Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Whatever Kind of Love, Take Care of Each Other

Simon, do you agapao me more than these?
Yes, I phileo you.

Simon, do you agapao me?
Yes, I phileo you.

Simon, do you phileo me?
Yes, I phileo you.

This is a watered down version of the series of three questions Jesus asks Simon Peter in John 21:15-17. For each of the Greek words I’ve italicized, the NRSV translation is “love.”

So, at one time I thought that the point was in the repetition. Jesus asked three times to counteract the three denials, and Peter was hurt because Jesus had to ask him three times if he loved him, as if Jesus didn’t trust his first two answers. It was the number of times Jesus asked that was at the heart of the passage.

Then I learned Greek, and saw that the first two times Jesus asked, he used a different word than he did the third time. Jesus asked with “agapao the first two times, and “phileo” the second time. So I thought it was the fact that Jesus changed the meaning, from a self-sacrificial abiding love to more of a mutual friendship kind of love. And that is why Peter was hurt, because he realized he didn’t love Jesus the way Jesus wanted him to.

And then I read some commentaries, many of which say that John used the words agapao and phileo as synonyms throughout his Gospel, and that’s how they were being used here. So it was back to thinking that it was the number of times Jesus asked that hurt Peter, not the content of love.

And then I realized that it isn’t two different questions Jesus asks - it is three. The first question includes the phrase “more than these.” Jesus doesn’t just change the question between #2 and #3; he changes each question. The exegetical move I have made here is: it doesn’t matter how John uses the two different terms elsewhere. What matters is how he is using them here.

If I might paraphrase the three questions:
1) Do you have a selfless and abiding love for me more than you do for anyone or anything else?
          Simon: Jesus, you're like a brother to me!
2) Well, do you at least have a selfless and abiding love for me?
          Simon: Yeah, well, you're like a brother to me, man.
3) Okay, so do you love me like you would love a brother, then?
          Simon: Yep. I suppose so. 

See, I do not think we have to choose between Peter being hurt by the triple repetition and Peter being hurt by the changing questions. I think it is quite possible he is hurt by both. He is hurt because he realizes that he does not have the kind of love for Jesus that Jesus asks of him.

And whatever the question, whatever the response, Jesus’s comeback is, “Take care of people.” Feed them, tend them. Be a shepherd for the flock, lambs and sheep alike. Take care of people.

In other words, whatever your relationship with Jesus looks like, the corresponding call is going to be the same. We’re supposed to take care of each other. Whatever kind of love (or not) we have for Jesus.

Take care of each other.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Church Membership: Part 2 - "Why Bother?"

A friend of mine comes to worship at our church when she’s not out of town for work. She’s gung-ho about mission and service, and has served with tireless compassion and dedication on several mission trips.

But she hasn’t joined the church. She’s not a “member.” When I ask her about it, she says that since she’s out of town so much for her work, she isn’t able to be here as much as she would like to. And if she can’t make the commitment, she isn’t going to join.

I cannot begin to tell you how much I respect her for that!

Nobody should ever pressure a person to join a church. It’s something a person chooses to do. My friend worships, serves, gives; from outward appearances she seems like one of the most active members of the congregation. But she hasn’t become a member of the congregation because the circumstances of her life do not allow her to make the kind of commitment she wants to make.

Being a member of a church is about “want to” - not “have to.” Why bother becoming a member? Quite simply, because you have chosen to follow Jesus, and subsequently you have realized that by yourself you cannot do so. You need some people to help you. And in return for their help, you will offer yours to them.

Because the fact is, it isn’t easy to follow Jesus. C.S. Lewis puts it this way: “If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” The Gospel is challenging, and the call to follow is rarely a call to comfort.

You may ask: Well, if it’s not a “have to” kind of situation, why would anybody “want to” then?

I may respond: Because life is supposed to be meaningful, and following Jesus is what provides that meaning.

I heard Donald Miller say recently that deep down people do not actually want to live lives that are successful; people want to live lives that are meaningful. I’ve been pondering that idea ever since.

People find meaning from all kinds of sources. Career. Status. Family. Science. Baseball. Star Wars. Helping people. Hurting people. Just about anything can provide a person with a sense of purpose, a foundation for life. But much of it is transient, and provides only a temporary touch point.

I think there is innate in people something that seeks to transcend. We seem to have been hardwired with an inkling that there is more to the world that what is apparent on the surface. And along with that inkling is the suspicion that the “something more” is what infuses life with meaning.

Jesus is speaking directly to that inkling when he says, “Follow me.” Initially there is a sense that maybe, just maybe, this way could lead somewhere. There’s a small nudge, a kind of hesitant but eager desire to see what might happen. When the way is walked well, with the love and support and encouragement of other followers of the way, it doesn’t take too long for the confirmation to come. Life means something. There is purpose, there is vision, there is a mission to undertake and good friends with whom to undertake it.

Last night, the Chamber Choir from Kickapoo High School came to our church to sing at a fundraiser concert for a mission trip. Now, I don’t know the faith backgrounds of all of the kids who were here. I don’t know what the “believe” or even if they do. But I know that nobody required them to be here, to give a couple hours of their weekend away like they did. They were here because they chose to be here, and they chose to be here because a member of their choir is also on the mission team hosting the fundraiser, and she asked them to be here.

Whether it was to show support for their friend, or because they wanted to help fund the mission trip to Kenya, or just because they love to sing together - they chose to be here because it meant something to them. Their presence here was not because their director required it; he wasn’t even here! It was because the experience was meaningful.

In the same way, a person chooses to be a member of a congregation. Not because someone requires it. Not because it is expected. Not because you will be graded at the end of the quarter, and this stuff is going to be on the quiz.

You choose to “show up” and be a member of a church because you want to follow Jesus, and doing so infuses life with transcendent meaning.

(This is Part 2 of a three part series on church membership. Part one is called “Support & Accountability.” The working title for part three is “But What About the Jerks?”)

Monday, April 15, 2013

Church Membership: Part 1 - "Support & Accountability"

I got to teach confirmation class yesterday. During the class I said, “At the end of these classes you are going to make a choice about whether or not you want to become a member of the church. Nobody is going to force you. It’s going to be your choice.

“And let me tell you, if you don’t have any intentions to do the stuff that church does, you probably shouldn’t join. That’s how seriously I take church; that’s how important it is to me.

“If you aren’t going to worship every week, be active in a small group, give proportionately, serve those in need, and invite others, then you might think about waiting until you’re ready to do that before becoming a member of the church.”

Why would I encourage people to join a church?

Honestly … I wouldn’t.

The truth is, I encourage people to follow Jesus, and if joining a church is the best way for them to do that, brilliant. I’ve heard plenty of people say, “I don’t need to be in a church to follow Jesus.” Who am I to argue? I wouldn’t dare limit the capacity of God to work outside of the parameters of church membership.

There are only two reasons to become a member of a church: support and accountability. Both of these functions are focused on the church’s mission - helping people become disciples of Jesus who are changing the world for God’s sake.

I do not find it easy to be a disciple of Jesus Christ by myself. The church is a group of people whose mission is (in part) to help me in my discipleship.  Their purpose for existing is to help people (like me) follow Jesus. That’s a staggering thought.

And it’s reciprocal. At the same time my membership means that I’ve promised to help others in their discipleship, as well. That means we support one another and hold one another accountable to our task - making the world a better place, a place that looks a lot more like God wants it to.

If you need neither support nor accountability in your discipleship, don’t join a church.

I’m serious. If you and God are just fine without being a part of a church, don’t join one.

And if you are not going to help people become disciples changing the world for God, then don’t join.

And if you are not going to accept the help being offered you in your own discipleship, don’t join.

Said another way: if you are not going to do the stuff that churches do, you maybe shouldn’t join one.

The church exists because the mission exists, and all the church does ought to be geared toward that mission. Every activity should be aligned with supporting discipleship.

And what does that support look like? Nothing revolutionary here, plenty of books written on the topic, plenty of bishops preaching to congregations on the subject - it looks like
- worship together every week,
- being a part of a small group for growth and fellowship,
- giving proportionately of your income,
- serving others by helping people who need help, and
- creating a culture of invitation and hospitality.
These practices are a congregation’s offer of discipleship support and accountability to people. If you’re not going to accept that offer, you probably shouldn’t join a church.

“But Andy, I don’t do that stuff, and God and I are doing fine. Why you gotta be a hater?”

Again, let me assure you that I have no desire to limit what God is capable of doing outside of the church. I intend no judgment one way or the other; church membership is not “good” or “bad.” It is simply “helpful,” for me and for many others, in providing support and accountability for Christian discipleship.

At the same time, I cannot call a pattern of life Christian discipleship if it really isn’t. If it quacks like a duck, it probably isn’t a toothbrush. In order to clarify what I mean when I say Christian discipleship, let me make five distinctions.

First, I’d make a distinction between weekly worship and what I’d call “occasional” worship: once a month, once every six weeks, once and a while. It seems that we often try to fit worship into our schedules, rather than ordering our entire week around worship. Whether its sports, work, or a weekend at the lake, worship just slips down the priority list and we tend to become occasional worshipers rather than weekly.

There is a clear distinction between intentional small group participation and the frenetic activity and hyper-scheduled lives we tend to lead. Participation in a small group is where the deepest growth in discipleship happens, specifically with regard to two practices: faith formation and fellowship with others. But in order to grow deeply, we have to slow down, create time and space for the Spirit to move, and truly be present with a regular small group. When we are rushing from there to here and back again, there’s no chance to experience that level of growth.

When it comes to our generosity, there’s a big difference between giving “proportionately” and giving “conveniently.” Proportionate giving is sharing a percentage of one’s income with the church each pay period, with the Biblical 10% tithe as the goal. On the other hand, giving “conveniently” looks like dropping a bill or check (with a random amount always ending in five or zero) in the plate on those occasional worship Sundays. With electronic giving options, these days it’s easier than ever to give proportionately. (And we could have a whole discussion about whether that’s a good thing or not!)

There’s a distinction to be made between serving “out there” in the community and serving one’s self. It’s as clear as the distinction between selfless and selfish. I see a lot of the church serving only the church, or the family, or the self. Not that there’s anything wrong with that inherently, but the kind of service Christ calls for is clearly “out there,” in the community, where it is risky and uncertain and you might get hurt. Christian service ought to make the world a better place for God’s sake, or said another way, contribute to the construction of the reign of God on earth.

Finally, we need to make a distinction between a culture of invitation and a culture of comfort. A culture of comfort focuses inwardly and we tend to be withdrawn, awkward with, or even hostile to strangers. Christian discipleship requires a culture of invitation, in which the church is out and about in the community, involved with groups and activities that allow us to make friends with people who are not a part of a church. A culture of invitation does not have proselytizing the heck out of people as its goal, but rather the goal is just to become friends with people. Period. God will take care of the rest.

(To be continued. The working title for part 2 of this post = “Then Why Bother?”)

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Doubt is Holy

It’s one of those phrases from scripture that is so well known it has become a part of the common vocabulary - “Doubting Thomas.” Problem is, it’s a misnomer.

Stick with me for a while here…

There is a word that means “doubt” in New Testament Greek. It’s diakrino, and it’s found a few times here and there in the New Testament, like Matthew 21:21 where Jesus says, “If you have faith and do not doubt, you could say to the mountain, ‘Get up and jump in the ocean,’ and it would.”

That’s a word John might have chosen if he had wanted it in chapter 20, and John never wasted a word. The word John used in chapter 20 verse 27 is not diakrino, though. It is apistos. That’s the word pistos, or “faith,” with the prefix a-, meaning “without.”

For those of you who are Greek Geeks, we’re talking about the phrase μ γίνου πιστος λλ πιστός, in verse 27.

The NRSV and the NIV both have Jesus saying to Thomas, “Do not doubt, but believe.”

The King James Version actually gets this one much closer to right when it translates the phrase, “Be not faithless, but believing.”

I might translate it, “Don’t be faithless; be faithful.”

So what?

If you’ve skimmed the first few paragraphs, I hope you’ll start reading now. This is the “So what” of that little linguistic exercise.

Too many people think that following Jesus doesn’t leave you any room to doubt. “Doubting Thomas” is never intended as a compliment. We too often think of “doubt” as the opposite of “belief,” which means it must be a bad thing. And so many people go through life denying doubt, craving certainty, and otherwise diminishing the mysteries of the cosmos.

As evidence, consider the overabundance of phrases like “The Bible clearly says…” tossed so thoughtlessly about in so many conversations these days. This theology says, “There’s one way to see things, and if you don’t see things precisely that way, you are just wrong. And if you doubt any of this stuff precisely the way it’s been presented … well, I’ll pray for you, dearie!”

The way I see it, doubt is not the opposite of faith. As a matter of fact, expressing your doubt can be an act of great faith. Faith is what gives you the courage to continue on in the presence of doubt. Actually a doubt that is expressed courageously and faithfully can lead to a fuller understanding of the truth. On the other hand, stubborn unwillingness to acknowledge doubt causes people to stagnate, and leaves them ill-equipped to deal with life’s inevitable fluctuations.

Doubt leaves us room to dialogue with one another. Doubt primes our curiosity. Doubt fuels discovery, pushing us deeper and stretching us outward at the same time. I might even go so far as to say that doubt is necessary for faith to mature.

Once the church taught that the earth was flat. Somebody doubted that, and now we understand God’s creation much more fully. I imagine there were many diverse responses to the newly offered hypothesis that the earth is actually a sphere.
            1 - One may have rejected the new knowledge in favor of the orthodox doctrine.
            2 - One may have rejected the church, thinking that if you can’t trust one teaching, you can’t trust any of them.
(Both of these responses reflect an immature understanding of the creative power of doubt.)
            3 - One may have incorporated the new knowledge into a new understanding of God and grown in the process.
(This response embraces the doubt and uses its power to launch into a deeper truth.)

My advice? As soon as someone says, “The Bible clearly says” or some similar code phrase that indicates they have no doubts, you should exit the conversation.  It isn’t going anywhere, anyway. People with no doubts are scary to me. And people who insist that nobody should have doubts when it comes to questions of faith are theological tyrants.

Not only is doubt okay, it is holy. Doubt is necessary to maturing in faith, and in life in general. I hope you will embrace your doubt, express it with confidence, and see how you might just grow in the process.