Fellow-workers

Our church is at the end of a week-long Day Camp, ‘Kids’ Kapers’, that we run in co-operation with another local congregation, Crosslife Church. All week long volunteers and kids have been having fun exploring the story of Jonah together. I’m only marginally involved – I lead a ‘circle prayer’ at the end of opening devotions every day – but I’m mightily impressed by all the work the volunteers are putting in. Clearing the chairs out of the sanctuary to make room for the program. Preparing stories and songs and materials and food. Being at the church for hours and hours every day. Dealing with joyful kids and difficult kids. I’m privileged to be with these ‘fellow-workers’ in Christ.

I was struck again this week in my daily Bible reading by Paul’s sense of fellowship with those who share in the work of the gospel. The Letter to the Romans concludes with one of his longest ever ‘greetings’ section, quoted here in the New Living Translation:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a deacon in the church in Cenchrea. Welcome her in the Lord as one who is worthy of honor among God’s people. Help her in whatever she needs, for she has been helpful to many, and especially to me.

Give my greetings to Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in the ministry of Christ Jesus. In fact, they once risked their lives for me. I am thankful to them, and so are all the Gentile churches. Also give my greetings to the church that meets in their home.

Greet my dear friend Epenetus. He was the first person from the province of Asia to become a follower of Christ. Give my greetings to Mary, who has worked so hard for your benefit. Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews, who were in prison with me. They are highly respected among the apostles and became followers of Christ before I did. Greet Ampliatus, my dear friend in the Lord. Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ, and my dear friend Stachys.

Greet Apelles, a good man whom Christ approves. And give my greetings to the believers from the household of Aristobulus. Greet Herodion, my fellow Jew. Greet the Lord’s people from the household of Narcissus. Give my greetings to Tryphena and Tryphosa, the Lord’s workers, and to dear Persis, who has worked so hard for the Lord. Greet Rufus, whom the Lord picked out to be his very own; and also his dear mother, who has been a mother to me.

Give my greetings to Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers and sisters who meet with them. Give my greetings to Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and to Olympas and all the believers who meet with them. Greet each other with a sacred kiss. All the churches of Christ send you their greetings.

A couple of things strike me about this passage. First, Paul had never visited the church in Rome, but he knew so many people there! In those days there was no Facebook or Twitter, no telephone and not even a reliable mail service! And yet Christians across the Mediterranean world knew each other; they knew each other’s names, they obviously travelled and had fellowship with each other, and they shared warm affectionate for each other as they cooperated in the work of Christ.

And that leads me to the second thing. There’s very little mention of official titles in this passage, beyond the brief note that Andronicus and Junia were ‘highly respected among the apostles’. We know that the early churches did have a simple structure: a team of elders to give oversight and care to the congregation. They probably weren’t paid and they certainly weren’t ‘lone wolves’. But the word ‘presbyter’ (elder) is never mentioned here. The most common word is simply ‘worker’ or ‘fellow-worker’. ‘Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers’ (and I love the fact that they have a church meeting in their home!). ‘Mary, who has worked so hard for your benefit’. ‘Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ’. ‘…Tryphena and Tryphosa, the Lord’s workers’. ‘Persis, who has worked so hard for the Lord’.

I think ‘fellow-worker’ is one of Paul’s favourite terms for his fellow-Christians. There’s no mention of priest or laity, educated or uneducated. All are members of the Body of Christ. All can share in the work of Christ. Yes, elders provide care and leadership, but they are also simply ‘fellow-workers’.

In the modern church there are often debates about ordination, what constitutes a valid ordination, how we raise the money to pay these full-time ordained people and so on. I don’t see these debates in the early church. If you are a baptized Christian, filled with the Holy Spirit, then you are a fellow-worker with Paul and the others. Christ has a job for you to do, and you’ll find your greatest joy in doing it. It might be as simple as making the coffee and treats. It might be to share your faith story with others, or to be a listening ear for those who need it, or to guide children as they grow in Christ, or to give careful attention to the stewardship of the church’s finances.

No matter how big or small the job, we are workers together in Christ. In the end, hierarchical titles aren’t that important. The important thing is that we listen to the call of Jesus, and follow him joyfully together.

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Godly Sorrow

Seven-and-Neelix-seven-of-nine-30912665-500-382For your Monday morning edification: pastoral theology with Seven of Nine. (‘Star Trek: Voyager’ Season 6 Episode 14 ‘Memorial”)

NEELIX: Seven? When you were a Borg, you were involved in some unpleasant activities.

SEVEN: I helped to assimilate millions.

NEELIX: I don’t mean to be insensitive, but do you ever feel shame about what you did?

SEVEN: Frequently.

NEELIX: How to you manage to keep going, knowing that you’ve done such horrible things?

SEVEN: I have no choice.

NEELIX: Guilt is irrelevant?

SEVEN: On the contrary. My feelings of remorse help me remember what I did, and prevent me from taking similar actions in the future. Guilt can be a difficult, but useful, emotion.

I have been reflecting on this dialogue ever since Marci and I watched it on Saturday night. I have thought for a long time that much popular Christian spirituality has been heavily influenced by pop psychology from the sixties, that sees guilt as entirely negative. And indeed false guilt can be negative and manipulative. But not all guilt is false. Paul talks about a godly sorrow that leads to repentance. I should not try to escape from that guilt. I should listen to it, and fix what needs to be fixed.

On Starting with Jesus

Rant ahead. I think of Anglican Christianity as being rather fixated on the idea that God became a human being and lived among us in Jesus (the ‘Incarnation’). This is the centre of our faith. It’s why we stand for the reading of the Gospel every Sunday. We don’ do that for any other reading of the Bible, and we certainly don’t do it for the sermon – but we do it for the Gospel reading. Heck, some of my Anglo-Catholic friends bow every time the name of Jesus is mentioned!

So I can take for granted that when I read John 1.18 – ‘No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known’ – Anglican heads are going to be nodding. As Archbishop Michael Ramsey said, “In God there is no unChristlikeness at all”. That’s what we believe.

Okay then! I’ve been researching confirmation courses and inquirers’ courses produced in the Anglican family (this is because I want to revise my [now out-of-print] 2003 book ‘Starting at the Beginning’). And here’s what I found! Some of the confirmation courses have great long screeds about the church and the sacraments, how to pray and so on, but they barely mention the story of Jesus at all! The best known inquirers’ course, the Alpha Course, simply assumes that people already know the story of Jesus, and just starts asking doctrinal questions about him: Who was he? Why did he have to die? etc.

Is this a responsible way for us to provide basic instruction about our faith in 2018? I know a lot of non-churchgoing people, and most of them are very unfamiliar with the story of Jesus. They certainly don’t have access to the background knowledge they need to help them understand the story (they don’t for instance, know what the word ‘Christ’ means, which is rather fundamental – if you don’t know that, you’ll certainly miss the point).

Surely, in 2018, anything claiming to be an inquirers’ course or confirmation course ought to be firmly based on the story of Jesus? Surely it ought to begin by re-telling that story, and exploring why his life and teaching is so important for us?

The worldwide Anglican Communion is currently emphasizing discipleship; they’re calling it ‘living and sharing the Jesus-shaped life’. So what shape is that, again? I ask, because recently two well-known Anglican bishops have each issued a suggested ‘rule of life’ to help their people follow Jesus more closely. But I haven’t seen much acknowledgement that Jesus has actually already given us a rule of life; we can find it in the Great Commandments (Mark 12:28-32), the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20), and the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), among other places.

What would a Jesus-centred Rule of Life look like? Surely it would begin with the idea of seeking first the Kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33), and then explore the practical ways Jesus gave us to live that out. Things like avoiding anger and practicing reconciliation, being faithful in marriage, telling the truth at all times, turning the other cheek, loving our enemies and praying for those who hate us, practising prayer, fasting and giving to the poor, not storing up luxuries for ourselves, not judging others, and doing to others as we would have them do to us (see Matthew chapters 5 – 7).

What I want is a course about basic Christianity that is intentionally centred on the life and teaching of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. We want people to come to know God. We believe that God is most clearly revealed to us in Jesus. So why isn’t our basic Christian instruction focussed, to the point of obsession, with the life and teaching of Jesus?

Note to self: We need to do better.

 

 

 

Book Review: Donald C. Posterski: ‘True to You: Living Our Faith in our Multi-Minded World’ (Wood Lake Books, 1995).

35659952_10156956550960400_7003163623187021824_nDon Posterski died last week (see this tribute from Tyndale College in Toronto). Don was the author of a number of excellent books and the news of his death has prompted me to revisit one or two of them. ‘True to You’ is my first ‘revisit’.

This is a book about living as a faithful Christian in Canada today. Note: I say ‘today’, but the book was written in 1995 and uses many illustrations that were contemporary at the time. The pace of social change has not been slow in the intervening years; same-sex marriage is legal now, and so is assisted dying, and many more Christians have made their peace with these realities than would have been the case in 1995.

Nonetheless, the topic is still a vital one. Older Canadians can remember a time when Christianity was the assumed frame of reference for questions of truth and morality in our society, but that is no longer the case. So what does it mean to be a faithful Christian in this strange new world? Or, as Don Posterski puts it:

  1. ‘How can we live peaceably and productively with our increasing diversity?
  2. ‘How can we construct a society that allows us to live with strong convictions while giving others the prerogative to do the same?
  3. ‘As God’s people, active in our different denominations and religious traditions, are there ways for us to understand and even appreciate our differences so that we can celebrate our common faith commitments?’

Two classification systems reappear regularly in this book, and I found them quite helpful. The first was taken from an Angus Reid poll about religious preferences conducted in Canada in 1994. it uses four broad categories:

  1. Committed participants (those who attend church weekly and are likely to help make it happen)
  2. Conditional participants (those who attend, but less often, and are less likely to get involved in other ways)
  3. Cultural Christians (those who claim a Christian identity but do not participate in organized religion)
  4. Religious ‘nones’ (‘no religious affiliation).

Percentages will have changed since 1994, but at that time two-thirds of Canadians claimed the ‘cultural Christian’ category. Posterski points out, however, that their actual values and practices were virtually indistinguishable from the ‘nones’.

The other classification system addresses how practising Christians respond to their current marginalization in western society.

  1. Reclaimers want to turn the clock back to the good old days when this was a ‘Christian country’.
  2. Tribalisers want to be sure there its room in society for their views and choices, but their approach to those who disagree with them is very confrontational (in 2018 North America, one can see very clearly just how nasty tribalism – and tribal loyalty – can be).
  3. Accommodators enthusiastically embrace divergence but have very little to offer in terms of distinctive beliefs and practices.
  4. Cocooners disengage from any real involvement with concerns that affect public life.
  5. Collaborators are quite prepared to give other people the room to be true to themselves, but are also assertive in claiming that right for themselves as well.

The seven chapters of the book go on to examine the issues raised by diversity in modern Canadian society. In Chapter Two Posterski defines different forms of pluralism: ideological pluralism is an enemy of faith, but cultural pluralism (everyone is entitled to believe and practice their own convictions) is a friend of faith. In Chapter Three he attempts to outline some common values and commitments for modern Canadian society (personally, I found this the least helpful chapter of the book). In the remaining chapters he explores what he calls ‘principled pluralism’ and what it would look like, both in terms of how Christians should live and how society as a whole should make space for people of differing convictions. One of his more telling observations is that toleration for different viewpoints in modern Canada is easily extended to those who do not believe in clearly defined beliefs and morals (tolerance for the tolerant), but is not so easily extended to people of clear conviction, who are often seen as ‘intolerant’ and are therefore not tolerated!

The conclusion suggests a program for Christians who want to exercise both conviction and compassion.

  1. Trust God and follow Christ – keep saying ‘yes’ to Jesus’ invitation to ‘come unto me’.
  2. Be true to yourself: know what you believe, who you are, and how you aspire to behave.
  3. Give regard to others. ‘Rooted in the security of their own convictions, God’s people extend compassion to others who are different from themselves…They realize that, rather than coercing creation, God gives people choices; they aim to treat people like God treats people’.
  4. Relinquish rights for the common good. God’s people know that a society cannot be built exclusively on diversity; ‘beyond the requirement to live within the boundaries of the criminal code, all citizens must be willing to sacrifice private desires for shared public goals’.
  5. Fly your flag in the pluralism parade. A democratic society invites its citizens to participate and to influence public policy; we can take advantage of that right, while also respecting the rights of others to do the same.
  6. Love and lobby. We are called both to live a life of love and to lobby for the ways of God, in answer to Jesus’ prayer ‘Your will be done on earth as in heaven’.

Despite the fact that its statistic and illustrations are now somewhat dated, I found this a very helpful book. Posterski believed that it was possible for Christians to be true to their own convictions and yet also respectful of the convictions of others. He believed that Canadian society could and should be a place where different convictions are respected and welcomed in the public square. Not all Canadians believe this, and neither do all Christians, today as in 1994. But this book gives solid suggestions for positive Christian life and witness in the context of our modern pluralistic society. I highly recommend it.

2018 Random Lent Thought #33: Perseverance

“But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop” (Luke 8:15 NIV).

I am not very good at persevering. I am much, much better at starting well and then giving up.

I can begin a new discipline enthusiastically, and be sustained by that enthusiasm for a few days. But then boredom sets in – or the desire to relax and have a good (or easier) time – and so I fall away. This is why so many of my efforts to grow spiritually have failed.

That’s probably why I love this word ‘perseverance’ so much (in the NRSV it  is translated ‘patient endurance’). ‘Patience’ and ‘perseverance’ go together. Patience helps me remember that the crop will not be produced overnight; everything good and worthwhile takes time to grow and mature. So it makes no sense to give up overnight. I need to persevere – to ‘keep on keeping on’ – even when the discipline gets hard, even when I get discouraged at the slowness of the growth.

Perseverance in what? According to verse 15, it’s perseverance in hearing and retaining the word of God. In Luke 8:21 Jesus adds ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice’. I love the double meaning of ‘practice’ in English! It can mean ‘doing’ something as opposed to just ‘thinking about it’ – but it can also mean ‘doing it over and over again so that I can get better at it’ (which is how we form a habit). Both these understandings are vital parts of perseverance. So I hear the word of God through Jesus – I realize I’m being called to a new holy practice – I decide how to do it, and then I intentionally do it over and over again until I get better at it, until it becomes habitual, until it’s part of who I am.

I think the motivation for perseverance comes from keeping our goal in mind. Our goal is to see Jesus face to face and be transformed into his likeness. This is the big, overarching goal and it’s worth every ounce of effort we put into it. But of course there are smaller goals we establish as well, in the context of this big goal. By keeping our goals in mind we can motivate ourselves to persevere.

I’m getting better at persevering, but I’m still a long way from where I would like to be. Lent is nearly over. Lord, help us all to persevere with the good changes we have been practising through this holy season. Amen.

2018 RLT #32: Loyalty

Sorry the RLTs have been a little more sparse in the past couple of days; life has interfered a bit!

One of the key texts for Lent is surely these words of Jesus: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34b).

In the Christian church we have a long history of spiritualizing this text. We’ve sometimes done it by broadening the definition of the ‘cross’ to include any suffering that we’re called on to bear. So my cancer is the cross I have to bear, or my difficult relationship with my spouse, or the loss of my job, etc. etc. Another way we’ve done it is to understand ‘deny themselves’ either in terms of ‘saying no to yourself (i.e. turning away from self-will and submitting to the will of God), or even to understand it as ‘to deny things to yourself’ (giving up coffee for Lent etc.).

I’m sure there’s plenty of spiritual fruit in these approaches. I do think, though, that they do not reflect the meaning the words originally had. Mark wrote his gospel for Christians in Rome who were being persecuted by the Roman empire. They were being arrested, taken before the magistrates, and given the choice of denying Jesus or dying in horrible ways. In this context, let’s pay attention to the whole passage, not just verse 34:

‘Then Jesus called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:34-38, NIV 2011. Note that in Greek the words translated ‘life’ and ‘soul’ are the same).

The original meaning is stark and challenging. You have been brought before the magistrates and you have two choices: you can deny Jesus and live, or you can deny yourself and die a horrible death. Taking up the cross means literally that: being willing to be seen as a rebel and a traitor to the empire because of your allegiance to Jesus, and being willing to die for that. Taking up the cross does not mean crucifying lust or selfishness or greed – at least, not originally. It means being willing to be publicly identified as a follower of Jesus, and if that means suffering and death, being willing for that to happen, just as Jesus followed his Father’s will and was crucified for it.

So this Lent thought challenges our ultimate allegiance. Let no one give an easy answer here. Peter was faced with this issue a few chapters later, in the middle of the night before Jesus died. He confidently predicted that even though all the other disciples would abandon Jesus, he would never do so, and yet a few hours later he denied Jesus three times. So let’s not say with shallow self-confidence ‘Though none go with me, still I will follow’. Rather, let’s be aware of our own weakness, and pray for the strength to give our allegiance to Jesus, to live it out day by day, to be willing to be publicly identified as his follower, and if necessary, to suffer for it.

Most of us in the western world are not going to be executed for our faith. The price we pay, though occasionally still a challenge, will be much less serious than that. All the more reason for us to be willing to stand up and be counted as followers of Jesus, to be unafraid to live by his teaching, and not to be dissuaded from it when folks around us are not jumping for joy about it.

2018 RLT #30: Rich Toward God

‘Someone in the crowd said to (Jesus), “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”

‘Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”

‘And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’

‘“Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’

‘“But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’

‘“This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”’ (Luke 12:13-21 NIV2011)

Jesus sandwiches this parable between two powerful and categorical statements. The first is a warning to be on our guard against all kinds of greed, because ‘life does not consist in an abundance of possessions’. Today, of course, there is a powerful advertising industry dedicated to convincing me that that’s exactly what life consists of (not to mention politicians who tell is it’s our patriotic duty to consume more and more in the service of the false god of The Economy). This all ties in to the idolatry of my greed; the delusional state in which I think, “I’ll be happy if I can just have…” (insert your own preferred next purchase here). This is delusional, because none of the stuff we’ve bought so far has made us happy; it’s just made us more fixated on burglar alarms.

Jesus addresses this issue by setting it in the context of eternity. When we meet our Maker face to face, the size of the bank account our relatives are fighting over won’t make a blind bit of difference. But there are things we can focus on, right now, that will make a huge difference on that day: loving God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving our neighbour as ourselves. This is true wealth, Jesus says; this is what he means at the end by ‘being rich toward God’.

So Jesus ends with the second categorical statement: “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.” God, please help me not just to think about this, but to practice it: not to accumulate more and more stuff, but to focus on the things that truly matter in the light of eternity. Amen.