Sunday, November 28, 2021

Advent 1: A promise that we trust

In the general thought of congregations that I've attended, "The valley of the shadow of death" means this passing world, as does "The great tribulation." A sober or even gloomy assessment of this world is not limited to the ancient world; far from it. Some modern publications seem to revel in talk of doom, blame, and fear. And so it is well that we interrupt this scheduled programming for an important announcement: God keeps his promises. And he loves us, frightened little kittens* as he might see us. We're frightened because we know that human solutions will eventually fail us (see: estate planning, and insurance).

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: "The LORD is our righteousness." (Jeremiah 33:14-16)
Those who believe in the promises made by the God of Israel dare to hope: not in our own names but in the Lord's. It allows us to let go of the fear, to breathe more deeply, and to look forward to the days to come.

* Hatchlings would be more scriptural, with the gathering chicks beneath the wings, but I find kittens more relatable if you'll pardon the license. 

Monday, November 22, 2021

Fellowship series index

 Fellowship series index

Fellowship is not an optional part of following Christ. A new command he gave us, that we love each other. We cannot do that alone. 

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Fellowship that endures past the first test

I plead with Euodias, and I plead with Syntyche, that they be of the same mind in the Lord. And I ask you also, true yokefellow, to help those women who labored with me in the gospel, with Clement also ..." - Philippians 4:2

Some quarrels are petty, others are understandable. Here we don't know the cause, only the effects: the disagreement was divisive. Quarrels hinder morale and productivity. They cause pain because they disrupt fellowship and friendship. Paul in his many letters explained so many things, and addressed all kinds of problems in the church. And he places enough value on fellowship that he stops to address this disagreement among members.

When we think about what matters in the church, it is easy to be high-minded: we think of teaching rightly, taking care of the poor, building peoples' faith, encouraging people in love, kindling hope, proclaiming forgiveness and reconciliation. All of those things are vital. But forgiveness and reconciliation are easier to teach than to live.

As for Euodias and Syntyche, we don't know which party was "right" or "wrong", or if those words even apply to the original disagreement. But it looks like the division was causing problems for the larger group, and in those problems we may recognize right or wrong. The people originally involved had not resolved their disagreement; had they let it fester? We've all been in the company of people who are in an enduring disagreement; it can be unpleasant. There is a cost to the hearts of other people around them. 

From inside the quarrel, it may have looked like a matter of right and wrong. It may have looked like a matter of harm and grudges. After awhile, from the outside, those things usually look like stubbornness and pride.

Is a heart ever cleansed without repentance? Is a harm ever healed without forgiveness? Repentance from one person, forgiveness from another person -- they seem like such different things. But they both require humility, and they both require that love becomes more important than the cause of division. Lack of repentance, lack of forgiveness -- in my experience, both generally come from pride. Christianity forbids us to turn the faith into a system of keeping score about who was right: "Love keeps no record of wrongs." When the system has no interest in keeping score about who was right, forgiveness and repentance are not such different actions. And no fellowship survives the first problem intact without both. 

Sunday, November 07, 2021

Fellowship: He greeted them by name

St Paul's letters write about things that are vital to our faith and Christian life: evangelism, mission, the meaning of Christ's death, the Lord's supper, baptism, resurrection and more. And in those same letters he is known to greet people by name. In his letter to the Romans, he greets over two dozen people by name (see Romans 16:1-16). Again there are around a dozen people listed in the closing of the letter to the Colossians, either co-workers of Paul's*, or those in Colosse. Paul shows no signs of embarrassment for mixing personal greetings with deep theology: he considers that people are worthy of acknowledgment and greeting. Paul did not write his letters for his own benefit but for theirs. 

The weighty matters in his letters find their meaning only in relation to people, whether it is evangelism or mission, the meaning of Christ's death, the Lord's supper, baptism, or whatever the case may be: all these things involve people by nature, by intent, as their goal and purpose to call and uplift and restore people. And like Christ, Paul makes a point to know peoples' names. He recalls their names, notices people, includes people. When the Lord restores our souls, it is clear enough that people matter to him. They matter to his followers. They matter to us. People will matter til the end of time, and past the end of the age. 

Christianity has a theological richness and depth, knowledge and wisdom -- and yet it cannot be confined to the academic. The Christian life is one of breaking bread and fellowship too. It changes daily life; it enriches daily life. An academic pursuit may be satisfied with information; Christianity is fulfilled with community and fellowship in our love of God and neighbor. It is more godly to pursue the lost soul than the lost fact. The lost souls are found by knowing them and being kind to them, and first of all by seeing and hearing them. It is a sign of respect -- of recognizing someone's worth -- that we know them by name. Those who taught us have set an example, and it is not for us to neglect it: we matter to each other.

* As he writes to the Colossians, Paul's list of co-workers includes both Mark and Luke. I've long found it worthy of notice that three of the known authors of the New Testament are listed together as co-workers in the same city at the same time. It would be possible for them to have sat around the same table there in Rome, and at least Paul was likely working on his writing projects. The New Testament writings themselves have an undercurrent of fellowship.