Life Together IV: Serving Together

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Building the Band

First United Methodist Church, Thomaston (GA) was my first full-time position as a minister, a county seat church in Central Georgia. It was like a lot of older, established churches back east in that the church had been doing things pretty much the same way for about fifty years. Not that they didn’t work for the church. The majority of the church was made up of families that had been a part of the congregation for nearly a century, so much so that the ebb and flow of congregational life was almost ingrained in the DNA of the people. Things went on largely the same from one season to another until a younger pastor got a bright idea to liven things up.

John came into Thomaston with a vision to bring life and liveliness to the church. The church was not necessarily happy. Not unhappy, mind you, but not particularly happy. A young youth minister/worship leader helped start the first incarnation of the contemporary worship service, fresh out of college with the same enthusiasm and energy as John. Unfortunately for her, she was not well versed in the unspoken rules and nuances of an established church and its internal hierarchies and pitfalls. John was moved and followed by John II, and the young youth minister/worship leader was followed by me.

The first worship service I attended there was the final service for my predecessor. Sparsely attended, a handful of people gathered in a large fellowship hall, watching as four musicians and their emotionally fragile worship leader limped through a service. My first Sunday as a worship leader, Heather and I, as we have done many times, led worship with my guitar and her voice. People love her voice. They tolerate my musicianship if it can be called that. It wasn’t a standing room only, Carnegie Hall performance, but I believe it was heartfelt and inviting and seemed to connect.

After another week or so of leading worship in this way, John II offered to sit in and play drums with us. A few weeks later, Pam offered to bring a guitar and Laura said she would sing with us. Six months into ministry we had Brian, John P., and Jeff playing guitars, Marcia and Pam playing guitar and singing, Brad on drums, Stacy on bass, Heather and Laura singing and me bouncing between various instruments to round things out. Mickey and Jason offered to take care of the AV needs and the service began to grow from there.

I really didn’t have to go out and recruit anyone. As members were added, they reached out to friends that were musicians and vocalists and began to take a sense of ownership of the worship team and the service. They also reached out to friends in the area who might want to be a part of the service and our early morning congregation grew from there. When the time came for me to leave and go to seminary in Kentucky, the band decided among themselves to plan the worship services together without a de facto leader, a truly lay-driven ministry. To my knowledge, they are still doing just that.

I believe the thing that drove the band was a love of music and the love of serving together. Most of the members were part of the same Sunday school class and got together regularly outside of the church. Their children went to youth together, on vacation together, and held a powerful sense of connection. I believe those connections were the key to the ministry of music that continues today. I also believe that these things met with a genuine need for a new expression of worship in their community. To my knowledge, there were no other contemporary/casual worship services in any other churches in Thomaston and it met a need with people who enjoy a relaxed style of worship.

These three things – a love of what they were doing, a love of doing it together, and most importantly, meeting a genuine need – fueled the growth of a ministry. I would also say these three things serve as the fuel for any ministry. As we look at Acts 11, I believe this will give us a biblical example of how this works.

Gentiles and other strange creatures

Acts chapter eleven follows on the heels of a major shift in the Apostle Peter’s thinking and as a result, the thinking of the Jerusalem church. The story from chapter ten shows Peter, the outspoken leader of Aramaic-Jewish background, going up to the rooftop of a building during the lunch hour to pray. According to the writer of Acts, Peter has a ‘visionary experience’, something like a trance. In this trance, the leader of the Jerusalem church finds himself looking into the heavenly realms and seeing something like a giant tablecloth or linen sheet being spread out on the earth by the corners. Inside the sheet are all kinds of beasts: “four-legged animals, reptiles, and wild birds.”[1] A voice from heaven says, “Get up, Peter! Kill and eat!”[2] It is interesting to me that the writer of Acts has exclamation points at the end of each phrase, making this not only an imperative but an emphatic statement. The expectation is that Peter will make himself a nice midday meal out of the picnic spread before him.

Except, this food according to the Kosher laws of the Torah, is all unclean. That means all of the things on the picnic blanket are impure and unclean in a physical and spiritual sense. Eating or even touching them, would make Peter ritually unclean, requiring Peter to undergo a purification rite to be clean again. Peter’s response is typical for a Jew of his time, “Absolutely not, Lord! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”[3] The response from God, “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.”[4] This back and forth goes on three times – apparently, Peter is incapable of learning anything difficult or life changing unless he does it three times – before the picnic disappears back into heaven and Peter is left trying to sort the strange vision in his mind.

While all this is going on, a centurion named Cornelius was having visions of his own. He and his household were what you would term, God-worshippers, meaning that they worshiped the God of the Jews but because of their birth outside the Jewish community they were not accepted as full Jews. In the vision, God recognizes the pious prayers and compassionate acts of almsgiving to the Jewish people. God directs Cornelius to send a servant to find Peter. The servant finds Peter and a day later, they set out to the house of the centurion.

As Peter crosses the threshold, he is recognizing that something has changed. The Torah would have forbidden Peter to enter the house of a Gentile. By entering the house, he is made unclean as Gentiles were themselves considered unclean. Yet, there he is, standing in a Gentile home, embracing a Gentile family. As Peter begins to tell the story of Jesus and his message, the Holy Spirit fell on the household and the centurion’s family became followers of Jesus, being baptized by Peter, who remained with them for several days.

That backstory to chapter eleven is significant in that the verses following have Peter returning to an angry group of Jews who “criticized him…accused him”[5] of eating with the uncircumcised, making himself unclean. Peter recounts the events to the Jerusalem Church, an assembly in many ways, still very Jewish in practice. As Peter recounts the work of the Holy Spirit and the events that unfolded for the household of Cornelius, the assembly calms and finally concludes, “…God has enabled the Gentiles to change their hearts and lives so that they might have new life.”[6]

This story serves as the explanation as to how and why the Jewish congregation began to accept Gentiles and how in time, the followers of Jesus began to take on a more Gentile appearance. Beneath that, it underscores how the early church began to change its understanding of a strictly Jewish theology to a hybrid theology, moving away toward a new expression of faith that with time and circumstance, dissociated from Judaism. The story is a story about unity around a faith in the Jewish God expressed through the teachings and discipleship of following the rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth.

Unity

Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “If we now look at the church, not in terms of how it is built up, but as a unified reality, then the image of the body of Christ dominates.”[7] This image of unity, of service together, is one that flows from the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus (“I pray that they will be one, Father, just as we are one.”[8]) to Paul’s letters to the Corinthians (“Has Christ been divided?”). Probably the best example of how this works is found in 1 Corinthians 12-14, where Paul writes to the fractured church there and reminds them of the spiritual gifts they have received for the purpose of being “the body of Christ and parts of each other.”[9] Paul also writes, “…God has put the body together…so that there won’t be division in the body and so the parts might have mutual concern for one another.”[10]

This idea of the body, of the interconnectedness of the greater whole, is part of the hope and salvation of the church. It is only when we realize that interdependence that we have with one another that we are able to truly use the gifts we have. As each of our gifts complements one another, we find that our serving together becomes easier and with greater value and result. It is the combination of the gifts that make up the body of Christ and allows it to function. This combination is functionally necessary; all the parts must be connected to one another and all the parts must live into the role they were created for or the body ceases to function as intended.

Just as the human body needs fuel to generate the energy necessary to live, so does the body of Christ require its own fuel. According to Paul in this passage, it is love that is the force behind the service, love for God, love for one another, and love for those around us. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:1, “If I speak in tongues of human beings and of angels but I don’t have love, I’m a clanging gong or a clashing cymbal.” In other words, love has to be the catalyst, the power behind our actions, the motivation for what we do, or our service is just a lot of noise. It’s tossing a marble in the ocean, a momentary splash, a ripple or two but no real effect amidst the waves.

But not love alone, because we know that it is the Holy Spirit of God, that Spirit that Jesus spoke of when he said, “…you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” and “…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” It is the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, the Holy Ghost, that is the dynamis, the power behind the work of the early church. From Pentecost to this very moment today, the Holy Spirit leads, guides, teaches, and empowers the body of Christ to be able to love, to see that which is damaged in the eyes of men, to be that which is loved in the eyes of God.

So, it takes selfless love, expressed in the unity of the body of Christ, to effect true change around us, love expressed in unity through the power of the Holy Spirit. It becomes a matter of our coming together and coming together for the right reasons that the world around is affected by and transformed into the Kingdom of God. It is motivation, integration, and perspiration that lead us to fulfilling the mission we have been given as followers of Jesus when He said, “…go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I’ve commanded you.”[11]

References

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

—. The Communion of Saints: A Dogmatic Inquiry Into the Sociology of the Church. London: FB&c Limited, 2015.

Bridges, Jerry. True Community: The Biblical Practices of Koinonia. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2012.


[1] Acts 10:12

[2] Acts 10:13

[3] Acts 10:14

[4] Acts 10:15

[5] Acts 11:2-3

[6] Acts 11:18

[7] (Bonhoeffer, The Communion of Saints: A Dogmatic Inquiry Into the Sociology of the Church 2015, p. 99 )

[8] John 17:21

[9] 1 Corinthians 12:27

[10] 1 Corinthians 12:24-25

[11] Matthew 28:19

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