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We have been exploring worship in recent weeks. We have talked about worship as something that happens in the presence of the Risen Lord. We have discussed worship as where the reign of God is announced. Worship as a place where our stories intersect with God’s story, as a gathering of people we did not choose, as a people God brings together for God’s mission, as something we do in response to the activity of God.

Yesterday, we talked about worship again. Worship as a place where a battle is waged. Worship as an acknowledgement we have an enemy. Ephesians was our catalyst for conversation. In chapter four, Ephesians gives us a list of gifts within the body. Unity is important and we read chapter four and realize we cannot be discipled alone. Following Jesus requires others. As hard as unity is, it is necessary.

As hard as that is, things get harder still because we have an enemy. We are not paranoid. There is actually a plot designed to destroy us. A plot that requires us to reckon with principalities and powers and authorities and forces of darkness.  We have an enemy and that makes it important to take seriously chapter six.

“Be strong… stand firm… put on the full armor…” This is no appendix, not some add on to the letter as it comes to a conclusion. This makes sense of the rest of the letter. Living in a pagan world is hard. Together, we war against an enemy. To sign up for what we do in worship is nothing less than war.

It is easy to think of this war as optional. It is easy to think we can stay on the sideline while others fight against darkness on our behalf. Just as Christ gave gifts to the church in chapter four “so that the body of Christ may be built up” is a corporate statement, so is “put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground.” We are in this together. 

I once heard Greg Boyd tell a story that highlighted this thought well. Since I can’t remember the details of Boyd’s story, I am taking some liberty with it here. 

This story starts on July 1, 1863. Imagine you are on vacation. You, the family, and some family friends are enjoying a cottage in a wooded area near Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, PA. You have been coming here for years now. It is peaceful and relaxing. A fine place to stay during a hot part of the summer. 

But on that morning, July 1, 1863, you are awakened by a knock on the door. You open it to find General Meade of the Union Army. He is requesting your cottage and asking you and your family to share resources and join the fight. The Confederate Army is on the way and fighting is inevitable.

However, you have vacation plans. You have chicken marinating in the refrigerator and have already planned a corn hole tournament. This has always been your time. You tell the General you will not be participating in his fight but wish him luck in the war.

Think about this scenario. You are on the battlefield. War is going on all around you. You are caught in the crossfire. To ignore this and cheer from the sideline is foolish. Ephesians states clearly, we have an enemy. Together, we are at war. To ignore this due to busyness or disinterest does not make it go away. We are caught in the crossfire. To cheer from the sideline is foolish.

 

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It is unfortunate the church continues to be full of voices and rhetoric that sound a lot like American politics.  It is not uncommon for someone to state a preferred political position, add scripture or a theological point, and act as if it is the same as gospel. This raises many questions. One of them, “Is it ok to lean on existing political structures?” And if it is, “How do we know when it is appropriate?” Further, “How do we recognize when we have simply become another voice that supports an existing political structure?”

I was reminded recently that there are very blurry lines in parts of the church regarding this conversation. Some obviously believe a call to activism is the same as the gospel. There are benefits to activism. It shines light on a cause. The world is a better place because of the efforts of some activists. Because of the social good that can come from it, it is no surprise to find Christians participating in some of these efforts. Yet, we must remember that our moral causes and efforts in the culture wars are not the same as the gospel.

We can celebrate when government makes changes for moral reasons. But we must be clear, we are people who live by God’s Good News whether government declares it legal or not. We are not dependent on the government for social good. The world will never be made right by government intervention or hashtag movements. In fact, our moral causes and activism can become distractions that prevent us from demonstrating gospel.

The hope of the world is not dependent on political structures. A church that has become dependent on political structures ceases to be the church. It is the gathering, loving, grace-giving, sending people of God who demonstrate what hope looks like. How will the world ever know the ways of God without a people called church? We know that God so loved the world. We demonstrate that love best through the ways of God and not by the ways of the world.

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I recently had the opportunity to join some colleagues in listening to Michael Frost, Missiologist from Australia. I am very grateful. Frost is skilled at articulating missional philosophy. Even more interesting, he is actively experimenting with this philosophy in his home church. Though he might prefer to refer to church (due to assumptions formed when one hears the word church) as “a collective of neighbors who center our lives on Jesus.”

He shares important concerns. One of them being that church attendance is conventional. There is nothing radical or strange about church attendance because the church is only doing what other entities are doing, trying to help people to fit in with everyone else. Frost is right, there is a better way. There is a better way to be human (I think he was listening to Jon Foreman on the flight over). And the church should be leading the way.

The church should be salty. This collective of those who center our lives on Jesus should be delicious and enticing and inviting and interesting in their behavior. The church should provoke curiosity. He gave a list of ways to do this but I don’t like lists and tend to shut down after the first or second point. But here are the first two things he encouraged; 1) Bless three people each week. Bless someone from the Body, someone outside the Body, and a third person of choice. 2) Eat with three people each week. Eat with someone from the Body, someone outside the Body, and a third person of choice. Even for someone who doesn’t like lists, I think those sound inviting and interesting and lean in the direction of Christian behavior.

Frost says he doesn’t care about attendance or tithing. He doesn’t want the church to be busy recruiting new persons or becoming the coolest show in town. What he wants is for the church to show the world what the Reign of God looks like. Amen.

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I am a pastor. I serve with the folks at Christ Reformed Church in Duncannon (a borough named after the family Duncan, it says so on the sign when you enter town). Christ Reformed Church is a small church (a church named after, well I think you can figure that one out). I have come to realize it is silly to argue over the size of a church (an argument more natural in the world than the church). Small is not better, nor is it worse, it is simply our present reality. When we take a look at the kingdom, small churches are the most common expression of the kingdom (and I suspect that has always been the case). 

Karl Vaters says that “Small churches are like the cockroaches of the Christian world.” Though it may not sound like it, he means that as a sincere compliment. “After whatever cultural nuclear bomb comes along to destroy all other visible expressions of the church, small congregations will scurry out from under the baseboards. When the money runs out, small churches will find a way to keep going. When there’s a failure of leadership, small churches will lead themselves. After denominations topple, small churches will rise up.” 

I don’t know why I haven’t heard of this Vaters guy before, I agree as he goes on to say; 

After what’s cool and new starts feeling cliched and trite, small churches will still matter. After most of our church buildings, both large and small, are empty, demolished or converted into hipster apartments, small churches will find somewhere else to meet. After we’ve grown sick of programs and events, small churches will remind us of our essential need for relationship. After we’ve torn ourselves apart with politically-charged rhetoric, small churches will still be there to bring God’s people together. After persecution has come, small churches will meet in secret. After our plans have failed, small churches will still be a big part of God’s plan.” 

Obviously, some of what Vaters says is true of churches no matter the size. Still, it is true of small churches. Not better, not worse, just our present reality. And whatever comes our way, even when cultural bombs go off and if hipster apartments rise up all around us – we remain a big part of God’s plan.

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A New Game in Town

I have run across an interesting quote from Peter Leithart from his book Against Christianity. Get a load of this;

“So long as the church preaches the gospel and functions as a properly ‘political’ reality, a polity of her own, the kings of the earth have a problem on their hands… As soon as the church appears, it becomes clear to any alert politician that worldly politics is no longer the only game in town. The introduction of the church into any city means that the city has a challenger within its walls.”

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I love this potential scene given by Scot McKnight of one of Paul’s house churches.

“Lets transport ourselves back to one of Paul’s house churches and imagine yet again the make-up of that group – the morally unkosher sitting with the unpowerful standing with an arm around the financially drained, addressed by an apostle who was being chased daily by opponents of the gospel. In that context, with all those people around, hear again the grand Yes of God.

‘Who can be against us?’ Paul tauntingly thunders. The answer, No one!”

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Ben Witherington creates an interesting story about life in Corinth and one of the things I find most interesting is the description of Christian worship. A Week in the Life of Corinth is the tale of a fictional character by the name of Nicanor, a former slave. Upon visiting the strange new religious cult for the first time, he understandably has some questions.

“What sort of religion met under cloak of darkness in a home, and without priests, temples or sacrifices? And then there was all that singing and apparently some kind of prophesying, and then a sort of fervent speech in a language Nicanor had never heard before or since. It had given him chills…” His skepticism helps us understand how unusual first century worship would have been for first timers who encountered Christians.

Later, we follow Nicanor as he makes his way into a worship service. He was “just along for the ride.” Or so he thought. The reader is listening as Nicanor processes what is going on. And his questions keep coming.

“But would a god not only take on the form of a servant, but submit to a rebellious slave’s death on a cross… This totally inverted the normal notions of honor and shame… Nicanor was going to have to ask some questions about these things, but now his curiosity was piqued.”

And then my favorite, “The one question that presented itself immediately was, ‘How could such loving and honest and kind people, who otherwise seemed in their right minds and not prone to religious mania, believe such a tale? Unless of course there is some sort of compelling evidence that it is true.’”

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