An Introduction to Spiritual Disciplines

17 September 2015

I had occasion to address Mosaic Church on the subject of spiritual disciplines. In this sermon, I don’t present a bunch of options so much as I aim for the heart of what makes a life of spiritual discipline that moves us closer to God instead of just building a better Pharisee. I hope you find it helpful.


Present for Blessing

3 September 2015

I preached last weekend at Mosaic Church in Englewood on how God is present with, in, and through us for the blessing of the world. Here it is:


Healing

12 April 2015

I had opportunity to speak recently on healing. You’ll find my notes below.

Our focus this month is on the resurrection.
Chesterton: “Christendom has had a series of revolutions and in each one of them Christianity has died. Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.”
Isaiah 53:4-5
Romans 6:3-4
1 Peter 2:24-25
Our job is to live out the resurrection.
Gal. 2:20
We can’t do it alone — it’s supernatural.
How the Western Church lost healing
How I came to understand healing
How God Heals — The Story of Naaman (2 Kings 5:1-17)
Things to take away:
1. Naaman was a Syrian soldier in a time when Israel and Syria were at odds with each other. He was an enemy, and yet God healed him.
2. Sometimes God simply heals, but often He asks us to invest in our healing. This isn’t “God helps those who help themselves;” that’s garbage. How much help do you think Naaman washing himself could be? Think he’d never taken a bath before?
3. Healing is not usually a solo activity.
Luke 4:16-21
Jesus commissions us to follow Him. That means that He is sending you to do these same things.
Heal. Jesus bought it. Ask God for it, and see what He will give you.

The Story of John Mark

16 March 2015

I had occasion to tell the story of John Mark in a church service recently. Here it is.


Neighborhood Sacramentology: Imaging the Reality of the Table

7 April 2013

We are considering the Lord’s Table in the context of neighborhood church and ministry. In the preceding post, we looked at the reality of what is happening at the Table. In this one, we want to consider how to incarnate that reality in a way that is fitting, both to the reality that is occurring and to the context into which we are bringing it. Along the way, we’ll hit the question of appropriate contexts as well.

In a wedding ceremony, as long as certain essentials are covered, the bride and the groom will be married at the end of the day, no matter what else goes wrong. This leaves a lot of room for things to go wrong without having to call a do-over, an emergency “get it right this time” wedding ceremony — for which all thanksgiving. But it also means that there is a lot of room for honoring or dishonoring the occasion. The groom can answer the request for an “I do” with “Why not?” The bride’s dress can be immodest to the point of whorish. The best man can make a pass at the groom. The maid of honor can get drunk and fall into the cake. A wedding ceremony is meant to both accomplish and signify the beginning of a marriage. These things signify something else, something antithetical to what the ceremony is accomplishing. None of them make the wedding invalid, but that doesn’t make them okay. That said, one of the sage pieces of wedding advice is that something will indeed go wrong, and you had best make up your mind ahead of time to laugh about it and roll with the punches.

In these occasions, the attitude we seek is attention to detail and appropriateness tempered by a sense of proportion. If somebody falls into the cake, the happy couple is still married, and it’s a day for celebration. Scrape the icing off the dance floor and carry on.

We want this same attitude in our Lord’s Table celebration.

This has been a challenge for me because I come from an ecclesiastical tradition that rarely even asked the question of how to best represent what was really happening. How to think about it correctly, sure. How to teach it well, of course. How to represent it? Not so much. We figured if we were talking about it right, the job was done.

So how do we? Well, we could do worse than do what Jesus did, I suppose. He passed one loaf and one cup from hand to hand around the table. We are one Body, partaking of one Lord — so one loaf, one cup. We are eating a meal with Jesus, so we pass the elements around the table. Makes sense.

That’s great, if you happen to be observing the Passover feast in an upper room already. But suppose you’re with 150 people in an auditorium? Do you have one loaf and one cup, and invite everybody forward to tear off a piece of bread and sip from the cup? Do you pass around one of those big offering-plate-looking things with a bunch of plastic cups, each containing a thimbleful of juice, and a tray of tasteless little wafers? Do you give everybody one of these?

I have celebrated communion in all these ways. As horrifying as I find that last option, in the service where I encountered it, it was by far the most reasonable choice. It was that or no Lord’s Table at all. The pastors who organized the service made the right call, and may God bless them for it.

When we begin to talk about how to do this in a typical “traditional” church service like this, we enter into a discussion that’s been going for a while. There are some good things to talk about there, but I’d like to talk about something else. Our subject, remember, is neighborhood sacramentology. The first question we encounter is one of simple appropriateness: may we take the Lord’s Table out of the church building and into, say, someone’s dining room on a Thursday night?

I know a good many people who would say no, or at least feel uneasy about it. I used to be among them. But then I noticed something. The original Lord’s Table was in someone’s dining room on a Thursday night! How could it not be permissible? The question is not whether it’s okay to take take communion out of the church building and into the home, but whether it’s okay to take communion out of the home and into the church building. For the first 300 years of the church’s history, we met in nothing but homes…when we were particularly blessed. Too often, we only had forests and prisons, catacombs and caves and dens in the earth for meeting places.

Though there be only two of three of us huddled together in a hole in the side of a hill, Christ is there in our midst. Wherever and whenever we gather, we are the church. And where the church is gathered, what could be more natural than to eat at Christ’s Table?

The objection that always stopped me was 1 Corinthians 11. By observing the Table in an exclusive manner that reinforced division rather than honoring the unity Christ created in His Body, the Corinthian believers heaped up judgment for themselves. For some reason, it seemed to me that the best way to avoid all this would be to reserve the Lord’s Table for an official, called meeting of the church on the Lord’s Day. In that way, there could be no exclusivity — everyone would be welcome, and everyone would know when and where to show up if they wanted to come.

I have come to understand that while that certainly is a way to obey, it is not the way to obey…and it is not, in fact, the way that Paul instructed the Corinthians to proceed. The thing that changed my mind was this: I was talking with a pastor who had originally held my position: save Communion for the church service on Sunday morning only. He spent several years working with an aging congregation, and the experience changed his mind forever. As an increasing number of his congregants were unable to make it to church regularly because of health concerns, inability to drive, or for other age-related reasons, he realized that limiting Communion to the church service did not ensure that everyone could be included — far from it! In fact, his policy effectively excluded the weakest and most helpless members of his congregation from the Table. Convicted, he began to serve the Table in houses, nursing homes, wherever he had to in order to take the Table to everyone in his congregation.

Now, the understanding this man arrived at is actually fairly common in Christendom, which is why you can find a couple of portable communion sets in the back of just about any decent-sized Christian bookstore. But that started me thinking — what better way to avoid reinforcing exclusivity and division within the Body than to observe the Table everywhere, with everyone in the Body? Nothing wrong with doing it in the Sunday service, too — we certainly should — but why only there?

Perhaps there’s a simple set of qualifying questions we could ask. Is the Father with us? He is. Is Christ among us? He is. Is the Spirit here? He is. Well then, if this is our God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — and we are His people, the redeemed, then what could be more appropriate than to lift up our hearts to Him, and to partake of His gifts for His people?

I can hear my high-church friends growling — but what for? When God’s people ascend in worship before Him, we ascend to the Holy of Holies in the heavenly tabernacle, the very throne room of Yahweh — it doesn’t get any higher than that, now does it? And that glorious fact is not in any way dependent on where or when we meet. Heaven is as near to the dankest catacomb as it is to the stateliest cathedral, and glory to God for that.


Neighborhood Sacramentology: What the Table Does

31 March 2013

The first Neighborhood Sacramentology post on the Table considered the priesthood and the validity of the Eucharist, which raised the question of when we ought to observe the Table. The second post enriched the question by recasting it in liturgical terms, and that left us with three questions.
1. What are we doing/representing at the Lord’s Table?
2. How can we do that effectively in a given context?
3. Are there contexts where the Table should or should not be observed?

This post will tackle that first question.

Whether in a high-church Anglican service in Canterbury Cathedral or a secret meeting of a Chinese house church in a nondescript apartment in Beijing, the Lord’s Table will be the highlight of Christian worship around the world today, and rightly so.

On this day, we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

A human being died, was buried, and on the third day, and was raised to new and incorruptible life.

But so what? It was 2000 years ago, in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire, and nobody’s successfully done it since. Other than being a candidate for Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, what does it have to do with me?

Nothing at all…unless somehow, I could participate in it. If the same thing could happen to me, then the resurrection of Christ is not just a historical oddity. It’s proof that new life and immortality await whoever follows in His footsteps, whoever partakes of Christ.

This is Paul’s point in Romans 6. We who believe in Christ participate with Him in His death and resurrection, and because He is raised, we also are raised to new life. Hebrews shows us Christ as our forerunner, the High Priest who leads us into the Presence behind the veil of the heavenly Tabernacle, going before us, whose ministry never fades because He always lives to intercede for us.

When we come into the Presence in worship, we find Him there ahead of us, blessing and breaking the bread and pouring the wine. “This is My body,” He says, and “This is My blood.” There in the throne room of His Father, He invites us to His victory feast: “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has everlasting life, and I will raise him up on the last day, for My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in Him.”

You are what you eat. We who eat and drink Christ are Christ’s Body, His hands and feet released into the world to do the works that He did, and greater works still. As the bread and wine are broken down and incorporated into our bodies, so He is incorporated into our hearts, as the Eucharistic exhortation also says: “Feed on Him in your hearts by faith, and with thanksgiving.”

This is what the Table does, and what the Table represents.

Christ is risen! Alleluia!


Neighborhood Sacramentology: The Table

17 February 2013

Throughout church history, Our People have discussed the Eucharist. It is one of the central, defining rituals of the Christian faith. In a modern seminary education — at least in my tribe — the conversation ranged around the exact relationship of Christ to the elements (trans- or consubstantiation, memorial, something else). In other tribes, the important question is who may validly administer the rite. Usually, which topics come up for discussion is a function of historical situation.

In my previous teaching on this subject, there were some important issues that never came up for consideration. At that time, I was pastoring a small church plant in Hemet, California. The rite would be administered by me, at the church service, which took place at 10:00 Sunday morning in the Abbott family living room — all that was a given.

Our questions had to do with how often we should observe it and (to a lesser extent) on what was going on in the Eucharist. We settled on weekly, and on an understanding that could fairly be described as some species of real presence.

I now find myself revisiting the topic, not to re-examine those conclusions, but to raise another set of questions that did not arise back then.

Who may validly administer the Eucharist?

Historically, the church has seen administering the Table as an exercise of spiritual authority. Historically, it has been an exercise of spiritual authority, because the Church has almost always fenced the Table. If the Church is responsible for deciding who may or may not eat at Christ’s Table, then administering the Eucharist obviously has to be an act of authority, and that means training, selection, some sort of vetting process, and public recognition of passing that process — in other words, some form of ordination. Suddenly we have to rely on the elders or the clergy or someone like that to administer the Table.

But what if that’s not the case? What if it’s not the Church’s job to control access to Christ’s Table, lest some unworthy varlet get away with a wafer? I am not advocating a radically open Table in the Anabaptist sense, but rather a Table at which Christians simply invite fellow believers to partake and warn all comers that because Christ is really present, He will be present for blessing or for cursing according to the faith of the receiver. In other words, what if our basic orientation — obviously scandalous cases aside — is that we don’t decide for people, we call on them to decide for themselves?

In that case, the question is no longer “Who has the authority to permit or deny access to the Table?” The question is, “Who may stand in the place of Christ and issue His invitation to the Table?”

Well, Christian baptism is priestly ordination — a point we have discussed elsewhere — so on the face of it, any baptized believer is an ordained priest. Therefore, any baptized believer may stand in the place of Christ to invite God’s people to His table. That puts a whole different complexion on the subject, doesn’t it?

If any baptized believer can validly administer the Table, then that raises another question. When should we observe the Eucharist? We are no longer limited to times and places where priests/pastors are summoning up their clerical mojo in a formal church meeting. If any believer can do it, we have to address whether someone ought to be breaking out the bread and wine at Friday night Psalm sings, at hospital beds, at baby showers…What are the criteria?

To be honest, I’m still working on that one. By next time, I hope to have something productive to say about it.