Here we are, Lord

I had a conversation this weekend about why churches “preach the same sermons” every week. Someone asked me that question. Their sense was that all churches use the same biblical text every week. As a result, everyone hears the same message.

That’s not quite how it works.

Some Christian traditions make use of the Revised Common Lectionary. This is a prescribed set of readings to use for worship gatherings. There are actually daily lectionary readings, too. That’s where I get the readings for our daily devotionals. The lectionary revolves around the church year, which is set by various seasons. You know them. Christmas and Easter are the main two. But there’s also Advent, Epiphany, Lent and Ordinary Time.

That last one gets people. Ordinary makes us think of nothing in particular. Ordinary time, though, refers to counted weeks. For example, as of this writing, we’re in the Ordinary Time (counted weeks) after Pentecost.

While Christmas, for example, focuses on the birth of Jesus, Easter, focuses on his resurrection. The other seasons emphasize other aspects of the life of Jesus. Ordinary Time turns its focus to the church. During this season, we emphasize the life of God’s church.

We don’t always appreciate how our modern sense of individualism shapes our thinking and living. I can’t overstate how that stands against the presumption of scripture that you are not you without your community. Even for people who say they value community, listen to how life decisions are made. Pay attention to how people say they find purpose and direction. Often, community might be a part of that somewhere, but not at the center.

And that’s a difference our faith needs to wrestle with.

Is it possible to regain a stronger sense of Christian community today? Should we even try? Well, if you’ve been reading or listening to me for any time, you know my response is a resounding, “Yes!”

To do so, we’ll need to refocus our obedience to God. We’ll need to consider what we think about as the church and even how we think about it. Ephesians 5 offers a strong counter-cultural shift. In that text, there is one line that sums up all our renewed efforts. Verse 10 says, “Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.”

That is an active pursuit, by the way. A collective pursuit to discern who are to be for the glory of God to the world around us. It’s also the perfect aim for us during Ordinary Time.

In worship this weekend, our church sang “Here I Am, Lord.” That’s a crowd favorite at every church I attend. I forgot to tell everyone that I changed the lyrics a bit. Many people raise their hands as they sing, “Here I Am, Lord. Is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go, Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.”

I replaced every “I” with “we” or “us.” I’ll admit it didn’t quite roll off the tongue like the original, but it reminded me that God wants our connection as the church to be stronger than it is. You can’t be you as God designed you without the church. And the church can’t be its fullest without you. So, here we are, Lord. 

Stay blessed…john

Bring back simple

We’ve learned to compartmentalize things in church.

Bible study happens in Sunday school. Worship happens in the sanctuary. Fellowship takes place at pot lucks or picnics.

Imagine, though, combining all three of those important parts of the life of the church. That’s what a love feast is. There are still some faith traditions that practice love feasts on a regular basis. Most churches that host these gatherings do so sparingly. But love feasts were the early church’s way of being. We can see some of that in Acts 20.

Luke tells us the apostle Paul joined a group of Christians in Troas to break bread. Paul also held a discussion with them. What do you think they discussed? Some translations help us figure that out. Paul preached to them. They discussed faith in Jesus.

Our modern sense of preaching may get in the way here. Paul wasn’t standing at a lectern giving a three-point message. He continued speaking until midnight so it must’ve been a 23-point message. The NRSV translates it as a “discussion.” Later, he “continued to converse” with the Christians. That discussion could also be translated as arguing or reasoning.

I take it to mean there was most likely a lot of back and forth dialogue between Paul and those gathered with him. While Paul may have done a lot of the talking, it was a conversation. There were questions and reflections. There may have been objections as well. 

Then something else happened that night. 

Acts 20 is when Eutychus falls out of the window. Everyone thought he was dead. Paul went downstairs and embraced the young man and he lived. The text then says after Paul had broken bread and eaten he got back to the discussion. This miracle seemed to inspire Paul even more. He ended up talking until dawn.

This was a meeting to remember!

These love feasts, or agape feasts, were the way early Christians deepened their faith together. They combined eating, learning and worship in such a natural way. They didn’t utilize programs or special events. There’s no nursery either because why would you send your family to another room?

I’ve participated in love feasts before. They’re not just potlucks. Potluck discussions don’t always get around to faith and discipleship.

I love the simplicity of what we read in Acts 20. There’s no program or even an order of worship. We modern Christians, particularly American Christians, don’t always do well with simplicity. We’re used to everything needing to be big and better. When I’ve looked up love feasts in churches today I’ve found manuals and 30-page instruction booklets. Now, I’m all for order and planning, but sometimes that gets in the way of what matters most. Remember Jesus with Mary and Martha?

As I reflect on what the early Christians did, I can’t help but wonder how our compartmentalizing has impacted our collective growth. Could we simply join study, worship and fellowship? Can we bring back simple? In so doing, what if we learned to just enjoy each other’s company? When we have a conversation we don’t need an agenda. We’re too busy listening to each other. We’re too captivated by the Lord’s presence among us that we don’t need the best music or PowerPoint backgrounds. 

All we need is our Christian fellowship.

Stay blessed…john

At the table

I attended a worship gathering years ago in a church where the Holy Spirit got moving.

Well, at least that’s what the preacher said. Have you ever noticed some preachers like to blame the Spirit when their sermons seem to drag on a bit? That’s what happened that day.

I recall deciding I didn’t need to be a 45-minute-sermon preacher. At first, I thought I was chickening out. Then on a Tuesday, someone asked me about something I said on Sunday. I could’ve asked them why they weren’t taking better notes or paying attention. But I didn’t even remember what I said.

So, I cut my sermons in half. Which is actually hard to do. You can’t say everything you want to say about a passage when you slice it down like that. There’s little room for tangents because if you steer toward one, you’re going to lose your listener’s attention.

From time to time, I even preach 6-minute sermons. I kind of think the Holy Spirit moves better when I learn to keep quiet.

But the preacher that day in church blamed the Holy Spirit for stretching the sermon. And here’s what hit me. The preacher then said, “Sorry, church, we ran out of time for Communion. We’ll do that another week.”

Now, this was years ago. So, I’ve already confessed my initial thoughts to God and a few other people. It wasn’t pretty, I’ll just tell you that. I understand there are faith traditions that don’t practice communion as I do. They don’t share my understanding of it either. Our convictions about what it means are different.

But I would never blame my long-windedness on the Spirit, especially if it meant the church would miss out on Holy Communion. In fact, if we are set to have Communion, we are going to have it no matter what.

When I told one of my mentors about this experience, he asked me, “So what does that teach you about what Holy Communion means to you?” That’s just like a good mentor. He took my focus off the church I’ll probably never attend again and onto my understanding of the Lord’s table. I so wanted him to let me have a moment of Lord’s-table-superiority.

He didn’t. He taught me that more than anything I had different expressions of the sacraments. And here I was thinking I had better expressions.

That’s part of what the apostle Paul wanted the Corinthian church to understand. For them, the Lord’s table had become an exclusive party occasion. Their observation of the sacrament didn’t unite the body. It tore it apart. Rich Christians gathered with rich Christians to feast and drink wine. They left nothing for poor Christians. That was not the new covenant Christ proclaimed.

As Jesus reclined with his disciples at the table, he desired their unity. That’s what he prayed for. That’s what he wants for us, too. At the table, God unites us. Our differences of opinion and practice may be important to us. But they are not important enough to God to break our fellowship.

Stay blessed…john