Month: May 2009

Pentecost Sermon: The Work of the Holy Spirit

This is the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow, Pentecost Sunday, May 31, 2009.  I hope your day is filled with God’s presence.  May the fire fall on us.

The Work of the Spirit
John 15:26-27, 16:4-15

John 15:26-27:
26“When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me. 27And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning.

John 16:4-15:

4I have told you this, so that when the time comes you will remember that I warned you. I did not tell you this at first because I was with you.

5“Now I am going to him who sent me, yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ 6Because I have said these things, you are filled with grief. 7But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt[a] in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: 9in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; 10in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; 11and in regard to judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.

12“I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. 15All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.

Why Are We Wearing Red Today?

Today is Pentecost Sunday.  This is the last big Sunday, a feast day in the medieval church, before we enter ordinary or normal time.  So, we’re wearing red today because red is the liturgical color of the Holy Spirit.  Red is the color of fire and symbolizes the presence of God.  Just as Moses saw the burning bush as a symbol of God’s presence, so we wear red today as a symbol of God’s presence with us, but also as a reminder of the coming of the Spirit on that Pentecost after the resurrection and ascension of Christ.

Of course, the story of the coming of the Spirit is found in Acts 2, but today we are reading the Gospel lesson for this year’s lectionary, John’s Gospel, chapter 15:26-27, and chapter 16:4-15.  Because before the coming of the Spirit on Pentecost, before the ascension of Jesus, before the resurrection and the crucifixion of Christ, he promises the disciples the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.

So, today I want us to look at the work of the Holy Spirit, which is not something we as Baptists often do.  Baptists in the 19th century bought into the idea that the sign gifts, the extraordinary manifestations of the Holy Spirit which include speaking in tongues, gifts of knowledge, gifts of healing, and other sign gifts ceased with the end of the apostolic age.  In other words, we believed that when the apostles died, and the Scriptures as we know them today were finished, that God had given us all we needed to proclaim the Good News.

And then, something very amazing happened.  In 1906, in California, at a prayer meeting, the Holy Spirit fell on those who were praying at Azusa Street, and the Azusa Street revival sparked the renaissance of awareness of the Holy Spirit’s active work in our world.  A work that continues in extraordinary ways, in unlikely places, with amazing results.

In the 1970s, the charismatic movement burst on the scene of mainline and evangelical churches.  Churches steeped in the tradition of both organization and liturgy found themselves struggling to explain and cope with a new wave of the Holy Spirit in their midst.  The charismatic movement swept through Catholic, Episcopalian, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and yes, even some Baptist churches.  Sadly, some churches majored on minors in this resurgence of awareness, and some fellowships were fractured.

Today, the fastest growing segment of Christianity is the Pentecostal/charismatic segment, and it is growing fastest in South America and in Africa.  Pentecostals were the only group in a recent US study of church growth and decline, to post positive growth.  So there must be something to the work of the Holy Spirit.  Let’s take a look and see what Jesus had to say, because he is promising to send the Holy Spirit to his disciples after he’s gone from them.

The Work of the Holy Spirit is Creative

Let’s take a quick trip to the first chapter of Genesis, where Genesis 1:1-2 says —

1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

2 Now the earth was [a] formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

So, there he is, the Holy Spirit present in the first two verses of Scripture.  God’s creative spirit is the Holy Spirit.  And the picture in Genesis 1:2 is of a mother hen brooding over her chicks — hovering over them in a life-giving act.  God’s creative spirit brings something from nothing, and then sits on it like a mother hen until all of creation is hatched, newly formed, and alive.

But, that’s not all the creative spirit of God does.  This creative spirit is also a life-giving spirit.

4 This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created.
When the LORD God made the earth and the heavens- 5 and no shrub of the field had yet appeared on the earth and no plant of the field had yet sprung up, for the LORD God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no man to work the ground, 6 but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground- the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

This creative spirit (and the word ‘spirit’ is the same word for ‘wind or breath’) then gets breathed by God into his new creation called Man, and this wind, this spirit, this breath, gives life.  God imparts himself in the ‘breath of the Spirit’ into Man, and by extension, each man and woman.  This life from the Spirit is part of the image of God in each of us, part of the presence of God with us all from the moment of God’s creation.

The Work of the Holy Spirit is Companionship

Just as God walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden before their sin, Jesus walked with his disciples during his earthly ministry.  But, Jesus has told the disciples he is going away in that famous moment when he says,

John 14:15:  “If you love me, you will obey what I command. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever— 17the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.

Just as Jesus has been their companion for the past three years, he promises to send the Holy Spirit to continue God’s presence with them.

There is a misconception that in the Old Testament we have God, in the Gospels we have Jesus, and in the Book of Acts we have the Holy Spirit.  But, the reality is that the Spirit of God is the Holy Spirit, the same spirit that created Adam and Eve; the same Spirit that called Noah and Abraham; the same Spirit that rested on Samuel, and Saul, and King David.  This Holy Spirit is the same Spirit who inhabited the Temple in his shekinah glory, and then withdrew from the Temple when God’s people turned from God.

The Holy Spirit has always been God’s companioning presence with his people.  He appeared as a cloud by day, and a pillar of fire at night to lead the nation of Israel through the wilderness.  The Holy Spirit fell as fire from God when Elijah prayed and he consumed the altar, the sacrifice, and the prophets of Baal.  The Holy Spirit is the same spirit who spoke through the Judges who led God’s people; through King Saul, and after his sin, through King David.  This Holy Spirit is the spirit who in the Old Testament is referred to as upon God’s chosen.

But in the New Testament, beginning with this passage, God’s spirit inhabits each believer, just as the Spirit inhabited the Temple at its dedication.  Paul even refers to believers’ bodies as the temple of the Holy Spirit.  So, the Spirit is our companion, the paraclete — literally the one called alongside us.  He was sent by Jesus, made manifest on the Day of Pentecost, and demonstrated his powerful presence first through the apostles, and now through his people 2100 years later.

The Holy Spirit Gives Courage

If we had been there with the apostles in Jerusalem waiting in an upper room, waiting for who knows what, we would have seen a scared, leaderless group, uncertain of what the future would bring.  But on the Day of Pentecost, the Spirit’s presence announces itself as a mighty rushing wind.  Tongues of fire appear on the heads of the apostles and they begin to speak in languages they have not learned.  Peter boldly ascends a makeshift pulpit to proclaim that this — the wind, the fire, the speech — is what the prophet Joel spoke of — the coming of the Spirit on young and old, the restoration of confidence and courage to God’s people.

A phrase repeated over and over as the nation of Israel prepares to take the land of promise is, Be strong and of good courage for I am with you! That same Spirit of God that gave courage to Caleb and Joshua, and others like them, gave courage to Peter and the apostles.

That same Spirit that gave courage to Peter, not only preach but eventually to die, gave courage to God’s people through the persecution of Roman emperors, starting with murders of the apostles, and extending through the end of the first century as thousands of Christians were martyred for their love of Christ.  The same Holy Spirit gives courage to Christians in Iraq, and in Iran, and in Sudan where fundamentalists factions are seeking to wipe out all influence of Christianity in the name of Islam.

The Holy Spirit Brings Conviction

In a compelling description of one of the main works of the Spirit, Jesus says the Holy Spirit will convict mankind.  That conviction comes in three ways —

  1. Conviction of sin. The Holy Spirit will show those who have not believed how they have missed the mark, missed the target that God has set for them when they failed to believe that Jesus was God’s Anointed One, God’s Messiah, God’s Savior.
  2. Conviction of righteousness. Jesus said the Holy Spirit will show the world that my life was the one example of righteousness — rightness with God — and even though I will no longer be with you, the Holy Spirit will convict the hearts of mankind that my life, my example, my love, my sacrifice is the example of perfect righteousness.  God confirmed that by raising Jesus from the dead, Paul said, and gave Jesus a name like no other name.
  3. Convict the world of judgment. There is a judgment coming, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.  In other words, if you choose this world, you lose.  And by this world Jesus means this world which lives in opposition to the world to come, the Kingdom of God.

The Work of the Holy Spirit is to Speak of Christ

3But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. 15All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.

With these words, Jesus reminded his disciples and us that the work of the Spirit of God is not to draw attention to himself, but to point to Jesus.  Jesus is the hope of the world; Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life; Jesus is the light in a dark night; Jesus is the Good Shepherd, the Door, the Bread of Life; Jesus is God’s Messiah; Jesus is the savior of the world.  The work of the Holy Spirit is to take what belongs to Jesus and make it known, bringing glory to Jesus in the process.

So, when Peter stands to speak on Pentecost, he explains the phenomenon of the sound of a mighty wind, the flames of fires, the unknown tongues, and the boldness of the disciples.  But after he explains the signs, the expounds on the savior.  After he clarifies the situation, he celebrates the Son of God.  Peter says,

22“Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. 23This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men,[d] put him to death by nailing him to the cross. 24But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.

Then, continuing in verse 29 —

29“Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. 30But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. 31Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ,[f] that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay. 32God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. 33Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.

36“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”

And so the sermon on the Day of Pentecost wasn’t about the Spirit of God, it was about the Savior from God, Jesus.  And, Peter preached that sermon in the power of the Holy Spirit.

What About Today?

Which brings us back to today, Pentecost Sunday here in Chatham, Virginia.  We frankly are relieved that there has not been a sound of rushing wind.  We are relieved that tongues of fire have not appeared on our heads, and that we have not all, or at least some of us, spoken in languages we did not learn saying words we did not understand.  We are especially relieved that the service did not overflow into the streets of Chatham, and that our neighbors did not come rushing out to see what all the noise was about.  And, we are really relieved that we do not have to explain to them that, No, we’re not drunk, this is just the work of the Holy Spirit. But, should we be relieved?

Cliff Barrows, Billy Graham’s associate for their entire ministry, told this story when we were with him at The Cove a couple of weeks ago.  Barrows said that when he was a boy of about 8, in the early 1930s, his father took the family to Yosemite on a camping trip.  He and his father had climbed to the top of Glacier Point, but as the afternoon lengthened, they made their way down for a surprise that his father promised him.

As they got back to the campground, which was called Camp Curry, and night was falling, his father held Cliff’s hand, and told him to watch the 3,000-foot cliff at Glacier Point.  Night fell, and all the campers gathered in chairs and sat on blankets on the ground, almost silently waiting for the evening spectacle.

About 1872, the tradition had begun of pushing the glowing coals from a massive bond fire at Glacier Point, over the edge of the cliff, and watching the burning hot coals fall like a ribbon of molten fire 3,000 feet to the canyon floor below.  Those gathered there that night knew what to expect, but Cliff Barrows said it was all new and marvelous to him as an 8-year old boy.

As darkness blanketed the scene, an invisible voice echoed from Glacier Point —

“Are you ready, Camp Curry?”

In reply, a park ranger shouted, “Let the fire fall.”

Cliff Barrows said the most spectacular sight he had ever seen occurred that night.  Crimson embers, hot with burning cascaded over the edge of Glacier Point.  The pushers were skilled in pushing the fire slowly so that it appeared to be a steady stream of red-hot lava flowing over the edge of the rock.

Barrows said it lasted seconds, but seemed like forever.  The fire fell, people in the camp sat in rapt silence, and then burst into applause as the last dying embers reached the valley floor.

In 1968, the fire fall was discontinued.  Lack of interest and environmental concerns were the official reasons given.  At the last firefall, the offical park bulletin proclaimed–

The Firefall, a fancy of James McCauley’s that caught on, and was popular for almost a hundred years, died Thursday, January 25, 1968 in a blazing farewell.

It was a dandy Firefall, fat and long and it ended with an exceptionally brilliant spurt, the embers lighting the cliff as they floated slowly downward…

There weren’t many people around to watch. Maybe fifty. Hardly any congestion at all. *

Hardly any congestion at all.  And I wonder today if, we are no longer interested in having the fire of God fall.  If in our observance of Pentecost, we have replaced fire with fabric, courage with color, and look with relieved nostalgia back on an extraordinary event that we are thankful doesn’t happen here.

But suppose God were to say, “Are you ready Chatham Baptist Church?”

Would our response be “Let the fire fall!” ?

That gives us something to reflect on today, Sunday, May 31, 2009 — Pentecost.

(*The Story of the Yosemite Firefall can be found at — http://firefall.info/)

Helping our neighbor

Today our local TV station interviewed me about our latest project — helping a man on disability fix his burned-out home so he can quit living in his tool shed.  Here’s the video that aired tonight on WSET, Lynchburg.

http://www.wset.com/news/stories/0509/627105_video.html

From Here To Eternity in Real Life

Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity.
Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity.
Father Al and friend in the remake. Or makeout.
Father Al and friend in the remake. Or makeout.

I can’t figure out what I don’t like about the story of former Catholic priest Alberto Cutie (pronounced ku-tee-ay, not cutie-pie), who has now become an Episcopal priest.  But, maybe it’s the fact that…

  • Father Al was caught in a Burt-Lancaster-From-Here-to-Eternity scene, rolling in the tide with a bikini clad woman; or that,
  • Father Alberto is called Father Oprah because of the popularity of his TV talk show; or that,
  • Alberto has jumped ship to the Episcopal church and will preach this coming Sunday in an Episcopal church in Biscayne Park that needs reviving; or that,
  • The Episcopalians welcomed him with open arms and are putting him right to work; or that,
  • According to CNN, he said, “Through the photos, it looked like a frivolous thing on the beach, you know, and that’s not what it is. It’s something deeper than that.” Okay, so deeper makes everything fine.  Or that,
  • This is another example of “Pastors Gone Wild.”  As if we needed any more examples.

So, that’s my take on Father Al.  I personally hope he finds the happiness he seeks, and that he is indeed in love and that everything ends happily ever after.  I would have liked it better if he’d taken at least a few days off, gone on a retreat or something, and started in a lower profile position than savior-of-a-dying-parish.  But, hey, only in America, right?

The differences in old small churches and new small churches

Knox Life Church at Remedy Coffee in Knoxville, TN
Knox Life Church at Remedy Coffee in Knoxville, TN

Les Puryear posted an interesting list of small church distinctives this week.  His list got me to thinking about the possible differences in “old” small churches and “new” small churches.

By “old” I mean what we typically think of as a small church whether it’s in a rural, small town, suburban, or even urban setting.  “Old” means established and conventional.  By conventional I mean that an old small church has worship; usually has one pastor and maybe some part-time staff;  focuses on typical church programs and activities; and operates primarily on gifts from its members.

By “new” I mean churches that have taken new models, like KnoxLife Church in Knoxville, TN that operates a coffee shop and meets in that same space for its weekly gathering.  Matthew’s Table in Lebanon, TN is another example of what I call a “marketplace” church — a church that runs a business to create revenue and engage its community, but also has some forms of conventional church such as a weekly worship gathering.

My guess is that in these “new” small churches, pastoral care is performed by more than just the pastor (if there is a solo pastor in the new church).  And, some of these small churches have multiple leaders, some (or all ) of whom may not be paid anything.

My point is we may have to rethink what we mean when we say “small church.”  Neomonastic communities are small churches, marketplace churches are small churches, mission-driven groups like Scott Linklater’s church in Las Vegas are small churches, but none of these would have all the common characteristics of conventional small churches.

We might need whole new categories to distinguish conventional churches from unconventional.  Personally, I think the “un-s” are the group to watch for clues to the future of all churches.  But, that’s just my opinion.  What do you think?

Why we Baptists need a creed

I am about to break an unwritten rule in Baptist life.  Granted, it won’t be my first transgression, and probably not my last, but this one is becoming more important to me the longer I’m in ministry.  We need a creed.  There, I said it!  We Baptists need a creed.

Now, for those who don’t know much about Baptists (and why would you if you aren’t one?), Baptists don’t believe in creeds.  We give no cred to the creed.  When it comes to the Apostles’ or the Nicene or any other creed, we just say No.  Baptists base this aversion to creeds on the idea of the priesthood of the believer.  We define that as meaning that any individual believer has the right to interpret scripture for him or herself, and to follow the dictates of his or her own Christian conscience.

Of course, we really don’t want people doing that, so we write and rewrite documents we call “confessions.”  Confessions in Baptist life go back hundreds of years, and are very, very long creeds that no one could ever memorize or say in unison in public, so they’re okay for us.  Right now in Southern Baptist life we have churches that follow the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message, and we have churches that have adopted the more recent 2000 Baptist Faith and Message.  For folks who place a lot of stock on the priesthood of the believer, we sure get mighty precise when we write our confessions.

One of our seminary presidents is calling for a “Great Commission Resurgence.” I want to throw in my two-cents and call for an “Apostles’ Creed Resurgence.”  I am serious.  (Some of you thought I was kidding, didn’t you?).  Well, I am quite serious.  We need a creed, and here’s why.

Let’s take the Apostles’ Creed, for instance.  First, I like the legend, which I am sure has little basis is fact, but it makes a nice story.  The legend is that each of the 12 apostles contributed one phrase each to the statement that came to be known as, well, the Apostles’ Creed.  Of course, that’s legend, not reality, but I still like it.

But more importantly, I think we need some basics to agree on.  We’re supposed to agree on The Baptist Faith and Message, but now it’s become a matter of which one, 1963 or 2000?  Plus, some Baptist institutions have added more theological criteria for employment than either BF&M covers, so that’s become an issue. I think a return to the Apostles’ Creed could solve that problem.

The Apostles’ Creed is a basic, general statement of the beliefs (the Latin credo means I believe) held in common by all Christians.  Here is a version I like:

I BELIEVE in God the Father Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth:
And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
Born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, dead, and buried:
He descended into hell;
The third day he rose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
And sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
From there he shall come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit;
The holy catholic church;
The communion of saints;
The forgiveness of sins;
The resurrection of the body,
And the life everlasting.
Amen.

There are other versions of the Apostles’ Creed which change “he descended into hell” to “he descended to the dead” or leave it out altogether.  Theology comes and goes, I suppose.  And, of course, to say “I believe in the holy catholic church” is blasphemy in a Baptist congregation, where we don’t want anything to do with anything Catholic.  Except in the Creed, “holy catholic church” means the universal church, the church in all its constituent parts, not the Roman Catholic Church.  Still, we Baptists often choke slightly on the “catholic” part.

But, back to my point — we need a creed.  I am so convinced we need a creed that I’m going to take 12-weeks and preach on each point of the creed this summer and fall.  Think of this as a doctrinal series, using the Apostles’ Creed as my outline.

So, that’s it.  What do you think?  Of course, some of you creedal folks nodded off to sleep several paragraphs back.  To you, this is not a big deal.  Believe me, for Baptists this is a big deal.  I do take some comfort in the fact that in 1905, when the Baptist World Alliance convened for its inaugural meeting, all of the attendees joined in one mightly voice to say together The Apostles’ Creed.  Maybe we should do that, again.

What If Clergy Were Supported, Not Paid?

pay_checkIn all the conversation about churches and change, one particular topic seems to be the unmentioned gorilla in the room — clergy pay.  By clergy pay, I mean what most of us had in mind when we went to seminary — “I’ll get this great theological education so I can work full-time at — and get paid by — a church.”  In other words, today ministers have the same vocational formula as any other professional — aspiration>education>employment=pay.

The evangelical world has also built a lot of expectation into the idea that ministers should be paid.  Church planting is mostly built upon the idea that a church planter has to grow a church to a sustainable level financially, so that he or she can get paid.   Julie Clawson wrote about her experience in a failed church plant.  The reason for the failure?  They didn’t gather enough people to support them financially.

Frank Viola has created his own cottage industry by railing against the idea of paid clergy in the church of today.  While I am grateful for my bimonthly paycheck from the church where I serve, I’m not sure that Frank doesn’t have a point, particularly regarding the future of the church.  Of course, bivocational pastors exist, but this usually means a church can’t afford to pay the pastor enough to be full-time, so he or she has to work to supplement their income.  This secondary job is just that — a second job to make ends meet, not a fulfilling aspect of a life’s calling.  But I’m not talking about bivocational versus fully-employed pastors here; I’m asking the basic question — What if clergy were supported, not paid?

The Early Church Model

There is some precedent for my question.  Of course, we have to assume that in the early church, Peter and the other apostles weren’t paid initially.  We also have to recognize that our idea of “pay” is culturally tied to our own experience.  I am sure that Peter and the other apostles were “supported” by others as they ministered, but that support probably took the form of meals, lodging, clothing, and travel assistance.  I doubt if they received a regular stipend or “walking around” money, but that’s speculation on my part.  Paul, of course, worked at tent-making in his early ministry, but later received support from collections from other churches “eager to share” with him.  One reason for Paul’s support later in his ministry was his house arrest, which made working difficult, if not impossible.

The Plight of Newspaper Reporters

But, back to the practical aspect of clergy pay.  Jeff Jarvis, journalism professor and author of What Would Google Do?, contends that reporters believe they should be paid not because of the value they add, but because of the inherent good that reporters do for society.  He quotes Robert Picard, a media economist, who sounds off about reporters’ expectations for pay:

“Most [reporters] believe that what they do is so intrinsically good and that they should be compensated to do it even if it doesn’t produce revenue.”

Picard’s quote might apply to clergy, too.  Most of us think we are a necessary and valuable part of the society in which we live.  But that argument could equally be applied to doctors, lawyers, butchers, and street-sweepers, all of whom contribute to the overall good of society.  Neither reporters nor clergy get a pass on the “intrinsic good” argument, in my opinion.

The Buddhist Model

11604592AWaaFMXmVi_phActually, the purest form of clergy support I know of is found in Buddhist countries.  I remember taking an early morning walk down Nathan Road in Hong Kong several years ago.  Nathan Road is crammed with hundreds of shops, restaurants, night spots, hotels, and other tourist attractions, but in the early morning hours most are not open; their folding metal security gates still locked down over shop windows.  Walking down the street from the Holiday Inn, I encountered a Buddhist monk clothed in the traditional red robes, carrying a bowl.  In rural cultures, Buddhist monks literally receive a meal in their bowls from their supporters, who in turn receive “merit” from supporting the monks.  But, in Hong Kong the monk’s begging bowl is often the recipient of cash, as it was on the day I encountered the old monk.  He stopped in front of me and held out his bowl with his head bowed.  I found some Hong Kong dollars in my pocket, which I deposited into his bowl.  The old monk smiled at me, bowed and then continued on down the street.  I found the whole exchange quite rewarding, and I felt like I had received more than I had given the old monk.

Of course, I am not arguing that clergy, Christian or Buddhist, don’t need some type of support.  Even hermit monks are beneficiaries of the support of the cloistered monastery, which in turn receives support from the outside world by selling its goods, which can range from wine to cheese to jellies.  Economics are economics whether you have taken vows of poverty or not.  In even the most basic societies, there is usually some type of economic exchange system of value given and received.

Support vs. Pay

But what if clergy were “supported” instead of paid?  How would that change things?  Of course, there are several models for clergy support stretching all the way back to the Old Testament.  The Levites, the tribe of priests, were to be supported by the other 11 tribes.  When sacrificial offerings are described in the Old Testament, there are instructions about what the priests may take from the pot for their own sustenance.  Of course, by Jesus’ time in the first century, the religious leaders were not only supported by Temple activities, but were probably on the payroll of the empire, both Jewish and Roman.  But, my point is, intrinsic to the priestly system was the idea that the priests would be supported by the other members of the community.  Just because a system becomes corrupted, as it did by the first century, doesn’t mean we can’t learn something from God’s original intent.

In the early church, as I have already mentioned, I believe the apostles were supported by the first Christian communities.  At the day of Pentecost, 3,000 came into the church, plus the number of followers of Jesus after the resurrection was much greater than just the apostles.  Their families, friends, proteges, and converts quickly formed a viable community.  We know this from Acts 6 where the church is large enough to support widows, and sensitive enough to address a problem of some widows not being supported.  During this discussion, the apostles argue that it’s not right for them to leave the ministry of the Word to wait on tables.  The implication is that the apostles are being supported in some form so that they are free to carry out their apostolic ministry.

Paul also argues that “the workman is worthy of his hire” in appealing for support.  Thus, the idea of support of special classes of God’s people in both Old and New Testaments is not a new idea.  But, is there a difference in support versus being a paid professional?

The Monastic Model of Support and How It Evolved

As the monastic movement developed, monasteries became self-sufficient centers of trade and commerce.  Celtic Christian abbeys often carried on sheep and cattle operations; agricultural crop cultivation; wine-making; spinning and weaving; metal-working; and, all the attendant activities to being a self-sustaining community.  Monasteries and abbeys that could not become self-sufficient failed and disappeared.  In successful abbeys, monks and nuns enjoyed the benefits of the goods and services produced by their community.  Of course, they were part of the production of those goods and services, and not just the beneficiaries.  They worked at keeping the monastery running, while also taking time to pray — hence the Latin phrase laborare et orare, to work and to pray.   The rhythm of their days included fixed-hours for prayer (the daily office) interspersed with hours in the fields, kitchen, scriptorum, or weaving shop.

As European society developed during the Middle Ages (about 1100-1400 A.D.) a new form of clergy support emerged — the peasant-priest.  The peasant-priest usually received a small stipend, but usually not enough to support himself, his assistants, and his “hearth-mate” — a euphemism for his common-law wife.  The peasant-priest was also allotted a “glebe” behind the manse (housing was a form of support), and on this plot of land he could raise crops to supplement his income.  Perhaps these were the earliest bivocational pastors, except the second job they held down — farming — was really an extension of their calling, and a modified form of the “work-and-prayer” rhythm of monastic life.  Except the peasant-priest was on his own and his community consisted of the congregation for whom he was the ecclesiastical authority.

English society under Henry VIII and the Church of England, carried the peasant-priest idea to a slightly higher level — the manor priest.  The lord of the manor might offer a stipend to support a clergyman for the private manor chapel.  The manor chapel provided the component of religious life to, not only the lord of the manor and his esteemed family, but also to those who worked on the manor as well.  Seating in the chapel was arranged to accentuate the position of the lord and his relatives, but lord and laborer could theoretically worship together.  The stipend for this priest could vary, and some chapels were highly desired positions.  The annual pastoral support could make a priest’s life very comfortable, depending upon the generosity of his benefaction.  This model, the manorial chapel, is the model that was transplanted to the American colonies, and still thrived in the South particularly into the 20th century.  The benefits of the manor chapel included a manse and a stipend.  In the American South, that translated into a parsonage and paycheck for the preacher.

Clergy Life in The Modern Economy

In the 1970s, denominations and seminaries began to assert that a pastor needed the ability to own his or her own home in order to build their financial net worth.  Parsonages were sold, often to the pastors who lived in them, and housing allowances were added to the salaries of pastors.  Now pastors’ families are an indistinguishable part of the greater economy.  We get paid just like everyone else, rather than supported like the Levites or the apostles.

But, of course, most of us live just like the rest of society, too, myself included.  We have two vehicles — a minivan and a pickup truck — our own furniture, our own mortgage, and our own home repair bills.  Clergy salaries have also risen to levels comparable to the teaching or nursing professions, in many areas.  But what if clergy weren’t paid like everyone else?  What if we were supported at a basic level, then free like the old peasant-priest, or monk to work to finish out our support?  And, what if this were an intentional decision made by pastors and churches which could support full-time ministers?

Steve Taylor’s church, Opawa Baptist Church in New Zealand, is large enough to fully support its pastoral staff, but they are all part-time.  Taylor, author The Out-of-Bounds Church, also teaches at a couple of seminaries, and speaks and writes.  Others, like Gordon Atkinson, work part-time at their churches and write for the balance of their income.  Not exactly the glebe, but closer than working at WalMart.

This combination of professions — clergy plus something else — was common in the first millennium of the church.  Priests were also lawyers or academics, not just pastors.  The Society of Jesus, known as the Jesuits, has produced a number of scholar-priests in the history of their order.  These scholar-priests worked at both professions, but may not have been assigned primarily to parish ministry.

Modern Examples of Clergy Support

But what would the consequences be if ministers were supported, not paid, by churches?  First, let’s look at the type of support a small community could offer a clergy person.  Housing, which is the major expense of any family, is probably the most obvious support.  The United Methodist Church still maintains a network of clergy housing in conjunction with its itinerant ministry.  In a denomination where clergy know they are going to be moved every 2-5 years, church-provided housing makes sense.  There are advantages and disadvantages to this, and the UMC has procedures in place to that assure a pastoral family has a decent place to live.

The argument for allowing clergy to buy their own homes has been that home ownership is the primary way to increase individual net worth.  With the bursting of the housing market bubble, this argument doesn’t hold as much weight as it once did.  Also, in a slow economy, having to sell a home in one community in order to accept the call to another church can be a financial drain on a pastor’s family.

But, housing isn’t the only form clergy support could take.  Churches could also provide a vehicle for pastoral use.  I realize that this could be loaded with objections — when is mileage personal and when is it ministry-related? — but commercial enterprises do this all the time, so there is a way through the accounting complexities.  After housing, owning and operating a vehicle is probably the most expensive item a family spends money for.  Churches own buses and vans, why not a car for the pastor?

Beyond the two most expensive items of house and car, support could also come in other areas.  For example, I wear a black clerical robe for worship.  The church bought the robe for me, and it solves a world of wardrobe problems.  I do wear a suit to church, but the robe keeps me and my clothing from being the center of attention, or derision, as the case may be.

Food is another form of support churches previously provided, and could provide again.  Many 19th century pastors were paid in chickens and vegetables for performing weddings or other services.  Not that we want a return to the “here’s a chicken” economy, but food could be provided in consultation with the pastor’s family.

Benefits of Pastoral Support Now and Into the Future

My point in all of this is simple — if churches were involved in the support of their pastors, rather than in paying them, a new sense of community might become evident.  I realize that all the examples I have given look back to the past, and that “what is old is new again” is old saying for a good reason.  But, there are advantages to supporting rather than paying a pastor, especially as churches move into the future.

If churches had the ability to support a pastor by providing housing or a car, the pastor’s salary could be reduced by that amount.  Frankly, I just as soon my church own my house and car, because both of those are expensive to acquire, own, and maintain.  I would happily take a salary reduction for my housing and car allowance to make that trade.  The bottom line for churches in a shrinking economy is that it would take less cash to operate the church, so church budgets could be reduced.

I do believe that in the future, we are going to see more models for ministry support based on multiple sources of income, rather than just one.  This applies to both churches and pastors.  Pastors will need marketable skills so they can contribute to their own support, and churches will need more revenue streams than the giving of members to sustain themselves.  Many churches have already opened coffee shops, art galleries, childcare centers, community development agencies, and a host of other entrepreneurial enterprises.  These are very much like the old Celtic Christian abbeys which ran multiple enterprises in order to become and remain self-sufficient.

The question of the 21st century for pastors cannot be, “Where can I find a church job to support me?”  Rather, the question is, “How can I find multiple sources of support to undergird the ministry to which God has called me?”  Pastors and churches prepared to answer that question creatively will thrive in the next 25-years, I am convinced.

What do you think?  Should clergy be supported or paid?  Should we all be multi-vocational?  Should churches develop multiple income streams?  Finances should not be the barrier to following God’s guidance, but too often money becomes the default decision-maker.  That was not the case in the first century, and we who serve God in the 21st century should not let old financial models dominate our thinking about how to do church in a new economy.  Let me know what you think.

Sermon: Telling The Good News

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow titled, Telling The Good News. I’ve got a terrible cold or allergies or something, so I hope your day is better than mine appears, if I don’t improve!

Telling the Good News
Luke 24:44-53

44He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”45Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things. 49I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

50When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.

The Descension

Did you see the CNN story this week about the guy in China who was threatening to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge?  A Chinese man, named Chen Fuchao, was despondent over a 2-million yuan (about $294,000) debt that he had incurred over a failed building project.  He climbed up on the Haizhu bridge, threatening to jump.  Apparently this bridge is quite attractive to jumpers because since April, 11 people have thrown themselves off the bridge.

On this particular day, Mr. Chen had tied up traffic for 5-hours and it was more than Mr. Lian Jianghsheng could stand.  At 66-years-of-age, Mr. Lian approached police and offered to negotiate with Mr. Chen.  The police declined his offer, but Mr. Lian burst through the police line and climbed up on the bridge where Mr. Chen was poised.

Photographs show Mr. Lian greeting Mr. Chen with a handshake. But then, Mr. Lian threw Mr. Chen off the bridge.  Fortunately, a partially-inflated emergency landing cushion was positioned below — one wonders why it wasn’t completely inflated — and Mr. Chen hit the cushion, doing damage to his spine and elbow.  He is recovering in the hospital.

Mr. Lian then saluted the crowd from the bridge and climbed back down, only to be taken into custody by police.

CNN reported Mr. Lian said, “I pushed him off because jumpers like Chen are very selfish. Their action violates a lot of public interest,” Lian told Xinhua. “They do not really dare to kill themselves. Instead, they just want to raise the relevant government authorities’ attention to their appeals.”

I assume Mr. Lian will not be receiving the Humanitarian of the Year Award this year.

Or, did you hear this story about a woman in Taiwan — why are both of these stories about Chinese? — who was so distraught over her husband’s unfaithfulness that she contemplated both suicide and murder.  She decided on suicide, and flung herself without looking out an open window of her apartment several stories above the sidewalk.

Amazingly, she landed on her husband, killing him instantly.  She sustained only minor injuries.  Authorities could not prosecute her because her husband was killed accidentally.

So, two stories of people descending rather dramatically, which are both amusing, but understandable.  But what we have here in the gospel of Luke is an amazing story unlike any we’ve ever heard before.

Ascension Sunday

This is Ascension Sunday in the calendar of the Christian Year.  We have almost come to the end of the story of God at work in this world, again.  We started last November, after Thanksgiving, with Advent — looking for the coming of the Messiah.

We moved through the four Sundays of Advent into Christmastide with the celebration of Jesus’ birth and incarnation on the Feast of Christmas.

Then, Epiphany — the appearing — came along.  Then, Lent.  Then Easter.  And we have been in Eastertide since then.

But today is Ascension Sunday, the pivotal Sunday between the season of Easter and the appearances of Christ after the resurrection, and Pentecost.  Pentecost is next Sunday and marks the birthday of the church with the coming of the Holy Spirit to indwell and empower the apostles.

Jesus has now been risen some 40-days — isn’t it amazing how often the number 40 appears in Scripture?  This is the same amount of time that Jesus spent in the desert at the beginning of his ministry.  It’s also the same amount of time Rick Warren suggested to go through his book, The Purpose-Driven Life, but he actually takes the 40-day idea from scripture, too.

But now Jesus is about to leave the disciples.  They thought they had lost him at the crucifixion, but then came the resurrection.  So now, they must be a little confused.

“Is Jesus really leaving us, again?” they must have asked one another.  Jesus must have sensed their puzzlement because here in these last moments with the disciples, he takes them quickly through a crash course in theology.

It’s In The Book

The first thing he says to them in this last meeting is —

“This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

Of course, at this point there is no New Testament.  The only scripture the disciples or Jesus knew was the Hebrew Scripture, which we call the Old Testament.  So here’s a major point Jesus wants to leave his disciples thinking about —

Scripture tells the story of God’s Messiah.

Jesus said, “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms.”

Which tells us two things:

  1. The Old Testament has a lot to say about the Messiah; and,
  2. It all came true in Jesus.

Remember the story of the transfiguration of Jesus?  Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up on the mountain.  There they see Jesus glowing like the sun, and he is joined by Moses and Elijah.  Moses represents the Law, the Torah, the Law of God.  Elijah represents the prophets.  Curiously, both of these men did not die like almost everybody else.  Moses dies at the end of Genesis and the scripture tells us that God buried Moses, and that no one knows where his grave is to this day.  Elijah was taken up into heaven in a fiery chariot.

But guess what Jesus, Moses, and Elijah are talking about.  Jesus’ impending death.  I think the King James version says “his demise” but that means Jesus’ death.  That death by hanging on a tree, which was a cursed thing in the Hebrew culture.

So, the first thing that Jesus reminds his disciples right before he leaves them is — Scripture tells my story.

Jesus Opens Their Minds

Then Luke tells us, 45Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.

This was exactly the same thing he had done with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.  He helped them understand what Scripture said about the Messiah, and why all of those prophecies and descriptions were about him, Jesus.

You remember the story of these two disciples, recorded by Luke only a few verses before our text today.  The two of them, Cleopas was the name of one, were walking away from Jerusalem to Emmaus.  They were downcast, discouraged, and as they walked a stranger joins them and asks why they look so sad.

Their reply is “are you the only one around here who hasn’t heard the story of Jesus?  they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. 20The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; 21but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. 22In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning 23but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. 24Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.”

Then Jesus gently chides them for their unbelief, and begins to explain the story of the Messiah to them.  As they walk and listen, they come to the home where they are staying.  Jesus acts as if he is going on down the road, but they invite him in for dinner.  It is as he breaks the bread and blesses it that they recognize him, and then he is gone from their presence.

They asked each other — “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

So, Jesus helps them, and us, understand the scripture that talks about the messiah, and that he is that promised savior.

Not Everybody Understands Scripture Like Jesus Taught Us

So, what does that have to do with us today?  I’ve just finished reading an interesting book, Jesus, Interrupted, by Bart Ehrman.  Dr. Ehrman teaches at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.  He teaches religious studies.  And, he used to be just like us — a Bible-believing follower of Jesus.  He loved the Bible so much that he wanted to teach Bible.

So, he went to Moody Bible College, and Wheaton College, both academic powerhouses for conservative, Bible-believing young people to receive training for ministry.  But, then Ehrman went on to Princeton Seminary where he encountered a very different view of the Bible.

Rather than embracing the Bible as the Word of God, or a guide for Christian living, Princeton introduced Bart Ehrman to a scholarly approach to scripture called “higher criticism.”  Higher criticism is an approach to understanding scripture that looks at the cultural, linguistic, stylistic, and historic clues found in the ancient manuscripts.

Of course, there are no original manuscripts of any book of the Bible, much less the whole Bible itself, but higher criticism dissects the form and content of what we call sacred scripture looking for its origins and its flaws.

When he came out of Princeton, Ehrman was no longer a Bible-believing, conservative Christian.  He was an agnostic — someone who doesn’t know if God exists or not.  Ehrman says the he became a “happy agnostic,” not because of his biblical studies, but because of the problem of evil and suffering in the world.  He can’t figure out how a good God can allow bad things to happen.  That is a topic for another time, but that’s his story.

In his latest book, Jesus, Interrupted, Ehrman says — are you ready? — the following:

  • Most of the New Testament books are forgeries;
  • Few of the sayings of Jesus are things Jesus actually said;
  • The three different gospels contradict themselves, so one or more are in error;
  • The disciples couldn’t have written the New Testament because they were ignorant fishermen, or ignorant tax collectors, or ignorant whatevers.

And, that’s only part of what he says.  You should read the entire book and read all the technical stuff he throws out.

“Why did you read a book like that?” you might ask.  Well, I wanted to see what he had to say.  I wanted to see what the competition was all about.  I read it for the same reason I read John Allen Paulos’ book, Irreligion, a couple of years ago.  Those of us who believe need to know what those who do not believe are thinking.

Now, I am not equipped academically to take on a guy like Dr. Bart Ehrman.  He knows stuff I will never know, and that’s as it should be.  He’s a specialist in his field and apparently a well-respected academic. But, that doesn’t mean I can’t answer some of his objections, and disagree with this final conclusion that the Bible is a totally human book, full of errors and contradictions.

Let me just address one point:  Ehrman says the disciples were ignorant fisherman, which Peter, Andrew, James and John were.  We have books in the New Testament purportedly written by Peter and John.  And, we have a Gospel, the earliest one, written by a protege of Peter’s named Mark.  Ehrman says that ignorant fishermen could not have learned the literary Greek of their day, and then penned these masterful letters and gospels.

What Ehrman fails to tell his readers is that many people employed a person called an amanuensis, basically a stenographer, who recorded their thoughts in clear and correct Greek for business and correspondence.   We know Paul employed an amanuensis because at one point, Paul says, I’m writing this with my own hand, indicating that the previous lines were written by his secretary, his amanuensis, as he dictated.  But, that’s one of Ehrman’s major points.

But, when it comes to Ehrman’s comparing of one manuscript fragment to another, I must admit I am lost.  Debbie and I had the opportunity to see the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit when it came to Raleigh several months ago, and we did not see a single complete scroll.  All we saw were about a half-dozen fragments about the size of a quarter to a half-dollar.  That’s it.  Manuscript study is like working a giant jigsaw puzzle with no box cover for guidance.

So, the Dead Sea Scrolls have been under study since 1948, and not even a fraction of the scholarship is complete.  So, while I can’t dispute Ehrman’s argument about scrolls, manuscripts, and fragments, I take great confidence in this —

The books of the Bible which we consider sacred are the same ones considered sacred from about the second century A.D. and after.  The entire New Testament canon of books was not even finished until almost the end of the first century, so beginning a little more than 70-years after Christ, the early church fathers were listing the same books we call our Bible today.

Actually, Bart Ehrman admits this in a sort of grudging way.  He refers to a document discovered in Italy in the 8th century by L. A. Muratori, known as the Muratorian Canon.  This document is a poor Latin translation from a Greek document believed to be from the 2nd century which lists all 22 of the 27 books of the New Testament.  It probably listed more, but the top of the document was torn off, and it began by calling the Gospel of Luke “the third Gospel.”  Which it still is.  The list does include some books we no longer consider “canonical” or belonging to sacred scripture, but that wasn’t unusual either.  The main point is that by the second century, at least 22 of the current 27 New Testament books were already considered sacred scripture by the early church.

While I am not afraid of scholastic inquiry into the origins, form, language, or history of the Bible, the point of Scripture is to tell God’s story.  If in the second century the earliest church leaders considered the accounts we have to be reliable, and holy, then I can accept that, despite the approach of science that takes a completely different view of sacred texts.

Let me state this simply:  We do still need Jesus to open our minds to understand that the Bible tells his story.

It’s Our Story to Tell, Too

But, Jesus doesn’t just leave the disciples with this new spiritual insight.  He tells them “You are witnesses of these things.”

Now it’s their turn to tell the story.  They saw it, they lived it, they heard it, they experienced it.  They are witnesses.  But Jesus makes them one final, but very important promise — wait for the power from on high.

While at The Cove two weeks ago, we heard the professor of preaching from Samford’s Beeson Divinity School — Dr. Robert Smith.  Dr. Smith preached about Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, and said some memorable things.  Dr. Smith is African-American, and he pointed out that the Ethiopian eunuch — a servant of the Queen of Ethiopia — was riding, while the apostle Philip was walking.  He also pointed out that the Ethiopian could read, but he needed someone to help him understand the scroll he was reading.  In my white, American perspective,  those were two points I had missed.  But, he also said some interesting things about the church.

One of the things he talked about, and he covered a lot of ground, was the need for the power of the Holy Spirit.  He said, “If every reference to the Holy Spirit were removed from the Bible, we would still try to do church.”

In addressing the increasing pattern of churches giving to missions rather than engaging in missions, he said, “There are some things that aren’t going to happen just because you can write a big check.”

So, this is our story to tell.  We are witnesses.  Maybe we are not witnesses of the same events that the apostles witnesses, but we are witnesses of the same experience they had.  The experience of Jesus opening our minds to understand scripture.  To understand that when Jesus said,

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that meant Jesus.

When Jesus said,
That whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life,
that means us.

It was then, and only then, that Jesus ascended into heaven.  Scripture tells his story; the disciples witnessed his story; we have experienced his story.  Now we need that power from on high, the Holy Spirit, to equip, empower, and embolden us to tell the story.

And, how did they tell it?  The same way Jesus did — they healed people, they loved people, they made friends for God, they preached the good news, they lived the gospel, they bore hardship, suffered opposition, endured persecution, but still they told the story that had changed their lives.  That’s what we are to do now.  We are witnesses, too.  We are telling the good news by the way we live, the values we hold, the difference we make in the lives of others.