God in Jesus

Colossians 1:15-23New International Version (NIV)

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. 22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— 23 if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.

A Sunday school teacher was attempting to engage her students in a conversation about animals, so she decided to describe something that she assumed every child would be able to recognize with just a few words. She said, “I’m going to describe something, and I want you to raise your hand when you know what it is.”  The children were excited to show her what they knew and leaned forward eagerly. “I’m thinking of something that lives in trees and eats nuts …” No hands went up. “It can be gray or brown and it has a long bushy tail …” The children looked around the room at each other, but still no one raised a hand. “It chatters and sometimes it flips its tail when it’s excited …”   Finally one little boy shyly raised his hand. The teacher breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Okay, Michael. What do you think it is?”  “Well,” said the boy, “it sure sounds like a squirrel, but I guess the answer’s supposed to be Jesus.” (via Grace Rules Weblog)

The answer is always Jesus. I remember driving under a bridge once and someone had sprayed graffiti on the overpass, writing out, “Jesus is always the answer.” I turned to my wife and asked, “What was the question?” She replied, “Jesus.” I stared at her with a puzzled look and she said, “If Jesus is always the answer, then the answer to the question ‘What was the question?’ must still be Jesus.”


If it seems like we talk about Jesus a lot around here, well then I guess we are doing something right, and I make no apologies for spending a few sermons focusing exclusively on Jesus and how he relates to God the Father.

For the last few weeks we have been looking at how God is made known to us. Two weeks ago we looked how God is revealed through creation. It is an imperfect and incomplete revelation, but creation points us toward God like a compass can point us toward our destination. But we also need a map. A map is a description of the lay of the land and it is made by those who have been there and experienced things first hand. Our map is the Bible.

Today we move to the destination. And what do you think the destination is? It’s Jesus, obviously, because Jesus is always the answer!

Let’s start by looking at our passage for this morning. Paul is believed by some to have written this letter from prison to the church in Colossae. It seems as if he has received word that the Colossians have started following Jesus…but they just kind of added him to their pantheon of gods. In chapter 2 Paul criticizes the worship of angels, visions, dwellings, and what he calls “the elemental spirits of the universe” (v. 20). I think that means that they were worshipping the god of the soil, the god of the air, the god of the water, and so on.

Paul offers a counterpoint in verses 15-16, “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.”

This sounds a lot like what we read in John’s prologue. Jesus himself wasn’t created, in fact, he was a part of the creation process. Through him all things were created, so don’t give credit to some elemental spirits for what Jesus has created! Jesus has made the things that are visible, like the earth, and things that are invisible, like the wind.

Let’s jump down to verse 19, “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him.” So Jesus is the image of the invisible God and God’s fullness dwells in Jesus. This isn’t the only place that we get this idea that Jesus is the full revelation of who God is. Let’s look at a few more as well: (Have congregation members read the list of scriptures at the end of this text.)

What does it mean that Jesus is the exact replica of God, the image of the invisible, the exact radiance, and the word of God made flesh? It means that what we see in Jesus is exactly what God is like. The prophets only had a small glimpse of who God was, but now in Jesus we see God fully. Jesus isn’t just kind of like God. Jesus isn’t similar to God. Jesus is the fullest representation of who God is.

Many of us learned how to do long division at some point in school, or at least we were supposed to learn how to do long division. Long division is challenging, especially for those of us who live in a cellphone world. Who really needs to know how to do that today, come on now!

Let’s look at a couple of simple problems just to refresh our memory. If I give you a math problem like 50 divided by 2, that’s easy, the answer is 25. Two goes into 50 twenty-five times. Now what if we made that first number odd? What is 53 divided by 2? 2 goes evenly into 52 twenty six-times, and into 54 twenty-seven times. But when you divide 53 by 2, you get 26 and a little bit left over. We sometimes write this little bit as .5 or ½. Or, the way I was taught to do this in school was to way that 53 divided by 2 is 26, remainder 1. You can fit 26 twos into 53, but there is still 1 unit that is left and does not fit.

This concept is practical when we try to transfer an object from one container to another. Imagine I have a quart jar filled with water, and I wanted to put that water into a pint jar. If I dump out enough water to fill the pint jar, there is still another 16 ounces of water in the quart jar. There are 16 ounces remaining.

You’ve got the big one, and you’ve got the little one. All that is in the big one does not fit into the little one, you have a remainder.

In verse 19 of our scripture for today we read this, “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him.” If we turn to the next chapter, Paul repeats himself to make sure you get the point. In Colossians 2:9 he writes, “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.” It isn’t like God is a quart jar that we are trying to dump into a pint-sized Jesus. The fullness of God dwelled in Jesus. Jesus is God, with no remainder.

We didn’t just dump the good stuff out of the quart jar of God into the pint jar of Jesus. We didn’t transfer the love, the grace, and the mercy of God into Jesus, and leave the angry, vengeful God in the remaining portion of the big jar. Jesus is the fullness of God! If you have seen Jesus, you have seen the Father.

This is important because the way we tell the story matters. I’m going to share with you one of the popular approaches that people use to describe the Gospel, and I hope to show you why it comes up short.

Human beings are sinners. We have been given the Word of God, passed on from generation to generation, from family to family, yet we choose to rebel and go our own way. This sin keeps us away from God and the plan that He has for our lives. The sin keeps us from entering into God’s presence here on earth and will keep us from spending eternity with God in heaven.

Why are we excluded from heaven? Because God hates sin. Because God is a perfect, we as imperfect sinners cannot be in God’s presence in heaven. God commands us to follow him, so when we sin God gets angry at us. God is filled with wrath against us sinners, or as has been said, we are sinners in the hands of an angry God. Our perfect God is angry at sin and cannot be in the presence of sin. And someone must pay for that sin.

Our condemnation to eternal separation from God in hell is our payment for sin. That’s the bad news.

But fear not, there is good news, it is the Good News! Though there is an angry God who is determined to make us pay for our sins, we have a substitute, a stand in, if you will. Jesus Christ, the sinless son of God, stands in our place. Jesus was crucified, beaten, stripped naked, and shamed on the cross in our place. In doing so, Jesus took the wrath of the Father upon himself, and those who call upon his name will be saved.

That is how we often hear the Gospel described, and there are things about that approach that I commend. I believe that sin is real and that it separates us from God. I believe in punishment for our iniquities and I believe that we all need the grace of the savior. But my concern is the image of God that we just created in that example. And maybe not everyone would put it the way that I just did, but that is often how I hear the Gospel described. The angry God must pour out His wrath upon someone, anyone, and Jesus offers to stand in our place. Angry God; loving, merciful Jesus. I think we can do better.

If Jesus is the clearest representation of God that we have, if Jesus truly is God with no remainder, then we cannot pit an angry God against a loving Jesus. God does not have a split personality, nor is this some good cop/bad cop scenario you might find in a Lethal Weapon movie. What you see in Jesus is what you get with God! There is never a time when God stopped being loving. There is never a time when God stopped being just. There is never a time when God stopped being righteous.

When we pit an angry God against a loving Jesus, we are denying the traditional Trinitarian view of God that says that the Father and Son are one. So essentially, when we try to explain the problem of sin, we create other problems. We create other problems that I would argue are worse than the ones we were trying to solve in the first place!

This misunderstanding of God makes God out to be a worse person than me, and that’s a problem! Imagine I was a mean, revengeful kind of person. Now imagine I’m walking down the street late at night and someone jumps me and steals my wallet. You bet that the mean and revengeful version of me wants someone to pay! I want my money back. So I demand that my money gets paid back, and I demand it from the next person I meet on the street. I can’t be consoled until I get my money. I don’t care who pays me back the $20 I just lost, but someone must pay. I’ll take it from you if I have to, as long as I get my money back.

Pitting an angry God against a loving Jesus makes just as much sense, probably even less, because we expect that God is going to be at least as just as we are.

Now don’t get me wrong. I believe in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus. But rather than fabricating some unbiblical account of an angry God who just needs to pour out his wrath on someone, on anyone, even his own son, what if we approach the problem of sin from a biblical and Trinitarian perspective that says that Jesus is the fullness of God with no remainder?

It sounds a lot different, and I would say a lot better, to say that rather than an angry God off in heaven demanding payment for our sin who is willing to punish anyone as long as someone is punished to flip this and remind each other that Jesus is the fullness of God. Rather than punishing someone, anyone for our offenses, what if we considered that Jesus, as a part of our triune God, was willing put aside his life in heaven and voluntarily come to this earth to redeem us from our sins? God didn’t pour out his wrath on his son because he just needed someone to pay for the sins of humanity. No, God, in the form of Jesus, voluntarily entered this world to take away our sins.

Each week we have been addressing the concerns that are present in our method for seeing God. Today I wanted to just show you a blank slide and say that there are no problems with finding God in Jesus because Jesus is the fullness of God. If you want to see what God is like, look at Jesus. Boom.

Unfortunately, there are concerns with approach. For instance, the image that I presented a few minutes ago about how we often divide God up into an angry God and a loving Jesus seems to come from the Bible. There are times when the God we find in the Bible does not look like the God revealed in Jesus. There are times when the God of the Old Testament tells the Israelites to wipe out entire nations, killing every man, woman, child, and even the animals. This is what is known as “herem warfare” in the Hebrew Bible. Total destruction. In Deuteronomy 7 and Joshua 6 we find instances where God says to wipe out entire nations, leaving no living person or creature. That sounds like an angry God, maybe even one who demands blood for forgiveness, regardless of whose blood it is! So how do we see that God in a man who said to love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, and do good unto those who would do you harm? Even though the New Testament tells us again and again that Jesus is the fullness of God with no remainder, the Jesus I read about doesn’t always look like the image of God we are given in the Hebrew Bible.

That one is so big that we will save an entire sermon for it and come back to that one concern next Sunday as we conclude what has now become a four-part sermon series. Four parts are always better and seem to make things a little more harmonious anyway!

God is revealed in many different ways. We find God in creation, just as a compass points us in the right direction. We find God through our map, the Bible, which draw from the experiences of those who have come before us. And we most clearly find God in Jesus, who is our destination, our goal. Next week we will try to understand who to deal with the differences we find between the God revealed in the Old Testament in the God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.


John 1:1; 14, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” “14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

Hebrews 1:1-3a, “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.”

John 10:30, “I and the Father are one.”


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God of the Bible

Psalm 1

1 Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, 2 but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night. 3 That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers.

4 Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away. 5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. 6 For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.

How do we know anything about God? Throughout history people have made many claims about God, and usually that god looks a lot like us. Maybe a little bigger, maybe just a little more powerful, but a lot like whoever is doing the theology. Our god usually likes the same things that we like, and dislikes the same people that we dislike. Or, as has been said many times, God created human beings in his image, and ever since, we have been returning the favor.

Last week we looked at how God is revealed through nature. We looked at the really big things, the sun, stars, mountains and lakes. We looked at the really little things, the cells, the babies, and the ameba. We looked at the way things function, from the size of the earth, to the balance of nature, and I said that all of this points to a creator. I gave this practice of finding God in creation a name, we call it “Natural Theology.” When God is revealed through creation, we call this natural revelation.

But there are limitations to Natural Theology. It is incomplete and it is easily misinterpreted. Thankfully, there are other ways that we can understand God. There is natural revelation, and then there is “Special Revelation.” When Moses found a burning bush and did what anyone would do with a burning bush, talk to it, he found God speaking to him through that bush. The God speaking through the burning bush revealed himself to be the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God revealed that he is Yahweh.

But we don’t all have burning bush moments. Maybe you have had some kind of experience where God seemed very real and present to you. Maybe not. For many people, our Special Revelation of God comes in the form of other people’s experiences with God. God is revealed in the stories of the faith community, particularly the stories that have been collected and canonized. We call these stories “scripture.” Today we look at how God is revealed through the scriptures.

Our Psalm for this morning sounds like the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount as each begin with blessings. Verses 1-2 in the NIV say, “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night.”

The word in verse 1 that is translated as “blessed” is the Hebrew word “asher,” which simply means happy. What follows are instructions on how to be happy! Make good choices! Don’t walk in step with the wicked. Don’t keep company with mockers. Negative people will bring you down! So who should you spend time walking and keeping company with? Those who delight in the law of the Lord and meditate on his law day and night.

It isn’t exactly clear here whether those who wish to be happy are supposed to be walking with those who meditate on the law day and night, or is the practice of meditating on the scriptures day and night make you happy? I think you could make a good argument for both, but yet either way, this doesn’t really fit my reality.

I know some Bible-thumping Christians who are really not fun to hang out with, and I know some people who read their Bible a lot who don’t seem to be very happy. Just turn on your television, radio, or Facebook feed and you will find angry Christian men and women, yelling at you as they quote scripture. At times if you listen to their voices and not what they are saying, you might confuse these people with professional wrestlers. This is probably why they chose to translate ‘asher’ as blessed and not happy.

But I’ve also known plenty of people who seem genuinely happy because they study the scriptures. I know Bible scholars whose job it is to study the scriptures and they just seem to gush over their favorite texts. I’ve seen pastors moved to tears while readings stories of love and redemption. I know people who dig into their Bibles every day, and have done so for years, because they are excited about what they can learn, even as they read the same text over and over again, year after year.

So why does the same text make some people into bitter and angry people, and why do others find joy and happiness in the text? I think it all comes down to how we read it.

I don’t love that the NIV refers to the scriptures in Psalm 1 as God’s law. Laws are necessary and we need people who can read, interpret, and writes laws. But what the Hebrew actually says is that people are blessed, no they are happy, when they read God’s Torah. And yes, there is law in the Torah, which is the first five chapters of the Bible. But it is much more. Some of the greatest stories of the Bible are found in the Torah. We find the creation narrative, the calling of Abraham, and the story of Joseph and his coat of many colors in Genesis. We find the story of the Exodus and God leading his people out of slavery in Egypt in the book of Exodus (it is appropriately named, after all). So many great stories about God creating and delivering his people can be found in the Torah. It isn’t just law. The Torah is the beginning of the story of God’s redemption of humanity.

Because most of us don’t have a burning bush experience where God speaks to us directly, we rely on these stories to reveal to us who God is. And we can use words like “righteous,” “just,” “loving,” and “holy” to describe God, but those words only have meaning because we have these stories of what it looks like for God to be righteous, just, loving, and holy. We know who God is because of what God has done.

Who is our God? Our God is a god who creates human beings, not because he needed to, but because God is love. God is a god who creates out of love in order to love. God is a god who calls us his people, and delivers his people out of captivity. And God is a god who uses evil for good.

Come on now, how can you not think about those stories and be happy?!

Do you know who isn’t happy? The wicked. They are like chaff that will blow away. So read your Bible, or else you will cease to exist! Okay, let us remember that this is a Psalm, it was originally written as lyrics that could be set to music and sang. We are essentially looking at a poem here, so we need to look for the main point and not make too many assumptions. I would say that this is a little too binary, as in if you don’t mediate on the scriptures day and night you will be wicked and perish like the chaff in the wind. What if you only meditate on the scripture during the daylight hours? What then?

No, the point of this Psalm is to say that true happiness, true blessedness, can be found when we study the scriptures. And that’s not to say that true happiness and blessedness are found in the text or the way that the words are arranged. No, true happiness and blessedness are found in the God who is revealed to us through the scriptures. It is my argument that those who are truly moved by the scriptures aren’t moved by the laws (awe, don’t cook a kid in its mother’s milk…how touching?), the commandments, or the begats. They are moved by the God who is revealed in the Scriptures. The stories are good, but the one who is revealed through the stories is better.

I heard a story this week about a young woman who recently graduated from high school. Like many graduates, this woman received a gift from her parents. After she received her diploma and celebrated with friends and family, her father handed her a package. Wrapped in paper she found a children’s book, which is actually a popular gift for graduates. He father gave her the book Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss.

When the graduate opened the present, she told her father, “Thanks, that’s always been one of my favorites.” And it is cute and encouraging. But it was more than just a cute and encouraging book. The father asked her to open the book and there on page one, the graduate found a personal note from her kindergarten teacher saying what she enjoyed about having her in class and encouraging her in her studies. The note was signed and dated with the year that the graduate had finished kindergarten. Obviously, her father had been working on this gift for a while; thirteen years, to be exact. Then, on the next page, she found a note from her first grade teacher, signed and dated when she finished first grade. And so it went, right through her high school career, and her senior-year homeroom teacher. Page after page this graduate found encouraging words and affirmations from the people who had invested their time in her academic career over the last thirteen years of her life.

Oh, the Places You’ll Go! is a good book, maybe even a great book, written by a great author. But what really made that copy special wasn’t the rhyming words or the catchy rhythm. What made that books special was that it revealed to this young woman that she was loved and appreciated by her teachers. And even more so, I would say that it revealed that she was loved and appreciated by her father who had done all of this for her, each year seeking out these teachers to ask one more favor of them. In my mind, the greatest thing about this story is that through his actions, the character and the love of the father are revealed.

What makes our Bibles special and worthy of our mediation? And how does meditating on scripture make us happy? Yes, it is at times beautifully written and poetic, and yes, I believe that the writers were inspired by God. But it is special because it reveals a God who loves us and appreciates us, even more so than the father in the other story. The Bible is a story of God’s actions, and God’s actions reveal who God is.

In this sermon series we are also going to look at some of the challenges that each form of revelation of God has. To understand the challenge that we face when doing theology just from the Bible we need to look as some history.

Through much of what we call “Modernity” the Bible has taken a back seat in religious discussions. This is in part because Christians during this period were looking for verifiable facts about God. Think of the scientific method. You make a hypothesis, you test the hypothesis, and you assess the outcome. It is only through observation that you can “prove” something to be true. And since we can’t prove a lot of things that we find in the Bible to be true, many people set it aside as a second or third option for doing theology. Miracles? Can’t prove them, so some will say that they probably didn’t happen. What about the resurrection and deity of Jesus? Well, Jesus said some good things and seemed to be a good person, but we can’t prove that he was the son of God or that he rose from the grave, so modernity would say “let’s not start there.” One of the best examples we have is that of Thomas Jefferson, who famously cut up his Bible, removing references to miracles and anything else that didn’t fit his modern way of thinking. Jefferson and others like him believed in God, but not necessarily the God of the Bible.

For a couple hundred years, people moved away from the unverifiable teachings of the Bible, but what was left? Nature and reason. The 18th and 19th centuries saw a surge in Natural Theology and Reason. I’ve spoken before of the Swiss theologian Karl Barth. One of Barth’s major influences on theology was his rejection of Natural Theology and Reason when doing theology. For Barth, theology must focus on the revelation of God found in Scriptures.

One of Barth’s contemporary theologians, Emil Brunner, wrote an essay in 1934 called “Nature and Grace” where he presented a soft version of Natural Theology. Brunner didn’t outright endorse Natural Theology, but he found some value in it. Barth responded with an essay of his own, which was simply titled “Nein!” And of course, it sounds even angrier in German than English.

Barth provided a necessary swing to the proverbial pendulum. When theologians were focusing exclusively on Natural Theology and Reason and neglecting the Bible, Barth said “Nein!” Barth’s voice was needed, and continues to be influential to this day. Remember that when Barth was writing his critiques of Natural Theology he was also witnessing the rise of the Nazi party in neighboring Germany. The Nazis used the concept of “survival of the fittest” and “Social Darwinism,” each theories derived from observing nature, to justify the Holocaust. Barth, who was the main author of the Barmen Declaration, was eventually kicked out of Germany, and forced to leave his teaching position because he refused to sign an oath of allegiance to Hitler.

But as is often the case, his reaction was probably an overreaction. This is almost humorous because the Bible itself says things like, “Come, let us reason together,” in Isaiah 1:18, and as we read in Psalm 19:1, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”

Reason and Natural Theology are not bad; please don’t be unreasonable! And toward the end of his life, Karl Barth softened a bit on Natural Theology and offered a bit of Natural Theology himself.

I used the metaphor of a compass and a map last week. I believe that Natural Theology, finding God in creation and other observable things is like a compass. A compass will point us in the right direction, but it won’t give us all of the necessary details. A compass will point you toward your destination, but I may walk right into a canyon on the way! No, we need the compass to find our direction, and the map to lead us. Next week we will look at our destination, for it is in Jesus Christ that we find the clearest revelation of who God is.

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God of Creation

Psalm 8

1 Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory in the heavens.

2 Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger.

3 When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,

4 what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?

5 You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor.

6 You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet:

7 all flocks and herds, and the animals of the wild,

8 the birds in the sky, and the fish in the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas.

9 Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Most Sundays we look at the Lectionary texts here at Staunton Mennonite Church, and this week is no exception. Though I often focus on the Gospel reading, today I find myself drawn to the Psalm. I’ll just tell you now that I don’t preach often from the Psalms, in large part because it is difficult to preach from the Psalms. The Psalms are essentially lyrics to a song without the music; they are poetry. And I simply don’t understand poetry J. Just look at how this text begins in verse 1, “Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” Now look at how it ends, “Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”

Yep, that a song; that’s poetry. And because the Psalms are songs, they use a lot of flowery and figurative language making them hard to really figure out and determine the point. And even if you do figure out the point, someone else might come to a totally different conclusion!

That’s okay. Songs are meant to bring out an emotion from deep within us. Sometimes a song will take us back to a memory that we haven’t considered for years. Sometimes we are reminded of a person, a place, or an event that was meaningful to us. Sometimes these are good memories, and sometimes they are bad memories.

So when we read the Psalms, we must remember that these were songs used by the Hebrew people in their worship. Today’s is attributed to the man who would become King David, and David draws our attention and our emotions to the beauty of creation. Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Today we are going to look at how creation points us toward and reveals who God is. And as is often the case, when I look at a subject one Sunday, I often realize that I can’t just stop there. Because, as we will see, there are some limitations to understanding God through creation alone. What I hope to do through the month of June is to look at different ways that God is revealed to us. Over the next few weeks I want to look at God revealed through creation, God revealed through the Bible, and God revealed through Jesus.

The first thing that I want to say about God revealed through creation is that I am being very intentional in calling the world around us creation. I will also refer to creation as nature in my sermon, and I may talk about nature in regular conversation, but when I’m trying to make a point, I’m going to use the word creation. The word “nature” suggests that this is just the way things are. The trees, the rivers, the mountains, all of that is nature and nature is natural. It just is that way automatically. But to call it “creation” suggests that there is a Creator. I like to say things like, “I’m not that interested in environmentalism, but I am interested in creation care.”

It might sound like I’m splitting hairs a bit, and perhaps I am. But my point is that world around us, the sun, moon, mountains, and ocean, these things aren’t natural. They were created. And all these things point to a Creator.

Let’s pick up our scripture in the second part of verse 1, and then again in verse 3, “You have set your glory in the heavens… I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place.”

It sounds like David is sitting back, looking at the night skies, reflecting upon the Creator. Remember that before he was king, David was a shepherd boy, and there really wasn’t much to do in those days after the sun went down. David wasn’t binge watching Netflix. So as the sheep settled in for a long night’s sleep out on the pasture, David looked to the stars. And in the stars, David sees God’s glory.

What it is about the stars that catches David’s attention, I can’t say. Perhaps it is the beauty. Maybe the vast nature of the skies. But for me, when I think about things like the stars in the heavens, I realize how limited I am.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never made a star or a moon before in my life. I’ve made a son…and a daughter, but never a star. I can’t make a star, and I assume that you can’t either. So who made the star? I think that points us toward the Creator.

When I think about all that human beings have made, I can be really overwhelmed and impressed. We have built tall skyscrapers and giant seaworthy vessels. We have made tiny microchips and computers that we can conveniently slide into our pockets. We can build mansions, empires, and dynasties, but I can’t make a snail or even a simple amoeba. And I certainly can’t make a star, a ball of burning gas, millions or billions, of miles away.

There is an entire area of theology that claims that God and the attributes of God can be understood through observing creation; this area of theology is simply enough called “Natural Theology.” A number of theologians across time and denominations can be described as Natural Theologians: Thomas Aquinas, Paul Tillich, and even CS Lewis have been called Natural Theologians. Natural Theologians will claim that one does not even need to hear about God to come to some basic understanding of the divine. There are things that are the way that they are, and we did not cause them to be that way.

So for instance, I remember reading CS Lewis’s Mere Christianity when I was in college. I didn’t read my text books, but I devoured Mere Christianity! One of the arguments that Lewis uses for the existence of God comes from a position of universal ethics. He says that there are things that are universally considered good and things that are universally considered bad. I don’t remember all of his examples, but one might say that it is universally considered good to help the poor or the sick. Or maybe we universally think that it is wrong to kick babies. One example that I do remember is that Lewis said that we as the human race believe that cannibalism is wrong, that everyone agrees that it is wrong to eat other people. I remember that example because I said to myself, “That’s not true. Cannibals don’t think that cannibalism is wrong.”

That’s when I realized that I might have a career as a theologian, revealing the holes in the great CS Lewis’s arguments. J

The point that Lewis was trying to make is that there are actions that we as human beings recognize as good and actions that we recognize as bad. So why is the vast majority of the world in agreement on these issues? Lewis says that it is because we have one maker who instills this sense of right and wrong within us. I would go further and say it is because we still bear the image of God, even if that image is marred by sin.

Anytime we start with an observation that can be made by anyone and try to deduce something about God from that information, we are doing Natural Theology.

When we think about things like how if the earth was closer to the sun, we would all bake in the heat or die from radiation, which suggests a Creator, we are doing Natural Theology. When we talk about the complexity of an atom, which is still beyond our full comprehension and must be the work of a superior being, we are doing Natural Theology.

Let’s look at verse 3-5 and do a little Natural Theology, or Creation Theology: “I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet.”

David then goes on to list some of the things that are below human beings: the animals, the fish, the earth itself. There is a hierarchy to things here on earth, and it is observable. We call the lion the king of the jungle. The lion is stronger than the antelope, more powerful than the zebra, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. And though I wouldn’t want to get into hand-to-paw combat with a lion, because of human intellect and reason, we are higher than even the king of the jungle. But yet still below the King of kings.

David makes an observation about the stars and the moon in the night sky. He makes an observation about the hierarchies of human beings over animals, plants, and the earth. And from there he asks, “What are human beings that you even care about us? You made all of this, yet you care about us enough to put us in charge of your creation.” David deduces from creation that there is a creator who gave us authority and dominion over what God has made.

So what’s the problem with Natural Theology or doing theology with nothing but what we can observe? I would lift up two concerns: Natural Theology is incomplete and can be interpreted in a number of ways (as if Biblical Theology or Systematic Theology can’t be interpreted in a number of ways J). Let’s start by looking at how incomplete Natural Theology might be.

When I mention theologians who can be considered Natural Theologians, Aquinas, Tillich, and Lewis, none of them would say that God can be understood exclusively by looking at nature or simply using reason. So we often divide how we know God into several categories, like Natural Theology and Divine Revelation. Under Revelation we would list things like Scripture, Preaching/Teaching, and the Incarnation of Jesus Christ—boom, there’s your sermon series! As Steve Wilkens writes in his book Beyond Bumper Sticker Ethics, in summarizing Aquinas, “For Christianity, the way of salvation is found only in Scripture’s witness to Christ. This takes us beyond general revelation to what is called special revelation. We cannot learn that Jesus died for our sins from gazing at the mountains, inspecting the starry heavens or watching a sunset over the ocean. This is known through Scripture” (187).

Natural or Creation Theology is simply incomplete. It is kind of like a compass. Yes, creation can point you to the Creator, but it doesn’t tell you all you need to know about God. Creation itself does not give you all the necessary details. You need the compass and a map.

Then comes the issue of interpretation. Our scripture for today talks about the ordering of the world and how that is interpreted by observing creation: God must have set the stars in the sky and placed the care of the animals and earth upon the shoulders of humanity. Verse five says, “You have made [humanity] a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor.” Some versions even say “a little lower than God.”

So we are somewhere in the hierarchy between God and the angels, but definitely over everything else. So since we are over the animals and the earth, we can do whatever we want with them, right! We have the power and the God-given right to do so! We can kill all the exotic animals for sport and harvest all the oil, coal, and rainforests for our own good. We have dominion!

You could arrive at that conclusion based alone on what we observe. But when we also incorporate Scripture, we see that the earth is the Lord’s, and everything within it. And when we consider the creation narrative from Genesis, we see that we are not placed over the animals and the earth to use them however we want. We are stewards over God’s creation.

This isn’t just an environmental concern. Let’s take this hierarchy we observe in nature one step further. The physical strength, intelligence, and wellbeing of animals, including human animals, allow us to grow and prosper. This is what has been called “the survival of the fittest.” The weak and inferior species either adapt or the die out. That’s just nature. Lions kill off the slower prey. Small fish learn to hide and camouflage their selves or they get eaten by larger fish.

From a Natural Theology perspective, God orders the world in such a way that the stronger members of a society can overtake the weaker members.

This is the line of thinking that was employed by the more-developed nations in the west who invaded African, South America, North America, the Caribbean, India, you name it. God has given us the superior intellect, we have developed superior weapons, so therefore God wants us to have your land. Praise be to God! They often gave it a theological name and called this concept “manifest destiny.”

No! Jesus wipes that all away with one Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Natural Theology is insufficient because it doesn’t give us a clear enough vision of who God is and it can be interpreted in a number of ways. We need more, but it is a great start. It is a compass that points us in the right direction, but we need a map as well.

I truly believe that creation points us toward our Creator. I believe that because I have felt small. I have stood at the edge of the ocean, put my toes into the water, looked out over the seas, and realized how little I am. I’ve flown over the Rockies, climbed (by car) to the top of Pikes Peak, all 14,110 feet, and realized how vast this world is. I’ve looked into a microscope, seen the intricacies of cells, and marveled at the precision involved. I’ve held a baby in my arms, I’ve held a dying man in my arms, and been moved to tears by the beauty of life.

As has been said many times before, I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist. We can talk about Big Bangs and evolution, we can discuss the age of the earth and the rise of humanity, and the more we do, the more I believe. Because regardless of how you want to explain the world around us and how it came into existence, I simply cannot believe that there was not a Creator involved.

Creation Theology is our compass, pointing us to the Creator. Next week we will begin to look at the map of Divine Revelation.

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Language Barriers

Acts 2:1-12

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

Happy Pentecost Sunday to everyone! Pentecost is a unique holiday in the church, in part because Hallmark has not yet realized that they are missing a chance to sell more greeting cards. Pentecost is also unique in that it is one of the few holidays that we still refer to by the name given to it in the Bible. The Bible never calls Christmas Christmas or Easter Easter. But it does call Pentecost Pentecost.

We in the church know Pentecost as the day when the Holy Spirit descended upon the believers gathered in Jerusalem like a violent wind, like tongues of fire, and equipped the believers to go out into the world to deliver the good news of Jesus Christ. And it is indeed that, but there is an older tradition attached to Pentecost as well, one that traces back to the Hebrew Bible. When considering today’s text, we need to ask, “So why were they gathered together?” To celebrate the Jewish holiday of Pentecost. The Christian version is kind of a repurposing of the original Jewish holiday.

But if you scour the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, you will not find a holiday known as Pentecost. The reason for the confusion is that when Luke wrote the book of Acts, he would have been writing in Greek and he would have used the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, known as the Septuagint, for his references. If you read the Hebrew Bible in the Greek language, you will find about five references to the Hebrew celebration of Pentecost.

Pretty confusing, right? Yeah, language can be confusing, and we’ll come back to that.

Pentecost is a Greek word that simply means “fiftieth.” Happy fiftieth, everybody! Fiftieth what? The fiftieth day after the Passover. This is why the Jews were gathered together on the day we know as Pentecost, celebrating the fiftieth day after the Passover when God and Moses brought the people out of slavery in Egypt. According to Hebrew tradition, this is the day when God gave the Ten Commandments to the Hebrew people, just fifty days after leaving Egypt.

The Hebrew Bible literally calls Pentecost the Festival of Weeks, because they were to count off a week of weeks, seven weeks, or 49 days, after the celebration of the Passover. The next day, they celebrated the giving of the Ten Commandments. The Festival of Weeks is also an agrarian holiday on the Jewish calendar as it is a celebration of the early harvest. Just as our cold-weather vegetables are becoming ripe, so too were the cold-weather vegetables of the Hebrew people. And let’s be honest, what better reason is there to celebrate than the harvest of kale?

In the literal sense, Pentecost was a festival of harvest. Then in the 1st century, in the metaphorical sense, Pentecost became a time to begin the harvest of people. Now I want to sing “Bringing in the Sheaves,” but I won’t. You’re welcome.

The Festival of Weeks, Pentecost, was one of the three pilgrimage festivals of the Hebrew faith, the others being Passover and the Feast of the Tabernacles or Sukkot. According to Exodus 34 and Deuteronomy 16, all male Hebrews needed to travel to Jerusalem and present themselves to the Lord. This is why all of the believers are gathered together in one place in Acts 2, and this is why there are Jews in Jerusalem from “every nation under heaven” (v. 5).

The Jews from every nation under heaven would have known Hebrew, but they would also have spoken a local dialect as their main form of communication. When the Holy Spirit came to the 120 gathered followers of Jesus on that Pentecost, the first gift that was given was the ability to speak in different languages. These believers start to talk among themselves, and evidently they are overheard by others. We find their response in verse 7-8, “Utterly amazed, they asked: ‘Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language?’”

Some have said that this gift wasn’t a gift of speaking in different languages, but the gift of understanding different languages. It says that everyone understood in their “native language.” It doesn’t say that the believers spoke different languages.

So which is it? Did the believers speak different languages or did the others just hear in their own language? What the miracle a gift of tongues or a gift of, well, ears? Do you agree with me that it was a gift of tongues or do you agree with “them” that it was a gift of ears? Are you with us or are you with them?

Rather than getting caught up in this unsolvable mystery and causing additional divisions, I like to think of Pentecost as God taking something away. God isn’t just giving the ability to speak or hear other languages. This is symbolic of something bigger: God is taking away barriers.

This is one important distinctive aspect of our faith tradition. Christianity is, and has from the very beginning, been meant to translate into other cultures and languages. Just consider what we profess. Christianity claims that God up in heaven took on human flesh and lived among us for 33 years. John 1 says that God came to this world and was roughing it here, comparing the incarnation to a camping trip. God among us, God with us! That is cross cultural! And John calls Jesus “the Word made flesh.” The cross-cultural experience of the incarnation, of God becoming human, is in itself the Word made clear to us in all languages. The incarnation is a translation of God that everyone can understand. The incarnation is the removal of barriers. And at Pentecost, God removes language barriers, at least for a short time. God came to this world in a way that everyone could understand. God then brought his message to the world in languages that everyone could understand.

Unfortunately, we as Christians are really good at putting up new barriers. For far too much of our history, Mennonites have focused on exterior barriers. Head coverings, plain coats, chin-strap beards, and cape dresses all had their place in explaining who we were to the world around us. But when these things become barriers to keep people out rather than a manifestation of who we are as a group trying to follow Christ, we have made a huge mistake.

Do you remember the Amish beard cuttings from a few years back where members of one church forcibly cut off the beards of members of a different Amish church? This was a way of saying, We don’t think you count as an Amish anymore. Just admit it, you’re among the English.

For years, the common language in Mennonite churches in the United States was German. For even more years, the language in the Catholic Church was Latin. Even the other Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Islam, say that it is important to learn Hebrew and Arabic to really understand their religion. Every Jewish boy must study Hebrew to read from the Torah at his bar mitzvah. If you want to read the Quran, you need to read it in Arabic, or else it is just a paraphrase of the Islamic holy book. But Christianity by default should be, and needs to be, a cross-cultural faith tradition.

I have a hard time justifying these language choices in light of the barrier-destroying events of Pentecost. Where Judaism, Islam, Mennonite-ism, and Catholicism (and many more!) have said, “You must learn our language to be a part of the in group,” Pentecost says, “We will bring the message to you in a way that you can understand.”

Barriers need to be torn down so that the Good News can thrive.

Many Americans only speak one language, and I’m one of them. I am always impressed by those who can move fluidly from one language to another: Spanish, French, English, Pennsylvania Dutch. I’ve studied Spanish in High School and I had four semesters of Greek and two semesters of Hebrew in seminary, but to say that I “speak” these languages would be stretching it a bit. So when I say that I am monolingual, I know that I am among the majority of US citizens.

Over the last few years I have developed a bit of a relationship with the leaders at Signs of Life Fellowship, a deaf church here in Staunton, VA. Chris and MaryBeth are good friends of mine, and we are at the point in our relationship where we can give each other a hard time and enjoy it.

As I’ve mentioned a few times, I come from the great state of Ohio and I cheer for athletic teams from Cleveland and Columbus. Right now, the Cleveland Cavaliers are playing the Golden State Warriors in the National Basketball Association championship. Golden State, for those of you who do not know, is a reference to California, and this basketball team considers Oakland to be home.

There are a surprising number of Golden State fans around Staunton, in large part because one of their star players, Steph Curry, has roots in the area. Over the last few weeks, I have been trolled online by members of the Signs of Life Fellowship community. Last Tuesday, as I was with my family on a walk to the park, I was met by Chris and MaryBeth and their son Mario, and they proceeded to talk smack to me about the NBA Finals. Oh, and they were talking smack in American Sign Language. There is something beautiful about engaging in playful banter with a Guatemalan boy in American Sign Language. And though I didn’t understand every word that they said, I’m glad that God has brought us together as a diverse representation of the kingdom of God. And with God’s help, we can do more together, reaching people we otherwise might not have been able to reach.

John introduces us to an additional name for the Holy Spirit that I believe will be helpful for us today. That word is “paraclete.” John calls the Holy Spirit the paraclete four times in the Gospel of John and once in the Epistle of 1 John. The NIV and NRSV translate paraclete as “advocate.” For instance, we read this in John 14:16-17, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.”

Paraclete literally means to come beside someone else. Imagine you are going to go stand in line for a sandwich at a food truck after church. If I volunteer to stand beside you, I am your paraclete. I am standing beside you, not just to stand there, but to support you. To talk to you. To be there for you. In some situations, the paraclete may help you. In others, the paraclete may just be there for support. Either way, through the Holy Spirit, God is with us, beside us, within us, as our advocate.

The King James Version chooses to translate paraclete as “comforter.” This makes good sense in the context that this word is used in John 14 where Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.” Don’t worry, I’ll send the paraclete, the comforter.

I like the idea of the Holy Spirit as comforter in that sense. When we are hurting, when we are stressed, God, through the Holy Spirit, is with us, comforting us. But I also think that it is appropriate to think of the Holy Spirit as the “dis-comforter” as well.

I come back to this idea that one of the gifts that first Pentecost after Jesus’ death and resurrection was the tearing down of language barriers. Barriers make us feel safe. Barriers give us comfort.

Just go to the zoo where there are large animals roaming around. There are some very important barriers there that keep us separated from the lions, tigers, and bears. Oh my!

We build barriers for our protection, and often that is a good thing. But I propose that too often we confuse our protection with our comfort. We often establish barriers because it is more comfortable to have that barrier in place. And to have that barrier removed is uncomfortable.

Language can provide that comfortable barrier for us. Dress can provide that comfortable barrier for us. Ethnicity can provide that comfortable barrier for us. But Pentecost is about removing barriers, and this is why I say that the paraclete can be just as dis-comforting as it is a comforter.

I want to leave you this morning with a story from my Signs of Life friends. Thomas, who is a hearing person, attended a Christian conference when he was in high school, and he observed there for the first time an ASL interpreter at work. The interpreter was working with a deaf man who had come for the same reason Thomas had. They were bother hungry and eager to learn more. And though Thomas hadn’t had any significant experience with the deaf community before that time, he approached the young man after the conference and developed a relationship with him through his interpreter.

By the end of that conference, Thomas had made a decision. He went to his new friend and said, “You can’t learn my language, so I’ll learn yours.”

And he did, and now he is a regular part of the teaching rotation at Signs of Life.

Pentecost: it’s not just about wind and fire. Pentecost is about barriers being torn down. May the advocate, the dis-comforter, join us and equip us as we tear down obstacles that keep people from experiencing the love and grace of Jesus.

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Christian Community-part 3

Acts 2:42-47

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Recently I found myself at a busy intersection, trying to make a left-hand turn at a stop sign. I tend to be a pretty safe driver. The only accident that I was ever in was when I was 16-years-old, and my truck was the only vehicle involved. So I admit right up front that I don’t like to push it; it’s better safe than sorry.

After waiting at that intersection for what was probably 10-15 seconds, there was a clearing to my left and a small break to my right. I debated trying to fit my Subaru into that small break in the traffic, but decided that I would wait for the next opportunity. Just because my car will fit into a break in the traffic doesn’t mean that I need to make it fit. But as soon as it became obvious that I was not going to stomp on the accelerator and pull out into traffic, the driver of car behind me made sure to offer his opinion on the matter, and he thought that I should have tried it. He made it known by laying on his horn. And it wasn’t just a little “beep, beep.” No, he held down the horn until I went, “beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep!”

Of course, when we came up to the next stop light, he pulled right up next to me. That’s always awkward. I smiled at him and nodded. I think he waved at me with a special, secret wave that only involves one finger. I can’t say for sure, because I was too busy looking at his car. What I noticed about his car was that it was a fairly-modern car, with a dented front fender, cracked bumper, and I would describe the color as a combination of Bond-o and primer gray.

Please don’t misinterpret what I’m saying. I’m not laughing at his busted-up car. I’ve had my share of rough vehicles in my life as well. What I’m saying is that maybe this guy isn’t the best person to be offering me driving tips. If your car looks like it’s been through a war zone, perhaps you shouldn’t be telling people when it is a good idea to pull out in front of oncoming traffic.

Today we are concluding our sermon series on Christian community. So far we have addressed learning in community, fellowship, prayer, sharing bread, and sharing goods. We conclude today with giving and receiving counsel.

Here’s the thing about this mark of the Christian community: we really like half of it. We really like to give counsel. The guy driving the car behind me really liked telling me when to pull out into traffic. We like to tell people when and what they should or should not be doing. You shouldn’t eat that! You don’t want to go there! This job is perfect for you! You really shouldn’t treat your wife like that.

But that’s not how we do things in the Christian community. I have two words that I think describe that kind of relationship, one of which is a little nicer than the other. When all we do is tell other people what to do, that’s more like being a coach, or worse, like being a dictator. Players don’t tell a coach what she should be doing; subjects don’t tell a dictator how to run a country. We like to give counsel, but in the Christian community we both give and receive counsel.

The giving and receiving of counsel is so important in our faith tradition that it is often a part of our baptismal vows. We know how difficult life can be. And it doesn’t necessarily get easier when you become a Christian. So when we receive a new member and we ask if they are willing to give and receive counsel, we are essentially saying, “This world is really challenging. I need help, and I assume you do, too.”

Before we look at a biblical argument for this mark of the Christian community, I want to break things down a little further. There are two main areas where we as a community are called to give and receive counsel: in the discernment of God’s will and in mutual accountability. You could probably convince me of others, too. I am, it would seem, open to your counsel, but this will have to do for now.

How do we discern God’s will? You might say things like read the Bible and pray about it. And I would say that you are right, those are very important parts of the discernment process. But we as a church also discern together.

Remember that this is not a dictatorship. I cannot simply tell you what you should be doing and shouldn’t be doing. I’ve tried that in my own household, and I have failed miserably! Even Jesus—if anyone had the right to just sit there and tell us what to do, it was Jesus—entered into discernment with his disciples. He asked questions like, “Who do you think that I am?” He told stories and parables. Jesus engaged his disciples so much through dialogue that when he would say things like he had to die and rise again, his disciples thought that this too was up for debate!

This process is probably most clearly presented to us in Acts 15. This is a story about the early church and how they had to make some decisions, how they had to discern God’s will, about what was to be required of converts to Christianity. Essentially, the argument was about whether a person had to practice Jewish rituals in order to be a Christian. It really came down to two concerns: Jewish food laws and circumcision. One group of really godly, well-intentioned men said that converts had to keep all of the Mosaic Laws to be a Christian. Another group of really godly, well-intentioned men said that these Laws were keeping people from becoming Christians.

So they called each other heretics and started their own churches.

No, they got together. They formed a committee, which we call the Jerusalem Council. They studied the scriptures. They discussed what Jesus taught. They prayed about it, and against all odds, they came to an agreement. In Acts 15:28a, we read this in their final letter: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you…”

This wasn’t a decision that one person made on his or her own. They discerned together what God’s will was.

How many times do we try to discern God’s will on our own without consulting the body of believers around us? I believe that God can speak directly to an individual, but I also think that more often than not, God speaks to us communally.

I heard about a pastor who was invited to go on a study trip to Israel. It was a several-week-long trip, which meant that he would be away from church duties for those weeks. This sort of thing isn’t uncommon for pastors to participate in. You just need to use vacation time, scratch up the funds, and plan accordingly.

But this pastor didn’t approach this scenario in the way I would suggest. He really wanted to go to Israel and was excited about the chance to go with this group. So when he met with his church council, he said to them, “God is calling me to Israel, and for the church to pay for it.”

I have a lot of respect for what the church council did. They said, “Let’s pray about it.” And after they spent some time discussing it, they said that it did not seem good to them and the Holy Spirit. This pastor just was excited about the chance to go on a great trip and wanted the church to cover the significant cost associated with it.

What I think this story illustrates is that discerning God’s will isn’t just about the huge things, like observing the Mosaic Law. We can come together to discern God’s will about other things, things that are still important, but on a different level. People have come to me and asked me to pray for them when they are considering changing jobs, moving, or changing their kids’ school. I think that this is really important because sometimes our judgement can be clouded by our excitement, our fear, and our other emotions. The pastor that I spoke about thought that God was calling his church to pay for his trip, but maybe he was just excited about the idea of fulfilling a dream of visiting the Promised Land on someone else’s dime.

One part of the giving and receiving of counsel in the Christian community is to discern God’s will. But what about the accountability part?

Don’t judge me, you don’t know me!

That’s right! Judging people is wrong. Jesus says that if we judge others we will be judged ourselves. Take that plank out of your eye! But there is a difference between judging and keeping one another accountable. Judging goes one way. You don’t even need to know someone to judge them. But the mutual accountability practiced in Christian community involves knowing someone and knowing why they do what they are doing.

I say right now for you all to hear, if you see me doing something that is harmful to myself, to others, or to my relationship with God, please say something to me. You are my friends, you are my church. You know me and my story, and I want you to help me live as best as I can. If you see me acting inappropriately, please say something. If I say something or do something that offends or hurts someone, please let me know.

I don’t say this because I like to be told when I do something wrong. I say it because I want to be better. I want to be a better father, husband, pastor, and Christian.

But why is this different from judging? It’s important to know someone to practice mutual accountability. First of all, I just invited you to comment on my life. So you aren’t judging, you are doing what I asked. Second of all, you know my situation.

If you saw me stealing a loaf of bread, I hope that you would stop me. You know I have a job and can pay for that bread. But if you didn’t know me, you wouldn’t know if I was stealing that bread to save the life of my starving children. That doesn’t make it right, but maybe it makes it a little less wrong. Mutual accountability requires us inviting other people into our lives, inviting them to speak into our situations, inviting them to give us feedback, even when that feedback is negative.

Let’s move from the hypothetical to the real. I’ve always encouraged people to come to me with any questions or concerns that you may have about my teaching and preaching. I’m accountable to you about what I say. Some of you have taken this invitation quite seriously and frequently approach me after a sermon or Sunday school lesson. And that’s a good thing. I grow through challenges. I am forced to go back and dig deeper, asking what I really believe and why I believe it.

Often when I am approached it is about small things, like the way I word something or how you interpret something that I said based on your own experiences. Sometimes I can clarify things a bit by restating something in a different way. Other times we just don’t end up agreeing on a subject. But I hope that you always know that I don’t come to my theological convictions lightly. And I’m never trying to intentionally mislead you. I’ve grown through our conversations, emails, and letters.

As many of you know, my sermons are also available through our church’s website. You can click through and read what I intended to say or listen to my sermon audio, what I really did say. People are free to leave comments after my written sermons, which I imagine should have a similar effect to allowing you all to respond after a sermon on a Sunday. And many people have responded, leaving questions, voicing concerns, and occasionally even agreeing with me.

Recently, however, I arrived at church and found a letter in the church mailbox. The letter was addressed to me, and there was no return address on the envelope. I get all sorts of things in the mail here, so I didn’t think too much of this, except that the letter, including the envelope, was all written on a typewriter. This is the kind of thing that you do when you don’t want to be recognized, when you want your identity to be concealed. And sure enough, inside I found an anonymous letter, criticizing something that I had preached about several months earlier.

There were a number of things about this letter that bothered me, but I can handle that. I know that when I say something a little controversial that people will push back, and that’s okay. What bothered me the most about this letter is that it was sent anonymously, and I did not have any way of responding to the writer. How am I supposed to be able to have a dialogue or enter into a conversation with someone if they don’t offer any contact information or even give their first name?

The writer of this anonymous letter wasn’t interested in the giving and receiving of counsel. He just wanted to give counsel.

This example doesn’t quite fit perfectly with Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 18, but I still think it applies. In Matthew 18 Jesus teaches what we should do if a brother or sister sins against us. Verses 15-16 from the NIV read like this: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

If a brother or sister sins, write them an anonymous letter? Nope, go to them in person and talk about it.

The thing that bothered me the most about receiving the anonymous letter had nothing to do with the criticism offered in the letter itself. I was ready for that. But I felt like a failure as a Christian because I felt like another brother or sister in Christ didn’t feel comfortable approaching me in person.

I am dedicated to the idea of giving and receiving counsel, no matter how uncomfortable it might make me. This includes both discerning God’s will together and holding one another accountable. When we voice our opinions to a stranger, when we write anonymous letters, or when we tell someone what they should do and refuse to hear back from them, we are not being a Christian community. We are judging.

My friends, this world is tough, and sometimes we make it tougher on one another. That’s not the role of the church, and that’s not our reason for living in Christian community. The giving and receiving of counsel isn’t supposed to make life harder or more difficult on someone. If it does, you’re probably doing it wrong. Together, we discern God’s will. Together, we hold one another accountable. Together, we can do better.

The Christian community learns together, fellowships, prays, shares bread, and goods. We also give and receive counsel, because there is strength in numbers. We are stronger together. Or as Jesus says, anywhere two or three are gathered, he is with us.

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Christian Community-part 2

Acts 2:42-47

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Last week we began a sermon series on the early church as depicted in Acts 2. During my first sermon, I lifted out three different marks of the Christian Community: learning in community, fellowship, and prayer. Today we are going to cover two additional marks, and I will close out this series on May 28 with our final mark of the Christian Community. Spoiler alert: it will be on the giving and receiving of counsel. So I counsel you to not miss that one!

Today we are going to look at the significance of breaking bread together and sharing our goods. Last week after the sermon, one person said to me, “Thanks for your Marxist sermon.” I stepped back a little bit and said, “Just wait until next week, that one will sound Marxist!” You know, with the exception that Marxism discourages the observation of religion.

But what I interpreted as Marxism was intended as marks-ist, a sermon on the marks of Christian Community. So without further ado, we will continue our marks-ist sermon series with our fourth mark of Christian Community: the church values the shared meal.

Over the last few years we have seen a rise in awareness of something that we Christians already knew: eating together is important. In our busy, 21st-century world, many families are finding it more and more difficult to set aside 20-30 minutes each day to share an evening meal (Is it supper or dinner?). Youth sports, late nights at the office, ballet, television, and nontraditional family systems all come into play and keep us from sitting down together to eat. And who has time to bake a meal? If we are able to grab a Happy Meal on the way to some extracurricular event, we really aren’t doing too badly. I consider it a small victory if I remember to feed the children some days. And if we are honest that’s what the kids really want anyway, because at least my children aren’t huge fans of the massaged kale and walnut salads we sometimes offer them at home.

So the secular professions and family therapists are saying that families should try to eat together several times throughout the week. The Child Development Institute claims that a shared meal leads to better nutrition compared to everyone just grabbing something out of the fridge or the drive-through window. There is an opportunity for shared responsibilities, as even young children can wash vegetables, set the table, and help with the dishes. There have been studies that link a shared meal to kids doing better in school and a reduced chance that they get involved with illegal drug use and underage drinking.

But do you know what the most important aspect of the shared meal is? It isn’t the food itself, but the time spent together. Something magical happens when we sit down to a shared meal: our mouths keep moving even after we swallow our food. We talk to one another. We ask how one another’s day went. We ask about issues at work and school.

We all need to eat. That’s how we provide our bodies with the nourishment required to live and move and have our being. When we share a meal, it becomes a communal event where more than just stories are shared, lives are shared. And more than just our waistlines are shaped, we are shaped through these practices of responsibility and caring.

That seems like pretty good reason to eat with your family, and again, this is just from a secular perspective. We haven’t even gotten into the theological reasons for eating together!

Let’s look again at verse 42, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” And the second half of verse 46, “They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.”

Why was eating together so important to the early church? First of all, think about who was a part of the church in the 1st century? Rich people, poor people, tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes, religious leaders, rabbis. You get the idea. You had rich and powerful people like Zacchaeus and Joseph of Arimathea, and people like the many unnamed social outcasts of the day. And it seems like they were eating together, in one another’s homes, on a regular basis!

Recall all of the trouble that Jesus got into for eating with the wrong people. Mark 2:15-16 tells one such story, “While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’”

In the first century, sharing a meal with someone meant that you accepted them and saw yourselves as equals. And in many ways, this hasn’t changed to this day. Consider the cafeteria at any high school and you will see people sitting according to social status. The cheerleaders sit with the jocks, the bad kids sit together, the farmers, the grungers, the nerds, geeks and dweebs. They sit with their own kind. Schools bring kids of all different backgrounds together to learn, but they quickly sort themselves out when they get the chance.

Church can do the same thing. Different kinds of people may gather together on Sunday morning, but even churches, especially bigger churches, get cliquey. We need to interact with one another. That is why we must not give up on the practice of eating together.

In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul gives a critique of the way the church has been sharing meals. Yes, they are eating together, but they are missing the point! They are eating based on divisions, namely economic divisions. The rich are eating and drinking in excess, gorging on food, getting drunk on wine, while the poor Christians at the same party are made to wait and they go hungry. The shared meal is about equality. The shared meal is about community. And the shared meal is about loving one another in spite of your differences.

I’ll say one more thing about eating with people who are different from you, and this thought is inspired by the teachings of my own mother. This ever-important rule is one that I’m sure your mother taught you as well: don’t talk with your mouth full.

Now the reason my mother taught me this is not the same reason I lift this important doctrine up to you today. My mother taught us that it is rude to talk with your mouth full; people can see your half-eaten chicken, sometimes bits of masticated food flies from your mouth. It ain’t pretty. But from a theological/ecclesiological/social perspective, I would say that if you make a commitment to not talk with your mouth full, you’re going to do a lot more listening. And when we are gathered with a diverse group, listening is very important.

I know that I can do a better job of this. When we eat with others, I will sometimes look down at my plate and realize that I’ve barely touched my food while others are almost done eating. Believe me, it’s not because I’m a slow eater. It is because I’m always yakking! The early church saw breaking bread, eating together as a diverse group of believers, as a mark of Christian Community. We share responsibility in preparing the meal and in cleaning up afterwards. And we share stories, we share what makes us who we are, over food.

But that’s not all we share! The second mark of the Christian Community that I wish to address this morning, which is the 5th one we’ve considered so far in this series, is that followers of Jesus share their stuff.

Again, I offer an homage to my mother. I am the second of three boys, which means I am the middle child. And I am the stereotypical middle child. I never got the attention that the oldest child or the baby received. I never got the respect. And I never got new things. My toys were hand me downs; my clothes were hand me downs. Do you know how I feel about hand me downs?

I love them.

I love that today we receive clothes for our children from friends whose children have outgrown their clothes. And I love that my sister-in-law gets excited every time we pass on a tote of clothes for my twin nephew and niece. And I really love the way my children get excited to see pictures of Max and Grace wearing their old clothes.

My mother taught me to share, and I am glad that your mothers taught you to share as well.

Verses 44-45 read like this: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.”

As I said last week, I’m not a complete Communist, and I don’t believe that you need to sell everything and give away your money to be a follower of Jesus. I do think we could all probably live off a little less and give away a little more, but that’s a message for another day.

I sometimes need to catch myself because I get caught up in my own desire for private ownership. If we shared more, we could free up a lot of resources to help other people out. And there are some things that we use so infrequently that it doesn’t even make sense for everyone to own their own. There are times when we have to admit that our mothers do know best and that we need to share.

When Sonya and I purchased our first home twelve years ago, we got a few added bonuses with the house. That’s the nice way of saying that the previous owners left some of their junk in the basement for us to sort through. I got an old cordless drill, without a battery or charger. I got an assortment of fasteners: nails, screws, and tacks. I also got this strange-looking device that looks like a mouth opening and closing, chomping on some imaginary circle.

I later found out that this device is a crimping tool for pex water pipe. If you have done any plumbing in the last 10 years, you’ve probably used pex, a flexible, durable, cut-able pipe that is fastened with copper rings. The tool that I received with our house is a ring crimper. You cannot fasten pex piping without a tool similar to this.

Of all the people I know who are not professional plumbers—which is most of the people that I know—I am the only one who owns my own pex crimping tools. I have lent this tool out to at least seven different people in two different states. I haven’t used it myself for years, but some in our church have used it as recently as earlier this month. And if anyone else wants to borrow it, just let me know. It is usually just sitting in my basement.

Sure, if you’re going to do a major plumbing project, you might spend $50 and buy your own crimper. But if you just have a little project, please borrow mine. And if you just need to get rid of that $50, donate it to the Valley Mission, to Mennonite Central Committee, to Love Inc., or to Staunton Mennonite Church. You see, the more we share, the more there is to go around.

Maybe you’re not into plumbing, but where else could we learn to share and go against the culture of private ownership? I keep kicking myself because this spring I needed to purchase a new lawn mower. I got a cheapy and spent about $150 on a push mower. But that mower sits in my little shed for 167 hours each week. I use it for one hour each week, and only for a few months out of the year. And my neighbors on either side of us have a mower, too. Their mowers also sit for 167 hours each week. I know it wouldn’t be feasible for some people, but why is it my automatic response to go out and buy my own mower rather than talking to my neighbor about sharing? It is easier, for sure. And our world is getting more and more private, so much to the point that we don’t even know the people who live beside us. But I come back to the early church and see how they shared everything. And because they shared everything, there was no need among them.

Some churches take this sharing of goods to an extreme, and please know that I’m using this as an example and not saying that we need to go to this length in order to be good Christians. Our Anabaptist siblings, the Hutterites, farm communally. The church pools their resources and buys up large sections of land in rural places like South Dakota and Manitoba. The farms are very efficient, as several families come together to share the work and the equipment of the farm. Now, rather than every farmer on the block having their own tractor, combine, wagons, and other pieces of equipment, several family units work together as a community. And if something happens, like an accident that would keep a farmer from being able to tend to his crops, the community works together, sharing the responsibility. And when the farm gets above a certain number of participants, they start another farming community.

If the rural imagery doesn’t work for you, I encourage you to look into Reba Place just outside of Chicago. Reba Place Fellowship is a Christian community that shares their financial resources. There are people making six-figure incomes living together and sharing their goods with people who make six dollars an hour.

I know that these are starting to sound more and more like communism! But here is the difference between communism and Christian communities who share their goods: in a communist country, everyone has to participate. In a Christian community of shared goods, the members choose to participate. And if you don’t pull your weight, you are asked to leave. If a Hutterite man woke up one day and decided he was just going to let the rest of the community do the farming that week, he would find himself outside of the community.

A Christian community that shares its goods only works if everyone is willing to pull their own weight. Everyone must contribute in some way. If you don’t contribute, you are not a member of the community; you are a moocher.

I’m not at the same place as the Hutterites, nor am I at the same place as the members of Reba Place, or even the early church. But I know that I can do a better job of sharing. Let’s just think of a few things that we could do better when it comes to sharing.

I’ve got a closet full of perfectly good clothes that I don’t wear. Most of them are even pretty stylish, because, as you know, I’m a snappy dresser. What if every year I simply decided that if there are clothes that I haven’t worn in the last year that I’m going to donate them to one of several thrift stores around town? I like to do home improvement projects around the house, and I’ve got a pretty good collection of rarely-used tools. What if before I buy another tool, say anything over $50, I simply stop and ask, “Can I borrow someone else’s instead of buying this?” And let’s combine these two marks of a Christian community for the last one. We often prepare more food than we can eat in one sitting. And most of this is consumed throughout the week as leftovers, but sometimes things are just wasted or I eat more than I should to finish off a pot of spaghetti. What if we made the commitment to have more people over, even last second invitations when the house isn’t in perfect order, for a shared meal? You don’t have to be a Hutterite, a member of Reba Place, or a communist to share. You just have to listen to what your mother probably taught you growing up. Sharing is caring.

The early church dedicated itself to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, prayer, shared meals, and shared goods. How we do these things has surely changed over the last 2,000 years, but I believe that they are still just as important today.

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Christian Community-part 1

Acts 2:42-47

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Happy 4th Sunday of Easter! Today we are looking at the end of the second chapter of Acts, six little verses that hold the potential to change the way we see the church. Or they can be totally ignored, you know, because they are just six little verses And Jesus isn’t even named in this passage, so why bother?

I am planning to spend the next two weeks explaining to you why we should bother with this text, and it all comes down to one word: community.

Community is a hard word to really pin down. A good dictionary definition for community is a group of people living in proximity to one another who share a common set of values. But we could easily find exceptions to that definition. What about the online community? With modern technology, you may feel more connected to someone who lives thousands of miles away than you do to your own neighbor. Or, as we will be looking at the word today, what about the Christian community? There is something that is connecting us to Christians worshipping around the globe right now. I might even call a Christian in Indonesia or Africa my brother or sister.

So just what is community? Before we actually look at this text, I want to address some of the concerns that have been offered over the years about how our scripture for this morning has been interpreted. The first thing that we notice is that nowhere in this text does it say that we must live exactly as these early Christians did. So if you want to get fancy, you might ask the question, “Was this meant to be prescriptive or descriptive?” Was this meant to be an example of how followers of Jesus Christ should live in all situations throughout time, or does this text simply describe how the early church lived?

I’ll give you a very deep, theological answer to that question: I don’t know.

A second concern that people raise involves the timing of Jesus’s return. Many scholars have made the observation that the early church seemed to believe that Jesus was coming back soon. The events of Acts 2 occurred within the first two months after Jesus’s death and resurrection, so they may have expected him to come back any day. These people often point to verse 45, which says, “They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” Yes, if you think Jesus is coming back in the next couple of days, you aren’t going to be worried about things like properties, savings accounts, or 401(k)’s.

I think that is actually a really good question, though I’m also not convinced that the first-century Jewish Christians had the same apocalyptic expectations that many Christians today have. But still, I think that to sell everything and cash in your retirement would be bad stewardship, and you would then be a burden for other Christians.

So no, we don’t know if this Christian community was meant to be a model for how to be the church, and we don’t know how or if the apocalyptic expectations of this community might have affected how they interacted and existed as the church. But what we do know is that for those first Christians, this is how they understood what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. And of these men and women, some had the chance to learn from Jesus himself or from his original disciples. So what we absolutely cannot do is dismiss this community based on a few questions to which we have no answers.

Today we are only going to get through verse 42. That’s right, one verse for the next 20 minutes. But do not worry, there are three things that I want to look at from this one verse as we seek to better understand the concept of Christian community. Verse 42 says, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” So today, we will devote ourselves to the study of the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, and to prayer. We will save the breaking of bread for next week as this practice comes back up again in verse 46. That’s right, eating was so important to the early church that two out of these six verses focus on it.

The first mark of Christian community is the focus on the apostles’ teaching. We can safely assume that when we are told that the Christian community focused on the apostles’ teaching that this means the remaining faithful of the original 12 disciples. And what were they teaching about? I would assume that they are teaching about Jesus, and not obscure algorithms or something like that.

Recall again that we are just about two months after Jesus’s death and resurrection, so where would this young movement go for stories about Jesus and for instructions on what he taught and said? They aren’t going to turn to their New Testaments, because they hadn’t been written yet. The Gospels aren’t going to be written down for another generation or so. And even if they had been written down, most of the people of the day would have been illiterate and not able to read them anyway. So for the early church to learn about Jesus, they had to gather together, to listen and share stories and teachings.

Today, most homes have at least one copy of the Bible stashed away somewhere, as I believe that the Bible is still the best-selling book in world. Even if you don’t have a print version of the Bible, you can access it online, with your smart phone, laptop, or tablet. Now don’t get me wrong, I think that it is great that the Bible is so available to people today, and I encourage you to read it! But one of the signs of Christian community is that we gather to discuss the teaching of the disciples, or our contemporary version would be to say that we gather to discuss the Bible or other teachings about Jesus.

We probably all know someone who is a Christian, reads their Bibles, maybe even listens to sermons online, on the radio, or on television, but they have no interest in going to church, participating in a small group, or interacting with other Christians. Without a doubt, you can learn that way, but at what cost?

Think of how Jesus actually taught. He always called people to a deeper understanding by not just telling people what to think and do, but by asking them questions, encouraging them to dig deeper. Jesus and his students often went back and forth, question, response, question, response. You can’t ask questions and you can’t get a response from a book or a television show.

Our Sunday school hour is meant to encourage you to ask questions and enter into conversations. Even my sermons are not meant to be one person teaching all the rest of you. This is why we allow a time of response after the sermon. Often you all point out things that I hadn’t considered or you share stories that bring new meaning to the things that I was speaking on. Sometimes you seem to miss the point entirely and I wonder what sermon you were listening to, but that’s okay. The point is that we, as a modern form of Christian community, dedicate ourselves to the teaching of the apostles.

The second mark of Christian community that I want to lift up this morning is fellowship. We sing about fellowship in songs like “Blest Be the Tie That Binds.” Many churches have fellowship halls, rooms or even entire buildings dedicated to fellowship. Fellow is sometimes used as a synonym for a man or boy, as in the song, “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” But the word also suggests that you have some similarity with a person, like when we sing, “Think of your fellow man/ lend him a helping hand/ put a little love in your heart.” So fellowship is obviously when there are people like you who are on the same boat.

I joke, but yet metaphorically, we are on the same boat. The Greek word for fellowship is koinonia. Koinos is a prefix that means to share something, and is often placed before words that mean purse, home, or mother. The disciples had a shared purse. Some shared a home. James and John shared a mother, or we would probably say that they were brothers. Koinonia simply means to hold something in common, to share something.

So when you sit around after church talking with others, you are experiencing koinonia, you are sharing a conversation. When you eat with another person, you are experiencing koinonia, you are sharing a meal. Koinonia isn’t limited to “Christian” activities. Some of you like golf and you hit the links together. That is a shared experience, and even though some people have been known to lose their religion on the golf course, when you golf with others, that is koinonia. That is fellowship.

Koinonia also doesn’t have to be a shared experience of something good. When people get together in support groups, like a cancer support group, or an addicts’ support group, koinonia, fellowship happens there. You have a shared experience.

Koinonia/fellowship is also used to describe our relationship with God. Interestingly, koinonia is only used to describe our relationship with God after Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came and dwelled within the hearts of the disciples. When we spend time in prayer or study, we are experiencing koinonia, we are in fellowship with the divine.

In a world that values independence, we Christians value fellowship, an interdependence on one another. In good times and in bad, we are together. We are in this together.

The third and final aspect of Christian community that I want to lift up this morning is prayer. Prayer is a simple thing with a difficult pronunciation in Greek: proseuchomai. Proseuchomai is a compound word, formed by the word “pros,” to or for, and “euchomai,” which means wishes or desires. Eucharisto is a very similar word, which means “thanksgiving.” So a pros-euchomai is to offer God your wishes or desires. A pros-eucharisto is to offer God your thanksgivings.

All of that is just a fancy way of describing talking to God. The early church talked to God. Thanks for this, God. And if you can, would you mind helping out here, God? We make prayer a lot more difficult than it needs to be.

This makes me think about what Jesus said right before he taught the disciples how to pray what we commonly call “The Lord’s Prayer.” In Matthew 6:5, Jesus says, “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.”

You’re not supposed to be doing this for other people. You’re just talking to God. Sometimes you do it out loud, sometimes you do in silently. You can do it standing, sitting, or on your knees, it doesn’t matter. Eyes open, eyes closed. This is about talking to God, not performing for an audience.

When you walk outside in the morning and the sky is blue, the sun is shining, and the birds are singing, you can say, “Thanks for the beautiful day.” That counts! You don’t have to say, “Lord, we thanketh thee, almighty creator of heaven and earth. And we do beseech thee to guide us in thy ways.”

I have a friend who is also a pastor that happens to be serving in a different denomination than I am. Without a doubt, our traditions are different from one another. He is in more of what we call a “High Church” tradition, where the pastors wear robes and stoles, they light a lot of candles and say a lot of liturgy. They even require a Master of Divinity, a three-year graduate degree, for their pastors to be ordained. There’s a place for that, and yes, I’m going to be a little critical of these practices, but all-in-all, we agree on a lot theologically, even if our practices might be different.

Recently, this friend was sharing a story about when he started at his church and some of the practices that he wasn’t entirely comfortable with. This is totally natural, and every pastor does this when they start in a new church. There are always going to be things that the pastor is uncomfortable with, especially because they are not familiar with the tradition of that practice. There were some things that I changed 11 years ago when I started at Staunton Mennonite Church, and I’m sure that I didn’t always do my part in understanding those traditions before I changed them. So if I offended any of you, I apologize.

As I was talking with this friend, he was joking about what we call our congregational prayer time, where you all are given a chance to share your prayer concerns and praises. This time usually immediately follows our sermon. This friend said, “I’ve put a lot of work into my sermons, and I just spent 20 minutes trying to give a powerful and moving sermon. Why should we let the congregation share after that?”

His thought was that his sermon should be one of the last things that the people hear before heading out the door so that they are charged up and ready to face the world. But when he started, there was a tradition that the people in the church could write down their prayer requests before the service, place them in a basket, and then the pastor would pray for them after the sermon.

So on his first Sunday, when my friend was handed this basket of prayer requests, he intentionally just left them on the altar rather than praying for the specific prayer requests. He was afraid that the people would pray for silly little things.

I get that. And as some of you who have served as worship leader know, we can get some strange prayer requests. But I always come back to this one thing: If it was important enough for that person to share it, it is important enough for me to pray about it.

My initial thought when my friend shared his story was to think of Jesus’s critique of the hypocrites and their prayers. Here is my friend, standing up front, wearing his robes and stole, he is a highly-educated white man, and he gets to decide which prayer matter?

No sir. Who devoted themselves to prayer in the early church? “They” did, the church did. Every man, woman, and child. If some kid wants to pray for their dolly, God is there to listen. If you want to pray for your great Aunt Agnes and her hemorrhoids, God is there to listen. And though it might be awkward from time to time, we are there to listen as well. Because one of the marks of the early church was that they talked with God.

The early church devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, and to prayer. I think that those are pretty good things to begin with when we talk about forming a Christian community.

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