Tag Archives: Lord’s Table

“Compel Them to Come In” (part 2)

Making a Case for Northway Christian Church

bee

Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes
and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full.
(Luke 14:23)

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In Luke 14:23 the master of the house who was putting on the party sent his servants out to “compel” people to come in.   The word “compel” here refers to the act of making a convincing argument that will move another person to make an appropriate response, in the case of this story, to persuade them to come into the house.  So, what are the convincing arguments that we can make to persuade people to come to Northway?  Today I will provide you with my first five reasons, and tomorrow I will conclude with my last five.

  1. Because we believe in a generous God. Richard Mouw says that this is the first and most important theological decision that any one of us has to make – Do we believe that God is stingy or generous? Is God reluctant to love us and has to be convinced to save us, or is God so in love with us that it takes extraordinary effort on our part to keep Him out of our lives?   The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is the church of a generous God because it is a church based on the person and work of Jesus Christ.
  2. Because we are a church that has no creed but Christ and no book but the Bible. I found the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) at a moment in my young Christian life when I was being pulled in different directions by well-meaning brothers and sisters who were all insisting that “real” Christians believe this or that. No sooner would one of them tell me that one thing was true, than another one come along and tell me the exact opposite thing was true. It was all very confusing to me. And then a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pastor sat down and talked with me about how the “what” of doctrine always divides while the “who” of Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, our Lord and Savior, always unites. He advised me to be certain of Christ and then to stay just as open as I possibly could about everything else, testing every faith claim and assertion by the teaching of Scripture. This approach – so characteristic of Disciples – has served me well.
  3. Because we observe open Communion each and every week. Going to the Lord’s Table each Sunday morning keeps me focused on the redemptive purposes of God in Jesus Christ, keeps me anchored to the Gospel experience of grace in Christ, and keeps me oriented to the mission of reconciliation through Christ with which the church has been entrusted and for which the church has been empowered by His indwelling Spirit. Weekly Lord’s Supper keeps the Gospel of Jesus Christ front and center in my own life, and in the life and mission of the whole church. The Disciples are a movement for wholeness in fragmented world. We welcome others to the Lord’s Table just as God in Jesus Christ has welcomed us.
  4. Because we respect the competency of each soul to do its own believing. Romans 14:4-5 looms rather large in our life of mutual encouragement and accountability as Disciples –

    Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Master is able to make him stand.  One man esteems one day as better than another, while another man esteems all days alike. Let everyone be fully convinced in his own mind.

    In other words, we’ve all got to decide things for ourselves, and we will all have to answer for how we’ve decided them. This is the right of private interpretation and the freedom of conscience distilled into the concrete practice of mutual respect for which we as Disciples have been justly recognized.  As Disciples we honor the freedom and responsibility of each believer to “work out their salvation with awe and reverence” (Philippians 2:12).  We are not the kind of church that’s going to tell you what to think, but rather we are going to be the kind of church that’s shows you how to “think believingly,” and that then challenges you to get on with it.

  5. Because we make a “good faith assumption” about one another.  Because we are forever deciding things differently as Christians, there is a very real temptation to conclude that those whose conclusions are at variance with our own conclusions on any number of vital matters of faith and practice must be either stupid or wicked. The “good faith assumption” is the glue that holds us together in spite of those differences.  When we disagree about something, the “good faith assumption” says that I am going to believe and behave in such a way that shows that I think that you are just as serious about Jesus Christ as I am, and that you are just as committed to knowing and doing what Christ commands as I am.  And as Disciples, it is going to the Lord’s Table together each week with people who don’t necessarily think as I think, or believe as I believe, that seals the bond of this resolve for unity in love

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 Tomorrow I will post the last five reasons I use to make a compelling case for Northway Christian Church in particular, and the Disciples of Christ in general. DBS +

 

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The Most Important Thing That Church Can Do Right Now

On a Disciples’ Ministers’ Facebook Group Page to which I belong, a young minister recently posted a question about what we thought the church needed to be giving her attention to most in the coming days. As you might expect from a Disciples’ clergy group, the answers he got were a recital of all of the worthy justice causes that demand our attention and deserve our action.

What I read there reminded me of David Williams’ observation that without a grounding orientation towards grace, the pursuit of justice will shatter a soul.”

screamIt will shatter a soul because the competing demands of justice are too damnably complicated. Pay for migrant laborers is The Issue. #Blacklivesmatter is The Issue. Transphobia is The Issue. Environmental degradation is The Issue. The impact of globalization is The Issue. It’s an endless series of fractally complex cries, each one calling for the fullness of your attention, a chaotic din, an ocean’s roar of human suffering. No normal human can take that in. It creates popcorn soul, attention deficit justice disorder, as the well-meaning warrior frets and chases after whatever buzzes loudest and most impatiently on their #twitterfeed that day.

David Williams’ whole argument is that justice is “the fruit of grace, not the other way around” (https://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2016-04/why-social-justice-not-christian). David believes that “justice matters, deeply and significantly, for anyone who cares about what Jesus taught… It’s just that … well … social justice does not provide the teleological framework that integrates me existentially. Or to put that a less willfully obfuscatory way, it is not my purpose. It is not my goal. It just isn’t.”

chalice

And so when an earnest young Disciple minister asks a Facebook Group of Disciple Ministers what we think the church should be attending to most these days, I want at least one of us to say “the Lord’s Supper”! I want one of us to say that the most urgent task of the hour is to get more of our people to the Lord’s Table more regularly so that the Christ who meets us there can get the chance to form us spiritually and morally by His indwelling presence and through the empowering work of His self-giving love.

Carl Trueman, the Reformed Church Historian who teaches at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, casts a powerful vision of the formative potential of the “ordinary means of grace” when he writes –

I believe that as Christians hear the word each week and receive it by faith, as they grasp the significance of their baptism, as they take the Lord’s Supper, as they worship and fellowship with other believers, their characters are impacted and shaped; and that this will affect how they behave as members of civic society.   In short, they will be those whose faith informs how they think and behave as they go about their daily business in this world.   Christianity makes a difference.

Professor Trueman calls this the “Calvary Option.” Looking around at all the crises and changes in the world today, and after considering all of the cries for justice that make their insistent demands on our attention and action, he argued that the most important thing that a church can do right now is to just be the church!

As long as I live I will still be baptizing the children of congregants, administering the Lord’s Supper, preaching week by week, performing marriages, rejoicing with those who rejoice, burying the dead, and grieving with those who grieve. The elders will care for the spiritual needs of the congregants.  The diaconal fund will continue to help local people—churched and unchurched—in times of hardship, regardless of who they are.  In short, the church will still gather week by week for services where Word and sacrament will point Christians to Christ and to the everlasting city, and thus equip them to live in this world as witnesses to Christian truth. … The needs of my congregation—of all congregations—will remain, at the deepest level, the same that they have always been, as will the answers which Christianity provides.  The tomb is still empty.   And my ministry will continue to be made up of the same elements as that of my spiritual forefathers: Word, sacraments, prayer. (https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2015/07/the-calvary-option)

This is not a pious escape from dealing with the world’s hopes and fears that he is calling for here, nor is it an argument for the evasion of our responsibility for serious moral witness and sustained moral action as Christians. Instead, it is a recognition, as Henri Nouwen put it, that “underneath all of the fluctuating affirmations and rejections of my little world” that “there is a still point where my life in anchored and from which I can reach out with hope and courage and confidence” (The Genesee Diary [14] Image Books.1981).

In the “shattering” presence of all of the injustices that seem to dog our every step right now, what is the center out of which we are to operate as Christians in “hope and courage and confidence”? And I answer that I believe that it’s the Gospel of God’s saving presence and work in Jesus Christ that gets memorialized for us every time we come to the Lord ’s Table in remembrance and thanksgiving.

faithfulThis is why this year the Elders at the church I serve will be reading together and discussing together each month David Fitch’s new book Faithful Presence (IVP – 2016). David, the R.B. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary, is one of the most provocative and helpful thinkers about the life and ministry of the church here in the first few decades of the 21st century that I’ve come across. His blog @ www.missioalliance.org has been required and sustaining reading for me since first stumbling across it on my Sabbatical in the summer of 2014 when I was working on how established, aging and declining churches like ours can cultivate a “culture of evangelism” that leads to sustainable renewal. And it was one of his blogs at this site (www.missioalliance.org) that convinced me that our elders’ time and effort would be well spent this year carefully considering what David has to say about the “seven disciplines that shape the church for mission.” And the first discipline that David believes does this, that shapes Christians “to be Christ’s faithful presence in the world” is the Lord’s Supper.

Writing about this at “Missio Alliance” (“Discerning Christ’s Presence in the World: How We Learn This around the Table” – December 4, 2014) David says –

We need postures to discern Christ’s presence, and to then be able to participate in His work. I am convinced that this kind of training happens as we practice the Lord’s Table together. Around the Lord’s Table we learn to tend to the real presence of Christ …which in turn makes us fully present with each other at the Lord’s Table… It’s at the Lord Table that we learn the right postures which enable us to get out of our own way, to tend to what Christ is doing, and to cooperate.

In this article David describes five of these “postures” that he says open us to the experience Christ’s faithful presence at the Lord’s Table, and that then enable us to be Christ’s faithful presence in the world when we leave the Lord’s Table in mission.

Around the Lord’s Table we learn –

cupThe Posture of Surrendering…
The Posture of Receiving…
The Posture of Ceasing to Strive…
The Posture of Socialness among us
that enables us to be for each other…
And t
he Posture of Forgiveness…

And these are exactly the same “postures” that we need to learn to be a faithful part of God’s mission in the world. This isn’t magic. We aren’t mystically imbued with these qualities simply by ingesting the communion elements week in and week out. A careless and thoughtless participation in the Lord’s Supper holds more spiritual peril than spiritual benefit for us as Paul warned in in I Corinthians 11:17-34. This, David freely admits.

I admit most of us do not learn these postures through the rote ways we take Eucharist. But I contend, when done well, these are the postures we learn there and these are the same postures we take into the world.

But “when done well,” there are very few things that we do as a church each week that are more instrumental in spiritually and morally forming us at the Lord’s Table to be the kind of people that God can then use in the world to “sow love where there is hate; to sow pardon where there is injury; to sow faith where there is doubt; to sow hope where there is despair; to sow light where there is darkness; to sow joy where there is sadness.”

And so when the question is What does the church need to be giving her attention to in the coming days? My answer will be – The Lord’s Supper… for when people come to the Lord’s Table

to receive God’s grace in Jesus Christ, they will then be sent from the Lord’s Table as God’s agents of the grace that they have received in Jesus Christ into a world that desperately needs the fruit of that grace right now — Justice.

DBS +

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At the Beginning of a New Year

new year
The late Batsell Barrett Baxter, the preacher for the Herald of Truth Television program for so many years, paraphrased what the German theologian Helmut Thielicke wrote at the very beginning of his 1956 book of sermons on Christ’s Sermon on the Mount “Life Can Begin Again” –

The real trouble of modern man expresses itself in two kinds of fear: Fear of the past and fear of the future.” Fear of the past—how can I get away from guilt for things I can never undo? Right and wrong decisions which I have made, and which are unalterable now, shape the course of my present life. Time seems to be a one-way street leading to the future, never allowing me to turn back to the past and make corrections. My relationship to the future is just as difficult. The time seems past when men imagined bright new Utopias just over the horizon. Our scientific technology and our humane concern for one another was supposed to lead mankind to paradise. But our world keeps getting more complex and less secure and no one knows how the future will turn out. What we need is something that will free us from our paralyzing fear of the past and of the future, and help us gain a new attitude toward what lies behind and ahead of us. Christianity’s words for these two needs are forgiveness and hope.

I always think about this during the week when one year ends and another one begins. At this annual intersection of the past and the future I find that regret and anxiety seem to mix inside me in a particularly noxious stew.  Looking back over the year just past I find that it’s the failures that demand the bulk of my attention.  In the same way that a single critic’s voice can drown out the chorus of the affirming words of the many, so I find that any accomplishments that I might have from the year just past tend to hide in the dark shadow of its disappointments.  And then, turning to look ahead to the year just beginning to dawn, I find that it’s not the possibilities that enthusiastically step up to greet me, but rather it’s that whisper of skepticism from somewhere deep inside that wants to argue that things never really change.

Maybe this is just me, the dark labyrinthine configuration of my own head and heart. I have long ago come to terms with the fact that I possess a “wintry” soul.  It’s mine. It’s who I am.  It’s how I think.  It’s what I feel.  I own it.  But I don’t think that is this.  I’m not convinced that this melancholy of the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day is something unique to me and my temperament alone.  I think that there’s something universal here, something that’s “common to man.” I believe that Carl Rogers was right when he observed that what’s most personal is also most general, and so I suspect that’s what true of me this week is, in some ways, true of you as well. I don’t believe that the fear of the past and the fear of the future that I sense so powerfully this week are my unique burdens to be borne by myself alone.  In fact, when I first read Helmut Thielicke’s description of them in his book “Life Can Began Again” I had the powerful experience of reassurance that C.S. Lewis clearly had in mind when he observed that “we read to know that we are not alone.” And if this is true of his diagnosis of my soul – our souls –  so then it must also be true of his prescription.

If you find that the fear of the past and the fear of future are stalking you this week, as they are me, then forgiveness and hope are what we need. And the only source of forgiveness and hope that I know anything about is Jesus Christ. And so here at the confluence of the past and the future, at that moment when and in that place where “the hopes and fears of all the years” meet, let us turn to Him who is the “same yesterday, today and yes, forever” (Hebrews 13:8).

supper

This is why I am looking forward to being at the Lord’s Table this coming Sunday morning. Virtually every theology of the Lord’s Supper that I’ve ever read makes the point that it combines the three emphases of the past, the present and the future in a single act. As a table of remembrance it points us to the past.  As a table of presence it situates us fully in the present.  As a table of hope it orients us to the future. And so on the first Sunday of a new year with the dust from the one just past still settling and the possibilities of the one just beginning to open like the bloom of a new flower to the sun, it is to the Lord’s Table that I turn to find the mercy that I need for all of my regrets for what lies behind and the courage that I will need to move with confidence into what lies ahead.

At an earlier stop on my journey of faith we often sang a hymn that said –

Living, he loved me; dying, he saved me;
Buried, he carried my sins far away;
Rising, he justified freely, forever:
One day he’s coming—O, glorious day!

And it’s this perspective of what God in Jesus Christ has already done for me in the past, is doing for me right now in the present, and will do for me in the glorious future that I find get powerfully focused for me now every time I come to the Lord’s Table. When my fear of the past and my fear of the future have the power to paralyze me in the present – as they are wont to do in this week when one year gives way to another – it is only my security in the unchanging Christ that keeps me on my feet and moving forward. I’ll see you at the Lord’s Table this Sunday morning – the first Sunday morning of a new year.

DBS+

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anchorThe Anchor Cross is formed when the top part of an anchor is in the shape of a cross. The cross symbolizes the hope we have in Christ and the firm faith which keeps us steady in the storms of life. In ancient times, to people who navigated the sea, the anchor had long been a symbol of stability and security, even in stormy seas. During the early days of the church, Christians facing persecution used the Anchor Cross as a symbol of identity. Christians saw hope and strength in the symbol, and their enemies saw only an anchor.  Our hope is secure and immovable, anchored in God, just as a ship’s anchor holds firmly to the seabed.

http://www.anchorcrossranch.com/the-anchor-cross-brand.html

 

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“Resolutionary” Christianity ~ Revolutionary Christianity

watkinsRight before Easter, our denomination made the national news.  Our General Minister and President, the Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins wrote a letter to Governor Mike Pence of Indiana voicing her concerns about the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).  Our denominational headquarters are located in Indianapolis, and our 2017 General Assembly was scheduled to be held there as well.

Dr. Watkins’ letter explained –

We are particularly distressed at the thought that, should RFRA be signed into law, some of our members and friends might not be welcome in Indiana businesses – might experience legally sanctioned bias and rejection once so common on the basis of race.

That letter indicated that our General Board would be rethinking their decision to meet in General Assembly in Indianapolis in 2017, and, in fact, the General Board has now officially “directed the Office of the General Minister and President to seek a new location for the 2017 General Assembly.”

Explaining this action, both to Gov. Pence and the citizens of Indiana, as well as to the congregations of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Dr. Watkins wrote –

As a Christian church, we are particularly sensitive to the values of the One we follow – one who sat at table with people from all walks of life, and loved them all. Our church is diverse in point of view, but we share a value for an open Lord’s Table. Our members and assembly-goers are of different races and ethnicities, ages, genders and sexual orientations. They have in common that they love Jesus and seek to follow him.

Now, I am deeply grateful for the theological clarity of this statement.  Too often pronouncements have been made and positions have been taken by church leaders on sensitive social issues without any rationale being offered as to why.   I have previously described this as doing spiritual algebra rather than spiritual geometry – offering what is believed to be the right answer without showing how you got to that answer.  To Dr. Watkins’ great credit, she gave us the spiritual geometry of this decision, and it is a rationale that conforms exactly to who we say we are as a church –

cupWe are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.

And so I fully support the stand that has been taken by our denominational leaders, and agree with the reason why we find it necessary to take it as a church.  But even as I write these words, I am acutely aware of the fact that, generally speaking, I am not a big fan of official resolutions and formal pronouncements.

Kennon Callahan of the “twelve keys to an effective church fame” was a vocal critic of congregational mission statements.  He argued that “missional outreach is not best accomplished by developing a purpose statement.”  As he explained, “developing a statement of purpose is not delivering effective mission; it is simply developing a statement of purpose.”  How many times have I been part of a process in a local church that has carefully crafted a mission statement, gotten it officially approved, framed it beautifully and hung it prominently on a wall somewhere, and then never quite gotten around to doing anything that it actually says?  Such statements look good, sound important and keep you busy crafting and then endlessly revising them. But too often they become ends in themselves.  And this is my concern with denominational resolutions and pronouncements as well. They have a dangerous capacity to make us “feel good without actually doing good.”  As the United Methodist Bishop James Mathews explained, “such resolutions don’t cost us anything… they lead to ‘resolutionary’ Christianity rather than revolutionary Christianity.”  Typically they are “a tip of the hat to social issues,” without any binding force or consequential actions. As William Tillmann Jr., a professor of Christian ethics at the Logsdon School of Theology at Hardin-Simmons University, observed, “there have been too many statements and too few actions” by too many churches.   This prophetic “witness by signature” has made very little difference “in the public square.”

A generation ago D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones of London’s Westminster Chapel challenged the church’s infatuation with resolutions and pronouncements.

jonesI think it is true to say that during the past 50 years [he wrote in 1959] the Christian Church has paid more attention to politics and to social and economic questions than in the whole of the previous hundred years.  We have had all this talk about the social application of Christianity.  Pronouncements have been made and resolutions have been sent from Church Assembles and the General Assembles of the various denominations to the governments.  …But what is the result? No one can dispute it.  The result is that we are living in a society which is much more immoral than it was 50 years ago… Though the Church makes her great pronouncements about war and politics, and other major issues, the average person is not affected.  (Studies in the Sermon on the Mount – 136)

And this, it seems to me, is the watershed between “resolutionary” Christianity and “revolutionary” Christianity.   How does it affect me?  How does it change me?  How does it compel me to look at a situation differently than I had before, and what changes does it convince me to make in my own beliefs and behavior?

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones strongly believed that the presence of a single Christian in the world has a profound effect. Things change socially for the better, he argued, not by the church publicly denouncing social ills or by the church persuading the government to pass certain laws, “but by the sheer influence of Christian individuals” (135). And while I would push him on this, arguing that agitation, education and legislation all have their roles to play in social change, I don’t disagree with his core point, namely that the Christian transformation of the world does not begin with the resolution of a Church Assembly but by the revolution that the Gospel foments in a human heart.

I was recently rereading The Christ of the Indian Road by E. Stanley Jones (Grosset & Dunlap 1925) for our upcoming Faiths in Conversation program with Pravrajika Brahmaprana of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society of North Texas, and in Chapter 12, “The Concrete Christ,” the strands of my thinking on the recent resolution and action taken by the leadership of our General Church were brought into sharp focus for me.

E. Stanley Jones began by pointing out that Jesus was an “amazingly concrete and practical” teacher in an “atmosphere filled with speculation” where people were “often drunk with the wine of their own wordiness.” And then he began this vivid string of observations about the “concrete” work and words of Jesus Christ (191-198) –

jonesHe did not discourse on the sacredness of motherhood – he suckled as a babe at his mother’s breast, and that scene has forever consecrated motherhood.

…He did not speculate on why temptation should be in this world – he met it, and after 40 days’ struggle with it in the wilderness he conquered, and “returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee.”

…He did not discourse on the dignity of labor – he worked at a carpenter’s bench and his hands were hard with the toil of making yokes and plows, and this forever makes the toil of the hands honorable.

…As he came among men he did not try to prove the existence of God – he brought God.  He lived in God and men looking upon his face could not find it within themselves to doubt God.

…He did not argue, as Socrates, the immortality of the soul – he raised the dead.

…He did not teach in a didactic way about the worth of children – he put his hands upon them and blessed them and setting one in their midst, tersely said, “Of such is the kingdom of God…”

…He did not argue that God answers prayer – he prayed, sometimes all night, and in the morning “the power of the Lord was present to heal.”

…He did not paint in glowing colors the beauties of friendship and the need for human sympathy – he wept at the grave of his friend.

…He did not teach in the schoolroom manner the necessity of humility – he “girded himself with a towel and kneeled down and washed his disciples’ feet.”

…He did not discourse on the equal worth of persons – he went to the poor and outcast and ate with them.

…He did not discourse on the beauty of love – he loved.

…He did not merely ask men to turn the other cheek when smitten on the one, to go the second mile when compelled to go one, to give the cloak also when sued at law and the coat was taken away, to love our enemies and to bless them – he himself did these very things.  

…He did not merely tell us that death need have no terror for us – he rose from the dead, and lo, now the tomb glows with light.

…He did not go into long discussions about the Way to God and the possibility of finding him – he quietly said to men, “I am the way.”

Saying the right things makes us “resolutionary” Christians, but doing the right things makes us “revolutionary” Christians, and there’s no doubt in my mind about what Jesus Christ expected of those who would follow Him as their Lord and Savior.  I think that our church under the leadership of Dr. Watkins said the right things about Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).  But I think that even more important than our words are our actions as a people who “love Jesus and seek to follow him.”  And this means not just applauding the actions of our church 750 miles away from here, but looking around for the ways that “loving Jesus and seeking to follow him” is going to challenge and change us outside our very own front door. DBS+

 

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