Stewarding our communion

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Last Sunday we started a four-part series on stewardship, which I defined as taking care of the things that God has entrusted to each of us. Last week, we started with stewarding ourselves. Today, we reflect on stewarding our communion. And over the following two Sundays we’ll talk about stewarding our things and our world.

By stewarding our communion, I am meaning stewarding our church – particularly the local church of which you are member. I’ve deliberately used the term ‘communion’ rather than ‘church’, because ‘church’ too easily makes us think of the institution of the church – the denomination, its rules and statements of belief, its structures and hierarchies, and so on. While these are important, I’d like us to focus more on our fellowship, our community, our communion. Today, we reflect on how we create, nurture and sustain a communion of believers, focused on God and on God’s work.

Acts 2:42-47 provides a potent and familiar description of the early church:

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

As you read this passage, and as we reflect on its themes, consider your own church and to what extent it evidences these four characteristics:

  • Fellowship. The early church was characterised by close fellowship between the believers. We see this in the following words from the text: fellowship, were together, meet together, and ate together.
  • Regularity. The members of the church fellowshipped together; not now and then, occasionally or sporadically, but regularly. Notice these words from the Acts passage: devoted, every day, and daily.
  • Inclusivity. The early church was one that welcomed everyone – doors were flung open and all members and newcomers were included. See these phrases: everyone, all the believers, everything, and added to their number those who were being saved.
  • Worship. And the early church focused on and cherished worship or liturgy – this was no social club, but a group focused on building the Kingdom of God. We see this in these phrases: apostles’ teaching, breaking of bread, prayer, wonders and signs, broke bread, and praising God.

How is your local church – your Christian communion, your fellowship – doing on these four characteristics? Covid-19, of course, has made a huge dent in these for many churches. Some have found ways of continuing to gather online. Others have not. Reflect on Covid’s impact on your communion and what this means for the future. But also reflect on how your communion was before Covid, so that we don’t blame Covid for everything.

What does your stewardship of your communion look like?

Perhaps your church is not doing great on these points. What could you do to strengthen this thing of God – the church communion – that God has entrusted into our care – your care? Let me suggest just three key things:

  1. You choose to exercise your own stewardship of your communion. A communion is made up of individuals. You are one of them. Take responsibility for your own engagement with and stewardship of your communion. Too often we are waiting for the clergy or church leadership to do things. Let each of us take responsibility for our own stewarding of the church. If each of us did, we’d be a communion. As Joshua said in 24:15, “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve … as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”
  2. Talk to others in your communion: especially those on the edge, those who feel disillusioned, those who feel alienated, those who have lost hope. Build communion with them, one-on-one, and draw them back into the larger communion.
  3. Pray. Pray without ceasing for your communion, for your church, the fellowship of believers. The communion is the Lord’s. He entrusts it to us for safekeeping and growth; but it is still the Lord’s. Ask the Lord to build the church.

Steward your communion

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Welcome & Reward

Click here to listen to the audio version of this 16-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the summary text that follows.

Matthew 10 presents the narrative of Jesus sending out the 12 disciples to do his work in the world. The chapter is filled with all kinds of dire messages about how difficult this work will be: the disciples will be rejected, beaten, persecuted, threatened by Satan, etc. They are like sheep among wolves. Jesus says that he has not come to bring peace, but a sword, and prophecies deep discord between family members. And finally he says that anyone who loves their family more than him is not worthy of him.

These are tough words! Being a disciple is not fun and games! It is hard, threatening, demanding work. 

By the time we get to verse 40, the disciples were probably feeling rather shattered by what was expected of them and daunted by Jesus’ expectations. But finally, in the last three verses there is a little respite:

“Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.” (Matthew 10:40-42)

There are two messages here: one for the disciples (and all Christian workers) and one for all Christians:

  1. For the disciples (and all Christian workers), there is the encouragement that we will be welcomed by members of the church. The word ‘welcome’ appears six times in two verses. Welcoming suggests at least the following:
    • That Christian workers are embraced warmly by church members, valued, appreciated, encouraged, thanked, etc. This welcome is relational, personal, support.
    • That Christian workers’ subsistence needs are met. This appears particularly in the last verse which refers to “a cup of cold water”. I’m not advocating that Christian workers received sports cars and mansions! Definitely not!! But I am saying that Jesus promises that workers’ needs will be met by the church.
  2. For the Christian who does the welcoming, there is a promise of a reward – when we welcome a Christian worker, we welcome Christ; and when we welcome Christ, we welcome God the Father (and no doubt Holy Spirit also). The reward is not a pat on the back, community recognition or a medal. The reward is the very presence of God!

Finally, we note that Jesus seems to present some kind of hierarchy of Christian workers: the 12 disciples, prophets, righteous persons and little ones who are his disciples. The implication is that all Christians are Christian workers, whether you are an illustrious disciple or prophet, or ‘just’ a humble follower of Christ doing what you can – a ‘little fish’, so to speak. If this is the case – that all followers of Christ, all Christians, are Christian workers – then the welcoming that we do for each other is mutual – we welcome each other.

That means Jesus is describing the whole church as a working and welcoming community.

 

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Love one another

Click here to listen to this 16-minute message.

I have been redeployed from the church I’ve attended for over 20 years (St Martin-in-the-Fields) to a new church, not too far away (St Stephens, Lyttelton) as part of my curacy. Today was the first time I have preached to this new parish, so it was a good opportunity to lay down what is most important to my faith and that what is most prominent in my preaching. And it is this:

God is most essentially and completely LOVE. The three persons of the Godhead (Father, Son and Spirit) have been in eternal relationship with one another since before the creation of time and space. It is the profound love between these three persons that makes the one being. God created time and space out of a fullness of love. God created humanity out of a generosity of love, to be shared. And God’s actions throughout human history embody and describe love. Love that is fierce, generous, extravagant, radically inclusive, steadfast and unshakable.

Today’s reading from John 13:34-35 sets out Jesus’ command to us:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

In this message, I provide the context in which Jesus delivered this message – a context that represents on the crisis points in his ministry, characterised by betrayal, denial and isolation.

And I set out what is ‘new’ about old command to love, viz. the source of our capacity to love and the missional impact of our love for one another.

Let the love of God be the centre of your life.

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Being God’s Beloved: Day 39: The Spirit of Community

The vision that John receives of heaven is of a new community, of a place of whole and reconciled relationships, in which God dwells among the people in intimate fellowship:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21:1-5)

Notice how John uses social metaphors and words to describe what he sees: a city, which is a place where people live together; a bridal couple, which reminds us of Genesis 2:24’s the two “will become one flesh”; dwelling together, emphasising God’s presence in the intimate places where people live; the mutual belonging, which reminds us of chesed (covenant-based loving-kindness); and the passing away of suffering. John’s vision of heaven is a vision of a community!

Right near the end of Revelation we have the great invitation: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come!’ Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life” (Revelation 22:17). Spirit is present with the Father and the Son in inviting us to this great banquet, the heavenly wedding feast, where God sets all things right. This is the future glory that we mentioned yesterday, when we reflected on groaning and hoping in Romans 8.

Paul had a good sense of this Holy City. And he understood that living in the Kingdom of God today means that we should experience some of what was revealed to John. The Holy City has not yet come – we continue to hope and persist until that great and glorious day – but we can and should experience at least some of it today. An appetiser. A foretaste of what is yet to come.

Paul writes most clearly about this in 1 Corinthians, where he speaks into a Christian community that did not look much like a Christian community. The Corinthian church did not embody what John saw in the Holy City, and Paul writes to help them actualise that vision. 1 Corinthians 12 and 13 are particularly illuminating for us, because here Paul writes about Holy Spirit and about love – the two themes that are central to our last reflections in Being God’s Beloved.

1 Corinthians 12 opens with, “Now about spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant.” Apparently, the Corinthians were, in fact, ignorant! Paul wants to set them right. The rest of chapter 12 speaks to the topic of spiritual gifts – wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, tongues and interpretation of tongues. This is one of the key lists of spiritual gifts in the New Testament.

It is clear from reading 1 Corinthians that these gifts were being exercised by the Corinthian Christians. However, it seems that they had misunderstood the purpose of these gifts. They were using them as status symbols, to raise their own egos and to boast their spiritual greatness. Paul needs to set things right. He makes five important points.

First, Paul emphasises the triunity of God, as the theological starting point for understanding gifts in the Christian community: “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord [Christ]. There are different kinds of working, but the same God [Father] works all of them in all men” (1 Corinthians 12:4-6). He writes this to emphasise at least three points:

  1. All spiritual gifts come from God, not from ourselves, as gifts of God. We must remember the origin of all things and the privilege of receiving them.
  2. All three persons of the trinity cooperate in the work of God. The triune God operates as a community – egalitarian, harmonious, in fellowship, sharing, as a partnership. So too should the church.
  3. The diversity of gifts come from the unity of the triune God. As much as there are many different kinds of gifts, they all come from the one God with one purpose.

Second, Paul reminds us of the purpose of the gifts: “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7). Gifts are not for ourselves. They are for the community, and for the good of the community as a whole, as a collective. This is a sobering reminder that we, like Christ, are called to serve: gifted for others, not for ourselves.

Third, Paul emphasises that it is Spirit who distributes the gifts according to his own judgement of who needs what: “All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines” (1 Corinthians 12:11). Gifts are not a free for all. Gifts are not given just because we want them. Rather, Holy Spirit assesses what gifts are required and who requires them, and dispenses them according to his own good judgement.

Fourth, Paul writes at length about the church as a body, having many parts, each with their own unique and invaluable functions, but operating as a unity with a common goal: “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12). This metaphor of the church as the Body of Christ is one of Paul’s great and profoundly insightful contributions to Christian faith and life. Every part of the body, even the “unpresentable” parts, has a vital role and place in the body. The body cannot operate without every part.

This is model of unity in diversity. It is a model of the trinity! As much as God is three-in-one, and as much as a married couple is two-in-one, the church is many-in-one. This theme echoes throughout the pages of scriptures. It is part of God’s eternal plan and vision that we should be diverse individuals united by a common purpose. And so Paul writes, “But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be” (1 Corinthians 12:18). This is God’s vision because this is how God is: three-in-one.

Fifth, in the very next passage, we get the very well-known passage on love: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud” (1 Corinthians 13:4). We hear this so often at weddings that we often think that Paul is here writing about marriage. But while this certainly speaks meaningfully to marriages, in fact, Paul is here writing about the church!

He opens this chapter with the words, “And now I will show you the most excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31). In a church where so many people are chasing after gifts, Paul seeks to remind the Corinthians that there is a much more important path to follow – the path of love. Half of chapter 13 says that gifts without love is worse than useless. The other half emphasises that gifts will pass away, but love never fails. Rather than chasing after gifts, we should chase after love. Rather than chasing after the gifts of the Spirit, we chase after Spirit himself. Rather than chasing after personal ambition, we should chase after loving relationships.

What we really need, says Paul, is the Spirit of Love. If we have him, then we have first prize. Second and third prizes go to faith and hope. But Love is the greatest prize. Love is the thing we should strive after more than anything else. Once we have Love, everything else will fall into place, including spiritual gifts.

Paul’s vision for the church is a community in which love is central, binding together diverse individuals into a united body, centred on Christ and enabled by Holy Spirit. This is also John’s vision of the Holy City. And this is also a vision of the triune God. This is what Spirit is so good at – bringing unity in diversity, cultivating loving fellowship, building communities. We really cannot do it in our own strength. But with Spirit, the Spirit of Love, it becomes possible.

Meditation for the Day

What are things like in your church or your home group? Is it a community that resembles the Trinity? If not, why not? What can you do to form the kind of Christian community that Paul and John write about?

Prayer for the Day

Spirit of Love, Spirit of Fellowship. Work among the members of my church to build us into a community that reflects the love and unity that we see in the triune God.

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Being God’s Beloved: Day 32: The Cross and Community

Jesus is put through a trial and sentenced to death, paraded through the streets of Jerusalem, carrying his cross, battered and torn, mocked and ridiculed. He is nailed to a cross and left to die – a horrible, protracted and excruciating death. What an end to a man of peace, love and forgiveness. What an end to the Son of God, God incarnate. It is unthinkable, unimaginable, unspeakable.

Hanging there, Jesus looks at those who gathered to watch. He is not so wrapped up in his pain and anguish as to be disconnected from the world around him. John 19:25-27 tells us that Jesus looked down and saw his mother. And he saw the disciple whom he loved, John. We reflected on Day 28 on what it means when Jesus ‘sees’ people. When Jesus sees you, he really sees into you, he sees the authentic and whole you. On the cross, Jesus looks and he sees his mother and he sees John. Even at such an extreme point of his suffering and humiliation, Jesus continues to see people. He is persistently turned outwards, expressing love for those around him. Jesus transcends his own suffering and connects with the suffering of someone else.

And seeing into his mother, Mary, he sees her not just as his ‘Mum’, but as a human being, as a beloved person, as someone’s mother, as someone who will become for many the supreme example of motherhood. And so he calls her “woman”. This is not a cold or impersonal address. It is not like saying, “Hey, you”. It is Jesus speaking to the human being who is called Mary. He speaks not so much as her personal son, but as her personal Creator. And as Creator, he recognises her anguish as she witnesses the life drain out of her son. And it is to that grief that he responds with love.

It reminds me of Psalm 139 and Jeremiah 1:5, where we learn that God knew us before we were born, before we were even conceived:

O Lord, you have searched me and you know me.

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,
your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
(Psalm 139: 1, 13, 15-16)

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I set you apart;
I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.
(Jeremiah 1:5)

God has a picture of us in God’s heart, God’s mind; a picture of our authentic self, much loved. We are all individuals to God, occupying a unique and sacred space in God’s heart; each one beloved.

As Jesus hangs dying on the cross, he sees this woman, who is his mother, and his heart is moved with compassion. He was there when she was knit together in her mother’s womb, preparing her for the great task of bearing the Christ in her own womb. He knew her intimately and fully as a child of God, and he loved her.

God is always present to bind up the broken hearted and to carry those who are weak. The events of Good Friday through Easter Sunday are the darkest and most horrific experiences in the life of the triune God. And yet even here, God the Son, operating in harmony with God the Father and God the Spirit, invests in the expression of love. This is because love is at the heart of God. The very fabric of God’s being is comprised of love. God can do nothing but love – love is an expression of being of God.

Let us be in no doubt that God looks at us. And when God looks at us, God sees us. And when God sees us, God still loves us. If this is true at Jesus’ lowest point, at the bottom of the kenotic U that we looked at on Day 20, how much more is it today, when Jesus is dwelling in perfection within the bosom of the Godhead? God looks, sees and loves. God cherishes and celebrates the individual that you are, a unique and beloved creature, a blessed creation emanating from the hand of God. God sees you and God loves you.

But there is more.

As Jesus looks down from the cross, as his life ebbs away, he sees also a broken community.[1] His disciples have scattered. Judas has betrayed him for a handful of coins. Peter has denied him. His movement for peace and love, for spiritual regeneration, has been shattered. His community is a fallen community. Sin, once again, impedes God’s wonderful vision for a flourishing human community.

We saw on Day 4 of our reflections that God created a community of people, people-in-relationship, rather than merely two individuals. God was interested in community, because God is a community: three-in-one. God did not wish to create merely individual persons. God’s desire was to create people in relationship with one another, with creation and with God, so that we could experience the same joy of fellowship that God had enjoyed for eternity.

On that Friday, community was once again fractured.

Community was first shattered in the Fall of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3. Both Adam and Eve were evicted from the Garden of Eden – a shattering of fellowship with God. The relationship between Adam and Eve became one of dominance and subordination – a shattering of fellowship with each other. Eve suffered in childbirth – a shattering of fellowship with one’s body. Adam had to toil to produce fruit from the ground – a shattering of fellowship with nature. The result of the Fall is, primarily, a shattering of community.

We see these results to this day in the spiritual apathy of much of the world, showing so little interest in God; in domestic violence, rape and child abuse; in psychological problems like anxiety, depression and schizophrenia; in illnesses like cancer, tuberculosis and HIV; in the prolonged wars in Africa, the Middle East and Ireland; and in the negative impact of human civilisation on climate. Sin manifests in broken community.

But Jesus, in his dying moments, works to re-create community, to turn back the effects of sin, to undo evil and death. He creates a new family.

Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Dear woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home. (John 19:25-27)

John is Jesus’ best friend. Mary is Jesus’ mother. These are the building blocks of community – friendship and family, kith and kin. And Jesus unites these two by giving his mother another son and by giving his friend a new mother. He could just as well have said, “Dear woman, dear man, you are family.”

“At the darkest moment, we see this community coming into being at the foot of the cross.”[2]

Can we think of this as part of the Great Commission? Can we consider this to be part of Jesus’ last will and testament? To re-establish communities. Can we, in our neighbourhoods and our churches and our workplaces, participate with Christ in crossing the social barriers that divide? Can Christians reach out to Muslims? Can straight Christians reach out to gay people? Can male Christians reach out to women? Can wealthy Christians reach out to those who are poor? Can white Christians reach out to black Christians and vice versa? Can Christians step across the boundaries to encounter those who are different from ourselves?

Imagine if Jesus came in the flesh to your community, and saw you and someone who is unlike you, someone you’d rather have little to do with, and said to you both, “Here is your mother. Here is your son.” Surely, if Jesus said that to you, you would, like John, take that person into your home. You would take them in as family. You would form a family. You would discover in your heart the capacity for boundary-crossing love, for free and generous love. If Jesus came in the flesh and said this, you would do it, wouldn’t you? How could you do anything else?

The truth is, Jesus has come in the flesh, and he has actually said this. He has called us to cross boundaries and to establish Christian families, where there is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for [we] are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). This is a community that mirrors the community we see in the triune God, a community of love.

Meditation for the Day

Consider the extent of God’s love for you, even in his darkest hour. Consider that he has the same love for those whom you find unlovely. What does it mean for you that Jesus worked on the cross to re-establish community?

Prayer for the Day

My God, the reconciler, fill me today with such an excess of your love, that I cannot but love those around me. Give me courage to step across boundaries.

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[1] Radcliffe, T. (2004). Seven last words. London: Burns & Oates, pp. 33-36.

[2] Radcliffe, p. 33.