Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Stewardship of Community

There is a lot more we could say about Stewardship of Creation. It's one of the Bible's great themes and permeates the Old and New Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation. And for those of you who are nervous about this, the church being called to "Stewardship of Creation" is NOT the same as today's environmental movements. There are parallels and overlaps, but approaching these matters under the kingship of God changes things.

But let's change gears and start exploring what the church's second great task, "Stewardship of Community" might look like. To get us started on this I'm going to repost a few paragraphs I wrote in 2013. (You can read the entire manuscript via the link on the right hand side of the page about "Pastorates.") Here's some food for thought about community:

After Jesus rose from the dead on Easter Sunday, the Bible tells us that he talked with his disciples for about forty days before he ascended into the heavens and sent his Spirit to give his followers direction and power.  During those forty days, Jesus gave clear directions to his followers.  They were to take up the task Jesus had started.  They were to be sent out to the world, even as he had been sent to Israel.  They had received training from him over a three-year period, and now they were to go out and invite others into this Jesus-following movement.  Nearly all of the New Testament writers include some version of Jesus commissioning his followers for this task.  

We are probably most familiar with Matthew’s gospel, where Jesus tells his disciples, 

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.  And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20). 

In John, Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21).  In Acts, Jesus tells his followers, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).  Paul certainly embodied this call in his whole life of traveling around the Mediterranean, telling people about Jesus and starting fledgling churches everywhere he went.

Jesus’ followers called themselves “followers of the Way” (Acts 9:2, 19:9 & 23, for example).  Only later were they labeled Christians, and that term came from their enemies as an insult.  Early on, these people saw themselves as followers of Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  This new relationship with Jesus redefined everything in their lives.  They experienced a new power and a new sense of relationship with God that came from the resurrected Jesus. 

They gathered together in groups with others who knew Jesus, who knew this new power and new life.  They referred to these gatherings as “churches,” which brings to our minds pictures of buildings and steeples, pews and hymnals, but for these early Jesus-followers, the word referred to groups of people.  The Greek word was “ekklesia” (from which we get our word “ecclesiastical”, meaning something that refers to the church).  Ekklesia means literally, “those who are called out.”  Jesus used the term himself a couple of times (see Matthew 16:18 and 18:17), and in the book of Acts ekklesia becomes the standard term for a group of Jesus-followers.  These are the ones who have been called out of the world and its ways, called to follow a different Way, called to be like Jesus and to be part of his movement in the world.  

Let’s be clear about something from the start.  The New Testament knows nothing of church buildings, of pews and hymnals and committees changing the altar cloths or debating the color of the new carpet.  The movement Jesus started is about people, not about property.  The idea that a person can “go to church” and sit in a building for an hour, then go back to an unchanged life for the rest of the week, has little or nothing to do with New Testament Christianity.  

The Bible envisions a church -- an ekklesia -- of people who gathered together, most often in someone’s home (see Romans 16:3-5, for example).  They read scripture, worshipped, and prayed together (see 1 Corinthians 14:26).  They shared in a mission to impact the world in the name of Jesus.  In fact, non-Christians accused these Jesus-followers of “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).  By following Jesus’ example, living in community with other Jesus-followers, and loving the world around them, they changed the Roman Empire and eventually the whole world!

What does the task of “making disciples” (meaning, making followers of Jesus) look like today?  In the early years of the 21st century it’s not hard to see that many churches have failed in this task.  We may baptize scores of people, our Sunday Schools may (or may not) be bustling, our youth programs crowded, our worship services pleasantly full.  But how many lives are changed in a lasting way?  

It’s been said that many of our churches are like football games.  A football game is 22,000 people who are desperately in need of exercise watching a game played by 22 men who desperately need rest.  Sadly, many people come to church to observe.  We relate to Jesus not so much to follow him or even to admire him, but to use him for our own ends.  In order to be blessed in this life and avoid hell in the next life, we are encouraged to pray a prayer inviting Jesus into our hearts.  At its worst, it’s cheap fire insurance.  Sadly, in most of our churches, few people experience the “abundant life” (see John 10:10) Jesus longs to give his followers. 

Yet people inside and outside the church today are hungry for exactly what Jesus’ first disciples found as followers of the Way.  We are hungry for meaning, for community, and for a mission that is worthy of our sacrifice.  Not knowing where to find what we really need, we flock to Facebook and Twitter to find community.  We let advertisers, smart phones, and sports teams tell us who we are and what we need.  We clutter our schedules so that we don’t have to face the disturbing questions that confront us in quiet moments.

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