Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Would you Welcome Jesus if He Visited?

Summer is the time when Good Shepherd sees the most visitors on Sundays.  If things go like they have in the past, we will see at least one visiting family every Sunday from here until the end of August.  And even though this upcoming season is a time when we will see more guests than usual, we are blessed at Good Shepherd because we see visitors regularly on Sundays.  Indeed, many of you were once guests, but you were greeted with warmth, loved, and God has made you a part of our church family.  We are blessed with a loving, welcoming Church!  But, as with all virtues, this welcoming attitude must continually be fanned into flame… or the fires will go out (See Heb 10:24-25). 

Whenever a guest visits a church, we are called to love and greet that person regardless of who they are, regardless of whether we know them or not.  We are commanded and strongly urged to do this by God's Word in several places:   "Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it." (Heb 13:2). Elsewhere, Jesus himself tells us that when we welcome a stranger, we are welcoming him.  (Matt 25:35, 40)  And on the flip side, we are warned against showing favoritism, that is, greeting certain types of people more warmly than others:  "My brothers,show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, "You sit here in a good place," while you say to the poor man, "You stand over there," or, "Sit down at my feet," have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?" (James 2:1–5) So, we must welcome every guest, regardless of whether we like them or not, whether they are like us or not.  We love everyone who comes into our doors, whether they are "big hitters" in the community or not.  Every man, woman or child who comes to our church is made in the image of God and therefore has value and worth greater than we can imagine.

Though it is a great mystery, we have to remember also that whenever we gather on a Sunday morning God has hand-picked the group of people who will be there.  The mix of visitors, regulars, members, and clergy that gather on any given Sunday is an “on-purpose’ gathering.  God gathers us together for several purposes: to worship Him, to intercede for each other and the world, to receive from Him via Word and Sacrament, and to receive from each other the encouragement we need to thrive.  In Hebrews 10:24-25 the writer says: "And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near." (Hebrews 10:24–25)  Usually this verse is quoted to show us that God commands us to meet regularly with other Christians (which He does).  But we also see in this verse one of the purposes for which God gathers us: that we would encourage each other.  Sometimes this encouragement is a word; sometimes a smile, a handshake.  Sometimes it is merely just sitting near someone who is alone; sometimes it is an invitation to lunch.  Sometimes it is offering to pray with someone; sometimes it is merely engaging in some small talk to make them feel comfortable.  Everyone who serves on Sundays is doing so (in part) to encourage their brothers in Christ.

How can you encourage your brother or sister this Sunday? Let me encourage you to consider a kind greeting to whoever is sitting near you as a prime way for you to offer encouragement.  What if the words or smile you extend this Sunday is what God uses to draw someone to faith in Christ (and eternal life!)? Not sure who is a visitor and who isn’t?  Don’t be embarrassed: confession is good for the soul.  Reintroduce yourself if you have to!

How a church welcomes strangers is a great indicator of whether or not they really ‘get' the gospel.  If we understand that while we were strangers to the family of God Christ invited us in (Ephesians 2), we will extend a welcoming hand to those around us (Matthew 25).  If we remember that Christ stretched out his arms of love on the hard wood of cross, we will stretch out our hands in welcome to those around us.  How we welcome each other on Sunday morning is one of the biggest ways in which show evidence of the truth of the Gospel.  If we love each other, our guests (and ourselves!) will know God is truly who He says He is! (John 13:34-35; 1 John).  Hospitality is a gospel issue.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Where We Grow

Over the last few weeks in “From Fr. Tom", I’ve been talking about how, at Good Shepherd, knowing the Word of God is more than merely learning facts and figures about the Bible, but it is responding to God’s Holy Word with our whole lives: our minds, our actions, our hearts.  We learn from the Scriptures how to be equipped to walk with Christ, and this involves learning to adopt biblical attitudes (heart), biblical practices (actions), and biblical teachings (intellect).  At Good Shepherd, these foundational attitudes, practices, and teachings are passed down in three places:

  • Eucharistic Worship (the public sphere):  As we gather each and every Sunday morning, we are participating in the most formative action of the Christian life.  Through the worship on the Lord’s Day (what Sunday is called in the New Testament), we are reminded (in ways beyond mere mental remembrance) of who God is, what He has done, and who we are as a result.  Eucharistic worship tells us who we are, and even makes us what we are.  Through the Word read, prayed, sung, preached, and made visible in the Sacrament, our whole being is shaped: our minds are sharpened, our hearts are drawn upward, and (ideally) the rest of our week is changed by this good beginning. 
  • Life Groups (the private sphere): Life groups are where we “do life together” at Good Shepherd during the week.   This is a different type of meeting than we have on Sundays.  With our Life Groups we live out the identity that we experience on Sunday in the world, and we do this together. In our Life Groups and other small groups, we go deeper into study; we learn hands-on practices of prayer that can’t be taught on Sundays.  We are known by others and know others and therefore we can address more personal concerns about how to learn to follow Christ.
  • Discipling (the personal sphere):  It is only with a very small group of friends (perhaps 2 or 3) where the most personal and deepest steps of faith can take place.  In groups of 2 or 3 we are challenged personally, we can be our most vulnerable, and we can learn more intentionally.

God could equip us and ready us for life in his Kingdom in millions different ways, but he has chosen to do this through his Scriptures (remember 2 Timothy 3:16-17?).  From the Bible we learn not just information, but how to live and even what to love.  And at our church, we learn these things from the Bible in public worship, in Life Groups, and in more personal intentional friendships.  Indeed, as we’ll see in the “From Fr. Tom” section in the coming weeks, it is through public worship, small groups, and one-on-one discipling that we live out the whole mission of the Church.