Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Spiritual Gifts

If you've never heard of spiritual gifts before I would encourage you to look up 1 Corinthians 12. it's the most famous passage on the subject. I, however, sometimes even resent calling them spiritual gifts. For those of us who grew up in the church or have spent enough time in the church culture we already have some sort of idea about what we think about spiritual gifts. You may have even taken tests, surveys or exams to help you determine what your gift is. If this has been your experience then you're much like me. Where you may differ from me is in my general uneasiness with this kind of mentality.

On the whole I think that we've lost a lot of the meaning and power behind what a spiritual gift is supposed to be, but more importantly what it's supposed to do. I don't have the time in this medium to explain all the scriptural/interpretive reasons why (come see my sermons if you want that), but I do want to lay out a couple of my issues quickly.

1) Spiritual Gifts do not mean possession:

This is one of my biggest beefs. The problem comes when we start to think that God gives us a 'gift' and then that 'gift' becomes 'ours.' I feel as if the modern world has prioritized possession and ownership to a level where we can't understand things without it. We understand gifts in terms of possession primarily. If someone gives you a 'gift' then it becomes your possession. Or so goes the understanding. And it is this very idea of possession that becomes the problem.

Do we now own this piece of God? Does that power and manifestation of God become ours to control and use at will? Does God give up a piece of himself so that we, humans, can weild his strength to our purposes?

This is, of course, ridiculous. Gifting in this sense does not mean possession, but is rather about the idea of presence. The phrase "spiritual gifts" from 1 Corinthians 12:1 is more accurately translated "spiritual things given to you which come from a spiritual place." You can see how gifting is sort of implied, but you can also see how it can be read differently. But instead of getting into the minutia of the Greek I would rather us focus on this idea of gifting which doesn't include possession, which gets to the heart of the matter.

Think of spiritual gifts in this way as gifts of experience. If someone were to gift me with a vacation to Scotland, I do not now own Scotland. Instead I simply gain the wonderful experience of Scotland and a closer relationship to the person who gifted me with this experience. This is what spiritual gifts are suppose to be. They are experience gifted to us from God which brings us closer together.

2) Gifts are communal:

One of the worst things about how spiritual gifts are discussed is about 'mine' beyond possession into 'mine' as an individual. Even the most cursory reading of these passages should show you that spiritual gifts have almost no meaning or power outside of its use in community. In fact, nearly every major passage which discusses spiritual gifts are in the greater context of the church as a whole, and usually linked to Paul's illustration of the church as a body.

Spiritual gifts are not given to 'you' they are given to 'us.' It may manifest itself through one individual, or half the individuals present. But their purpose and meaning is for everyone present. This always holds Paul's theology on gifts.

So what now?

Looking forward we need to realize exactly what gifts are and what they're supposed to be. Spiritual Gifts are the power of God coming into our midst. It's God making himself real in the presence of believers by working through each other. God's manifestation comes through our bodies in ways that we couldn't possibly do on our own. By speaking things we don't know, by healing other, by loving, by caring, by teaching all in ways that we couldn't without God we show his presence and power in our midst.

This is the purpose of spiritual gifts. It's a sort of incarnate lifestyle, where God becomes incarnate (if in a limited way) in our bodies and lives to show his presence and power to each other. The difficult past is that means that there is a human element to these gifts as well. We will often need to follow God's prompting and leadership if we're going to see his power working through us in these kinds of meaningful ways.

So whether they're gifts of instruction that are meant to teach each other the proper and best ways to live in our context. Gifts of encouragement which are meant to motivate us to this kind of living, or if it's gifts of care which are meant to uplift each other and meet the needs of each others lives. We need to accept the responsibility we have to meet with God in the act of God meeting each other through us. Spiritual Gifts are God's power and work, but in choosing to do it through us he chooses to involve us in this work. This is a great privilege and a great responsibility.

Discussion Questions:

1) Instruction - How have you experienced God's instruction through others? How are they present in your house church? Do you feel as if you have lived up to your responsibility to share what God is teaching you?
2) Encouragement - How have you experienced God's encouragement through others? Have you ever shied away from encouraging another? Have you lived up to your responsibility to encourage at God's prompting?
3) Care -  How have you experienced God's care through others? have you lived up to your responsibility to care for others at God's prompting?


Friday, 11 May 2018

Reconciliation: A discussion guide

2 Corinthians 5 has one of the greatest explanations of salvation in the entire New Testament. There's a lot of them, so this is a pretty big claim. I say this mostly because I believe that this passage explains better than most how God's act of saving us moves directly into how we are participants in God's work in the world. Paul perfectly illustrates how God's work doesn't happen in a vacuum but rather feeds into us the ability and necessity of working alongside him. Look at this:

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. 2 Corinthians 5

There are several important points that we could take out of this, and probably many more than I'm capable of. But let's focus on the main themes. 

1) Reconciliation:

The act of reconciliation is one of the most important parts of God's work in the world. God works to bring everything back to himself. Reconciliation means the repairing and strengthening of a relationship. It means working through the hurt and wrong that's been done.

Right now Canada is in the midst of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This has by no means been a perfect process in our country, but it has helped to shed a light on the issues facing indigenous peoples today. And of course shedding light on the struggles of some in our society sheds light on the part in which all of us play in the history and hurt in our world. And this shedding of light is one of the most important parts of reconciliation, which is getting to the truth of what happened.

Revealing and recognizing the evils that have been done to us, or that we've done to others, is the first step of reconciliation. If what has been done is never brought to light then it can not be dealt with and properly forgiven. And forgiveness needs to be at the core of reconciliation. Even beyond issues of reward and punishment forgiveness lies at the heart and purpose. So in order for reconciliation to happen between God and the world that truth needs to be recognized. This truth is most often found when we look at ourselves and see our own participation in the evils and oppression of this world and recognize our own fault as truth. When we confess this to God that begins the process of reconciliation.

One part which is often lacking, however, is the reciprocal nature of reconciliation. It is often good theology to remember that God's plan and will are perfect and has no fault. This may be good theology, but it often goes against the grain of our experience, and frankly against the apparent opinions of biblical writers who questioned God's actions and motivations on a regular basis. But sometimes our experience shows us that there is evil in the world that God should be stopping, or there's hurt he could cure and doesn't. This can lead to a distrust in God's character that can't be reconciled with our theology, but can be reconciled within our relationship.

I think that sometimes it's important, and possibly more honest, to recognize these moments when we feel as if God is failing or falling short of our expectations of him. We may be wrong, but if we're honest with God, and approach him from a place of forgiveness I believe that this does far more within the ongoing work of reconciling us to God than simply burying those feelings and telling ourselves that we're wrong. God knows those feelings anyway, after all. I think that God will honor that honestly and trust in his work of reconciliation.

God's will and plan may be perfect, and there may be no actual need or reason for us to forgive him, and that may feel strange. But the worst that can happen is that we will be wrong about something with God, which is something we do everyday regardless. Being 'right' in this case is far less important than being honest.

2) Ambassadors:

Ambassadors are individuals who have no power unto themselves. They are only representatives of power, nothing more. Ambassadors may be worthy of respect and be people of station, but it has nothing to do with any power they themselves possess. This is one of the most important aspects of the ambassador illustration of us being sent out into the world.

It's also important to note that we are ambassadors of this reconciliation work that God is doing in the world. This means that anything we do which is not within the spirit of reconciling the world to God, and often this means reconciling the world to each other, then it falls outside of our mission as ambassadors. Ambassador's are given specific missions from those they represent. Our mission as God's ambassador's in this world is to represent God's work of reconciliation. This means living as if we're reconciled to God, which often means living with others as if they are as well.

You'll notice the first line of the passage. "So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view." We don't see others from the view of worldly others, or as temporary beings. Rather as Ambassadors of reconciliation we view them as something God intends to bring into his own presence and power forever for the purpose of his glory. 

3) The Good News:

Good News language is not explicitly brought up in this passage but it is the entire theme. Paul is, in this passage, simply explaining the gospel (good news) in different language from what we're used to. This is why, I think, it comes across as so powerful, simply because it is unfamiliar.  What is important about this good news is that it sounds, unmistakably, like good news. Everything about it is good.

This stands in stark contrast to what sometimes in the church today sounds unmistakably like bad news. News about a vengeful God who is unhappy with people and demanded the blood of his own son, (don't stat quoting scripture at me, I'm aware of those passages already). The Bible, and God, can talk about the news any way they want. But we should be very careful that the Good news we're offering the world is carefully thought through, and grounded in a holistic view of scripture. One of the litmus tests for this, I think, is simply 'does this news sound good?' This is not a perfect test of course since our perfect idea of what's good will fall far short of what God's perfect idea is. Nevertheless, we should be ever thoughtful on the news that we believe and trust in, it will greatly influence our worldview and therefore our actions and our treatment of people.

Discussion Questions:

1) If God's work is about reconciling the world to God, then how have you been reconciled? Has this ever included forgiving God for what seems like his part in a broken world?
2) What does all this mean as we ask God to send us into the world as his ambassadors? How are we going to make sure we're asking God to send us out?
3) What is the good news as you've understood it? How has it changed or stayed the same for you over the years? Have you ever seen the 'bad' in the good news you've believed in?


Thursday, 5 April 2018

What is mission

The great commission at the end of Matthew is not often considered part of the resurrection story of Easter. But if you really take a look at it all together, you can see how the words of Jesus at the end of the book are meant to be taken in a 'victory over death' kind of way.

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20

At a closer look you can see how this whole speech could only be given by the resurrected Jesus. 'All authority on heaven and earth is given to me,' kind of stands out. But the baptism language carries the idea of death and new life as well. He also includes himself 'the son' on par with the Father and Holy Spirit, all connected to this idea of Resurrection. The command to obedience, but also the eternal presence of, Jesus also stands unique to a risen Christ rather than anything else.

Regardless of all this what we have seen is a disconnect of this passage from the resurrection story. Instead this 'great commission' is dissected, discussed, and taught from the angle of mission rather than part of the resurrection story. This is symptomatic of one of the biggest problems in the Christina church today. We separate mission from God's power. We take the resurrection out of the great commission.

In the book of Acts the message of Jesus is spread throughout the world at an incredible, say miraculous, pace. God is sending fire and wind, people are speaking in languages they don't understand, miracles are being performed, angels are letting people out of prison, people are being healed, people are disappearing and reappearing in other places, people are being struck down and everywhere the power of Christ is unmistakable and undeniable. That was mission for the original church, completely tangled up with resurrection power.

Today, I feel like mission is something tacked on to a long list of things that Christians do... sometimes.

Today we often think that mission is somehow convincing, or even tricking, people into becoming part of the faith in some small (or large) way, and then hoping that God will do something once we get them in the door. But from a biblical example mission is the simple consequence of living and being connected to the resurrected Christ. These two things don't really seem compatible. One is about what we can do, the second is about what Christ is doing through us.

Interestingly, I think that the biggest way that we can change this problem practically is the same way that we need to change things theologically. In the same way that we need to make room for resurrection in our understanding of the great commission, we also need to make room for resurrection in our understanding of mission. The question is not, 'what mission are you doing for God,' but rather 'how are you making room for God to work in your life?'

Discussion Questions:
Missions can be a sore spot for many people, even Christians. What are this sore points for you? Would these sore points fit the category of 'our power' or 'Christ's power?'
How have you seen mission by God's power rather than our own power in your life?
What are you going to do or change to allow opportunity for God to do mission through your life?

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Peter and Judas.

Beyond focusing on Jesus himself, the arrest of Jesus gives us a look into many characters in the gospel narratives. Especially the characters of Peter and Judas. Judas, of course, is known as the greatest betrayer in history. In fact to call someone a "Judas" means to call them a betrayer even still. Peter on the other hand, is one who is know as the rock on which Jesus would build his church.

Both of these men hold important roles in the narrative of Jesus arrest, but both of them hold important roles throughout the story of Jesus. Both were hand picked by Jesus to be called Apostles. Both were given the power to heal, forgive, and cast out demons in the name of Jesus. Both were with Jesus when he taught, performed miracles, and rose the dead by his command. But most importantly both betrayed Jesus in their own way.

The betrayal of Judas is well known. Judas conspired with the temple leadership to hand Jesus over and be arrested. But when we look at Judas' actions we see something that is possibly less sinister than it appears. For all the reputation, Judas' role in the betrayal seemed nothing more than simply pointing Jesus out in the crowd. But Jesus himself makes it clear that he was not hiding, in fact he was in the temple courts every day teaching. Furthermore, Judas gave Jesus over not to the Romans who had the mandate to kill anyone, sometimes even if they're only suspected of, stirring revolution. Instead Judas handed Jesus over to the high priest Caiaphas, who according to the current law of the time, had no right to execute anyone.

Peter's betrayal looked different. While he is known for his denial of Jesus three times at the courtyard, he had his own sort of betrayal at the arrest scene as well. Peter pulled a sword on the crowd and in an attempt to kill one of the high priests servants managed only to cut off his ear. In that moment Peter became the only person in scripture to raise a sword or weapon in the name of Jesus, and he is immediately ostracized by Jesus for doing so. Jesus says "Put your sword away, for those who live by the sword will die by it."

The result that we see is two men who both had a serious misunderstanding of who Jesus was and what his kingdom was all about. Their misunderstanding led to their betraying of Jesus and what Jesus stood for in their own ways. And with all the comparisons we see between these two the question becomes, what is the real difference here. When both these characters lived with Jesus and followed him so closely the same way, how did they end up so differently.

I believe that the answer comes down to one of the most important themes of the Lenten season, which is repentance. Judas ran from Jesus and killed himself rather than face what he'd done and the consequences of his actions. Peter met with Jesus after the resurrection and had to confirm his love and devotion to Jesus three times, the same amount of times he had denied ever knowing him.

It can be hard seeing 'sin' as a betrayal of Jesus. But in essence that is what all sin comes down to in some way. So to think that we're in any way different from Judas can be nothing more than a defense mechanism. We can see that regardless of our personal betrayal our own relationship to Jesus is determined on repentance more than anything else. Repentance is the difference between being called a Judas, or being called the rock on which Jesus would build his church.

Discussion:

  1. While living in a world based on confirming our own biases, and continually justifying our actions, how do we look realistically at ourselves to find our faults?
  2. What has repentance looked like to you in the past?
  3. Is repentance a common aspect of your spiritual practices?

What we've been up to.

Often we get into the winter and we hunker down into our routines and forget that there's all sorts of people out there doing all sorts of different things. What's crazier is when you realize that you're one of those people too, and no one knows what you've been up to.

As a church we've had some great changes since the fall, including launching another house church our of the city, and moving our celebration services to a new location at Bridgeport community center. We've had a chance to double our time at the Ray of Hope community center helping to prepare and serve meals for our neighbors to share with us.

We've been excited by the changes and momentum we've seen in the last few months, and want to give a special thanks to everyone for all their time, effort, prayer and support over the winter. We're looking forward to the rest of 2018.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Submission! Bet that got your attention. (1 Peter 2:11-3:7)

The word 'submission' automatically brings up several negative connotations. And rightfully it should. If it makes you think of things like slavery, or the subjugation of women, or oppressive governments in the world then these are, of course, terrible things which should be opposed on every level. But the New Testament takes a very different route in to the idea of submission. While things like slavery, patriarchy and political oppression are examples of dominance, submission is presented as something different.

Submission is presented as an act of free will. It is choosing humility, fatherhood, and giving up of power. This is rooted in the very basis of what Jesus taught as "the first being last and the last being first," or "Whoever wants to be the greatest among you must become a servant to all." And yet submission still gives us a negative response, mostly because the demand for submission has been at the core of much of the oppression throughout history. And while we must recognize this oppression and the constructs it still supports, it's important to remember that the understand of submission as part of oppression is a misuse of the word. 'Submission' is supposed to describe the free act of making ourselves servants.

Still, even the act of making ourselves servants of others is something that often goes against the grain. But scripture seems to propose that submission seems to be the very way in which we should approach oppression and subjugation in our lives. This is because submission is a way of life which is powerful enough to change the hearts and minds of people. In 1 Peter 2:12 he writes:

"Live such good lives among the unbelievers that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us."

This passage is followed by passages on submitting to governing authorities, slaves submitting to masters, wives submitting to husbands (and in a roundabout way husbands submitting to wives), and later on, the young submitting to elders. Peter's words in verse 12 gives the theme that the purpose of all this submission is so that others will see and glorify God. He gives us some important points to remember.

1) Submission is a tool for social change.

The civil rights movement was kicked off by courageous individuals like Rosa Parks. For a black woman in her society 'submitting to the authorities' in her context meant sitting on her segregated part of the bus, or face the consequences. She chose to face the consequences. It's interesting that in that act of submitting to the government authorities was how she became the mother of the civil rights movement in the United States.

This was a very similar approach to the way that Jesus demonstrated submission in his life. Jesus submitted to the governing authorities of the Roman authorities, and they killed him. He famously instructed his disciples not to rise up to save him. It is even said that he could have called an army of angels to save him, but he did not. His act of submission was an act which reflected his life and teachings, and he died.

The big idea is that submission is a tool for social change, but it is not a tool for social reconstruction. Peter, and Jesus for that matter, were not interested in breaking down and rebuilding societal constructs, but rather they were interested in changing the hearts and minds of people towards good. And I would suggest that this is actually better. If we start by changing structures we will always get push-back. But if the hearts of people are turned towards good the the structures will change, or will even start to matter less.

2) Submission in suffering.

Peter's words to slaves in chapter 2 are some of the most criticized verses in the New Testament. How could Peter talk about slavery without even once condemning the evil practice. Slavery in the first century was a terrible affair as slavery has always been. But again, Peter isn't as interested in changing the social construct of slavery as we might want him to be. The idea of slaves being free from their masters, and in fact free from any kind of worldly power, is already a well taught and accepted concept for early Christians. What he's actually talking about here is the ability for a slave to influence the hearts and minds of their masters through their behavior. This is actually quite empowering to slaves. And the tool that's given is submission.

In the context of slavery the conflict between dominance and submission becomes important. Slaves were dominated by their masters in every respect. However, if the slave chooses submission it becomes a tool of expressing and living a true freedom in their lives. Their work becomes about their choice rather than being dominated.

But most importantly is the idea of suffering. Peter exhorts the believers in this passage that it is better to suffer for doing good rather than to suffer for doing evil. And this is where things become real for us in a way. One of the realities we need to accept in this life is that there will be suffering. Of course it would be better if we could all just stop causing any level of suffering on others and that should solve most of the problem, but the reality is that suffering is going to happen. Peter brings us an important question. What are you suffering for? Are you suffering in your life because you are choosing holiness, or are you suffering for evil? It is an important question to consider.

3 There is a joy in submission

Another piece that Peter takes a lot of flack for are his comments about women. Specifically about how their beauty does not come from their clothes, hair, or jewelry, but rather from what he calls a 'gentle and quiet spirit.' First of all there's a certain disdain for a man making comments on how a woman should feel beautiful, but also why the 'gentle and quiet' woman. Well, as with everyone else he's spoken to in this passage, submission is a powerful spiritual practice for everyone. Of course that would include wives.

Let's remember a few important things. First of all most of the early church, especially in this context, were women. Most of them had unbelieving husbands. Most of them were slaves. There's a very important distinction between these women (generally speaking, which always has it's problems) and the women of today. Women in our culture are generally free to dress themselves in any way they want (even though sometimes they will suffer ridicule from some). However for Peter's audience what they wore would mostly be under the power of their husbands or more importantly their slave masters. Women who were slaves, again a very significant number for Paul's audience, would have been dressed by their masters and would have little, if any chance to dress 'beautifully' in a way they would choose. In fact for some they would be dressed in the 'beautiful' way Peter describes but it would not be by their own choice, but also for the pleasure of the master.

The gentle and quiet spirit Peter talks about is one which finds an incredible joy in a Lord that finds their beauty not in their dress and appearance (something they can't control), but rather in the love and spirit they bring (something they can control).

Conclusion:

What Peter really presents to us is submission as a spiritual discipline. It's a lifestyle chosen freely to make ourselves humble and servants of others. It is the tool for social change without worrying about society, but rather worrying about the hearts of individuals, specifically our own.

Discussion: Read 1 Peter 2:11-3:7 together.

1) Which topic, phrase, verse or issue brought up in this passage brings you the most trouble? Why?
2) Has there ever been a time in your life where you have practiced submission?
3) What is your 'next step' for making submission an aspect of your life? Which area of your life do you plan to bring it? How are you going to do it?




Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Summer camp! We want to help send your kids.

Summer camp was one of the most iconic experiences of my life. That one week away in the summer

helped me to form a great part of who I am today. Ever since the time I was eight years old I began attending the same camp every year. I still have friends that I met on my first year there (my counselor actually). I ended up working at that same camp as an adult and spent my final year life-guarding. (I actually met my wife that year, it was a very good summer).

Knowing that there are many children out there who may long for this kind of experience yet may not have the chance simply for financial concerns is one that has been placed on our heart as a church. There shouldn't be these obstacles in childhood and yet they remain within our cultural framework.

Knowing that camp can be such a formative experience, we're excited to announce that the Network Church has decided that any kids who want to go to summer camp should be able to. That's why we're offering financial assistance to any families out there who want to send their kids to camp but otherwise wouldn't have the means to do so.

Funds are limited (of course) and camp registrations have opened, so we ask that you apply soon.  If you're interested please email thenetworkchurch@gmail.com