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.

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Baptism, Temptation, Ministry

Reflection on the Lectionary Gospel Text for February 22, 2015: Mark 1:9-15

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,  15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

So ends Mark’s introduction to his Gospel (1:1–15). Since I have covered the basic flow of Mark’s introduction elsewhere (http://wp.me/pkPXF-oV), I will begin here by noting that the first half of the introduction dealt with John’s work of preparing the way of the Lord. Now, beginning with v. 9, Mark turns his attention to the hero of his story, Jesus.

The briefness of some of Mark’s stories is startling not only because as readers we want to know more but also because of how much each mini-story contains. These stories, if they be called stories, are more like terse summaries. Tense, packed summaries, to be sure.

I have outline the flow of the stories in our text today as: Baptism, Temptation, and Ministry. There is a certain rhythm or flow here that is true of all who dare follow Jesus. Jesus is the prototype (model, exemplar) of all those who would follow him. Baptism, temptation, and ministry outlines the process through which God’s Spirit remakes and reshapes us into the image of Christ. While there is reason to read them in this order, the experience of baptism, temptation and ministry will be revisited often in the life of a disciple of Jesus.

Baptism. While Mark has already made a connection between the forgiveness of our sins and baptism, here, in this text about Jesus’ baptism, the focus is more on appointment and identity. Jesus is the chosen anointed one. Instead of the oil that was pour on the head of kings and prophets to recognize their calling, Jesus is anointed with the Holy Spirit. John has already clued us that Jesus would also be the one who would baptize others in the Holy Spirit. So in the same way God had anointed Jesus, Jesus would anoint others.

Sometimes when I baptize people, I say something like this: “Based on your confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, I now baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. When you rise from these waters, you can be sure of two things: your sins are forgiven and God’s Holy Spirit has come to live within you.” The certainty of these words rest in the example of Jesus. All of us who accept the invitation to follow Jesus can be assured of God’s acceptance and God’s approval: “You are my child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Soon, as with Jesus, so with us, our resolve will be tested. Through temptation we prove how deeply we believe the Gospel.

Temptation. Mark’s temptation story is so brief, particularly when compared to Matthew’s and Luke’s. Still Mark give enough to evoke the story of the Israelites in the wilderness on their way to the promised land. The evocative words are wilderness (or desert), forty days, tempted, wild beasts, and angels.

Mark point to the divine role that temptation plays in the process: the Spirit of God “drove” or “cast” (ἐκβάλλω) Jesus into the wilderness. Interesting word choice on Mark’s part. This is the word that is often used in the stories about Jesus “casting out” demons. When Matthew and Luke retold this story (Matt 4:1; Luke 4:1), they softened the verb to “lead” instead of “cast.”

However, there are times in our lives as followers of Jesus, when we feel as if we have been thrown where we do not want to be. One should not minimize the reality of dark times those who chose to follow Jesus will experience but we, in time, learn how to embrace these as part of the journey. Each time we conquer temptation, our credibility increases as disciples of Jesus, and we learn to minister to other with greater depth.

Ministry. While the acts of ministry are many, the basic shape of Christian ministry is proclaiming the Good News of the kingdom of God. Jesus’ message was simple and straightforward: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” However, woven into the very fabric of the proclamation is exactly what each of us need to hear to stay focused.

The center of the Good News is that the Kingdom of God has come near (see http://wp.me/pkPXF-pS). The Kingdom of God is the basis of our authority to do ministry in the name of Jesus. Or, said another way, we do ministry as representatives of the Kingdom of God.

However, also woven into the proclamation of the Kingdom is the humbling, lest we think to highly of ourselves as representatives of God’s kingdom. The proper response to hearing, really hearing, the message of the Kingdom is to repent and believe the Good News. Whether a beginner or a more mature disciple, the call is the same: repent and believe. And when we get off track as we will: repent, believe, repeat.

To repent is more than stop doing bad things. Rather it is a willingness to throw the whole of oneself before God and to submit to God’s will. It is an implicit confession that our ways are wrongs and that God’s ways are right. As we enter the season of Lent, we have a designated time to allow God’s Spirit to recalibrate our lives and bring them into alignment with the priorities of God’s kingdom. When we have repented, then we can truly believe (trust) in the Good News–which is nothing short of Jesus himself (cf. Mark 1:1).

So the movement of Christian discipleship involves baptism, temptation, and ministry. This was the model of Jesus. So as it was with Jesus, so let it be with us.

Built to Serve

In my continuing reflections, we have notice how in the first three chapters of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians has described what God has done for us in Christ. In chapter four, Paul turned the corner to begin to highlight what should be our appropriate response in light of what God has done for us in Christ.

Paul calls his readers to exhibit habits of unity (humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance and love), then he sets before them the basis of unity, ultimately rooted in the unified nature of God:

“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4–6 NRSV).

From this point, the apostle explores the anticipated outcome of this unity: that believers in Jesus will grow into the “full stature of Christ” (Eph 4: 13) or stated another way, that we would grow to look more like Jesus with every passing day.

In Ephesians 4:7-16, Paul observes that God has given every Christian a “gracing” so that “Christ-ness,” so to speak, is shared among each member of the body of Christ.

More so, God has given special gifts to the church in the form of those called by him to lead. These leaders include apostles, prophets, evangelist, pastors and teachers—however, there is no reason to think this is some exhaustive list, as we know of other functional leaders in the church, such as deacons (servants) and preachers.

More important than what these leaders are called is their purpose—which is at cross-purposes with what is generally expected of church leaders today. God give to church leaders to equip God’s people to do the people’s ministry.

Thus, the ministry of leaders is to empower members in the pursuit of their ministry. This only makes sense if we see every Christian as having a ministry. However, to be sure, there are different “levels” of ministry. After all, leaders here have a specialized ministry to equip the body of Christ.

This equipping, though, also has a particular outcome: “for the building up of the Body of Christ.” This work is ongoing until, according to Paul,

all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ (Ephesians 4:13 NRSV).

So legitmate Christian ministry results in all of us growing up! And, as we grow up, we will become more like Jesus. And, as we grow up, we participate in the body of Christ in a way that promotes health. And as we grow up, we understand that each of us have a part to play as we build one another up in love.

We are truly in this together.

Jesus: On a Mission from God

After Jesus’ baptism and temptation, according to the Gospel of Luke (4:14-30), he returned to his hometown Nazareth “in the power of the Spirit.” As a Torah (law) observant Jew, he customarily attended synagogue services and even took part in the services. One day the synagogue attendant handed the scroll of Isaiah to him and he unrolled it to the place we today call Isaiah 61:1-2 which reads:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
(as cited in Luke)

After returning the scroll to the attendant and then sitting down, he announced, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” At first the audience was amazed by Jesus’ gracious words, but then they begin to think out the implications.

Wait a minute! Isn’t this Joseph’s son? Did he just apply that scripture to himself? We know this boy’s family. Who does he think he is? Now worked up, Jesus’ own friends and family are ready to throw him over a cliff.

Jesus understood that it was hard to do ministry in one’s hometown, so he reminded the people of their story. Back in the days of Elijah and Elisha, it was not the people of Israel who were blessed by the ministry of these two hometown boys, but a Phoenician widow and a Syrian commander, both foreigners.

Jesus understood the mission of God to be a mission for the sake of others, the outsiders, those marginalized and who do not belong. When Jesus wanted to highlight his mission, he chose the text from Isaiah.

Therefore, as Jesus’ followers, it would seem that the Isaiah text could point us in the right direction regarding the mission of God. The mission, based on this text, begins with God’s empowerment: the Spirit of the Lord is on us.

However, the presence of the Spirit is not primarily to fill the spiritual emptiness within us, but to send us to bless others, namely, the poor, prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed. To these we announce that now is the year of the Lord’s favor. We are faithful to the mission of God when we do this.