I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people…. Romans 16:2a
This morning, I am pleasantly struck by the number of women Paul mentions in his final greetings to the followers of Jesus in Rome, as well as the honor he bestows on them:
Phoebe, a deacon and benefactor of believers
Priscilla – who risked her life for Paul and others, and opened her home to be a meeting place.
Mary, who worked hard for the Roman believers
Tryphena, who works hard in the Lord
Tryphosa, who works hard in the Lord
Persis, who works hard in the Lord
The mother of Rufus, who mothered Paul
The sister of Nereus
Paul’s ministry, like Jesus’ before him, was made largely possible by incredible, honored women who were providers, risk takers, and tireless co-workers.
Today, I’m thankful for the incredible, honored women with whom God has surrounded me. Intelligent, diligent, industrious, capable, passionate, priceless, tireless, (and gorgeous, btw). I am a raving fan of the fairer sex.
Our hearts ache, but we always have joy. We are poor, but we give spiritual riches to others. We own nothing, and yet we have everything. 2 Corinthians 6:10 (NLT)
Some friends of our daughter and son-in-law recently had their car stolen. The police reported a week or so later that they had found the stolen car because it had been wrecked. Two young girls had stolen the car and subsequently got in an accident. As owners of the car, our kid’s friends had every right to be angry and to desire swift and severe punishment for the girls. They chose, however, to find out the identity of these young perpetrators of grand theft auto and….wait for it…invite them over for dinner.
I thought about this gracious couple as I read Paul’s words to the believers in Corinth this morning. As followers of Jesus, we are called to respond differently than the world responds. When hated, we love. When injured, we forgive. When insulted, we bless. When suffering, we rejoice. When in need, we are to be content. When in plenty, we give away. When slapped on one cheek, we offer the other. When our car is stolen and wrecked, we invite the thieves over for a home cooked meal.
In a world of mindless lemmings and the herd mentality it is easy to go with the flow.
I’m a history geek. Forgive me. You might need another cup of coffee for this one.
In a few years we will celebrate the 500th anniversary of one of the most important events in western civilization. In 1517 a young Roman Catholic priest named Martin Luther stopped by the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. The door served as a sort of medieval community bulletin board in those days. He nailed to the door a theological challenge that he was presenting for public debate. There were 95 things that he felt needed to change in the Roman Catholic church and his 95 “theses” started a chain reaction of events that led to what we know today as the Protestant Reformation. Europe was split asunder between Roman Catholics and these new Protest-ants.
There were many reasons the Protestant Reformation happened when it did, and many of them had nothing to do with Marty’s 95 bullet points. One of the reasons for the Reformation had to do with one of Luther’s other pet projects. Until that time the Bible existed only in painstakingly hand written copies which were penned (generally by monks) in Latin which was the official language of the Roman Catholic church. Because of this, the only people who could read the Bible for themselves were priests, the educated, and the wealthy (a very small minority) which meant that priests and the church had tremendous power over the uneducated masses: “We will tell you what God says because we can read the Bible and you can’t. You’ll just have to trust us on this.”
Marty Luther believed that everyone should have access to reading God’s Message for themselves, and so he began translating the scriptures into the common German language of his people. His successful translation coincided with a relatively recent German invention by a guy named Johannes Gutenberg: the moveable type printing press. This allowed for relatively quick and cheap mass production of books. It was a perfect storm. Gutenberg’s printing press mass produced Luther’s German translation of the Bible and common everyday people began reading the Bible for themselves. They soon discovered for themselves that the Roman Catholic church had taught them some things that they couldn’t actually find anywhere in the Bible.
One of the most important theological concepts to come out of the Reformation was “the priesthood of all believers.” The Roman Catholic church had maintained a rather tight reign on the Western World for over a thousand years because only the priests could read the Bible and Roman Catholic doctrine developed the concept that you could only receive God’s forgiveness by going to a priest, confessing and receiving absolution from God through the priest. No priest, no absolution, no forgiveness. God’s Message, however, says that Jesus is the only High Priest of all believers and that everyone who believes is part of the “royal priesthood.” In other words, the local priest in all his regalia standing at the cathedral altar has no more spiritual standing before God than the everyday sinner sitting in the pew.
So what’s my point with this wordy history lesson?
The “priesthood of all believers” was a radical concept in the 1500s, but my experience with the 21st century protestant church is that it remains just as radical today.
We still like to make our pastors into priests by putting them up on the platform in the spotlight and bestowing upon on them a spiritual standing that they do not have.
We still like to sit in the pew and believe that we are held to a lower standard as if God grades us on a curve. “I never claimed to be a pastor or a priest, so God can’t possibly hold me to that kind of spiritual standard as my pastor.“
Protestant churches eventually replaced the elite Roman Catholic priesthood with their own educational elitist system of seminaries, refusing to acknowledge that all believers are ministers of the new covenant (see the verse above, I knew I get to it eventually). Protestants replaced the remote and out-of-touch leadership of the papacy with their own remote and out-of-touch denominational offices.
Protestant churches regularly put educated but spiritually un-gifted people into positions to which they will ultimately fail, while refusing to encourage or allow spiritually gifted every day believers to use their gifts because they have not met some human educational standard.
We refuse to embrace the truth of “the priesthood of all believers” which means that EVERY person (man, woman, child) who believes and receives Jesus as Lord becomesa minister and receives a spiritual gift(s) intended for the carrying out of that ministry in their everyday lives and vocations so that others might come to believe and for the building up of fellow believers. EVERY believer of Jesus is a minister regardless of that believers education, I.Q., E.Q., age, race, background, social status, heritage, sinfulness, record, or history.
What amazing things would happen in our lives, communities, and the world itself if we zealously embraced the truth of the priesthood of all believers and started a 21st century reformation.
I live in the land of the First Amendment. We have rights and we’re not afraid to use them. We have freedom and we’re happy to exercise it (often to excess). Human rights and freedom are good things. They are blessed things. But, I’ve come to believe over time that our rights and our freedoms tend, on the whole, to breed self-centric thoughts, actions and motivations. I sometimes scratch my receding hair line and wonder where it is ultimately leading us.
This morning over our morning coffee and tea Wendy and I read an editorial from the Wall Street Journal by Melanie Kirkpatrick about believers in North Korea, where religion is banned altogether. There are no freedoms there and the average human has no rights in the eyes of the state. Christians are executed, their families imprisoned and persecuted. “Church” for believers in North Korea could literally be sitting silently in proximity of another believer:
North Korean Christians necessarily worship in secret. Many of the congregations are small family units consisting of just a husband and wife and, when they are old enough to keep a secret, their children. Other times a handful of Christians form a kind of congregation in motion. A worker for Open Doors explains how it works: “A Christian goes and sits on a bench in the park. Another Christian comes and sits next to him. Sometimes it is dangerous even to speak to one another, but they know they are both Christians, and at such a time, this is enough.”
And yet, as history has proven time and time and time again, our faith flourishes in the midst of persecution (and slowly recedes over time with freedom and license):
Yet despite this repression, something is happening that many characterize as nothing short of a miracle: Christianity appears to be growing in North Korea. Open Doors International, which tracks the persecution of Christians world-wide, puts the number of Christians in North Korea at between 200,000 and 400,000.
Today is Christmas Eve day. I’m looking forward to feasting with family, to gifts given and received, and to time with those I love. This afternoon Wendy and I will drive down the street and openly join thousands of others to worship and celebrate our Savior’s birth. Half a world away, our spiritual family members may secretly and fearfully sit on a park bench with one another. They will not make eye contact. They will not speak to one another. There will be no feast, no gifts given, and no open worship. They will simply sit together on opposite sides of a bench and silently join hearts in celebrating our Savior’s birth.
I get the sense that in terms of God’s economy they are spiritually the richer for it. Nevertheless, I will pray for them and think of them as I worship, and feast, and receive, and make merry. They put all that I will experience today and tomorrow in much needed perspective.
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”
God spoke to Moses: “Take the Levites from the midst of the People of Israel and purify them for doing God’s work.”Numbers 8:5 (MSG)
For me, one of the fascinating things about walking through these ancient texts is perceiving the ways that our culture and thinking are still rooted in the systems and concepts which were established thousands of years ago.
In today’s chapter, the tribe of Levi was singled out among all of the tribes of Israel for carrying out the work of the temple. In other words, “God’s work” was reserved for a special few. In any human system, I have to believe this is going to set into motion certain patterns of thought, creating classes within the culture. The special few who are given the religious tasks are going to think themselves special, even to the point of being better than the others. They will have a hard time not feeling that they are closer to God than those who don’t get this special task. Those who are not part of these special few begin to feel the opposite. They feel left out and dishonored. “God’s work” is not for them, so they dismiss the things of God as something above them. Jealousy, envy and hatred can even set in against those who seem to be “special.”
After Jesus death and resurrection, there was a major shift in God’s prescribed system. God’s Holy Spirit was poured out and into every person who believes and follows. No longer for a certain people or a select few, the Holy Spirit made no distinction. God gave the word picture of one body in which every believer is made a vital part, gifted in some way to help provide for it’s health and functions. Jesus presented a radical new paradigm.
We human beings are silly creatures, however. Once we get used to a system of behavior, we are loathe to go to the work of changing them. Within a short period of time, the followers of Jesus had organized into a system that looked much like what we read about in Numbers. There were special people set apart as priests and leaders to do the religious works of this organization now known as “the church.” Once again this human organizational system created a group of spiritual “haves” and “have nots.” 1500 years later a man named Martin Luther made a 95 item “point-of-order” to correct the mistake, arguing that what God’s Message presented was not a special “priesthood” for the select few but a “priesthood of all believers.” The reformers organized to try to get back to the prescribed organization of Jesus and his followers.
We human beings are silly creatures, however. Once we get used to a system of behavior, we are loathe to go to the work of changing them. For over forty years I’ve attended and been involved in a number of church organizations of all shapes, sizes and names. I’ve even led a few. We still like to treat our pastors and priests as “special” people who are spiritually above us. The common person in the pew still tends to think of “God’s work” as something relegated to the chosen few; it is something from which they are at best exempted, at worst unfit to carry out.
Today, I am reminded at how easily my human condition, culture, and systems can skew my thoughts and behaviors from those which God intended. Lord, have mercy on me.