Month: January 2008

Body life #1 : Baptism is entry into a new people

This is the first in a series of six articles first published in Oikos. They are a simplification of John Yoder’s Body Politics Simplified – this time with a specifically house church audience in mind.

Our life together as a church is an important part of the good news we announce to people. This good news is much easier to find in a house-church structure than an institutional church. In each issue of Oikos, I will be discussing one of five important practices we find in the New Testament which mark the church as God’s people, living in the kingdom now.  Baptism is the obvious starting point, because it is the practice which brings us together into one body. To follow are the Lord’s Supper, the giftedness of every believer, the open meeting and discipling /discerning.

Baptism brings together different types of people

In house churches, we are well set up to make baptism what God meant it to be! 

For the early church, baptism had a social meaning. It meant entry into a new people – the church. Belonging to this new people gave the believers a new identity stronger than race or family. Different types of people who were once hostile to each other were brought into the same family. In Galatians 3:27-28, Paul puts it like this:

Baptized in Christ, you are clothed in Christ, and there is neither slave nor free, neither male nor female; you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Paul says similar things in Ephesians 2:14-15 and 2 Corinthians 5:16-17. The point is that Christ has broken down the divisions between people. There is a new creation and we enter it through baptism. The ritual of baptism highlights the contrast between a believer’s old identity as part of an ethnic group and his or her new identity in Christ as part of the body of believers. Before baptism, we might have thought of ourselves as foremost ‘Australians’; afterwards, we start thinking of ourselves foremost as ‘Christians’. Our first loyalty is no longer to our country or race but to Christ.

Mono-cultural churches

The idea didn’t start with Paul. John the Baptist was challenged by Jewish authorities for baptising everyone who came to him in repentance – unclean Jews, tax collectors, perhaps even Gentiles. He responded by saying that God makes daughters and sons of Abraham by faith (Matthew 3:5-10). Jesus said the same thing in John 8, and Paul in Galatians 3. You no longer have to be born a Jew to be a descendent of Abraham. Now, anyone can become a descendent of Abraham by believing in Christ.  The old divisions are overcome in a new people.

But many Christians lose sight of the way the church is meant to overcome divisions between people. Too often Christians encourage mono-cultural churches, designed to appeal to particular type of people. ‘It’s easier this way’, we think. ‘It’s more effective. It’s too difficult to bring together old and young or rich and poor or Lebanese immigrants and white Australians.’ And yet one of Paul’s missionary policies was to make Jews and Gentiles members of the same church, eating and worshipping together. Both sides criticised this policy. Many thought it was too hard; why go to the trouble? But Paul stands firm; it is part of the gospel!

We need to encourage diversity in our house churches by welcoming people from different backgrounds. It isn’t easy. It’s something the early church was always fighting about, this bringing together of Jews and Greeks. Sometimes it means giving up our precious customs, our sacred cows, our traditions; everything that is a stumbling block and a cause of division with our brothers and sisters. We might have to let people eat with their fingers at lunch. We might have to struggle to understand our brothers and sisters who don’t speak English very well. We might have to sing (with a smile) a hymn or chorus we can’t stand. We might find ourselves being friends with someone twice our age or half our age.

Sometimes we might feel like it’s not worth it – but it is; God tells us so! It is testimony to the life, death and resurrection of Christ. It shows the kingdom breaking into a world divided along so many different lines.

Baptism is a commitment

Entry into the new people also means a commitment to the body, to its new way of life. This can be hard to see in an institutional church. Not so in a house church! When we are baptised, we should be committing ourselves to being accountable to each other. We are saying we want to follow Jesus and we want others in the church help us to do this. This can take a form of a baptismal pledge, something that dates back to the very early church.

Some practical steps

1. Encourage diversity in your house church. Be brave and invite along someone who doesn’t fit the mould. Celebrate difference in the church.

2. Explore baptism with your house church. This article is an adaptation of a longer chapter in Body Politics Simplified (from the book by John Yoder). You might want to read the full chapter for some more ideas about the social meanings of baptism.

3. Having talked about its meaning, you should look for an opportunity to put it into practice! Baptise anyone in the house church who hasn’t been baptised. Depending on how you want to do it, you might want to use the beach or a swimming pool or a tub. Conduct the baptism in terms of the social meaning of the believer’s new identity.

4. Be praying that this year a non-believer from a very different background joins your house-church family and that you have the chance to celebrate this with a baptism.

Celebration of Discipline #3 : Fasting

This is a series of posts about my reactions to each of the disciplines in Richard Foster’s book.

I dread the idea of fasting. I don’t like denying myself. And I know, each time I read this chapter, I am going to be re-convinced of how important fasting is.

I am too dependent on my appetites, too used to sating them. Too unused to denying myself.

The section of the chapter which spoke strongest to me was ‘The purpose of fasting’:

  • This passage is key to me and why I need to fast:

More than any other Discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us. This is a wonderful benefit to the true disciple who longs to be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ. We cover up what is inside us with food and other good things, but in fasting these things surface. If pride controls us, it will be revealed almost immediately. David writes: ‘I humbled my soul with fasting’ (Psalm 69:10). Anger, bitterness, jealousy, strife, fear – if they are within us, they will surface during fasting. At first we will rationalise that our anger is due to our hunger; then we will realise that we are angry because the spirit of anger is within us. We can rejoice in this knowledge because we know that healing is available through the power of Christ. (69)

           (I’m not looking forward to all my badness coming to the surface. I’m aware enough of it already.)

  • ‘Our human cravings and desires are like rivers that tend to overflow their banks; fasting help keeps them in their proper channels.’ (70)
  • ‘We are told not to act miserable when fasting because, in point of fact, we are not miserable. We are feeding on God and, just like the Israelites who were sustained in the wilderness by the miraculous manna from heaven, so we are sustained by the word of God.’ (70)

Sharing in the church meeting

In our Vineyard church we sit around tables. Sometimes we’re called on to share what God’s been saying to us during worship or in a time of reflection.

I always find that harder to do than sharing in my old house church. I had put it down to not knowing people as well and being at a different table every week, where you don’t get a sense of continuous involvement in people’s lives. But today I worked out another difference.

In our house church, we would be sharing how God’s been working in our lives during the week. And it would be more about the issues and experiences we’ve had over that time.

But sharing in this Vineyard church is focused on God speaking right here and now in the actual worship service.

I find it hard because I don’t often hear from God in this way. I wonder if being in this more charismatic culture I will begin to.

I do find it more real to focus on my whole week and see patterns of God’s work in that. This is how transformation, accountability and body life happens. But I wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing deeply in my new church where there isn’t that sense of deep community with a handful of people. (Hopefully it can be found in a small group.)

Richard Foster’s Celebration of discipline #2: Prayer

 I think what surprises me about this chapter is Foster’s expectancy that prayer will, basically, work. I realise I was expecting cautious explanations of how if we look for our prayers to come true, we’ll be sorely disappointed.Of course, the Bible doesn’t say this, and neither does Foster.

He doesn’t give a recipe for success, but he explains quite clearly which prayers are more likely to ‘work’.

The factors include:

  • Being attuned to God: ‘We begin praying for others by first quieting our fleshly activity and listening to the silent thunder of the Lord of hosts. Attuning ourselves to divine breathings is spiritual work, but without it our praying is vain repetition (Matt. 6:7).’ (49)
  • Similar to being attuned to God, is being so immersed in the Holy Spirit we already have an idea of what we should pray for. Jesus ‘never concluded by saying “If it be thy will.”‘ (47)
  • Empathy: ‘Frequently our lack is not faith but compassion. It seems that genuine empathy between the pray-er and the pray-ee often makes the difference.’ (50)
  • Starting off small: ‘But when we listen, we will learn the importance of beginning with smaller things like colds or earaches. Success in the small corners of life gives us authority in the larger matters. If we are still, we will learn not only who God is, but how his power operates.’ (49) (I subconsciously thought that if God wasn’t going to heal people of terminal cancer when I prayed for it, why would he heal people of a common cold when I prayed for it? While Foster suggests that I master praying for a common cold first.)

Foster goes on to point out that answered prayer isn’t the main goal: ‘Answers to prayer are wonderful, but they are only secondary to the main function of prayer, which is a growing perpetual communion. To sink down into the light of Christ and become comfortable in that posture, to sing ‘He walks with me and He talks with me and know it as a radiant reality, to discover God in all of the moments of our days and to be pleased rather than perturbed at the discovery – this is the stuff of prayer. It is out of this refreshing life of communion that answered prayer comes as a happy by-product.’ (56)

AMUC Camp

Perth people might be interested in going to the AMUC camp (AMong the Urban Community) this month. They have a blog on WordPress – http://amuc.wordpress.com . (My brother is one of the organisers.) The idea is that for a week you live in community with other Christians (sleeping on the floor of a church) and experience urban ministry and life (homelessness drug addicts and all), as well as spiritual disciplines.

But if you live in Perth and you read my blog, you’ve probably know more about AMUC than me anyway.

The death of Thomas Merton

We were listening to an interesting program about the Catholic spiritual writer Thomas Merton on Radio National.  (I did get annoyed at Rachael Kohn as usual, trying it seemed to make Merton a pluralist in her own image; but then maybe he was.) Kohn mentioned that he died too early in tragic circumstances.

‘Perhaps he killed himself,’ my wife said.

‘Would anyone listen to him after that?’ I asked.

The truth was more mundane, and perhaps more tragic in its futility – he died when he was electrocuted in the bath in Bangkok. Or at least that’s what Wikipedia tells me.

R.I.P. Robert Webber

I just learned, after reading it in passing on subrationedei’s blog, that Robert Webber died in 2007. In 2000, I read Ancient-Future Faith and was quite convinced by him and his emphasis on liturgy and creeds. I then moved right away from this in the direction of house church. (Yet my house church used the lectionary and sometimes liturgical elements.)

Christianity Today has an obituary: http://www.ctlibrary.com/44490.

(The thing I remember most from Ancient-Future Faith was him saying how he teases some of his more conservatively evangelical students, telling them that anyone would think the Bible itself came to Earth to die for their sins and was brought to life again. I also remember that his father-in-law was Harold Lindsell (1912-1998), author of the fundamentalist tome Battle for the Bible. I always thought they would have some fascinating family gatherings!)