The words you are reading were in the making nearly a month ago but thanks to a freshly filled glass of water, a clumsy arm and an extremely soggy laptop—and perhaps the providence of God—what I began weeks ago, I now intend to finish. My heart is certainly full and my head craves to put its many thoughts into written words, but my prayer is that what follows comes by way of the Spirit rather than the flesh…(on a side note: because it has been a while, this might be a bit lengthier than usual. Please do read though and please do not despise me for it.)
As revealed in the title of this post, I certainly do want to conclude the few introductory posts that have aimed to unpack a glimpse of the significance in sharing with the greater community how one is actively seeing and participating in God’s mission unfolding here on earth—and as mentioned before, therefore extending an ongoing invitation to join in whatever capacity the Lord may lead. I also want to explain in greater detail the specific call to community we believe the Lord is leading us to here in Lawrence. So as much as this post will work to conclude one topic, I very much hope it will also be the groundwork for much more to come, both in life and in writing. Maybe it would be helpful to consider all that has been said thus far as the “preface” for a book in which (by the grace of God) the narrative has the majority of its chapters still yet to be written and recorded.
I am guessing that many of those who have read anything I have written so far could still be trying to somewhat pinpoint what it is we are really doing here in Lawrence. In the sincerest of confessions, I do admit that sometimes we ask ourselves the very same question, and sometimes find ourselves a bit dazed by the complexity (and history) of what we walked into it. But those moments are becoming fewer and further between, and generally things are far simpler than we make them out to be. As I often stumble through the explanation piece of why we have found ourselves in Lawrence, KS when talking with others, in many conversations I have been asked things like: “So, are you starting a church?” I respond with something like, “uh, yeah sort-of.” I then go on to describe things a bit and quite possibly get a question like, “Oh, you are re-starting a church?” Again, I respond with a hesitant and vague, “sort-of/kind-of” type of answer. Then maybe the question of whether I am a pastor or not comes up…I slowly and methodically start backpedaling, then quickly and carelessly backpedaling, and now I am doing the zig-zag sprint you’re advised to do when being fired upon and I am headed anywhere but where the term, “pastor,” is being associated with the person of Jeremiah Williams (most of that was dumb and imaginative humor…most of it). And so the clownish tap-dance ensues of me trying to explain what we believe to be a God-breathed vision and mission, yet attempting to explain without allowing any of it be trapped or contained by pre-existing molds, conceptions and narratives that I am entirely assuming the other person would almost certainly have. Are you confused yet?
Here is another way to put it: As a child I seem to always remember hearing that a common penny could de-rail a train from its track. Now, who actually told me that is a mystery in itself but if this is the case, I leave most conversations being fairly certain that whatever destination the train was once headed towards, I promptly interrupted and proceeded not just to place a penny on the track but hurl handfuls of silver dollars (along with myself) onto the track so as to leave no doubt of its de-railing…and chances are I probably dragged the innocent other with me. If none of that made sense, I believe you just may understand what I am getting at more than you realize.
And so I want to take a plunge at putting some flesh on the bones; explaining how God’s redemptive mission might practically reveal itself here, or: what it is we are “really doing” in Lawrence. If I have not already previously stated this in the entries prior to this one, it is so important to remind ourselves (myself) that God’s redemptive mission is undoubtedly already at work here in Lawrence as it is throughout all creation. It would be foolish for us to think otherwise. Jesus tells us this in John 5:17, “The Father is always at His work and I too am working.” Building upon this truth, in his book, Experiencing God: Knowing and Doing the Will of God, Henry Blackaby does so well in continually stressing the significance to being attentive in finding where God is at work and “joining Him there.” This is our desire, and we earnestly pray for the discernment to do so and forgiveness if the Lord finds us doing otherwise. Let me try to do some answering now—if not your sake, then for mine.
i.) are we starting a church?
I am convinced the answer to this question completely hinges on how one defines church. I believe the majority of Christ followers would agree (at least in thought) that the Church—the body of Christ (1. Cor. 12:27)—is not something that only exists for a few hours, on a specific day or two a week, in a specific building. I would also hope and believe that the majority of Christ followers would agree (again, at least in thought) what makes a church (now speaking of a smaller body of Christ followers that contributes to the Church Universal) is not contingent upon whether there is a paid pastor, a weekly passing of the offering plate, or a bona fide worship band (please know that in no way am I criticizing any of the things mentioned. These are just three examples of existing structures within many churches today that came to mind). Although I think most of us could and would agree on this, what is it then truly defines the the body of Christ, its meaning and its purpose? For a Christ follower, it would seem to be quite important to know the answer to this. I don’t think that simply “knowing” is enough though. What makes this knowledge complete is allowing God’s grace to move it from head to heart and heart to obedience.
I cannot think of a better place to learn and be reminded of what the Church was set forth to be than frequently reflecting upon the character of the first Christian community formed after Christ’s ascension and recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. The community was formed, in every respect (although, surely not without fault), around the first-hand experience of knowing, living with and being molded by Jesus Christ, the “founder and perfecter of faith” (Heb. 12:2). There are 28 chapters in the book of Acts and every chapter, verse and word is unquestionably worth reading and meditating upon. But when attempting to find Christ’s true intent for His Church, there is one verse, and chances are a very familiar verse to most, which repeatedly comes to mind:
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” – Acts 2:42
Certainly this verse cannot be understood in its fullness without viewing it in context with the surrounding verses, the rest of the events recorded in the book of Acts, the preceding gospel accounts of Jesus, and the remaining New and Old Testaments of Holy Scripture. But when examined through this entire context, I am hard pressed to find a more succinct and effective single verse in scripture that works to explain who the early apostolic Church was—and how it functioned—in its best attempt to be obedient to the instruction of the recently departed Jesus Christ in flesh by way of counsel from the newly imparted gift of Jesus Christ in Spirit.
For the early Christian community, church consisted of these four things.
1.) It consisted of the apostles’ teachings, a teaching that (in its simplest form) was nothing more than the result of a group of disciples living three extremely close years of life under the apprenticeship of Jesus Christ, and then working to devote every moment there forward to living and communicating to others, under the inspiration and direction of the Holy Spirit, all that Jesus had taught them (Mt. 28:16-20). These apostolic teachings were recorded under inspiration of the Holy Spirit and exist today in form of Holy Scripture. They make up the basis of our Christian teaching, learning, and living, guiding us in the same way they did the early Church. And surely they work as the deepest of anchors in holding us firm in place as the continuous waves of life that are counter to the kingdom of God, struggle relentlessly to thrust us away from true life in Christ (2 Tim 3:12-16).
2.) It consisted of a deep fellowship that existed not only between mutual Christian brothers and sisters, but between Christians and all God-created human beings. Justin Martyr (c. 100-c. 165), an early Christ-follower and Christian apologist, describes this fellowship as follows:
“…we who valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possessions, now bring what we have into a common stock, and communicate to every one in need; we who hated and destroyed one another, and on account of their different manners would not live with men of a different tribe, now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them, and pray for our enemies, and endeavour to persuade those who hate us unjustly to live conformably to the good precepts of Christ, to the end that they may become partakers with us of the same joyful hope of a reward from God the ruler of all.” – The First Apology, ch. 14
A fellowship that was not restricted by race, social and/or economic status, political preference or religious denomination, but a common-life that was driven by unconditional love for others, a love that was wholly founded in Christ’s unconditional love, sacrifice and salvation for His creation (1 Jn. 4:10). A compassionate love that longed to see people released from both physical and spiritual poverty. A compassionate love that sought justice for those being served injustice and spoke for those who had no voice. A compassionate love that was far too deep and wide to see a brother or sister continue in a way of life that was destructing not only him or her but also those around them. A compassionate love that could then accept and appreciate a brother and sister, in love, doing the same in return. It was not a perfect love. It was not without error. But it was clearly inspired by the one and only perfect Love of God the Father, through Christ the Son, by guidance of the Holy Spirit. A love founded in the relationship between the Holy Trinity and His beloved creation. This type of love, in turn, forged a fellowship that not only drew individuals closer to Christ but also to one another.
3.) It consisted of the breaking of bread. A breaking of bread, that when carried out by way of Christ’s instruction to “eat this bread” and “drink this cup” in “remembrance of Me” (1 Cor. 11:26), it now held and continues to hold, an irreplaceable substance and life altering essence that no sharing of a meal could ever hold unless the sacrifice of His body being broken and His blood poured out for creation was made. Through Christ’s ultimate sacrifice, the common–and often taken for granted—act of eating and drinking finds deeper meaning in recognizing that Christ truly is the center of all life. And in the very necessity of eating and drinking for the purpose of sustaining life, we are pointed back to the Sustainer of life Himself. The one who gave His own body and blood for us, now invites us to take part in His death that we might also take part in His resurrection (Rom. 6:5; Php. 3:10). In this Holy Communion, we not only find communion with God but with one another, and this communion—a unity with one another established through the life, death and resurrection of Christ—is a communion stronger than any other to be found in this world (Jn. 17:21-23; 1 Jn. 1:7).
4.) It consisted of prayer. Without combing through verse by verse, off the top of my head I do not know that you will find any pivotal moment recorded in the Acts of the Apostles where there is not first a recorded mention of prayer (e.g. Acts 1:12-14; 3:1-3; 12:5, 12-17; 16:25-26). While it is important in recognizing this, to assume that it was only in the moments of crisis or need that prayer within the early Church existed would be fairly naive. Paul’s counsel to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thes. 5:17) was one to be taken seriously and practiced seriously as a Christ-follower. Prayer was for the early Church—and should be for us—much less of a physical location or appointed time (though these certainly have their place) but more the perpetual positioning of one’s being in a state that allows our very own heart to become one with His. In this “room” or “secret” place (Mt. 6:6), the kingdom of God can be seen, experienced, and taken forth into the world. 20th Century priest, professor and theologian, Henri Nouwen, summarizes prayer so clearly, concisely and convincingly when he wrote:
“To love and work for the glory of God cannot remain an idea which we think about once in a while. It must become an interior, unceasing doxology.” – The Way of the Heart
This type of unceasing prayer is what I believe enkindled the early Church, and as they gathered together in the fellowship of common-life, each individual’s heart of unceasing prayer was now joined with the other’s, causing a igniting burst of flames that through the power of the Holy Spirit fearlessly proclaimed the good news of Christ, healed the lame and broke open the prison doors.
So…to answer the looming question that has worked as the foundation for this exploring of the Christian community found in Acts: “Are we starting a church?” If this is how Church is defined, by these four marks of the early Christian community and all they encompassed, then I do hope and pray with my entire being that we could be part of a community that resembles—even in the least of ways—what has just been briefly examined. We cannot promise that you will soon find us sitting in pews at 10:30 a.m., on a Sunday morning, at 1601 New Hampshire in Lawrence, KS, taking part in a well-structured order of worship…but then again, I cannot guarantee you won’t find us there. Honestly, time will tell. I do hope and pray though, that where you would find us on a Sunday morning, or at any other time and day for that matter, is in a place of obedience to Christ and loving relationships with our neighbors. The best part about hoping and praying for something like this is the fact that when Church is viewed in its truest form and simplicity, there is no restriction to our Maker’s imaginative and creative nature.
Maybe it is enough then, to simply pray, “Lord, as You will, and as You know, have mercy.”
More to come soon. Until then,
May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you wherever He may send you. May He guide you through the wilderness and protect you through the storm. May He bring you home rejoicing at the wonders He has shown you…
(Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals)