Tag: hospitality

Sermon: When The Bread Was Broken

When The Bread Was Broken

Luke 24:13-35 NIV/84

3 Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. 14They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. 15 As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; 16 but they were kept from recognizing him.

17 He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?”

They stood still, their faces downcast. 18 One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you only a visitor to Jerusalem and do not know the things that have happened there in these days?”

19 “What things?” he asked.

“About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. 20 The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; 21 but 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. 22 In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning 23 but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. 24 Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.”

25 He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

28 As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus acted as if he were going farther. 29 But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.

30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. 32 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?”

33 They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together 34 and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” 35 Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.

Have You Ever Eaten With Any Body Who Was Famous?

Have you ever eaten with anybody famous?  Well, I thought I was going to once, when I got an invitation to breakfast with Jimmy Carter when he was running for president.  But, I think I told you that when I arrived at the hotel early that Sunday morning, there was no breakfast, only a cup of coffee, because all the danish had already disappeared.

But, I came close one day in Nashville.  I was in a local bakery called Bread and Company in Green Hills near where we lived. It was lunch time and I was about to order a sandwich, when in walked Reese Witherspoon with her new baby.  She was not glamorous at all.  She looked just like anybody else with a new baby — sweat pants, a T-shirt, and running shoes.  However, she did not invite me to join her for lunch, so I got my sandwich and left.  Well, today we have a story about a couple of guys who almost got to eat with someone famous, too.

The Wonderful Story of the Emmaus Road 

Today we have a wonderful story about an appearance of Jesus after his resurrection.  You know this story, the road to Emmaus story.  It is the evening of resurrection Sunday.    Two followers of Jesus, not members of the disciple band which has now shrunk to eleven with the death of Judas, are walking back home.  They are headed to the little village of Emmaus, which Luke tells us was about 7 miles from Jerusalem.

How long would it take three men accustomed to walking everywhere to walk 7 miles?  Well the average human can walk about 3 miles an hour, so maybe 2 or 3 hours because it sounds like they are walking slowly, and sadly.

Now let’s assume that Jesus joins them about 30-minutes outside of Jerusalem.  That would make sense because there is still quite a large crowd of people who have come for Passover, and are staying until Pentecost, because both of these are important feast days in Jewish life.

The Jewish historian, Josephus, recorded that in the first century there were 256,500 sacrifices made in the Temple for that Passover.  He calculated that no more than 10 people would sacrifice together, so he arrived at a figure of approximately 10-times the number of sacrifices, or 2.7-million people present in Jerusalem.  I personally think that is a little high, just based on the size of Jerusalem, but other scholars have estimated that over 1-million people crowded into the city of Jerusalem for Passover.  This is a city that normally housed about 120,000-to-200,000.  So, even if the population swelled to 5-times its normal size, that’s a big crowd in a relatively small city.

My point is that Jesus could join these two disciples outside the city without being noticed, especially if it is getting late, and everyone is scurrying home after a busy workday.  Because, remember, we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection by worshipping on what the first century Christians came to call “the Lord’s Day” but they did not.

So, Cleopas and another unnamed disciple are heading for home.  Undoubtedly they have been with the disciples because they are amazed that their walking companion hasn’t heard the news about Jesus.  Even though crucifixions were not rare in the area around Jerusalem — Rome had crucified 2,000 residents of Jerusalem during the uprising when Herod the Great died — the crucifixion of Jesus had gotten everyone’s attention.

So they ask their companion, “Are you only a visitor to Jerusalem?” meaning, “Where have you been, man?  How could you have missed what has happened during the past three days?”

And so they tell about Jesus.  First, they back off a little bit when they describe him — “He was a prophet”  but then they add, “powerful in the things he both said and did.”

But “they crucified him.”  And, revealing their profound sorrow and disappointment, they add, “We had hoped that he would be the one to redeem Israel.”  Meaning, of course, to overthrow the Roman rule, restore the sovereignty of the nation, and establish again a king on the throne of David.

“But,” they said, “its been three days.” In addition, they added that the women had a crazy story of Jesus being gone, and angels appearing to them who said Jesus was alive.  But, of course, the disciples investigated and they found the tomb empty just like the women said, but not angels and no Jesus.

Then, Jesus, still unknown to them, begins to teach them.  Of course, Jesus Bible was what we call the Old Testament, the Law and the Prophets.  And so Jesus walks them through the prophecies that tell about the Messiah.

But the most amazing question he asks them is this — “Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?”

Of course, we understand from this side of the empty tomb that that is exactly what happened, but they didn’t.  One of the reasons they didn’t was because popular Jewish thought of that day did not allow for the Messiah to suffer.  Isaiah talks about a “suffering servant” but many thought that was the one who would come before the Messiah.  Little did they know that the Messiah himself would suffer, and die, and rise from the grave.

And after all of that, they still don’t get it.  But the hour is getting late, and it was the custom of that day to ask a stranger who had nothing to eat to join you for food, and then to offer him shelter.

So, Cleopas and the other disciple ask Jesus to eat with them.  Preparations are made, the food is placed on the table, and then Luke says —

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them.

How many times had Jesus done that before?  How many times had they eaten together, either out in the hills of Galilee or at a friend’s home, or with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, or in a room like the upper room where they share their last meal together.

Jesus begins his ministry with eating and drinking actually.  At the wedding in Cana of Galilee, he turns water into wine.  All the guests are amazed because usually the host serves the best first, but the guests at that wedding thought the host had saved the best for last.

He feeds 5,000 on one occasion, and 4,000 on another.  Even on the hilllside the ritual is the same – Jesus thanks God, breaks the bread, and the disciples distribute it.  And not only is there enough, there are 12 basketfuls left over — one basket for each of the 12 disciples who did not believe there was anyway possible to feed 5,000 people.

But Jesus is also accused, because it’s true, of eating with tax collectors and sinners.  Apparently, those are two separate categories, because to call a tax collector a sinner in the first century was an insult to sinners!

He’s also accused of eating and drinking too much, because his detractors call him a glutton and a drunkard.  But, for people like Zacchaeus, the diminutive tax collector who plays host to Jesus for a dinner, Jesus is a life-changing guest.

And, then the last time he is with his disciples, Jesus takes the bread, blesses it and breaks it, and says, “this is my body, take and eat.”

It is at the blessing and breaking of the bread that these two disciples recognize Jesus.  Not at Bible study while they’re walking on the road with him.  But at the table where they have shared fellowship together.

It was when the bread was broken that they realized who Jesus really was.

It was when the bread was broken that all the Bible study made sense.

It was when the bread was broken and he handed them the pieces he had blessed that they knew that the Bread of Life stood before them.

The Story of Broken Bread

So, what do we make of this story today?  Well, it’s a great story.  It’s one of my favorite stories told about the 11-or-so appearances of Jesus.  I like it because you can see it.  You can see the sorrow and grief in the faces of these two disciples.  You can see the long dusty road, taking them back to their home, a home that possibly Jesus had visited before.  You can see the three companions talking, gesturing, shuffling their sandal-clad feet through the dust on the well-worn pathway.

You can also see the wonder and delight.  The joy when they realize who their companion has been.  The energy that seizes them immediately upon their recognition of Jesus.  They turn and run quickly back the 7-miles they have just slowly plodded along. They run back and tell the Eleven, the original disciple band, that “when he broke the bread” they knew it was Jesus.

So, what else does this story say to us today?  Other than being a really good story with great characters and drama?

I think the thing it says to me is that Jesus is known best and recognized most quickly when he is offering us his hospitality.  Even though it was not his house, Jesus assumes the role of host.  Even though these men do not recognize him, he assumes that it is his responsibility to be hospitable.  They have invited him, now he returns their offer of hospitality with his own.

And so he does what he has done a thousand times.  He gives thanks to God his Father, he blesses the bread; and, then he breaks the solid loaf, to give to each person present.

Jesus demonstrates gratitude and bounty.  He is thankful, and there is enough.  He acts to acknowledge the gift and the Giver, and then gives to those who need food.

It is in our hospitality that others can see Jesus.  Even if they can’t see him in our Bible studies, or in our worship services, it is when we share table fellowship, and take the risk of hospitality that Jesus is most clearly seen.

Hospitality is not about eating with friends and family.  Hospitality is about welcoming the stranger, risking rejection, risking our reputations, risking all that we are to show those who have nothing who Jesus is.

So, Jesus ate with sinners and tax collectors.  Of course, we know that we are all sinners.  But in first century Judaism, there was a distinction made between the righteous and the unrighteous.  The righteous were those who kept the Law, like our friends the Pharisees.  Of course, they were righteous by their own understanding of what that meant, but nevertheless, they were considered righteous, which was the opposite of being a sinner.

We have another good picture of that when Jesus tells the story of the two men who go up to the Temple to pray.  One is  Pharisee, the other a publican or tax collector.  The Pharisee prays, “Lord, I thank you that you have not made me like that man.”  The publican prays, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.”

That’s the difference.  So, Jesus eats with people whose hands aren’t clean, and whose lives are even worse.  He eats with them because no one else who represents God will.  The chief priests won’t.  The Pharisees won’t.  The Sadduccees won’t.  No one will eat with them because no one who was righteous wanted to eat with an unclean sinner.

So, when Mother Teresa started her home for the dying in Calcutta, she went to people no one else wanted.  Not sick people who could get better, and whose photographs could fill the pages of a glossy brochure proclaiming the success of her mission.  No, she not only opened a home for the dying, she went into the streets and helped them come to a place where they could die attended by kindness and caring nuns and volunteers.

When Albert Schweitzer saw two men beating a sick horse all the way to the stockyard where the horse was going to be slaughtered, he kept the picture of that poor animal in his head until he decided that he would study medicine and go to Africa as a doctor.

To live a life of hospitality is to welcome others into your life, at great cost to yourself.  Hospitality isn’t just tea and cookies.  Hospitality is sharing our lives with those who need us most.  And those are usually the people we want the least to do with.

Hospitality is kindness, compassion, concern, caring, provision, openness, and love.  Hospitality is an act of unselfishness at great expense by a Samaritan toward a Jew who was beaten on the road.

Hospitality is welcoming children as we did this morning, into our circle of faith, realizing that the investment we make in them as parents and as a community will not pay off now or in 10 years, or in 20 years.  But recognizing that what was passed on to us, we need to pass on to them.

When we practice hospitality, that is when the world sees Jesus in our lives and actions.  Its one thing to feed the poor, its another to eat with them.

When I worked a the Greater Nashville Arts Foundation in the early 1990s, one of the projects the Art Foundation sponsored was lunch for the homeless.  But, this wasn’t a sandwich handout from the back of a van.  The Foundation conference room was opened to business people and the homeless who shared a meal together, and then discussed the current book they were all reading.  No mention was made of the “plight of the homeless.”  In that room men and women who had lost their dignity because they lived on the streets, reclaimed some of it for one hour, as they shared their thoughts on great literature with other men and women gathered around that table.

When he broke the bread, they recognized him.  Wouldn’t it be great if the same could be said for us as we practice hospitality in a world that seeks to divide us into categories, rather than unite us in Christ.

Entertaining Angels: Open to the Numinous

Entertaining Angels:  Open To The Numinous

2Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it. — Hebrews 13:2 NIV

Where Were We?

Our return to worship today after two weeks out due to snow reminds me of those old serialized radio shows that were so popular back in the 1930s and 1940s.  Before we got our first TV, I remember sitting at the kitchen table listening to The Lone Ranger on the radio. As each new episode began, the voice-over to the action went something like this —

When we last saw our hero, he was trapped in a burning building with no way to escape.  Will he survive, or is this the end of the Lone Ranger?

Or something like that.  Anyway, the point was to bring the listener up-to-date on the action.  So, let me do the same today.

The last time we met, which was January 24, 2010, I had just begun a series of sermons on angels.  Here’s what we covered so far:

— On January 3, we started off with the first sermon titled, “Who Are Angels and Why Do We Need Them?”

— On January 10, we looked a “Angels as the Servants of Christ.”

— Then, on January 17, after the earthquake devastated Haiti, I addressed that tragedy with a sermon titled, “Who Sinned? The Problem of Human Suffering.”

— On January, 24, we thought about “Angels as the Messengers and Armies of God.”

So, that’s where we’ve been.  We have filled in the gaps from Sundays on Wednesday nights as we shared our own stories of God’s supernatural intervention in our lives.  Interestingly, most of us had some kind of story, that either happened to us or someone close to us, of an encounter with angels.  Or, at least, that’s how we each interpreted those events.

So, today, we’re back, but I’ve had to do some rearranging of the topics I intended to cover because I want to finish this series before February 28, when we will have the privilege of hearing our Baptist association’s furloughing missionaries, Rev. and Mrs. Ed Ridge, for WMU Focus Sunday.  By then we’ll be in the season of Lent, and preparing for Holy Week and the resurrection of Christ on Easter.  Time, as they say, waits for no man.  Or even angels.

Which brings me to our topic today.  This series of sermons on angels is titled, “Entertaining Angels.”  Each week the subtitle reveals where we’re going for that Sunday, and today is no exception.

Today, we’re looking at Hebrews 13:2, from which I took the series title, and we’re thinking about being “Open to the Numinous.” What, you might ask, is “the numinous?”

Well, according to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, “numinous” means —

Main Entry: nu·mi·nous
Pronunciation: \ˈnü-mə-nəs, ˈnyü-\
Function: adjective
Etymology: Latin numin-, numen numen
Date: 1647

1 : supernatural, mysterious
2 : filled with a sense of the presence of divinity : holy
3 : appealing to the higher emotions or to the aesthetic sense : spiritual

So, that’s what we’re thinking about today, and that was really one of the main reasons I wanted to do this series on angels — to get us to thinking about the fact that God is still active in our world, and that his messengers, God’s holy angels, are still ministering today just as they did before any human beings were around to encounter them.  That’s what the numinous is — an encounter with the divine, the holy.  Like the stories we told about our encounters with angels.

But too often we treat those “angel stories” as the exception, when in the Bible and in the Hebrew tradition that ranges back over 3500 years, encounters with God and God’s angels were expected, anticipated, and cherished.

Entertaining Angels Unawares

I like the old way the King James Version of our Bible translates the passage we read this morning —

2Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. — Hebrews 13:2 KJV

There’s a quaintness to the King James’ English that is in itself mystical:  “…some have entertained angels unawares.”

When Alan Jones, the former Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, made a trip to Egypt several years ago, he visited the Coptic Monastery of St. Macarius the Egyptian.  Macarius was one of the legendary “Desert Fathers” — Christians of the fourth and fifth centuries after Christ who retreated to the desert to escape the decadence of urban life, and the lack of spiritual vitality in the Church of their day.  So, even after 1500 years, some things don’t change!

Jones said that when he arrived at the monastery, he was greeted by an old monk named Father Jeremiah.  Father Jeremiah’s long beard and friendly manner captivated Jones.  What struck Alan Jones the most was that here he was, an Episcopal priest of some considerable standing, visiting a Coptic monastery, and yet he was welcomed without a word of discussion or debate about the differences between the two traditions.

Father Jeremiah gave him a tour of the grounds, including the tombs of John the Baptist, and the Old Testament prophet Elisha.  Ancient tradition said that the two great prophets of God — one of the Old and one of the New Testament — were buried side-by-side.  Their remains, called relics, had been venerated for generations, and had been moved to Alexandria at one time.  But in 1976, the remains of both had been brought back and re-buried at the monastery.

After Father Jeremiah related that story, he paused for a moment.  He smiled and said,

“Of course, it does not matter whether you believe any of this or not.  All that matters here is brotherly love.”

Jones said that as his visit concluded, Father Jeremiah presented him with three gifts — a handful of flowers and herbs gathered from the monastery gardens, a meal to refresh and sustain him, and 3 vials of oil for healing.  All three gifts were presented without introduction or explanation, as though they could speak for themselves.

When Jones commented on the hospitality of the monastery, Father Jeremiah replied with a laugh —

“We always treat guests as angels, just in case!”

Our Ministry to Angels

And, that’s my point today.  When we think of angels, we usually think about what they do.  They deliver God’s messages to humankind.  They protect us.  They deliver us.  They watch over us.  They do battle for us.  They minister to us.

But what about our ministry to the angels?  Do we have one?  And, if so, what is it?  How do we go about ministering to angels?  And, how will we know when we have done it?

Well, our scripture today gives us some help.  The author of Hebrews is concluding his letter to the band of believers in chapter 13.  In the first verse he says —

1Keep on loving each other as brothers.

Then in the verses that follow verse 2, he says —

3Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.

And right away, we’re reminded of the ministry of Jesus.  Jesus taught the disciples to love each other, so much so that he said to them, “Greater love has no one than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

But, he also taught them to care for others.  In that important passage in Matthew 25, as the angels have come at the end of time to help Christ in the final judgment, Jesus commands the angels to separate the sheep from the goats.  The sheep are those who have heard the Good Shepherd, and the goats are those who have not.

And what did the sheep do that pleased Jesus?  You know this passage —

35′For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

Paul echoes the words of Jesus in his last instructions to these Jewish Christians — love each other, entertain strangers, visit the prisoners, and care for the suffering.  And when you do those things, you might be entertaining angels, whether you know it or not.

Receiving Others as God’s Messengers

We most often think of angels making an appearance like the angels who appeared when Jesus was born.  Apparently their presence was so dazzling and glorious that the shepherds who were tending their flocks that night were terrified.  And so the angels said, “Fear not, for behold we bring you good tidings of great joy!”

And while there are other passages where the first words out of the mouths of angels are “Fear not”, there are also stories of angels appearing to people, but they look like ordinary men.  Three angels appear to Abraham and Sarah, telling them that Sarah will have a child.  Sarah laughed at that news because she was in her 90s and Abraham was close to 100.

Way back on January 3, when we began this look at angels, we said that angels are the messengers of God.  We need to be open to those who might be God’s messengers to us, who might teach us something we need to know about ourselves and about God’s love.

When we lived in Tennessee, we attended a large church whose membership consisted largely of professionals — doctors, lawyers, business executives, university professors, and research scientists.   But the church was a warm and welcoming congregation, and there was also an open door for those who were not career professionals.

One of those people was a man named Harrington.  Harrington was probably in his 50s, with grey hair and a short grey beard.  It was apparent that Harrington had some challenges.  His speech pattern was halting and words came with some difficulty.  Debbie and I had been asked to host the class for prospective church members, which met for 13-weeks in the church fellowship hall.  Harrington was one of our regulars.  If he wasn’t there for the entire session, he usually came in toward the end, and he would stick around while we were cleaning up to talk to me.

Frankly, Harrington made me a little nervous.  I wasn’t sure about him, and tried to keep my conversations with him as brief as possible.  I asked the pastor about Harrington, and was told that he had suffered some difficulty at birth, but that his family had been a wealthy and respected family in the Nashville area.  That put me somewhat at ease, but I still wondered about him.

One day, Harrington approached me at church with a pen and his notebook in hand.  He handed me both and said, “Write down your address.”  That was the sum total of his request, no explanation, no reason given.  All sorts of thoughts ran through my mind — Why does he want our address?  Is he going to come to our house?  How can I not do this?

But, in the 3-seconds it took me to think those thoughts, I couldn’t come up with any way to avoid fulfilling his request.  So, reluctantly and with great concern, I wrote our address in his book.  I noticed others had done the same, so I figured that Harrington had made the rounds of his church friends with the same request.  That was in November.

Nothing happened.  No Harrington appeared at our home uninvited, and I forgot about the experience.  About a week before Christmas, I went to get the mail, and there were several Christmas cards for us.  Not surprising, since Christmas was around the corner.

As we looked at the Christmas cards, there was one with no return address.  We opened the envelope, and the card to see who had sent it.  Inside, signed in a halting hand, were the words, “Merry Christmas, Harrington.”

And right then I felt like the worst person on earth.  Harrington wanted our address to send us a Christmas card.  I am sure it must have taken him weeks to prepare and mail the cards to all his friends at church.  What came so easily to us, came with great effort to Harrington.  Which made the card that much more special.

When we saw Harrington at church the next Sunday, we thanked him for his card.  Later, he invited us to have lunch with him at the restaurant where he worked.  Harrington became a good friend, one whose conversations I looked forward to.  Harrington was God’s angel, delivering a powerful message from God  — “I am one of God’s children, too.”

An Ancient Celtic Prayer

There is an ancient Celtic prayer that Debbie and I have read many times.  This version appears in the book, Celtic Daily Prayer, and it reads —

Christ, as a light

illumine and guide me.

Christ, as a shield

overshadow me.

Christ under me;

Christ over me;

Christ beside me

on my left and my right.

This day be within and without me,

lowly and meek, yet all-powerful.

Be in the heart of each to whom I speak;

in the mouth of each who speaks unto me.

This day be within and without me, lowly and meek, yet all powerful.

The idea that Christ is present in “the mouth of each who speaks unto me” is the idea that God’s messengers, God’s angels, come to us unexpectedly at times.  And they may come without us being aware of who they are.

After Father Jeremiah had told Alan Jones that the monks at St. Macarius Monastery always treated guests like angels, “just in case,” Jones later wrote —

“Being willing to explore the possibility of entertaining angels seemed to me to be both compassionate and perceptive, because it challenges the believer to live in a constant state of expectancy, openness, and vulnerability.”  — Soul Making: The Desert Way of Spirituality, Alan Jones, pg. 14.

“Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.”

Oh, and Harrington, well he’s still at it, delivering God’s messages. This past week in the church newsletter this announcement appeared —

YOU ARE INVITED –  Harrington would like to invite all church members, family, and friends to the church on this Wednesday.  Harrington will give a talk titled “My New Home,” about the assisted-living home, where he lives now.  Everyone is welcome!”

The Upside of the Economic Downturn

Today the stock market fell another 500 points.  Iceland may go bankrupt, NPR reported today.  Euro-countries are aligning their financial strategies so they speak with one economic voice.  Government leaders are already talking about more federal dollars, in addition to the $700-billion just voted by Congress.  And the bad news keeps coming.  Churches, I pointed out yesterday, will feel the fallout from this economic meltdown.  But, is there an upside?  Not to trivialize the situation, but yes, I think there is an upside for churches in this economic turndown.

  1. Churches will be forced to focus.  We’re cutting our church budget this year by about 10%.  To do that, we have to look carefully at what is really important to our mission and message.  That kind of attention and discipline will make us more effective in ministry.
  2. People will turn to churches for help.  Plan now for ways to help those who need money for utilities, food to feed their families, and warm coats for the cold winter.  This preparation must go beyond the typical food pantry, clothes closet that most churches have, although those can be a good starting point.  
  3. Communities will pull together.  When Katrina hit, our church called together the entire community to discuss ways we might help.  People want to help others, and churches can unite the community in that effort.
  4. Church can demonstrate an alternative to the consumer society.  If church is an alternative community living out the message of Christ, what better example is there than living out an alternative to the current consumerist approach that drives the global economy.  Generosity, hospitality, sharing, sacrificing, giving, saving, stewardship of resources are all attributes of a Christian lifestyle.  
Is this economic downturn good?  Not in my opinion because lots of real people will lose savings, retirement accounts, their homes, and their jobs.  But, churches can become a powerful force in the months, and possibly years, it will take to recover from the current turmoil.  This will not go away quickly according to most experts.  Churches can make a difference.  What about yours?

Ten marks of the church-as-abbey

celtic-abbey.jpg Models for how we should do church are not in short supply.  Seeker-sensitive, purpose-driven, emerging, missional, traditional, liturgical, ancient-future, and the like all have their merits.  I am really interested in the church-as-abbey concept myself.  I have read extensively about the early Celtic Christian church and find it intriguing and encouraging.  In that research I identified 10 characteristics of the church-as-abbey, as I call it, or abbey church, for short.  Here are the essential characteristics, or marks, of what I mean when I use the church-as-abbey model:

  1. Worship.  The church-as-abbey has at its heart the practice of worship.  But worship that is public, powerful, and brings one into the presence of God through some type of intentional liturgy, whether formal or not.  But not every parishioner of the abbey will attend every service.  The idea is not to get everyone to one service, but to provide opportunities for worship that abbey adherents can participate in regularly, if not weekly.
  2. Arts.  The church-as-abbey celebrates creativity as a gift from a creative God.  The arts reflect our connection to creation and God’s creative power.  The arts are expression, statement, witness, and beauty for a world that needs all of those things.
  3. Hospitality.  The Celtic abbey was open to all who needed its hospitality and help.  Monks, even those fasting, would interrupt their discipline to greet and welcome those who came into the abbey’s confines.  Welcoming the stranger is a vital part of the abbey’s ministry.
  4. Economics.  The abbeys were self-supporting, engaged in cultivating fields, raising livestock, operating public markets, and giving employment opportunities to the community.  I read about a church the other day that also operates a farmers’ market, and has been doing so for years.  I am exploring the agrarian movement, particularly as it attracts followers of Christ.  More on that later.
  5. Learning and scholarship.  The Celtic monasteries became the centers of learning, preservation of sacred and literary manuscripts, and schools of instruction. The amazing Book of Kells is the prime example.  See How the Irish Saved Civilization for other examples.
  6. Catechesis and spiritual direction.  For new converts, the abbey provided initial instruction.  For more mature converts, the abbott or abbess provided spiritual direction and aided in spiritual formation.
  7. Rule of life in community.  The Rule of St. Benedict is the most famous of these “rules of life” but there were many others that defined the monastic community’s social and spiritual interaction.
  8. Ministry to the marginalized.  The poor, hungry, disenfranchised, sick, old, and disabled found help of various kinds within the abbey’s compound.
  9. Peace and justice.  St. Patrick was the first person in recorded history to speak out against the Irish slave trade.  Patrick’s appeals eventually resulted in the end of the Irish slave trade, of which Patrick himself had been a victim.  Patrick also prevailed upon the Irish kings and warlords to live in peace with one another, as much as they were able.  The abbey bears that same responsibility today.
  10. External missions.  Celtic priests, including some of the well-known figures such as Columba, went on extended “missions” to areas removed from the abbey.  In a reimagination of this practice, the missional church-as-abbey establishes external groups but groups with ties to the abbey church.  This is the area with which I am struggling now, but I believe it is a core part of the abbey concept.  These groups are not “missions” in the sense of international missions, but rather are groups that are “distant” from the abbey either in travel, culture, or status, but that have a connection to the abbey as “mother church.”

But, you say, “Where is evangelism, ministry, and education — those staples of the church as we know it today?”  The 10 marks of the abbey church above contain evangelism, ministry, and education, but from a new perspective.  George Hunter, in his intriguing book, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, says that in the Celtic Christian abbey “belonging” came before “believing.”   Prospective converts were incorporated into the community before they became believers in Christ.  Not a bad model for us today, which is one of the main reasons I like the abbey approach.  What do you think?