What You Have To Do

 

I received this note from a kid at school the other day. I especially like the second line. “I love God and Jesus so you have to love God and Jesus.” I can hear her attitude loud and clear and it cracks me up. This sweet, innocent child of God has some bad theology to sort out. But don’t we all?

I hope a kind soul gently breaks it to her someday that not everyone is going to love God and Jesus. I hope they go on to tell her that regardless of what others choose to believe about God (even choosing to live against God) doesn’t negate the way God expects her to respond to them. She still has to be kind to them. Still has to protect them, go the extra mile for them, feed them, visit them, walk alongside them, and help them. She still has to show them Jesus even if they refuse to see him because loving someone doesn’t mean accepting the choices they make, it means accepting the Christ and his wildly, radical call to love your neighbor.

I hope someone opens a Bible and shows her that Jesus died for us while we were still enemies so we have no excuse to exclude or mistreat ours. Maybe they’ll also show her the Gospels and she’ll realize that our Savior built a church on relationships not rules and regulations. Maybe she’ll strive to be a friend to others regardless of how or what they choose to believe. Maybe she’ll be so moved by the way Jesus loved, healed, and associated with sinners that she’ll eagerly welcome them and do the same. Maybe she’ll be so busy she won’t have time to protest, oppress, or ignore others made in the image of God.

I hope she chooses not to listen to some in the church when they say love is a nice idea but won’t work in the real world. Jesus certainly thought it would. I hope she sits with the outcasts and hears their story. She might find out they loved God and Jesus all along.

More than anything, I hope someone gently teaches this sweet kid that loving God and loving other is what we have to do and we have to do it in a way so genuine, others might even decide to love God and Jesus, too.

 

Means of Grace in Acts 2:42

Harding Profile“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

Acts 2:42, NRSV.

“Our greatest trouble now is, it seems to me, a vast unconverted membership. A very large percent of the church members among us seem to have very poor conception of what a Christian ought to be. They are brought into the church during these high-pressure protracted meetings, and they prove to be a curse instead of a blessing. They neglect prayer, the reading of the Bible, and the Lord’s day meetings, and, of course, they fail to do good day by day as they should. Twelve years of continuous travel among the churches have forced me to the sad conclusion that a very small number of the nominal Christians are worthy of the name.”

James A. Harding, Gospel Advocate (1887) [1]

As a summary of early Christian steadfastness, Acts 2:42 has served as a influential reference point in the Believer’s Church tradition, and it has been especially important to the Stone-Campbell Movement. As early as the 1830s some even regarded it as the biblical “order of worship.” Others simply emphasized its fundamental orientation. James A. Harding, co-founder of Lipscomb University and namesake of Harding University, called them “means of grace,” that is, four spiritual disciplines that form believers into the image of Christ.

Harding identified the four as (1) reading and studying the Bible, (2) ministering to others (especially the poor) as we share (“fellowship”) our resources, (3) participating in the Lord’s day meeting at the Lord’s table as a community, and (4) habitual prayer.[2] Sometimes Harding identifies these with the Lord’s Day assembly or communal gatherings but generally understood Bible study, missional engagement with the poor, and prayer as daily spiritual disciplines. According to Harding, believers should adopt a kind of rule of life which involves daily Bible reading, “doing good” daily as they have opportunity, and pray every morning, noon, afternoon, and evening.

But these are no mere duties. Rather, they are “four great means of grace—appointed means by which God dynamically acts among, in, and through the people of God.[3] They are not modes of human self-reliance but means of divine transformation by which God graciously sanctifies believers. They are spiritual disciplines through which God conforms believers to the image of Christ.

Harding stressed how “the life of a successful Christian is a continual growth in purity, a constant changing into a complete likeness to Christ.”[4] To “grow more and more into the likeness of Christ” should be the Christian’s “greatest” desire. [5] In other words, Harding believed discipleship was the central dimension of practicing the kingdom of God. Consequently, one of the dangers of revivalism (“protracted meetings”) was the immediate interest in a larger number of conversions where the main concern was “escaping hell and getting into heaven” as opposed to discipling people to lead “lives of absolute consecration to the Lord.” As a result, these “converts are much more anxious to be saved than they are to follow Christ.”[6]

Harding’s antidote recommended the “four habits” of Acts 2:42 as expressions of both communal and personal piety. Whoever neglects them will falter and their “falling away is sure.”[7] But if one will pursue these spiritual practices, “he will surely abide in Christ. These four are god’s means of grace to transform a poor, frail, sinful human being into the likeness of Christ.” Whoever “faithfully uses these means unto the end of life can not be lost.” Specifically, in response to the question, “Will God hold us responsible for little mistakes?” Harding answered: God “holds nothing against us” whether we sinned “in ignorance, weakness or willfulness” as long as we live in Christ as people who faithfully practice these spiritual disciplines with a heart that seeks God.[8]

God in Christ through the Spirit is graciously active through these communal and personal faith-practices. God actively transforms believers into God’s own image, and believers who pursue these gifts of grace will experience transformation by divine power rather than by human effort.

**This is adapted from John Mark Hicks and Bobby Valentine, Kingdom Come: Embracing the Spiritual Legacy of David Lipscomb and James Harding (Abilene: Leafwood Press, 2006), 75-77. One chapter is devoted to each of these means of grace.

[1]Harding, “Scraps,” Gospel Advocate 27 (9 February 1887), 88.

[2]Harding, “Questions Concerning the Way to Heaven,” The Way 4 (12 February 1903), 370.

[3]Harding, “Questions and Answers,” The Way 4 (17 July 1902), 123.

[4]Harding, “Scraps,” The Way 5 (23 July 1903), 735.

[5]Harding, “Scraps,” The Way 5 (15 October 1903), 945.

[6]Harding, “About Protracted Meetings,” Gospel Advocate 27 (14 September 1887), 588.

[7]Harding, “Ira C. Moore on the Validity of Baptism,” Christian Leader and the Way 23 (18 May 1909), 8.

[8]Harding, “Scraps,” The Way 4 (26 February 1903), 401-2.

Peeking At Jesus

peekAfter nearly fifty years, I assume that the statute of limitations has run out. I can now admit it: I was a prayer peeker.

That’s right. I would open my eyes during prayers. Not just any prayers, but the prayers said during church services in the main auditorium. That despite having been taught in Sunday School that it was a rule (if not a commandment) that you had to bow your head and close your eyes during prayers.

But I had a good reason. I wasn’t opening my eyes to look at other people or even to see the person praying. I wanted to see Jesus.

I assumed that when we all closed our eyes and bowed our heads, Jesus would come in and listen to the prayer. Maybe, just maybe, I could sneak a peek of him before he realized I was looking.

My older self is a bit envious of that child. Not that I want a childish faith that expects to see Jesus sitting in the rafters. But I’d like to recapture the childlike faith that confidently expects the Lord to be present in our assemblies.

I know intellectually that “God with us” isn’t just the translation of the name of some kid in the book of Isaiah. I also know it’s more than what happened when Mary had a baby in Bethlehem.

I can quote the verse from Matthew 18. You know the one:

“For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20)

Yet even then, my rational self wants to tie that to a specific context (church discipline) or a specific time frame (apostolic era) or a purely figurative way of speaking. It’s can’t be that Jesus really comes to be among us when we assemble.

But isn’t that one of the great lessons that the gospel writers want to show us, especially Matthew in his gospel? Isn’t that the real meaning behind “God with us”? Not that God was with his people in days of old. Not just that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. But that promise from the end of Matthew: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)

When we come together as a body, Jesus is among us. We need to see that. We need to feel that. We need to believe that.

When Paul was writing to the Corinthian church about the need to discipline one of their members, he begins his instructions by saying:

“When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present…” (1 Corinthians 5:4)

God with us. Us. When we come together. I know that we are temples of the Spirit, and God lives in us. There is a very real sense in which God is with us all the time. But there’s a special meaning to the assembly, a special reality that tells us that God is with us. The power of the Lord is in our midst.

It’s hard to see past what our physical senses take in. We see worn out pews and faded carpet. We hear off-key singing and crying babies. We get too hot or too cold, depending on how well the heating/AC is working. We touch and taste the Lord’s Supper, knowing that it’s really crackers and grape juice, not the body and blood of Jesus.

And yet… God is with us. These physical things merely distract from the spiritual reality that God is in our midst. Or, if we let them, they come together to remind us that there is a Creator behind these physical realities, and that Creator is with us. He is present.

I don’t want to go back to looking for Jesus somewhere up near the ceiling. But I do want to recapture that assurance that he will be there when the church meets. He will be among us.

God will be with us.