Friday, February 27, 2015

Peter's First Epilogue ...

The conclusion of Peter’s first letter to the church is marked by only 3 verses.  Generally after having made our in-depth study of the preceding 5 chapters and many verses, we would briefly read the last 3 and surmise this was an excellent overall volume of work Peter wrote for the church.  The last 3 verses are after all, merely an epilogue, a sort of administrative formality of who helped Peter write this work, and general set of announcements or news he wished to share.  It would appear at first, as though there is not too much “meat” written or intended in the last few verses.  But what if a second look, determined there was something more there than first meets the eye   What if, even in what seems fairly routine, are buried a few more nuggets of truth for us to discover?
Peter wraps up his first letter to the church in verse 12 saying … “By Silvanus, a faithful brother unto you, as I suppose, I have written briefly, exhorting, and testifying that this is the true grace of God wherein ye stand.”  First, lest we think there was any tension between Peter and Paul over the spreading of the gospel outside of the predominantly Jewish community, it had ceased.  This letter was addressed to the church in Asia Minor, obviously composed of non-Jewish converts.  Second, consider that Peter references Silvanus otherwise called Silas as a faithful brother.  Paul, Silas, and Timothy were often working together to open new churches across southern Europe from Rome through Greece, Turkey, and the Northern areas of the Middle East.  Here Peter is recognizing the ministry of Paul, and of Silas as being faithful to the church.  He is endorsing what they say.  Peter states that this ministry is “the true grace of God wherein ye stand”. 
This endorsement is important in two contexts.  First, Peter equates his own ministry with that of Paul and Silas as being equal in truth and importance.  Peter is not asserting his right to authorize the work of another, only that he is stating his agreement with that ministry.  Some Christian’s assert that Peter was the leader of the disciples after Christ ascended back to heaven, and that somehow there was an immediate hierarchy within the church.  There was not.  Peter has just spent the last five chapters of this letter affirming how leadership responsibilities belong to “Elders” of which he counts himself.  Leadership was not supposed to be centered only in pastors, or bishops, or priests – of which, none of these terms are ever used by Peter in this text to discuss himself or other leaders of Christianity.  Peter in this final epilogue is stating his unity with the ministry of Silas, Paul, and Timothy.
Second, Peter is showing his close contact and coordination with the work of Paul and Silas as being in partnership for the cause of Christ.  There is a unity in the mission of the disciples and apostles of Christianity in spreading the gospel.  There is no competition between Peter and Paul, there is partnership.  Just because 2 great personalities, 2 great elders, have a different perspective on Christ, and different talents in the cause of God, does not mean there is no unity.  Rather, the work of Christ is enhanced by employing the varied skills of 2 servants, not attempting to make them both the same.  Some Christians assume, that to be effective in the cause of Christ, they must learn to become great speakers, or great writers, or great missionaries.  But this is not true.  It is not what you must become to be effective in His cause; it is to allow Him to use what you already are.  Your differences, your unique perspective, is what lends you to be effective in His cause.  There can be partnership and unity within the church without the use of cloning.  We need not be exactly alike, or equally skilled.  Instead we need to be fully willing to be used, and appreciative of the differences of others and what their value is to the church as well as our own.
The goal of the viral church is to appreciate the differences between us, while being united in the goal of spreading a living salvation experience.  This means however, that our own experience is not “THE” roadmap to God, it is merely “our” individual roadmap.  Each person surrenders to Christ, and each is saved by Christ.  But this is not a cookie cutter approach where one size fits all.  It is an individual approach where the grace of God reaches one soul at a time.  Just because Christ frees you from some particular sin first, does not mean he frees everyone of that sin first.  Where you may be unburdened by something, does not mean your brother is there yet.  Perhaps his journey will be longer.  It is not your job to rush a process in him that you see completed in yourself.  It is your job to love him through his own process, and be there for him, to encourage him on his journey of surrender.  YOU do not decide his timeline of surrender.  You can only work on your own.  Let Christ do the work of removing sin in others.  Let yourself become a vessel through which the love of Christ reaches others and motivates them to seek a change in the first place.
Our Godhead is united in purpose, but they are not a singular entity.  They are three entities, distinct in personality, attributes, and skills and abilities.  God the Father, God the Son, and the Holy Spirit are not the same person, but they are in perfect unity.  We too can be Christian brothers, and when our love for others replaces love for self, we can find ourselves in perfect unity for His cause and not our own.  This state of unity, like the work of Peter and Paul, allows us to leverage our talents for His cause.  Peter was not much of a writer in comparison with the works of Paul.  But this did not deter the cause of Christ from benefiting from what each did.  Paul was probably not as passionate a speaker as Peter was, but his logical style and lawyer like tendencies were also employed in the cause of Christ.  Both men were united in love for others.  This was the “true grace” that Peter refers to.
Peter continues his epilogue in verse 13 writing … “The church that is at Babylon, elected together with you, saluteth you; and so doth Marcus my son.”  First, Peter identifies a church that is at “Babylon”.  Peter is not speaking of the literal city of Babylon, long since destroyed in wars.  However this designation gives an immediate prophetic context to the writings of Peter’s other partner in the cause of Christ, namely those of John and his book of Revelations of Jesus Christ.  John writes of several prophecies where the usage of Babylon is cited.  In this context Peter implies that the church at Babylon is the singular light in the darkness of the capital of the world at that time … Rome.  This does not imply that Babylon would remain designated to Rome and never move again, it does however signify that Rome was the capital of power in his day, and that the church at Babylon would be the church at this capital.  Rome would remain Babylon in this context for quite a long time.  This designation however, would make even more sense, as we see the state of the decay of the church that moves from the symbolism of a white horse of purity, to a ghost horse of death.
Next you will note that the church was “elected together” with you.  This could have two meaning for us.  First, it could mean that the work of perfection or of being made elect, righteous, and upright is being accomplished in the church at Rome, the same way it is being accomplished everywhere else in the world at this time or any other; through the surrender of its members to the power of Jesus Christ.  In this sense, Peter is stating that the location of the church is not the determining factor in its success in the cause of Christ, it is the state of surrender that determines that.  Location does not deter the cause of God.  The church can thrive in “sin city” just as well as anywhere else, if its members are willing to surrender to Christ and lean on His strength instead of their own.  Second, the idea of “elected” could refer to a democratic ideology within the governing structure of the church.  That is to say, that the members elect or vote to determine the roles of elder, or care-giver, or teacher within the body based on a collective view or consensus on the skills of their various members.  In either context, the ideas of equality of the work of Christ are not made better or worse based on the location of where the church resides.  Nor does a church get to assert prominence based on location.
Lastly, in this passage, Peter refers to the great love he has for his co-worker Marcus, or Mark.  It will be Mark who writes a gospel of Jesus Christ from the experiences Peter will share with him.  It is this clue that sets our path to study the writings of Peter through the gospel of Mark in our studies.  But also important here is that Peter once again expresses a level of unity with yet another elder in the early church.  Peter goes so far as to call Mark “his son”.  Given his own education and writing skills, it may well have been Mark who actually wrote this letter on behalf of Peter.  Peter dictates what to say, Mark transcribes it in written form.  This may also have been the method used in writing the gospel book we will study later.  In any case, unity in the cause of Christ remains a paramount idea in the mind of Peter.  He continues to identify himself as partner with these other early church leaders, not as sole leader or head of the church to which all other authorities must submit.  The only “sole” authority we are to submit to within the church and our lives, remains Jesus Christ.
Peter concludes his first book, and this epilogue in verse 14 writing … “Greet ye one another with a kiss of charity. Peace be with you all that are in Christ Jesus. Amen.”  To greet each other with a kiss of charity is to express for each other a level of intimacy within the cause of Christ.  Physical contact of any kind grows rarer in the age of the internet and trend to isolationism.  We spend more time in front of our screens, and less time in front of each other.  As such we become more reserved with each other.  Whether in fear of germs that now run rampant, or just in fear of over-asserting our affections, we abstain from intimate contact.  How many a young boy will have cited this text to a young girl in hopes of obtaining that first kiss?  But Peter was not offering advice for those attempting to date.  This was not a kiss of passion, or affection, it was of charity.  Charity is a gift we do not deserve, and implies more pity than passion.  Forgetting who we are attracted to, and offering a kiss to ANY in the membership of our Christian ranks, is to express a level of intimacy within the family of Christ.
Peter does not say we should kiss each other on the lips, nor does he preclude it.  But before we get all excited, remember you would be kissing your child, your mother, your father, and a stranger unknown to you in this same manner of charity.  I would guess the practice of kissing each other on the cheeks during a greeting may have been derived from this passage.  The message behind it however, has even more meaning in our day than it did in Peter’s.  Peter and his compatriots did not suffer from the burden of modern technology and the isolation which it tends to foster.  Peter and his viral church were out there “in real life”.  They did not spend hours in front of a screen whether behind the internet, or the TV, or the movie theatre.  They were far more physically engaged with each other than we have become.  But expressions of affection and intimacy among the members of our church are no less important today than they were back then, in fact now it is a higher importance.
If the viral church is to battle the social norms, perhaps we should begin with increasing our time “in real life” and with acts of affection for our fellow members of the body.  Perhaps those to whom this idea is foreign could begin with warm handshakes when they encounter others.  Or perhaps to those who are farther along in the journey, an unsolicited hug might be just the thing another needs.  Or perhaps to those who are yet farther on the journey to loving others, a kiss of charity.  But perhaps even more important for those yet farther down the road to perfection, is a sustained, prolonged, deep and caring interest in the life of another, that will NOT rest, until that life has every evidence of the love it needs to survive and thrive in this world, while we have means to achieve it, and even when we do not.  That was the passion of our Christ, and He longs to reflect through us to each other and to the world so in need of His love.
The final thought of Peter was to bless us and wish for us all, the Peace of Jesus Christ.  Peace brings a state of mind that is free from the concerns of war, or threats against our security, and worry over our survival.  To find His Peace, is to fully put our trust in Him, understanding He looks out for our higher priorities, and that the cares of this world are nothing in the context of His plans for eternity.  Life, death, health, safety … none of these things can be truly comprehended with a mortal view of them.  They can only be truly comprehended in the light of eternity He longs to bring us.  If we are to have His peace, we must learn to trust Him with ALL our cares.  In this way, we free ourselves from them.  In this way, we learn to trust Him even more.  In this way, we come to recognize, we were never in control, and that resting in Him is the only path to real and lasting Peace, no matter what our earthly situations attempt to dictate to us.  His peace cannot be taken away by this world.  For His peace is eternal, and the gift He longs to bring to us all.
Thus concludes Peter’s first letter to the church and this epilogue.  Perhaps the secret to uncovering even more truth is to not only have second look at passages like these, but a third, and fourth, and a never ending study …

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Viral Church [part two] ...

An elder moves with caution.  History has been his teacher, and longer years of experience have taught him to think before he moves.  All too often, the natural human state of a spiritual elder asserts “itself”.  Long years of victory over sin give rise to the idea that perhaps they are a result of the efforts we have undertaken ourselves instead of the complete providence of God.  In that instant where credit is wrested from God and ascribed to the image in the mirror, failure enters the horizon.  This example serves to introduce apprehension, and caution in the movement and journey of a spiritual elder.  The lesson of total dependency on Jesus is not lost on someone who has seen victory over an addictive sin in their lives, and then watched themselves throw that away for a dalliance they don’t even really want.  It is this very scenario that helps to qualify the elder to provide guidance to those of less years living the salvation experience.  The lesson of total dependency on Christ to be remade, is ever-new, ever-fresh, and ever-needed.  It is no less exuberant in infancy than it is after long years of embrace.  In our previous study, Peter laid out the basis for a viral church, beginning with spreading out the leadership responsibilities to elders who live the salvation experience.  But diversifying leadership responsibilities, and eliminating the financial incentive to lead, were only the beginning of his plan.
Peter also understood that the passion of youth must be employed in the cause of Christ.  Peter knew that while history tames the activity of an elder adding insight to their arsenal, there is still much value in the passion that arises from “first” loves.  The first experience of living what it means to be made free from the slavery of self, is often very profound, and burned into the memory of the Christian who discovers it.  The testimony is unique to the person, but common to the cause of Christ.  Someone, no matter what their physical age, or sex, discovers they are enslaved to a particular sin, simply powerless to defeat it.  After varied attempts, they finally give up and in desperation call out to God as ONLY His mercy can see this addiction removed from their lives. 
And in that moment, they empower God to do for them, what He always longed to do for them, but was unable to do. because up to now, they would not let Him.  He changes what they want, and therefore what they do.  It is in this moment of absolute desperation, that we finally discover absolute surrender, and the absolute power of God to defeat in us, what we cannot defeat.  And this experience is life altering.  It is liberating beyond any other form.  The freedom from past obsessions is not where it ends, it is where it begins.  The time we used to spend obsessed with sin, or controlling sin, or longing for sin we dare not perform, is replaced with freedom to think about other things, better things.  We begin to see scripture more clearly.  We begin to see how loving others would steer us away from the sins that reflect only a love of self.  We begin to lose the judgmental outlook we once had on those engaged in the same sins we embraced.  And the passion it inspires in the Christian who has finally discovered how sin will be defeated is like a white hot flame, yearning to spread.
In this “first love” salvation experience, the youth of a Christian and the passion of this first discovery, yearn to act.  The “new” experience of being made free from self can come at any age.  When an 80 year old experiences it for the first time, they are as exuberant as the 12 year old who has seen the same thing transpire.  It is hard to tell them apart.  They yearn to share with others what they have found for themselves.  The passion of being made free is not something to be set on the mantle-piece and admired from afar.  It is life altering.  It infects the mind, the heart, and the thinking, for it is Jesus Christ remaking all three.  Love for others begins to become more than a concept, it becomes a passion that WILL not be ignored.  And in this is the adoption, the internalization of the gospel, that is needed for any viral church to succeed.  It takes the message from theory to personal experience, from which there is no substitute.  And the actions those on fire yearn to take SHOULD be taken.  Peter knew there was a place for this youthful passion and it must be directed in the right form so he offers counsel in his first letter to the churches.
Peter continues his outline for the viral church, offering counsel to those younger and more passionate in the first love of the faith in chapter 5 beginning in verse 5 saying … “Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder. Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble.”  First Peter begins by stating that the direction in which to share our passion for the living gospel should be deferred to our elders who have had this experience for a longer duration.  It is great that we wish to share the passion for Christ, but Peter says to allow the elders to point us in the right direction to take it.  Peter reminds the youth, that their experience will only grow as they are WILLING TO LEARN.  The first experience is NOT the last one.  The road is long, and those who have journeyed ahead of you can help you navigate it better, if only to avoid the same mistakes they made on it.  One of the dangers of the new passion of discovery, is to believe that “now” you have all the answers, and need no more “help” from those who must be by definition, less enlightened than yourself.  Arrogance is a temptation the devil presents to the newly inspired.
Peter then reminds BOTH the youth, and those longer in the faith, that the key to continued growth and success is to remain in a state of humility.  No matter how long I have been on this road, living this freedom, there is still something the newborn baby can teach me, or inspire in me.  No matter how new the convert is standing next to me in my own discovery, equal distance on the road to perfection, he still has something to teach me about the body of Christ.  Whether newer, older, or the same distance, there is no limit to the blessing I can receive from another believer, IF I will allow them to teach me through a spirit of humility in myself.  Peter uses strong language regarding the state of the proud, saying that God resisteth them.  What Peter reminds both young and old, is that once “self” or pride emerges, even in our Christian experience, it constrains what God is able to do for us.  We fail.  God does not.  We stumble.  God does not.  If we are to attain perfection, and hold on to it, it will be through complete and consistent absolute surrender to God.  The minute we think “we” have anything to do with our perfection; we. Like Peter will start sinking into the sea, we were just walking across.
Peter continues in verse 6 … “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time:”.  Peter speaks to the passionate youth in the salvation experience.  He knows their role in spreading this message is vital to achieving the viral church status.  And his first words of counsel is not restraint of spreading the gospel message, it is of remembering how it is achieved.  We are to remain humble before the enormous power of God to free us.  We did not deserve our freedom from sin, it was a gift.  We did not earn it, nor work for it.  It was given to us.  It is NOT because we are special above all other men; it is because all men and women are EQUALLY special to our Father God.  Peter’s counsel to the spiritually young who discover freedom from sin, is to remember to point to God for this victory.  For it is the power of God that frees us; and it is equally available to any who would ask it.  “We” are not to be celebrated for having discovered the power of the gospel.  “We” are not the subject of the message.  God is.  “We” are only examples of what His power is able to do.  To remember we are not perfect examples, is to keep ourselves clothed in humility while pointing others to the perfect power of God to transform how you think, feel, and act.  In His time, God will complete the work of perfection in us, exalting us to a status of sinlessness through His power, and as evidence of His glory.  It is for that day we wait in patient humility.
Peter continues in verse 7 … “Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you.”  Peter now liberates the youth as well as the elder leadership as he writes we are free to let God take care of us.  How often is the gospel message stunted by the ideas that we must take care of ourselves, or perish in the world around us.  So we prioritize our work first, our survival, our ability to pay the bills we owe, and put the sharing of the gospel in second, third, or a worse place in our lives.  Peter liberates our thinking.  Peter does not advocate abandoning responsibility, he merely tempers it and reprioritizes it, by stating the first priority is the gospel itself.  It can be shared with co-workers.  It can be shared with creditors.  It can be shared with friends and family.  And if it comes to a choice to “worry” about preserving our lives or to spread the gospel, choose the gospel.  The whole point of this promise Peter makes on behalf of the Christ who inspires his writings, is that “we” DO NOT HAVE TO WORRY.  We are free to cast our cares upon Christ, because Christ is not only interested in freeing us from sin.  He is interested in our lives and how we live them, and that we live them.  After salvation it no longer matters how “long” we live, but how “well” we live.  All of us will die someday, unless blessed to see the Lord’s return.  But living everyday between now and that day, unburdened by the cares of this life, is a continued liberation the viral church has to offer.  It is an expansion of the freeing power of the gospel.
Peter continues in verse 8 … “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour:”  Peter resumes his counsel to the youth and less experienced in the faith.  The viral church will grow as we are careful with the decisions we make, always asking the Lord to make them for us.  To be sober or vigilant is to be aware that now past the discovery of being made free from any given sin, we enter the real battlefield with our enemy.  The devil walks as a roaring lion, looking first, for those who understand the power of the gospel.  He knows he cannot win a head on battle with Christ.  But like a lion who hunts at night, and in the dark.  He hopes to have us defeat Christ for him, as we begin to entertain ideas of self-accomplishment instead of self-reliance.  Satan hopes to devour those who understand the freedom God brings, for if they were to share their personal experience, he would lose others to the cause of Christ.  Therefore those who have discovered the power of Jesus to transform must be the first targets on his radar.  Peter does not tell the youth to cower in fear at this.  He is not attempting to squelch their passion, only to make them aware of the reality of our world.
Peter continues in verse 9 … “Whom resist stedfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren that are in the world.”  Peters advice for dealing with the attacks of the roaring lion, is to remember that it is our surrender to Christ that will defeat Satan.  To remain steadfast in a trust in Christ to save us in spite of our weakness and inability to save ourselves, is to remain safe from the otherwise unconquerable lion.  The temptations we face, the hardship we face brought about by our enemy are universal in nature.  Satan attacks both those in the world and those in the faith using the very same methods.  He tempts both believer and non-believer to entertain ideas of self-sufficiency, self-reliance, and self-accomplishment.  He tempts both those inside and outside the church to believe that “they” are responsible for all the good things in their lives, and “others” responsible for the bad.  These afflictions are common to humanity.  And if we do not ground ourselves in surrender to Christ to see them defeated in us, they will take hold in us.
Peter concludes his exhortation to what would become a viral church in his day in verse 10 writing … “But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you. [verse 11] To him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.”  Peter recounts the lifecycle of young to old in spiritual experience.  He begins by reminding us that our God, is the God, of “ALL” grace.  There is no grace outside of the God we serve, and no method outside of Jesus Christ to find grace.  For we are called, chosen, selected, treasured, prized, and made free because of His glory, through the mechanism of surrender to Jesus Christ.  Peter offers no other deity to substitute for Christ.  Peter offers no other path to grace and freedom from the addictions of sin, than through Jesus Christ.  There are not many paths to God, there is only one.  It is only through the son of God that we can be made free from the power of self-service, made free from ourselves.
Peter points out that our suffering has a purpose.  The attacks of the enemy that drive us in desperation to the feet of Jesus Christ has a purpose.  It is to see us saved.  It is to see us made “perfect”.  We are to achieve a state of perfection, or the absence of continued sin, through our initial submission to Jesus Christ because of His glory.  Our initial state of perfection, or our journey towards perfection is then to be established in our continued surrender to Jesus Christ.  The road to perfection is one in which we will be established to travel.  Next on this road, is the promise to strengthen our resolve to surrender to Jesus Christ.  Having discovered the method, we are now only to deepen ourselves in it.  To give up more and more of ourselves, until we have given it all, trusting God with every part of our lives, from our sexuality, to our family, to our finances, to our very core desires.  To trust God with all of it, through the strength He provides to do so.  And having done this, comes the promise to “settle” us in this path and pattern until it is finally completed within us through His glory and power.  For it is to Jesus Christ, that glory and dominion belong.  It is Jesus Christ alone who is to rule this viral church, and our own salvation.
We must ask ourselves, if our church is in a state of decay, is it because we have substituted the traditions of men, for the wisdom and plan of a viral church?  Peter advocates that elders lead, and not be incented by using this position as a way to make a living.  Peter advocates that our youth be free to express their passion and have it directed and encouraged by the elders who have the honor to feed the flock of God.  Peter points out that Jesus Christ alone is the true Shepherd of His church, and that any who assume the mantle of leadership are only under-shepherds who serve the cause of God.  A diversified leadership, and an impassioned constituency who are all LIVING the salvation experience, form the basis of church organization Peter espoused and witnessed the success of.  The early Christian church internalized the message of the gospel, allowing it to free them from sin.  They had a personal experience all too many of us talk about, but have not experienced for ourselves.  It was that personal experience that empowered their witness to the Truth of Jesus Christ.  Long before the terminology was popular or understood, Peter laid out the plans for a viral church.
If the power of the gospel is to go viral, it must begin in you.  If the love of others is to replace the love of self, and end evil in existence for all time and eternity, it must begin in you.  The transformation that will empower the viral church to complete the work, and see the return of our Lord, begins as you submit the core of who you are to Jesus Christ to be remade.  Once that fire is lit, it will consume everything in its path.  Scripture is not irrelevant in our day, it is lost in the traditions of men, that have infected our minds so that we do not see the simplicity and beauty it would otherwise espouse.  If Peter could lay out plans for a viral church 2000 years before the internet would even exist, what can God use you to accomplish right here and right now?
And the counsel of Peter’s first letter had one more thought to convey …

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Viral Church [part one] ...

In the golden age of the Internet in which we live, the goal of any content or message is to achieve a “viral” status.  You tell 2 friends and they both tell 2 friends, and before you know it entire email address books are geometrically expanding and promoting a given link and millions of people are said to have experienced the targeted content.  While this model seems to have the most meaning to advertisers with short messages and singular tag lines, or musicians sharing a single song, the model for a church has a few missing goals.  It is not only exposure the online church needs, it is not only the repetition, not even the propagation of the message to promote its viral nature … it is adoption of the content internally.  The “experience” of being set free from self cannot be relayed only in words, songs, or short video clips.  It must be personally experienced in order that YOUR witness is true, not simply the re-telling of what you heard someone else’s story to be.  Living the salvation experience provides a real-time view into what it means to love others like Christ loves others.  And that love comes out of you in all kinds of forms; from what you say, to what you do, to quiet deeds of charity that no-one will ever give you credit for - for credit is not what you seek.
Living the salvation experience, where through submission of your desires to Christ to be remade you become someone else; remakes “church” into a group of people who share this common Christian experience.  “Church” becomes viral at that point not only online, but in real life.  Messages are spread not only through our words and posts, but by people inquiring how we seem so happy and at peace all the time despite what life brings our way in the War with evil.  This model also however has one missing role that tradition has enforced in us that we “need”.  That is the role of Pastor, or church leader.  Tradition has made us lazy.  We expect our “pastors” to play the leadership role in the faith.  We expect them to “spread the word”.  We even expect them to be “holier” than us common folk.  In short, we have adopted the WRONG model of church.  And in our quest to organize a body of believers, we have allowed hierarchy to replace personal participation so that now only a few are held accountable for the success or failure of the forward momentum of the gospel.
But Peter held no such illusions.  Peter may have been one of the first after Jesus to promote the basis of a church organization that could and would go “viral”.  Peter understood the first goal of any viral church is to spread out the leadership responsibilities NOT to consolidate them into only a few individuals.  In his first letter to the church, he begins outlining exactly how a viral church should work in chapter five, beginning in verse one … “The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed:”  First take note that Peter does not begin his exhortation of encouragement by addressing the “pastors” of the church, nor does he refer to them as “priests”, “bishops”, or “reverends”.  His counsel is intended for those who are “elders” in the church.  Further he identifies himself as a fellow elder.  In this context he is leveling the playing field.  The encouragement he is about to offer is spread across the church for those who are more senior in the faith.
The common Christian experience that forms a true church is living salvation.  Those who have been living in this condition longer are by definition elders in the faith.  The designation of elder is not constrained only to those of advanced physical years (though typically they have had the most opportunity to be living in salvation the longest), it is simply about those who better understand what it means to be saved FROM YOURSELF.  Those who have had long held addictions to sin in any form, and have found themselves made free from that addiction, get it.  They understand what it means to be remade by Christ.  No longer wanting and craving the thing that once destroyed them, gives that Christian an insight into salvation that someone who has not had the same personal experience can ever truly understand.  Those who are in that journey, but not as far along are likely not elders.  Those who are in that journey, but much farther along, likely are elders.
Peter was around long enough to be a personal witness of Christ, but he immediately outlines that those who are fellow partakers of His grace and glory are also now revealed to be co-leaders in the faith.  Think how tradition has robbed the cause of God.  In a group of 100 church members, tradition dictates that the pastor is the sole leader of the faith and movement.  But in the model Peter ascribes, there would be a body of elders who are equally responsible for the growth of the church, both inside and outside its walls.  These elders would ALL have a role to play in the viral church, not just a supporting role to the singular pastor, but to be a body of pastors who not only speak the gospel, but live under its life altering power.  The transformation of the lives of these elders who have lived in this condition longer than the average member is THE witness for Christ that no single individual could ever replace.
Peter continues his counsel in verse 2 … “Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; [verse 3] Neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being ensamples to the flock.”  Keep in mind Peter is NOT addressing a set of pastors, priests, or bishops … he may well be addressing you.  He begins by pointing out the first blessing of anyone who is living the salvation experience, the honor of “feeding” the flock of God.  He encourages those who understand salvation from a personal experience to take oversight of the body, NOT through force of constraint, but by choice and of a willing heart. 
This gift of feeding the flock is designated to the elders of the church, to those who personally understand living in salvation, not just the figurehead.  The “leadership” these elders provide is encouragement, counsel, and direction to those less advanced in the journey of transformation, of how to take the next step in the surrender process to Jesus Christ.  That is how the collective “we” feed the collective flock of God.  It is not about preaching formal sermons that take 6 days to prepare, and get delivered in 90 mins in a formal church setting once a week.  It is by daily interacting with the part of the flock we come in regular contact with and providing insight and sharing common experience of how to surrender even more to Jesus Christ.  It is by seeking out those who may have strayed from our company because we care about them, and realize that sometimes the War against evil inflicts casualties and pain.  Watching out for our sheep means going the extra mile to find the ones that stray and reminding them of just how much they are loved, not how guilty they may be for straying in the first place.  The Shepherd brings the lost sheep home on His shoulders, He does not spend the next 60 minutes giving them a lecture on how stupid they were to stray from His company in the first place.
The next tradition buster Peter has the audacity to be blunt about is … the role of Church leader, or feeder of the flock that was intended for elders not pastors, is an UNPAID position.  We, not the formal pastor-ship of a given church of believers, are to feed the flock as Peter says … “NOT for filthy lucre”.  Instead we do these acts of love because our minds are made ready by the transforming power of the love of Christ.  We too pick up the lost straying sheep, and tenderly lay them across our shoulders without ever voicing a word of condemnation, and gently invite them back into the fold of Christ, bringing them personally into His presence and love once again.  We, like Christ, meet whatever physical, mental, or emotional needs they have - that through Christ we have the ability to meet.  And we do ALL of this without a single thought of how much money it is worth to the church, or to the lost soul we minister to.
In the viral church Peter advocates, there are no offering calls intended to fund the work of the singular minister.  Instead resources are collected and distributed as the members have need.  That too is a radical departure from tradition in our churches.  Using collective wealth to benefit the members as they have need, with everyone contributing including the self-funded elders, is unheard of.  Musicians who gladly give their talents back to God for free in His services, or better, in His cause whatever the venue is a far cry from the paid positions that infiltrate the ranks of our wealthier churches today.  Peter continued his skills as a fisherman long after his additional role as Apostle and elder was taken on.  He did use donated funds to enable mission work and to establish churches in areas that did not formerly have them.  But he did none of this in order to “make a living”.  Nor did he aspire to the great wealth that could be had off the collective backs of believers who continue to donate to the cause of Christ.  He did not live with hand carts carried by slaves to ease his passage to new areas of the world.  In our vernacular, he did not go buy a Rolls Royce to get to church because he had the money, and wanted to make a statement about the blessings of God to His flock.
Instead Peter supported himself when he could, and used donated funds when the cause of Christ required him to.  What is more, he advocates the same model to the elders across the faith.  Peter continues his counsel of what it means to lead emphasizing that the elders are NOT to think of themselves as “Lords” over Gods people.  A Lord had every right in the day of Peter to expect compensation from his assets.  His servants worked to earn their Lord means to ever grow his kingdom.  Peter is quick to point out this is not the model for the viral church.  Instead the elders of which he counts himself, are to provide leadership by being examples to the flock.  Again Peter emphasizes that the distinction of elder is reserved for those who are LIVING the salvation experience.  The living example of what it means to be made free from sin, is the hallmark of an elder.  It is the very reason why an elder knows his own unworthiness, realizes how much he needs Christ in order to reach others, and is so grateful even to be used in the cause of Christ for the redemption of others.
When we love others like Christ loves others, our entire purpose for living is to lure the non-repentant sinner to the Lord of love through acts of unselfish charity and personal investment no matter what their response.  This is the mission of spreading the gospel, and it was never intended to be consolidated in the hands of single pastor, or single church leader, under the auspices of needing organization.  This role of elder was to be defined by how good one’s understanding of personal transformation to love like He loves was known and adopted.  Elder(s), plural, were to provide the leadership and living example to the flock of God, not as a paid position, but as stewards of his flock applying resources as needs were revealed, and contributing to this cause themselves as they were able.  This is the model that would create a viral church, both then and now.
Peter concludes his exhortation to the elder leadership of the viral church in verse 4 writing … “And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away.”  Peter first reminds these intended leaders that they are under-shepherds and living examples in the cause of Christ.  The ONLY true leader of the church of Christ is Jesus Christ, the chief Shepherd.  When He shall appear, those who have pointed others back to the source of Love, will receive a crown of glory that will not fade away.  First, notice that it is not the sparkle of jewels illuminated by the eternal light of God, that are reflections of our accomplishments in the kingdom of heaven.  Stones are not the prize.   What will stand without fading in His kingdom are the souls who might not have been there, but for our choice to reflect His love to them at just the right time in their lives, no matter the conditions of our own life at the time.  Choosing to reflect love to others, not just when it is convenient to us, or expedient to us, but based on the needs of others results in the glory that does not fade.  Putting the needs of others ahead of our own, is the exact path Christ walked when He was here, even when it was not convenient.
The ministry of the leading elders in the church is not about the reproof of sin, or the watch guarding of standards, it is about the experimental love of Christ.  It is about living under the freedom from sin, that unburdens the soul and brings a level of happiness those who remain chained in sin want to aspire to.  Without living in freedom from the pain of self-inflicted sin we have nothing the world would long to acquire.  We have then only words, not deeds.  We have only stories, not experience.  You do not need to condemn the pain sin causes at all, if you can DEMONSTRATE what it means to live free from it.  Punishment, judgment, and consequences are not what is needed to call our attention to in the cause of Christ – what is so desperately needed is the WAY OUT.  Point the flock and the erring soul to the love of Christ, demonstrating how He can make them free from sin, just as He is doing for you.  Demonstrate to the flock of Christ that the freedom He has already brought you has taken away your self-inflicted pain and is making your life better every day, and you will find willing ears, and hearts that desire to find what you have found.  This is the way in which the cause of Christ is advanced, and the gospel spread in the power in which it was intended.
The role of leading the viral church was not ever supposed to be constrained to the few, but instead experienced by the many.  Tradition robs the leadership of Jesus Christ to replace it with limited humans in limited roles in paid positions of formal authority, and thus reduced what was supposed to be a viral church into a focused failure.  But it is not too late to return to basics.  It is not too late to see the gospel advanced by the living example of those who understand transformation to love others like He loves others.  When we begin to reflect the love of Christ to those in need, we become the gospel message in living form.  Until we reflect that love to others, we are sounding brass, and tinkling cymbals, full of fury and noise and meaning nothing to His cause.  It is not the stories of others that is needed to reach the person in your path, it is YOUR story he needs to hear and to see.  In this you become the elder who shares in the spread of the gospel.
But the counsel of how to achieve a viral church Peter intended was not constricted only to those of more experience He had ideas for those less experienced as well …

Friday, February 6, 2015

A State of War ...

The War did not begin here.  The War existed before us, but it will end with us.  Victory is assured, but it is not “our” victory, it will only ever be His.  Jesus Christ won this war before it was ever begun, because Love was destined to defeat Evil.  There was only ever one outcome that is possible in this war.  If evil “could” win, there would be no existence at all.  But while evil is defeated, it is not going down without a fight.  When our enemy has realized he will not win, he cannot win, his only recourse is to inflict as much pain, damage, and death as he can before he goes down in flames.  Surrender is not within his ability to choose; for evil enslaves its participants, making Satan as much a slave to himself, as we would be without Christ breaking our chains and freeing us to sin no more.  So while our enemy is desperate for his time grows short, his time is not over yet.  Mercy yet attempts to reclaim every soul that will at last accept the gift of freedom Jesus Christ alone can offer.  While mercy is extended, Satan continues his war of pain, damage, and death against the thing that impacts the heart of God the most … namely you and I.
We live within a state of War.  It is not a national war, but a war that extends beyond all borders, and lives within the hearts of man.  The War has active heroes and villains.  It has soldiers on both sides.  And like all wars, this War causes casualties.  Sadly, death is not the first aim of our enemy.  Pain and damage are.  Satan’s only goal is to cause us to miss out on the freedom from selfishness that Jesus offers.  He wishes us to live lives that are ever degenerating into deeper and deeper realms of selfishness.  When we succumb to the power of pleasing self, we inevitably inflict pain and damage on those we love and those who love us the most.  Because ultimately God loves each of us the most, it is He who suffers in anguish while we choose to yet again forsake His victories, and pursue our degradation to entirely new levels of depravity.  Because the Love of God will inevitably defeat the evil of Satan; Satan uses every tool in his arsenal to inflict pain back on God.  You and I are mere pawns in Satan’s plans, but precious treasure in the plans of the Lord.
Peter knew this.  He saw it in the living love of Jesus Christ and how He treated those He encountered.  Peter also saw how deep evil can go in the lives and actions of the Pharisees who ultimately killed the Author of their religion, in the name of their religion.  The cloak of scriptures, traditions, and religion was not enough to expel evil from the heart.  Men used the very things that should have led them to humility and submission, as tools to grow power and control over others.  Thus evil found a foothold in their hearts until they were willing to kill Love, before embracing Love.  These were the religious leaders who did these crimes, supposedly the best of the Jewish people and faith.  Yet even the best of men are no match for the seduction of self.  Peter had seen the casualties of this War, as its first casualty was Jesus Christ.  The suffering Satan desires to inflict pre-dated our Savior, and would not end, just because He had ascended back to heaven.  Instead Satan would resume his primary targeting against us.
So in chapter four of his first letter to the church, Peter begins in verse 12, by stating what he sees as the obvious in any state of War writing … “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you:”  Notice first he begins by reminding his readers that “they” are the “be-loved” of Jesus Christ.  We are the most valued commodity in the kingdom of our Lord.  Jesus could care less about how much gold He has, and cares the most about insuring He gets to spend eternity with YOU.  Next, with the realization of how much we mean to Christ, comes the knowledge that it makes us the primary target for the fiery trials Satan will inevitably inflict upon us.  It is not a strange or unusual occurrence, it is a reality of War, and it will happen.  One might take comfort in witnessing it, because should all be going “well” it might lead us to wonder which side of the War we have landed on.
Peter continues in verse 13 … “But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ's sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy.”  But here, Peter appears to go completely off the deep end.  Instead of just knowing evil may be coming with trial by fire, Peter actually states we should “rejoice” that this occurs.  No, Peter is not a Sadist, or Masochist.  It is not pain Peter enjoys; no shades of gray here at all.  But Christ suffered because of the love He showed to those in need.  It was for His love that He was constantly punished by the religious leadership.  The knowledge that someone experienced love, perhaps for the first time, is something to rejoice about.  That we should suffer for showing love, indicates our enemy thinks we did a good job at showing it.  It we were clumsy showing love, of selfish showing love, our enemy would encourage us to keep screwing up.  But when we reflect the love of Christ unselfishly to someone in need “THAT” is the event that warrants punishing us to the highest level possible.
Peter continues in verse 14 … “If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye; for the spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you: on their part he is evil spoken of, but on your part he is glorified.”  Peter echoes his earlier sentiment, love that reflects Christ well, comes from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  As we submit to Christ, as we allow Him to change HOW we love, and WHO we love (others, not ourselves), we allow a greater and greater measure of the Holy Spirit within us.  The actions and words of love we reflect emulate the source of love.  We become a reflection of Jesus.  It is this condition that causes our enemy to freak out, and hurl insult after insult our way.  He MUST malign our motives and actions in order to reduce the impact of the love we show.  Those who embrace evil will never speak well of Love, of Jesus, they will only ever insult and ridicule Him.  They have no choice.  For if they spoke the truth, they would convert themselves to His cause.  While we will receive no “glory” from those who hate the name of Christ, we will receive the only “glory” that counts from God, in that we have the honor to participate in His redemptive work for mankind.
Peter continues in verse 15 … “But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evildoer, or as a busybody in other men's matters.”  This passage has two meanings.  First, Peter wants to insure we are not being criticized for evil deeds we do.  It is only justice to suffer for the deeds of evil we may embrace.  If we “have it coming” so to speak, that is not quite the thing to rejoice about suffering for.  But Second, Peter is also calling attention to the condition of sin.  Deeds of murder, or theft, or generic malice, or even getting invested in the lives of others to suit our own motives … are all actions that cause us to “suffer”.  Peter is reminding us, the Christ breaks our chains to selfishness, and gives us the means not to have to suffer in the sins that may have once ruled our lives.  It is interesting to me, that while we consider sin on a sliding scale, Peter begins at our most heinous crime of murder, but continues the thought down to the level of “busybody”.  Sin causes pain and suffering, whether from large heinous crimes like murder, but also from seemingly innocent crimes of evil motive in the matters of other men.  To win this War, we must be saved to the uttermost by our hero, savior, and conqueror, Jesus Christ.
Peter continues in verse 16 … “Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf.”  Continuing on his prior duality, if we suffer for our acts of love we should not be ashamed of what they call us, or what they do to us, but glorify God instead.  Notice Peter does not advocate we take credit for our reflections of Christ’s love, instead He requests we continue to point the glory back to where it belongs (never with us, always with Him).  Peter also points out once again; retribution, condemnation, and judgment are NOT supposed to be our response to persecution whether deserved or not.  Glory to God is to be our response. 
From a second point of view, should we as Christians “suffer” because we have fallen, lost His victory, and embraced our self-centered evil once again.  We should also forsake our shame, and embrace the glory of His forgiveness.  It is no light thing to need the very blood of Christ to wash our sins away.  But having bathed in that blood, we must accept the forgiveness He offers, and not let guilt destroy us and cause us to embrace evil again and again.  The power of the gospel is to free us from sin, not just give us the means to live in sin, continually asking for forgiveness.  The power of the gospel does not end at forgiveness, it begins there.  It ends when perfection through submission is achieved, and we no longer want to sin, or commit them anymore.  It ends, when victory in us is completed by Him.
Peter continues in verse 17 … “For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God? [verse 18] And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?”  Here Peter points out that this War will not easily be won.  It sounds simple enough to surrender our will to God.  But so few of us are willing to give Him everything to work with.  We hold back our cherished pleasures.  We hold back our loved ones under the presumption we don’t think He would ever ask for those.  But in so doing we forget the example of our first parents.  Eve sinned, perhaps because she was deceived, perhaps because the sensation of vanity was new and little understood, perhaps because she was alone having strayed from Adam’s side.  But Adam knew exactly what had happened and what the cost would be.  Adam “could” have refused to eat the forbidden fruit, and instead “trusted” that God would find a way to save Eve for him.  To do this, he would have had to be willing to lose Eve.  He would have had to be willing to let the thing he loved the most be put into the hands of God.  To trust God with it.  Why do we think our spouse, or our children, or our parents, or our lovers are any different? 
So few of us are willing to have our feelings changed for those we love, should we need them to.  How many are in relationships they should not be in; relationships that harm both parties, based on bad initial decisions, reinforced by a series of bad subsequent decisions.  Or how many are in bad relationships that could be healed, but the only way to heal them, is to submit how we think and how we love to Christ.  For perhaps it is not our partner who needs to change, perhaps it is us who needs to look at things differently and see things from a perspective outside of ourselves.  But to rectify any of these conditions we must be willing to put the person we love the most into the care and trust of God.  We must be willing to lose them if that is what is needed, and trust that God can work a miracle.  In short, we must do, what Adam could not bring himself to do.  And like Adam a great deal of suffering might be avoided if we trust God with those we love the most; or a great deal of more suffering might be experienced because we “could not” bring ourselves to trust.
Peter points out these decisions to give it all to Christ, are not so easy, not so simple.  Our hearts may not want the right things.  “Who” we are may still reflect wanting what is not good for us.  Which makes being willing to let it go, something hard to take.  If we who understand the love of God, and have experienced what He frees us to do, have such a hard time making these decisions, can you imagine how hard it must be for someone with no experience or no reason to trust to make them.  This is the reason Peter stresses in this passage that judgment of those who “get it” is hard enough, imagine how few will embrace this path, if even we cannot provide them a living example of why it is the better choice.
Peter concludes his explanation of living in a state of War in verse 19 … “Wherefore let them that suffer according to the will of God commit the keeping of their souls to him in well doing, as unto a faithful Creator.”  The War may rage on.  We may suffer pain because our enemy inflicts it upon us.  But no matter what we suffer, while we reflect the love of God to others, we must renew our strength in our surrender to Him.  We must continue to commit our souls to Him.  We must continue to allow Him to remake what we “want” into what He wants.  To be in harmony with God will allow us to continue in well-doing. 
It is our Creator, our faithful Creator Peter points our attention to.  The reason he chooses these words is that we NEED a Creator in order to “remake” us into His image.  We will not “evolve” into perfection.  We will be “remade” into perfection.  This is not a biological evolution of getting better over time based on practice, experience, or sheer power of will.  This is a “creative” experience where our Genesis in His kingdom begins with a sudden unexplainable transformation of our hearts from something that loves only self, to something that loves only others.  Only a Creator can do for us, what we need Him to do.  Evolution and modern ideologies, have no solution that works, there is no alternative.  There is only Christ.  There is only one way evil is defeated, it is by unselfish Love, the kind of Love only Christ can create in the human heart.
Peter asks us not to be casualties of War, but to reflect the love of the only One who can and will win it …