Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Book Note: Small Group Leadership as Spiritual Direction by Heather Webb

As GCF gets ready for the Fall Semester, I've been thinking a lot about small group ministry. GCF is committed to asking the tough questions about the integration of faith, learning, and practice, and we find that these questions are best addressed in small groups of people gathered around scripture, book study, or prayer.

I picked up Heather Webb's, Small Group Leadership as Spiritual Direction the other day. A quick read, Webb lays a foundation of what small groups tend to look like, talks about spiritual direction as a practice, reviews the interaction of direction with postmodernism and issues like sin and disclosure in small group settings, and offers three models for small group that are "directed" instead of "led."

The three new models are the "story-centered group," the "text-centered group," and the "prayer-centered group." Her descriptions of these are brief but compelling and may be worth the price of the book.

Some salutary quotes:
"On a rudimentary level, spiritual direction involves two people growing in their understanding of what it means to love God and others" (59).

"This is what spiritual direction is all about. It is pointing out God to someone who might not recognize God's voice" (58).

"Many spiritual directors dislike the term 'director' and prefer words that connote coming alongside someone, such as being a 'midwife.' The director is not leading as much as assisting in the birthing of deeper faith. The director is a friend or a wise mentor to the one in the process of rediscovering God. . . . Spiritual directors struggle with the directee, relying on God's Spirit to serve as the catalytic force for spiritual maturity" (64).

"Rather than seeing direction as a movement inward, it should be seen as the process of moving upward and outward toward God and others" (67).

"The art of spiritual direction can help create a bridge between our faith and the world in which we live [and] will have dialogue at its core. . . . The bridge metaphor means we can walk across without abandoning the starting point. . . . To be on a bridge, we must have a starting point. It is, then, essential that spiritual directors know what they believe. . . . In the face of difference, we have an opportunity to enter mystery that reminds us of our need to trust a God who is bigger than our boxes for God. We are reminded of a world larger than our own" (88-89).

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Sermon for July 1, 2007, "Follow Me"

Text: Luke 9:51-62
I preached this sermon the second Sunday of my New Jersey trip I mentioned in my last post. I've included its full text here. The audio for both this sermon and "The Christ of God" are up on MEFC's website here.

“Follow Me”

When Monique and I lived in Princeton, we went with a group of people to a big, free concert in Philadelphia. Being outdoors, it was sticky, hot, and there were people everywhere! I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a setting like this, but it’s kindof like being in laneless, rush-hour traffic. People push and push to get the best seats, or the seats in the shade, or the seats that you’re aiming to get right then just because you’re aiming to get them. With people everywhere, faces pointed in all different directions, how do you keep a group together?

The method we devised was the hand-to-shoulder line. The lead person looked ahead, spotting holes that would allow our movement, but everyone else kept their eyes (and hands) on the person in front of them. With one person cutting the trail, we could make better progress than any one of us doing it by ourselves. But you did have to hold on and stay focused! If you lost concentration, you would be easily separated from the line by the press of the crowd.

[Page One: Jesus is leaving people behind] From our passage today, there is nothing more ominous than the line from verse 51: “Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” More literally, “Jesus set his face for Jerusalem.” The time is approaching for Jesus to be taken into heaven, and Jesus, knowing this, resolves in himself that nothing will stop his journey to Mt. Zion. Whereas Jesus showed patience before, now he is leaving people behind. Jesus is on his way.

The Samaritans cannot stand this. They do not welcome Jesus, because Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. Jesus will stand for no complacency here. If the Samaritans will not allow Jesus to stay one night and then depart for Jerusalem, then Jesus will not stay. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and anyone who wants a tame Rabbi is getting left behind.

The man who is walking along the road cannot stand this. He thinks that he will follow Jesus wherever he goes, but Jesus lets the man know that while the foxes and birds have places to rest, there is no rest for the Son of Man. Jesus in on his way to Jerusalem, and anyone who wants comfort is getting left behind.

Jesus pauses briefly to say to another man, “Follow me.” But, the man replies, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus retorts sharply, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and anyone who puts their family first is getting left behind.

“Still another says, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say good-by to my family.’ Jesus replies, ‘No one who put his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the Kingdom of God.’” Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and cannot stop or look back, and anyone who is hesitant or wants to wait or hedge their bets is getting left behind when they lose their grip on Jesus’ shoulder in the press of their lives. There are too many worries and cares in their world. The people left in Jesus’ wake must be thinking, “What could I have done to be worthy to follow this Jesus?”

[Page Two: Jesus is leaving the world behind] Last week, we talked about Jesus’ command for his disciples to take up their cross daily to follow him. Jesus, though once for all crucified, dead, buried, raised again, and ascended, still is leading disciples to Jerusalem by his Holy Spirit. Jesus is still on his way to Jerusalem, and he’s leaving the world behind.

The people of the world want a Jesus who will sit and stay awhile. Like the Samaritans, they don’t want a Jesus who is on his way to Jerusalem. They want a Jesus who will give them pearls of wisdom instead of pain. They want a Jesus who will show them wonderful mysteries instead of their sin. But, Jesus is still on his way to Jerusalem, and the world that wants a tame Rabbi is getting left behind.

The people of the world want a Jesus who will give rest for their heads. They want a Psalm 23 Jesus, a Jesus who comforts them when they are sad but never saddens them when they are comforted. But, the Son of Man has no place to rest his head. Jesus is still on his way to Jerusalem, and the world that wants peace instead of a spiritual sword is getting left behind.

The people of the world want a Jesus who will put their family first. They want a Jesus that will teach them how to be good husbands and wives, but they don’t want a Jesus who might tell them that they’re loving their spouses or children or friends more than they’re loving God. Jesus is still on his way to Jerusalem, and the world that wants a stable society is getting left behind.

The people of the world want a Jesus who will pause a moment so they can say goodbye to their old lives. They want a Jesus who sympathizes with their secret sins, but they don’t want a Jesus who wants to forgive and forget them. They just want to say goodbye to their past, but Jesus is focused on the future. Jesus is still on his way to Jerusalem, and the world that wants to hedge its bets is getting left behind.

The world has too many worries and cares, too many broken relationships, too much difficulty with obedience. Left behind by Jesus, the must sometimes wonder, “How could we have made ourselves worthy to follow this Jesus?”

[Page Three: Jesus is taking his disciples with him (even though they don’t deserve it)] Looking back at our passage for today, we might find it difficult to believe that people are actually making this trip with Jesus. This ragtag group of disciples is somehow keeping up a good hand on Jesus’ shoulder as they make their way through the crowd to Jerusalem!

They make their first appearance in verse 52, sent out as messengers in front of Jesus to make a room ready for him in the Samaritan village. Not only are they coming along behind, but they’re being sent out ahead. The disciples seem to be doing just fine, until they hit a bump in the road: the Samaritans want Jesus to stay a while…since the disciples tell them he won’t, they choose not to welcome him. When Jesus walks into the village, the disciples report the indignity and ask Jesus for permission to call fire down from heaven to destroy them. Jesus stops walking only for a moment to turn and rebuke them before walking to the next village. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and the disciples who want righteous anger from their Lord are getting…left behind? No, for some reason they aren’t. For some mysterious reason, Jesus is taking his disciples with him to Jerusalem whether they deserve it or not.

For some reason, Jesus has chosen this ragtag bunch, and he’s not leaving them behind. This point is reiterated over and over again in the Gospels. Jesus is about preaching the Kingdom of God, but his disciples don’t get it. Jesus is about healing the sick, but the disciples are in it for the power. Jesus is about dying for sinners in Jerusalem, but the disciples scatter at the first sign of trouble. When they ask the question, “How can we be worthy to follow Jesus?” they can’t find a good answer. They aren’t worthy in the least, but Jesus persists in bringing them along. Pressed by the crowd, by the concerns of the world, the disciples lose their grip on Jesus shoulder, but instead of getting left behind or lost in the crowd, they find that Jesus has reached behind him to grab their hand. Jesus persists in holding on to their hand even when they persist in letting go of his. Jesus is creating obedience in them, leading them to make the hard decisions, the decisions that hurt.

[Page Four: Jesus is taking us with him] Perhaps the number one evidence of our faith is that people keep on following this Jesus. As he runs ahead, not only our world but we ourselves fall behind. The world loses touch with Jesus and creates images or replicas of him, but some, some of us, even, persist in following Jesus to Jerusalem. What is there to explain this? Only one thing, and it is not a “what,” it is a “who.” Jesus is taking us with him, even though we don’t deserve it, through his free grace.

St. John wrote that Jesus is the eternal Word of God and that the Father created the world through this Word. Human beings were created to follow the Word through his world, one hand on his shoulder on a guided tour of the richness and depth of all that God had created for us. But, there was a test, a test that we failed. At the simple allure of the serpent, Adam and Eve let go of the Word’s shoulder and fell behind and were lost.

All of us their children are also lost. The tempting voice of the serpent has been multiplied thousands of times over as he speaks in other people’s voices. We were lost. But the Word, always moving forward to Jerusalem from all eternity, moved back into our world when he took on flesh and walked among us as Jesus Christ. This time the Word resolved not to let us fall behind. In becoming a human being, he persists in holding onto our hands. In taking us with him to the cross, he has killed the world in us. In taking us with him through his resurrection, he has given us a new start and a promise that he will never let go of us. In taking us with him in his ascension, he has given us the promise of new and eternal life, as St. Paul said in Colossians: we are now hidden with Christ in God.

Jesus is, as the book of Hebrews puts it, the author of our faith. He is the pioneer who cuts the trail ahead of us. This trail leads us necessarily to suffering and a death to ourselves and to our wants in the world, but it also leads us to resurrection and the glory of new life. Hidden with Christ in God, we are now becoming what God has claimed that we are in Jesus Christ. Those things that you know you should do but are putting off are already done and completed in Christ. By the Holy Spirit, Jesus is making you the person that is hidden with Christ in God. You might be scared of asking forgiveness from a person in this room, but in Jesus, you are already the person who has experienced that pain, embarrassment, and sorrow and come through the other side. By the Holy Spirit, Jesus is making you the person that is hidden with Christ in God. You might be hurting others by what you say and do, but in Jesus Christ that part of you is already dead and a new life of love has been raised. By the Holy Spirit, Jesus is making you the person that is hidden with Christ in God. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and, thanks be to God, he is taking us with him, holding on to our hands, and making sure we don’t get lost in the crowd, even though we don’t deserve it. Amen.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Sermon for June 24, 2007: "The Christ of God"

I've been in New Jersey the last week attending a conference and raising money for my work with InterVarsity. While in town, I was given the opportunity to preach twice at Montgomery Evangelical Free Church (www.mefc.org; both sermons will be available soon for streaming audio and podcast download on their website under "Sermon Player").

Both Sundays, I preached the Gospel text from the Revised Common Lectionary. It's fun, and just a little demanding, to hear God's Word for a specific situation from a text you didn't choose. My experience the last two weeks reemphasizes to me that the whole Gospel can be found in all the Bible's parts.

Note: There was a commissioning service for Stephen Ministers this Sunday. Stephen Ministries is a lay pastoral care program. Also, the brackets indicate the sections of the sermon. I follow very closely Paul Scott Wilson's The Four Pages of the Sermon: A Guide to Biblical Preaching (I think this is a must have and highly practical guide to preaching well; I read it through again in preparing my sermons this year, and, 2 years after preaching class, I love it even more).

Luke 9:18-24

“The Christ of God”

[Introduction] From time to time, we all say things that we don’t really understand. The boy who sees a girl and says, “I’m going to marry that girl” will only proudly remember he said that if he marries her. “For better or worse ‘til death do us part,” sounds poetic until the worse comes and we realize what we really said. The quick-spoken and short, “I hope you have children just like you,” from an exasperated parent hangs like a curse over the child when, as nature seems to have it, they DO start having children just like them. We say these things, they almost slip past our lips, and then, only later, do we really realize what they mean. This is the hidden power of our cutting words, promises, and confessions.

[Page 1: The disciples had to lose their lives]“‘But what about you?” Jesus asked the disciples. ‘Who do you say that I am?’”

Peter answered, “The Christ of God.”

When the other Gospels record this event, Jesus makes a much bigger deal out of Peter’s confession, saying things like, “Flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my father in heaven,” or, “You are Peter, and upon this rock will I build my church.” In other words, he couldn’t have come up with this on his own. Our reading from Luke today highlights the same reality in a different aspect. Luke highlights that Peter didn’t realize the full import of his confession. He didn’t realize that in proclaiming Jesus the Christ of God, he really was signing his own death sentence. For this confession, he would have to lose his life.

For Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.”

Verse 18 sets the stage. Jesus is praying in private and his disciples are with him. He asks them, “Who do the crowds say I am?” Up to this point, he has been healing and ministering and preaching, and it’s time for the quarterly evaluation of the congregation and the leadership.

The disciples respond quickly. “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life.” The crowd, apparently, is only saying good things, or the disciples are editing. It doesn’t seem to matter to Jesus.

“But what about you?”

“The Christ of God.”

Peter is right, but he didn’t understand what his confession really means. This is why Jesus commands them to be silent. If the people who have been with Jesus day in and day out don’t understand yet, then surely the majority of the crowd will not either. Jesus tells him that the Christ MUST suffer and be rejected, killed, and raised. Not only that, those who want to follow the Christ of God have to follow the same path. The disciples MUST deny themselves and take up crosses daily to follow. In the other Gospels, it’s here that Peter rebukes Jesus, and where Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan.” Peter doesn’t want to have his glorious dreams of a Messiah torn down into this divine MUST. Peter wans a glorious Christ, but Jesus tells him that he MUST have a broken, torn, and defeated Christ. He wants a glorious place beside Christ, but Jesus tells him that he MUST lose his life in order to save it. In the end, Peter has become so focused on his life goals and expectations that he wants Jesus to conform to his expectations. But instead Jesus says to Peter that he must lose his life if he wants to save it.

[Page 2: We have to lose our lives] And the same is true for us: We have to lose our lives if we want to save them. You see, our problem is much like the disciples’. When Jesus puts the question to us about what the world is saying about him, we can say all kinds of things. “Well, Jesus, the world thinks you’re a great moral teacher, a political revolutionary, an advocate for the poor, a path to mystical enlightenment.”

“But who do you say that I am?”

By now, we expect this question and well up with pride because we know the answer: “You’re the Christ of God, only begotten Son of the Father, the Word incarnate, one Person with two Natures, God’s Revelation and the path to Reconciliation, our Salvation and our Promise of everlasting life.”

But, Jesus says to us as he said to his disciples, “I may be all those things, but my path isn’t one of glory but one of a cross. My path will lead you to participate with me in my cross. My path will cause you to lose your life in order to save it.”

The costs are steep. Hate your father and mother, Jesus says at one point. Pluck out your eye if it’s causing you to sin. Seek first the kingdom of God. Leave family and friends for the sake of the Gospel. We have to lose our lives. This is the divine MUST that we come up against as disciples. Jesus must suffer and die. We must participate in that suffering by laying down our lives as well. We must lose our lives if we want to confess him as the Christ of God.

But, like Peter, we don’t want to. We like to hold on to our Messianic dreams. We want to be successful. We want to be rich and powerful. We want to be recognized and respected (and, by the way, will break relationship with almost anyone over the smallest slight, compounding sin with sin until we get what we deserve). We will hold on to institution and power even at the expense of others. But Jesus says that we must lose our lives.

Since we want glorious lives, we seek to follow successful people, and we event twist our confession of Jesus to make him the kind of person we want to be ourselves. We want Jesus to be a great business person. We want Jesus to be a great counselor. We want Jesus to be an All-American athlete or a biker or a hip, relevant, Birkenstock-wearing yuppie. We want Jesus to lift weights at God’s Gym or cast ballots, depending on who we like at the time, either for elephants or donkeys. In the end, we have become so focused on ourselves that we don’t want to participate in Jesus’ life. We want Jesus to participate in ours. But, Jesus says, we must lose our lives if we want to save them. But, we don’t want to.

[Page 3: God saved Jesus’ life] Verse 22: “And he said, ‘The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”

Thanks be to God: the end of Jesus’ life is not the end of the story. His disciples expected a Messiah to come in glory, but Jesus knew that he MUST suffer and be killed before the glory of the Resurrection. Jesus gave up his life, but God saved it on the third day. God saved Jesus’ life.

This is an important thing to consider. Jesus, fully God and fully human, walked among us for a short time. In that time, he lived in complete obedience to the Father, even to death on the cross. He lived in that divine MUST with his face pointed to a cross and walked the road from his birth to his death in humility and righteousness. When he submitted himself to this final death, he submitted himself as the Christ of God, the Messiah who everyone felt was supposed to be a hero, but instead was a servant. After he was killed, God raised him from the dead. God saved Jesus’ life.

So, when Jesus told the disciples’ that they had to lose their lives in order to save them, this was in the background. He was losing his life. The disciples were to take up their cross and follow Jesus. The life of the disciple is the life of walking with Jesus into Jerusalem at the end of his ministry, into pain, suffering, and death with a joy, a peace, and a confidence that God is in control. Jesus promises that if they would participate in his death by taking up their cross and following him in faith and obedience, then they will also be raised together with Christ in his resurrection. God saved Jesus’ life from the tomb, so also will God save their lives from shame, suffering, and death.

And from what we know, the disciples trusted God in this. They embraced Jesus’ cross and lived their lives as lost for his sake and the Gospel. It is said that some were crucified like Jesus, others were fed to lions, still others were flayed alive. But, first, because they lived their lives as lost, they experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and saw God saving thousands of people’s lives all over the world. The Scripture tells us about the communion of saints in which these apostles’ now live, and it promises for them and for us the final resurrection from the dead. It’s interesting that many tradition churches when they come to the part of the Nicene Creed that mentions the resurrection from the dead, they cross themselves. The path to resurrection is through the cross.

[Page 4: God will save our lives] Because God was faithful to raise his Son Jesus from the dead, he will raise everyone who believes. God saved Jesus’ life, and God will save our lives, too. If we make the confession that he is the “Christ of God,” we will of necessity find ourselves in pain, sorrow, and suffering, but we will endure these things for the joy set before us. St. Paul put it this way in Philippians 3: “I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection of the dead.”

We cannot earn the resurrection—there is only following Jesus along his way to the cross. First we believe that Jesus lived, died, and rose again on the third day for us and in our place. Our first step along the path is to lose our lives to God in faith.

Second, by God’s grace, we have to lose our lives in service to God and others. Faith is followed necessarily by obedience. God has saved our life already, so we need to let God worry about the results of our obedience, about the clothes on our back, about the hairs on our heads. Trust and obey, the old song says, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus than to trust and obey.

It’s appropriate at this point to mention those who are being commissioned today to the Stephen Ministry. In an intense training period, they have learned to see themselves as caregivers to people in need. They are people who seek to care but not, interestingly enough, to cure. They have been taught to live in the reality that since God saved Jesus’ life, he is the one who will save all our lives. They know they are only caregivers, and God is the cure giver. For those of you receiving the commissioning, you are today promising to bear a cross. You are promising to bear with and listen to people in their grief, in their sorrow, and in their pain. You are promising to lose yourself in service to God by serving others. I pray that God shows you his peace and joy along the path down which he has called you.

Following Jesus on the way of the cross is what we all do, whether we realize the import of our words or not, when we with Peter make the confession that Jesus is the Christ of God. It’s not a comfortable trip, but it is the trip to which God has called us and by which God will save us. Montgomery Evangelical Free Church, hear the good news of the Gospel: God raised Jesus from the dead; therefore we too will be raised if we lay down our lives in faith and obedience to the Christ of God.

Let us pray.

[The prayer included some of these thoughts] There are resentments here, some petty, some serious, that have broken relationships in your body. There are people here too caught up in themselves to realize that the glory and respect they desire is due only to Christ, who died for them that they might die to their pride. Break hearts, dear Lord, that you might mend them. Break silences, dear Lord, that you might heal wounds. Whatever is the reason for these problems, Holy Spirit, cause these people to lose their lives at this point so they may experience your reconciling power.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Clearing the way for a theology of relevance

This post is a follow up to the previous post along with its resulting comments. I'm very happy that such a lively discussion developed, and I need to clear the ground before moving on to give a theological account of relevance.

1) So far, I have been sketching a non-theological, analytical argument about relevance. I, being a theologian, have not been able to keep theological language completely out, but I have attempted to do so.

2) Thanks to Travis' and Tim's comments, I realize that I need to make a distinction between objective and subjective relevance. Objectively, the claims of the Gospel of Jesus Christ are relevant to each and every individual because their lives forever have been determined by the Person and Work of Christ. Subjectively, the claims of the Gospel are relevant only to those people who have the ability (read: have been given the ability) to see themselves as addressed by it. They have made themselves (read: have been made) relevant to the Gospel (they have been changed to see themselves as addressees) and in so doing, the Gospel "has become" subjectively what it always already is, something that matters.

3) Given this, subsuming subjective into objective relevance is something we should avoid for it makes us both less aware of ourselves and less aware of the other. As the Gospel becomes more subjectively relevant to us, it matters more to us; that is, as we come to see ourselves and our lives as being encompassed by this story, then we find that the story has more importance than we thought it did, and because we have been changed to fit the story, we are more open to seeing how the story (in Tim's words) might be shown to be relevant to the people around us. But, to show the Gospel's objective relevance is the same as making space for the change in the other individual that establishes the reciprocal, subjective relevance I was referencing in my last post.

Before moving to a sketched theological account, are there any other clarifications I need to make?