Does “Church” mean “the called out”?

I still hear it, though, by this time we should know better. The word “church” means “the called out,” therefore, based on the root meaning of the word, the church are the called out ones. Actually, no. While I certainly don’t want to take issue with the notion that the church should be those “called out” of the world to live God’s life for the sake of the world, the word church in the NT (ἐκκλησία) does not mean “the called out.”

This a bit like saying our English word “church” means “those belonging to the Lord,” since, after all, the English word church derives from the Greek “kurikos” (κυριακός) which meant “belonging to the Lord.” But few would even make that connection today.

D. A. Carson, years ago in Exegetical Fallacies, called this way of thinking about words, the root fallacy–that is that you can find what a word means by looking at its constituent parts (in this case, ἐκ [out of] + κλῆσις [calling]).

By the time of the first century, the word was the common word for a political or other assembly. The word, in that sense, is not a religious word. Furthermore, the import of the word is not the people had been called out but rather that they have assembled to conduct some business or activity. In one case in the NT, the word refers to a gathered mob (Acts 19:32).

Unfortunately, the often overlooked background of the NT use of the word ἐκκλησία is that the earliest Christians conversant in Greek knew the word from the Greek translation of the OT, the Septuagint (LXX). The word was not a new word for the early Christians but one they heard often with the OT was being read.

The Greek translators of the OT used the word ἐκκλησία as a translation of קָהָל (qahal) and other synonyms, generally translated as congregation or assembly. Consequently, the NT word we translate “church,” is all over the OT, as in Deut 4:10; 9:10; 18:16; 23:2-4, 9; 31:30; Josh 8:35; Judg 20:2; 21:5, 8; 1 Sam 17:47; 19:20; 1 Kings 8:14, 22, 55, 65; 1 Chr 13:2, 4; 28:2, 8; 29:1, 10, 20; 2 Chr 1:3, 5; 6:3, 12-13; 7:8; 10:3; 20:5, 14; 23:3; 28:14; 29:23, 28, 31-32; 30:2, 4, 13, 17, 23-25; Ezra 2:64; 10:1, 8, 12, 14; Neh 5:7, 13; 7:66; 8:2, 17; 13:1; Judith 6:16, 21; 7:29; 14:6; 1 Mac 2:56; 3:13; 4:59; 5:16; 14:19; Psa 21:23, 26; 25:5, 12; 34:18; 39:10; 67:27; 88:6; 106:32; 149:1; Prov 5:14; Job 30:28; Sir 15:5; 21:17; 23:24; 24:2; 26:5; 31:11; 33:19; 38:33; 39:10; 44:15; 46:7; 50:13, 20; Sol 10:6; Mic 2:5; Joel 2:16; Lam 1:10.

So better than thinking of the church as the “called out ones,” a more biblical approach would be seeing the church as the continuation of the story of God from the OT. When the early Christians heard the word ἐκκλησία, they were more likely to hear a reference to God’s gathered people.

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Helping the Donald Find the Collection Plate

Every religious action of Donald Trump is being scrutinzed to see if he might actually be a Christian as he claims to be. Yesterday we caught the Donald confusing the communion plate for the offering plate and should actually be praising him for his willingness to give.

But Trump’s gaffe provides a perfect opportunity to raise a question about how we help outsiders find their way when they worship with us. Since I was not there, this is a general reminder that we do many things in church life that is just baffling to unchurched people as well as to people raised in other traditions.

Here’s my plea: Let’s become more explicit about what we are doing during our worship times. Not only will visitors appreciate it, the church will benefit from the teaching that results from this kind of instruction. Here are some of my suggestions for how this might be done.

  1. At the beginning of the service, explain briefly what will happen in the service.
  2. Before communion, explain in every day langauge what is about to happen. Since I belong to a fellowship that does communion weekly, this is a weekly opportunity to tell how communion participates in the story of Jesus.
  3. Before the offering, explain why the church is taking up money both fiscally and theologically. Invite visitors to give as they are moved. (Please don’t tell them they don’t have to give and that it is just for members as this short-circuits what God may be doing in their lives–they may really need to give because of where they are).
  4. Have attractive literature ready as a guide for newcomers and those from other church traditions so they can find their way around the facility but also through the service.
  5. Have hosts speically trained and available for those who might need some help finding their way. Call on the people who have the emotional sensitivity to read the comfort level of others.
  6. Learn to recognize and not use “insider” language that only those trained in church-ese would understand.

Ok, here are some of my suggestions to help the Donalds of the world find their way in a new church setting, perhaps you have others.

So should the Donald visit your worship gathering, make sure he can find his way easily.

To Dream Again

All organizations and organisms have life cycles. Old churches have a different feel about them and new churches and churches in the prime of their ministry have that special something that seems to be missing from churches that have plataeued or are winding down. The same can be said of other institutions, including schools, hospitals, college, etc.

In the chart we have words that describe the various stages of an LifeCycleCurveorganization’s life cycle. New churches all begin with a dream. Even before the church formed, someone had a dream that a church was needed. Very quickly the new church orders itself around what it believes, goals were set, and appropriate structures were set in place to accomplish those goals. Within a few years, a church often finds itself doing the ministry the dreamers set out to do. This stage can last for many years but in time will become the “good ole days.”

If the leaders are savvy enough, they will sense when the church begins to lose its edge. And if they will help the church catch the vision again, or dream again, the church can experience many more years of full-fledged ministry.

However, most churches, in time, find themselves, slipping. One of the first signs is when it is easier to tell stories about what God use to do among us than to be excited about what God will do next. In time questioning and polarization sets in, and dropouts follows. Amazingly churches can exist in this semi-comatose state for years—until the money runs out or that last two people die. The Good News is that this does not have to be in the end of the story. Options include becoming a legacy churches that is willing to give their lives so others can dream, where the life cycle can begin again; or a church can choose to do the hard work of revitalization where they dream again.

While it is much easier to spur a church to dream again as they are coming off of a successful season of ministry, a church that has plataeued or declined can find new life—if they want it and will turn to God for it. And this is  key. The people, members of the church, must want to see their church live again with all their hearts. So if either of these are your story, I would love to hear from you.

So, join me. Let’s dream again.

I Am the Good Shepherd!

Reflections on the Gospel Reading for April 26, 2015: John 10:11-18

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

At the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Hammond, Louisiana, suspended between the narthex and the sanctuary is a stained glass window of the Good Shepherd. I would like to know more about that window. I don’t know who designed and created it. I don’t know when it was made. What I do know is that it goes back to at least the 1920s when the church bought the church building on the corner of N. Cherry and E. Charles. At that time, the glass hung behind where the choir sang.

In the early ’60s when the  current sanctuary was built, the window was placed in its current location. However, much more important than the history of the window, is its symbolic meaning for the life of this church. If I could, I might call our church “The Good Shepherd Christian Church” and not just because of the window, but because the idea that Jesus is the Good Shepherd resonates deep within us–both in terms of how Jesus continues to shepherd but how he has taught us to shepherd.

Of course, the notion of the Good Shepherd is much older than our stained glass window. In fact, the ideas are older than the words of Jesus above. Perhaps it is not unfair to say that “shepherding” is the predominant metaphor in Scripture for “doing ministry.” As sampling of some of these texts would include the following.

Referring to the appointment of Joshua to follow Moses, Moses prayed

Let the LORD, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint someone over the congregation who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the LORD may not be like sheep without a shepherd. (Numbers 27:16–17 NRSV)

The language of “sheep without a shepherd” shows up again in the ministry of Jesus  when he feeds the crowds (Matt 9:36; Mark 6:34).

Or who can forget the prophet Ezekiel’s scathing critique of Israel’s shepherds:

Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them. (Ezekiel 34:2–6 NRSV)

One should probably read the entirety of chapter 34 but this snippet gives a good idea of how important “shepherding” is a key for understanding the nature of ministry.

Perhaps no text has influenced what we think when we hear about the Good Shepherd more than the 23rd Psalm:

The Lord is my Shepherd; I will not be in need . . . “

You can take it from here.

Thus, when Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd,” he chose an image that was loaded with history, meaning, and interpretation—it was an image that tells the Story of God in the Bible.

Our text, John 10:11-18, begins with a contrast between the Good Shepherd and a hired hand. The point is simple: when danger comes, the hired hand will save his own skin, while the shepherd will lay down his life for the sheep when necessary. Of course, this comment presages what will happen when Jesus lays down his life.

In v. 14, Jesus repeats, “I am the good shepherd.” This second declaration marks a shift in the conversation away from the contrast between the Good Shepherd and a hired hand. Now the emphasis is the special relationship the shepherd has with his sheep. Jesus says, “I know them and my own know me” AND in the same way that the Father knows Jesus and Jesus knows the Father. Typical of the Gospel of John, the writer holds before the reader that the same intimate relationship that Jesus has with the Father can be theirs, too, that is, with the Father, with the Son and with each other.

This should not be missed. John is not just saying one can have a good relationship with God, but the same kind and level of relationship that Jesus himself has with the Father. Thus, just as Jesus knows the Father, so we can know Jesus. The level of union with God promised here is amazing and available, and too often, unrealized by many Christians.

Jesus knows his sheep and his sheep know him, so, of course, “I lay down my life for the sheep.” This is what we do when we love someone, is it not?

But who are the other sheep? A couple of possibilities have been suggested. One is that the other sheep are the Gentiles who will be added to the flock. Other options might include a reference back to the OT promises to restore the southern kingdom of Judah to the northern kingdom of Israel (cf. Ezek 34:23; 37:24). Yet another is the church that will grow around his apostles (this fold?). I tend to favor the first option, but the emphasis in the end is that we will belong to one flock and have one shepherd.

The final note of the text returns to the theme of Jesus’ laying down his life. Why would he do that? Simple answer: Because he wanted to. Or as Jesus says, “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” The placement of the last sentence, “I have received this command from my Father,” suggest that the command was not that Jesus must die, but rather that Jesus had the power to lay down his life and to take it up again.

In the final analysis, the Good Shepherd, to be “good,” is willing to lay down his life for his sheep. This has great implication for the kind of people we are called to be.

Now while I don’t know much about our stained glass window of the Good Shepherd, I do know this. The Good Shepherd knows me and I seek to know the Good Shepherd.

What God Loves; What We Love

Reflections on the Gospel Lectionary Reading for March 15, 2015: John 3:14-21

The United States became “officially” biblically illiterate on January 9, 2009. The day before, Tim Tebow had “John” written in white on his eye-black under his right eye and 3:16 under his left eye in the OU vs. FL football game.  Tebow made a name for himself by his outward religious expressions at sporting events.

However, the amazing thing that happened the next day was that “John 3:16” was the top search on Google search. The top five searches on January 9, 2009 were

1. John 3 16

2. Mary Lynn Rajskub

3. Windows 7 beta download

4. All inclusive vacations

5. Ana Ortiz

In other words, people no longer knew the once most-memorized text of the Bible. If people knew nothing else about the Bible, they would often know “For God so loved the world . . .”

Equally disturbing, to me at least, is that guy who held up the John 3:16 banner at all those NFL games over the years had been utterly unsuccessful.

The Gospel reading for the upcoming Sunday includes this once well-known text. Beginning in John 3:14, our text reads,

… And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

When we read John 3:16 in its larger context we see that God is not the only one who “loves” in our text. People are said to love, too. Embedded in this text is a call to respond to God’s love.

“Who said what?” is a bit of a problem in this text. Since ancient manuscripts of the NT had no real equivalent to quotation marks, scholars have argued over where Jesus ends his conversation with Nicodemus and where John begins his commentary. I’m among those who think Jesus finishes at v. 15 and that v. 16 begins John’s comments. This probably does not change how we read the text much, but in the spirit of full disclosure that is how I’m reading it. If you are interested in this issues, you can consult the commentaries on it or let me know, and I will send you the information.

However one resolves who said what, the content of v. 15 sets the context for hearing the whole text and it is important for hearing that text.

In a rather strange analogy, Jesus compares the “Son of Man,” referring to himself,  to the serpent that Moses placed on a pole and lifted up (ὑψόω) in the wilderness. Of course, the story about Moses and the snake is also rather strange, and unexpected, given the association of the serpent with temptation in the creation narrative. The story is told in a few verses in the book of Numbers:

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. (Numbers 21:4–9 NRSV)

Discounting the idolatrous nature of the bronze serpent (and that it violates the second commandment), Jesus analogy rests on one point: just as the serpent was lifted up, so the Son of Man will be lifted up. A second point might be that those who looked at the serpent would live and those who believe in the Son of Man will have eternal life.

But back to the first thought, the notion of “being lifted” has something a double meaning in John’s writing. For Jesus to be “lifted up” could as easily mean to be exalted or to be crucified. John may want his readers to linger a bit on both and perhaps feel the interplay between the two.

So as we turn the corner into John 3:16, the “exalted” Son of Man is still echoing in our heads. We are now prepared to hear that God’s love for the world will cost God dearly: God gave, God sent. Vv. 16, 17, and 18 all move in the same direction. God gave his Son so that those who believe may have eternal life; God sent his Son so that the world might be save through him; those who believe are not condemn. God’s intent is that his creatures will live!

However, there is another side to the equation: “those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” What caught my attention here is that John announces that those who do not believe are “condemned already” (κέκριται; perfect/completed tense in Greek of κρίνω, I judge). Clearly, John has certain people or group of people in mind. He has already mentioned those who believe so he does not believe all people are under consideration here. Rather these who do not believe are those who have encountered Jesus but chose not believe, or in John’s language, closed their eyes to the light of God. This only makes sense if you believe that Jesus is God’s representative, or as the text says, God’s Son. If that is true, then ignoring Jesus is rejecting the God of creation.

In fact, as God so loved the world, such people loved darkness rather than the light. And that, it seems to me, is the fulcrum of this text. God loved the world so much that he sent his Son as “light,” but those who love darkness will not see the Light.

The question of the text becomes, “Do you want to see? Well, do you?

Discipleship: Whose Agenda?

Reflections on the Lectionary Gospel Text for March 1, 2015: Mark 8:31-38

31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

As we have noted the Gospel of Mark is a highly structured narrative. I outline Mark 8:27 to 10:52 this way:

Peter’s confession: “You are the Messiah.” (8.27-30)
FIRST PASSION PREDICTION [see 3.6 and 3.19 for early hints] (8.31, 32)
Peter Attempts to “Correct” Jesus (8.33)
Jesus Teaches about Discipleship (8.34-9.1)
The Transfiguration: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” (9.2-13)
The Disciples Unable to Exoricise a Demon (9.14-29)
SECOND PASSION PREDICTION (9.30-32 )
Disciples Argue over “Who’s the Greatest?” Object Lesson: A Little Child (9.33-37)
The Disciples Prohibit an “outsider” from casting out demons in Jesus’ name (9.38)
Jesus Teaches about Discipleship (9.39-50)
Jesus Uses Marriage as Example of Discipleship [may look back to 6.14-29] (10.1-12)
Jesus Accepts Little Children (10.13-16)
The Rich Young Man does not accept Jesus (10.17-23)
The Disciples, through Peter, claim to have accepted Jesus (10.24-31)
THIRD PASSION PREDICTION (10.32-34)
The Request of James and John (10.35-45)
The Request of Barimaeus (10.46-5)

The structural framework of the larger context of our text consists of three predictions of Jesus’ suffering. Three times with increasing clarity Jesus states that he will go to Jerusalem and DIE! Each time the disciples will misunderstand or misdirect the conversation in way that moves the topic away from a Messiah who will die. And each time Jesus will pull them back to the true nature of discipleship.

It’s as if Jesus had said that he had cancer, and his disciples do all they can to avoid the topic. The comedy of it all is seen in the disciples’s misfires that occur directly after Jesus’ prediction that he would suffer and die. In the text above, after the first prediction, Peter, who just announced that Jesus is the Christ (Messiah), now takes the position of leader to rebuke Jesus for his silly thought. After the second prediction, the disciples shift to the more important topic of who is the greatest among them. Then after the third prediction, James and John ask Jesus for the best seats in God’s kingdom. Clearly someone is not listening.

These examples and others in the larger context suggest that the disciples struggle with who is really in charge. As a disciple of Jesus, whose agenda wins? When Peter rebuked Jesus, he came back with some of the strongest words of his ministry: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

To have Jesus call you “Satan” had to sting. Jesus’s next comment explains the harsh remark and also clarifies what is at stake in not listening carefully to Jesus. In short, Jesus accused Peter of being interested in human things, not God’s things. Or, said another way, Peter is more interested in what he wants than what his Lord wants.

The rebuke of Peter sets up one of the basic teachings of Jesus on discipleship. To be a disciple of Jesus is to follow in the way of Jesus. What happens to the Jesus will also be the way of his true disciples.

Being led to crucifixion is the language Jesus chose for conveying the cost and nature of discipleship. However, the first step is the hardest. Jesus begins with “Deny yourself.” Here Jesus is not inviting us to take Lent more seriously, nor is he telling us to quit doing bad things. Rather, Jesus is going for the heart of the issue: we must say no to our agenda and be willing to take on God’s. To deny yourself here refers to setting aside a mere human perspective, and taking on the divine perspective. It’s answering the question of “Who is Lord of your life?”

Once we have denied ourselves, that is, decided we are not the center of the universe, then following Jesus is the next move. However, to follow Jesus is to follow Jesus in taking up the cross. The cross here is not our personal troubles or persistent challenges. Though, to be sure, those issues can be deeply connected to our personal experience of being a disciple of Jesus. The cross envisioned here is the cross intimately tied to the Mission of God. Jesus is still modeling what he started in the first chapter of Mark. He is still proclaiming the “Good News of God.” “The Kingdom of God has come near!” Repent, and Believe the Good News.” The paradox of the kingdom is that the path to God is the way of the cross.

The Kingdom of God works with a reverse kind of logic: those who seek to save their life will lose it; and those who lose their life for Jesus’s sake will save it. What hangs in the balance is our very life! If this is not so, then the logic of the Kingdom fails.

So what happens if you gain the whole world but you miss the call of Jesus? The logic of the Kingdom is that you have gained nothing. So as the logic of the Kingdom would have it, there is something quite shameful about this cross Jesus has invited us to carry. So much so, that Jesus warned his audience: “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

These words, often read in isolation of the text to which they belong, are a continuing comment on the call to follow Jesus. Jesus understands that the way of discipleship will be hard, that it may even be something that causes us shame, but yet . . .

If anyone wishes to be my disciples . . .