Tag Archives: Church

Is “Living Sacrifice” an Oxymoron?

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.
Romans 12:1 (NIV)

To Paul’s readers, the term “living sacrifice” would have seemed an oxymoron. Animal sacrifice was a common part of religion at the time. This was not only true of Judaism, but most all of the Roman cults and religions practiced some sort of animal sacrifice. So whether the followers of Jesus in Rome who were reading Paul’s words had come from Jewish or Gentile backgrounds, they would have scratched their heads.

Living sacrifice?” I can hear one say. “But, doesn’t the very notion of ‘sacrifice’ mean that something dies?”

Quite right,” I imagine Paul replying if he were there in person. “You do.”

Excuse me?” the Roman believer asks quizzically.

You are the sacrifice,” Paul says, looking the believer in the eye and offering a warm smile. “In fact dying to yourself is really the heart of your worship. Not the occasional sacrifice of an animal like all these other religions you see around us. Anyone can do that and it costs very little in the long run. Cheap and easy, really. Our Lord Jesus was quite direct in telling us that in order to be His follower we have to take up our own cross. We would have to sacrifice ourselves for others, for Him. Just as He did for us. That’s at the very heart of true worship, and being a true follower.

But how does that work, exactly?” the believer asks. “How exactly do I go about making myself a ‘living sacrifice?‘”

Ah,” Paul says, a twinkle in his eye. “I’m glad you asked.”

The entirety of today’s chapter answers that question. What does it mean to truly worship by offering myself as a “living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God?” Ironically, going to church, singing, throwing a buck in the plate, and all the things we normally associate with “worship” are not even mentioned.

Here’s a bulleted and paraphrased list of what Paul goes on to mention in the rest of today’s chapter:

  • Don’t follow the “It’s all about me” behavior and thought patterns of this world.
  • Transform your thinking; Renew your mind with Jesus’ teaching.
  • Don’t think too much of yourself; Maintain an on-going sober self-assessment.
  • Use your gifts and abilities to serve others.
  • Hate evil.
  • Cling to what is good.
  • Devote yourself to loving others.
  • Attach such worth to others that you naturally serve them first.
  • Be zealous in serving others, and keep feeding the zeal.
  • Be joyful in hope for all God can and will do.
  • Be patient when you’re afflicted, there’s a point to the pain.
  • Faithfully maintain an on-going conversation with God.
  • Share what you have with anyone in need.
  • Practice hospitality. Seriously, practice. You need to get better at it.
  • Bless those who persecute you. Do something nice for them and if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.
  • If you know someone who got a win, sincerely celebrate with them (don’t envy their success or good fortune).
  • If you know someone who is grieving, be present in their pain.
  • Live in harmony with others; You might not be on the same note, but you can at least blend your differences so as not to be dissonant to everyone around you.
  • Don’t be proud; Every day you encounter people in lower, more humble circumstances than you. Be willing to meet them at their level, even if it means stooping below your comfortable social status.
  • Don’t be conceited. Consider the reality that you just might not that important in the grand scheme of things. Embrace it.
  • Evil that is done to you does not justify revenge. Let it go.
  • Do the right thing for everyone, not just your particular religious, political, tribal, ethnic or socio-economic constituency.
  • You can’t control others, but you can control yourself, so practice that self-control to live peacefully with everyone, not just your particular religious, political, tribal, ethnic or socio-economic constituency.
  • Let me repeat, give up your right to revenge. Vengeance is like drinking poison and expecting it hurt someone else.
  • If your enemy is hungry, give her some food.
  • If your enemy is thirsty, give him some water.
  • Responding to evil with your own evil tactics only escalates the situation and then everybody loses. Respond with goodness. You’ll sleep better.

In order to practice this list on a daily basis,” Paul says to his friend, “it will require some sacrifices on your part: your ego, your time, your pride, your resources, your wants, your comfort, and even your rights. That is how we worship God by being a living sacrifice.”

My Lessons from Diverse Experiences

But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.
1 Corinthians 14:40

Along my journey I have experienced worship in diverse traditions and settings. I grew up in a mainline Protestant tradition that could be described as “high church.” I grew up wearing a formal choir robe and marching in a long, formal, choral processional into the sanctuary accompanied by a pipe organ. There was a dictated pattern and order to every service even to the point of the minister standing in different positions to deliver different parts of the liturgy and message.

From that launching point I’ve worshipped in rather raucous Pentecostal services, in cold medieval cathedrals, in squirrelly Junior High church camp chapels, in fundamentalist Baptist churches with their own take on legalistic liturgy, in a third world, tin-shack hut you would scarcely call a church, in stadium revivals, and, well, you get my point.

In my early adult years I spent some time in the Quaker tradition, which is 180 degrees from the experience of my youth. The Quakers attempt to recapture the spirit of the early gatherings of the Jesus Movement like what Paul is addressing in his letter to the believers in Corinth. It’s a small, egalitarian setting. Everyone is welcome to participate. They spend time in silence to “center” themselves and wait for Holy Spirit move. People stand and speak as the Spirit prompts them with a word, or a song, or a prayer. It was a fascinating experience from which I learned some valuable lessons.

In today’s chapter, Paul is addressing what was a pressing issue within the context of the corporate gatherings of Jesus’ followers when there was no real tradition, very little organization, a loose authority structure, and everything that was happening was new and different than anyone had experienced. With lack of structure, authority, and order things can quickly get out of control. That was happening among the Corinthian believers. Paul is writing to try and to encourage some order.

There are three broad lessons that I’ve learned from the diversity of my worship experiences in different traditions.

First, if my spirit is open I can learn from every experience. The metaphor and pageantry of high church liturgy is beautiful and layered with meaning once you begin to see it. The Quaker tradition taught me the power of quiet, and that Holy Spirit can and does speak through the most unlikely of vessels in extraordinary ways. It’s so easy to fall into “either-or” thinking when it comes to different worship traditions. I have benefitted from the “both and” approach, entering every worship experience with an open and seeking heart and mind.

Second, there are opportunities and threats in every established tradition. I found the liturgical provides me the opportunity of structure, order, and a comfort that comes with repetition and discipline. The threat is that it can easily become rote words and religious actions void of the Spirit or any personal connection. Likewise, the contrasting organic style of the Quaker tradition gave me the opportunity to experience learning from diverse individuals and recognizing how God can move and speak through everyone. The threat I found is that discerning between flesh and Spirit is always a bit messy, and individuals sometimes speak their own personal desires and opinions cloaked in “God told me” language.

Third, no matter the corporate worship setting or experience, ultimately I am responsible for my own spiritual journey and my own divine dance in every corporate worship experience. I am responsible for my attitudes going into corporate worship. I am responsible to be humble, loving, and gracious in the midst of it. I am responsible to observe, to learn, to ask, seek, and knock. I am am responsible to be grateful for the opportunity, forgiving of that which may possibly offend me, and humble enough to admit there may be things which I don’t fully understand.

Rediscovering the Organism

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
1 Corinthians 12:27 (NIV)

I remember getting the call. There was an emergency meeting of the church elders. I was a young man and had been serving as pastor of a rural church for over a year. As I made my way to the church office for the hastily called meeting I wondered what on earth the problem was.

As it turned out, the problem was me. Apparently, I had not officially gone through the prescribed bureaucratic hoops required to become a member of the church when I was hired. One of the elders had their undies in a bunch because I’d never become a member. I sort of figured that if the congregation hired me, I was kind of automatically grandfathered in. Oh, no. How could I be serving as Pastor of the organization if I wasn’t a member of said organization? We have an existential crisis on our hands, people!!

I did my best not to laugh. At the next congregational meeting I submitted my name for membership, the congregation approved, and that little bit of silliness was put to rest.

The sad thing is that I’ve encountered similar kinds of silliness in the institutional church wherever my journey has taken me. Looking back over my journey, I’m struck at how different the institutional paradigm of “church” that I grew up with compares to the word picture of “the body of Christ” that Paul gives to the believers in Corinth in today’s chapter.

The word picture of the “Body” is a living organism made up of all believers. The church I grew up in was an organization made up of just those who chose to go through membership class, go through interviews with the elders, and accepted the “right hand of fellowship” along with a nice certificate (perfect for framing) during a Sunday morning meeting. In Paul’s word picture, every believer has a spiritual gift and has a significant part to play in contributing to the work of the Body of Christ as a whole. The church I grew up in had a few appointed “ministers” approved by the organization to do ministry. The vast majority of us were little more than spectators and financial support. Paul’s word picture of the Body is inclusive and includes all believers regardless of age, gender, social status, or ethnic background. The church I grew up in was exclusive to those who had a certificate of membership, which is why the elder in my earlier story was horrified by the notion that I was serving as their pastor but hadn’t jumped through the bureaucratic hoops of the organization to get mine.

To be sure, even in Paul’s day the church was struggling to provide some kind of organizational framework for a movement that had gone from just over 100 people to tens of thousands of people in just a few years. Nevertheless, when the organism of the Body of Christ that Paul describes in today’s chapter became an organization and then a political, social, and religious institution of the Roman Empire a couple of hundred years later, I believe something was lost.

I’ve observed along my life journey that the church institutions of my childhood are dying. The old mainline denominations have fractured and faded. People are increasingly embittered by the systemic sins of a global religious institution and its leaders who refuse to deal honestly and forthrightly with the issues. When I grew up, a politician was required to be a member of an acceptable religious organization or institution in order to be considered a good candidate. I find it fascinating that a leading politician recently stated that membership in a legacy religious organization is a sign of prejudice and hate speech, disqualifying a person from serving in a government position.

Oh my. The times, they are a changin’.

And, in the quiet this morning I’m thinking that maybe it’s a good thing. History leads me to believe that the Jesus movement is always more effective when it is persecuted and less effective when it is in power. Perhaps we’ll learn how to become an organism once again. You’re welcome to join me. I won’t even ask you to show me a certificate of membership.

Vocation and Ministry

Or is it only I and Barnabas who lack the right to not work for a living?
1 Corinthians 9:6 (NIV)

Work has been a little crazy for me in recent weeks. I’m in the midst of my 25th year with our company and completing my first year at the helm, leading the operation. Year-end means wrapping up current year business for clients, writing and managing proposals for the coming year, Board meetings, year-end financials, and all of the administrative work that comes with all of it. Beyond that there is the vision casting and strategic planning for where I hope to lead the company in the year(s) ahead.

When I was hired back in 1994 I left 6 years of working in full-time pastoral and para-church ministry. At the time, my mother was a bit disappointed in my vocational change. For several years she would occasionally ask “Are you ever going to go back into the ministry?” My response was always, “I never left ministry.” She would roll her eyes and say, “I know. But, you know what I mean.

What she meant was that “ministry” means working full-time for a church; That “real ministry” is a higher spiritual status reserved for those employed in an institutional church organization. I have found this to be a very common belief, especially in previous generations. I still, on occasion, have someone approach me after I teach on a Sunday morning and ask, “Why aren’t you in ministry?” Once again, I always respond with, “I am in ministry.” I always would like to add: “And, so are you!”

I love an appreciate the incredibly gifted and driven full-time staff members of our local church community. The operation couldn’t function without them, and because of them it functions remarkably well. Because of them, the operation accomplishes abundantly more than most of our community’s members even realize. I’m quite certain, however,  that even they would agree with me that “ministry” is not confined to those individuals on the organization’s payroll.

I find it a dangerous notion to place a label of “ministry” on those in full-time employment by a church or non-profit para-church ministry. The implication is that any believer who is not in one of those two vocational silos is not in ministry. This means that those of us not in full-time church or ministry employment are not in ministry (and comfortably off the hook from having to think about all that it might otherwise mean).

This is, however, contrary to the entire paradigm that God’s Message teaches. Every believer is a part of the body of Christ. Every believer is spiritually gifted by Holy Spirit regardless of age, gender, background, education, or training. Why? Because every believer is part of the ministry of the Body of Christ. We, all who believe, are His hands, feet, eyes, ears, and mouth. There are no exemptions or exceptions. I find this to be a radically different paradigm than what the institutional church has taught and exemplified for centuries. I believe it’s time to rediscover the fullness of meaning in the “priesthood of all believers.” We’re far overdue to rediscover the inherent ministry of every vocation.

I couldn’t help but read today’s chapter in context of yesterday’s chapter, in which Paul urged the Corinthian believers to surrender their right (to eat food sacrificed to idols) in order to lovingly honor fellow believers who think differently. In today’s chapter, Paul explains how he has done the very thing he’s urging them to do. He had a right to be married, to travel with a wife, to receive a full-time income for his preaching and service to the church just like all of the other apostles were doing. Paul, however, chose not to be married. Wherever he was living in the moment he chose to work at his family trade (making and repairing tents) to provide his own income. I can guarantee you that Paul leveraged his day-job of tent making and manual labor into opportunities to meet strangers, build relationships, have conversations, be an example, and extend the reach of his ministry. Tent making wasn’t separate from Paul’s ministry. It was a central and crucial part of it.

This morning I’m thankful for an amazing company I’ve had the privilege of serving for 25 years. I’m thankful for a host of relationships with colleagues, clients, and coworkers that I’d never have had were it not for my vocation. I’m grateful for the honor and privilege to lead and serve in both business and among my local community of Jesus’ followers. This morning in the quiet I find my spirit echoing Paul’s sentiment to the believers in Corinth:

What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights as a preacher of the gospel.

Cooperation, not Competition

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task.
1 Corinthians 3:5 (NIV)

Our local gathering of Jesus followers has two venues for worship, and each Sunday there are worship services that run in both rooms at the same time. For the past few years I have had the honor of working with a team of individuals who are developing their gifts and skills in teaching. Every season there is a rotating team of people who take turns teaching on Sundays and then meeting mid-week to discuss their experience and improve their skills. It’s a diverse group of both men and women of different ages, educational backgrounds, and vocational experiences. It’s been a fascinating experience for me to lead and participate. I’ve learned a lot.

One of the things I’ve tried to impress on our team of teachers is the reality that each week I get up to teach there will be those who are excited to see me up there, and those who who are not. As we represent a diverse cross-section of humanity, we each will appeal to different individuals within our gathering. Those who are gifted teachers and develop those gifts will naturally develop broader appeal, but no teacher enjoys universal appeal (not even Jesus). It just is what it is. I think that’s why Jesus’ followers are called a “body” and the spiritual gift of teaching is given to a diverse number of individuals across all parts of the body.

As I’ve been studying the early history of the Jesus Movement, I am repeatedly struck at how quickly the story shifts from the original twelve apostles to a host of other characters. In many cases, these almost anonymous individuals, such as Ananias (Acts 9:10-19), pop onto the scene like a bit player with a walk-on role, then make their exit never to be heard from again. Others characters are only referenced or mentioned, but nonetheless they played a large off-stage role. Apollos was one of these.

Apollos was from the city of Alexandria in Egypt, a city of great influence in the ancient world. Apollos was from the upper crust of society in those days. He was highly educated and trained in oratory, the art of speech and debate, which was arguably the most esteemed skill at that time of history. We don’t know how Apollos became a believer, but he arrives on the scene using his speaking and debate skills arguing that Jesus was the Messiah. He was such a powerful teacher and speaker, in fact, that he naturally developed broad appeal within the Jesus Movement, especially with many of the believers of Corinth. Division sprouted among the Corinthians believers as some in the local gathering there began to treat it as if it was a “The Voice” type of competition. Some were on “Team Paul” and other were on “Team Apollos.”

Paul immediately shuts down these notions of competition between the two. It’s not a competition, Paul argues, but a cooperation. Both Paul and Apollos had a role to play in the Corinthian believers faith and spiritual growth. Each brought his own unique personality, style, background, experience, and appeal. Every believer in Corinth had something to learn from both Paul and Apollos. This wasn’t “either, or” it was “both, and.”

In the quiet this morning I’m thinking of the diverse team of individuals with whom I partner to teach among my local gathering of believers. It’s been a blast for me to watch each of them develop their own voice, speak from their own unique experiences, and watch our gathering grow and learn from such a broad range of voices. It’s a weekly and constant reminder that “the church” was never to be a monument to a particular, persuasive teacher or leader. Every local gathering has both a Paul and an Apollos (and an Ananias, and a Priscilla, and an Aquila, and a Chloe and….).

It’s not competition. It’s cooperation. Or else, we’re doing it wrong.

From “Members Only” to a “Can of Worms”

As for those who were held in high esteem—whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism—they added nothing to my message.
Galatians 2:6 (NIV)

Imagine an exclusive country club that has been in existence in a community for hundreds of years. The club, created by the town’s wealthy and politically powerful founder had always been owned and run by the eldest child in direct generational descendant of the town’s founder. For generations the club has always been “Members Only” and only the “who’s who” of the community leaders, political leaders, business leaders, and established local families were allowed to join. Only they could afford the dues and abide by the upscale dress codes and the strictly taught and practiced rituals of the club’s exhaustive book of social etiquette.

Then, the current owner dies. In her last will and testament she states that the Club will now be open to anyone who wants to join, not only members of the local community, but anyone from any community in the entire region. She leaves an endowment that pays for virtually anyone to belong and states that nothing should hinder any persons full acceptance and membership. From that point on, all members of the club will participate in its ownership and have the opportunity for club leadership.

Almost immediately, residents across a ten county area from every social strata, race, gender and cultural background rush to join the club. The existing club members who have only known the club to be one thing, are quickly thrown into a panic. While trying to maintain an air of acceptance and openness, they insist that all of the “new” members must maintain the traditional dress code (clothes none of the “new” members can afford) and the strict rituals of social, club etiquette (that none of the “new” members ever learned, nor do they necessarily care about).

The Board of Directors and its membership committee, packed with long-term, upstanding club members agree to embrace the owners wishes to welcome everyone into the club, but insist that the new members must hold to all of the long-held traditions of the country club even if it’s a terrible burden to them and offers no real benefit.

One influential member from one of the oldest, most well-established blue-blood families in the club’s history stands and confronts the Board and membership committee. The owner’s last will and testament said that “nothing should hinder any persons full acceptance and membership.” To expect new members to buy expensive dinner clothes and hold to social rituals they’d never learned was the exact kind of hinderance that the owner was referring to in her will. He demands that they drop their requirement of historic dress codes and social etiquette rituals.

Can you feel the tension of this situation?

Welcome to the first century Jesus movement.

It’s hard in today’s world to understand just how huge a rift the risen and ascended Jesus created among early believers from different backgrounds. The Jewish believers came from a deep historical and cultural tradition that was a core part of their identity. In many ways it was like a private, “members only” club. When Jesus made it clear that His followers would embrace persons of every tribe, nation, culture and tongue He opened up the proverbial can of worms. It deeply rattled those who had lived their whole lives in a system of exclusivity.

As Paul continues to write his letter to the Galatians, the subtext of his words drips with tension. Paul is a life-long, blue-blood member of the formerly exclusive club. Peter, James and the rest of the Twelve are in Jerusalem trying to balance the enraged emotions and daily struggle of traditional, Jewish believers trying to embrace the new reality. Paul, the maverick, has gone all-in on the side of the non-Jewish Gentiles. This is the conflict threatening the faith of the early believers.

Paul is convinced that the believers must let go of the ancient Jewish traditions and rituals of their members only club as it relates to non-Jewish believers for whom these traditions and rituals are totally foreign and meaningless. He sees Peter and the other leaders as equivocating and trying to accommodate the powerful, established Jewish members of the new paradigm. Paul is pissed off, and is not going to shy away from a confrontation on the subject.

This morning I’m reminded that the struggles we experience in this time and place are not new. I’m reminded that learning to work together, embrace one another, love one another, and accept one another despite our differences is always going to be a messy human endeavor. My job, as I see it, is to follow and abide by the law of love that Jesus modeled and called me to obey. Following Jesus should always lighten the load, not increase the burden.

featured photo courtesy of Chuck Moravec via Flickr

Resurrection of the Organism

[Apollos] began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard [Apollos], they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.

When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia, the brothers and sisters encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him.
Acts 18:26-27 (NIV)

My local gathering of Jesus’ followers has been studying the book of Acts. It’s one of the reasons I’m journeying through it again here on my blog. Like all institutional organizations, my local gathering of believers has a traditional hierarchy and well-maintained organization. We even have an official prayer ministry and volunteers who have been trained up and will pray for those who ask for it or need it. That is an absolutely awesome thing for which I’m thankful.

In the past couple of weeks, however, something very interesting has been happening. A few weeks ago the teacher of the morning asked anyone who wanted prayer, for whatever reason, to simply stand where they were during our worship song. Those seated around anyone standing were then encouraged to stand, reach out, place a hand on that person and pray for them. Many stood and many prayed. It was beautiful.

Over the coming weeks one could see that after the morning worship there were several small pockets of believers praying over and for one another. This wasn’t some official part of the service. These weren’t official prayer ministers from the prayer ministry doing what they were trained to do by the organization. These prayers for and over one another were happening organically from among those hanging out after the service, unprompted by any leader or individual.

In today’s chapter, we meet three new individuals. First, there’s Priscilla and Aquila (interesting that even Luke references the wife before the husband). The couple were among all of the Jews expelled from Rome by Emperor Claudius (a well established historical event). The fact that they appear to have already been believers means that the Message of Jesus had already spread to Rome, though we have no evidence of Paul or any of the other apostles having made an official missionary journey there at that point in time.

The other individual we meet in today’s chapter is a man named Apollos, also a Jew who was a believer of Jesus. We don’t know much about his background other than what Luke provides here. From Alexandria, he’d been traveling and sharing the Message of Jesus in synagogues much as Paul had done.

The underlying message of today’s chapter is that the Message of Jesus had been unleashed. The concentric circles of the Jesus movement was spreading out further and further. This was not happening by official means led by authorized envoys of the twelve in Jerusalem. It was happening organically. The Message was being embraced and shared by the growing number of believers. Everyone was in on it, and everyone was compelled and encouraged to share the Message even if they, like Apollos, didn’t have a complete understanding.

Notice that Apollos wasn’t discouraged from what he was doing, even though there were some details he was ignorant about. Priscilla and Aquila took him in, educated him, and sent him back out with their blessing. Paul didn’t do that. Priscilla and Aquila didn’t send him to Jerusalem to be educated by Peter and the boys and receive an institutional stamp of approval. This early church was a living organism in which every individual cell was growing, multiplying, and shaking things up wherever it went.

That’s why I’m both excited and encouraged by what I’ve witnessed in my local gathering of believers in recent weeks. For centuries the Institutions of Christianity have encouraged believers to sit quietly in their pews, go about their business, and let the professional, officially trained and approved ministers do things. Suddenly, I find that everyday believers from all walks of life are rediscovering their spiritual giftedness, their personal calling to use those gifts, and Holy Spirit power that fuels and empowers both.

I hear that we have moved into a “post-Christian” and “post-Evangelical” world. Perhaps we are. Yet, from where I sit I’m witnessing something remarkable. As the old Institutional organizations wane and die, the organism is being resurrected.