Christian Stewardship: The birth and dwindling of a good idea

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.” (Acts 2:42-45 )

About this verse, the Confession says, “The first church in Jerusalem put Jubilee into practice by preaching the gospel, healing the sick, and sharing possessions. Other early churches shared financially with those in need.“ The portrait of the early church is very important in the Confession. Why else would this passage from Acts chapter 2 pop up so often that I feel it is “haunting” me!

From the very beginnings of the Anabaptist movement the communal nature of the early church was seen as a model for living in fellowship with one another. However, just like persecution disrupted the early church, persecution caused the Anabaptists/early Mennonites to flee to other countries and nations to find a safe and free place to worship. They carried with them the ideas of mutual support and accountability, just as the early church did in Jerusalem and as it spread through the known world in the years following Christ’s life, death and resurrection.

But while the underlying notion survived, the depth and breadth of the practice was spread thin. When believers multiple in number, so does the amount of needy people. Those who are poor in spirit and in pocketbook hold tightly to faith and the promise of succor it brings.

In the Mennonite faith – and in other faith’s I am sure – there are moving tales and success stories of people who are helped and lifted out of poverty and despair. But for every “happy ending story” there are at least to other sad stories. It is not that people of good conscience are not doing anything, but the need is so great and the resources so sparse.

But there is another darker reason for this disparity. Our lives now are so complicated, filled with “things”. What is now considered the “basics” would have been luxuries in another era. We are caught in this cycle of acquiring and the need to sustain the level we have reached. And this may be bad enough, but when we look at others and see how “needy” and without resources as compared to us, we assume there is not hope for them.

This bothers me, gentle reader, that our definition of “making it” is so far above the reality throughout the world. I don’t think about and consider this notion very often, and maybe that makes me more a part of the problem than the solution. That is not an easy admission to make.

May you gentle reader share with those who have need, reserving for yourself only what is far and right so that others may have what is fair and right also. Selah!

 

Church Order And Unity: when it works, it works well

“The apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter. After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith.” ( Acts 15:6-9 )

The Confession says, “In making decisions, whether to choose leaders or resolve issues, members of the church listen and speak in a spirit of prayerful openness, with the Scriptures as the constant guide. Persons shall expect not only affirmation, but also correction. In a process of discernment, it is better to wait patiently for a word from the Lord leading toward consensus, than to make hasty decisions.

The church is a variety of assemblies which meet regularly, including local congregations and larger conferences. This diversity in unity evokes gratitude to God and appreciation for one another. According to the example of the apostolic church, the local congregation seeks the counsel of the wider church in important matters relating to faith and life, and they work together in their common mission.”

If only it were so, gentle reader. But the reality is not as calm and blissful as this presents. I spent a good bit of time wondering why the “global church” seems so divisive. And why the Mennonite Church sometimes seems on the verge of splintering (or at least that is the sense I get at times). And I have concluded this; in the past most of the debates within the church (and on all various levels of structures of church) have been on theology, philosophy, praxis etc, which are significant and important in the church’s live and the members lives. But the debates going on now are not about church policy and polity, but foundational to what each person believes about themselves, others, and God. The “old” values are no longer givens, and with that gone a lot of people are feeling adrift.

In this passage from Acts Peter and others are discussing what is to be done about the Gentiles who have come to faith in Christ. No longer a faith movement for Jews, Christianity is being stretched and understood in ways that Judaism was not set up and conceived of. In other words, the “old” values were no longer givens. What to do?

Something Peter said in that verse seems significant to me at this point in my discussion. He said Jesus/God “made no distinction between us and them.” And that is important, I think, in light of what the Confession says. The intent of this portion of the Confession is that there is no “us and them”, there is only we – all of us. And the “all of us” listens to the “all of us” and then moves forward as a group in unity. But unity is a precious commodity right now in some portions of the Mennonite Church.

I have said before, we of the Mennonite Church are no better or worse than anyone else. From the evidence of the above excerpt from the Confession you might think otherwise. We know what to aim for, and we know what it should look like. We just can’t always reach it or achieve it.

Several hundred years ago brave and intrepid men and woman crossed what was at the time unimaginable distances to live and practice their religion freely. Now, having explored every inch of the global, there is no where else to go when one group/faction disagrees with another. We will finally have to learn to live with each other, or (worst case scenario) die trying. The problems within the Mennonite Church are not that drastic – not by a very long shot! But all of us – all of humanity – are children of God, and we don’t seem to be doing a very good job of living together.

May you gentle reader listen well to your fellow believer, and your neighbor here and around the world. And may the God who created us through the process of discernment to a place of shalom. Selah!

 

Sufficiency

“He lived there two whole years at his own expense and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance. “ (Acts 28: 30b-31 )

The topic is sufficiency – do you have everything you need? I was reminded today that the difference between having enough and not having enough can be very slim. I recycled some pop bottles today to get enough money to buy a large bottle of pop. I could have paid for it several other ways, but this is the way I chose. There was a middle-aged man who was also recycling bottles, but not bottles he brought with him but bottles he had found. Hoping, I guess, to get enough money to buy some food. I suspect, but do not know for sure, this might have been a daily task. Sufficiency; do you have everything you need?

Paul lived in Roman for two years, and met his own expenses, including I imagine, the guards who were assigned to him. I would guess too that he was able to offer hospitality to all who came to visit him. Some of the letters Paul wrote were also written during this time, and he talked about how he would come visit the churches after his time in Rome. Paul had confidence that he would be released and would be free again to travel to where he was called. And, would have the means and resources to travel.

But I tell you dear seeker, even if Paul would not have had money to live in Rome, resources to offer hospitality, and support for his mission trips – Paul would have had all that he needed because he had Christ and the blessing of the Lord. Paul’s captivity in Rome was not really captivity, but an opportunity to witness and proclaim to all the officials and authorities he met on his journey to Rome. Read chapters 26 and 27 of Acts, and chapter 28 where Paul’s live was spared from the snake, and this after the shipwreck.

I do not know your life circumstances seeker, but I would guess you have a roof over your head, rooms to sleep, eat, & entertain in, and a room where the computer is that you are reading this on. You also have the leisure time to read this blog. You have much my friend. And, you have Christ and the blessing of God. You have all that you need.

I am not asking you to go out and give away what you have, or invite someone in to share what you have. I am not asking you to account for how you use what you have. All I am saying seeker is that out of your sufficiency to can “proclaim the kingdom of God and teach about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.” May you do so. Shalom!

Partnering Up

“When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. “ ( Acts 16:10 )

In Acts chapter sixteen, up until verse 10 the narrative is third person, “they”; but suddenly in verse 10 the “they” becomes “we” as if the narrator has joined Paul and his fellow travelers. But some 15 verses later the narrator seems to be no longer with them, and the perspective is back to third person “they”.

I am not sure what to make of this, or even if there is anything to make of it. One of the things I remember from studying the journeys of Paul is that he was joined by others a certain points of his journey, traveling with them for a time, and then separating again. Commentators of the passage all agree that it is the physician Luke who has joined Paul, at least for a time.

We all need help and support from time to time. Even, I guess, Paul. Although from Luke’s account down in verses 25-40, Paul and Silas seemed to manage to get themselves into a good bit of trouble. But trust Paul to come out of it intact and unscathed.

In Paul’s letters to the churches in the area he is always telling his reader to say hello to this person or that person. And invariably he talks about how helpful so-and-so was while Paul was with them. That is important to remember when thinking about all the Paul did and wrote, that he did not do it alone. We tend to think about Paul as a super missionary. But the truth is that he had a whole team behind him.

I don’t think God ever envisioned missional work to be a solo act. Even Jesus had his disciples and those who tended to Jesus and his disciple’s needs. Whether you are a Mary or a Martha, a Peter or a Matthew, or even a Thomas – everyone on the “missional team” has a part to play.

May you, seeker, join with others in spreading the good news of our Lord God, and may you find the support you need amongst your missional team. Selah!

Being Filled Missionally: Call and Response with Preacher and Seeker

“This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear. “ ( Acts 2: 32-33 )

Preacher: “This Jesus God raised up”
Seeker: Praise God for . . . for . . . for showing that sin and death do not have to the power over the Almighty!
Preacher: ”. . and that all of us are witnesses.”
Seeker: Thank you God for raising up and revealing Christ Jesus to me!
Preacher: “Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God”
Seeker: Christ, you are high and mighty, and I worship before you!
Preacher: “ . . . and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit”
Seeker: Lord God, you make and keep the best promises!
Preacher: “ . . . he has poured out this that you both see and hear.”
Seeker: Thank you God for the gift of your Holy Spirit!
Preacher: Amen!
Seeker: Amen indeed!

Seeker: Preacher . . .
Preacher: Yes Seeker . . .
Seeker: This call and response, do they do it in a lot of churches?
Preacher: Well, some more than others. It has a long history in some Mennonite churches. And is used in various forms in other churches.
Seeker: Well, how do they know what to say?
Preacher: Sometimes it is already written out for the congregation. Other times it is spontaneous, whatever the congregation or individuals are feeling.
Seeker: I kind of like it, but it is sort of scary, when you are not sure what to say. But it does get you thinking about what scripture says. And what God might be saying to your heart and spirit.
Preacher: That is what a large part of it is, responding to God.
Seeker: But how do you know if your saying the right thing?
Preacher:There is really no right or wrong. Like I said, sometimes the words are written by someone who has thought about what one might say. Other times it is just what feels right in the moment. Like the last part of the verse says, we see evidence of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in the lives of others. And we hear the Spirit speaking to our heart. So this is one way of recognizing and responding to it.
Seeker: So, I did okay?
Preacher: You did just fine.

What role baptism?

“But when they believed Philip, who was proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Even Simon himself believed. After being baptized, he stayed constantly with Philip and was amazed when he saw the signs and great miracles that took place.” ( Acts 8: 12-13 )

Ah, Baptism! For many devotees of mission, baptism is the epiphany and crowning point of the mission effort. In the syntax of missional thinking however, baptism is not the end point, but simply the end of one phase and the beginning of the next. Baptism marks the beginning of the Christian journey, the coming to greater and deep understanding of the Christian faith, and living out the beliefs and faith one has embraced.

If you would read further into this chapter of Acts, you would read that while Simon espoused faith and went through all the motions, he did not fully understand what it meant to live as a Christian. He saw only the power that the disciples commanded, and not the commitment to a new way of living.

I would encourage you to think about your own Christian journey. And I feel confident that you will see a marked difference between who you were then, and who you are now. Furthermore, I suspect that even since your baptism there have been milestones that you have passed that might stand out as more significant than your baptism.

That is not to say that baptism is not important; it is very important. But its importance comes about not so much for what it stands for, but where in life it leads you. Being baptized can change your life dramatically. Or, as it was for Simon, it can be nothing more than a decision based on factors besides faith. It is what comes after that defines for each person what baptism means.

May you missional reader continue in your Christian journey marking with gratitude and worship each day that comes after your baptism which results in an ever closer walk with our God. Selah!

Joy – that goes without saying

“The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did, for unclean spirits, crying with loud shrieks, came out of many who were possessed; and many others who were paralyzed or lame were cured. So there was great joy in that city.” ( Acts 8:6-8 )

Have I mentioned joy, missional reader? Have I mentioned spirits lifted when the Holy Spirit makes that Divine presence known? Have I mentioned laughter that passes from one believer to another? Have I mentioned contentment and peace that flows over a congregation when they know that God has cared for them and supported them? Have I mentioned healing that comes from body and soul united in praise to our Creator? Have I mentioned that mission is not truly mission if there is no joy for both those who speak and hear the gospel? If I have not missional reader, I apologize. And I have mentioned it now!

May the grace of God and the joy of our Lord be upon you this day, lifting your hearts and thoughts to our Creator who is joy, love, and shalom personified perfectly. Selah!

Pre-missional Saul – meaning Paul

“Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them.” (Acts 8: 4-5 )

Imagine if you will missional reader, a missionary outreach that is going very well. People are accepting Christ in record numbers, and the number of believers is growing. Churches are springing up in homes and meetings places. The level of fellowship is extraordinary with believers sharing each other’s burdens and supporting each other in whatever ways are needed. The Holy Spirit is a daily presence.

But the fellowship is not without its critics and persecutors. One such person is Saul of Tarsus. He is relentless, pursuing new and old believers alike. In the face of his determination to imprison every believer he can, members of the new church are forced to flee for their lives. How would you feel as a disciple and an apostle if your young mission effort was thwarted and harassed? What would you say to the new Christians who had to leave their lives behind in order to be sure to live from day to day?

We read in Acts (and other historical sources tell us) that the Christians left Jerusalem. But they do not go silently, but where ever they go they preach the gospel. And in an ironic way, this persecution and dispersion spreads the gospel farther and fastest then it would have if just left on its own.

I submit to you that Paul was a missional force even before God tapped him on the shoulder and said, “ Why are you so determined to cause me grief?” [Acts 9:4] Did God intend for Stephen to be killed by stoning? I do not think God so desired Stephen’s death. It was a consequence of the times he lived in. And a choice by the temple authorities.

Did God want Saul to cause the death of so many people before he was “converted”? Again, I do not think I Lord desires anyone’s death. But the fact that Paul spent the rest of his life “atoning” for his previous “Saul-dom” speaks to the way God’s mission in the world is carried out because of and despite our poor choices.

God’s mission in the world will go forward because the Divine is too powerful for it to be stopped. As we read yesterday, Jesus came to speak the truth. And truth does not fade away. It lives on, and lives on in the people who hear the truth and live it out.

May you missional reader skip “Saul-dom” and lives as Paul, carrying the truth of Christ and our Lord God to the ends of your world. Selah!

Potluck Church

“Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. “ ( Acts 2: 46-47 )

One of the things I remember fondly about the church I grew up in was potlucks. The potlucks in that church unlike any other potlucks I have ever been to since. There was a sense of order and sensibility, along with the extravagance and abundance of good food. It was good old-fashioned Mennonite cooking, so you know everything was made from scratch, or was made from the best possible ingredients. It was basic food; nothing strange or unidentifiable. But there was always a good variety of things so that you could fill your plate several times and have something different each time.

What I liked best however, and have missed from other potlucks that I have gone to, is the sense of order. Each food group or type was bunched together; all the vegetables were in one spot, meat in another, breads and rolls in another. You could go down the line, and choose from each category. And, most important, dessert was not brought out until after everyone had gotten a good healthy serving or two of the main meal.

Now you may think this strange coming from childhood memories, but I liked that. We children all knew that we had to eat healthy first, meat and veggies were expected on our plates. And being good Mennonite children we obeyed that. But once we had done our “duty,” we knew that the “first course” would disappear, and the delicious things would come out. You see, in a sense, the first course healthy food was for the adults who emphasized that sort of thing. But dessert, that was for the children. Oh the adults would have a little bit of this, or a small slice of that. But dessert was when the children would be indulged. It was not often a Mennonite child could look down a whole table of desserts and know that they could feast at will. And because potlucks happened infrequently enough, no adult, parent nor neighbor, would deny a child enjoying it.

When I grew beyond childhood, and as an adult went to potlucks, the desserts would be intermingled and moshed together with everything else. The joy and innocence was gone. And for every potluck I have been to as an adult, I have not been able to recapture that feeling.

The writer of Acts tells us that when the early Christians ate together, each meal was partaken with joy and celebration. I like to imagine it was like eating from the “dessert table” every time. In the temple was their main meal, their “meat and veggies”, and they partook of it fully I am sure. And then afterward, in each others home, was the sweet repose of “glad and generous hearts.”

May you missional reader find both the nourishment you need from worship of God, and the sweet communion and companionship of fellow believers. Selah!

Missional Focus: short term and long term

“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. “ (Acts 2: 44-45 )

We are told here in Acts 2, and then again in Acts 4 verse 34 and 35 that “need” was not known by the believers, because resources were held in common. If one had need, the need was filled.

I am trying to mind around that. If one had a need, either the financial resources would be there, or someone would have what you needed. At first glance, it seems like a utopia. A small slice of heaven here on earth. But it does not make for good long term planning. The early church did not believe they had much time on this earth. One of the beliefs that was circulating was that Jesus would return for his followers, and take them up to heaven. We know from history – if nothing else than the fact that there is history – that did not happen. But still, never having to worry about provision for the present, and not needing to prepare for a long off future.

And I think of myself, and what I need. I need . . . . well, I can get that tomorrow. Then there is the . . . actually I can buy that next week. And there is always . . . . but I can probably borrow a . . . . . I have always wanted a . . . . but I can probably do with out that. Come to think of it, there is not anything I really need that I do not have the resources and/or the ability to get.

What strikes me the most about this passage is that it was not just the early Christians physical and material needs were taken care of so ably. The material support speaks to the under girding other support through fellowship and corporate worship. The early Christians were truly there for one another. But did that last I wonder? Does the fact that Paul wrote letters to Christians in various places about getting along mean that over time the mutual support started to fade? Did the reality of living not just day to day, but year to year start to wear and wear down the good intentions? And, most importantly, did that over the centuries lead to the state of the global church now?

Mission and missional means we are here for the long term; lifetimes and generations of being here for one another, supporting each other, and trying to assure the filling of at least the most basic of needs. We still look to the time that God will return for the faith followers of our Lord. And as each day passes, we will have had to wait a little longer.

May you missional reader have you basic needs assured, may you assure the fulfillment of the needs of others, and may you be secure in your faith. Selah!