Following Jesus

Between a Friday and a Sunday…

Easter Weekend will never be the same for me again.

Last Good Friday was like any other. I went to work all day. I drove home. My wife and I headed to our church to sing and pray and remember Jesus’ death for us together as a body. We pulled a dinner audible afterwards and decided we could go out to eat (I think we had leftovers on the weekly dinner menu scheduled). We ended up at a delicious Japanese steakhouse that looks like a leftover set from a 70’s Kung Fu movie. The two of us got in with little waiting and ate some delicious food and went home…

…Easter Sunday we missed Easter worship with a church family for the first time in either of our lives. Instead, we woke up in the hospital, radically sleep-deprived but overwhelmed with joy, held captive by the cries of a 6 pound baby girl and being called new names like “Dad” and “Mom.”

Our lives had dramatically changed. Good Friday we had gone for a spur of the moment dinner (for 2!), went home and even had a full night’s sleep. We were mobile and flexible. We sang and prayed at church that night with both hands free, no nursery check-ins or interrupting cries. Easter Sunday we had bags under our eyes, no concept of what time of day it was, and were tethered to every need of a tiny human in a plastic nursery bed cart. The phrase “and a high chair” soon entered our restaurant vocabulary. Attending worship was now a complex logistical equation worthy of its own flow chart. Everything had changed when our daughter Eowyn decided to be born a little earlier than expected that April Saturday. (and we wouldn’t go back to the way it was!)

I can’t imagine how extreme the difference between the original Good Friday and Easter morning was. Both were characterized by confusion and uncertainty. Both were emotional events, one of utter despair and fear and the other of unrestrained joy and amazement. Both involved Jesus’ followers being pushed beyond their limits in every way. How do you go from hearing the bold cries of “Crucify him!” on Friday to hearing the excited whispers of “He’s not there!” on Sunday? I don’t think we’ll ever know quite what it must have been like for the original followers of Jesus to have their entire worldview radically altered twice in a span of 48 hours or so.

But at least now, I know a little of what it’s like to have your whole world changed between a Friday and a Sunday.

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Were the Apostles Lazy Bookworms?

As we prepare for our move to New York in June, I’ve been reading through Acts a chapter a week. (I did Luke’s Gospel in a similar slow-cooker fashion last year). This week I hit Acts 6, where the early Christians experience their first internal discord that we read about in Acts. Before this, their problems have largely been external persecution. I guess you could count the lies of Ananias and Sapphira as internal, but the Jerusalem church didn’t really have to make any decisions about that problem, other than how many people were needed to carry the bodies out.

But here we find that the Greek-speaking widows are being neglected in the church’s distribution of food. There were some cultural differences between the Jews who were more Hellenized and those who spoke Aramaic. And apparently, these cultural differences led to the Greek-speaking widows getting passed by in support.

The Twelve assemble the church and propose that a group of Spirit-filled, wise men be selected  from the church who can be put in charge of the food and promote unity. This is done, and seven excellent men were chosen.

Some have critiqued the twelve apostles though as being part of the root of this problem. Rather than being involved in the ministry to people, they have isolated themselves in their rooms in devotion to “the Word of God and prayer.” They’re like a pastor who can’t meet with people because he has 40 hours in his sermon prep each week, locked away in his study. Acts 6:2, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables.”, has been interpreted as a pompous elitism from bookish pastors with no heart for service.

 Is this the case though? I don’t think so. Here are a few reasons why:

1)      “The ministry of the Word” would have been very people-centered. In Acts so far, the phrase “the word of God” is primarily used as a summary for all the Christian teaching, specifically the Gospel announcement of Jesus as the crucified and risen Messiah foretold in the Old Testament. So for them, “the ministry of the word” would have included their evangelistic activities in the temple courts (for which they have been imprisoned at various times). Acts 2 also tells us that the early church was devoted to the apostle’s teaching, meeting in various homes day by day. Now, the apostles did not have a written New Testament for these Christians to read. So for the early Christians to be so regularly encountering the apostles’ teaching in homes, the apostles themselves would have been present in the home! Imagine sitting in a house as Peter tells you of the final events of Jesus’ life (including his own denial) or as Bartholomew recounts the feeding of the 5000. “The ministry of the word” would have been a very personal and people-centered activity.

2)      “The ministry of the Word” required a whole lot of work. We don’t know how much access the Twelve had to actual written copies of the Old Testament Scriptures. We do know that only the very wealthy had access to such things. For them to be studying the Old Testament scriptures to learn how better to present Jesus as its fulfillment would require them to memorize various texts beyond what they had learned in synagogue growing up. Whether this involved them reading scrolls provided by a wealthy Christian (perhaps one of the priests who converted- Acts 6:7) or quoting passages among themselves to memorize, we don’t know. And they wouldn’t have a scroll to quote from when they evangelized or taught in the houses. There would be work to memorize these things, especially as they were in Jerusalem where many literate and devout Jews could have refuted them for sloppy teaching. Thinking through the amount of work and study required to preach as they did should keep us from assuming they were too lazy for serving others.

3)      Luke presents their statements as good things.  He calls their work “the ministry (diakonos) of the word.” It is not as if food service is real ministry and Gospel proclamation is subpar, or vice versa. Both are essential ministries of the church, both for its internal unity and external witness. Luke also presents their statements as “pleasing to the whole church.” And to end the story, with the 7 taking over the food distribution and the Apostles focusing on the ministry of word and prayer, Luke reports that the converts multiplied. And many priests were converted at this time. Would the conversion of the priests be directly related to the increased focus of the Apostles on their Word ministry of evangelism and teaching? Either way, Luke wants us to know that this arrangement was a good thing.

I’ve written this post for two reasons. One, there are those who denigrate the evangelism and teaching ministry of the church as less important than “real” ministry like feeding people. Don’t do it! We need those devoted to the ministry of proclaiming the message of God into people’s lives. Two, there are those who would use this text to justify bookish avoidance of people and their problems. Don’t do that! Your teaching will only benefit from dealing with people each week. Encountering non-Christians will make you think about how you present things in a sermon to deal with actual objections people have to the Gospel; praying and counseling believers will force you to practice speaking God’s words into life situations. And both of these are what Acts calls “the ministry of the Word”, not just a pulpit ministry.

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Wide shoes and discipleship.

I have wide feet. I know that’s not much of a confession, but it’s true. One of the negative aspects of playing sports at a private Christian high school was scrounging through my dad’s closet twice a week for dress shoes and ties on game days. And my dad would often get upset because though our numeric shoe size was the same, I would stretch out his shoes whenever I borrowed them. The hardships of wide feet. And of course, having a very common shoe size to start with, my usual trips to buy shoes when the old ones have disintegrated failed me again, as the limited number of tennis shoes on clearance in my size usually didn’t include that beautiful “W” next to the size number on the label.

A few months ago for my birthday, though, I scored some shoes that were not only in my price range, but were also made for the broad-footed. I could feel my toes stretching out to a comfortable level, my foot filling the shoe in a perfect embrace. I didn’t think I could ever go back to those thin shoes again.

But of course, I did. My other shoes were still the normal size. And now I had years of bad foot training in that crammed space. My toes didn’t want to stretch out to a comfortable length, walking was awkward as I felt I had an extra half a shoe on the side of my feet, and I noticed the awkard tilt my feet had acquired when I walked. I actually had to think about how I walked and the comfort and joy of those new shoes had all but vanished.

As disciples of Jesus, we often struggle to fill the new identity we have been given as the adopted heirs of God, accepted before him, lavished with love and grace, freed from sin and self.  Like the new shoes, we struggle to find our fit in this new family, this new awkward body of Christ we have been born into. The first initial moments of joy at our newfound peace with God and entrance into his kingdom are soon overcome with the awkward feeling as we naturally walk with a tilt towards sin and years of habitual selfishness and idolatrous patterns built into our muscle memory.

But of course, I haven’t gotten rid of my new shoes. I’ve worn them more often, began to walk correctly, began to rehabilitate my feet to the space. And neither do we quit as followers of Christ to “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children  and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. ” (Ephesians 5:1-2) Learning after Christ is filled with missteps, relapses into our old selfish patterns. Just look at what we read about the original 12 disciples in the Gospels or the early churches in the letters. But don’t give up. Have patience with others who are trying on new shoes that you’ve grown accustomed to wearing years ago.

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