Sunday, May 24, 2009

an irresponsible church

“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 2:45

Definition 1: “answerable or accountable, as for something within one's power, control, or management.” Definition 2: “rational thought or action.” Definition 3: “reliable, as in meeting debts.”

These are all definitions of the word responsible, at least according to And far too often, Christians think that “responsibility” is a Christian virtue, or perhaps a fruit of the Spirit. Perhaps we have Immanuel Kant to thank. Kant thought that the Christian moral life was about doing one’s societal duty, about always acting reasonably, about being responsible. But if we wish to take Luke’s account of the early church seriously, we kant assume that Jesus’ primary aim is to make us responsible citizens …

… in the kingdom of the world. After all, responsibility assumes we’re in control. We’re not. Responsibility delights in what’s reasonable. The Gospel shatters reason. Responsibility assumes we can meet our own debts. The power of the Gospel, quite simply, lies in the fact that we can’t.

I’m not saying that we should always act irresponsibly. All I’m trying to say is this - Jesus didn’t die to make us responsible citizens of the kingdom of the world. He died to make us faithful citizens of the kingdom of God. And to live faithfully in God’s world, at times, will make us look irresponsible. From a worldly perspective, it is irresponsible to sell all your possessions and to lay the proceeds at the apostles’ feet. It’s irresponsible to choose Judas’ replacement by casting lots (1:26). But if even half of the stories that Luke tells are true, then make no mistake – the early church was irresponsible.

But should we expect anything else? Was it responsible for Jesus to leave his family at the age of thirty and to wander about the Sea of Galilee as an itinerant preacher? Wouldn’t it be more responsible to listen to your mom and to go home (Mk 3:31)?

Was it responsible for James and John to drop their nets and leave their father to follow Jesus?
Was it responsible for the Sower to throw (waste) seed indiscriminately, with only a fraction falling in good soil?
Was it responsible for the father to put a ring on the finger of his rebellious, prodigal son?
Was it responsible for Mary to dump a gallon of expensive oil on Jesus’ feet when the proceeds could have been given to the poor?
Was it responsible for that poor widow to put all she had to live on into the temple treasury?
Was it responsible for Jesus to hang out with hookers?
Was it responsible for Peter to try and walk on water?
Is it responsible to “let the dead bury their own dead?” (Matt 8:22).

When the Levite, unlike the Samaritan, refused to help the half-dead, beaten man – was that not the responsible thing to do?
When the rich young man refused to sell his goods and accept Jesus’ invitation to discipleship – was that not the responsible thing to do?
When Pilate released Barabbas in order to avoid a riot – was that not the responsible thing to do?

Jesus didn’t come to teach us to be responsible. He came to start a revolution – to turn the old world upside down. And because of that, followers of Jesus will break the rules of the old world from time to time. And when viewed through the lens of that old world, we will appear irresponsible.

Luke tells us that the early church sold all they had and gave the proceeds to the needy. What an incredibly irresponsible thing to do.

May God give today’s church the grace to “go and do likewise” (Lk 10:37).

Thursday, May 21, 2009

a devoted church

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” – Acts 2:42

Before Pentecost, only 120 people followed the Way. But when Peter’s first sermon came to a close, many were “cut to the heart” (2:37) and repented – a word that means to “turn or change one’s mind.” According to Luke’s account, 3000 additional persons followed “the Jesus-Way” after Peter’s poignant sermon. The result? The new converts “devoted” themselves to certain practices.

To follow the Way – both then and now – necessarily means a devotion to a way of life; to a specific way of being in this world.

Two things strike me as important from this passage. First, we must be devoted. Second, we must be devoted to the right things.

First, the early church was a devoted church – a word that speaks of loyalty and even seriousness. Faith in Christ wasn’t a hobby for anyone in the early church. It wasn’t a way of feeling better about life. It wasn’t an escape from reality. Of the 3000 added to the Kingdom after Peter’s first sermon, not one was a religious dabbler. Luke portrays each person as devoted. Faith in Christ was everything; faith in Christ demanded everything. To quote Bonhoeffer, “when Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.” Christianity is about accepting Jesus’ invitation to die. One can’t embrace such a strange invitation without being devoted.

Second, Luke references four things that the first Christians devoted themselves to: the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers. In other words, the first Christians sat at the apostles’ feet and absorbed their teaching; they actively loved one another in community; they obeyed Jesus’ commandment to worshipfully break bread in remembrance of the new Exodus brought about through his death and resurrection; they prayed nonstop. In 21st century terms, faith was about being devoted to scripture, community, Eucharistic worship, and nonstop prayer – not as an end in itself – but as a means to the end of being fully devoted to the person and work of Jesus Christ.

To follow the Way – both then and now – necessarily means a devotion to a way of life; to a specific way of being in this world.

What are we devoted to?

May the Spirit give us the courage to answer this question honestly. And upon answering, may we too be cut to the heart, change our mind, and devote our selves to the right things. AMEN.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

a direct church

In seminary I took quite a few homiletics classes that aimed to equip me with “preaching techniques.” And our class spent a lot of time in the world of rhetoric. If we could master the English language, we could masterfully convey the Gospel. In other words, preaching class was more about the “how” of preaching than the “what” of preaching.

Don’t get me wrong, I learned a lot of good stuff. After all, you and I are flooded with "wall to wall noise" in a way that the ancient world was not. Today’s media saturated world has the attention span of a mosquito with ADHD. And so to preach is to compete – every time I step in the pulpit and speak about life in God’s kingdom I’m competing with Coca-cola and with your friends. And so I’ve learned to be funny; to make smooth transitions; to say “one thing and one thing” only. After all, I’m competing with beer commercials. In today’s church, the only thing worse than bad exegesis is a bad delivery (please note my sarcasm).

But here’s the problem: in crafting a sermon, I’m often far more concerned with how I preach than with what I preach. And so I’ll ask – “how can I make this relevant? What cultural connections can I make? What’s a funny story or clever anecdote to introduce this truth?”

The early church didn’t ask these questions. That’s what I mean when I say that Acts portrays a “direct” church. The preaching is straightforward proclamation. It is forthright, genuine, and to the point. Consider Acts 2:14-36. This is the first sermon in the history of Christianity. And we have the full text.

The setting is Pentecost. The preacher is Peter. And Peter’s sermon is a response to the crowd’s accusation that the apostles – on whom the Spirit has fallen – are drunk. And so Peter preaches. And imagine this, his whole sermon is only one minute and twenty-four seconds long (a dramatic reenactment just took place in my kitchen – a bible in one hand, a stop-watch in the other). And notice, Peter’s sermon doesn’t beat around the bush. Peter directly states that:

· We are in the last days (v.17)
· Jesus’ death happened “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (v.23)
· We crucified Jesus and are responsible for his death (v.23)
· David prophetically spoke of Jesus’ death and resurrection (v.25-29)
· God raised Jesus bodily from the dead (v.32)
· Jesus is exalted at the right hand of God (v.33)
· Jesus is Lord and Messiah (v.36)

May today’s preachers remain creative, but God save us from putting too much stock in our own rhetorical cleverness. Our God uses the weak to shame the strong. Moses had a stuttering problem; Paul lacked eloquence (1 Cor 2:4). The Gospel doesn’t depend on human cleverness but on the Word of God directly spoken and on sacrificial lives that back up our spoken proclamation.

May we never forget that each one of us is a preacher. We may not get the pulpit on Sunday morning, but God sends each of his children into the world as ambassadors with a message. May today's church have the courage to proclaim that message directly.

“But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?” – Rom 10:14

Saturday, May 16, 2009

a Spirit-empowered church

“And all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them the ability.” - Acts 2:4

The first Christians didn’t operate from their own power or cleverness. They were filled and empowered by the Spirit of God. How else can one explain the phenomenon of Christianity? How could a tiny band of uneducated peasants lead a revolution that would forever change the world? The Spirit was at the center of the revolution.

I’m referencing the day of Pentecost, which the church had been actively waiting for. The Spirit of God fell on each of the apostles and, echoing what happened long ago at a tower in the land of Babel (Gen 11), they began to speak in different languages. But this wasn’t the tower of Babel “take two.” Instead of their scattered languages being a source of confusion, “each one heard them speaking in their native language” (2:6). This wasn’t a repeat of the tower of Babel. Pentecost was a reversal of it. The Spirit of God empowered the apostles to speak in the language of all – anyone with ears to hear heard the Gospel that day in their own native language.

As we think about our own church, it may be helpful to ask – is the Spirit of God driving what we do and what we say? If our lives are to matter – if our church is to matter – we must follow where the Spirit leads and we must allow the Spirit to lead us. “Live by the spirit” (Gal 5:25). “Be guided by the Spirit” (Gal 5:25). “Be strengthened with power through the Spirit” (Eph 3:16).

We can’t read about Pentecost and write it off as a onetime event. For we’re a people entrusted with Jesus’ Great Commission – “go, therefore, and make disciples of all tribes” (Matt 28:19). We may not be surrounded by “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia,” (2:9) but the many tribes in America – artists, musicians, activists, the homeless, republicans, democrats, surfers, dorks, jocks, the elderly, the upper-class, the lower-class, and all sorts of classes of men and women in between – haven’t yet heard the Gospel spoken in their own native language.

How many of us have proclaimed, “I just don’t understand those people.” A Spirit-empowered church will say no such thing. Empowered by the Spirit, we will proclaim the Gospel to each tribe in their own native language – which means that we’ll learn their language. To the Jews we will become Jews. To the Greeks we will become Greeks. To the weak we will become weak. “We will become all things to all people.” (1 Cor 9:20)

But if the revolution is to move forward, the Spirit must be at the center.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

an interpreting church

Acts 1:15-22
In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, 16 "Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus-- 17 for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry." 18 (Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. 19 This became known to all the residents of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) 20 "For it is written in the book of Psalms, 'Let his homestead become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it'; and 'Let another take his position of overseer.' 21 So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22 beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us-- one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.

The first disciples interpreted their role in God’s drama of salvation as they waited for the Holy Spirit. Of course, there was a lot that they knew – they knew something world-shattering had transpired in the person of Jesus and Nazareth. They knew that Jesus had chosen 12 disciples for a reason. They knew that Jesus wanted them to begin witnessing to his resurrection in a particular place – Jerusalem. They knew that in Jesus God was simultaneously renewing and fulfilling the covenant He had made with Israel. And yet, there was a lot they didn’t know – one of them had betrayed Jesus. “The twelve” were down to 11.

And so they had to interpret Judas’ heinous act. They had to interpret how God could save the world when one of characters had seemingly ruined the plot. And the disciple’s act of interpretation required two things. They prayed (v.14) and they searched the scriptures. Through prayer and studying the scriptures, the disciples interpreted Judas’ role in Jesus’ death. “The scripture had to be fulfilled.” Jesus had to die.

And their interpretation led them to see that Judas had to be replaced. It wasn’t okay to have eleven apostles. After all, Israel had twelve tribes. And in praying and searching the scriptures, the first apostles saw themselves as God’s new Israel – as the people through whom God intended to call the world to repentance. And it wasn’t okay for them to have eleven. For the first apostles saw themselves as the new Israel. Israel had twelve tribes. If the world was to understand the church's new role, they too had to have twelve.

And Matthias was chosen to take Judas’ place.

Jesus didn’t tell them to choose Matthias. Jesus didn’t tell them to choose anyone. But through prayer and searching the scriptures, the first apostle’s interpreted their need for Judas to be replaced.

The task of interpretation still belongs to the church. Through prayer and scripture, our task as God’s people is to interpret God’s Word in our own day and time. The Christian should walk about with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. For God’s story of salvation still moves forward. Are we paying attention? Have we interpreted our role?

Sunday, May 10, 2009

a waiting church

The church’s first task was to wait. Before ascending to His Father, this is Jesus’ final command to the church – wait. The disciples are supposed to wait for something. And so the question is – what? What were they waiting for?

First, the disciples waited for the Holy Spirit. In fact, Jesus tells his disciples that in only a few days the Spirit will descend on them. And so between Jesus’ ascension and Pentecost, the disciples did nothing but wait. After all, their vocation was to be God’s people – to “turn the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). We don’t turn the world upside down (and thus right side up) on our own power. We wait for God’s Spirit to do it through us.

Second, the disciples waited for Jesus “to restore the Kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6). This is another way of saying that they waited for God to rule this earth. As present-day disciples, we also wait for this glorious Day. That’s why we pray – “thy Kingdom come on earth as in heaven.” We wait for the Kingdom to come. In the midst of war, famine, tsunamis, murder, greed, poverty, death, and all that will be abolished when heaven invades earth, we wait for the Kingdom.

The church began in waiting. Christ’s bride only waited a few days for the promise of the Spirit. And yet, it’s been nearly 2,000 years and we still wait for the Kingdom of God to appear in its fullness. We are a “waiting” church. Waiting is central to our vocation as the “called out” people of God. And so something for us to consider – what does it mean for us to wait?

My hope is that our journey through the Acts of the Apostles will help us answer this question.

you better acts somebody

Luke’s account of the early church gives us a glimpse into the revolution that changed our world. I’d like to blog through this wonderful book with one primary purpose – to describe what I see. I’d like to take Acts paragraph by paragraph – or chapter by chapter – and describe how I see the early church functioning.

Of course in doing so I’ll invite a host of questions. What does our church look like in twenty-first century America? What “acts of the” first “apostles” have we abandoned? What would it look like for us to creatively return to the practices of the early church (and what practices aren’t meant to be repeated)?

I invite you to journey with me through this wonderful book. I’ll tell you what I see. But please tell me what you see. Because even now the acts is lying at the root of this tree we call the church. My hope and prayer is that our mutual study will bear much fruit.