A weekly commentary on the Adult Bible Study lessons. For week of September 6.
Praying for Signs, Wonders, and Boldness
Peter is not politically correct when he addresses the authorities in a speech that begins in Acts 4:8. He doesn’t use the “I language” proposed by today’s therapists to de-escalate interpersonal conflict. “You crucified and rejected Jesus,” he accuses, and the conflict explodes.
This isn’t a very effective way to make friends in high places; yet, it is the way God’s prophets have spoken throughout biblical history. Is it because of, or despite, inflammatory language that God’s people have flourished during millennia? In response to John and Peter’s boldness, the church in one location grew by more than five thousand members.
Both content and delivery of a message impact communication. Some political candidates speak with such effective boldness that some people in the United States say they will vote for a candidate they don’t consider qualified for national leadership, according a CNN report on Donald Trump’s rapid rise in the polls in mid-August. And, who can discern the truth in the current intrigue swirling around Canadian Senator Mike Duffy where bold language serves to camouflage rather than enlighten?
While Christians may learn lessons on powerful communication techniques by analyzing political speeches, little common ground exists between the messages proposed by political spin doctors and true evangelists, those who share the good news of Jesus Christ.
I believe that the content of the message has more to do with the growth of the church than the delivery style. The truth of God’s love and the liberating news of salvation through Jesus Christ is powerful whether it is delivered with high-octane finesse before crowds in packed stadiums or whispered haltingly into the ear of a patient dying in a hospital bed.
In order to know this truth, we must experience it. If we want to say with John and Peter, “We can’t keep quiet about what we have seen and heard,” we need to look and see where God is at work in the world. We need to hear what God is saying (in the Hebrew sense of “hear” that includes listening and obeying).
God speaks through Scripture, creation, the gathered community, spiritual disciplines and companions, children, life’s circumstances, and in many other ways. I’m currently in a season in my prayer life that focuses on listening. As usual, the healthy tension of God’s wisdom keeps me balanced and whole. “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10) anchors one end of the tightrope, while the other end is knotted around the fearless speaking of God’s truth. I must listen discerningly in order to proclaim God’s good news boldly.
- Where do you see God at work in the world?
- How do you hear what God is saying?
- How do you speak about what you have seen and heard?
- Almost every congregation is made up of members who hold different political views or differing opinions on hot-button issues. How can we speak boldly, yet work together in unity to build up God’s community, the church?
Lynda Hollinger-Janzen is God’s beloved daughter and desires to follow Jesus’ example of sharing God’s love and liberation with all people. She has put her faith into practice on three continents and worked most of her adult life with Mennonite Mission Network, currently in Goshen, Indiana. She is also a massage therapist, and with her husband, Rod, parents three adult children.
Adult Bible Study Online
A current connection to each week’s session – Acts 4:23-31
An ABS Reproducible teaching aid is available at www.MennoMedia.org/abs for use with this session.
Called to live like family?
Last year (2014) the Barna Group released a survey, on church going in America. The numbers aren’t surprising, and neither are the reasons people give for not/attending church. What is revealing, however, is what the survey asks—and what that reveals about the way we understand “church.”
The survey focused on whether people attend church, how often, and why they do/don’t attend and explores if and why church is important. But perhaps the questions should begin at an even more basic level: What is the church? If we start there, we’ll find a road that will lead to a new way of approaching church (and, perhaps, the surveys we use to evaluate it).
Today, we commonly use “church” to refer to a building or place we go, but for early believers it means something different. “Ekklesia” is a Greek word referring to a calling out of citizens. They are the called-out ones of the kingdom-coming, the people of God. In TheUpside-Down Kingdom, Donald Kraybill says, “The church consists of the citizens of the kingdom… . The church isn’t a building, a sanctuary or a program. It’s the visible community of those who live by kingdom values.” And this church has a mission: “The church is not a place to which people go,” says Scot McKnight in A Community Called Atonement, “but a spiritual body that is on a mission to draw, as did Jesus, others to the One who sent him.”
In other words, we are the church—not a place to go but a people to be. And we are designed and called to live like a family.
Integral to Jesus’ kingdom movement, says Joseph Hellerman in When the Church Was a Family, was creating an alternative and surrogate family — one characterized by family-like relationships and bonds in which we’d be consistently and persistently loved, our physical needs met, our gifts nurtured.
As God’s people today, we talk about being a family, but the reality too often falls way short of the early church experience. Yet we are called and enabled to live like this, too.
This has been part of God’s plan from the beginning, says Hellerman: “Biblical salvation is a community-creating event. We are saved not simply to enjoy a personal relationship with God; we are saved to community… God’s overarching goal since Pentecost (as was the case in the Old Testament) is the creation of His group. And under the new covenant, God’s group is His church—a society of surrogate siblings…”
What does “a society of surrogate siblings” look like? When we look at Scripture, says Hellerman, it is characterized by “intimate, healthy, long-lasting relationships with one’s brothers and sisters in Christ.” In the Roman world, Christians “placed the good of the church family above their own personal goals, desires and aspirations” and “could count on support from the community to meet their material and emotional challenges that often came with commitment to Jesus.” Above all, Hellerman notes, Christians became known by what Jesus said they would be known by and even sought after: their love. God’s family becomes a living, breathing message of the good news to a world that desperately needs to hear it.
Surveys like this, however, still approach church as place to go and measure it in numbers and size (incidentally, the way our consumer culture views health and success).
It wasn’t surprising to me that community is one of the least cited reasons people seek church. I have a confession to make: I don’t “go” to church for community, either. The way we define and structure church today, especially Sunday mornings (and that is the core occurrence surveys like this measure) doesn’t make much for community or family. Like many others across America, I walk in the door of a building, talk with a few friends, sit in a row of facing a stage, sing songs of worship, listen to a sermon, stand in line to take communion with my kids and husband, sing some more songs, and leave. I find many of these activities very meaningful, but except in a very broad sense, there isn’t much of the family life Hellerman describes in that weekly event.
Instead, I find that family and community in bits and pieces throughout the week—gathering with others in smaller groups, serving side by side, working through messy situations and relationships, listening to struggles and rejoicing in celebrations. These are family-like activities; they reflect loving God, each other and those around us.
But frankly, I thirst for a deeper and broader experience of what it means to be God’s people. I long for the spread of missional communities who yearn and actively seek to live as the families that God calls and enables us to be. I long for a people that don’t see church as a place to go—one more activity in our week full of activities—but families who we gladly place above our own personal goals, desires and aspirations, families who live and breathe gospel rhythms, eat together regularly, are the first ones we pick of the phone to call in joy or sorrow, the ones with whom we love and serve side-by-side our neighbors.
To be fair, I’m pretty sure George Barna understands all this. And frankly, he has my sympathy; I’m not sure how one would go about developing a survey to measure church as a people to be instead of a place to go.
Too often, the reality of kingdom community is the exception rather than the rule, at least in this part of the world. And that breaks my heart. We are not only limiting our experience of the fullness of the salvation, redemption and transformation that God has planned for us from the beginning, but we are failing to live out the lives we were meant to live—to be the people in which God, as Dallas Willard puts it, “is tangibly manifest to everyone on earth who wants to find him.”
Carmen Andres is a freelance writer and editor living in Alexandria, Virginia. Formerly she was editor of Christian Leader and University of California-Davis School of Law Alumni magazine. Parts of this article appeared originally on her blog, “in the open space: God and Culture.”