The Sinner, The Saint and the Table

The-Welcome-Table-Web-Slide.001-e1430488495503He stands outside looking in.  He folds his arms over each other, narrows his eyes, and wrinkles up his forehead under his hair dripping wet.  He’s been in the field working.  All day.  He’s tanned and dirty, but nothing can cover up his markings of devotion, yet there he is standing outside hostile and seething.

Inside no one stands.  Only frenzy resides there.  I imagine those inside with arms extended, eyes wildly alive, while their entire bodies, their senses, immerse themselves in delight bordering on indulgence.   One, in particular, disheveled and dirty but clothed in regal robes, looks strangely out of place.  Nothing, it would seem, can hide his scarred-over wounds of unfaithfulness, but there he is inside dancing around and delighted.

This is the story of brothers, of sons, of sorrow and scandal and it wraps up a series of tales told by Jesus in Luke 15.  One brother is inside, the other out.  One is filled with resentment, the other resplendent.  Brothers or not, this story has less to do with blood and all the more to do with orienting Jesus’ audience toward the kinship found in this good news – the Kingdom of God has come to all.

It’s hard, when at the end of the story, not to lose sight of the chapter’s opening words,

“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus.  But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”  

It was this protest – a protest from those who refused to come in – the dissent from those who would not engage the sinner – that prompted this story of brothers in the first place.  We focus on so many things when talking about the story of The Lost or Prodigal son that we often neglect to remember Jesus is dining with the lost sons and daughters of Israel while narrating this grand tale.  We forget further still that Jesus is acting out this story before the very people cast as those who have worked their entire lives on the Father’s behalf, yet cannot stand to come in to be in the presence of the lost-now-found.

Jesus eats with sinners.  That is, Jesus engages with sinners in a deeply intimate social-cultural function.  He does not ignore or condemn them in this moment.  He does not invite them to church synagogue, nor does he meet them at a coffee house for an informal Bible Torah study.  Jesus, instead of asking them to come and find him, presumably has gone to them – into their home – to eat – with sinners in order that he might call them to be saints, or better yet, sons and daughters.

All the while, the “faithful” refuse to enter.

Jesus has not left them unattended.  If you believe that the end of the story is told with the beginning in mind, then he does not leave the Pharisees to stand alone, nor does he reason that they should necessarily know better.

He calls the Pharisees in as well.

Jesus has not only pursued the sinner; he has gone to the door’s threshold with outstretched hand and pleaded, as it were, for the saintly son to come in as well.  

The irony here is poignant.  How could it go unnoticed?  Those who have pursued God their entire lives won’t come any closer.  Those who have run from God for sometime now won’t leave Jesus’ side.

God pursues us – saint and sinner alike to gather around the same table.  

The door is open, the table set, and your seat saved.  The only question is, are you in or are you out?

— Taylor

The Table Matters

imagesWhen I was 16 I got a job at a grocery store. It was a rite of passage in my hometown; you get a job at the grocery store and start making pocket-money by bagging groceries, sweeping floors, and straightening the stock on the shelves. The first week I was on the schedule, I encountered a crisis of faith. The schedule for Sunday had my name on the list.  Didn’t they know I was a Christian? Didn’t they know that I had to be at church? For the first time I had to choose between meeting with the saints and doing something else, and it was guilt inducing.

After talking it over with my parents, I decided if I left as soon as my shift was over I could make it to the evening service. I imagine our church was like every other American Church; Sunday night was a repeat of Sunday morning, except at the end of services we excused everyone who could not be at the morning service to go off to a little room and take communion. That first Sunday after my shift was over I rushed out the door of Kroger and made it to my pew. I sang, bowed my head for the prayers, listened to the sermon, and felt a little grown up when they excused all of the working folks to go off to that little room and have communion. I really thought I would feel justified because I had kept the law found in Acts 20:7. Since God was happy with me, I was pretty sure that He would let me into Heaven. The truth is there was something missing in that little room with 10-15 adults pinching off a cracker and taking a swig of juice before they headed off to the Mexican Restaurant.

That was a long time ago, and thankfully I am not that same 16-year-old kid who believed baptism and weekly communion was the magical key to appeasing an angry God. I still believe there is something awesome that happens at the table. I’m in love with the fact that the early church met every day around the table. I love that Paul made time in his travel schedule to take communion with the Christians in Acts 20 and that he instructed the church in Corinth to make sure that when they came together it was for the better (1 Corinthians 11:17). I love that the early church knew that something special would only happen around the table.

There are a few sacred places on this earth, and the table is one of those sacred places. Everyone who gathers at the table confesses their brokenness and acknowledges their place among other broken people; who may have sinned differently than you but are just as broken. We gather to remember the body of Christ that was sacrificed daily for 33 some odd years, then sacrificed on the cross, and the body of believers that were drawn to the saving grace of God. We gather to remember the blood, the life blood, of our Savior who chose us to be His. Moms, dads, brothers, sisters, children, homeless, professional, student, and retired all gather on equal ground claiming that we belong to one another and to Him. And thankfully we are not left alone in that gathering.

The Hebrew writer says in Hebrews 12:22-24: you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands of angels gathered together with joy. You have come to the meeting of God’s firstborn children whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all people, and to the spirits of good people who have been made perfect. You have come to Jesus, the One who brought the new agreement from God to his people, and you have come to the sprinkled blood that has a better message than the blood of Abel.

When we gather at the table there is so much more going on than taking a small pinch of cracker and a sip of juice. We gather at the table and are joined by thousands of angels gathered together with joy. That is mind-boggling for someone who grew up with an unhealthy Touched By An Angel mentality of angels. When we come to the table we are joined by the Angels of Revelation 4 who cry out Holy, Holy, Holy as well as the Angels Deborah sang about who fought for God’s people in Judges 5:20.

The Hebrew writer also reminds us that when we meet at the table we are at the meeting of God’s firstborn children whose names are written in heaven. Our community is a world-wide fellowship. Communities in Brazil, Russia, Cambodia, South Africa, New Zealand, and countless languages, meet to remember the death of Jesus Christ by sharing at the table. They gather to remember the resurrection by experiencing the joy of this community. It doesn’t matter if you are in a small wooden building with 10 folks or you gather around the table with 2,000 of your closest friends, when you meet in that gathering you are joined by the family of God.

That’s why the table matters. It’s at the table where we have the opportunity to meet with God, the angles, those who have gone before us, and His children. The table is where we get to remember our Creator and Savior who saw us at our worst and loved us enough to reach down and bring us to Him. It’s at the table where we are reminded of how deep God’s love is and we are compelled to share that love with others. It’s at the table where we are overwhelmed in the fact that forgiveness is real and available. It’s at the table where we understand that grace is truly amazing. And at the table we are reminded of the faithfulness of God and bolstered in our hope for our future. That’s what happens at the table, that’s why the early church met at the table daily, and that’s why today the table matters.

Q & A With Jonathan Storment and Josh Ross about their new book “Bringing Heaven to Earth”

Bringingheaven2earthAfter reading Jonathan and Josh’s new book “Bringing Heaven to Earth” I had a few questions to bounce off of them. Their responses reflect much of the reason that you will want to read this book. These two live what they teach…it exudes from them.

This post also serves as part of our book giveaway…comment at the bottom of the post for a chance to win a copy of their book!

The heart of your book is in many ways about culture change…how do you think we move churches from local church centered (even self-centered at times) to a more kingdom centered focus?

I think we do it the same way we do everything in Churches of Christ, theologically, and by going back to the Bible. Nothing we are saying is new, in fact it’s as old as Genesis 12. I read something by G.K. Chesterton recently “all the people in history who have really done anything with the future have had their eyes fixed upon the past…in history there is no Revolution that is not a Restoration.” I like that language. It is restoration language; a move back to something that has been lost. What we’re trying to do in the book is be faithful to this radical idea that we’ve inherited about the Kingdom of God and being like the earliest Christians, and caring what they cared about which was of course “The Kingdom of God.” I think most people who grew up in church have probably had moments where they asked themselves, “Is all there is to following Jesus really rest on this 1 hour a week?” And many Christians have lived into the Kingdom of God and probably not even known that’s what they were doing. 

This is a book that moves…you feel like you are on a raft rushing down a river. The stories that are told and the pace that the book keeps is fast. In short. It is engaging. How do you feel like the kingdom of God (focusing on how heaven is affecting this world right now) moves at a faster pace than we often realize? How do we get more in tune with what God is up to all around us?

Great question. My first response is, do we look for it?

There were two chapters in the book were we deal with the need to be present and attentive for the Lord. In Chapter 7 (Guilty Parties) and Chapter 8 (A Symphony of Grace), we wrestle with what it means to be still before God, because if we are not rooted, we will not bear fruit. At times, the Kingdom of God comes in a downpour, but most of the time, it is more like a drip of grace. It comes. It is consistent. Yet, if we do not realize that we are in a fast-paced, noisy, chaotic, distracting world, we will continue to miss how God is gifting this world with His grace and presence every day.

Much of your book was about big perspective but small, everyday, doable practices. How do you really think we engage in what God is doing…not on the mountaintop level…the mission trip/camp level…but on the wake up every day and do our routine kind of level?

I (Jonathan) grew up in a 10-person church, and much of my church experience growing up would never make the Christian Chronicle or Leadership magazine. From the outside looking in, there was nothing impressive about our church. But from the inside these people captured my imagination and heart by the way they lived out the Kingdom of God. The daily sacrifices that they made for each other (including me), the way the Kingdom of God had changed their daily lives was radical. You wouldn’t point to a 7th grade math teacher as a mountain top experience, but Bro. Foy (the patriarch of the church) had been convicted by God that he was a racist and moved into an all African-American community to teach math. It would be radical to some, but after a few decades of it, it was as normal to him as breathing.

Also, something miraculous and transforming happens when we see forms of brokenness, pain, and blight around us as opportunities for restoration and redevelopment. Christians who are rooted in the hope of resurrection need to inherit a holy ache for every strand of brokenness to be redeemed. This means something for the soul that doesn’t know Christ, to the local school, to the boarded up building. The gospel breathes into all things that reflect death and decay.

One of the big points of the book was about bringing heaven from there to here and it made me wonder just how much of the actual bringing of heaven is my responsibility or even possible for me to do vs. God doing the bringing and me doing the participating/partnering work in what God is already up to…how do you tease that apart?

Great question, and one that I think is really important. We don’t believe that it’s our responsibility to bring Heaven to Earth. That leads to a new form of legalism. I’ve noticed that when we forget this, when we talk about the Kingdom of God as if it’s something we build or advance, we often find ourselves becoming angry. The Bible never talks about the Kingdom of God as something we build or advance, but as something we receive. To use N.T. Wright’s language “We build for the Kingdom.” We don’t build the Kingdom. That’s God’s job, and it’s all grace. 

Many churches are dwindling. The numbers are falling and it is hard to turn the ship. You spent some time on our fear of failing. What kingdom metrics might help churches measure actual growth vs typical corporate growth metrics (contribution, attendance, etc)?

This is such an important question. We are not anti-numbers. Both of our churches still count people and contribution, but both of our churches also use other metrics to determine health and vitality. These numbers may tell us something about spiritual growth, but they don’t tell us much about it.

Measuring sticks that seem to align with the coming Kingdom are things like: discipleship relationships, prayer culture, adopted schools, presence in the community, the willingness for a church to give up home-field advantage, thriving marriages, and how much a local church reflects its community.

How might principles like kingdom, resurrection and new creation help bring new life to struggling churches and even struggling church leaders?

There is nothing God can’t redeem.

Hear me closely on this, because churches never want to lose people. But we can afford to lose people way more than we can afford to lose our joy. When we lose our joy; we lose our witness and sense of mission. Joy is rooted in the heart and mission of God. Resurrection and new creation may not mean 50% growth in church attendance, but it could mean the extension of resources so that others can experience life and restoration. If you and your church want to find new life, then take a dive into it. Take a risk. Run into God’s great adventure.

You talked a lot about Jesus and parties…How might we do a better job of celebrating together?

This takes up the large portion of section 2 in our book. We push hard for the church to rediscover the spiritual discipline of celebration. It is very Biblical. In fact, we believe restoration is at its best when it is celebrated well. One of the goals of the Sycamore View Church in 2015 is to celebrate more faithfully. We threw a party for our 10 Strategic Partners (you can read about it on the homepage of our website www.sycamoreview.org). Once a month, we celebrate a ministry in our church. We clap, we rejoice, and we lean into how God is breaking into the present.

We would love to hear how other churches are celebrating the movement of God in their own context. We need these stories.

As a minister/preacher I was also left with the practical question of “how on earth (or “on earth as it is in heaven”) do you remember so many stories? How do you go about pulling out or remembering illustrations? Also how do you know when/how to transition illustrations? How do you strike a balance between getting the point across without going on and on vs. making the point so quickly and moving on that it doesn’t have time to sink in?

This is such a good question for teachers, preachers, and pastors. Neither of us are pros at this. Far from it.

Here is what we love about Bringing Heaven to Earth; in a way, our churches and cities wrote the book, we just got our names on the front cover.

A good bit of this book were sermons we preached at our local churches. Now, what is challenging about that is there is a big difference between writing for the eye and writing for the ear. Stories are told differently. Punch lines aren’t the same.

One thing we believe about good stories is that they give a face and a name to a truth that needs to be relayed. Of course the danger is that people will remember the story more than what it points too.

For both of us, we want to tell good stories because we live them. And good stories are best lived while in a community that is eager to search out the deep things of God.

Last, how does this kingdom conversation impact ministers? How does it impact “church goers” and what can a typical church start doing right now to begin moving in this direction?

Well, one thing churches can do is buy the book, read it, and then use the small group questions in the back of the book for their small groups. (Joking)

At the risk of sounding simplistic, it is wise to take seriously the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6 and to ask God how we might live into the heart of this prayer. When we pray this from the heart, something will begin to happen to us. It can often be scary and dangerous, because who knows what sacrifices it may lead too. But the counter-story is that we will play it safe, and never take risks with our time, energy, and resources.

We are giving away two copies of their new book…just comment on this post for a chance to win. We will randomly pick two winners this Saturday at noon Eastern. Thanks for reading!

Baptismal Regeneration

waterRecently a Baptist Pastor was invited to speak at the Church I was working with. I thought it wise to let him know that if he invited people to respond to Christ, he should not be asking them to simply pray a “sinner’s prayer.” I pointed out the Church here believes that a person surrenders their will and life to Christ in baptism. He said, “Oh yeah, baptismal regeneration.”

Unfortunately this gentleman had formed an idea about the Church of Christ that resulted in this spontaneous response. When baptism is set forth as a step that follows four previous steps, like climbing a ladder, it sounds like “baptismal regeneration;” like you are getting your card punched to go to heaven. This is not what the Bible sets forth. In Scripture people heard about Jesus, the Messiah, and were convinced that he was the Savior. They then asked, “What shall we do?” (Acts 2:36-37) There was never a debate about baptism. They just did what they were instructed to do.

Baptismal Regeneration is a term that is used to describe conversion taking place in the waters of baptism. It is believing that a special work of God is done on and for an individual just because they are baptized. Some even contend that the blood of Christ is in the water and a person contacts the blood when they are baptized. This concept can place a person’s confidence in the act of baptism rather than in Jesus.

Although baptismal regeneration is not supported by Scripture, baptism is. We know from the Bible that Jesus himself was baptized by his cousin, John the Baptist (Matthew 3:13). There were some who refused to be baptized as recorded in Luke 7: 29 (All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right, because they had been baptized by John. 30 But the Pharisees and experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.) In refusing to be baptized they “rejected God’s purpose for themselves!” Baptism is still in the plan from God. It is an act of acknowledging that God’s way is right.

Baptism is also an act in which we acknowledge God’s purpose for ourselves. Paul states the purpose of God in Romans 8: 28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29     For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. God’s purpose is for us to be “conformed to the likeness of his son.” This begins with submission. Making His will, our will. Acknowledging that God’s way is right.

Baptism is an act of surrender to God. Before there was ever a denomination in the world men and women were being baptized. Consider the very act of baptism. As a person places themselves into the hands of another to be immersed they are giving up the control of their body and their right to breathe temporarily. It is a re-enactment of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. Paul stated it like this in Romans 6: 3 Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4           We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

Jesus gave his disciples a mission as one of his last works on earth telling them, 15 “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. 16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:15-16) Believing that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, must precede baptism or a person is just getting dipped. If a person does not believe that Jesus is the Son of God then baptism will have no effect on that person’s life, neither here nor in eternity. However, the person who believes with their whole heart that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and is baptized as a faith response to him, will find that this is the line in the sand; a point of deliverance and an acknowledgement that God is LORD over their lives.

 

Jim Woodell

Come to the Water

Come-2-WaterI’ve loved the water as long as I can remember.  Seriously. My oldest memories involve me swimming in my grandmother’s pool, jumping off the high dive at the local swimming hole for the first time, body surfing in the waters off the Gulf Coast, and jumping off my friends second story roof into his five foot swimming pool over and over again that one day we were supposed to be in school.

Then, there was this time, we had my birthday party at my grandmother’s pool, and this friend of mine started drowning. I just remember hearing a loud commotion of people talking loudly, and then someone screaming that she was going under. My grandmother, decked out in her high-waisted solid white pants suite and white high heels (It was the 80’s), jumped in without hesitation and she saved Leslie.

Water is profoundly powerful and scary.  It preserves life and it takes life, and we can never be sure which one it will be.

It turns out, water is also a central character in God story. It appears in the first verses of Genesis as God’s spirit hovers over those primordial waters, hemming them in, as the Psalmist would put it, and then storing the waters in jars, as it were, on the shelves of the heavens. God creates the world in and through water – taking this ancient symbol for chaos – and bringing about something good and lively out of that which was dark and messy.

God renews the world in and through water – using the power of water to cleanse and bring about new life upon the earth in the days of Noah, washing the earth clean of every thought and action that stood against God’s desired and designed way of living in the world.

God rescues the children of Israel in and through water – meeting them in the depths of the Red Sea, making a way of safe passage on their way to a new land, and entrusting to them a new way of living after coming out of those waters. They are no longer enslaved to the old land and the old way of living and they are no longer ruled by the taskmasters of Egypt.  No, God’s people have been set free to “enslave” themselves to God’s freeing reign.

As the pages turn throughout Scripture, water continues to be a source for sustaining life and continues to serve as a meeting place between us and God. The New Testament wraps up all of God’s past dealings with humans and water in the rich practice of baptism. Water is profoundly powerful and scary, especially so in baptism.

As it would turn out, baptism, like all experiences with water, preserves life and it takes life and we can be sure that when we come to the waters to meet God it will be both/and, not either/or.

God longs to preserve and take life in and through the water’s of baptism.  Perhaps this is what Paul has in mind when he talks to those who have already been baptized – You died.  You were buried. AND You were raised to new life.

God, it would seem, wants to take your old life away from you, in exchange for something better…something new.

Remember, before baptism became a doctrine of the church, or a point of debate between various tribes, it was a point of decision in the life of the disciple that would lead them to lean as fully into the kingdom of God as possible, and trust that the Holy Spirit would take them to places they could not go and do things they could not do on their own.

When we come to the water, we trust even today that God meets us there, and in meeting us there God continues to Create, Renew, and Rescue all that would come.