Life Together II: Learning Together

 

Cafe
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The Hard Way[1]

Justin Welby may not be a name you are familiar with, but if you can see your life as a series of obstacles and hurdles to overcome, you will relate. His father was an erratic man, prone to rash decisions and illicit behavior, something that would lead to divorce when Justin was only four years old. Though his mother would eventually remarry into wealth and prestige (her second husband was Lord William of Elval), the scars of his childhood remained.  Though his family could afford to send him to a prestigious school of renown, Eton, they could not afford to give him anything for day-to-day expenses. His former schoolmaster called him a “sensible boy” who “took an interest in people…He was a model boy, though not one of great distinction.”

As he grew into his teenage and college years, Welby was by all accounts a good person, working on a volunteer project in Kenya during the summer before he entered Trinity College. His second year of college, Welby fell in with a group of evangelical students and converted to Christianity in a powerful and meaningful way. As many know, this is not an insurance against difficulty in life, but at times, Welby must have felt like a magnet for it. After gaining a degree in  history, Welby applied for the diplomatic corps but “messed up the form. Three times.” He managed to land a job with a Parisian-based oil company without knowing anything about oil, finance, or being able to speak French. Yet he overcame all of these obstacles to become an executive in the company.

Welby met his wife, Caroline Eaton, at Cambridge and has been married to her now for thirty-eight years. As with most of his life, there was struggle here as well.  Their first child, a daughter, was killed in a car accident at seven months old. Yet, in this tragedy, they found solace and support at Holy Trinity Church, Brompton, a five-thousand-member church where the Welby’s became a regular part in the weekly life of the church, after hearing John Wimber, a founding member of the Vineyard movement, speak at Holy Trinity, Welby began to feel a calling to ministry as a vocation.

Welby, as usual, found himself in the familiar waters of struggle as he sought to enter the Anglican priesthood. He began by being rejected, the Bishop of Kensington telling him, “There is no place for you in the Church of England.” Welby persevered and with the help of the influential vicar of Holy Trinity, his home church, Welby was able to find his way to St. John’s College to train as a priest. John, Caroline, and the five children lived off savings at first and when that ran out, faith, serving poorer parishes that had little or no money to pay them. Eventually, Welby rose through the church ranks as a priest, canon, dean, and at the insistence of the Archbishop of York, Welby agreed to apply to become the Bishop of Durham. After only one year of serving as bishop, Welby was asked to be the Archbishop of Canterbury, the highest ecclesial office in the Anglican Church. His revolutionary thinking, genial nature, and ability to persevere were noticed and as a result, Justin Welby has now been Archbishop for the past four years. Justin Welby’s story is much the same as any story about a person whose life has been filled with hardship faced and overcome or accepted. Some of us have had greater hardships than others to be sure, but the sense of struggle with life and faith is something I believe we can all relate to as a part of the human experience. It is also a part of the church experience as well, whether it be today in our high tech, multicultural, pluralistic world or the eerily similar world of the earliest followers of Jesus as they sought to live into The Way of Jesus.

Training Wheels

As the church began its journey in Jerusalem, there were great moments when the Spirit of God moved in the hearts and lives of the disciples and those who heard and received their message: Pentecost, the healing of many, the growth of the church. Even so, there were Jews who were not certain as to whether the disciples were on the level. Acts five records, “The apostles performed many signs and wonders among the people. They would come together regularly at Solomon’s Porch. No one from outside the church dared to join them, even though the people spoke highly of them.”[2] In other words, some of the Jewish people respected them and recognized that they were living godly lives, but those Jewish people were afraid of the Temple priests and authorities, so they would not join the disciples.

There were others who did see the ‘signs and wonders’ that God worked through the disciples and joined them, sometimes hundreds at a time. These new converts found a home, a community among the followers of The Way and began to respond to that in an extraordinary way: true communal living. Some have referred to this as communist utopia and others as an ideal expression of Christian almsgiving, but what was experienced among these earliest believers was nothing short of remarkable.[3] This group, assembled around a faith in a crucified rabbi, were living out the mission of unity found in the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus.[4] They “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers,”[5] meaning they sought to live out the things that were taught to them by the apostles which they had learned from Jesus. They chose to live out a communal lifestyle, one of dependence on one another, connection to the greater group, and focus away from self to others. They lived a common life, eating together; in the Jewish culture, a sacred moment lived out daily as a sign of acceptance of each other and of their place as kinspeople. And finally, they made a relationship with God, a connectional prayer life, a daily activity on personal and corporate levels. Daily, they gathered together; daily, they worshiped in the Temple; daily, they shared meals together. They praised God and they lived out the things they were taught and in turn, taught to others with these results:

  • A sense of awe came over everyone.
  • God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles.
  • All the believers were united and shared everything.
  • The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.

Like any group beginning to get its bearings, the early church ran into issues as members began to preach and live into the message that Jesus had shared with them. Challenged by the Jewish authorities, harangued by Greco-Roman businesses and religious groups, and dealing with burgeoning sectarian fractures, the early church had its difficulties. For all this good that God worked through them, the hurdles had as much to teach as the apostles did. For instance, what happens when some people get a share and others don’t?

This is the crux of one of the problems that arises among the early church in Acts 6, “About that time, while the number of disciples continued to increase, a complaint arose. Greek-speaking disciples accused the Aramaic-speaking disciples because their widows were being overlooked in the daily food service.”[6] What we have in this instance is the first factional split among the Followers of The Way: Aramaicpeaking Jews and Greek-speaking Jews. While the text does not explicitly say this, I believe that what was happening here is favoritism based on ethnic proximity to Jesus. Those who were Aramaic widows were ‘most like Jesus,’ closest racially to Jesus and the earliest followers. They were the establishment, the connected. They were like the apostles. So, when the daily rations of food went around, the Aramaic Jewish widows got everything they needed and Greek Jewish widows got what was left, if anything. The apostles would certainly not stand for it but they were just preaching and teaching in the Temple area around Solomon’s Porch, being the public face of the fledgling group. This meant that day-to-day care was left to others, sometimes others who were not quite grasping the whole of Jesus’s message. This left the apostles in the predicament that many in ministry have faced: how can I be in several places at the same time?

The answer: deacons.

The apostles concluded that it wouldn’t be right for them to abandon their responsibilities for preaching and teaching the Word of God to help with the care of the poor. So, the people chose seven men from among the group who everyone trusted, men who were full of the Holy Spirit and good sense, and they were assigned the task in order for the apostles to stick to their ministry of prayer and speaking God’s Word.[7] They agreed and chose seven men whom the apostles approved and laid hands on to anoint them for service. Verse seven says, “The Word of God prospered. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased dramatically. Not least, a great many priests submitted themselves to the faith.”[8]

Going Forward

I cannot speak for you, but seeing the difficulties of the early followers of Jesus is an encouragement to me. What it says to me is that even as close to Jesus as they were and as great as the things were that God did in and through them, they were still human; full of our frailties, full of our weaknesses, full of our brokenness. Knowing this, I think we can take heart that as God was able to work through the early Followers of Jesus, so God can work through us as we follow. In the same way that they made mistakes and had to grow into more Christ-like behaviors, so do we do the same and, God willing, with comparable results of growth within our hearts and within the Body of Christ.

I believe the key to that, at least in part, is that they never forgot who they were following, and they never forgot the need to do it together. If we can remember that ultimately, we do not follow pastors, or denominations, or anything else but Jesus and, that we will be more vibrant, more fearless, more effective is we do it together, then we too can, by God’s grace, find this same life in the Spirit that ignited the early congregation of Jesus followers.

If as one, we are bound

Our desires in Christ our Lord are found

If divided, we try to stand

Within our hearts, we’ve released God’s hand


References

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community. Translated by John W. Doberstein. New York, NY: HarperSanFrancisco/HarperCollins, 1954.

Dawson, Doyne. Cities of the Gods: Communist Utopias in Greek Thought. New York / Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.


[1] The section is a paraphrase and restructuring of a story that was publishing online for the Telegraph in the UK (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/9668919/Archbishop-of-Canterbury-You-have-no-future-in-the-Church.html)

[2] Acts 5:12-13 (CEB)

[3] (Dawson 1992, p. 263)

[4] John 17 (CEB)

[5] Acts 2:42 (CEB)

[6] Acts 6:1 (CEB)

[7] Acts 6:3-4 (The Message Bible)

[8] Acts 6:7

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