Monday, January 25, 2010

Discipleship: More Than Information

(The following is the third in a series of messages called Shark Church: What the Church Can Learn From Sharks.)

Mark 8:31-35

Just a mile or two south of here, in the Imperial War Museum you can find an Enigma machine. Enigma was the code used by the Germans in WWII, and the machine was how they sent and received top secret messages about troop movements, battle plans, and anything else an army might want to keep secret. The Allies had cracked the code early in the war—it was a joint effort between the Poles and the British, and later the Americans—they had the code early on, but they were pretty stingy about how they used, it.

Think about that. The war was raging, but Allied leaders had to decide when to use the code they’d cracked. The secrecy was mostly for one crucial strategic reason—you didn’t want the Germans knowing that their code was broken, or they might find a new one. The Enigma story is one of the great subplots of WWII.

For us today, as we think about what it means to be disciples of Jesus, the Enigma story serves as a reminder of the difference between knowing…and living by what we know.

[Jesus] then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. "Get behind me, Satan!" he said. "You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men."

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.


So we’re in a series called Shark Church. I’ve been making the case over these past few Sundays that the church can learn a lot from the way sharks live.

A shark is an amazing natural machine. A shark is basically a muscle with teeth—it rarely gets tired or takes any rest. In fact, a shark spends its entire life doing three things:

It swims, it eats, and it makes baby sharks.

A shark that is true to its nature simply swims, eats, and reproduces. We’ve learned that a shark never stops growing during its entire life-cycle. That’s an important part of what sharks can teach us.

Over the past three years, to start the year, we’ve talked about what it means to be the church. The church is built on a foundation of Jesus Christ, and expressed through fellowship, worship, discipleship and mission.

If you’re going to memorize one sentence over the next four Sundays, make it this one:

A faithful church is built on a foundation of Jesus Christ, and expressed through fellowship, worship, discipleship and mission.

As we think about what that means, we’re adding this image of the Shark Church—about churches that learn from the way sharks live. Because if we think about it, faithful churches are like sharks.

A church that is true to its nature—a church that is faithful to its calling—is like a shark.

It never stops moving. It seeks out nourishment. And it makes new disciples. A faithful church never stops growing during its lifetime—that’s so important for us to wrestle with.

The Discovery Channel offers a Shark Week—seven days devoted to programs about shark behavior, shark bites—all shark all the time. We’re offering a Shark Month—a look at what the church can learn from sharks.

Here’s how we translate shark instinct into a road map for the church.

If a shark swims, eats and procreates, then as churches we’re called to move forward without ever thinking we’ve arrived at some kind of church perfection. We’re called to nourish ourselves through prayer and study and service and reflection. And that we’re called to go out and make new disciples—to share the message of the gospel in a way that draws people into community and into faith. That’s the point of being a Shark Church.

Our passage today comes in the middle of Mark’s gospel. Mark’s story of Jesus is the one that moves quickly from story to story—he uses some variation of the word ’immediately’ more than 40 times. There isn’t even time for him to tell the birth story of Jesus in the beginning. His gospel starts when Jesus’ ministry starts.

Where we pick up the story Jesus has just miraculously fed another crowd of people—4000 this time. He moves from there to the healing of a blind man in Bethsaida, and then to a critical story—really the turning point in Mark’s gospel.

Jesus takes his disciples to a place called Caesarea Philippi, and starts a conversation with them. If you’re familiar with the story of Jesus and his disciples, you know that Jesus is always trying to get them to understand who he is and why he came. Most of the time they get it wrong, and Jesus just shakes his head and tries again. But this time something different happens.

Jesus asks them who people say that he is. This isn’t the way it sounds, exactly. Jesus isn’t worried—it’s not the way we might have done this when we were kids: ‘Do you think the cool kids like me?’ That’s not the question.

Jesus is prompting his followers to ask themselves who they think Jesus is. When he finally puts the question to them, it’s Peter who answers. He says: ‘You are the Messiah.’ Christ is simply Greek for Messiah, and so when Peter says this he’s the first one to say that he believes Jesus is the one the Jews had been waiting for—that he was the Promised One, the savior, redeemer, King of Israel who would fulfill all of God’s promises.

Jesus clearly liked Peter’s answer. In Matthew’s gospel, after Peter’s response, Jesus says to him: ‘Blessed are you—You’re the rock upon which I will build my church.’

And then we get to our passage. Maybe this time, Jesus is thinking, maybe this time I can tell them what has to happen to me. If Peter can understand it, maybe the rest will, too.

And so Jesus starts to tell them that he has to suffer, that he will be arrested and tortured and rejected by his own people, and that he has to be killed.

Peter, the one who understands who Jesus is, takes him aside, the Scriptures tell us. He takes Jesus aside and began to rebuke him. I wonder what he said.

‘C’mon, Jesus. We’re just hitting our stride together—we’ve got a crowd of people who think we’re pretty cool, you just told me you were going to build the church on me (thanks, by the way, for your confidence in my ability), and none of that can happen if you can’t get a grip on your risk management. C’mon, Jesus—get with the program!’

Can you imagine? Let that sink in for a moment. Peter, the one who has grasped that Jesus is the Messiah sent by God himself—that in some mysterious way he is God himself—takes Jesus aside for a little life-coaching.

You know what’s coming. Jesus yells at him and calls him Satan and sends him to the back of the class. And then he says this: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.’

This is a key text for our understanding of discipleship—for our understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

In the New Testament the word ‘discipleship’ is usually linked with the idea of ‘following.’ The word usually represents someone who has answered the call of Jesus, and whose whole life has been redirected in obedience. Whose whole life has been redirected in obedience.

We see some examples of that as Jesus calls his disciples. Think back on the stories where Jesus walks up to someone—they might be running a business or collecting taxes—a few of them were even fishing. Jesus simply comes to them, looks them in the eye and says: Follow me. And they go. They give up everything—they leave it all behind and go with this teacher wherever he leads.

What does that mean for us? How do we follow this Jesus?

How do we renew our commitment to being disciples of Jesus the Messiah?

It’s so important for us to remember that the gospel of Jesus Christ is more than just information. It’s more than simply knowing about Jesus.

The key is in recognizing the difference between knowing and living by what we know.

Remember that in our text this morning Jesus was talking to a group of people who knew him well. They’d traveled with him, shared meals with him, struggled with him, learned from him. Think about what that means: they knew his likes and dislikes, how he took his coffee, what he had for breakfast, which things aggravated him, which things helped him relax. The disciples knew a lot about Jesus.

Jesus valued that—we see how much he relies on the friendships he has among the disciples. Jesus values their knowledge, but he also tells them it’s not enough.

That’s why Jesus jumps all over Peter. When Peter decides that Jesus shouldn’t suffer and die—that he should stay out in the countryside as a teacher, calls him the worst name he could imagine: ‘Get behind me Satan!’ he said. Why?

Because Peter thought it was enough just to know Jesus—to be in his presence and enjoy hanging out with him. Peter liked the status quo—he wanted to keep on enjoying things the way they were—he didn’t want to have to do anything or change his routines or live differently.

The call from Jesus is quite different from that.

Jesus describes three ways we can move from knowing about him to living differently because of what we know.

First, ‘Deny the self.’ That’s different from self-denial, like giving up cake or meat or anything else. Denying the self is more about seeking God’s will and God’s priorities over our own. This is much deeper than a diet. This is about applying what we know to the way we live. It’s about growing in our understanding of the very heart and mind of God, and aligning our lives to his. Denying ourselves is not so much about what we give up as it is about what we take on as we live as Christ’s disciples.

Second, ‘Take up your cross.’ This is a tough one—obviously it’s not simply to carry a cross around, or complaining about something going wrong in your life. This isn’t about the kind of fake martyrdom that makes people look for sympathy by saying: ‘It’s just my cross to bear.’

This is not only about suffering or the appearance of suffering. But it is about living differently because of Christ’s sacrifice.

To take up the cross is to carry the meaning of Christ’s gift of forgiveness into every area of our lives.

To take up the cross is to make Christ’s redeeming work as visible in our lives as it would be if we were carrying his cross on our own backs.

To take up the cross is to live as an invitation to life the way it was meant to be. The life made possible by Christ’s atoning work.

Finally, in the end what Jesus asks for is that we ‘follow him’—that we follow in his footsteps—the action steps we see as we grow in our understanding of what Jesus said and did and lived.

Following is a tricky thing to ask for in a room full of leaders, don’t you think? I mean, it can be a challenge for people who are used to things being a certain way to willingly try to change the way they live.

That’s the challenge of discipleship.

Our faith in Jesus Christ hits the road, or sprouts teeth, or whatever image you want to use that means ‘This is real now.’

Our faith comes alive when we start to live what we know and believe about who Jesus is—about what he did—about what his promises are—about what he calls us to do and to be.

Our faith comes alive—we grow as disciples of Jesus—when our lives become reflections of his life and ministry. When everything we do—when our whole lives are redirected in obedience to Jesus.

We become disciples when we answer Christ’s call to deny ourselves, to take up his cross daily, and to follow him. This is more than just information—this is a road map for life the way it was meant to be.

My prayer for all of us, individually and as a community of faith—my prayer for us is that we will live as Christ’s disciples, hungry for knowledge and courageous in living out what we know.

Shark Month continues next week with a look at what it means to be a missional church. Stay tuned.

Let’s pray together.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Worship: More Than a Show

(What follows is the second in a series of messages called Shark Church: What the Church Can Learn From Sharks.)

Matthew 28:1-9

I remember seeing a movie as a kid that confused me. I grew up in an era of tough guys—of Starsky and Hutch, John Wayne and Dragnet. Our male heroes moved through crimefighting—and through life—as if nothing could bother them…no one could boss them around. The movie that threw everything sideways for me was Captain Blood, one of the great Errol Flynn pirate movies.

The story was set in the late 17th century, when Britain was about to change royal families…not without some conflict. Captain Blood found himself on the wrong end of the political intrigue and became a pirate. Throughout the film he was heroic, aggressively independent, and totally in charge—until he comes face to face with his rightful King. When they meet, Captain Blood falls to his knees, bows his head and asks for orders, completely submitting to his lord and master.

It looked so strange to me.

You know our text today as one of the Easter stories, but it's too good a passage to only focus on once a year.

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. The angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: 'He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.' Now I have told you."

Picture that story for yourself. The disciples and the women who were faithful followers of Jesus have been through a lot up to this point. They followed Jesus around for three years, went with him to Jerusalem and saw him arrested and beaten and killed, and now they’ve seen him resurrected and returned to them. And then, just as soon as things were getting back to whatever normal looked like for them, Jesus was about to leave again. But before that the women have an encounter with Jesus on Easter Sunday. They recognize him and fall to their knees. They clasp his feet and express their love for him. It’s a powerful moment of intimate worship.

So we’re in a series called Shark Church. Let’s review some of the shark facts we learned last week. A shark is an amazing natural machine.

Some sharks lose up to 30,000 teeth in their lifetime.

The largest living shark in the world, the whale shark, can grow up to 50ft. long.

A shark can smell a few drops of blood from a mile away.

Some fisherman say the mako shark can swim up to 60mph.

A shark is basically a muscle with teeth—it rarely gets tired or takes any rest. In fact, a shark spends its entire life doing three things:

It swims, it eats, and it makes baby sharks.

A shark that is true to its nature simply swims, eats, and reproduces. We learned last week that a shark never stops growing during its entire life-cycle. That’s an important part of what sharks can teach us.

Over the past three years, to start the year, we’ve talked about what it means to be the church. The church is built on a foundation of Jesus Christ, and expressed through fellowship, worship, discipleship and mission.

If you’re going to memorize one sentence over the next four Sundays, make it this one:

A faithful church is built on a foundation of Jesus Christ, and expressed through fellowship, worship, discipleship and mission.

So last week we started to explore our theme for these next few Sundays: Faithful churches are like sharks.

I’ll say that again: A church that is true to its nature—a church that is faithful to its calling—is like a shark.

It never stops moving. It seeks out nourishment. And it makes new disciples. A faithful church never stops growing during its lifetime—that’s one for us to chew on.

The Discovery Channel offers a Shark Week—seven days devoted to programs about shark behavior, shark bites—all shark all the time. We’re offering a Shark Month—a look at what the church can learn from sharks.

So if a church that is true to its nature is like a shark, then what’s the church’s nature? It is the church’s God-given nature to be built on a foundation of Jesus Christ, and expressed through fellowship, worship, discipleship and mission.

So last week we talked about fellowship. What about worship? My Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms defines worship this way: ‘Worship is the act of adoring and praising God, that is, ascribing worth to God as the one who deserves homage and service.’

In that sense worship isn’t limited to what happens here on Sundays. Worship happens anytime we offer praises to God—anytime we remember or share the fact that God is God and we’re not—worship happens whenever we serve each other and the world out of gratitude for what God has done for us.

But for many of us we think of worship as simply the service of worship we attend each Sunday.

Soren Kierkegaard recognized 150 years ago that there was a problem with that. He saw congregations coming to worship for the show. They sat still while the professionals—the minister and the choir—worshipped on their behalf. I know this may stray into the eye-glazing zone of theological detail, but this was a central issue of the Reformation. Protestants protested—literally—against the idea that only a priest could approach God, and that the average church member needed that priest to worship for them. The Protestant tradition is partly built on the idea of the ‘priesthood of all believers’—where every individual can encounter God for themselves in prayer, confession and worship.

Kierkegaard criticized the idea of the professionals doing the performing, with God as the prompter and the congregation as the audience. He said that true Christian worship had the congregation as the performers, the minister and choir as the prompters, and God as the audience. In Kierkegaard’s eyes worship was active, not passive—it was a contact sport.

But what goes into good worship?

Jim Belcher’s book, Deep Church, still challenges me in the way that I think about the answer to that question. Jim writes:

“Worship can be grouped into five acts: calling, cleansing, constitution, communion and commission. God calls us to worship, we recognize our need for cleansing, we hear him speak in his Word and sacrament, and then we are sent out to love God and serve others. Each act is dramatized by powerful singing and meaningful prayer. It should be a drama that rivals the best storytelling in Hollywood.”

Given all that, it’s tragic how often worship becomes a dividing point among Christians. We don’t disagree as much about the elements of worship as we do about the methods or forms of worship. Strangely, it most often comes down to musical styles. And that’s too bad, because arguing about style is an exercise in missing the point.

Last year Julie and I spent a week in Turkey with pastors from other international churches. We spent time walking around the ruins of ancient cities—it was an amazing tour through some of the places where the Christian church was born and grew.

The city of Ephesus was unforgettable. So much of the layout of the city has been restored—the main road through town, the amphitheatres, and the beautiful fa├žade of the ancient public library. But a lot of the buildings had crumbled, too. As I looked through the chunks of columns laying around I noticed that many of them had holes that ran through the center of them—if you looked from the proper angle you could see long-ways though the columns, like through the barrel of a gun.

I asked our guide about that and he said that the original buildings—the ones that dated back 2000 years or more—had iron reinforcing through the center of the columns, and that that was what had made them so strong. But in the Middle Ages, the people in that area had forgotten how to make iron, and so they knocked down the ancient buildings and melted down the iron to make their tools.

That struck me as sad. Instead of figuring out how to make iron for themselves, medieval craftsman simply rested on the work of their ancestors.

The same thing happens in churches.

Instead of testing and experimenting with our own creativity to develop meaningful ways to worship God, we trot out the work of past churches and use their innovations as our own. That’s not what we’re supposed to be about. In our churches we don't want to forget how to create—to build new things in new ways. We don't want simply to mine the work of those who came before us. That's a short route to staleness, dullness and darkness.

Because the point of worship isn’t simply playing and singing what we like. The point of worship is to get us into a place where we drop to our knees and offer praises to God—where we fall and—just like the women did in our text this morning—where we fall and clasp the feet of Jesus and worship him.

If 18th century choral music gets you there, then great. If the repetitive praise choruses of the 70s get you there, you have my blessing. If Gregorian chants or modern rock or the sound of popcorn popping gets you there, then have at it.

Because the issue isn’t what gets you there. The issue is getting ‘there’ somehow. And what does that look like?

What does ‘there’ look like?

Worship is all those things we heard in the definition from my Pocket Dictionary, but it’s more than that. Worship is intimately connected to the mission of the church. Bryan Chappel is the president of Covenant Seminary in Missouri, wrote this about the role of worship in the church.

“Our worship should be an intentional expression of [our mission to share the gospel]. Love for Christ compels us always to consider how we may present and re-present the gospel so as to bring the most glory to God and the most good to his people…Unless we make the communication of the gospel the frame and focus of our worship, our ceremonies possess only a form of godliness—without the power of God.”

So if the communication of the gospel is the ‘frame and focus’ of our worship, why is the music so important? How does music help us worship?

For that we can get a little help by coming back to some new shark facts. A few years ago some German scientists were trying to encourage sharks to mate in captivity. They tried everything (though I’m not sure what that means: dinner? wine? a romantic movie?). They couldn’t get anything, er, going, and so they turned to a trick that had been working in zoos with land animals for years—they played music.

Along the way they learned that some songs worked better than others at revving up the sharks. Some of the songs that worked best were Joe Cocker’s ‘You Can Leave Your Hat On’, and Justin Timberlake’s ‘Rock Your Body’. I’m serious here. Some songs had no effect, but others got the sharks a little frisky. Some songs got the sharks in a place where they could be true to a central part of their nature.

I’m guessing that no one in church (or anywhere else) has ever asked you this, but here goes:

What style of worship makes you frisky for God?

Not the ones that make you feel comfortable or safe or that are familiar. Which ones remind you of your love for God? Which ones draw you into a sense of connection and closeness with your savior? Which ones get you in a place where you want to kneel before God and clasp his feet and worship him with reckless abandon?

The answer to that question matters. Why?

Because this is more than a show. This is more than simply being entertained and comfortable. This is more than a show. This is our worship response to the gifts God has given us. I’m not talking about financial resources or big houses or safe lives. God calls us to worship for his deeper, more fundamental gifts: life itself, forgiveness through Christ, the calling on each of our lives to participate in the Kingdom of God.

When the disciples and the women in our text recognized who Jesus was, they bowed down and worshiped him. They didn’t do it because it was familiar or a part of their tradition. They didn’t do it because it was comfortable. They did because of who Jesus was—they did it because of what Jesus had offered them in his ministry and death and resurrection.

When a church is true to its nature—when it moves ahead and feeds itself and makes new disciples—when it is built on a foundation of Jesus Christ and expressed through fellowship and worship and discipleship and mission—when a church is true to its nature, people will recognize that Jesus the Messiah is here—we’re be reminded of who he is and what he offers to each one of us.

And then we’ll worship—individually and as a community of faith—the gospel of Jesus Christ will be the frame and focus of everything we do. We’ll worship in spirit and in truth and with all our heart and mind and strength.

Shark Month continues next week with Discipleship. Let’s pray together.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Fellowship: More than a Club

(The following message is the first in a series called 'Shark Month: What the Church Can Learn from Sharks'.)

Acts 2:42-47

I grew up with big family meals, and then I married into a family that loves to throw great dinners. My Italian Grandma’s table would sag under all the great food she made...it was amazing. Every holiday we’d fill up on our favorites while we talked and laughed and enjoyed being together. My mom and mother-in-law both throw great parties built around eating and talking and loving our time together. As the date gets closer I’ve been looking forward to our visit back home for meals with friends. Tom Barlow and I are taking a class together at Fuller Seminary in February. I told him to come hungry, because we’re going to hit all my favorite places.

Food and fellowship go together—that’s the origin and the continuing meaning of Communion: a meal that represents who we are together in Christ.

42They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. 44All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 46Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Now a lot of you may be wondering about the picture [of a shark] on the front of the bulletin. There’s a point to that, which we’ll get to in a minute.

On the Discovery Channel each year they have something called ‘Shark Week,’ a celebration of all things sharkish. The programs have these great, dramatic names. Here are some of the titles: Shark Quest, Day of the Shark, How Not to Become Shark Bait, Anatomy of a Shark Bite, Ocean of Fear, and Blood in the Water. The DVD collection is called Shark Week’s Greatest Bites.

You get the idea.

My nephew Garrett loves that week—it used to be his favorite week on TV. He knows more about sharks than any kid I know, so I asked him to share some shark facts with me. Here are some of his favorites.

Some sharks lose up to 30,000 teeth in their lifetime.

The largest living shark in the world, the whale shark, can grow up to 50ft. long.

A shark can smell a few drops of blood from a mile away.

Some fisherman say the mako shark can swim up to 60mph.

If you rub the skin of a shark from head to tail, it feels smooth. But when you rub their skin from tail to head, the denticles ("little teeth") can cut your hand.

A shark is an amazing natural machine. It’s basically a muscle with teeth—it rarely gets tired or takes any rest. In fact, a shark spends its entire life doing three things:

It swims, it eats, and it reproduces. A shark that is true to its nature simply swims, eats, and makes baby sharks.

Over the past three years, to start the year, we’ve talked about what it means to be the church. The point each time has been that a healthy church—or a thriving church—or a contagious church—and now this year a faithful church—a faithful church, a church that is true to its nature, is built on a foundation of Jesus Christ, and expressed through fellowship, worship, discipleship and mission.

If you’re going to memorize one sentence over the next four Sundays, make it this one:

A faithful church is built on a foundation of Jesus Christ, and expressed through fellowship, worship, discipleship and mission.

So that brings us to the edge of our theme for the next few Sundays: Faithful churches are like sharks.

I’ll say that again: A church that is true to its nature—a church that is faithful to its calling—is like a shark.

It never stops moving. It seeks out nourishment. And it makes new disciples.

Think back on our text. The disciples are confused and terrified after Christ’s death and resurrection and departure. The Holy Spirit comes and empowers them. Peter preaches the first Christian sermon and 3000 people, people from all over the world, came to faith in Jesus Christ. By the time we get to our text we see what these thousands of people were doing together—how they lived together and began to flesh out what it meant to be a community of faith.

What we see in our text is an image of what true Christian fellowship looks like. The church in Acts was a church like a shark: it never stopped moving, it fed itself physically and spiritually, and it reproduced. Let's see how that looks in the text.

‘All the believers were together and had everything in common…Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.’ The church in Acts was a church on the move. Of course it needed to create some structure for itself eventually, but at its core the church was designed to be a community that never sits still—that moves and shares and loves and serves.

But the church didn’t just move for the sake of moving.

‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching…they broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.’ The church in Acts was conscious of its need for nourishment. They were hungry to learn—they listened and studied and questioned and tested. They allowed themselves to be fed—and they fed themselves—so that they could worship God with passion and with a sense of his will for them and for the world. They also made a priority of learning so that they could serve more effectively—so that they were prepared to meet the challenges of the world around them.

But one of the things I love about this picture of the early church is how much focus there was on eating real food. They were devoted to breaking bread as a community, and when they went home they ate some more. This is a church I would fit into pretty easily. ‘They ate together with glad and sincere hearts.’ When I read that I think back on how much I loved big family meals when I was growing up—how much I still love getting a group of people together for a meal we can share ‘with glad and sincere hearts.’

But it’s important to notice that this community was partly focused on the people who weren’t there yet. All this activity and nourishment caused something special—something attractive—to happen. This was a church that knew how to reproduce—to procreate—this was a church that drew people into their life of growing together and serving together.

‘The Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.’ People were flocking to this noisy crowd of happy, growing, loving Christians. In the middle of a country occupied by the strongest military the world had ever known—in the middle of a city defined by a faith that was waiting for the Messiah to appear and didn’t believe that Jesus was the one—in that dangerous setting this happy, curious, loving group of powerless people drew new men and women and kids into their fellowship, every single day.

The church was designed to be a magnetic fellowship like that one—a church like a shark—a gathering that never settled for the status quo, that hungered for real understanding of the nature of God, and that multiplied by welcoming new people into Christian community.

A church that is true to its nature—a church that is faithful to its calling—is a lot like a shark.

It never stops moving ahead. It constantly seeks nourishment. And it makes new disciples.

Join that with the idea that a faithful church is built on a foundation of Jesus Christ and expressed through fellowship, worship, discipleship and mission—join that with the image of a shark, and you get an idea of where we’re headed over the next month.

So what about our need for fellowship?

I think I’ve shared this quote with you before, but Bruce Larson wrote this about our need for fellowship.

“The neighborhood bar is possibly the best counterfeit there is for the fellowship Christ wants to give his Church. It’s an imitation dispensing liquor instead of grace, escape rather than reality, but it is a permissive, accepting and inclusive fellowship. It is unshockable. It is democratic…The bar flourishes not because most people are alcoholics, but because God has put into the human heard the desire to know and be known, to love and be loved, and so many seek a counterfeit at the price of a few beers.”

But God created us for a kind of fellowship that’s more than just a place where everybody knows our name. He made us for community that can withstand disaster, whether it comes from outside or it’s self-inflicted. This is more than a club. The fellowship Christ makes possible is more than just a set of by-laws and a secret handshake.

That’s where we come back to the image of the shark, that amazing creature that swims, eats and procreates. God made us to be a community that moves through life together without ever getting stuck or thinking we’ve arrived at some kind of perfection. He made us to seek him through the study of his Scriptures and the experience of his presence in the world. He made us to go out into all the earth and make new disciples in his name.

Our fellowship together is something that is deeply meaningful and important. It gives us a place where we can grow and test our gifts—where we can be supported in hard times and where we can share our joys when they come to us. It’s a place where we deepen our understanding of who God is and who we are. And it’s a place not where we hide from the rest of the world—it’s a place we leave to go out and draw new people into faith in Christ and a sense of belonging in this community.

This is more than a club. This is the church of Jesus Christ. And the more we follow the example of the shark, the closer we come to being the place God calls us to be. That’s what we’re going to talk about between now and the end of the month.

One last shark fact.

Did you know that a shark never stops growing during its entire life? That’s amazing to me. As long as a shark is alive, it continues to grow.

Think about that for a moment. That may be one of the most challenging lessons from sharks that we can learn as a church. When we keep moving, keep being fed on God’s word, and work to bring new people into the faith, we’ll keep growing in depth and in numbers.

Welcome to Shark Month at the American Church. We’ll pick this up again next week as we talk about worship.

Let’s pray together.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Annual Report Cover Letter

(What follows is my letter to the American Church in London congregation, introducing our report for 2009.)

Dear ACL Family,

Greetings in the name of Jesus Christ, the one who draws us together and gives us a sense of purpose and calling to serve as his people!

It has been an eventful year, filled with challenges and blessings and new opportunities for ministry. In this document [the annual report] you’ll read some reports from leaders within our church—men and women who have responded to God’s call in important ways as we continue to learn how to be a faithful church. As I have read through these myself I’m reminded of the litany shared in some churches:

God is good! God is good!
All the time! All the time!

We have certainly experienced God’s goodness in this church over the past year. Starting with the opening of our Cold Weather Shelter last January, we saw tremendous growth in our capacity to serve our community—to share God’s provision to us with others who were in need. What a great experience that was!

As we said goodbye to Kate Obermueller after two wonderful years here, we welcomed Stephanie Kremmel as Director of Student Ministries. Energized by a fantastic group of volunteer teachers and helpers, we’ve seen huge growth in children’s Sunday School and in our youth groups. Young people are being loved, having fun, and catching a glimpse of God’s amazing care for them, which is the point of student ministries. Our kids have led us in worship in the Junior and Youth choirs, under the direction of Joanna Davies, and in June we saw two of our young people preach the gospel on Youth Sunday.

The economic crisis was keenly felt by people within our congregation, and we lost a few recent arrivals who had to move back to the States unexpectedly. But in the midst of that, as you’ll see in the financial report, giving has remained faithful and solid throughout the year. It is this consistent partnership that has made the growth in ministry here possible. We’ve been able to make improvements to the church building, and more are on the way, and we’ve also made repairs and refurbishments to the manse that allow us to enjoy it as a gathering place. You will hear soon how we will finally upgrade the means of access to our church building so that all people can participate in the life of this community.

The Latchcourt room-hire business is an important piece of the overall picture of how ACL operates, and any celebration of the past year has to include thanks to Monty Strikes for his hard work. Latchcourt still provides about half of the church’s income, and helps us build relationships with the surrounding community. Thanks, Monty!

Behind the scenes there are some volunteers who help make this place go, but who won’t show up in any reports. Dick Biddick helps to assemble the bulletins and prepares the Sanctuary for worship each week. David Smith arrives early Sunday mornings to set up the Main Hall and help make the front of the church presentable, no matter what Saturday night’s revelers leave behind. It’s a hard job, but hopefully not a thankless one! Thanks to both of you for your faithful service.

Over this past year we were blessed to have Olivia O’Neill and MaryAnn Barlow take on part-time interim roles in the church office. This gave us time to think about what the church secretary position should look like as we move forward, and also allowed us to wait for the right person to become available. We welcomed Jhoana Serna in November, who now manages the office, creates our bulletins and other communications, and assists Monty in the management of Latchcourt.

This past autumn Stephanie and I attended a handful of new expatriate events, and met some great new people who have made ACL their church home. Our Thanksgiving potluck, organized by Julie D’Elia and Vicky Jones (again with the assistance of a great group of volunteers), was attended by more than 130 people. All season we’ve enjoyed a string of fantastic events which have drawn us together as a community: the Welcome Back Picnic, Stewardship Sunday, Thanksgiving Day at St. Paul’s Cathedral, Advent Action Day, and the Santa Party and Christmas Open House at the manse. More are on the way for the coming year.

As we look ahead there are some wonderful things in store for our church. The Children’s Sunday School is starting a new curriculum called “Camp Iwilligoway”, the Adult Bible Study will continue to wrestle with what the Bible teaches about faith, wealth and the good life. Our youth groups will continue to reach out to young people who are hungry for connection and spiritual growth. We’ll broaden our experience of worship as we learn more songs and experiment with different forms, old and new. The Cold Weather Shelter has started again, with new and returning volunteers making the most of their opportunity to serve. Your mission committee is making plans for us to reach out together in some exciting ways—stay tuned for details. See what I mean?

It’s great when a letter about the life of the church is abandoned, rather than finished. There is so much more I could say, but there simply isn’t room. Maybe the best way to end this is with the same reminder I shared in the beginning. As we reflect on how God has grown us and shaped us over this past year, and as we look ahead to where we’re going next, what I really want to say is this:

God is good! God is good!
All the time! All the time!

God bless you and keep you,

John

Monday, January 04, 2010

A Post-Christmas Meditation

Matthew 2:13-18

Christmas, and especially the weeks right after Christmas, can be such a pressure-filled time of year.

When I was in seminary I lived with a couple of guys who were training to be counselors and therapists. They told me that the month after Christmas was a time when they saw more new clients than in any month of the year.

That didn’t surprise me all that much. I knew that I always felt a big letdown after Christmas—that I was familiar with the idea of the Christmas blues.

After the joy and celebration and gift giving and receiving and parties and food and more parties and food. After all that, it’s hard to adjust back to normal life. It’s hard to get back into our routines.

It could be a lot worse. We’ve been focusing on Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus this year—Matthew’s has a different tone to it. After Jesus was born, when the Magi came to honor him, King Herod got in the mix and tried to track down this new Messiah. There’s some great intrigue here: Herod tries to use the Magi to identify this new king, but they figure it out and return to their homes by sneaking out of town by a back-road.

Our text today describes what happened just after the great events of the Christmas story. It follows almost immediately after the stable and the shepherds and the angels and the gold and frankincense and myrrh. The angel in our text today pops in to tell Joseph and Mary that their child’s life is in danger—that they need to go on the run.

Without minimizing any of our post-holiday blues, it could have been a lot worse.

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. "Get up," he said, "take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him." So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: "Out of Egypt I called my son."

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

"A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more."

Herod is really one of the worst villains in the Bible. There’s virtually nothing redeeming about him. He sits on the throne because the Romans are using him to keep his own people under control. We’ll see later that his own family is a mess. And in our story today he seems to be doing everything he can to kill the Christmas spirit—to stamp out the joy of the birth of the Messiah. This episode has been called the ‘slaughter of the innocents’ throughout Christian history. I have a little boy. I can’t even bear to think about this story.

There are a lot of things that try to kill the Christmas spirit in us, right?

We’ve been watching the news about new terror threats, about political arguments that seem not to have any hope of resolution. A friend of mine saw a fight in a shop on Oxford Street the day after Christmas and decided that he finally understood what Boxing Day meant.

There are so many things that try to kill the Christmas spirit in us. One way to defend the meaning of Christmas from outside pressure is to remember the point of it all. The birth of the Messiah is God’s breaking into human history to demonstrate his love for his creation.

We started Advent this year with a look at John 3:16—‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish, but will have eternal life.’

We keep the joy of Christmas alive when we remember that one single verse. God loves us so much that no price was too high to pay to prove it to us.

This horrible text that we read this morning—that awful story of the slaughter of the innocents becomes an attempt to slaughter our innocence. It reminds us that even the Christ child needed to be protected when he was vulnerable—his family had to take him all the way to Egypt to keep him safe.

It reminds us also that we’re vulnerable, too. That our faith and joy and hope have to be protected sometimes—that outside things can attack them sometimes.

When that happens—when the post Christmas blues feel like they’re going to take over—when our faith and joy and hope seem like they’re slipping away—when that happens we ask ourselves:

‘Where is all this Good News we’ve been promised?’

The answer to that question is that it’s right there where we left it.

In a stable, lying in a manger, receiving gifts he can’t use from people he’ll never see again. Tiny and vulnerable, and reminding us that we are, too.

The good news doesn’t change, even when our mood does. The good news that God loved us so much that he sent his son to offer us forgiveness and restoration and eternal life. That Good News hasn’t gone anywhere.

The Good News is still in the words of the angel, the one that told the shepherds not to be afraid.

‘Do not be afraid,’ he said.
‘I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people.’
‘Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you—he is Christ the Lord. This will be the sign to you: You will find him as a baby, wrapped up in cloth and lying in a manger.’

That good news hasn’t gone anywhere. Thank God.

Amen.