Month: October 2009

Sermon: I Believe in the Church

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow as I continue the 13-week series on The Apostles’ Creed.  Tomorrow we come to the phrase, “I Believe in the Church.”  I hope your Sunday is a great one!

I Believe In The Church

13When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

14They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

15“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

17Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  — Matthew 16:13-19 NIV

Down To Earth Faith

We have come to that part of the Apostles’ Creed concerning the Holy Spirit.  Last Sunday we looked at the statement, “I believe in the Holy Spirit…” and noted that the Creed is divided into three sections.  The first section affirms our belief in God the Father; the second section, our belief in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord; and this section affirms our belief in the Holy Spirit.

The statements in this section are brief, to the point, and packed full of meaning.  Today we come to the statement about the church.  If we pick up the “I believe” part from the opening words of this section, we would affirm, “I believe in…the holy, catholic church; [and] the communion of saints…”

That’s it —  four words for the church, and four more to describe the indescribable relationship of all God’s people, the communion of saints.

But what we also need to notice here is that the scene shifts.  Our attention moves from the past to the present.  From heaven to earth.  From that which is other-worldly, to that which exists now.  We move right down here where we live, to the church.

And, when we say we “believe in the church” we do not mean that in the same way as when we say, “I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only, son our Lord.”  We do not even mean it the same way as our affirmation that we “believe in the Holy Spirit.”

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are the Persons of the Trinity.  By affirming our belief in them, we affirm they exist, they are unique, and they are worthy of our worship, obedience, and love.  But our belief in the church is different.  When we say we believe in the “holy, catholic church” — or even just “the church” — we are affirming God’s gathering of the church, Jesus as head of the church, and our place in the church here and now, and in the age to come.  This affirmation also means we share a common belief, a common family, a common place with others in the present and coming Kingdom of God.

To say I believe in the church is to say I believe in the people of God, I believe in family, I believe in those who are with me now, those who have gone before, and those who will come after in this crazy, patchwork quilt of humanity touched by God we call the church.  We are not affirming belief in some idea of the church, some abstraction, but in the real church, with all its messiness, failure, and struggle.  We are affirming that God is at work in this church, and in all of God’s churches wherever they are, and whatever they look like.

Some Hints About the Church

We get some hints about the church from this passage we just read today.  Jesus’ ministry is well underway.  The initial euphoria of being with Jesus has faded, and he and the disciples are now in the day-to-day mission of announcing the Kingdom of God with both words and deeds.

But not everyone gets it.  Some have followed for the food.  Some have sought out Jesus for healing, either for themselves or others.  Many have been amazed by his teaching, only to drift back into the routine of their lives without changing what they do.

Others have expressed and acted out their opposition, none more vehemently than in Jesus’ own home town of Nazareth.  There they heard him proudly until he began “puttin’ on airs” and sounding likely a phony, if not dangerous, messiah.  There they ran him out of town.

Of course, the rumor mill was working overtime, as they say.  Imagine life in a community without television, radio, newspapers, magazine, telephone or the internet.  How did people communicate?  Well, they communicated the same way we do today — they talked to each other about one another.  They gossiped, they discussed, they expressed opinions, they drew conclusions, and they sized up the situation.

Jesus, of course, was well aware that people were talking about him.  So, he asked the disciples what they had heard:

“Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

And the disciples gave Jesus the answers he was looking for:

“Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

In other words, people believed that Jesus was somebody extraordinary.  Somebody special.  They said Jesus was a John the Baptist come to life; an Elijah returned as they expected; or a Jeremiah because of the plain, straightforward way he put things.  But, whoever they thought he was, they knew he was somebody special.

But then Jesus asked, “What about you?  Who do you say I am?”

Apparently this put the disciples on the spot because nobody answered immediately.  Maybe they don’t want to hurt Jesus’ feelings because they know Jesus is not John the Baptist because John is dead.  They know he’s not Elijah the Old Testament prophet who was expected to come before the Messiah came.  They know he’s not Jeremiah the fiery Old Testament prophet.  So, they’re at a loss for words.

If they say, “Hey, Jesus, come on.  We know you’re not John the Baptist, or Elijah, or Jeremiah” that sounds they don’t think as highly of Jesus as total strangers do.  But, they can’t figure out what to say, or what Jesus really means by the question.

Of course, brash, talkative, impetuous Simon Peter has an answer.  Peter blurts out —

“You are the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

The Bible doesn’t say this, but I am sure all the other disciples are embarrassed for Peter, who has stuck his foot in his mouth again.  “Okay,” the disciples are thinking, “Jesus is a great guy, a terrific teacher, and he does amazing things — but the Messiah?  Come on, Peter, this is way over the top!”

But then Jesus breaks the embarrassed silence.

“You’re right, Peter.  You’re exactly right, and you’ve said more than you even know.  God revealed this to you, not any person.”

Imagine now how all the other disciples feel.  Pretty small.  Kind of like when you were in school and someone answered the teacher’s question with what you just knew was the wrong answer.  But then the teacher says, “Exactly right.  Good work.”  And then you felt like a dope.  Now you know how the other disciples felt.

What Does This Have To Do With Church?

Okay, so that’s a great story, and we can put ourselves right there with the disciples because we would not have done any better than they did playing Jesus’ version of Jeopardy.  But, what does this have to do with the church?  Listen to what else Jesus says to Peter:

17Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Without even knowing everything that this means, even the beginner Bible student can figure out Jesus is telling Peter some good stuff.  But, let’s take a moment and figure it out.

First, Jesus tells Peter that “you are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church.”  In English, this can be confusing.  Why is Jesus dragging in a rock?  Where did that come from?

How many of you like a good pun, also known as a “play on words?”  It’s kind of like the helpful phrase I remember the teacher telling us in the third or fourth grade when we were trying to learn when to use the word “to” and how to spell it correctly.  The teacher reminded us that there are “three tos” in the English language.  Which is a pretty cute way to remind yourself to use the right “to,” too!  Okay, enough of that.

Well, this business about “you are Peter” and “upon this rock” is a play on words.  Peter’s name would have been spelled P-E-T-R-O-S — “Petros.”  The word for rock in Greek was  spelled p-e-t-r-a, and pronounced in a similar manner, “petra.”

So, Jesus was really saying, “You’re name is Rock, and on this rock I will build my church.”  Rock, rock — get it?  Okay, I didn’t say it was a funny play on words, but it is one nonetheless.

The main point here is that Jesus will build his church on the rock of Peter’s confession — Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.

Of course, our Roman Catholic friends believe that this passage proves that Jesus chose Peter to be the first pope.  Neither history, nor scripture support that assertion.  It would not be until about the third century that the Bishop of Rome would gain ascendancy over the Bishops of Jerusalem, and Alexandria, among others.

And of course, Peter was not a rock.  Peter will deny Jesus, not once, but three times when Jesus is arrested.  So, it is not Peter, or Peter’s faith, or even faith like Peter’s that Jesus was affirming, but Peter’s statement, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

It is that statement, that belief, that affirmation that is the entry point, the foundation, for belonging to and believing in the church.  No one who does not affirm that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God” can be part of the church, for the church is the body of Christ.  She is not a club, or a civic organization, or a fraternal order, or a sorority of the like-minded.  The church is the Bride of Christ, the people for whom Christ died, and the presence within whom Christ now dwells.

What Can We Say About The Church?

So, the first thing we can say about the church is — the church is comprised of those who believe that Jesus is God’s Messiah, God’s Anointed One, the savior of the world.  It is not enough to believe that Jesus is  or was a great teacher; members of other religions believe that.  Muslims and Jews both add Jesus to their lists of great ethical teachers.

It is not enough to believe that Jesus was an extraordinary figure, a man-among-men, a uniquely gifted holy man, a mystic who could do strange and wonderful things.  While all of those things might be true about Jesus in some way, that is not why he came to earth, that was not his mission on earth, and that is not his continuing ministry to earth.

Paul said, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.”  I Corinthians 12:3

But, now let’s move on to what else Jesus says about the church.  Secondly, Jesus says that “the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”  Now, usually we think that this means, “The devil can’t do anything to the church.  Hell can’t hurt the church.  The forces of evil cannot stop the church.”

That’s not at all what this means, although those statements are true.  Here Jesus is saying, “The gates of hell will not be able to stop the church on its victorious march.”

Do you remember the old black-and-white western movies?  Some of my favorites were movies like John Wayne’s Fort Apache, but it could be almost any western featuring the U. S. Cavalry, and Indians.  Of course, we now know that we were stealing the lands owned by native Americans, but that’s not my point.  My point is that in those movies, almost always there comes a time when the fort is under attack and they’re forced to close the gates.

And, for dramatic effect, as the gates are closing, the lone rider who many thought would be lost, comes riding in just in time to get inside the fort before the gates are closed.  Then, the Indians attack, but usually the gates hold and the Cavalry is victorious.

Okay, you’ve got that scene in your head.  Only imagine the fort is hell, hades, the world of the dead, and the church is launching an attack on the gates.  But this time, the gates don’t hold.  The church breaks through, death and hell are defeated, and God’s Kingdom is triumphant.

That’s what Jesus was saying.  The church, his church which he builds on the rock of confession, will triumph.  The church will win.

But Jesus goes on —

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

The church, built on the rock of confession that Jesus is the Christ, will become a keeper of the keys to the Kingdom.  What are they?  We don’t know exactly and scholars have debated this endlessly.  But we can get some hints by just asking ourselves what keys do.  Keys unlock locks.  Keys open doors.  Keys allow access where before the way was barred.

So, the church holds the keys to the Kingdom of heaven.  For me that means that we have the great privilege and responsibility of opening doors that others cannot open.  We can open a way to God.  We can unlock the gift of eternal life.  We who are in the church hold the keys of life — keys that unlock shackles that bind; keys that unlock prison doors.

And, Jesus says, whatever we unlock on earth, God will consider unlocked in heaven.  In other words, we in the church are acting with the authority of Christ.  We are his representatives, his ambassadors, with full authority to act on behalf of our King.

That’s the church we believe in.  That’s the church universal, the church of all believers from all times and places.  That’s the church of Jesus Christ, with all its earthly imperfections, its faults and failures, that’s the church to which Jesus has entrusted the keys to the Kingdom.

What we do with those keys is up to us.

Sermon: I Believe in the Holy Spirit

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow, Sunday, October 25, 2009.  This is the eighth in a 13-week series titled “Why We Need The Apostles’ Creed.” Today we look at the Holy Spirit.

I Believe in The Holy Spirit

25“All this I have spoken while still with you. 26But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. 27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.  — John 14:25-27

The Third Person in The Creed

I had the opportunity to speak to students at Duke Divinity School this past week, and to meet Dr. Curtis Freeman, who is the director of The Baptist House at Duke.  Dr. Freeman and I had a chance to chat later in the afternoon.  In the course of our conversation, my sermon series on The Apostles’ Creed came up, and Dr. Freeman was curious as to how that was going.  He had read about my intention to preach on the Creed this summer, and emailed me that he was going to be speaking at a conference in Alabama at Samford’s Beeson Divinity School — a Baptist university — on the Nicene Creed.  So, creeds seem to be more and more popular in Baptist life, not because we are in danger of adopting one officially, but because we believe the statements in the great creeds of Christianity.  He also told me that Duke Divinity was hosting Dr. Geoffrey Wainwright, distinguished professor in systematic theology.  Dr. Freeman told me that Wainwright uses The Apostles’ Creed as his outline for his sytematic theology lectures.  Of course, he’s a Methodist, which explains a lot, but nevertheless, I’m not so far out in doing this series after all.

So, let’s get down to business today.  The Apostles’ Creed could be easily divided into three main sections:

  1. The section affirming belief in “God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.”
  2. The second second on our affirmation in “Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord,”
  3. And, the third section, stating simply, “I believe in the Holy Spirit.”

Two powerful lines in the Creed are devoted to God, and ten lines are devoted to Jesus.  The two lines about God use high content titles to describe God — Father, Almighty, Creator.   Those three words describe our relationship to God; God’s own pre-eminence over everything; and, God’s creative act.

The ten lines about Jesus walk us through his life from his relationship to God, to his conception, birth, suffering, crucifixion, death, burial, descent into hell, resurrection, ascension back into heaven, his position at the right hand of God, and his sure return to judge the living and the dead.  Those ten lines cover a lot of territory, but they also tell a story familiar to us, and a story that forms the heart of the Christian faith.

At first glance, one might look at The Creed and think that there is only one line devoted to the Holy Spirit, and that line is not very descriptive — “I believe in the Holy Spirit.”  Period.  End of sentence.  But actually, a semicolon resides at the end of that phrase, connecting the Person of the Holy Spirit to that which follows.

In other words, our belief in the Holy Spirit acknowledges that it is the Holy Spirit who empowers the church, unites the saints, regenerates sinners, breathes resurrection life into transformed bodies, and sustains us in the life everlasting.

So, while we are going to talk about each of those things — the church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting — when we do, we will also be talking about the work of the Spirit.

So, the Holy Spirit is not getting short shrift in the Creed, or in our attention in this series.  But today, we’re going to stop at the very short, but powerful phrase — “I believe in the Holy Spirit.”

Who is The Holy Spirit, and How Did He (or She) Get Here?

Who, then is the Holy Spirit?  Well, if you read the popular work of inspirational fiction, The Shack, you remember that the author portrayed the Holy Spirit as a blithe female persona, flitting here and there in the blink of an eye.

We may not be ready to call the Holy Spirit “she” today, but by all means we should not call the Spirit “it.”  The classic understanding of the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, or any of the other names the Spirit is identified by is that the Holy Spirit is the Third Person of the Divine Trinity.

There is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit has always existed as co-eternal with God, of the same essence as Father and Son, and yet with unique ministry.

We encounter the Holy Spirit first in the first verses of Genesis, where the Spirit of God broods over the unformed earth.  The image there is one of a hen brooding over her chicks to bring them safely and carefully into full maturity.

“But,” you say, “I thought God the Father, Almighty was the creator of heaven and earth?”  God was, and here is where all this gets a little tricky.  It is very easy for us to talk about the Trinity, but very hard for us to explain the Trinity.

Perhaps this will help:  The Holy Spirit is the Person of the Trinity who encounters humankind here on earth.

  • So, when God creates the earth, and everything else, The Holy Spirit is the one who shows up to do the work.
  • When God sends his only Son to earth, The Holy Spirit is the Person of the Trinity who moves miraculously in Mary’s life so that she conceives Jesus.
  • When at Jesus’ baptism, God the Father says, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased,” it is the Spirit who descends upon Jesus in the form of a dove.
  • When God resurrects Jesus from the dead, it is the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit who breathes the breath of life into Jesus’ transformed body.

And, so the Holy Spirit is now God with us, and that is exactly what Jesus says to his disciples in the passage we read today.

Just as God sends Jesus to the earth, to humankind, so God the Father and God the Son send the Holy Spirit to earth to be God’s continuing presence with those early disciples and with us today.

Our Problem With The Holy Spirit

But, we are often like the believers in Ephesus.  When Paul arrived there for the first time, he asked them if they had received the Holy Spirit since they believed.  Their reply was, “We haven’t even heard if there is a Holy Spirit.”  And here’s why 21st century Christians in America sometimes act that way:  we’re not sure we want the Holy Spirit.

That’s right, we’re just not sure we want to go there.  We as Baptists are pretty sure we don’t want to do weird stuff, like speak in tongues, heal the sick, and jump pews.  We’ll leave all of that to our Pentecostal friends, thank you very much.  So, the first problem we have with the Holy Spirit is a problem of weirdness.

And, there is a lot of weirdness that takes place when the Holy Spirit is around.  On the Day of Pentecost, weird things happened — the sound of a rushing wind filled the place where the apostles were staying.  Flames of fire appeared over their heads, and they spoke in languages they had never learned.  So, what was that about?

Well, while it sounds weird, several things were going on at once.  For the Feast of Pentecost, Jews from all over the known-world had stayed in Jerusalem since the Passover.  They came from a variety of cities, nations, and tongues.  And, so the speaking in “unknown tongues” was a reversal of The Tower of Babel story.  Once, as recorded in the Book of Genesis, man had tried to make a name for himself and build a ziggurat that reached into the throne room of God.  But God frustrated that effort by confusing their language, mixing up their speech so that they could not understand one another and could not finish the project.

But at Pentecost, God unscrambles that confusion by giving Peter and the other apostles the ability to preach in languages they had not learned, so that everyone who was there, no matter where they were from, understood and heard the story of Jesus.  So, when God does weird stuff, it always has a purpose.

But, that doesn’t mean we want to be weird, and besides the Day of Pentecost has come and gone.

Which brings me to our real problem with the Holy Spirit:  we think that the Holy Spirit only does the weird, the miraculous, or the extraordinary.

But Jesus calls the Holy Spirit “the Comforter.”  That doesn’t sound too weird, or even miraculous.  Jesus said to the disciples that the Holy Spirit was “with you, and shall be in you.”  The Holy Spirit is the abiding presence of God in our lives.

I have often heard people remark during or after a particularly difficult time, “I don’t know how people who don’t believe in God are able to get through what I’ve just been through.”  That’s the work of the Holy Spirit, comforting, strengthening, caring, and guiding.  That’s not weird at all.

But whether we are comfortable talking about the Holy Spirit or not, the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives and the lives of all believers.

Get Used to The Holy Spirit Because He’s Our Down Payment on The Resurrection

Paul said that the Holy Spirit is the earnest money, the down payment on our own resurrection.  In 2 Corinthians 1:21-22, Paul says:

21Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, 22set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.

The Spirit is the guarantee, the down payment, of what is to come.  God gives us himself as personal guarantee of the fidelity of His promises, His saving grace, and our eternal place with Him.

So, it would seem like we need to know something of the Holy Spirit, because after all, the Holy Spirit is our guarantee of life everlasting.

The Holy Spirit Equips The Church

One of the primary purposes of the Holy Spirit is to give gifts to each follower of Christ.  Of course, the greatest gift is God’s gift of salvation, but there is more to being a follower of Jesus than just eternal life.  There’s life here in the body of Christ called the church.

Paul said that Christ is the head of the body, but that the Holy Spirit gives each of us gifts to fit into the body.  Some have supernatural gifts, some have more everyday type gifts, but none of us is overlooked in the gift-giving of the Holy Spirit.

If I were to suggest to you today that we could do what Jesus did, some of you would think that I was either speaking rhetorically, or I was exaggerating.  But that’s exactly what Paul, and Jesus himself, said.  The key to that, though, is we don’t do it alone.  By bringing our gifts, and using them in concert with the gifts of others, the body of Christ carries out the work and ministry of Christ in this world today.  Feeding people, healing people, announcing the good news, befriending the friendless, demonstrating kingdom values — all these things are only possible if we live in the Spirit, and express the gifts the Spirit of God has given to each of us.

The Spirit Also Wages Spiritual Battle

But, let’s not kid ourselves.  This world is a long way off from being what God intends for it to be.  The Lord’s Prayer asks for God’s will “to be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”  We are not close to having that prayer answered universally yet.

As a matter of fact, the Spirit is also fighting for us and the kingdom of God.  Now, we know how the story will end because Jesus has already defeated sin and death.  But have you ever watched those “nature-at-its-wildest” shows?  I saw a new one the other day called “Monsters of the River” or something like that.  The star was trying to catch some gigantic fish that lived in the Amazon, or a river pretty much like it.

The one thing they always say after they catch the gator, or croc, or in this case a fish that looked to me like the world’s largest catfish — the one thing they always say is, “Okay, be careful when we put him back in the water, because his tail can be deadly.”

And, that’s where we are today.  Satan is a defeated foe, the church knows its going to be victorious, but in his death throes, Satan’s tail can be deadly.

Paul said, “10Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.” — Eph 6:10-18 NIV

We’re in a spiritual battle, we’re to take the sword of the Spirit, we’re to pray in the Spirit — sounds like the Holy Spirit is doing a lot for us in the realm of the unseen world, that we need to know about.

I am reading David Augsburger’s book, Pastoral Counseling Across Cultures.  Augsburger is primarily speaking to those who will offer pastoral care and counseling to persons from cultures other than their own.  He told this story to illustrate the power of a world known to other cultures, if unknown to us:

In Indonesia, a man converted to Christianity from Islam.  He was troubled by a talisman — a gold coin — visible just below the surface of his skin, on the underside of his forearm.  He said that this talisman has brought him good luck, success, prosperity, and power in the past.

But when you examine his arm closely, you notice there is not scar or visible sign of how the gold coin got under his skin.  He says that a Muslim priest, a shaman of sorts, placed the coin on his arm, and then the shaman covered the coin with his own hand.  When he removed his hand, the coin was imbedded under the man’s skin.

The young man came forward during a worship service at his new church, asking the pastor for prayer for this talisman.  The pastor showed the young man’s arm, with the gold coin imbedded in it, to the congregation and asked them to pray that the power of the coin would be broken.

As the congregation prayed, the pastor placed his hand over the embedded gold coin, just as the Muslim priest had done.  As they prayed, the pastor removed his hand from the man’s arm.

The coin was no longer under the young man’s skin.  His arm is clear, scarless, and with no sign of the coin.  The pastor held up the coin in his hand as visible evidence to the congregation that the power of God was greater than the power of the coin.

That is a true story, and if we do not understand it, it is because the Holy Spirit works in ways beyond our comprehension or culture.

We do believe in the Holy Spirit for every time we weather a storm, bear a burden, survive a difficulty, or need comfort, the Spirit is there.  He is at work in our world, continuing the ministry of Jesus, at work in our lives through each assembly of believers called the church, and at work in the unseen world where the struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, and powers, and rulers of darkness.

Sweet, Holy Spirit, sweet heavenly dove,
Stay right here with us,
filling us with your love.
And for these blessings
we lift our hearts in praise,
Without a doubt we’ll know that we have been revived,
When we shall leave this place.

A New Model Merges Pastoral Care and Social Action

I am speaking tomorrow at Duke Divinity School to students in the Rural Ministry Colloquia, a monthly gathering of students involved in, or interested in, rural church ministry.  I have been asked to tell our story of how we started a community center, community music school, and several other projects here in our small town of 1300 people.

In addition to telling our story, I’m also going to share some very quick thoughts about the role of small churches in rural areas.  I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the theology and practice of pastoral care in a missional church, and how that is different from pastoral care in traditional churches.  I think I’ve come up with a least a few questions, if not fully-formed answers.  Here’s some of what I’ll share tomorrow:

  1. Missional theology and praxis calls for contextual, incarnational engagement with the community.  How does “the care of souls” fit into the missio Dei and our part in it?
  2. Why is pastoral care largely ignored in the on-going conversations about the tranformation of the church?
  3. Given the social structures of rural society, and the aging populations of small town and rural America, shouldn’t “the care of souls” be a part of our intentional ministry, and not just an afterthought during times of crisis?
  4. Considering the rampant poverty, increased alcohol and drug abuse problems, lower educational levels, and other social issues affecting rural areas, shouldn’t our care of people also include care for the community, and the transformation of communal issues?

I am also proposing tomorrow a new way to look at pastoral care and social action (which is not a term I like, but I can’t think of another more descriptive).

The typical pastoral care model is a dyad of both the spiritual and psychological care of a person or family.  The typical “social gospel” model (or social action model) is a dyad of  spiritual and sociological engagement with a community, or group in a community.

I am proposing a new model that is a synthesis of both pastoral care and social gospel — a triad of the spiritual, psychological, and sociological concerns addressed by both individual approaches to care, and communal approaches to care.

In the Bible, salvation is often seen as coming to a people, not just individuals.  Certainly, the salvation of Israel was not thought of as future, but as a present reality that God could, and often did, provide.  This does not diminish the importance and necessity of a personal response to Jesus’ call to “come and follow me” but rather it broadens that call to include the salvation of social systems and communities.

I believe that “the care of souls” is going to burst into our theological imaginations in new and exciting ways.  Some of those will be that care will be more relational and less educational; and, more contextual and less general.

The “care of souls” will also fill the gaps in the social fabric of rural communities who have lost much of their social framework to chain stores, increased mobility, and the loss of public spaces.  I am convinced that we need to see our communities, not just as potential additions to our membership roles, but as “sheep without a shepherd.”

Creating networks of caring, training spiritual directors, offering healing solutions to intractable social problems — these are some of the new ways in which pastoral care in the missional church finds new expression.   One of the primary tasks of churches is to make meaning out of life’s stages and events.  By viewing our communities, and the individuals and families within them, as in need of Christian care, I believe we change the tone and effect of what we are doing.

What do you think?  How has your church, small or large, had opportunity to express care both for individuals and the entire community?  How have you brought about community transformation through “the care of souls?”  I’m really interested in gathering examples of churches doing this because I think it’s the next new awareness of the missional movement.

Prayer for the Opening of Court on October 19, 2009

I have been asked to offer the prayer for a new session of court, which opens Monday, October 19.  The courtroom and anterooms of our 156-year old courthouse have also been renovated, and this is the first day court sessions will be held in the refreshed space.  Here’s the prayer I will offer:

Almighty God and Heavenly Father,

We invite your presence here in this room today, but not because this is a place of worship.  These antique pews could hold an assembled congregation, but those who gather in this room regularly do not gather here for devotions.  We invite your presence today, even though this is not a place of religious practice, because the proceedings of this court require Divine wisdom and guidance.

For this is the place where the accused and their accusers meet, not for revenge or retribution, but for an impartial hearing and rightly-delivered verdict.
This is the place where the law of this land, and of this community, stands as the arbiter of disputes both great and small.
This is the place where the common good is preserved, and the conscience of a community challenged.

And so our prayer today is first a prayer of gratitude.
We are thankful we live in a nation where laws govern our actions and interactions.
We are thankful for a heritage of freedom, tempered with responsibility and mutuality.
We are thankful for those engaged in the calling of the law, and those who serve this court in particular —
— for judges past and present, officers of this court, and the attorneys who stand at this bar to plead their causes before this bench.
May they sense Your hand in their endeavors, and seek Your guidance in their lives.

Our prayer today is also a prayer of dedication.
This historic building, a constant presence on Main Street generation-after-generation, bears powerful witness to our hope for order and decency.
This sanctuary of struggle-and-tears has seen families united and torn asunder; lives redeemed and destroyed; and dreams realized or denied.

For this is the place where truth and mercy meet.
This is the place where justice is done.

And even though the appearance of this court room has changed, let there be more than an appearance that justice is being done here.

Lord, we hear again the words of the prophet Micah —

He has showed you, O man, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

May this court and this courtroom be filled with the confidence of Your wisdom, the generosity of Your mercy, and the power of Your love.

Bless this nation we love so dearly, and those whom we have chosen to guide her path.  May peace come in our lifetime, and may Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

This is our prayer today, and we make it in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Amen.

Richard Land apologizes for Nazi reference

EthicsDaily.com carries the story today of Richard Land’s apology to the Jewish Anti-Defamation League for using Nazi references to characterize the health-care reform debate.

According to EthicsDaily.com today, “During a Sept. 26 gathering of the Christian Coalition of Florida, Land criticized Democratic health-care reform efforts by claiming that the Democrats were attempting to do ‘precisely what the Nazis did.’  He also compared Dr. Ezekiel Emmanuel, who is a health-care advisor to Obama, to German SS officer Josef Mengele.  Mengele was a doctor who was called the ‘Angel of Death’ because of his human experimentations during the Holocaust.”

Richard Land has served as president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission since 1988.

I wrote about this misuse of Nazi references on this blog two days ago.  It’s refreshing to see someone who has used such a reference apologize for the inappropriate reference to the horrific Holocaust experience. Nothing in modern human history is comparable to the state-designed, supported, and implemented genocide of Jews and other groups, including Gypsies and homosexuals, by the Nazi regime.

As the Anti-Defamation League statement suggests,  “Such comparisons diminish the history and the memory of the 6 million Jews and 5 million others who died at the hands of the Nazis and insults those who fought bravely against Hitler.”

Perhaps others will learn from Land’s experience and think twice before invoking images of the Holocaust to describe petty partisan squabbles.


Interview: Russell Rathbun, author of ‘nuChristian’

Russell RathbunRussell Rathbun, pastor of House of Mercy, has authored a new book, nuChristian: Finding Faith in a New Generation.  Rathbun’s title riffs off Kinnaman and Lyons’ book, unChristian, both visually and topically.  Rathbun knows what he’s talking about because he is one of the founding pastors of House of Mercy in 1996.

Judson Press sent me a review copy, which I read with appreciation because Russell seemed to be writing to traditional churches, providing guidance on how to engage with young adults.  Rather than a book review, I asked Russell if he would respond to a few questions.  He graciously agreed, and here’s the interview:

Chuck Warnock: As I was reading the book, I could see our congregation, comprised primarily of older adults, really benefitting from your insights on how to connect with a new generation.  Who did you write the book for, and do you anticipate it being studied by established congregations?

Russell Rathbun: I wrote the book for churches, pastors and the folks in the pews who have  already begun to maybe have gotten a hint that there is something different going on that isn’t represented in their churches and are interested in exploring what ever that is (how is that for a nonspecific over qualified sentence?).  I really hope that it will be used as the beginning of a continuing discussion.

CW: I’m hearing  a lot about “authenticity” these days.  How does a church navigate between being authentic and making changes necessary to reach out to a new generation?

NuChristianRGBRR: That really is an important question.  And I think the answers are difficult.  I really would like to say that, if you are a church with no one under 50 years old, that the best thing you can do is figure out who you are, what you love, how God has called you to be the church in your context and do that—be who you are.  Don’t try to be something else, it won’t work and it won’t be true.  But, you know, by doing that, there is a good chance that you are not going to attract a lot of people under 50, which means the church wont be around in 25 years.  But on the other hand, what do I know?  I guess I do know that if we are honest, authentic, about what God has called us to do, beautiful things happen.  I hope people in churches like I’ve described really feel the gracious freedom to be who they are.

CW: Some of my members would have a problem with your statement, “Love people; don’t save them.”  In our church, most of our members “got saved” as the result of an evangelistic, revival-type meeting or message.  How would you help an established, traditional church that is accustomed to “crisis” conversions become open to a more gradual process of transformation?


RR: I don’t want to say that people have to change their understanding of the process of salvation (even though it might be different than mine),  maybe just refocus a little on some of the important ways that Jesus talks about making disciples and loving the neighbor, to maybe realize the Holy Spirit was able to speak to them in a way that compelled them to pursue Jesus and that the Holy Spirit is probably capable of speaking to others as well, so maybe we love and serve, and the Holy Spirit does the speaking.

CW: If your book was intended as a kind of answer to books like unChristian by Dave Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, what would you say are the key steps a congregation needs to take to connect with a new generation?  I realize you took a whole book to answer this question, but if you had to summarize in one or two statements, what are the core elements?


RR: Get know know them.  Ask questions you don’t already know the answers to.  Meet people you have never met before and enter into open relationship with them.

CW: You’re really doing this stuff you write about, and you use House of Mercy as examples of how you have reached a new generation.  What issues is House of Mercy facing now that present new challenges to you?


RR: We are facing the challenge of transitioning from a young, upstart community to being a church institution that has a youth group and volunteers to help with potlucks and all that stuff.  How do you become a church institution in a way that reflects who we are.

Thanks, Russell.  Check out reviews of nuChristian at the book’s website.

Paying Attention to the Outrageous

Hitler_w_youngmenSomebody did it again.  They compared one of our political leaders to Hitler.  It really doesn’t matter who did it because this is becoming a regular tactic for the extremists.  The frustrating thing is they get what they want — publicity.

The media pounce on their pronouncements as though the words they uttered were the first like them.  Bloggers and political sites pick up the refrain — “How dare they invoke the name of Hitler!” The outrage is palpable, and then the next day it starts all over again.

Frankly, I’m tired of it.  I’m tired of pop media personalities cheapening the tragedy of the Holocaust with their self-serving tirades.  If this is what passes for discourse and dialogue in America, we are at a new low.

But I also tell myself we must be on the cusp of change because so many are so afraid right now.  In times of turbulent change, the dividers voices are often the loudest.  It was that way during the Civil Rights struggle, it was that way during the Viet Nam war protests, and it’s that way again.

But I also know that the nascent signs of change in churches are encouraging.   Multi-ethnic congregations are blossoming, and new expressions of church are springing up in unlikely places.  Multi-culturalism is becoming almost as popular a topic among church conference planners as multi-site strategies.  More and more congregations are moving out into their communities, connecting with new groups of people who are helped, and who in turn change the helpers. Just as some courageous churches led the way in seeking justice for African-Americans, and later in seeking peace, these churches are the bellwether for change in our society.

That’s what we should be paying attention to — this new consciousness that I have not seen before in so many churches.  A consciousness of need, but of more than need.  An awareness of our responsibility as followers of Jesus to make a difference in the lives of people around us.  Next week I’m speaking to Duke Divinity School students about rural church ministry.  I’m going to talk about this new thing I see happening because it is unprecedented.

Examples emerge in unlikely places.  A church heals its community by planting a community garden in the wake of a local murder.  Another church reaches out to bikers and blue collar workers, not just for worship, but to help create jobs for them.  Churches feed people now in towns where before that need went unmet.  Kids are given school supplies, and encouraged to come after school for tutoring to an urban church that provides a safe haven until their working-class parents get home.

Change must be on the way because the voices of fear are growing louder and more shrill each day.  That’s the reason I pay attention to the outrageous statements of those publicity seekers.  I pay attention because I believe their outrageous statements carry with them a harbinger of hope, an indicator of impending change.   Let’s hope so, and let’s find a place to bring about that change.