Monday, September 29, 2008

Suspension from the Supper

Meditation for the Supper
September 28, 2008

This morning we face an unusual and grievous circumstance as we approach the Supper of the Lord. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:
1 Corinthians 11:27-32 (NKJV)27 Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. 28 But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. 30 For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep. 31 For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged. 32 But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world.
In this text, we are told that it is our duty as the people of God, when coming to the Supper, to discern the body rightly. What does this mean? Throughout 1 Corinthians Paul has insisted that discerning the body rightly means recognizing all the members of the Church and their relationship to me. It means waiting for others before pigging out on the Supper. It means acknowledging that Billy over there really is my brother in Christ even though we find it hard to get along. It means acknowledging that those sinful men over there who compose the Session of elders really do have authority in the Church. To recognize the body is to look outward, around the room, and make sure that we are at peace with our brothers and sisters in the Lord and filling our proper role in the body.

If we fail to do this, then Paul tells us, we shall be judged. Indeed, he notes that this was already happening in the Corinthian church. As a result of their failure to judge themselves, the Lord intervened and starting judging on His own. It is to avoid just such a scenario that we are bringing a matter before you this morning.

Today we face the heavy task of suspending a member from participation in the Supper of the Lord. This morning we announce the public suspension of ------ from the table of the Lord for scandalous conduct unbefitting a disciple of Christ. Simultaneously our mother church in Spokane is announcing the suspension of ------. We do not do this lightly or frivolously. This is a sober moment. Suspension means that ------ is living in a way that does not become a follower of Christ and that informal, private confrontation has failed to turn him from the error of his ways. We are now bringing the matter to you in accordance with Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18. What can you do?

First and foremost pray for him and for ------. Beseech our Heavenly Father, the giver of all good gifts, to grant him the gift of repentance, that his eyes would be open to see his own unbelief and that he would return to Jesus.

Second, the mailing address of ------ and ------ will be made available to the members of the congregation. We would ask you to consider writing him or her or both of them separately a letter. But let me give guidance. The letters are not to be shrill; not to be harsh. Rather, remind them of your love for them, insist that you are praying for them, and encourage them to reconsider the path they have chosen – to choose life and not death. We would ask that all members of the congregation consider doing this – from the smallest to the biggest, youngest to the oldest.

Third, pray that our Lord would protect the purity and peace of His Church. Details substantiating the course the elders have chosen will be presented in the appropriate time and place. Meanwhile, ask our Lord to bless His Church and pray for us as we work through these details.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Those in Authority

Titus 2:15-3:2 (NKJV)15 Speak these things, exhort, and rebuke with all authority. Let no one despise you. 1 Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work, 2 to speak evil of no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing all humility to all men.

Authority is not a popular subject in the Church today. We talk frequently of love and kindliness, of patience and longsuffering, of compassion and sympathy, but rarely of authority. As this text in Titus makes clear, however, Paul had so such inhibitions. He spoke quite freely of different authorities and our responsibility to them.

In the text today, Paul speaks quite frankly with Titus about his duty as an officer in the Church, his duty as one in authority, and about the duty of the congregation, their duty as those under authority.

So what is Titus’ duty as one in authority? He is commissioned by Paul to speak the truth, to exhort the people of God, to rebuke them with all authority, and to remind them of their duty. Paul commands Titus to let no one despise him. In other words, if Titus were to allow someone to despise him, he would be sinning. What does Paul mean “to despise”? The Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament remarks that to despise in this context means “ to refuse to recognize the force or power of something—‘to invalidate the authority of, to reject, to disregard.’” It is the last sense of this word to which I want to draw your attention. If Titus were to allow someone to disregard his authority, rightfully delegated to him by God through the laying on of hands, then he would be sinning.

The same thing goes for others in positions of authority. Whether parents, employers, magistrates, or babysitters – those who have been entrusted with a measure of authority must exercise that authority. They must use that authority for the benefit of those under their charge and the glory of the one who gave them the authority in the first place. What does it look like to use this authority?

Well, Paul gives us some pointers. At the very least it involves instruction and exhortation. Titus is to remind the members of the congregation of their duty. He is to remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work, to show all humility to all men. He is to plead with folks to do what is right, to admonish them and beseech them to act in such a way that it adorns the doctrine of God our Savior in every respect.

But what if this fails? What if Titus admonishes and exhorts and pleads with a brother or sister and he still doesn’t listen, he rebels and refuses to acknowledge Titus’ authority? Once again we come to Paul’s words – “let no one despise you.” Let no one, Titus, disregard your authority. As any parent or magistrate knows – when you lay down the law and then fail to discipline when the law is broken, you get more disobedience. And so Paul exhorts Titus later in the letter:
“Reject a divisive man after the first and second admonition, knowing that such a person is warped and sinning, being self-condemned” (3:10-11).
If folks failed to give heed to the voice of authority vested in Titus as an officer of the Church, then Titus was to proceed to discipline the fellow as any good parent would.

Notice, then, that Titus’ duty as one in authority is to use that authority for the building up of the body and the instruction of those under his charge. Simultaneously, the duty of those under authority is to honor the authorities that God has placed over them, showing all good fidelity and being well-pleasing in all things. This is the ideal relationship. Those in authority looking out for those under authority and those under authority honoring those in authority.

Unfortunately, this ideal relationship is often not the real relationship. As those in authority we frequently abdicate our responsibility and fail to shepherd those entrusted to us. As those under authority we frequently kick against the goads and disregard those who have been entrusted with our care. Reminded of our sin, let us kneel and confess it to the Lord.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Compassion and Mercy of the Lord

James 5:10-11 (NKJV)10 My brethren, take the prophets, who spoke in the name of the Lord, as an example of suffering and patience. 11 Indeed we count them blessed who endure. You have heard of the perseverance of Job and seen the end intended by the Lord—that the Lord is very compassionate and merciful.

When you think of the compassion and mercy of our Lord, what comes to mind? Perhaps occasions, like in our sermon text this morning, when Jesus stoops down and heals those in pain and anguish? Perhaps occasions when God, despite Israel’s great sin, sends one deliverer after another to rescue them from the predicament that they have gotten themselves into? When we think of God’s compassion and mercy, these are the types of scenarios that come to mind. And appropriately so.

But today, James points us to another evidence of God’s compassion and mercy, an evidence that we would be unlikely to see. What is this evidence? The evidence that James cites is the suffering endured by God’s prophets throughout the Old Testament.

Think, for instance, of Jeremiah who is called the weeping prophet – called to bear witness to a people under judgment, his message rejected and refused, he himself thrown into a pit, left for dead, forced to witness the destruction of Jerusalem and dying in exile in Egypt. Take all of this as evidence, James tells us, of the compassion and mercy of the Lord. Think of Ezekiel, taken into exile into Babylon, told to make a fool of himself before his friends, forced to lie on his side for so many days, to play with tinker toys and army men in the city streets as a grown man, forbidden to weep when his wife died. Take all of this, James tells us, as evidence of the compassion and mercy of the Lord. Think of Job, robbed of his family, robbed of his wealth, robbed of his health, lectured by his friends. Take all of this as evidence, James tells us, of the compassion and mercy of the Lord.

Suffering and hardship as evidence of the compassion and mercy of the Lord? What is this? What is James talking about? Evidence of His power, maybe. Evidence of His inscrutable wisdom, perhaps. Evidence of His mysteriousness, certainly. But evidence of His compassion and mercy? Yes – but in order to see it, we must also see something else. We must see what it is that God is really about in the course of our lives - the end toward which He is aiming.

You see, if God is all about making us happy, carefree, and successful then suffering is not a sign of God’s compassion – it is a sign only of His discipline and disfavor. But suffering, James tells us, is a sign of His compassion. Therefore, God is not all about making us happy, carefree, and successful. Rather, His purpose is to make us men and women and children of faith; men and women and children who trust Him, rely upon Him, cling to Him, and obey Him no matter what the cost. This is what God is about. And if this is what He is about and if suffering creates us into these kind of people, then truly suffering is a sign of God’s compassion and mercy, is it not? For by suffering God trains us in patience and endurance. And these are the very things James highlights.

So what of us? Have we considered that the sufferings through which God is making us pass right now, and that the sufferings through which He shall have us pass in the future, are evidences of God’s compassion and mercy? Or have we instead looked upon them in unbelief, seeing them as evidence of how screwed up the world really is, or how rotten we must be, or how little purpose there is in the world?

Reminded of our failure to look upon suffering as a sign of God’s compassion and mercy, let us kneel and confess our sin to Him.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Grumbling Against our Brethren

James 5:9 (NKJV)9 Do not grumble against one another, brethren, lest you be condemned. Behold, the Judge is standing at the door!

The medieval historian Gregory, the Bishop of Tours, recounts for us numerous events from the tumultuous 5th and 6th centuries in modern day France. His tale is well told and his characters are multi-faceted – some full of faith and wit, others of wickedness and treachery.

Among the stories he tells, one of the most gripping is his account of the local priest of Clermont-Ferrand, a man by the name of Anastasius. Anastasius was apparently a righteous man, a faithful priest, and a good husband and father – this was before the days when the Roman Bishop interfered in the government of the Church and forced celibacy upon her leaders. As a reward for his labors, the lately departed Queen of the Franks, Clotild, had left him a piece of property so that he might be able to provide for himself and his family.

But not all was well in the Church in Anastasius’ day. There were greedy, money-grubbing priests alongside the good ones. Indeed, there were greedy, money-grubbing bishops in charge of the the good priests. Unfortunately for Anastasius, his bishop was such a man. Since Clotild had died and since communication back then was not nearly so effective as now, Anastasius’ bishop set his eyes on Anastasius’ property and, like a new Jezebel, determined to use whatever means necessary to obtain it.

He began with flattery, endeavoring to convince the priest as a dutiful subject of his superiors, to sign over the property to him. The priest refused. The bishop then began to make threats, Anastasius still refused. And so the bishop followed through on his threats – he had Anastasius arrested and locked up in an abandoned prison, stating that he would starve him to death unless he signed over the property. Anastasius still refused saying that he would not be so base as to leave his children destitute.

At this point, Gregory tells the tale better than I ever could:

“In the church of Saint Cassius the Martyr there was a crypt which had been there for centuries and where no one ever went. It contained a great sarcophagus of Parian marble, in which, so it seems, lay the body of some person dead these many years. In this sarcophagus, on top of the body which was mouldering away there, they buried Anastasius alive. The stone slab which they had removed was put back and guards were posted at the crypt door. These guards were convinced that Anastasius must have been crushed to death by the slab. It was winter time, so they lit a fire, warmed some wine and fell asleep after they had drunk it. Meanwhile our priest, like some new Jonah, from the confines of his tomb, as if from the belly of hell, was praying for God’s compassion. The sarcophagus was quite big, as I have told you. Anastasius could not turn over completely, but he could stretch out his hands in all directions. Years afterwards he used to describe the fetid stench which clung about the dead man’s bones, and tell how this not only offended his sense of smell but turned his stomach over. If he stuffed his cloak into his nostrils he could smell nothing as long as he held his breath; but whenever he removed his cloak, for fear of being suffocated, he breathed in the pestilential odour through his mouth and his nose and even, so to speak, through his ears! To cut a long story short, God finally took pity on him, for that is what I think must have happened. Anastasius stretched out his right hand to touch the edge of the sarcophagus and discovered a crowbar. When the lid had been lowered on top of him, this had been left between the stone slab and the edge of the sarcophagus. He levered the crowbar to and fro until, with God’s help, he felt the lid move. Once it was edged far enough along for the priest to be able to stick his head out he was able to make a bigger opening and so creep out of the tomb.” (205-206)

From there, Gregory tells us, Anastasius fled to the king, Clotild’s son, who was horrified to hear of the bishop’s wickedness. He confirmed Anastasius in his property and sent a subtle threat to the bishop. The bishop was so taken with fear, both of the king and of God whom he had for so many years scorned, that he died shortly thereafter.

James tells us today that we are not to grumble against our brethren. The story from Gregory gives us perspective – if you think your brothers are bad, just consider Anastasius' bishop. And when you do, thank God that the biggest thing you have to grumble about is that Sally didn’t smile at you last Sunday.

Reminded that we grumble against our brothers and forget that God is the righteous Judge who oversees all our relationships, let us kneel and confess our sin to the Lord.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Lord's Farm

James 5:7-8 (NKJV) 7 Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, waiting patiently for it until it receives the early and latter rain. 8 You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.

As many of you are aware through our Head of Households Meeting this week, we in company with Christ Church in Spokane have been wrestling through a discipline situation. Thankfully, we appear to be making some progress in dealing with the issue and so I would ask you to remember to pray for the elders and for the folks involved - for wisdom, soft hearts, repentance where appropriate, and a hunger to honor the Lord. When engaged in such situations, it is always good and wise to remember why we are doing what we are doing so that we might conduct ourselves in a way that honors Christ and builds up His Church.

In the passage before us today, James reminds us that the Christian life is comparable to the life of a farmer. That which most characterizes farmers in the harvesting of a crop, James tells us, is patience. They don’t plant the seed today and expect the harvest tomorrow. They have to wait; they have to be patient; they have to wait on the Lord, wait on the early and latter rain, wait for the seed to sprout, to grow, and come to its fullness.

While the farmer is engaged in this waiting game, however, he is not idle. He tends the crop, he watches for weeds and pulls them when so doing doesn’t endanger the plant itself, he puts out fertilizers to help enrich the soil, and sometimes provides water of his own in addition to that supplied from the heavens. Farming is hard work – demanding patience, a love for the land, and attentiveness.

Life in the Church demands the same characteristics. We must be patient, looking to the Lord to cultivate within our midst the fruit he has promised – 30, 60, and 100 fold. We must love God’s people, overlooking minor transgressions and forgiving others even as we have been forgiven. Finally, we must be attentive, both to the health of the farm and to the benefit that the owner of the farm expects and demands from the crop.

It is this last duty, the duty of attentiveness, that requires the Church to use her authority in calling erring members of the Church to account. Sin, in all its varied shapes and sizes, is a noxious weed – not only sucking life from the soil that might go to the crop but actually poisoning the plants in its radius. When this sin is public and comes to the attention of the Church, the worst thing that can be done is to ignore it. Ignore a noxious weed and soon you’ll have more – indeed, soon you’ll have a bumper crop. And so, the Lord of the farm has entrusted to His Church the task of holding folks accountable for their sin and, when they refuse to repent, of disciplining them even as a loving father does his children.

Our Lord declared:

Matthew 18:15-17 (NKJV)15 “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ 17 And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church.
And so discipline situations occasionally come to the attention of the entire Church. Why? Not so that we have a new scandal about which to create a vicious rumor mill. “Have you heard what so and so has done now?” “No. But I did hear . . .” We do not solve our brother’s sin by engaging in our own sin of gossip. Rather the matter is brought to the Church so that we might love our brother, pray for Him, encourage him to reconsider his ways, and ultimately gain our brother back. So that the noxious weed that has taken root in his life is uprooted, the soil is refreshed, and an even more abundant crop produced.

Reminded of our need to approach life like the farmer – full of patience, full of a love for the land, full of attentiveness as well – let us kneel and let us confess our failure to do these things to the Lord.