Kingdom or Structure: A Million Dollar Question

The kingdom comes in dynamism. It is then sustained by structures. This was certainly the case in Acts 2. The dynamism is seen in vv. 1-4:

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

Unsruprisingly, these events drew a crowd to which Peter preached a sermon. Three thousand people were saved. Dynamism indeed!

But notice what happens next in vv. 42-47:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 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, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

The dynamism we saw earlier settles into a common way of life. Regularly listening to and obeying the apostles’ teaching becomes a norm in the community, as does sharing possessions and eating together. We find later in Acts 4 that the sharing of resources was systematic:

And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land our houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.” (vv. 34-35)

The apostles, it seems, acted as both collectors and distributors of charitable gifts.

Of course, these systems (of sharing) and organizational elements (where and when will the apostles teach, who gets together at which house to share meals) were filled with dynamism. As the last quote notes, God’s grace was “powerfully at work in them all.” This, however, does not change the fact that organization and systems were present. It is important here to note that the kingdom and structures are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, proper structures further and sustain the dynamism with which the kingdom came. Enter here church structures, which are meant further and sustain the kingdom.

There comes a point, though, when structures become problematic. This happens when structural failures begin to subvert or overshadow the kingdom. We see just this happening in Acts 6:1:

In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.

Remember that the apostles have been managing the distribution system successfully up to this point. Now, though, the number of believers has become unwieldy, and the apostles start to drop balls. The Hellenistic widows are being overlooked, and what began as a system that propagated the kingdom has come to subvert the same.

The apostles are met here with an important question: What will they do with the structure? They have a few choices:

  1. Do nothing and tell everyone to stop whining.
  2. Fix the system by devoting more time to it. This will require the apostles to devote less time to teaching and prayer.
  3. Delegate the responsibility of the distribution system to others so that the teaching ministry is not negatively effected.

Ultimately, option 3 wins out. The apostles decide that the faulty structure must be fixed to properly promote the kingdom. The fix, though, can’t negatively effect another important part of the Jerusalem congregation’s structure: the teaching. As those chosen by Jesus to be in his inner circle, further his ministry, and provide leadership to the Jesus movement, the apostles hold a teaching position that no one else can fill. They therefore decide that it would be irresponsible to focus on distribution to the exclusion of teaching, and they call on the congregation to name “seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom” (6:3) to manage the sharing of resources. Thus, the distribution system was fixed, and the teaching didn’t suffer. The structure of the congregation was once again brought into harmony with the kingdom.

Notice what the apostles did here. They weren’t so committed to the structure they designed that they ignored valid complaints. Nor were they so committed to their leadership of the structure that they allowed their teaching to suffer in order to fix it themselves. Instead, the apostles chose to let the kingdom take the lead. The distribution had to be fixed to properly reflect the kingdom, and the teaching that helped the congregation understand and embrace the same kingdom could not suffer. So the apostles found a new way of doing things by delegating responsibility. Doing so allowed them to rescue the distribution system and protect their teaching. All in all, it was a brilliant solution.

This is the rub when it comes to structures that are meant to further the kingdom of God: sometimes they don’t work. When this happens, we who lead our church structures have a choice. Will we choose the kingdom or the structure? To choose the kingdom, we must have crystal clarity of what the kingdom requires. Then we must bend both the structure and ourselves to meet those demands. This can be hard, but it is absolutely necessary.

Kingdom or structure? This is one of the million dollar questions of ministry.

A Christmas Hymn

Baby boy wrapped in cloths
Lowly in a manger laid
God the Son in human form
Born to give his life away

See him lying weak and tender
Needy in his mother’s care
The infinite come fixed and fragile
Son of God now Son of Man

Holy! Holy! Lord Almighty!
Lowly in a manger laid
Rich made poor to make us rich
Lift your voices, sing his praise!

Holy! Holy! Lord Almighty!
Mild, he lays his glory by
Strength made weak to make us strong
Bless the Lord! Bless the Christ!

Hear his crying break the silence
New lungs stretch to catch the air
Word of God, he cannot speak
His cries must bend his mother’s ear

She lifts him gently in the darkness
Holds him close to feed her son
Great Sustainer now sustained by
Mother’s milk and mother’s love

Holy! Holy! Lord Almighty!
Lowly in a manger laid
Rich made poor to make us rich
Lift your voices, sing his praise!

Holy! Holy! Lord Almighty!
Mild, he lays his glory by
Strength made weak to make us strong
Bless the Lord! Bless the Christ!

Word made flesh, he dwelt among us
The one through whom all things were made
Great creator now created
Baby in a manger laid

Lift your voices, join the chorus
Jesus, baby born to die
Born to rise o’er death victorious
He’ll bear our sin and give us life

Holy! Holy! Lord Almighty!
Lowly in a manger laid
Rich made poor to make us rich
Lift your voices, sing his praise!

Holy! Holy! Lord Almighty!
Mild, he lays his glory by
Strength made weak to make us strong
Bless the Lord! Bless the Christ!

The Canon Within the Canon

Back in seminary we often heard concerns about the “canon within the canon,” which was really just a way of saying that preachers have a tendency to preach from their favorite parts of scripture rather than from the whole. Good preachers, we were told, are careful to present the entirety of the scriptures to their congregations. This is one reason that some champion the lectionary – it pushes us into parts of scripture that we might neglect if left to our own devices.

I have come to believe that these concerns are greatly overblown. Indeed, I would argue that they lead us in the wrong direction. As a pastor, my job is to mold my people, by the power and leadership of the Holy Spirit, into the image of Jesus Christ. When this becomes the goal of preaching, the canon within the canon becomes an important but secondary concern.

Let’s put this another way. If a new Christian asks me what they should be reading in the Bible, should I send them to the Gospels or Leviticus? I suspect that most of us would affirm that the Gospels are the better reading assignment. This is not because Leviticus is unimportant. As part of the Torah, it most certainly is! Rather, we would point the new Christian to the Gospels because we reflexively know that the Gospels are more central to their formation. After all, if they are to become like Jesus, they probably need to know who Jesus is! I could make a similar argument for sending them to Romans next. How very important it is that they understand God’s grace and its activity in their lives! Of course, we’ll get to Leviticus, but we don’t start there. When it comes to formation, we prioritize certain parts of scripture, which means that we embrace a canon within the canon.

If this is true of personal devotion, why would it not also be true of preaching? We become concerned about a canon within the canon when the Bible becomes an end in itself. But what if the Bible is better understood as a means to another end? As 2 Timothy 3:16-17 puts it: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (NIV) According to this view, scripture is a tool to be employed in the formation of God’s people, and the canon within the canon becomes a secondary concern. Indeed, when seen from this angle, strong arguments can be made for a canon within the canon, because certain parts of scripture are more necessary to the formation of God’s people.

This is not to say that preachers can lazily circle around their favorite parts of scripture. That kind of canon within a canon is unfaithful apathy. It is to say that preachers should feel free, by the power and leadership of the Holy Spirit, to preach for formation rather than completion. When we do so, I suspect that we’ll find ourselves traveling well-worn roads again and again. Rather than feeling guilty for it, why not embrace this reality? After all, the question we will be asked when we stand before the judgment seat of Christ will not be whether we gave all parts of the Bible equal weight. No, it will be about the quality of our congregations. Did we help them know God? Did we form them well? When these questions drive our ministries our preaching takes on a new significance.

Let’s preach for formation and stop apologizing for it.

Notes on Community: A Realistic Call

Relationships can be hard. This is true when our connections are marred by envy, anger, and the like. It can also be true when everyone brings their best intentions to the table. I find it comforting, then, that the scriptures do not romanticize community. Yes, the call to healthy community rings loud and clear from the pages of the New Testament, but so also does a realism about the difficulty of that call.

I think here of passages like Colossians 3:12-14:

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (NIV)

Notice here that healthy community doesn’t just happen. Instead, it is the product of the purposeful obedience of God’s people. We are to clothe ourselves with community-building virtues. This means that we are to be compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, and patient on purpose. We put these attitudes on. We weave them into the fabric of our lives.

And notice that the passage assumes friction and fault. We wouldn’t need to “bear with each other” if we didn’t sometimes drive each other crazy. Nor would we need to “forgive one another” if we never got things wrong.

Colossians, then, does not romanticize community. No, community here is maintained by our purposeful embrace of Christ-like virtues, and it is restored when we choose to bear with and forgive one another. This isn’t a romantic picture of easy relationships. It is a realistic call to do the hard work of loving one another. Love, after all, is not just a feeling of good will. It is also the continued conviction to seek the good of those in our lives. Sometimes this conviction is easily lived out. Sometimes it is not. How comforting, then, that the scriptures do not gloss over this second reality. No, they call us to confront it head on by shaping our characters and bearing with and forgiving one another.

The question of Christian community is not whether or not things are perfect – they won’t be. The real question of Christian community is whether or not we will choose it. After all, it doesn’t just happen. It is the product of the purposeful obedience of God’s people.

Majesty for the Unworthy

The sky is dark.  The land is silent.  For the shepherds it is like any other night.  They watch their flocks as they always do, expecting nothing out of the ordinary.  But tonight is not an ordinary night.  No, something cosmic is underfoot.  God himself in human flesh; the Son of God become son of man.  It happens all so quietly.  A baby born like any other – born in a stable at that.  The moment is passing with the world unaware.

But not for the shepherds.  They are not respected.  They are not important.  They inhabit the lower rungs of the social ladder.  But to these, the lowly, there comes the message.  It is theirs alone to hear.

The messenger is terrifying, an angel in glory, but the message itself is pure grace.  A Savior is born, the Messiah, the Lord!  Then appears the heavenly host.  Something this great cannot go unannounced.  They herald his coming with praise:

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:14; NIV)

The announcement is made, but why here?  This is not the seat of power.  These are not the lords of the earth.  This is a field.  These are shepherds!  Everything is upside down!

Grace has a way of doing that – turning things upside down.  It visits the unworthy with majesty.  It happened to shepherds on the night of Christ’s birth, and it happens today to people like you and me.  “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” (1 Corinthians 3:16)  How can such a thing be?

In Christ God has visited us.  In Christ he redeems a world gone astray.  The gift is for all who by grace will receive it, and to them is promised an inheritance of glory.  Majesty for the unworthy, indeed!

And grace continues to turn things upside down, for the lowly become messengers of glory.  The shepherds find their sign in a stable and become heralds of the Savior themselves.  Through their lips pass the announcement of angels!  Can we who have also been visited by majesty become anything but the same?

Grace to you this Christmas season.  May you be visited by majesty.

Affirming the Sunrise

“Sun’s awake?” This is a question that we used to hear often in the Smith household. For a while, my daughter would wake up well before dawn and assume that the day had begun. After all, if she was awake then everyone else should be awake, too!

As it happened, this phase of my daughter’s early wakefulness coincided with the birth of my son, which meant that my wife and I were already sleep deprived. Needless to say, my daughter’s early morning wake-up calls weren’t exactly helpful to our rest or sanity. So we taught her that nighttime is for sleeping and daytime is for playing, a supposition that led to that all important question: “Sun’s awake?” If so, it was time for everyone to get up. If not, it was time to go back to sleep. Most often, this question bought exhausted parents a few extra minutes of sleep because the sun had not yet risen. For the followers of Jesus, though, the same question should have the opposite effect. For in Christ we believe that the sun is indeed awake, which means that we his people should be awake as well.

Of course, when we talk about the sunrise in Christ, we move into the realm of metaphor. We speak here of the sunrise of redemption breaking forth on a broken world. This is the moment when the “new heaven and new earth” of Revelation 21 take shape, when brokenness gives way to wholeness, when God dwells perfectly with his people, and when there is no longer any mourning, crying, death, or pain. This is the object of Christian hope, and we wait for it expectantly.

But how can we say that the sun is already awake? The new heaven and new earth are certainly a worthy and compelling hope for the future, but how can we say that the sun of redemption is rising over a world that is so obviously broken? We hear of natural disasters and moral disasters on a regular basis, and it so often seems that we are cloaked in the deep dark of an unfriendly night. This broken darkness makes us long for that beautiful, future work of God already described, but can the sun really be awake now, in this pervasive darkness?

In a word, yes. Notice Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old is gone, the new is here!” This is a sweeping statement that speaks not of future hope but of present experience. It is also a statement that, when teamed with passages like Revelation 21, yields an important insight: New creation is the object of Christian hope and the content of Christian experience. Somehow that promised new creation has become present to Christ’s people in the here and now.

But how can this be? Resurrection is the key. In Christ’s resurrection new creation has sprung forth. Death has been defeated and the rebellious powers of this world have been put on notice. Our resurrected Lord now reigns victorious, and we wait with expectation for the day there when the victory won at the empty tomb will be made whole and complete! The goodness of this total victory, the fullness and totality of new creation, has now become the hoped-for inheritance of Christ’s people, and by our connection to the risen Christ and through the work of the Holy Spirit within us, we experience its beginnings even today.

New creation has begun, but it is not yet complete. Theologians call this the “already/not yet” dimension of God’s work in Christ. We already experience it, but we have not yet experienced its fullness. Thus, we Christians find ourselves at the moment of twilight. The sun itself is still just below the horizon, but its light has begun to mingle with the darkness. The light is present, but the darkness has not yet been dispersed. We are a people caught in that moment between night and day.

Which makes my daughter’s question an important one. How should we live in this in-between moment? Well, if the sun is awake, as we believe it is, then we should act like it. Though we exist in a moment when darkness still covers the land, we are to live according to the light that has become present to us in Christ. We are to follow Jesus in the power of the Spirit, knowing that this unfriendly night must eventually succumb to the full, unyielding light of day.

“Sun’s awake, daddy?” Yes, sweetheart, it is. And that makes all the difference.

A Christmas Meditation

The scene is more lowly than idyllic. A child has been born and wrapped in cloth. He lies in a manger because no guest room can be found. We’ve heard the story so many times that we can miss the stark backwardness of it all. The Son of God should have come in trappings of greatness. He should have been born to power and ease. Yet he spends the first night of his human life lying in a feeding trough.

There is a scandal of lowliness in the nativity.

But the scandal goes deeper than this. The child is born in low estate, but the true wonder of the nativity is found in the birth itself. The One through whom and for whom all things were made has become a part of his creation. The Infinite has taken on finite existence. The One who sustains all things by his powerful word has become completely dependent on the sustenance of another. God the Son has taken on human flesh and become the Son of man. And on this night and many to follow, he lies helpless and dependent in the frail existence of a newborn child.

There is also a scandal of humanness to be found.

This is the force of the incarnation. The great has become small. The infinite finite. The uncontainable contained. The Apostle Paul put it like this: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” (2 Cor. 8:9, NIV)

Augustine waxed poetic on the same theme: “He lies in a manger, but contains the world. He feeds at the breast, but also feeds the angels. He is wrapped in swaddling clothes, but vests us with immortality. He found no place in the inn, but makes for Himself a temple in the hearts of believers. In order that weakness might become strong, strength became weak.” (Sermon 190 3, 4)

The rich has become poor. The strong has become weak. And all this that we might become rich and strong through him.

We are used to speaking of the love that led Jesus to the cross.

Perhaps we should also speak of the love that led him to his birth.

In the nativity, God the Son has poured himself out and taken human form, and in this we see the nature of God on display. Jesus, “Who being in very nature God, did not consider his equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” (Phil. 2:6-7, NIV) It is in the nature of God to pour himself out on behalf of others, and though it is scandalous to us, it is natural to him. Such is the wonder of the God we serve. Such is the splendor of a newborn baby who bears the weight of the world. Such is the beauty of Christmas.