Stewarding our communion

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 13-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary thereafter.

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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To offer ourselves

Click here to listen to the audio of this 7-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary thereafter.

Romans 12:1-2a:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

This passage offers us two sets of verbs:

  • Offer, sacrifice, worship – which speak to giving ourselves to God
  • Transform, renew – which speak to an inward-focused process

The passage also offers us two nouns:

  • Our bodies – which speaks to the embodied being that we are, crafted from clay and in-breathed by God’s Spirit
  • Our minds – which speaks to the immaterial being that we are, mind, emotion, thought, spirit

Together, these two verbs and these two nouns call us towards a complete offering of ourselves – a surrender, a relinquishment – to God.

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Feature image from https://www.patheos.com/blogs/emergentvillage/2013/03/off-the-cliff-of-surrender/

To be one

Click here to listen to the audio of this 26-minute message . Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary that follows. (This is a longer than usual message, because the topic is rather difficult. I hope you will not be deterred by its length.)

John 17 presents Jesus’ “High Priestly Prayer”, which takes place just before Jesus’ arrest and execution. In it Jesus prays for himself, for his disciples, and then for all believers who are to come, including you and me. It is a beautiful prayer that reveals to us the heart of Jesus – well worth reading.

In this message, I focus on just four verses (11b, 20-23):

Holy Father, protect them [my disciples] by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one … My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

A few thoughts on this passage:

  • Four times Jesus speaks about the oneness and unity of Christians. This can be regarded as the central theme of his prayer in John 17.
  • Verse 21 emphasises that our relationship with God (the vertical relationship) is primary and is the foundation of church unity (the horizontal relationship).
  • Verse 22 refers to “the glory that you gave me”. Scholars have long debated what this ‘glory’ refers to. There is good reason to think Jesus is here referring (again) to the Holy Spirit, who occupied much of the previous chapters.
  • Verses 21 and 23 refer to the world: that they may believe/know that God sent Jesus. The unity of Christians is not an end in itself, but the ground that produces the fruit of the world seeing God at work, thus of evangelism.
  • Verse 23 says that God loves the world as much as God loves the Son. This is a profound revelation of God’s extravagant love for the world, reminding us of John 3:16.

Despite Jesus’ marvellous vision and prayer for the unity of the Church, the sad reality is that the church is anything but unified. Denominations fracture and split; independent churches spring up constantly; even local parishes are disunified and in conflict. It does not appear that we are one as God the Father and the God the Son are one. A few thoughts on this:

  • Churches may diverge due to different practices, particularly around worship. Most Christians think about how Sunday services run and whether they like how we do things – whether we raise our hands, whether we have an organ or band, whether we use a set liturgy, whether the choir is up front or at the back, how long the sermons are, etc.
  • Given that Jesus emphasises our vertical relationship with God, and given that each relationship is different because each person is different, it seems to me that worship practices are not that important. It is probably better to attend a church where your relationship with God grows than to attend a church whose practices leave you cold.
  • Churches may diverge due to different doctrine. Some Christians may not worry or think too much about doctrine, but for many, doctrine – what we believe – is important. Churches split over their understanding of the role of Holy Spirit, over the gender of God, over the Trinity, over our sequencing of the end times.
  • We should think about and hold to certain beliefs – understanding of Truth was important in Jesus’ teachings, throughout the scriptures and to the early church. It should be important to us also. However, we should have the humility to recognise that our understanding Truth is flawed, limited, incomplete and quite possibly wrong. God knows the Truth; what we know as ‘truth’ is mere limited understanding, like peaking into a palace through a keyhole – we see just fragments of the riches within.
  • Currently the church is fracturing around our understanding of the place of LGBTQI+ people within the life of the church. In my own denomination – the Anglican communion – we have churches that see diverse human sexualities as anathema and others who see sexuality as unregulated by God. People’s feelings about sexuality run very deep and lead to pain exclusions of and judgmentalism towards LGBTQI+ people.
  • While many today have very strong feelings about these issues, Jesus did not. He had very strong feelings about love, about inclusion and about reaching out to those on the margins of society. He never talked about sexual orientation; but he talked incessantly about love. It is heartbreaking that the church should so forget how to love one another, when this is the central teaching of our Lord.

Many Christians are distressed at the proliferation of different churches. I’m not. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul writes about the Body of Christ, the Church, and emphasises the diversity of the body and that diversity is good and necessary for the functioning of the whole. He gives particular emphasis to cherishing those parts of the body that people may regard as immodest, unpresentable, shameful. Paul stresses that in God’s eyes, these parts are as much necessary and beloved as those parts that people are happy to show off. Every part of the Body of Christ is necessary. Paul is emphasising how to maintain a sense of unity in the church together with all its diversity.

Let us not worry about the different churches, no matter how different they may be to us. Let us rather be sure to regard them as our sisters, our brothers, beloved by Christ and part of our own body.

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