Month: September 2008

Why I will not endorse a candidate for president

Well, it looks like some pastors spiced up their sermons a little yesterday by endorsing (or disparaging) a candidate for President of the United States.  The pastors are part of an attempt to challenge the IRS rules on what non-profits can do regarding a political campaign.  Is that really smart?  I mean, the IRS has a gadzillion lawyers and, of course, unlimited resources to enforce their regulations.  Talk about David and Goliath, and I’m not sure this David even has a slingshot.

So, I won’t be endorsing anybody for president this year (or any year) because I think it’s a really dumb thing to do.  First, you alienate all of the members who are not voting for the candidate you endorse.  Awkward at best.  Secondly, the IRS yanks your tax-exempt, and charitable contribution ticket.  That means that your members can no longer deduct their tithes and offerings from their income tax.  While I realize that is not why we give, it can impact how much people give.  So, big disadvantage if you’re in a building program or have a healthy-size budget.  

Finally, we’re pastors, not politicians.   Don’t we read in the New Testament that some of the religious leaders in Jesus’ day forgot they were pastors, priests, and prophets, and became politicians?  And, finally, finally, I’m tired of pastors who are so naive that they get used by somebody’s political machine, which is exactly what happens everytime.

So, I won’t be endorsing anybody for anything this year.  What do you think?  Do you agree or disagree with the actions of this group of pastors?  Why or why not?  Should be interesting….

Innovation’s Top 5 Traits

Outreach magazine publishes an issue each year featuring the most innovative churches in America.   These churches aren’t just big ones either, and the editors are looking for small churches that do things in an innovative way.  What makes the difference in an innovative church and everybody else?  These five things:

  1. New eyes.  Innovative churches see things differently.  They dissect situations, problems, concerns, and programs to get to the core.  They ask the difficult questions like “Why are we doing this?” and “How can we do this better?”  
  2. New opportunities.  Everybody saw the internet, and most churches built websites.  But saw the internet as core to their mission, and developed a whole set of tools around the idea that people could actually connect to their church online first.  Maybe some other church did it first, but created a model others could adopt.
  3. New approaches.  I’m reading Mark DeYmaz book, Building A Healthy Multi-Ethnic Church.  Mark shows others how multi-ethnic congregations are intentional, not accidental, and gives concrete principles to guide new or existing congregations toward inclusion and diversity.  
  4. New expressions.  Jonny Baker posts about new worship tricks” regularly.  Tall Skinny Kiwi writes about their new social enterprise called The Sorting Room.  Other churches are taking drama to the streets, living as neighbors with the poor, and expressing faith in new ways.  
  5. New permission.   Innovators give the rest of us permission to follow their lead.  They take the risk for blazing the trail, and the rest of us can follow or modify their efforts.  But innovators break new ground, chart new territories, and give the rest of us cover to try new things.  When Rich Cizik, vp for the National Association of Evangelicals, stuck his neck out to say that evangelicals should be concerned about the environment, too, he gave cover to a bunch of folks just waiting for someone to take the lead on that topic.   
What other traits would you add to “Innovation’s Top 5?”  And, do you know small churches taking an innovative approach to ministry?  If you do, let me know.  

Sermon: The Mind of Christ

This is the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow, Sunday, September 28, 2008.  

The Mind of Christ

Philippians 2:1-13 NIV
1If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. 3Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. 4Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.  

 5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: 
 6Who, being in very nature God, 
      did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 
 7but made himself nothing, 
      taking the very nature of a servant, 
      being made in human likeness. 
 8And being found in appearance as a man, 
      he humbled himself 
      and became obedient to death— 
         even death on a cross! 
 9Therefore God exalted him to the highest place 
      and gave him the name that is above every name, 
 10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, 
      in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 
 11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, 
      to the glory of God the Father.

 12Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.

False Identities 

We live in an interesting culture.  I ran across a website this week called “Fake Name Generator.”   The idea is that when you need to fill out an online form on the internet, but really don’t want to give your real name, you can get a fake identity by using “Fake Name Generator.”  So, of course, I tried it.  Guess what?  You are now looking at James Y. Baptiste.  No kidding!  A Baptist named Baptiste.  I thought that was pretty cute.
And as they say on the Ginsu knife commercial — But wait, that’s not all!  
I also received…
  • a fake address
  • a fake phone number
  • a fake website all my own
  • a fake email address
  • a fake social security number
  • a fake mother, whose maiden name was “Berry” 
  • a fake credit card number
  • a fake birthday (although they made me 5 years older than I really am)
  • and, a fake UPS tracking number.  I have no idea why..
Of course, it’s all in good fun, I suppose, but the internet is known as the place you can be whoever you want to be.  Don’t like your name, choose a nickname.  Don’t like the way you look, choose someone else’s photo.  Don’t like what you weigh, or how tall you are, or your age — pretend to be someone else.
Of course, pretending to be someone else isn’t just confined to the internet.  The recent case of Clark Rockefeller, whose real name is Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, illustrates how easy it is for someone pretending to be someone else can fool lots of people, including the woman he married.
Pretending to be someone else is usually reserved for actors and politicians, but that brings us to Paul’s letter to the Philippians where he encourages them to act like someone else.
You might remember that last week Paul had told the Philippian Christians that they not only got to believe on Christ, but they had the privilege of suffering for Christ also.  And, Paul reminds them that he is in prison for the Gospel and tells them to stand firm and live a life worthy of the Gospel.  Here in chapter 2, Paul is cheering them on in their attempt to stand firm and live worthy lives.
In Philippians 3:1-2, Paul goes through a laundry list of reminders to give them hope.
  • If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, 
  • if any comfort from his love, 
  • if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion,
  • 2then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.
For Paul, the thing that will make him joyful is for the Philippians to be like-minded.  He goes on to explain that like-mindedness means having the same love, the same spirit, and the same purpose.  Paul has already told them in 1:7 that “It is right for me to feel this way about you.”  The Greek word the NIV translates “feel this way” is from the root verb phroneo, which means “mindset” — the way one thinks about something, or our predisposition to something.
It is the same word Paul uses here to encourage them to be like-minded.  It is the same word he will use when he says “Let this mind (attitude) be in you that was also in Christ Jesus…”
It is also the same word he will use in Phil 4:2 when he encourages two women in the church, Euodia and Syntyche, who are quarreling, to be of the same mind — to agree with each other.
This idea of “like-mindedness” is important to Paul.  Paul sees it as the key to unity in the church in Philippi. The church has been riven with the same problems of any church — facing difficulty, different people have different perspectives, different viewpoints, and they are dividing the church community.
Paul pleads with them — “If you have any encouragement from being united in Christ, any comfort from his love, any fellowship with the Spirit, any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded.”
Paul is pulling out all the stops here to get them to come together.  He lays a subtle guilt-trip on them, like only a mother can — “If all I’ve done for you means anything, please be nice to your brother.”  Your mother ever do that to you?  Any sentence that starts with “After all I’ve done for you…” is a guaranteed guilt-tripper.  But, Paul is a little more subtle than that.  And, to give them some help, he shows them how they can be of one mind.
The Example of Jesus
Paul, Phil 1:30,  has previously appealed to his suffering — “Since you’re going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.”  Paul wants the Philippians to know that he understands what they’re going through.  He understand persecution and what it means to stand firm.  He understands how difficult it is to live a life worthy of the Gospel.  He is an example to them.
But, then Paul also wants them to make his joy full and complete as their community becomes like-minded. And, so Paul gives them the ultimate example to follow — the example of Christ.
I like the King James here —  “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:”-Phil 2:5
In other words, be like-minded with Christ.  Have the same attitude, the same mindset, the same predisposition to others.  Have the mind of Christ.
Now, how do you have the mind of Christ?  How do you have the same attitude Jesus had?  Our own attempts at having the mind of Christ are as doomed to fail as the Clark Rockefeller’s false identity.  We can’t be Christ…or can we?
In their extraordinary book, Saving Paradise, Rita Brock and Rebecca Parker tell us that early in the life of the Church, there was the idea of theosis — the possibility of Christians partaking of the divine nature of Christ.  This idea began with the Creation story, as God creates humankind in God’s own image.  But, the idea that followers of Christ were partakers of his divinity is echoed in 2 Peter 1:3-4, where Peter contends,

3His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. 4Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. – 2 Peter 1:3-4

The idea of theosis was not primarily individual, it belonged to the community.  As the church was the body of Christ, partaking of the divine nature was the experience of the community of faith, not just privileged individuals.  And, theosis expressed itself in very real ways.  Tertullian said that Christians created “an alternate social order” that was different from the social order of the Roman empire.  Theosis expressed itself as Christians acted –

“…to support the destitute, and to pay for their burial expenses; to supply the needs of boys and girls lacking money and power, and of old people confined to the home…we do not hesitate to share our earthly goods with one another.”  
– Saving Paradise, page 178.

Paul also gives the Philippians concrete instruction on what the mind of Christ is.  Paul says that Christ
  • did not “grasp” or hold onto his heavenly position for personal benefit;
  • made himself nothing — literally, “emptied himself” in the image of pouring out a bottle until it is empty;
  • took a servant’s form, human likeness;
  • humbled himself;
  • became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.
So, if you want to know what mindset Jesus had it was giving up, letting go, pouring out himself for others.  
Paul goes on to say that because of that mindset, God highly exalted Jesus, giving him a name above every name, and that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow in heaven, in earth, and under the earth.  In other words, because Jesus had the attitude he did, the mindset, God placed him in the highest place, and all of heaven, all the world of the living, and all the world of the dead recognize that Jesus the Messiah is Lord to the glory of God the Father.
Jesus mindset, lived out in his life of humility, service, and sacrifice, gained the acknowledgement of the entire creation that Jesus the Christ is Lord.  Not Ceasar, not empire, not wealth, not power, not privilege, not prestige, but Jesus is Lord.
A Fable
In his book, How (Not) To Speak of God, Peter Rollins tells this story:
There was once a princess who grew up in a kingdom that had been ravished by decades of famines, war and plague.  One night, as the princess slept she had a dream.  In this dream she was walking through the market that lay by the sea, when a young beggar looked up, but before their eyes could meet the dream ended and the princess awoke.  As the dream faded a haunting voice arose in her mind that informed her that if she were ever to meet this young man, he would shower her with riches beyond her wildest dreams.
This dream etched itself so deeply on the princess that she carried the vision deep in her heart, until one day, years later, as she walked through the market, her gaze caught hold of the same man who had visited her in her dreams all those years ago.  Without pausing she ran up to him and proceeded to relay the whole vision.  Never once did he look up, but when the princess had finished her story he reached into an old sack and pulled out a package.  Without saying a word, he offered it to the princess and asked her to leave.
Once the princess reached her dilapidated castle she ripped open the package and, sure enough, there was a great wealth of pure gold and precious diamonds.  That night she placed the package in a safe place, and went to bed.  But her mind was in turmoil and the long night was spent in sleepless contemplation.  Early the next morning she arose, retrieved the treasures and went down to the water’s edge.  Once there she summoned all her strength and threw the riches deep into the sea.  After watching the package sink out of sight, she turned and without looking back went searching for the young beggar.
Finally, she found him sitting in the shade of an old doorway.  The princess approached, held out her hand and placed it under his chin.  Then she drew his face towards hers and whispered, “Young man, speak of the wealth you possess which allows you to give away such worldly treasure without a moment’s thought.”  – pg.50-51, How (Not) To Speak of God by Peter Rollins.
That is the mind of Christ.  That is the mind possible for the followers of Christ.  ”Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.”  Amen. 

Review: The Great Emergence by Phyllis Tickle

Phyllis Tickle’s newest book, The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why, arrived yesterday. At 172 pages, this small but elegant volume (aren’t all Tickle’s books elegant?) both informs and disappoints.  Tickle takes on the daunting task of reviewing the major turning points or ‘Great’ events in the life of the Christian church.  Her contention is that every 500 years or so the church goes through a ‘great’ transformation.

Counting back from the present, the Great Reformation took place about 500 years ago — 1517 to be exact. Prior to that, The Great Schism occurred when the Eastern and Western churches split over icons and statues. Five hundred years earlier, Gregory the Great blessed and encouraged the monastic orders which would preserve the Christian faith through the Dark Ages.  Of course, 500 years before that, we’re back in the first century and the time of the apostles.  Today, Tickle contends, the church in in the throes of The Great Emergence.

But, the Great Emergence is not just religious.  It is also cultural, technological, and sociological.  Of course, context shaped each of the other ‘great’ church transformations as well, and this time is no different.  Tickle takes the reader on an overflight of church history, world events, and charts the shifts in the center of authority in the life of the church.  In the Great Reformation, of course, the cry of authority was sola scriptura — only scripture.  Tickle traces the diminution of the authoritative place of scripture in culture and Christianity from its heady beginnings in the Reformation to its marginalization in the current postmodern era.  The book provides thoughtful tracing of influential elements as Tickle leads the reader on a quest for a center of authority.

But, while Tickle’s insights and examples provide clues to the transformative forces in our culture and society, the book disappoints when we arrive at the present.  Tickle sees all denominations, all churches, all movements in the quadrilateral of Christianity — conservative, liturgical, renewalist, and social justice — as converging toward the center.  Granted, there are those denominations and groups that cling to their identities in a kind of resistant pushback, but Tickle’s vision is that we are all being swept up into the next great moment of the church — The Great Emergence.  Every church, not just the cool emerging church types, are part of The Great Emergence.  I’m not sure that is happening, but I could have lived with Tickle’s opinion except for some examples she uses.

Tickle uses John Wimber and the Vineyard churches as an example of this new kind of emergence.  She correctly credits Quakers — Richard Foster, Parker Palmer, etc — with great influence on the spirituality of the Great Emergence.  I might add Elton Trueblood to that list, as mentor to Foster, but Tickle doesn’t.  But, in her citing of John Wimber, she goes off track.  She credits Wimber with being a “founder” of the Church Growth department at Fuller, and calls Peter Wagner his colleague.  I was present at Fuller during Wagner’s tenure, and I was enrolled in the DMin program in church growth.  I attended one of the Signs and Wonders classes, heard Wimber speak, and got a sense of his idea of ‘power evangelism.’  

Wimber was not a founder of the church growth movement.  He was an adjunct faculty member at Fuller.  Dr. Donald McGavran was the founder, Peter Wagner was his protege.  I met McGavran once, although he had retired when I was enrolled at Fuller.  Tickle misunderstands Wimber’s approach, and also overestimates the Quaker influence on Wimber.  Wimber left the traditional church in which he had become a Christian because he wanted to ‘do the stuff’ — heal the sick, raise the dead, cast out demons, and so on.  I also attended the Vineyard church that Wimber headed, and it was no Quaker meeting.  So, at the end of the book, Tickle disappoints.  Simple fact-checking could have offered a corrective to her inclusion of Wimber.  

While Wimber did create a powerful new church community called Vineyard, he used signs and wonders as power evangelism to win people to Christ.  All of that was very much part of the church growth movement that believed in attractional evangelism.  Wimber’s brand just happened to be one of the more interesting versions of church growth techniques being used to gather people.  She also wrongly attributes the concept of bounded sets and centered sets to Wimber when actually it was Paul Hiebert, the missiologist, who used those concepts to illustrate new approaches to understanding the place of persons in the Kingdom of God.  

Would I recommend the book?  A qualified yes is in order here.  The book succeeds in all but the last chapter.  If you want a great overview of where Christianity has been, what the influences were that got it there, and where it might be headed, Tickle’s book provides a good, concise overview.  My disappointment was that it fails to see clearly the way forward, and misinterprets some of the church’s most recent experiements, such as Vineyard.  But, Tickle is an elegant writer, and the book is a valuable resource to those aware of its short-comings.

You feed them

“You feed them.”  Those were the words of Jesus to the disciples.  A big hungry crowd needed to be fed, and the disciples had come to Jesus for a solution.  Jesus challenged the disciples to feed the crowd themselves, but they protested they were not able to.  Now, we might get that opportunity, again, in the current economic crisis.  

A friend of mine heads a large social services agency in our area.  He and I were discussing the economy tonight, and he remarked, “Get ready for budget cuts.”  He went on to explain that programs for the elderly will be the first to be cut, as the federal  and state governments cut social program funds to local helping organizations.  Then he paused and said, “Actually, I’m not sure anything is safe.”  He meant any program that helps others including food, children’s programs, and more.  

As the federal government wrestles with a solution to the immediate economic crisis, local governments are already cutting budgets.  Contrary to popular belief, those who need financial aid are limited to a very small amount of financial help, and only for a limited period of time.  Food stamps provide only $1 per meal — $21 per week per person.  Try eating on $21 per week.  

Churches will have tremendous opportunities to help, because government will do less and less in the months and years ahead.  Small churches can band together, as we do here in Chatham, to create emergency relief funds.  But, churches will also need to develop more creative approaches to helping those in their communities.  What is your church doing to prepare to care for those who need help?  Many churches observe October as World Hunger Month.  It might not come at a better time.

One reason small churches aren’t growing: saturation

Thumbing through an analysis of our community today, it hit me.  There are too many churches in our area.  Within a 5-mile radius of our church, there are 25 other churches.  And, this doesn’t even count churches without telephones, which include at least 8 more that I know of.  That’s 33 churches for a population of about 4,000 households, or about 8,000 people.  

Take out the 10% of the population that is totally unaffiliated, and you have 7200 people.  Divide 7200 people by 33 churches, and you have an average of 218 members per church.  Of course some have more and some less, but 68% of all the churches in our area have between 125 and 350 members.  Our church fits right in that number.  

Of course, this doesn’t mean that everyone attends faithfully, or even comes at all.  We have several dozen members who never show up, but so does everyone else.  But, it does help us get a realistic handle on the potential of our outreach.  When I pastored in suburban areas, if we didn’t add 100 new members each year and baptize at least 25 per year, I was disappointed.  Here I’ll be lucky to see 100 new members in 10 years, and we are baptizing about 3-7 people per year.  

Those are the reasons we’re focusing on community transformation.  We hope to help others become more faithful disciples of Jesus by bridging racial divides, providing tangible help to families in need, and creating gathering places for our community.  We hope to be good news to our community, as well as to the individuals within it who might come to our church.  What is your experience?  Is your community “churched” and if so, what does that mean for your ministry?  

The report also noted that our area is highly “churched” (duh), and skews older than the national average.  Did I mention that our county population actually declined since the last census?  You’re beginning to get the picture.  

The great news is our area is higly churched.  The downside is that numerical growth of any of our congregations is limited.  Our primary strategy is building relationships, and adding new members gradually over the long term.

Leadership is changing — are you?

“It is no longer the time of the heroic leader — the leader who walks in and takes up all the space in the room.  The job of today’s leaders is to create space for other people — a space in which people can generate new and different ideas…”  The Changing Nature of Leadership, p. 19

That’s one of the conclusions in a report from The Center for Creative Leadership.  The bottom line:  leadership is changing and leaders that adapt to the changing times will:

  1. View leadership as a collaborative process.  The lone visionary is out, the collaborative leader who listens and empowers is in.
  2. Recognize that 21st century challenges require adaptive, not technical, changes.  Adaptive changes are systemic, and require new solutions that we may not have thought of yet.  Technical changes are improvements or adjustments to strategies we already know.  Sunday School might be a good example.  Does Sunday School need an overhaul (technical change) or is there a better strategy for teaching the Bible in the 21st century than “classes” on Sunday morning (adaptive change).
  3. Develop a new skill set for leading.  Participation, building/maintaining relationships, and change management replaces the old skill set of resourcefulness, decisiveness (“lone-ranger decision-making”) and doing whatever it takes.  
  4. Reward teamwork, collaboration, and innovation.  Collaborative, participatory teamwork emerges as the preferred strategy of the future and successful leadership will reward shared team efforts.
The CCL report is geared to secular organizations, but the same principles can apply to churches.  Typically, churches are behind the curve in understanding and incorporating new leadership strategies.  Eighty-four percent of leaders surveyed by CCL agreed that the definition of leadership has changed in the last five years.  Several months ago I wrote about “Vision: An Overblown Concept” because I thought church leadership needed to move from the “visionary leader” model to the “collaborative model” of leadership.  Looks like someone else agrees with me.  What do you think?

The unaffiliated and the unattending

Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion reports that less than 11% of the US public considers themselves unaffiliated with any church or other religious group.  That figure is about 4% — or 10-million people — less than previously thought.  And, the unaffiliated hardly ever attend church — about 89% of them answer “never” when asked how often they attend religious services.  You can download the Baylor study here.  

Could these unaffiliated be the “hardcore” unreached?  What would it take to break through the unaffiliated facade.  When you consider that 5% consider themselves atheists, the potential for breaking through this barrier becomes more difficult.  

The other question we have to ask ourselves is — Who are we reaching?  Are we just trading members from one congregation to another?  Is that a bad thing, and if not, what are the positives of “swapping” members?

Now here’s another wrinkle — weekly church attendance is now down to 17.5% of the population and declining.  Apparently even those who say they are affiliated with a religious group are attending less and less.  And, “regular” church participation now means “three out of eight Sundays” according to David Olson, in his book, The American Church in Crisis.  

So, here’s my question:  Since there are fewer unaffiliated people than we thought, but fewer of the affiliated are attending regularly, what should we do?  Should churches focus on retaining members as much as they do on reaching new people?  What do you think and what is your church doing in one or both areas?

Sermon: Standing Firm in the Struggle

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching on Sunday, September 21, 2008.  I hope you have a wonderful day at your church.  

Standing Firm in the Struggle

Philippians 1:21-30 NIV

21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, 26so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me.

27 Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.  Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel 28without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God. 29 For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, 30 since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.

We Are Not Afraid

I don’t remember being afraid even though he was bigger than I was, and he had a knife.  Fortunately, we were both in the fourth grade, so the situation was not as serious as it might have been, but he was the class bully, and I was determined not to be bullied.  As he waved the knife in my face, taunting me and daring me to back down, I had a great idea.  I simply put my hand around the blade of the knife. 

Now, fourth grade logic is not great, but I was face-to-face with the class bully and all my friends were looking on.  If I backed up, or acted afraid, I knew that he would ruin our entire school year.  So, I reached out my hand and wrapped it around the knife blade.  He looked at me kind of funny, but he didn’t move the knife.  I just looked at him, and then after what seemed like an hour, but in reality was only a few seconds, he shrugged.  I let go of the blade, he took the knife, folded it up and put it back in his pocket.  He never bothered me or my friends again. 

Now, I am not a particularly courageous person, but something inside me said, “The knife is dull.  There’s nothing to worry about.”  And sure enough, it was not sharp and I could hold it with my chubby fourth grade hand without injury.  And I really wasn’t afraid. 

Fortunately, I have never had to face down anybody else in my lifetime with a weapon or without, so I’m not sure how I would react now.  But in the fourth grade, I acted without fear.

Others, however, have acted without fear more recently.  After the terrorists attacks on London’s transit system on July 7, 2005, some Londoners were so determined to live their lives normally, and not in fear, that they started the website, We’re not afraid dot com.

Visiting the site, you are greeted by dozens of pictures of individuals, families, couples, and corporate employees all displaying in some manner the words, We’re Not Afraid.  Their point is to stand together and encourage others to live their lives, even in the face of terrorists’ threats, without fear.

Paul’s Reason for Writing to the Church in Philippi

Paul writes to his friends in Philippi with a similar message.  Don’t be afraid!  Paul is telling them that because he is in prison, in chains specifically, in the capital of the empire, Rome.  But, Paul has a long and heart-felt history with the people who make up the church in Philippi.  In Acts 16 we find Paul and Silas have been arrested and thrown in the Philippian jail for exorcising an evil spirit from a young woman.  You might think that most folks would find that a good thing to do, but unfortunately for Paul and Silas, when they cast out the young woman’s evil spirit, she lost the ability to do fortune-telling and her owners were furious.  Luke says, “She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling.”   

Paul and Silas were definitely bad for business, so after the mob that gathered stripped and beat them, they were thrown in prison.  You remember the rest of the story — Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns when at midnight the foundations of the prison were shaken by a violent earthquake.  Prison doors were thrown open, chains fell from their wrists, and the jailer feared the prisoners were about to escape.  Since the jailer was responsible for keeping the prisoners in prison, he was about to take his own life, when Paul and Silas called out to him that all the prisoners were still there.  Which is amazing in itself.

 The grateful jailer, not sure if he could believe what he was hearing, called for a light, rushed in and found Paul and Silas and everybody else.  Realizing that Paul and Silas must have tremendous power, the jailer fell down before them and asked, “What must I do to be saved?” 

Now, we’re not sure what the jailer was asking.  Did he want to be saved from the Roman officials who would question him about why his jail was standing wide open?  Did he want to be saved from the other prisoners, who were standing around?  I really don’t think at this point he’s asking how to get to heaven, but Paul seizes the opportunity to tell him anyway.  Paul says, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved — and your household.”  In other words, your wife, your children, your servants, everybody under your roof will be saved now and in eternity.

 The jailer responds, and he and his family are baptized immediately.  He took Paul and Silas to his own home, fed them, and they spent the rest of the night, until dawn, rejoicing in their new found faith. 

So, the jailer and his family are part of the church at Philippi.  But, before the jailer, a woman named Lydia and her friends also had found Christ.  Paul went down to the river outside the city on one sabbath and found “the place of prayer.”  Lydia and her friends were ‘God-fearers’ — people who weren’t Jews, but who believed in the one true God, the God of the Jews.  They trust Christ, and Lydia then invites Paul and Silas into her home as well. 

 So, Lydia and her friends are part of the church at Philippi.  Paul teaches and encourages them, until he and Silas run afoul of the mob that day, and afterwards they leave town.  But, the church at Philippi remains one of Paul’s favorites.

Now Paul is in prison, and the Philippian believers have heard the news.  Their dear teacher, Paul, is in chains in Rome awaiting trial before Ceasar.  As you can imagine, the outcome does not look good, and the church in Philippi has sent at least one letter to Paul expressing their concern and offering their prayers for him.  Paul writes to reassure them, and to encourage them to remain steadfast in their own faith.

 A Life Worthy of the Gospel

In the verses we did not read this morning, Paul reminds the Philippian congregation of his circumstances. He is in prison in Rome, about to be tried before the emperor.  The possibilities are that he will be found innocent of the charges against him and set free — he will get to keep on living.  Or, he will be found guilty and be put to death.  All of Paul’s friends are very concerned, but Paul assures them that the choice between life and death has taken on new meaning.  They’re almost the same to Paul.

Paul says, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.”  Then, he explains what he means.  It’s better for Paul to go to be with Christ, no doubt.  But, it’s better for the Philippians, and others, for Paul to remain alive, and continue to teach them.  So, Paul assures them, I’m sure I’ll be around a little while longer.  But, then he urges them to “live lives worthy of the gospel.” 

 By worthy of the Gospel, Paul does not mean that the Philippians are earning their salvation.  Rather, he encourages them to live lives that reflect the good news of God through Christ.  How will they know if they are living lives worthy of the gospel?  Well, Paul gives them some clues.

 First, they will stand firm.  The image here is of someone with good footing on slippery soil.  A person who has planted his feet in such a manner as to be unmoveable.  The Greek word is hupomone’ — and it literally means to ’stand under.’   Hupo- is the prefix that we use most often when we use the term hypodermicneedle.  A hypodermic needle is one that puts the medicine we need — the shot — under our skin. 

 The idea is that they are standing under a heavy load, a burden that weighs down on them.  But, because their footing is firm, the Philippians are not moved or shaken.  They bear the burden well. 

 Secondly, they stand firm together.  Paul encourages them to stand as ‘one spirit.’ Literally, ‘one soul.’  Act as one.  Stand as one.  They are a community of faith, and particularly in times of testing they are to stand together.  Very much like Benjamin Franklin, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, who turned to his colleagues and said, “Gentlemen, we must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”  

 Unity of the body of Christ is Paul’s message to the Philippian church.  Apparently there were two women in the church that had a disagreement.  Euodia and Syntyche were at each other for some reason, and Paul meant to reunite them and strengthen the Philippian church. 

 Thirdly, they will stand firm together in the struggle for the Gospel.  Paul uses the word contending to describe the struggle they are having.  The picture there is of an athletic contest — a wrestling match or a race — where the athletes are contending, struggling, for the victory.  But, this is not individual effort.  It’s a team sport, and Paul wants them to be victorious in the contest.

 Finally, they will stand firm together in the struggle without being afraid.  Scared — that is literally the word Paul uses.  Frightened, afraid, living in fear.  Paul encourages them to stand firm together, so that they will not be scared of those who persecute them. 

 We in the US do not suffer much for our faith.  But in the first century Roman empire things were much different.  A person who became a follower of Christ — a Christian — could lose their job, have their property confiscated, lose their status in the community, be ostracized, or even be arrested, imprisoned, and put to death.  We are still a few years away from an all-persecution of Christians in the empire, but the beginnings of persecution are already there. 

The empire at first ignores this tiny sect of Jesus-followers, believing them to be an off-shoot of Judaism.  But the Jews quickly disclaim the Christians, and begin to persecute the church.  Paul knows this story, because he was one of the persecutors.  At every opportunity, these persecutors sought help from the civil authorities.  After all, Rome’s Pilate had been complicit in putting Jesus to death, so what were a few more of his followers?

 Paul says that the Philippians have been given the privilege not only to believe in Jesus, but to suffer for him, too.  Today that doesn’t seem like such good news to us.  We’re kind of like the father, Tevye, in “Fiddler of the Roof” who complained to God –

 I know we are the chosen people. But once in a while, can’t you choose someone else?  -Tevye

 But, Paul says, it is their privilege to not only believe in Jesus, but to suffer for him.  Not something we know much about.  But others do.  Others like a young mother named Perpetua.  Perpetua was killed on March 7, 203 AD, in Carthage.  Only a hundred years before her death, the city had outlawed infant sacrifice and public suicide.  Carthage had a culture of violence, and as Christianity spread throughout the empire, Christians became the scapegoats for public problems. 

 But that day, March 7, was a celebration.  The emperor Septimus Severus had a son who was celebrating a birthday.  So, a fitting spectacle was needed and none was more fitting than killing Christians.  Almost at random, Perpetua, who was 20, and the mother of an infant son; her pregnant servant, Felicitas; another servant named Revocatus; two free men named Saturus, and Saturninus; and another man named Secundulus were all arrested. 

 Secundulus was killed by a prison guard, but the others were held in jail awaiting their fateful encounter with the gladiators.  Perpetua’s father came to her in prison, which was really just a sweltering pit into which she and her servants had been thrown.  He begged her to renounce Christianity and Christ, to save her own life.  He fell at her feet, pulled out his own hair and beard, so urgent were his pleas to his own daughter.  But, Perpetua stood calmly before him, refusing to deny her faith.

 Perpetua had the gift of visions, and she was asked by her fellow prisoners to seek God’s vision of their fate.  Here is what she saw in a dream that night.  These are her own words, written by her own hand, and preserved by an unknown editor:

 “…I saw an immense garden, in the center of which sat a tall, gray-haired man dressed like a shepherd, milking sheep.  Standing around him were several thousand white-robed people.  As he raised his head he noticed me and said, “Welcome, my child.”  Then, he beckoned me to approach and gave me a small morsel of the cheese he was making.  I accepted it with cupped hands and ate it.  When all those surrounding us said, “Amen,” I awoke, still tasting the sweet cheese.  I immediately told my brother about the vision, and we both realized that we were to experience the sufferings of martyrdom.  From then on we gave up having any hope in this world.”  — Saving Paradise, Brock and Parker, p. 68-69. 

When March 7 came, Perpetua and her fellow prisoners were led into the arena.  Gladiators fell upon them, taunting them and wounding them repeatedly.  As the sport began to lose its appeal to the crowd, the gladiators moved in for the kill.  Perpetua was last to be killed.  As the gladiator approached her, he aimed his sword for her heart, the way an enemy would slay a man in battle.  Perpetua took the gladiator’s hand, and instead guided it to her throat, the accepted death for a woman.  

Christians killed in the arena were supposed to die in humiliation and fear.  Perpetua’s final act demonstrated to her captors and killers that she knew a higher authority than Caesar, that her power was greater than the power of the empire, and that death came to her as her choice, not theirs.  

 More Than Courage

How could these martyrs die so serenely and fearlessly?  It was not their personal courage that enabled their faithful deaths.  They knew the testimony of Paul for it was their testimony, too.  ”For me to live is Christ…”  Their very lives were sustained by the presence and person of Jesus the Christ.  Life for them revolved around glorifying Christ.  

The early Christians did exactly what Christ had commanded them to do.  They cared for each other, and for widows, orphans, the sick, the elderly, and others unable to care for themselves.  If one family had no food, the entire community fasted until there was enough food for all.  If someone had no place to stay, others took them in.  If a new Christian lost his livelihood, the church’s underground economy sustained them until they could get back on their feet.

The empire did two things to placate the masses.  Great coliseums were built, not only in Rome, but in outlying cities a well, and the empire entertained the masses in the contests to the death.  Kind of like wrestling today, only people died.  

But, the second thing the empire did was feed people.  Free bread distribution took place regularly, to keep the masses from rebelling.  When the church began to take over this function, and to do it with grace and love, the empire was shaken.  So, Christians became the scapegoat for a brutal empire, and thousands of Christians were killed in an effort to eradicate this threat to the primacy of the empire.

Heavenly Cheerleaders

The early church valued the sacrifices of these martyrs — the witnesses of Christ.  These who had given their lives became for “the seed of the church” according to one bishop.  Early congregations believed that these martyrs were present in the “great cloud of witnesses” of which Paul wrote in Hebrews 12.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. 2Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.  — Hebrews 12:1-3 

They saw their struggles as the continuation of the struggles of those who had gone before them.  They took heart from the courage and bravery of earlier believers who gave up their lives for their faith in Christ.  So important were those who had gone before that Christians often observed sacred meals at the entrance to the burial place of martyred Christians.  They would place a chair with a lit candle to symbolize the presence of those who had preceded them in death and would keep their memories alive through these symbolic suppers.

 The eucharist meal was the model for these sacred suppers.  They believed that as surely as Christ was present with them in the breaking of bread and drinking of the cup, their predecessors in the faith were present with them, encouraging and strengthening them in their daily lives.

 They were reminded of Stephen who, as his life was about to end, said, “Look I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”  There belief was that Christ was present in our lives and aware of our persecutions.  That heaven was not a far-off land, but another dimension as close to us as breath itself.  Those on the otherside were not unaware, nor were they disinterested in the lives of the saints still in this life.  

So, they could say with Paul, “To live is Christ and to die is gain.”  And it literally made no difference to them whether life was lived in this world or in the world eternal, for Christ was present in both, and the veil between the two was torn in half by the resurrection of Christ.  

 The point of Paul’s letter, and of early Christian belief that the martyrs of the faith helped them, was to remind us that we are not alone as we live for Christ.  We are part of the story of God.  Others surround us in this community of faith we call the church.  Others have gone before us.  Others have suffered far more than we have.  But, they are also cheering us on, encouraging us to live lives worthy of the gospel in our own day and time.  To take courageous stands, to seek God’s justice, and God’s transforming love for His creation. 

These are the same struggles others have faced, Paul reminds the Philippians.  So, stand firm.  Stand firm together.  Stand firm together unafraid of those who oppose us.  Stand firm because there are many who have gone before us.  It is not our courage, but Christ’s life that sustains us.  And in the face of uncertain futures, we are not afraid.  ”For us to live is Christ…”

Beyond the church food closet

 Most churches participate in some kind of food closet, which is primarily a way to supply emergency food to those who need it.  But, what if everyone needed food?  What if the global food supply system collapses or goes into deep distress?  How do churches help then?

Chatham House, a UK-based thinktank, researches a wide-ranging variety of global issues.  One of the critical issues facing the world community is the food supply.  We are already seeing food delivery disruptions both in the US and in the developing world.  Rising energy costs have added to the cost of food here in the US, and a Chatham House report sees four possible global food supply scenarios:

  1. Just a Blip: what if the present high price of food proves to be a brief spike with a return to cheap food at some point soon?
  2. Food Inflation: what if food prices remain high for a decade or more?
  3. Into a New Era: what if today’s food system has reached its limits and must change?
  4. Food in Crisis: what if a major world food crisis develops?
What does this have to do with small churches, you ask.  First, food is pretty important and rising prices and declining availability will impact your members and your community.  Second, food supply issues are complex and involve the convergence of energy, environment, and economics.  Finally, churches can prepare for the worst-case of a global food supply disruption or the best-case temporary spike in prices by…
  1. Creating awareness of this and other global issues.
  2. Experimenting with local solutions to global problems, like growing a community garden.  I have enlisted the local 4-H coordinator to help with a community garden for Chatham in 2009.
  3. Learning about alternative approaches, such as the slow food, locavore, and other food-related movements.
  4. Exploring resources related to issues of food, hospitality, and care for those in need.  Bill McKibben’s book, Deep Economy, is an excellent resource for looking at food from a local economic standpoint.  
Challenges of the 21st century will demand that churches be prepared to deal with global problems on a local scale.  To do that, you’ll need more than a food closet.