Sunday, 20 January 2008

Pastor's Page: Down to the Water to Pray

This is a short devotional formatted to fit a church bulletin page (in a large print font) which churches may freely reproduce, if the blog address is cited.

What is baptism? Is it something which must be done to infants to keep them from hell in case they die? Is it something you do for salvation? Is it like a kindergarten graduation ceremony or a birthday party to make someone feel special? Baptism is too often misunderstood and underappreciated by the Church, even by us Baptists who carry its namesake.

The first urgency, the first order of business for a new follower of Jesus, is to obey his command to be baptized. Baptism is not optional. Nor is it to be deferred for the sake of one's personal feelings or preferences. If one fails to be obedient to this first command, what is the point of following Jesus at all?

Yet, baptism is not something which saves. Rather, it is for the person who is already saved. It is for those who have already decided to follow Jesus.

Indeed, baptism is a person's declaration to the world: "I am a Christian. I follow Jesus. I pledge my life and devotion to him." As such, baptism is not a private event. It is a public event, to be undertaken before many witnesses.

Moreover, baptism is a multifaceted symbol: 1) the washing away of sins through faith in Christ; 2) the dying and burial of the old life, and the begin-ning of the new life; 3) the placement of a person into the family of God, the Church.

If you are already a believer but have not received believer's baptism, why don't you join us down at the water to pray?

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Feet Washing? Yes! An Act of Worship!

Last week, I happened across a great deal on a volume in a very scholarly series (Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplements) on feetwashing in John 13 by John Christopher Thomas. I bought the book and found out that Thomas studied at Princeton under Bruce Metzger and that this study came to completion at the University of Sheffield under A.T. Lincoln. I also discovered that Thomas is a professor at Church of God Theological Seminary in Cleveland Tennessee, a school with which I would have some affinity in terms of our mutual Arminianism (though I might not quite fit in on other issues).

As it turns out, Chris Thomas has just arrived here at Tyndale House for some intensive reseach at our wonderful biblical studies library. We had an enlightening discussion yesterday.

The book is entitled Footwashing in John 13 and the Johannine Community. Skimming through it, the point was emphasized that feetwashing was not just a one time event which happened during Holy Week. We must assume that John included this story in his gospel to argue that feetwashing was to be normative within the church life. We might also assume that the Johannine churches (if we are permitted to use such terminology!) practiced feetwashing as an act of worship, closely connected with confession of sin.

Chris made the point in our discussion (perhaps also in his book) that nowhere else in all of antiquity is there any example of a social superior stooping to wash a socially subordinant or inferior person's feet. This makes Jesus' use of the towel and basin a shocking feat (sorry about that).

This has two implications. First, the historicity of this event cannot be doubted, for in accordance to the standard liberal scholarly criterion of dissimilarity (, a gospel writer nor the Church would have ever invented such a strikingly unusual event (Chris attributed this argument to another scholar whose name escapes me). Secondly, feetwashing in the Johannine Community was practiced in such a way as to supercede any mundane cultural practice; it was done as an act of worship.

This last implication then has a consequent implication. If the early Church practiced feet washing as an act of worship intricately connected with confession of sin, and in such a way as to transcend their culture rather than of practical necessity, doesn't this oblige the modern Church to do the same?

It seems that most Christians--even those who are very deeply submitted to the Bible--look at me with the strangest of expressions when I tell them that I practice feetwashing, as if the concept were akin to snake-handling! One gets the impression that Christians automatically dismiss feetwashing without giving it the first serious consideration. This reaction is all the more striking seeing how emphatic John's portrayal is of Jesus' insistence that the disciples wash one another's feet, and how John obliged his churces to do the same fifty years or so later

I should note that my friend J. Matthew Pinson (President, Free Will Baptist Bible College) who is well qualified by any standard to say so, has told me that Baptists in North America typically practiced feetwashing until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One must surmise that the demise of the practice is hardly due to biblical considerations. While the practice may not be esteemed in Western Christianity, I suspect that the more newly established churches in the developing world may in fact practice it more regularly.

In addition to the scholarly exegesis found in Chris Thomas' book, Pinson's work, The Washing of the Saints Feet (156 pages) is a good start toward a biblical reintroduction of feetwashing as an act of worship into our modern churches:

Pastor's Page: Pilgrim Warlfare

This is a short devotional formatted to fit a church bulletin page (in a large print font) which churches may freely reproduce, if the blog address is cited.

Stories are told of the Italian armies in WWII occupying some of the remote Greek islands (cf. Corelli's Mandolin). Political life in Italy was quite unsettled, and events turned so that some army units became isolated and abandoned for much of the war. Cut off from their top commanders, these Italians, who never were enthusiastic about Mussolini or Hitler, settled into daily village life and quickly forgot their status as soldiers of the Italian army. When British and American naval units arrived, the Italians didn't know whose side they were supposed to be on!

The Italians' assimilation into Greek life may have worked well for the Allies, but the same can not be said about Christians living in this old world.

St. Peter is fond of reminding us that we our pilgrims. Although we are God's "elect" people, he says that for now we are "strangers in the world" (1:1). In preaching this theme, Peter borrows exodus term-inology, telling us to "gird up the loins of our minds," as we prepare to move out of Egypt (1:13). He urges us to live our lives as strangers, not contenting our-selves with this world's trappings, since we have been rescued out of its darkness (1:17; 2:10). In 2:11, Peter appeals to us as pilgrims and strangers as the basis to abstain from this world's sinful desires.

Such desires "war against [your] soul," Peter says. In this war, we better know which side we're on!

Sunday, 6 January 2008

Refreshing Communion

Communion is the Church's most solemn act of worship and should be its apex. This being the case, all participants, from the pastor to those in the pews, should apply themselves to realize the fullness of its meaning. Here are some considerations, theological and practical, which I've learned over my years of ministry and reflection which are often overlooked in many services. I'm hopeful my blog prompts others to share their suggestions with me as I aspire to grow further in my experience of Communion.

In the Church's more recent history, with the strong emphasis on Open Communion, we have not been restrictive enough on who is invited to participant. Too often, the minister issues an open invitation to participate to anyone who simply believes in Jesus and has accepted him as Lord, without further restriction. Let me suggest that the invitation should be less open: only baptized believers should participate. Baptism is the outer sign of entry and participation in the Covenant people; as such, it assumes priority over Communion. If certain believers have not yet professed their faith before many witnesses in the waters of baptism, they should not yet share in the privilege of Communion. I don’t think the congregation need dismiss unbaptised people form this act of worship as the early Christians did, but I think the minister can fairly indicate that Communion is for baptised believers, without too much ado. Ultimately, for those churches which (rightly) practice Open Communion, the individual, baptised or not, is the one to make the decision, but the pastor can do much to encourage baptism first.

Along these lines, I have been amazed at how politically correct the Church has become in its efforts to be all-inclusive. No minister wants to make unbelievers feel uncomfortable in excluding them from participation, and hence, much effort is made to tone down the inevitable exclusivity of this act of worship: "If you don't feel comfortable about participating, just allow the bread and wine pass you. It's no big deal." Quite the contrary! It is a big deal. In fact, I make a point of it. I say something to the effect, "If you aren't a believer, then, as you pass the bread and wine on, let it be a reminder that you are still in your sins and are excluded from Christ's salvation." Incredibly, a trend in overly seeker-friendly churches is to invite participation from people solely on the basis that they've been feeling warm fuzzies or are simply seeking spiritual renaissance, or some rot, thus robbing the Spirit of the opportunity to convict unbelievers as they observe Christians participate in this symbol of communion with their Lord.

One of the great missteps of the Church in our present age is the failure to prepare spiritually for Communion. Nearly any given Communion Sunday (for congregations which observe Communion monthly or quarterly, or even less), the members of the church arrive at worship without the first thought of Communion until they see the Communion table bedecked with the Communion elements. They have arrived without giving a moment's thought to repentance, spiritual renewal, or special Bible readings and meditations, let alone fasting. Such lack of preparation reduces significantly the participant's openness to the Spirit during the actual act of worship.

Several practical things can be done to counter this, primarily in regard to raising the congregation's awareness of the need to prepare. Simple things can be done such as prior bulletin notices and announcements to the congregations and at special meetings in the days preceding the Communion service. I made it a practice to send out mailings to all the members of the congregation simply urging them to come prepared for Communion. Such letters also encouraged attendance, especially in those churches which observed Communion quarterly, for if someone missed Communion Sunday, he would end up going six months without it—and for some, even longer, a neglect which the apostles could scarcely understand.

Communion is also a time to reach out to those church members who have been negligent in their church attendance. Contact through letter or in person can be made informing them of Communion and asking them to renew their commitment to Christ and his church during this special time.

One unfortunate problem with Communion observance is that too often it is tacked on to the end of the service, as if it were an epilogue, rather than the apex. In addition to these aforementioned practical suggestions, the service itself can be crafted to emphasize Communion from the beginning of the worship to the end, more or less obviously. In particular, the call to worship (in whatever form) can be designed to prepare for Communion. The announcements can help the congregation prepare by mentioning Communion particulars in advance, an explanation of Communion can be given to the children during the children's sermon, and, most importantly, the sermon itself can emphasize some aspect of Communion. If the service is crafted to point to Communion as its apex, then the congregation will perceive Communion as the service's apex.

Communion is multifaceted. A theologically and exegetically deep preacher can hardly exhaust its complexity. Too often, we get stuck on the one theme of Christ's sacrificial suffering on our behalf, and our unworthiness. While this theme is central to this act of worship, such themes as our community with our fellow believers, our future eschatological fellowship, our present fellowship with Christ, our Passover deliverance from Egypt (i.e., sin), our newness of life, and many other themes ought not be neglected. Preachers would be wise to think on these various themes as they prepare their regular sermons, so that they can draw these themes out in practical application.

To bring freshness to Communion observance, churches may consider varying the mode of distributing the elements from time to time. Each mode has its own theological significance. The practice of coming forward to receive the elements may signify the believer's coming to Jesus in worship. The practice of distributing the elements while the congregation is seated affords the opportunity to emphasize the unity of the saints, in that all may actually partake simultaneously. A more creative means of observance, space and time permitting, is to arrange tables for thirteen place settings, and serving Communion in groups; the thirteenth place remains empty to represent Christ's presence, and a church leader is appointed in advance to say the words of the institution, distribute the elements, and pray.

One of my pet peeves is that the Communion bread itself sometimes is cheap and distasteful. Sometimes, it gives a person the impression of Styrofoam. The joyful resolution to this is to ask a breadmaker in the congregation to make homemade bread for the Communion element. The serendipities of this practice are several, not the least of which being that the pastor normally gets a free loaf out of it! Likewise, since I typically have done ministry among grape juice churches, I buy the best tasting sparkling grape juice I can.

When the words of the institution are read, the minister may add to the congregation's appreciation of them by enacting them. Thus, as the reader says that Jesus took bread and broke it, the minister may lay hold of the bread and tear it apart in dramatic re-enactment. Likewise, the minister may pour the wine from the flask into the chalice as the reader reports Jesus' saying about the cup being his blood poured out for the forgiveness of sin.

To underscore Communion as a special experience in believers' lives, some churches recognize and celebrate a person's first communion. This can be done more or less elaborately, depending on congregational sensibilities, even including furnishing the communicants with their own keepsake special Communion chalice and plate. To some, such celebrations seem a bit outlandish, but personally, I regret not being able to recall my first Communion, and such recognition would remedy such loss.

Communion deserves afterglow. Instead of rushing through the end of service, I often invite the congregation to share something of their spiritual journey and walk with the Lord as the Communion service draws to a close. I announce this in advance so as to encourage an openness to the Spirit's leading. Or, sometimes the congregation would stand holding hands in a large circle, and individuals would express their own thankfulness in spontaneous final prayers. These afterglow moments were well received by many people in the congregation.

The ultimate in Communion afterglow, however, is feetwashing as an act of worship. I am told by one of my Baptist historian friends that the vast majority of Baptists in North America practiced feetwashing up to the beginning of the 20th century. To most people, however, it sounds like quite an oddity. The uninitiated may not ever appreciate feetwashing, but for those who practice it, feetwashing leads to such a self-humbling and Christian intimacy which is so much the essence of discipleship that its practice seems entirely befitting for Communion.

No matter how committed to Christ people may be, some will inevitably miss Communion Sunday. It is incumbent upon the church, then, to offer a make-up Communion service, with appropriate prior notice. Ministers should also see to it that homebound members receive Communion regularly. While some constraints are in order, even these private Communion services should be done with scripture readings, songs/hymns, and prayers. Communion is best observed between several people, and ministers would do well to involve several others at such opportunities.

Pastor's Page: I've Been Changed!

This is a short devotional formatted to fit a church bulletin page (in a large print font) which churches may freely reproduce, if the blog address is cited.

We are blessed from time to time with wonderful divine encounters which move us emotionally. Often we are so filled that we are moved to tears and could shout, "Glory to God!"

These are wonderful moments to be cherished. Many of us especially experienced this when we first accepted Christ. We'd love to linger in these moments, but the world is too much around us. After a while, even the afterglow starts to dim.

While some may think that the emotional experience is what is supremely important, this is not the essence of true spirituality. True spirituality is centered in our relationship with God. The essential product of that relationship is Christ-likeness. Our goal is not some spiritual "high," as wonderful as it truly is. Rather, the goal is a changed life, especially as we live in a world which is hostile to Christ's kingdom.

Week after week, I pray that people would be changed through our Sunday worship. Certainly, I pray for radical change which comes through our initial experience of God's saving grace. But more basic for God's people is the change which occurs little by little every week as we gather around Christ's throne and worship him every Sunday morning.Let's be faithful to all our services, truly worshiping Christ, so that all may see how we're becoming to look like him!