlined in Acts 1:8. The church witnessed to the risen Christ in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria, and to the end of the earth. It took unity, it took leaders, it took boldness, it took enduring persecution to spread the gospel. But it mostly took prayer.

The church grew. It might be good to note that it grew with new converts, not transfer believers. Ed Stetzer quotes Mike Breen in his article about church plants: “In an issue of Mission Frontiers, Mike Breen laments that in the United States, ‘96% of church growth is due to transfer growth and not churches striking into the heart of our enemy’s territory. We’ll consider it a win because we have the new service or program that is growing…but that growth is mainly from people coming from other churches. That’s not a win! That’s a staggering loss.’”[2]

What made the early church and their growth different? Prayer. They lived in a time there were no other churches. Either they fulfilled the mission God had given them to do or no one would. By the end of Acts, we see that they had taken the gospel to the end of the earth and then Acts just kind of ends. Like a movie that leaves you hanging to fill in the blanks, Acts leaves us with an unspoken question: Will we continue?

That’s a good question to ask when it comes to prayer. Will we continue the kind of praying we find in Acts?

How do you pray? “You” singular and “you” plural? Do you pray more often by yourself? Short tweets to God when you think of it? Are your prayers self-centered or kingdom-centered?

If you are like me, you have some room to grow. Let me suggest that we do what the first believers did. First, let’s pray in packs. Get in a group and pray! When someone asks you, “Who do you pray with?” have an answer. “My small group.” “My men’s group.” “My neighborhood group.” “My ministry group.”

Speaking of ministry groups, this year we are realigning our ministries into seven main ministries. Within each ministry team we are looking for someone with a gift and passion for prayer. They are not the only people who should be praying on the team. But they will be the person that gives themselves to the ministry of prayer, making sure that the team spends as much time in prayer as it does in its practice.

Then pray persistently. But pray as the church did. Could it be that we do not experience the power of the early church because we pray for the wrong things? We pray for jobs. We pray for protection. We pray for safety. I’ve watched groups of people pray for someone they read about on the web that they don’t even know.

Maybe that is all well and good, but it seems that the early church prayed for the church to grow in Christ and to go in Christ, spreading the gospel of the risen Christ. It seems we might pray like Paul:

For this reason I kneel before the Father from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named. I pray that he may grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with power in your inner being through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. I pray that you, being rooted and firmly established in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the length and width, height and depth of God’s love, and to know Christ’s love that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do above and beyond all that we ask or think according to the power that works in us — to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. Ephesians 3:14-21

The fellowship of prayer. It has to do with “you.”

[1] see 6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20.

[2] https://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2016/july/two-statistics-every-church-planter-needs-to-know.html

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New Life Ways 8: Giving

Barny got his name written in a book. I’m not sure that Andy and Sophi knew it. But maybe they did and maybe they wanted theirs in a book too. Barny had found out some people needed help financially, so he sold some land that he owned. He took the money from the sale of the land and he gave it to the church.

Barny was really good at things like this. He had a knack for helping people through tough times and helping them toughen up about their circumstances.

Perhaps Andy and Sophi saw that and wanted to be like Barny. One night at the dinner table they had a discussion. “We could sell some property we have too. We could take the proceeds and give it to the church.” They had their plan.

What they didn’t plan on was how they would feel when they got the check for the sale of the property. It was quite a check! Suddenly thoughts filled their imaginations of what they could do with some of that money: Buy some furniture; Get a new car; Put a down payment on a vacation home.

They couldn’t let go of the possibilities so they decided to not let go of all the money. Instead, they took part of it and gave it to the church. “We sold a piece of property we owned and here is the money we made. We wanted to give it to the church to help the needy.”

The plan went as planned. Until Pete asked Andy to come by for a visit. Pete was a wise, discerning leader of the church. He asked Andy a few quick questions:

“Why did you lie about your land? You really held back part of the proceeds, right?”

“Wasn’t the land yours while you owned it?”

“And after you sold it, wasn’t the money yours to do with as you felt led?”

“So why did you have to lie about it? Remember, you didn’t just lie to the church. You lied to God!”

Andy was so caught off guard by Pete’s perception that he had a heart attack and died right there. No sooner had some men helped take care of his body than Sophi showed up looking for her husband. He hadn’t texted or called in three hours. And she knew he wouldn’t ask for directions if he were lost.

Pete—trying not to show on his face what had happened—asked her if they sold the land for the amount of money they had given the church. Sophie answered, “Of course we did! And we were happy to give it all to the church!” For her part in being complicit in the plot to pull one over on the church, Sophie earned herself a plot of land right by Andy in the cemetery.

Andy and Sophi did get their names written in a book too. Right after Barny’s. The stories are of Barnabas, from Acts 4, followed closely by the story of Ananias and Sapphira in chapter 5. You have to wonder what motivated them to do what they did.

Giving was nothing new to the new church. In Acts 2 we read: “Now all the believers were together and held all things in common. They sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-45). By chapter 4 it seems to be the New Life Way of the church to give:

Now the entire group of those who believed were of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but instead they held everything in common. With great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was on all of them. For there was not a needy person among them because all those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the proceeds of what was sold, and laid them at the apostles’ feet. This was then distributed to each person as any had need. Acts 4:32-35

It could be that some of their motivations to give were similar to ours. Taylor Conroy tells the story of how he built a school in three hours in his TEDx talk.[1] He didn’t physically build it in three hours. But in the three hours it took him to set up some personal recordings on a fundraising website he had built, he enlisted enough of his friends to give $3.33 a day for 3 months that he raised $10,000 to build a school building in a Third World country.

Along the way he discovered five factors he believes motivates people to give:

  1. Group Mentality. People are far more apt to give when they are part of a group.
  2. A tangible Outcome. People love to see a visual representation of what they are giving towards. School buildings get built. Water wells get dug. Hungry people get fed.
  3. Micro-giving vs. Large amounts. He believes people are more apt to give small amounts a day for a number of days. People can relate to the smaller amounts better than a large chunk of money. (An example might be for someone who gives nothing right now, instead of giving $30 a month it would be $1 a day for 30 days.)
  4. A personal connection. The relationship to the potential donor is even more important than the cause.
  5. Recognition. We love recognition.

My hunch is that several of these were at play with Ananias and Sapphira and maybe even the entire church.

  • The group had the mentality to give. It was in their DNA from the start.
  • They could see the tangible outcomes of their giving: people were ministered to, the church was growing, lives were changed.
  • They gave what they could. They sold possessions. And sometimes it appears they saved up a little at a time. Paul would write to the Corinthian church: “Now about the collection for the saints: Do the same as I instructed the Galatian churches. On the first day of the week, each of you is to set something aside and save in keeping with how he is prospering, so that no collections will need to be made when I come” (1 Corinthians 16:1-2).
  • They had a big personal connection. They knew their church leaders. They knew the poor among them. They gave to causes that people like Peter and Paul told them about.
  • And they were recognized for it. Barnabas got his name in the Bible. And others—unnamed—are mentioned too through Paul’s writings in his thankfulness for their generosity.

Giving was the church’s new life way. They taught this to people as they became part of the church. In an early church document called the Didache—which means “teaching” and was written around 96 A.D.—we find this teaching:

Do not hesitate to give and do not give with a bad grace…. Do not turn your back on the needy, but share everything with your brother and call nothing your own. For if you have what is eternal in common, how much more should you have what is transient![2]

In other words, “If you share things that are everlasting—and you do in Christ—then you should be even more willing to share things with each other that do not last.” People were taught this attitude towards their wealth as they came into the Christian community.

Admittedly, that is a different approach than what the modern church has seen. When Rick Warren was going to start Saddleback Church he surveyed the surrounding area and asked people why they did not go to church. The answers:[3]

  • “Church is boring, especially the sermons. The messages don’t relate to my life.”
  • “Church members are unfriendly to visitors. If I go to church I want to feel welcomed without being embarrassed.”
  • “The church is more interested in my money than in me.”
  • “We worry about the quality of the church’s child care.”

When he wrote a letter to invite people to their first Easter Sunday service, he addressed these four roadblocks, including money. Churches have followed Warren’s lead for years now.

We learned some important things from Warren. I agree the first thing we need to discuss with a seeker is not their giving. But when someone wants to start investigating what it means to be a follower of Christ, that topic came up in the early church and it should now.

Generous giving, especially to people in financial need, apparently created issues for the church. In some early church writings it is noticed that some “feigned to be Christians on account of their need of the necessities of life.”[4]

On the other end of the spectrum we find wealthy Christians skipping out on church because they felt—real or imagined—that church leaders were “pressuring them to contribute according to their considerable means to the church’s poor members.”[5]

Something was different, however, about the baptisms of the early church. A fundamental commitment people understood at baptism was that they would be part of a community that cared for the poor. Some, like Cyprian of the third century, engaged in a downward mobility. He had known a lavish lifestyle before becoming a Christian but “simplified his clothing, diet, and lifestyle as he prepared for baptism.”[6]

The early church practiced giving as a new life way. They sold possessions to give to those in need. They stored up on the first day of the week to give to those in need. They taught generosity as people were preparing to be immersed into the life of the Father, the Son and the Spirit.

Two thousand years later the church still gives. You and I have been given that DNA, passed down through centuries of the church. Find your motivation and start giving:

  • Be part of this church group that is giving and doing something together because of it. Look around. It’s not about equal amounts. Some here make more than others. It’s about equal sacrifice. When we all give together, more can happen. The group can do more together than any individual can alone.
  • Look for the tangible outcomes in your giving. The church is equipped. People are helped. Teens are taught. Children hear about God. Marriages are coached. The list goes on. When you give, ministry happens.
  • Use the idea of micro-giving to help you kick start a habit. If you aren’t giving regularly now, start. Here’s how: purpose how much you’ll give. Even if it’s $3.33 a day for three months, give it a try and see what happens. Give up a cup of coffee a day and give that money instead.
  • Need a personal connection? Your church leaders may be yours. The person sitting next to you is another possibility. In fact, turn to the person beside you and say, “Let’s do this!” (Seriously, say it. You’ll feel better once you did.)
  • Need some recognition? Somehow we think that is bad to want some, but it’s human. We’ll let you know at the end of each year how thankful we are as a church for your participation in giving. And from time to time, we’ll find other ways to let you know that even though your giving needs to be done without notice, it is noticed. But you’ll have to get on board with giving to see that happen.

But let me warn you. Or better yet, let Ananias and Sapphira warn you. They found out that there is a danger in giving. The danger is not that they did not give everything they made off the sale of the land. The problem was they lied about what they did. They said they gave one amount when in reality they gave a lesser amount.

Be honest about your giving. Plot with God about what he wants you to give then give it. As Peter said, while it is in your possession it is at your disposal. Just don’t make a big production about what you do give.

Your downward mobility might help lift someone else up.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aC02SmuOxYI&__s=mxqfqss33tshugkrgttf

[2] Alan Kreider, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016), 140.

[3] Summarized at http://www.jrmyprtr.com/purpose-driven-communication/

[4] See footnote 116, page 116 of The Patient Ferment

[5] Ferment, 116.

[6] Ibid., 115.

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New Life Ways 5 Fellowship

It wasn’t the best way to meet a new neighbor. We had moved into our little townhouse in Lakewood, Colorado. My parents had driven with us to help us move and the landlord told us they could park their car in the neighbor’s parking space. They weren’t expected to move in until later in the week.

People sometimes do the unexpected. I answered the banging on our door to see Alan staring down at me. Alan was about 6’3” with a deep voice and no smile. “I believe you are parked in my space” he said from a not so happy place. “Well, actually, that’s not my car. It’s some old guy that’s staying somewhere around here for a few days,” was my response.

From that rocky beginning we forged a friendship with Alan and Keri. They started coming over for dinner many nights or we would walk across the parking lot to their place on their nights to cook. They started coming to our home group from church and became fast friends with our church friends.

We helped each other through hard times. We babysat each other’s kids. One night at our group they asked if they could invite some friends of theirs to join the group. We took a vote. (That was a joke.) Greg and Sarah joined our group and were later baptized.

They were baptized because we did many things together as a group. We met regularly. We shared meals together. We studied Scripture together. We prayed together. Helped each other. Cried together. Laughed together. At one point they said, “We’ve never seen anything like this before.”

Mark and Debbie were our closest friends in that group. We each had two boys who were about the same ages. We spent a night at the ER when Kris toddled into our gathering one night and said that Matthew had eaten all the chewable Tylenol. “Of course he did,” I thought. “That grape flavor is pretty awesome.” We called the poison control center and they said we had to get to the ER. The docs there sent us home and then later, about 3 a.m. they called and said the two oldest boys needed to come back and have their blood drawn. Again. So Mark and I took them in and stayed until they were cleared to leave. Again.

When people use that worn out phrase—“do life together”—well, we did life together. Or, as the Scripture says, we “devoted ourselves to the fellowship and the breaking of bread.”

So did the first disciples. The word for “fellowship” we find in Acts 2:42 is the Greek word koinonia. It is a different and deeper nuance than the way we use the word “fellowship” today. One website exemplifies how we connect “potluck” to “fellowship” in these church bulletin bloopers:[1]

Church potlucks are always popular and a good opportunity to fellowship. Here are some humorous potluck bloopers:

  • Potluck supper at 5 pm.—prayer and medication to follow.
  • The church will host an evening of fine dining, super entertainment and gracious hostility.
  • The fasting and prayer conference includes meals.

We have come to equate getting together for a Super Bowl party as fellowship. That may work in the world of Webster where it is defined as “companionship, company”,[2] but not the biblical world. In the world of the early church koinonia defined fellowship. Here are some examples of its use in the New Testament:

  • “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16). Here Paul is saying that by taking the Lord’s Supper—the cup and the bread—we are sharing in what Christ has done for us.
  • “… they begged us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in the ministry to the saints…” (2 Corinthians 8:4). The Macedonian Christians wanted to share in the giving—even out of their poverty—to help other churches.

Perhaps one of the best examples of the use of koinonia is found in John’s writings to the church.

“What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have observed and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life —  that life was revealed, and we have seen it and we testify and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us what we have seen and heard we also declare to you, so that you may also have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:1-3)

Notice that those who knew Jesus “testified” and “declared” those things to others. Why? They had “fellowship” with God and Jesus and wanted their readers to have “fellowship” with “us”—both with those disciples and with the Father and the Son.

Fellowship, then, is a sharing. But it is much more of a sharing than just food, although food and a table often encourage the true fellowship. The fellowship the New Testament writers want us to have is a sharing of the life of Jesus with each other and with God.

Is not that consistent with what Jesus taught? “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39). It makes sense, does it not, that the main activity of our devotion would be to each other and to God?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew this kind of fellowship. Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who lived from 1906-1945. When Hitler rose to power he could see no German-Christian compromise with him. He helped create the independent “Confessing Church” in Germany.

His resistance and his part in a failed assassination attempt on Hitler landed him in prison. He was executed by hanging on April 9, 1945, just weeks before the end of World War II. While in prison he wrote two classics: The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together. Listen to what he has to say about koinonia in his book Life Together.

Christian community is like the Christian’s sanctification. It is a gift of God which we cannot claim. Only God knows the real state of our fellowship, of our sanctification. What may appear weak and trifling to us may be great and glorious to God. Just as the Christian should not be constantly feeling his spiritual pulse, so, too, the Christian community has not been given to us by God for us to be constantly taking its temperature. The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more surely and steadily will fellowship increase and grow from day to day as God pleases.[3]

This fellowship is a gift. We need to receive it thankfully. Often we don’t. We worry about whether we studied enough. We worry about whether we talked enough. We worry about whether we prayed enough.

But God does not. When we gather together in the fellowship of the breaking of bread, God smiles. He smiles when we are devoted to each other. Faithfulness is our part. Fruit is God’s. We don’t have to be taking its temperature constantly.

Then Bonhoeffer writes: “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.”[4]

No community is going to live up to your dream of it. And whether you or I realize it, we ourselves will ruin that dream. And finally…

Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us. This is true not merely at the beginning, as though in the course of time something else were to be added to our community; it remains so for all the future and to all eternity. I have community with others and I shall continue to have it only through Jesus Christ. The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us. We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly, for eternity.”[5]

See the difference between Christian koinonia and Webster’s fellowship? The difference is Christ. He brings us together. He binds us together for eternity. That’s a thought, isn’t it? You and I get to be together for eternity! Before you rush out to celebrate that idea, let’s consider one more thought.

This kind of fellowship does not happen by only participating in large group gatherings. There is sharing that happens in the church when we gather as a large group. We receive teaching. We share songs of praise. We pray and we give. And we break bread together at the Lord’s table.

But following the “one anothers” found in scripture happen best in smaller groups. Depending on who is counting, there are between 47 and 59 passages exhorting followers of Jesus to: love, encourage, accept, forgive, bear with, confess sins to one another, instruct, admonish, spur each other on to love and good works, tolerate…that’s a good one to end on.[6] These “koinonia” behaviors are meant to be done face to face. And they are designed to help us learn to behave like Christ with each other. “The New Testament writers are less concerned with how believers feel about each other than they are about their actions—their living together as community and publicly as disciples.”[7]

Add to the list an “each other” found in Hebrews 3:13—“But encourage each other daily…”—and we see that the idea of koinonia is something that takes place beyond Sundays. Sunday gatherings are important, but there is often little interaction between the participants and many rush out the door as soon as the service is over.

The early church met in the temple courts and from house to house. Much of their fellowship happened in the homes where their behavior bent towards those mentioned in the “one another” passages. What was talked about in the larger meetings was walked out in the homes and in the streets.

Is that the church you experience? A church where you have people you know that you interact with in “one another ways”?

Alan and Keri and Greg and Sarah taught our group of young couples, years ago, that there is something that happens when a few people practice “one another” relationships where Jesus is what brings you together and binds you together. When you break bread and share it, lives begin being shared. Some will see things they have never experienced before.

Jesus put it this way: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). There’s another one. A one another. And with it Jesus tells us that koinonia is simply loving each other the way he has loved us.

Devote yourself to that. And be ready to bake more bread for breaking. You’ll need it.

[1] http://thesouthern.com/lifestyles/leisure/church-bulletin-bloopers/article_864d8915-3d28-5bee-b274-bfbf4fe6378f.html

[2] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fellowship

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community, 30

[4] Ibid., 27.

[5]

[6] For a complete list of the “one anothers” in Scripture, Google is your friend. Or click here: https://overviewbible.com/one-another-infographic/

[7] KAREN SHEPARD, Authentic Fellowship, Christianity Today October 1, 2003 at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2003/october/28.102.html

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New Life Ways 4 Part 2: The Apostles’ Teaching

Won’t we do the same? If we are to believe the statistics, our “take it or leave it” approach to devoting ourselves to “the apostles’ teaching” has left us with a generation that is impassionate about the things of God. And maybe we are too.

Our faith needs to be fanned into a flame. Paul tells us how that happens: “So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the message about Christ” (Romans 10:17). We need to hear the message about Christ. Not once. But again and again.

That’s what the early church did. They met in the temple courts and in houses to hear the message about Christ. They believed the resurrected Christ was worthy of their attention. They believed the resurrected Christ was worthy to teach them how to live life.

They believed that “…All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

And so they devoted themselves to hearing it as often as they could. If we were to do so today, how might the church look? I have a hunch it would look something like this:

  • We would see a crowd in all our churches every Sunday, not just on Easter. And sure, you can hear other teachings these days online and in books, but the pattern given to us in Jesus’ teachings is that of a community of people hearing the word together.
  • Groups would meet in homes and open the Bible and talk about their faith and encourage each other on to love and good deeds. We’d help each other live out the words of Jesus.
  • Families would make their plans around the gathering of believers and make other things fit into that pattern. Our children would come to see that our belief can be seen in our habits.
  • We would have good answers for our children when they ask why the church and hearing teaching is so important to us.

The church would look devoted to the things our lives depended on.

A few weeks ago I drove my Miata to the movie theater. My Miata is a stickshift. I pulled into a space near a light pole. My Miata is so small it is often hard to find in a parking lot. I thought this would help me find it after two and a half hours in a movie after which I’d have no recollection of where I parked it.

When the movie was over I walked out to the parking lot to find my Miata. I was looking at the light pole but did not see the Miata there. I did see it sitting in the row between the parking spaces. The row you drive down to get to a parking place.

Apparently the stick shift had not been placed in gear well. Now I’m pulling up the hand brake every time I park. It was good advice I heard from my father many years ago that I am now finally putting into practice.

That’s what the church does. It devotes itself to the teaching of the Apostles. They taught Jesus. Not a list of do’s and don’ts. Not who’s in and who’s out. They taught Jesus. His words. His ways. And they were devoted to that teaching. They stuck with it.

Will you do that? Will you stick with the teaching until it sticks with you? It might help you stay in a good parking spot for your life.

 

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New Life Ways 4 Part 1: The Apostles’ Teaching

I learned to drive a stick shift in a Pinto. A Ford Pinto. It was a two-toned car—yes, like the horse—that was the coolest car my parents owned. They did not own cool cars. But I knew it would be good to know how to drive a stick shift just in case I was ever in an emergency and it was the only kind of car around and I could jump in it and be the hero that could drive someone to the hospital or away from danger because our lives depended on it. (I had a vivid imagination as a teenager.)

I drove that Pinto around the neighborhood. It bucked and jumped until I finally got the hang of it and drove it as smooth as a tamed pony. We had a few inclined areas on our street that I would intentionally stop on so I could learn how to get the car moving without it dying on me.

One day I had returned from a trip and my dad was in the driveway. “Did you do OK on the drive?” he asked. “Yep. Like a pro now Dad,” I responded. “Did you forget anything?” came the next question. I ran through a mental checklist:

  • “Parked in the correct space in the driveway? Check.”
  • “Made sure the stick shift was in gear? Check.”
  • “Got the keys? Check.”
  • “Locked the doors? Check.”

“No Dad. I don’t think I forgot anything.”

“Did you set the hand brake?” “Umm…no, I didn’t. Why do I need to do that?” I asked. “Because it is a good safety measure in case the transmission ever slips out of gear,” he answered.

“Silly Dad,” I thought. “This is West Texas. Flat as a pancake.” And so I heard what he said but never put that piece of advice into practice. But it was good advice.

Sometimes that’s how we approach church. We listen to the words of Scripture and take it as good advice. Advice that we can take or leave. A lot of people are leaving it today. For the first time in the history of the Gallup polls there is now a new category called the “nones.” Not the kind who wear a habit. “N-o-n-e-s.”

Nearly one in three Americans under 35 today are religiously unaffiliated, meaning they do not identify with any formal religious group. As a whole, these ‘nones’ comprise the second largest religious group in the U.S. behind evangelical Protestants,” so writes Antonia Blumberg in the Huffington Post.[1]

You don’t have to prognosticate to see into the future. The church will increasingly decrease in numbers and fall far behind the growth of the communities around it. In 1948 about 91 percent of Americans identified as Christian. From 2007 to 2014 alone, the percentage of Americans who identified as Christian fell from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent.[2] How did all this happen in just a short time?

One writer reports that the top two reasons young adults list for leaving church are: 1) they stopped believing in their religion’s teachings (60%) and 2) their families were never that religious when they were growing up (32%).[3]

The author offers these reasons for the decline in religious affiliation:

  • We have failed to take the spiritual formation of children and adolescents seriously.
  • We have not stressed the importance of faith formation in our families, nor have we helped them think in a concerted fashion about how that might be done.
  • We have neglected our own formation and the task of examining the relationship between what we believe and the way in which we live our lives.
  • And, quite simply, we haven’t offered our children convincing reasons for our participation in the life of the church, which—of course—would have only been convincing if they had shaped our own participation.[4]

Our own formation helps form the next generation. And apparently the lack of impact in our lives has led to a negative impact on the next generation. That’s a picture of the church in America today.

But it’s not a picture of the church in the first century. They were “devoted.” And the first devotion we discover in the story of the church in Acts is that they became “devoted to the apostles’ teaching.”

Why would they devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching? NT Wright answers that question best when he says: “… that first generation answered the question of why they were Christians with a straightforward answer: because Jesus was raised from the dead.”[5]

They had not expected Jesus to be raised from the dead. That was not the picture of a Messiah they held onto, that of a crucified Messiah that would even need to be raised from the dead. But it is the picture that Peter painted for them in the first sermon. He said:

Fellow Israelites, listen to these words: This Jesus of Nazareth was a man attested to you by God with miracles, wonders, and signs that God did among you through him, just as you yourselves know. Though he was delivered up according to God’s determined plan and foreknowledge, you used lawless people to nail him to a cross and kill him. God raised him up, ending the pains of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by death.

The people that day were confused at what all had happened. There was a “sound like that of a violent rushing wind came from heaven.” They saw “tongues like flames of fire that separated and rested on each one of them.” And then “they [the Apostles] were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues.”

Those things might get your attention. And so the people had asked, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:12). Peter knew a teachable moment when it presented itself so he presented Jesus to them. Surely many knew about Jesus. They had either been in Jerusalem when he was crucified or they had heard about the event after they arrived.

But they didn’t know Jesus. So Peter teaches them so they could know him. Here’s what he wanted them to know:

He wanted them to know that Jesus performed miracles, wonders and signs and these were a proof that he had come from God. Even outside of the New Testament there is attestation that there was a man named Jesus who performed “startling deeds.” Josephus (37-100 AD), the non-Christian Jewish historian, says this about Jesus:

Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works – a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 3, Section 3)

Scholars debate whether all of the larger passage about Jesus is original to Josephus. But they mostly all agree that this line about his works is the original.[6] Early Christian witness talks about Jesus’ miracles in a day where there were still living eyewitnesses. And his works were apparently a matter of public record (see Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapter 48).

We believe what Peter taught by faith. But we also have historical records on our side too.

He wanted them to know that Jesus died on the cross. The people knew that. They had heard the story or witnessed it themselves. What they didn’t know is that God had a beautiful plan in the midst of such a horrific event. Peter wanted them then and us now to know the lengths God had planned to go to in order to serve as a final sacrifice once and for all for the sin of the world.

He wanted them to know that Jesus rose from the dead. Peter believed it. He had not at first. He had to go to the tomb and find it empty. Even then he thought someone had stolen the body. But when Jesus appeared to him and the other disciples—not once but multiple times over a period of forty days (Acts 1:3)—he believed.

Jesus did not only appear to the Twelve. Later Paul says this event is “of first importance” and that

… he [Jesus] appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. Then he appeared to over five hundred brothers and sisters at one time; most of them are still alive, but some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one born at the wrong time, he also appeared to me. 1 Corinthians 15:5-8

Anyone hearing Peter’s words that day could have run out to the tomb and checked for a decaying body. But no one did. And anyone hearing Paul a mere twenty years later could have talked to eyewitnesses to corroborate Paul’s claim. But as far as we know, no one did.

“What does this mean?” turned quickly into “What must we do?” Peter said, “Repent and be baptized.” The people did and as part of their change of mind and direction, as part of their being immersed in the life of God, they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.

You can see “why” now, can’t you? If the resurrection is true, then everything changes. Our thinking changes. Our behavior changes. Our direction changes. Everything now is pointed in the direction of Jesus.

The people then missed their opportunity to know Jesus so they wanted to hear from the ones who did know him. They had a burning desire to hear his words and let those words shape their lives.

[1] Antonia Blumberg, American Religion Has Never Looked Quite Like It Does Today at https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/american-religion-trends_us_570c21cee4b0836057a235ad

[2] Ibid.

[3] Frederick W. Schmidt, 4 Choices Boomers Made That Are Killing Mainline Protestantism https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/4-choices-boomers-made-th_b_12588088.html

[4] Ibid.

[5] https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-easter-effect-and-how-it-changed-the-world-1522418701

[6] For more see http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=J.%20AJ%2018.3&lang=original for the Josephus passage and Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? (Harper One, 2012) 61 for where scholars agree.

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New Life Ways 3: Devotion

“Man’s best friend” we call them. It would be difficult to disagree that dogs delight in their devotion to their masters. They walk by our side. They greet us enthusiastically. They lay their head in our laps. Google “devotion” and you might just find a picture of a canine. You might find a picture of Hachiko.

Hachiko was an Akita born in 1923 in Japan.[1] A professor at Tokyo University bought Hachiko as a present for his daughter. He named him Hachi because his legs were bent like the Japanese kanji that represents the number 8, which in Japanese is pronounced Hachi.

When the professor’s daughter grew up, she married and moved away, leaving Hachiko with her parents. Her father, Eizaburo Ueno (weno), had grown fond of him and decided to keep him. Every day, dog and owner would walk to the train station together. Every afternoon, when Ueno returned, Hachiko would be waiting for him at the station for the walk home.

One day while he was teaching at the university, Ueno suffered a fatal brain hemorrhage and died.[2] Hachi waited for the return that never happened. But his devotion did not end that day. In fact, for the next nine years, nine months, and fifteen days, Hachiko would show up at the train station at precisely the time the professor should have returned, waiting for him.

The story became popular and inspired many to look for Hachi at the train station and give him treats. He became a symbol of devotion that humans should aspire to within their families and networks of friends. Eventually, Hachiko himself died on March 8, 1935. A statue was placed at the train station to commemorate his devotion to his master.

We might erect a commemorative statue for the first church. “Devoted” is a word used to describe them too. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer” (Acts 2:42).

The Greek word for “devoted” is the word “proskartereo.” It comes from “pros”/to/towards and “karterero”/to be steadfast. Put together it carries the following meanings:

  • to adhere to one, be his adherent, to be devoted or constant to one
  • to be steadfastly attentive unto, to give unremitting care to a thing
  • to continue all the time in a place
  • to persevere and not to faint
  • to show one’s self courageous for
  • to be in constant readiness for one, wait on constantly[3]

Apparently, being devoted to something is not a flighty thing. It is something that happens over and over again. It is something that endures. Like a dog that shows up at a train station every day on time for over nine years.

Acts 2 isn’t the only time we find this word in Luke’s writing. In chapter one “They all were continually united in prayer, along with the women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers” (Acts 1:14). Here the word is translated “continually united.” They were devoted from the start to each other and prayer.

Then back to chapter two we find that “Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple, and broke bread from house to house” (Acts 2:46). There was a pattern to their lives of meeting in large gathered groups and then in smaller groups in their houses. Notice it did not happen just whenever they had the time for it. “Every day they devoted themselves…”

When a dispute arose between the Greek Jews and the Hebraic Jews, the Twelve gave the ministry of settling the issue over to some who were “full of the Spirit.” The role of the Twelve was, they said, to “…devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). The Twelve were steadfastly attentive to their role in the church.

Later, we find the word used in a story about Simon, a sorcerer. When he heard the gospel we are told “Even Simon himself believed. And after he was baptized, he followed Philip everywhere and was amazed as he observed the signs and great miracles that were being performed” (Acts 8:13). Here the word is used to describe how he “followed” or “continued on” with Philip. Devotion has staying power.

The final time the word is used in Acts, it is found in a story about Cornelius, a Gentile centurion who saw an angel in a vision. We’re told that “When the angel who spoke to him had gone, he called two of his household servants and a devout soldier, who was one of those who attended him” (Acts 10:7). The word “proskartereo” here is used to describe those who “attended him.” Other translations say they were his “personal attendants.” The idea is that they are continually there with him to help and aid him. It wasn’t a part-time job. It was a full-time one.

The early church was known for their devotion to practices and habits that would draw them near to God and each other. The modern American church? If we are like the average American, we are devoted to screens.

That’s right. “The average American spends nearly half a day staring at a screen” says a report titled “Americans devote more than 10 hours a day to screen time, and growing.”[4] Not just one screen. Just about any screen we can find—“tablets, smartphones, personal computers, multimedia devices, video games, radios, DVDs, DVRs and TVs”[5]—to the tune of ten hours and 39 minutes a day.

Douglas Gentile, professor of psychology at Iowa State University, breaks our time usage this way:

  • We start with 168 hours each week.
  • The work week takes up 40 of those hours. That takes us down to 128 hours left.
  • 7 hours of sleep every night takes up another chunk, taking us down to 79 hours.
  • Personal care another 3 hours a day. Now we’re left with 58 hours.

That’s 58 hours to do everything else there is to do: hobbies, sports, time with children, time with your spouse, time with friends, reading, exercise, participating in a faith community, house maintenance, volunteer work. Gentile says that “If people are spending over 50 hours a week with media for entertainment purposes, then there’s really no time left for any of the other things we value.”

The early Jesus followers did not have screens to compete for the attention, but they surely had other things. And yet they became devoted. How did that happen? There’s a clue found in Acts 2:38 that tells us how they turned their lives away from whatever took up their time to becoming devoted followers of Jesus.

Peter has just preached the first sermon to what is to be the church. He tells them that Jesus, who they crucified, has been raised from the dead. He tells them Jesus is their long-awaited Messiah and Lord. They realize the dilemma and ask him what they are to do. Here’s Peter’s answer:

“Repent and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call.” With many other words he testified and strongly urged them, saying, “Be saved from this corrupt generation!” So those who accepted his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand people were added to them. Acts 2:38-41

Two important words turned these people from being people who crucified Jesus to people who were devoted to Jesus: repentance and baptism.

“Repent” is the translation of the Greek word metanoeō. It means to “change one’s mind for the better.” Here’s an example: One night not long after moving to Tomball Karen and I were in The Woodlands. This was before apps on our phones that could tell you where things were in The Woodlands that you could not see from the road because of the woods.

We were talking while I took a left turn onto the street we wanted to be on. We noticed some headlights coming towards us. “They’re driving on our side of the median!” I said. To which Karen replied calmly, “No, you’re driving on their side.” I repented and cut through a break in the median to the other side.

That’s what repentance is. It’s like the senior citizen that was driving down I45 when his wife called his cell phone. “Herman, I just heard on the news that there’s a car going the wrong way on I45. Please be careful!”

“It’s not just one car,” said Herman, “It’s hundreds of them!”

I hope Herman repented. Repentance has to do with thinking in a new way and behaving in a new way. An entirely new world had opened up for those people in Jerusalem that day. They began to think differently about Jesus and their way of life.

We need to think differently about our devotion. What we are devoted to shapes us.

The disciples demonstrated that change of thinking in their behavior. They were baptized. They said they believed in who Jesus was—Savior and Lord—and wanted to be immersed in his life and ways. New life ways.

That’s what changed. They started thinking differently and they started living differently, in a new direction. There are no Gallup surveys from that time so we don’t know what they were devoted to before that day but we do know what they immediately became devoted to: “the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer” (Acts 2:42).

They wanted to know more about Jesus. They needed to spend time with each other as they began thinking and living differently than the world around them. They shared tables with each other. They prayed together and for each other. They did these things because they wanted to think and behave like Jesus and be immersed in his world: the world of the Father, Son and Spirit.

There was no casual, consumer Christianity when the church began. There was no getting up on a Sunday morning and thinking, “Hmmm…wonder if we should go to church today?” There was no deciding not to show up at a gathering because the usual worship band or speaker was not going to be there. No learning about life from Oprah or Deepak Chopra. There was no disinterested approach to the Scriptures. There was no consumer picking and choosing which church to go to because there was only one.

There was devotion to God and devotion to each other. They loved God and loved their neighbor. “Where did that kind of devotion come from?” you ask? They believed in a resurrected Christ. And they believed their Master was coming back.

And so like Hachiko they waited. That Akita dog kept showing up where he believed his master would be when he returned. He did that for nine years, nine months, and fifteen days. He showed up at the train station because that’s where he expected to see his master.

The church needs that kind of devotion today. A devotion to love its Master with such a depth that we will wait until he returns. We will wait in the places we can expect him to be: in teaching, in fellowship with each other, in the breaking of bread, and in prayer.

The question is: When he does return will he find us devotedly watching for him there?

[1] https://www.animalwised.com/the-true-story-of-hachiko-the-faithful-dog-1474.html

[2] http://www.amusingplanet.com/2015/07/hachiko-most-loyal-dog-in-history.html

[3] https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G4342&t=ESV

[4] https://www.cnn.com/2016/06/30/health/americans-screen-time-nielsen/index.html

[5] Ibid.

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New Life Ways 2: Baptism

Two important dates in my life happened almost exactly 13 years apart. The first occurred when I was 13. The second took place when I was 26. The first was the most important decision I made. The second was the second most important decision I made.

The events? My baptism and my marriage. When I was thirteen years old I decided it was time to be baptized. I can remember others in my age range at church being baptized before me. For some reason, I could tell that if I were to ask to be baptized it was not for the right reasons. I would have just been going along with the crowd.

But on August 15, 1973, I was ready. I changed my clothes in a small dressing room, put on a weird white baptismal outfit, climbed a few stairs, and stepped down into a pool of water. Stan Harbour baptized me. I remember I asked him to baptize me because he was always smiling and if being committed to Jesus gave him that kind of joy maybe it would do the same for me.

Thirteen years later I made another commitment. On August 23, 1986 (I sure hope I got that right!), I walked up another set of stairs in the same church building, watched Karen walk down the aisle, exchanged some vows, and then we were pronounced married.

Thirteen years to make one life-long commitment. Another thirteen years to make the second. Baptism and marriage. I didn’t know much of what I was getting into in either of them.

I doubt those people on the Day of Pentecost did either. They had come from all over to participate in the Passover. Luke writes, “Now there were Jews staying in Jerusalem, devout people from every nation under heaven … Parthians, Medes, Elamites; those who live in Mesopotamia, in Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts), Cretans and Arabs…” (Acts 2:6, 9-11).

Peter stands up and speaks out to them about Jesus:

Fellow Israelites, listen to these words: This Jesus of Nazareth was a man attested to you by God with miracles, wonders, and signs that God did among you through him, just as you yourselves know. Though he was delivered up according to God’s determined plan and foreknowledge, you used lawless people to nail him to a cross and kill him. God raised him up, ending the pains of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by death. Acts 2:22-25

There is something about proclaiming the gospel—the death, burial and resurrection of Christ—that elicits a response. Some may turn away and think it is a fable. Some may ponder it for a moment but move on to other pressing matters in their lives. But some hear what the message means and something happens. In this case the people were “pierced to the heart.”

Imagine something piercing you. Not long ago my doctor decided to pierce me. He wanted a bone marrow sample. My white blood cell count had been low for some time and he wanted to make sure everything was all right. He asked if I agreed and I said, “Sure, if you think we need to do that.” He said, “O.K. I have an opening right now because someone that was scheduled got a good report.” Within thirty minutes he was piercing into a piece of my hip bone. I felt it.

When we hear the gospel we feel it too. We see a sinless Savior and see our own sin. We feel the need for forgiveness. We feel the weight of the results of living life without God. Whatever we feel, it pierces us to the heart.

They felt that piercing at Pentecost. Then they asked, “What should we do?” That’s the response the crowd gave Peter that day. They didn’t know much. but they knew they were sinners and they knew they needed a Savior.

Notice what Peter does not say. He does not say, “There is nothing for you to do. Jesus has done it all.” Make no mistake, Jesus has done all that is necessary for our salvation. Paul will write, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Salvation is a gift. But there is a normative response to receiving the gift in scripture. So Peter says, “Repent and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

Here we find two words that will shape the church: “repentance” and “baptism.” “Repent” is the translation of the Greek word metanoeō. It means to “change one’s mind or direction.” “Repentance” may not be on your “To-Do” list each morning. But it is probably something you do every day. Any time you change your direction you repent.

For example, you start driving down your street out of habit to go to your office. But after a few blocks you remember you have an early dentist appointment. You don’t berate yourself. You merely put a turn signal on, maybe go around the block, and head in the direction of your dentist’s office. Whenever you change your direction you “repent.”

Or maybe you are like John’s parrot. John had received a parrot as a gift. The parrot had a bad attitude and an even worse vocabulary. Every word out of the bird’s mouth was rude, obnoxious and laced with profanity.

John tried and tried unsuccessfully to change the bird’s attitude. Finally, in desperation he grabbed the bird and put him in the freezer. For a few minutes the parrot squawked and kicked and screamed. Then suddenly there was total quiet. Afraid he had hurt the parrot, John quickly opened the door to the freezer.

The parrot calmly stepped out onto John’s outstretched arms and said “I believe I may have offended you with my rude language and actions. I’m sincerely remorseful and I fully intend to do everything I can to correct my rude and unforgivable behavior.”

John was stunned at the change in the bird’s attitude. As he was about to ask the parrot what had made such a dramatic change in his behavior, the bird continued, “May I ask what the turkey did?”

The parrot repented. And so do we anytime we start thinking differently about something or change our behavior about something. In Acts 2, the people needed to change their thinking about Jesus from “he’s a mere man” to “he is the Son of God.” They needed to change their behavior from a life moving away from Jesus to a life that is moving towards Jesus.

Their first step in moving towards Jesus was baptism. The word means “to immerse.” It is a word used to describe how a garment was dyed its color. It would be “baptized” in the dye. And so on that day about 3,000 people were baptized. They were immersed in water as a way to say they had repented and were being immersed into the life of the Father, Son and Spirit.

Imagine that scene! Around Jerusalem that day 3,000 people were walking around, soaking wet, water sloshing off of their clothes as they made their way through the city. People around them were asking them what was going on and they told them. They didn’t know much about what they were getting into. They just told them what Peter had told them: “That Jesus who we crucified here just fifty days ago…that Jesus is our Lord and Messiah!”

It sounds simple. But leave it to years of church history for us to make simple things complicated and create confusion about baptism. Two views dominate the landscape. One says baptism is important but not that necessary. The other says it is necessary because believing in Jesus is not enough. So why be baptized? A quick survey of Scripture can help.

To begin with, baptism itself was not new. There were other religious groups who baptized in the first and second century. Among them were the Jews who baptized for a number of ceremonial cleansing. Also, when someone outside of Judaism proselytized into Judaism, they were immersed in water.

John the Baptist got his nickname because he was baptizing. His baptism was different as it was a baptism of repentance and preparation for God’s end-time judgment and salvation. John baptized a lot of people, one of them being Jesus.

That Jesus was baptized is enough for us to be baptized as people who follow in his steps. Understand, Jesus had nothing to repent of. But he tells John the reason for his coming for baptism: “…because this is the way for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). Jesus—and John—were being obedient to God’s will by baptizing Jesus.

And obedience pleases God. Matthew writes: “When Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water. The heavens suddenly opened for him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming down on him. And a voice from heaven said: ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased’” (Matthew 3:16-17). Jesus’ baptism pleased God.

Jesus tells us to be baptized. At the end of his ministry he sends the disciples out to make disciples of every people group. How? “…baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).

That should be enough for us. Jesus modeled baptism. He commands baptism for his disciples. Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection is enough to secure our salvation. No other work is needed. But we are called to believe in what Jesus did and confess—agree with God—that he is our Savior.

One way I have come to understand baptism is it is an expression of our faith, not an addition to our faith. When a person is immersed in front of a faith community, they are making a confession about who Jesus is and where their life is headed. They want to be immersed into the life of God.

The water does not wash our sin away. Peter would later write that “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you (not as the removal of dirt from the body, but the pledge of a good conscience toward God) through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…” (1 Peter 3:21). “Corresponds to this” has to do with the story of Noah he just told. Noah and his family were inside the boat and the boat saved them. He is saying that baptism places us inside Christ who saves us. He is quick to clarify that it is not the water that washes away our sin (like removal of dirt from the body). It is that when we are baptized we can then have a good conscience before God. We know who he is and we know he has forgiven and saved us.

For the first two centuries of the church we know only of immersion as the form of baptism (except in instances where there was not enough water or someone was confined to a bed).[1] This knowledge often raises the question: What if I was sprinkled? We would say to you that what your parents did when you were an infant in pledging you to Jesus was not a bad thing. But there needs to come a time where you respond to what Jesus says. Baptism would be, for you, not a rejection of what your parents did but rather your public pledge to God and statement to others that his life is going to be your life.

Some people were baptized at one time, strayed from the faith, and on their return feel a need to be rebaptized. They were disobedient but want to turn back to God. To you I would say you don’t need to be baptized. You need to repent. If Karen and I were to get into a fight and separate, but then come back to each other, we would not need to be remarried. We would need to be reconciled.

And parents, when you wonder if your child is too young to be baptized but they are asking about it because they’ve seen someone be baptized, how do you know if they are old enough? The Bible does not give an age. It does say to “believe” (see Mark 16:16). A degree of faith has to be present to move someone towards baptism. Typically, children are 9, 10, 11 before they start to understand abstract ideas like sin, salvation, and commitment. A good discussion with them to see what they understand will help. And helping them understand that God loves them unconditionally is important.

Baptism isn’t valid because of how right we were or how much we understand. It is all about how right Jesus is and what he has done for us. Most of what is written about baptism in the New Testament is written to people who have already been baptized. We will spend our lives living into our baptism and understanding its significance.

You don’t have to have a seminary degree to be baptized. Those first Christians in Jerusalem did not. They did know that Jesus came, lived, died, was buried and raised for them. And they knew they wanted to be part of that story.

I didn’t know much in 1986 when I married Karen. I just knew I wanted to live my life with her. And I didn’t know much in 1973 when I was baptized. I just knew I wanted to live my life with Jesus.

If you believe in Jesus and your thinking has changed about him then your next response is to be baptized. If you know that much, today would be a nice day for your wedding.

[1] See https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/faq-on-baptism-in-the-early-church/ for a discussion of Everett Ferguson’s book Baptism in the Early Church. Ferguson taught at my alma mater.

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New Life Ways 1 Wait

Sometimes it’s better to just wait.

I learned that the hard way on our 25th Anniversary trip. We were there because I had told Karen “For our 25th Anniversary I’ll take you to eat anywhere you want to go.” Usually we drive a few miles to our favorite Mexican restaurant no matter what. I thought it was a safe offer. She said, “OK. I want to go to Rome.”

Many flight miles later we had landed. Our cab driver took us near our rental apartment. He couldn’t quite find it. When you are in a foreign country and your cab driver looks at you for directions it’s not a good sign. Understand, this was before we had Google maps on our phone. So he dropped us close and we followed a paper map until we found our place.

When we got there, no one else was there. No landlord. No tenants. Karen called the landlord and through his broken English and her adding an “a” or an “o” to her English to make like an Italian—“We need-a to-a get into-a our apart-ment-o”—we found he was only two doors down.

We also found out he wanted cash. He seemed to want the cash for payment before we could get into the apartment. He motioned quickly to where I could find a “bank-o” and off I went.

That’s when it would have been better to wait. I had no phone. I had no map. I didn’t even know the address where we were staying since Karen had made that reservation. After two turns and a piazza later I had no idea where I was. I tried not to look like a lost foreigner so I did what everyone else was doing. I kept walking.

By the luck of the Irish (which I’m not and don’t know if it works in Italy anyway), I found an ATM. I got a wad of cash, stuffed it in my money belt, and began walking in the direction I knew I had come from.

Along the way I found a gelateria. I went straight to the counter with all the flavors like we do here but found it would have been better to wait and watch. Instead of getting your gelato and then paying for it, in Italy you go to the cashier and pay first. After the fifth customer got their gelato ahead of me, I figured out the order of things.

I went to the cashier and since I wanted a cone with one scoop I held up my index finger and used Karen’s approach and asked for a “cone-o.” Don’t laugh. Turns out that’s how you say it in Italian. They gave me my receipt, I took it to the gelato scooper, and walked away with a treat.

I went out into the piazza, sat down, and thought about how much more sense it made to pay for the gelato first than after you get it and have to try not to drip or drop your cono. Then I thought about how lost I was. So I waited. For Karen to come find me.

Sometimes it’s better to just wait. Especially when you are entering into a new land with unfamiliar customs and ways. That’s where the first disciples found themselves. They were about to embark into an entirely new world. Luke records the scene for us.

I wrote the first narrative, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach until the day he was taken up, after he had given instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After he had suffered, he also presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. Acts 1:1-3

Luke’s first “narrative” is called Luke. Only fitting since he wrote it. But the second “narrative” we’re reading is called Acts, or The Acts of the Apostles. It tells us what happened next. In the world of sequels where most are flops, this one is dynamic. It snaps with action. It crackles with intrigue. It pops with purpose.

But before the apostles got to acting, they thought it better to wait. Especially when Jesus tells you to. Luke continues:

While he was with them, he commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for the Father’s promise. “Which,” he said, “you have heard me speak about; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit in a few days.” Acts 1:4-5

Tell your child to “wait” and you’ll likely hear: “What for?” “Why?” “How long?”

Jesus tells them “what for”: the Father’s promise of the Spirit.

Jesus then tells them the “why”: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

But he doesn’t tell them the “how long.” Only that they are to wait until the Holy Spirit comes on them. Now we know how long they waited. They waited ten days. We know this because Luke gives us a timeline. Jesus appeared to them for forty days and then he told them to wait.

We turn to the next chapter and we find that the Holy Spirit does show up on the day of Pentecost. Pentecost means “fiftieth” and refers to the fiftieth day after Passover. Subtract from that the forty days Jesus appeared to the disciples after the Passover and his resurrection and they waited about ten days.

For most of us ten days is about 9 days, 23 hours, fifty-nine minutes, and 52 seconds too long. One study states that the average attention span has dropped from 12 seconds in the year 2000 to 8.25 seconds in 2015. That’s less than the attention span of a goldfish which is 9 seconds if you care to know.[1]

We have a difficult time waiting. We’re told “Studies have shown that 32% of consumers will start abandoning slow sites between one and five seconds.”[2] Watch yourself next time you have to wait on a website to load. Or you have to wait at the grocery store check-out. Or when you are waiting on traffic to move. Or your phone to charge. Or you have to wait for a sermon to end.

As a whole we as a species do not like to wait. We don’t like to be still. As one wise sage has said: “Life moves pretty fast…”[3] And we’ve become accustomed to fastness. When we’re fast we don’t have to think much. We don’t have to be purposeful, we can just react. We don’t have to listen.

Jesus sent 120 followers who probably had a longer attention span then than we do now into the city to wait.[4] That city, Jerusalem, swelled during this time. Life there was moving fast. Most archaeologists think Jerusalem contained 100,000 people. During the weekend of Pentecost, it would swell to a million inhabitants—ten times its size. 300 square acres would be busting at the seams with men and women from every nation. The streets were teeming with people with all shades of skin. From dark Ethiopian to light skinned Roman. Dozens of dialects bounced off the stone walls.

Jesus chose to send his disciples into this busy city on the busiest week of the year. He could have told them to go to the desert to pray. He could have told them to go up on the mountain and take a break. But he didn’t. He sent them into the middle of the city and told them to wait.

The Greek word for “wait” is perimenō. It is a compound word made up of “peri” or “around” (as in perimeter) and “meno” or “remain.” “Meno” is the word Jesus uses when he says we are to “abide” in his word (cf. John 8:31). Put “peri” and “meno” together and we get “remain around.” You might say “hang out.” Jesus told his disciples to just “hang out.”

We don’t like to wait or just hang out because we think we need to be doing something. And that’s the point that Jesus is making. It is when we aren’t doing anything that he can do something. A lot can happen when we wait. When we wait, God works.

When we wait, God builds our commitment. The disciples knew the game plan: be witnesses in the entire world. Maybe that scared them. Maybe they were champing at the bit to get busy. But if Jesus was their Lord, then they would be committed to doing what he said to do. So they waited.

How committed are we to wait when God asks us to?

  • You want the new house but don’t have the money. He says to not go into debt and wait. Will you?
  • You want to do big things for God but don’t know what that is. Will you rush out and do whatever catches your attention or will you wait for direction?

You get the idea. When we don’t know the “when” it is safe to reason that God is calling us to wait. Waiting is a sign that we are committed to doing the things God would do in his time, not ours.

When we wait, God creates expectation in us. Waiting is difficult, but waiting can be exciting. If you’ve ever waited on a child to be born you understand. Nine months of planning. Nine months of craving crazy foods. Nine months of a love developing between you and a little human being that you haven’t even met. Nine months of waiting expectantly.

When we wait, God wants us to move into a posture of expectation, excited to see what he will do next. We get expectant about the next big blockbuster. We get expectant about the next model car. We get expectant about the next restaurant opening. Waiting, however, creates an expectation for the next thing God is about to do.

When we wait, God builds our character. He did with Moses. Moses spent forty years in the wilderness. Forty quiet years. His main companions were sheep. Forty unrecognized years. No fanfare. No awards. Not one Facebook like or friend. Not one Tweet or Selfie posted.

When he emerged from waiting he was ready. Ready to lead God’s people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. And when you and I emerge from waiting, we will be ready to take on whatever assignment God has given us.

We will be ready because when we wait, our intimacy and dependence on God grows. We slowly stop looking at our mobile device every few seconds. We turn off the noise. We begin to listen for God. We begin to look for Him. We don’t know where to go so we just sit and wait until we get some direction from him about why he wanted us to wait and what for and how long.

We’re not very good at waiting. And yet one of the last commands Jesus gave his disciples before he ascended into heaven was to wait. If he wanted them to learn how to wait then, you can expect that he wants us to learn how to wait now.

When we landed in Italy we had to learn new ways of life: The Italian way. It’s different than the American way. At first it was confusing. At first it did not feel right. But after time we have come to discern that in many ways it is a better way of life. A slower pace. A relaxed approach. And piazzas where people can go and just “hang out.”

Like I did. Karen never came to find me. But after I waited awhile I started to remember some landmarks along the way from our apartment. I realized the piazza I was sitting in was the first one I had walked through. I recognized something about the church and knew it was the one near where we were staying. I remembered the church appeared on my right as I entered the piazza. I faced it and walked down the street that came down its right side. As I walked down the street something started to feel right. So I made another turn to my right. And then I saw an angel coming to my rescue. The angel looked a lot like Karen. And I waited again. I waited until we got inside the apartment before I cried.

Maybe it’s time for the church to learn to wait. Can you do that? Can you be committed to waiting for the next ten days as they did? Can we wait for even ten minutes each day for the next ten days and see what God will do? You can wait longer than that. But we will give you something to wait on and ask God for direction on for each of the ten days.

As the wise sage also said: “…If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” If we don’t wait once in a while we can miss what God wants to do.

Sometimes it’s better to just wait.

[1] https://www.statisticbrain.com/attention-span-statistics/

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/media-network/media-network-blog/2012/mar/19/attention-span-internet-consumer

[3] http://www.positivelypositive.com/quotes/life-moves-pretty-fast-if-you-dont-stop-and-look-around-once-in-awhile-you-could-miss-it/

[4] See Luke 24:49.

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Jesus’ Table 6: Table Restoration

The new table we bought for our house is now ours. We were using it long before it was ours. Don’t tell Dave Ramsey. He might want to interrogate us.

We had made a visit to The Dump. Not the one where your trash is piled up. The furniture one. For some reason it sounds less pretentious to buy our furniture at The Dump. We had stopped in to get ideas on the kind of table we might want. Karen said we would just go “looking.”

When will I learn that sometimes “looking” actually means “buying”? We found the one we wanted and chairs to match. Since they were letting you take it that day and giving you eighteen months zero interest to pay, we had use of our table in the time it took them to deliver it our house.

That’s why we had it before it was really ours. We made monthly payments based on the cost divided by the number of months we had before the interest would kick in. In other words, instead of saving up first and then buying the table we got to have it and use while we were paying it off.

When the last payment came due we sent in the last payment. The table was then redeemed.

“Redeemed” is probably not the word you would use. It means “to liberate by payment of ransom.” Ransom? Yes. Our table was held hostage by The Dump until we liberated it by the last payment. At that point we were not captive to them anymore. We owed them nothing. Our table was liberated. Redeemed.

Redemption and tables go together. They did when two men were walking on a road to Emmaus. They had been in Jerusalem for all the events surrounding the death and burial of Jesus. They are walking on a road that will take them the seven miles to their hometown of Emmaus.

They are “discussing and arguing.” It wasn’t as heated as it may sound. The words mean they were “trying to figure out” the meaning of what all had happened. They were trying to “put two and two together” we might say.

They are trudging down the path, remembering events with each step, piecing together the puzzle of the week where at one end Jesus entered Jerusalem to voices crying “Hosanna!” and the other where the crowd was crying “Crucify him!”

Just then Jesus joined the in the walk. He just showed up. He had a way of doing that after the resurrection (see Acts 1:3). They probably were so intent on their discussion that they would not have heard him coming up behind them. However he got there, he was there.

Jesus asked them, “What is this dispute that you’re having with each other as you are walking?” The word for “dispute” means to “throw in turn.” They were playing a game of catch with their words, tossing them back and forth.

But they dropped the ball when Jesus asked his question. “And they stopped walking and looked discouraged” (Luke 24:17). His question literally stopped them in their tracks. They stood there with long faces.

They can’t believe the stranger didn’t seem to know what had happened in Jerusalem: “Are you the only visitor in Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that happened there in these days?” “What things?” he asked them (Luke 24:18-19).

They begin to tell him in great detail all the things that had happened. Imagine that scene. They tell Jesus what had happened to Jesus: how he had been handed over and had been crucified. They did not recognize him. Either his post-resurrection appearance was different or they were too teary and bleary-eyed to see. And Jesus must have kept his nail-scarred hands hidden from view as he listened.

He listened as they recounted how the one they thought would be the Messiah had died. Then they say, “But we were hoping that he was the one who was about to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). “…we were hoping…”

You’ve probably uttered that phrase yourself:

“We were hoping to have another healthy baby.”

“I had hoped to get the job after that interview.”

“We had hoped the doctors caught the tumor in time.”

“I had hoped to be able to retire by now.”

You’ve taken long walks. You’ve tried to understand past events. You’ve been discouraged. You’ve hoped. What you thought would happen didn’t. What you expected turned into the unexpected.

You know your hopes. And we know what these two had hoped for: “that he was the one who was about to redeem Israel.” There’s that word: redeem. Israel had been taken hostage by the Romans and they had hoped their Messiah would liberate them. Instead, he died on a Roman cross.

Jesus may have disappointed you too. You thought that when he came into your life your life would become easy. Money problems would disappear. Relationships would sparkle. Health would be excellent. When it did not happen you became discouraged.

Then let Jesus do for you what he did for these two. When the disciples needed hope Jesus told them a story. When their world was turned upside down and they could not see straight, Jesus focused their eyes on the word. He began with “Moses and all the Prophets” and got them walking again through the Scriptures. He helped them see how the Scriptures about himself fit what had happened in Jerusalem. We can guess he said something about:

How the rulers in Jerusalem thought they could eliminate Jesus by killing him.

How instead the result was Jesus’ exaltation and honor.

How he had to battle Satan instead of Pilate.

How he had to save us from our sins rather than from our situations.

We have to guess because perhaps the teaching we’d most like to hear from Jesus is summarized by Luke in one verse. You’d probably like me to do that with my teaching, right?

By the time Jesus had explained these things to them they were near Emmaus. Still they had not recognized him. So Jesus acts as if he is going to continue on his journey. We aren’t told how he did this. Maybe he talked about how he had other places to go. Maybe he mentioned an appointment in the next town.

We do know that Jesus does not presume an invitation. He waits for one. And these two give him one. “Stay with us, because it’s almost evening, and now the day is almost over.” Jesus accepts their invitation and “went in to stay with them.”

The next line is important. Don’t miss it. “It was as he reclined at the table with them that he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them” (Luke 24:30).

Jesus is at the table with them. Cleopas—the only one of the two that is identified—may have stopped off at the market to grab a loaf of bread on the way in to town. He grabbed a wineskin full of wine and set the table. But then it became Jesus’ table. He “took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” “Took,” “blessed,” “broke,” and “gave” are words that recall the feeding of the five thousand (Luke 9:16) and the Last Supper (22:19).

At that point “… their eyes were opened, and they recognized him” (Luke 24:31). Earlier we were told “…they were prevented from recognizing him” (Luke 24:16). Literally “their eyes were bound.” Now they are “opened.”

It may have been seeing Jesus do what he had done before in meals with his disciples that opened their eyes. It may be that when he reached out to take the bread they saw his wounds. Or maybe everything just came together in that moment. They saw Jesus was a different kind of Messiah than the kind that exists to do what we want him to do. He does what needs to be done. What we can say for sure is that it is at the table when the bread was broken that they saw Jesus.

It was the same for the early church community. The phrase “the breaking of the bread” is used at the end of this story. The two men recognize Jesus, Jesus disappears, and they get up and run back to Jerusalem to tell the Eleven and others who were gathered with them what they had experienced. Then we read: “Then they began to describe what had happened on the road and how he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:35).

That phrase will be seen throughout the book of Acts, Luke’s second volume that follows the beginning and spread of the church (Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7, 11; 27:35). What we find there is a continuation of what we find here. The meal fellowship at table was an important part of the life of the church because it was an important part of the life of Jesus.

It’s an important part of our life today. It is at the table that we have an expectation that the risen Christ will be present. It is there our eyes will be opened and we will see him.

Tables are places where redemption can be found. Jesus said the bread is his body, the cup is his blood. You may have trouble seeing that. If so, you might need the preparation these two men had.

Before their eyes were opened, Jesus was opening the Scripture to them. Hearing the word taught and preached is the way Jesus opens our eyes. You might prefer something a little more exciting. And maybe that’s why we find this story right after the Resurrection. It is more mundane. It is smaller.

We think we will see Jesus more easily in the big things: Easter Sundays, big numbers, big events, mountaintop experiences. But he consistently shows up in the small. A small voice (1 Kings 19:12). A mustard seed (Matthew 17:20; Luke 13:19). Prayers of a few words (Matthew 6:7-8). In secret places (Matthew 6:1-18). A cup of cold water (Matthew 10:42).

When you can’t find him in some big production and find yourself discouraged, read the story. “…faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the message about Christ” (Romans 10:17).

Then share the story around a table as you break bread. Those disciples had hoped for the redemption of Israel. What they came to see is the redemption of all mankind. Their problem was not that God had not given them what they hoped for. They had not hoped big enough.

Take your hopes to Jesus’ table. He will redeem them. There you will see him in the breaking of the bread.

And take your friends to Jesus’ table. The two on the road to Emmaus didn’t wait. They ran to Jerusalem to tell their friends all that had happened to them.

You can do the same. You might share your table, share your stories and break bread with someone who needs some hope today. They may not recognize him at first. But after you’ve broken bread a number of times they might.

Together you can find table redemption.

 

 

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