Tag Archives: community

A Spirituality of Depth and Fruitfulness (Part Four)

12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.

It is not possible to experience depth and fruitfulness in our Christian lives without daily engagement with God through the Scriptures and prayer.  However, this does not mean that the Christian faith is just about “me and Jesus.”  Jesus’ call to abide in him was originally given to a group of his followers.  Jesus expects us to remain (collectively) in him.  How?  He tells us in verse 12: “12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.”

This command is a powerfully clarifying one within a society and culture that holds out many definitions of love to us.  Jesus makes it clear that he and his example are what love looks like. 

What does this command lead us into as followers of Jesus?

  1. It leads us into a commitment to a local church. While it’s a popular option to make faith nothing more than a personal matter, a Christian cannot follow Jesus alone. Jesus calls us to love other members of his body.  The local church is the arena of learning with and from each other how to love each other well.  It’s not without its headaches and hardships, but we cannot jettison meaningful commitment to a local group of Christians while also expecting depth and fruitfulness in our Christian walk.
  2. It leads us into greater spiritual maturity. This process of learning to love one another in the same self-giving, sacrificial, courageous, and generous way Jesus modeled takes time. We’ll have to learn patience.  We’ll have to learn to forgive others and bear each other’s immaturities and fault lines.  We’ll have to be prepared to be hurt as we enter into relationships that require vulnerability.  Perhaps most challenging of all, we’ll need to abandon a transactional view of relationships (i.e. “what’s in this for me?”) and adopt a covenantal expression of love (“how can I give and serve without strings attached?”).  Being meaningfully engaged in a local church isn’t easy, but it’s critical for any Christian.  As we obey this command Jesus will honour our commitment and bless us with depth of character and spiritual maturity that can be cultivated in no other way.
  3. It will lead us back into communion with Christ. To love others as Jesus loves us, we’ll need to return to the gospels again and again and discover how to love like Jesus. But more so, we’ll have to return to Jesus in prayer again and again as we come to see all of the ways we fail to love each other well.  We will learn very quickly that one cannot build genuine Christian community without building intimacy with Jesus.


Note: This reflection first appeared in the January 26th edition of the Nelson Star News.


Bible Overview Series: Revelation

Revelation by Joseph Novak

Revelation: When she finally arrived at the wedding, she kissed him and said, “Sorry I’m late. The traffic was hell.”

(Ben Myers’ #CanonFodder Summary) 

Jeffrey Kranz’s Overview of Revelation

John is an exile on the isle of Patmos. His crime: bearing witness of Jesus (Re 1:9). Somebody didn’t want John spreading this gospel message, and so they’d shipped him off to an island. He’s contained.

But now John has received even more news to share.

It all starts one Sunday, when John hears a voice behind him: “Write in a book what you see, and send it to the seven churches (Re 1:11).” John turns around to see seven golden lampstands, and among them, the risen Lord Jesus Christ Himself.

Jesus gives John a message for seven churches in Asia (modern-day Turkey). Of the seven, one is about to undergo intense suffering (Re 2:10), one has kept His word (Re 3:8), and the other five were faltering in their loyalty to Jesus. The Lord warns the churches that He is the righteous judge, and He knows their deeds. He calls the faltering churches to repentance, and makes seven encouraging promises to those who overcome.

Then, John is whisked into heaven to witness “what must take place after these things” (Rev 4:1). So begins a long series of prophetic visions for the churches, including:

  • A Lamb (who represents Jesus) breaks seven seals holding an old book shut—each time a seal is broken, it triggers an event on earth, some of which are catastrophic (Re 4–7).
  • Seven angels blow seven trumpets, and each trumpet blast brings a plague on the earth (Re 8–11).
  • A great dragon (Satan) and two beasts make war against a certain woman and the saints (Re 12–14).
  • Seven angels pour out seven bowls, and each bowl brings another plague on the earth (Re 15–16).
  • The Lamb overcomes the wicked city of Babylon, the dragon, and the beasts, then brings about a final judgment day (Rev 17–20).
  • A new heaven and new earth appear, where God and the Lamb dwell with people in harmony forever (Rev 21–22).

John faithfully writes everything down as a prophetic letter to the seven churches, with a closing message from Jesus: “I am coming quickly.”

Theme verse of Revelation

Therefore write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after these things. (Re 1:19)

Revelation’s role in the Bible

Revelation is traditionally attributed to the apostle John, who also wrote a Gospel and three New Testament letters. He was a leader in the early church, and he probably wrote his documents after most of the other New Testament books were already written.

Two characteristics of Revelation set it apart from the rest of the New Testament:

  1. It’s the only book of its genre. Most of the New Testament is history or a letter. Revelation is indeed sent as a letter with a traditional greeting (Re 1:1–8), direct messages to the recipients (Re 2–3), and a sendoff (Re 22:18–21), but the bulk of the letter is a record of John’s vivid symbolic visions. No other book of the New Testament feels like Revelation.
  2. Jesus directly addresses the readers. You’ll have to flip back to the Old Testament to see someone write down a message from God for someone else. The Gospels record Jesus’ teachings, and the letters draw application from His teachings, but only in Revelation does Jesus Himself speak directly to the churches (Re 2–3; 22:16).

Revelation may be distinct from the New Testament, but its style and theology are right at home in the Bible. Revelation’s symbolic visions are similar to what you’d see in the Old Testament prophecies of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah.

Of course, even after going over the book’s content, it can still be difficult to know what Revelation is all about. Some of the visions are explained for us: the Lamb is Jesus (Re 17:14) and the dragon is the devil (Re 12:9). Others—most, really—aren’t so directly explained.

Some say all (or most) of John’s visions are about the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D.; others say the prophecies haven’t been fulfilled yet. As you read and study Revelation, keep a few things in mind:

  • This message is written to churches in Asia, which had both Jewish and Gentile members.
  • Jesus begins everything with messages to the churches who were dealing with distraction, persecution, false teaching, immorality, laziness, and stagnation.
  • The correct response to this letter is to come to Jesus and invite others (Re 22:17).

Revelation is the last book of the New Testament and the Bible—what a finish!

Quick outline of Revelation

  1. John’s greeting and introduction (1:1–8)
  2. Jesus’ messages to seven churches (1:9–3:22)
  3. Visions of what comes “after these things” (4–22:9)
    • The Lamb who was slain breaks seven seals (4–7)
    • Seven angels sound their trumpets (8–11)
    • The dragon, the beast, and the saints (12–14)
    • Seven bowls of God’s wrath (15–16)
    • The Lamb overcomes Babylon and judges the earth (17–20)
    • The new heaven, new earth, and new Jerusalem (21:1–22:9)
  4. How to respond to John’s vision (22:10–21)

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Bible Overview Series: 3 John

Letters of John by Joseph Novak

3 John: Oh my dear friend, I need to see you face to face to tell you what love means. Love can’t be sent by mail.

(Ben Myers’ #CanonFodder Summary) 

Jeffrey Kranz’s Overview of 2 John

Gaius knows the truth. He was baptized by Paul and traveled with him (1 Co 1:14; Acts 19:29). Later, he hosted Paul and a local church (Ro 16:23). Now he’s earned a reputation for his hospitality among the Christians (3 Jn 5–6). And hospitality is a good, powerful thing: the apostle John says that by supporting these men, we join them in their work for the truth.

Sadly, not everyone is like Gaius.

The power-hungry Diotrephes is stirring up strife in Gaius’ church. He’s rejecting John’s earlier letter, babbling accusations against the apostle, and even excommunicating church members who welcome other Christians into their homes (3 Jn 9–10).

When truth is rejected, fellowship is fractured.

This won’t do. Jesus has commanded Christians to love one another (Jn 13:34), and John writes to Gaius to let him know three things:

  1. Gaius is doing the right thing, even though Diotrephes is condemning hospitality.
  2. Gaius should not imitate what is evil, but instead imitate what is good (3 Jn 11).
  3. John is coming to straighten things out.

John will soon arrive to put things right in person (3 Jn 14). He’ll hold Diotrephes accountable for his words and deeds (3 Jn 10). Soon, John will arrive.

And there will be peace in truth (3 Jn 15).

Theme verse of 3 John

I have no greater joy than this, to hear of my children walking in the truth. (3 Jn 4)

3 John’s role in the Bible

In addition to this one, John wrote two other New Testament letters, a Gospel, and possibly the prophetic book of Revelation. He was a leader in the early church, and he probably wrote his documents after most of the other New Testament books were already written.

Third John is the sixth of the General Epistles (or Catholic Letters), the writings of apostles to the church at large. While Paul wrote to specific congregations and individuals, Peter, James, John, and Jude wrote to broader audiences scattered across the Roman empire. Second and Third John, however, are written to specific audiences.

Third John is the shortest book of the Bible: only 219 words (in its original Greek).

This letter repeats many themes from John’s first letter, and Second John reflects these themes as well. Third John shows us what happens when people follow sound teaching . . . and when they don’t:

  • When Christians walk in truth, joy abounds (3 Jn 4). When someone in the church rejects the truth, everyone hurts (3 Jn 19).
  • When Christians support one another, they share fellowship in the truth (3 Jn 8). When someone seeks his own power, the fellowship is at risk (3 Jn 9–10).

Overall, the three letters from John give us an idea of what the apostle thought was most important at the time: sound teaching, obedience to God, and brotherly love.

Quick outline of 3 John

  1. Praise for walking in truth (1–4)
  2. Praise for loving the brethren (5–8)
  3. Caution regarding Diotrephes (9–12)
  4. Anticipation of a visit (13–15)

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Bible Overview Series: 2 John

Letters of John by Joseph Novak

2 John: Pure spiritual love is a delusion. Love has come among us in the flesh. It’s with our bodies that we walk in love’s way.

(Ben Myers’ #CanonFodder Summary) 

Jeffrey Kranz’s Overview of 2 John

The apostle John had set several things straight in his first epistle. He’d told the churches how to know if they were of the faith, he’d dressed down the false teachings that were making their rounds, and he’d strongly urged the Christians to love one another.

He’d told them about truth, love, and obedience—now he writes to tell them what to do about it.

In Second John, the elder (2 Jn 1) briefly explains the relationship between the three:

  • Love and truth. John loves those who know the truth, because the truth “abides” in them (2 Jn 1–2). When two parties know the truth, love comes naturally.
  • Truth and obedience. God the Father commanded that His children walk in truth (2 Jn 4). When you know the truth, obedience comes naturally.
  • Obedience and love. The commandment that God gave isn’t anything new: “love one another” (2 Jn 5). A sure sign of obedience to God is love for His church, and a sure sign of love is obedience to God (2 Jn 6).

He then warns that “many deceivers have gone out into the world” (2 Jn 7), and that the Christians should watch themselves. They should beware of teachers who do not acknowledge Jesus’ human life and who deviate from the things He taught (2 Jn 8–9). Such people are dangerous: the church shouldn’t side with them, shouldn’t invite them in, and shouldn’t participate in their actions (2 Jn 10–11).

John is a bit cryptic in this letter, but he seems well aware of this. He would rather discuss this and more in person, so he lets the audience know that he hopes to visit soon (2 Jn 12).

Because truth, love, and obedience should be a part of everyday life, and the church needs to understand how.

Theme verse in 2 John

And this is love, that we walk according to His commandments. This is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning, that you should walk in it. (2 Jn 6)

2 John’s role in the Bible

In addition to this one, John wrote two other New Testament letters, a Gospel, and possibly the prophetic book of Revelation. He was a leader in the early church, and he probably wrote his documents after most of the other New Testament books were already written.

John writes this second letter to “the chosen lady and her children”—which may refer to a particular church leader, or perhaps metaphorically to a local church or group of churches. John refers to this lady’s “chosen sister” at the end of this letter (2 Jn 13), which may be code for a greeting from the children of another woman, or members of another church or group of churches.

Second John is the fifth of the General Epistles (or Catholic Letters), the writings of apostles to the church at large. While Paul wrote to specific congregations and individuals, Peter, James, John, and Jude wrote to broader audiences scattered across the Roman empire. Second and Third John, however, are written to specific audiences.

Second John is the second shortest book of the Bible—Third John is the shortest (by word count). It’s only one chapter long, and has only thirteen verses.

This letter repeats many themes from John’s first letter, and Third John reflects these themes as well. Overall, the three letters from John give us an idea of what the apostle thought was most important at the time: sound teaching, obedience to God, and brotherly love.

Quick outline of 2 John

  1. Walk in truth (1–4)
  2. Love others and obey God (5–6)
  3. Beware false teachers (7–11)
  4. Look forward to a visit (12–13)

If you found this blog post helpful, please consider donating to help offset the costs of running this site. I will never have ads or charge a fee. However, it takes a lot of work to keep this site up. Thanks!



Bible Overview Series: 2 Peter

2 Peter by Joseph Novak

2 Peter: “Paul’s letters are hard to understand”: the calm judgment of a pseudonymous letter full of riddles and obscurities.

(Ben Myers’ #CanonFodder Summary) 

Jeffrey Kranz’s Overview of 2 Peter

After Jesus rose from the grave, He had a special conversation with Peter about how the apostle would die:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to gird yourself and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go.” Now this He said, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God (Jn 21:18–19).

Peter knows that he will die for the Lord, and that his time was drawing near.

But there is so much the church needs to know and remember! False teachers are everywhere, causing divisions in the body of Christ (2 Pe 2:1–3). People will mock the promise of Christ’s return (2 Pe 3:4). There are those who twist the Old Testament, and even the letters of Paul (2 Pe 3:16).

The church needs to remember the Scriptures: the words of the Old Testament prophets and the words of Jesus that the apostles had passed on. Peter is an undisputed authority in the church, and so before he gives up his life, he writes a letter.

One last letter.

Second Peter is a last attempt to help the global church by reminding them of the truth. Peter explains several things that Christians will need to remember after he’s gone:

  1. Godly living is the evidence of salvation (2 Pe 1:10). If the Christians really believe what they say they believe, they will display moral excellence, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, kindness, and love.
  2. Scriptural truth and prophecy are from God, not man. Peter and the rest of the apostles would die, but the word would remain forever (1 Pe 1:25). Furthermore, the teaching that Peter and the apostles had passed on wasn’t just something they’d dreamed up; they were eyewitnesses (2 Pe 1:16–18). And all those Old Testament prophets? They were under the influence of the Holy Spirit (2 Pe 1:21).
  3. False teachers will try to deceive the church. They’ll introduce divisive teachings that encourage people to indulge in the sins of the world: a twisted, disgusting take on Jesus’ grace (2 Pe 2).
  4. Mockers will discount the idea of Jesus’ return. Peter doesn’t know when Jesus was coming back; he just knew better than to doubt Him. Peter assures the church that Jesus is indeed returning, and His church should behave accordingly (2 Pe 3:14).

Peter had urged the church to stand firm in his first letter, but there will be no more letters from Peter. There will be no more sermons and no more miracles from the disciple who lead the church for over 30 years.

Second Peter urges the church to stand firm—because even when Peter is gone, the church must carry on.

Theme verse in 2 Peter

Remember the words spoken beforehand by the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior spoken by your apostles. (2 Pe 3:2)

2 Peter’s role in the Bible

Second Peter is the apostle Peter’s last reminder to the church. Tradition holds that he was crucified around 64–65 A.D., which means he would have written this letter about this time.

Second Peter is the third of the General Epistles (or Catholic Letters), the writings of apostles to the church at large. While Paul wrote to specific congregations and individuals, Peter, James, John, and Jude wrote to broader audiences across the Roman empire.

There’s one more “goodbye” letter in the New Testament: Paul’s second letter to Timothy. Both apostles, when they knew they were going to die soon, wrote letters to remind others of what was important.

This letter’s second and third chapters bear remarkable resemblance to the epistle of Jude. We don’t know if Peter borrowed from Jude’s letter, if Jude borrowed from Peter’s letter, or if both men were drawing from a prior discussion. Both letters, however, warn the church of two dangerous influences:

  1. False teachers who lead the people to indulge in sin
  2. Mockers who dismiss the idea of Jesus’ return

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Second Peter is its emphasis on the Scriptures, both Old and New Testament. Peter firmly believes that many of the books in our Bibles today are true:

  • Peter was an eyewitness of Jesus’ majesty when He was transfigured (you can read about that in Mark 9), and so he is not just following a made-up story of Jesus. He was there. He heard the voice of God affirming Jesus as His Son (2 Pe 1:17). Therefore, Jesus’ ministry validates the prophets’ writings (the Old Testament).
  • And even those prophets weren’t just making things up. They were “moved by the Holy Spirit” when they spoke for God (2 Pe 1:21).
  • Peter holds the teachings of the apostles in high regard—on the level of the Old Testament prophets (2 Pe 3:2). The apostles included JamesMatthew, and John, who went on to write some of the books in our New Testament.
  • Peter especially esteems Paul’s letters—even regarding them as Scripture themselves (2 Pe 3:15–16).

Peter had said in a previous letter that “the word of the Lord endures forever” (1 Pe 1:25). Peter would die, but he believed the Scriptures would live on—and his last recorded words urge us to remember them.

Quick outline of 2 Peter

2 Peter displays some remarkable parallelism. Peter begins with a call to diligence in good works, reminds the reader that they can count on the prophets, and then warns that false prophets will arise. Peter then assures them that the old prophecies are true, and finishes with a call to be diligent and on guard.

  1. Remember to be diligent (2 Pet 1:1–15)
  2. True prophets and teachers (2 Pet 1:16–21)
  3. False prophets and teachers (2 Pet 2)
  4. Remember the true prophecies (2 Pet 3:1–13)
  5. Be diligent; be on guard (2Pet 3:14–18)

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Bible Overview Series: 1 Peter


1 Peter by Joseph Novak

1 Peter:  In the midst of a strange land all the strangers assembled in one place, and called it Home.

(Ben Myers’ #CanonFodder Summary) 

Jeffrey Kranz’s Overview of 1 Peter

Christians just don’t fit in, and that’s not easy for the first-century church. Christians are suffering all over the world (1 Pe 5:1), and the Christians in modern-day Turkey need to know why. They need to know how to deal with it. They need to know how to live.

And they need to know it’s not it vain.

The apostle Peter writes these Christians a letter to address these issues in two ways:

  • Testify the truth. The more they know about Jesus, themselves, and the world, the better they’ll understand their difficult situation.
  • Exhort them to live accordingly.

The book reflects this focus. Peter explores a piece of doctrine, and then encourages the Christians to apply it to their lives. He makes four of these back-and-forth cycles:

  1. Peter begins his letter by calling Christians “aliens,” or residential foreigners to the Roman Empire (1 Pe 1:1, 17). He then goes on to explain the relationship between suffering and salvation: suffering lasts now, but it proves our faith so that joy and glory can come later.
    Therefore, Christians should be holy, or set apart (1 Pe 1:14). They should love one another and long for the word of God.
  2. After explaining why Christians are different, Peter goes into what the Christian family is: a spiritual house, a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession (1 Pe 2:5, 9).
    Therefore, Christians ought to keep their behavior excellent, so that even their oppressors will glorify God. They should submit to authorities, submit to one another, honor their spouses, and demonstrate kindness—even when they’re suffering as Christians.
  3. And who set the finest example of suffering to glorify God? Jesus Christ.
    Therefore, the Christians should live for the will of God and use their spiritual gifts to serve one another and glorify God.
  4. And as if these folks had any more questions about suffering, Peter goes into it one more time. Suffering tests us. It’s a way that we identify with Christ. And it never gives us an excuse to sin—the suffering Christian will still do what is right (1 Pe 4:19).
    Therefore, church leaders should set a good example, and all Christians should humble themselves under God, standing firm as they  look forward to Jesus’ return.

To Peter, suffering is something the Christian should always see coming. We’re foreigners here, and we shouldn’t expect to be treated differently until our King claims dominion forever and ever (1 Pe 5:10–11).

Theme verse of 1 Peter

If anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name. (1 Pe 4:16)

1 Peter’s role in the Bible

No other book of the Bible focuses on suffering and glory as much as First Peter. This epistle was written to give Christians a fuller understanding of what’s going on: the present sufferings and the glories to come.

First Peter is the second of the General Epistles (or Catholic Letters), the writings of apostles to the church at large. While Paul wrote to specific congregations and individuals, Peter, James, John, and Jude wrote to broader audiences across the Roman Empire.

This letter from Peter focuses on the sufferings and glory of Christ and His church. While Paul briefly explores Christian suffering with the Thessalonian church, Peter writes a whole letter on the issue. To Peter, Christian suffering isn’t just something to put up with—it’s something to expect.

Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you (1 Pe 4:12).

No suffering is enjoyable, but Peter actually calls it a blessing. Here’s a list of reasons why he sees it this way:

  • When we suffer as Christians, we identify with Jesus (1 Pe 4:1, 13).
  • After we share in His hardship, we will share in our King’s glory (1 Pe 5:10).
  • Suffering is an opportunity to prove our faith (1 Pe 1:6–7).
  • It’s an opportunity to do what is right—even when we are wronged (1 Pe 2:20).
  • Christ set an example of suffering for us to follow (1 Pe 2:21).
  • The way we deal with persecution will bring our persecutors to glorify God (1 Pe 2:12).
  • When we do what is right no matter what the circumstances, God is pleased (1 Pe 2:20)

And if anyone’s an expert on this, it’s Peter. He saw Christ suffer with his own eyes (1 Pe 5:1). He knew from early on that he would be martyred for Christ’s sake (Jn 21:18–19). And he’d caught a glimpse of the glory to follow (2 Pe 1:16–18; Mk 9:2–3).

This book was likely written in the early 60s, and the second book attributed to Peter was probably written a few years later.

Quick outline of 1 Peter

  1. Suffering proves salvation (1 Pet 1:1-12)

  2. We are a holy people (1 Pet 2:4–11)
    Therefore, pursue excellent behavior:

  3. Christ suffered for us (1 Pet 3:13–22)

  4. Suffering tests us (1 Pet 4:12–19)

If you found this blog post helpful, please consider donating to help offset the costs of running this site. I will never have ads or charge a fee. However, it takes a lot of work to keep this site up. Thanks!



What Makes Community Distinctively “Christian”?

In Mark 3:13–19 we find Jesus bringing his disciples together and appointing 12 to be his apostles.  The text, while seemingly a straightforward list of names, gives many important insights into the nature of Christian community.

13 Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. 14 He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach 15 and to have authority to drive out demons. 16 These are the twelve he appointed: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter), 17 James son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means “sons of thunder”), 18 Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot 19 and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

I know this seems like a list of names and not at all relevant to what we’re talking about, but there’s actually 5 things embedded in this passage that should radically challenge our understanding of Christian community:

1. Christian community is Jesus-centred.  This might seem like a no-brainer, but a lot that is named Christian community isn’t centred on Jesus and his gospel.  Jesus centres the community around himself, so we should be leering of any other expression of community that is grounded in something other than the person and work of Jesus.

If Jesus isn’t the centre of our gatherings, an idol of our own making–even a well intended one–will take his place.  And that move will spell certain doom from the outset.  Bonhoeffer, commenting on the temptation to centre our quest for community on an idealized vision of what could/should be instead of the person of Jesus is dynamite here:

“Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial. God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who dream of this idolized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands set up by their own law, and judge one another and God accordingly. It is not we who build. Christ builds the church. Whoever is mindful to build the church is surely well on the way to destroying it, for he will build a temple to idols without wishing or knowing it.” Life Together

 2. Christian community is based on comraderie, not chemistry.  Jesus gathered together people who had little common affinity.  Scratch that:  Jesus actually gathered people who were natural enemies!  A tax collector and a zealot!? There would have been no love lost between a collaborator with Rome (Matthew) and a zealot (Simon) who is seeking to overthrow Rome and use violent means if necessary!

What is Jesus doing?!  He’s showing us a different expression of community; one that speaks to the heart of God’s intentions for the world and the gospel itself.  Jesus does not expect this group to like each other, but he gathers them together to learn to love–starting with loving those you honest wished weren’t part of the group.

That means we shouldn’t expect Christian community to be founded on chemistry and sympatico.  Sure, we will develop friendships within our churches, small groups, etc., but when Jesus forms communities he does so on the basis of camaraderie.  Camaraderie is a feeling of trust, a bond created by a shared goal or experience.  It runs deepen than chemistry.  It goes beyond a convenient collection of complimentary personality types.   When a group is grounded in comraderie, you don’t have to be best friends with everyone in the group to know you have their support.  Therefore, genuine Christian community doesn’t mean you’re best friends with everyone and the group never expereinces any friction or conflict.  What it does mean is that there is a driving experience (Jesus’ call, salvation, and Lordship) that holds the group together and teaches the group to value and love each other.

3. Christian community is a means, not an end.   Jesus calls many disciples to himself, but he appoints twelve as apostles. Why?  He’s rebooting Israel.  “I’ve called you together…for a (re)newed mission!  You are blessed to be a blessing!” (cf. Genesis 12:1-3).  Christian community is always a means to a greater end (i.e. glorifying God and forwarding his mission). When the experience of community becomes the end we’re chasing, it poisons and rots things from the inside out.

 4. Christian community is a commitment to “one another.”  Christian community isn’t driven by the question, “what’s in it for me?” but “how can I be a blessing to others?”  This means a radical commitment to what much of the later epistles spell out in the “one another’s”:

  • Love one another (John 13:34, 15:12)
  • Outdo one another in showing honor (Romans 12:10)
  • Live in harmony with one another (Romans 12:16)
  • Serve one another (John 13:1-20; Galatians 5:13)
  • Bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2)
  • Forgive one another (Ephesians 4:32)
  • Submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21)
  • Be honest with one another (Colossians 3:9)
  • Encourage one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11)
  • Confess to one another (James 5:16)
  • Pray for one another (James 5:16)

On a later occassion Jesus gave his disciples a new command:

John 13:34 “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Christian community comes into being when a critical mass of people in a church/group/fellowship begin asking “how can I creatively love and serve these brothers and sisters?” instead of, “when will this group meet my wants and needs?”

5. Christian Community is consistent.  One characteristic that should define Christian community is that it is consistent.  Jesus called his disciples together into a new way of life where they were committed to doing life together as they learned under him.

Today, my sense is that far too many Christians do not take seriously their communal responsibilities to one another.  The first believers met daily for encouragement, prayer, support, study, etc., and while I acknowledge that model isn’t doable for most of us in our contexts, I don’t think our default position should be, “I’m committed until something better comes along.”  More and more of us are rationalizing going to church every 2nd or 3rd week.  We show up at youth group if/when we want.  We sign up for a small group but attend sporadically.

And after weeks/months/years living inside of this lifestyle of casual commitment, we wonder why our experience of Christian community is so thin–or even non-existent?

I don’t think anyone would ever accuse me of being a legalist, but I think it’s important to recognize that it’s become very easy to place gathering together with other Christians consistently far down the priority ladder.  Which makes sense if church is something you fit into your agenda.  But it doesn’t make sense if through gatherings like Sunday worship, small groups, bible studies, etc., Jesus is seeking to reshape your life around his agenda.


Icons Of Who We Can Become: Synaspismos

I’m reading through Playing God ahead of an upcoming event next week featuring Andy Crouch.  The book is fantastic, and is filled with memorable stories and illustrations that shed new light on what it means to wield power in ways that restores the image of God–in ourselves and others–instead of diminishing it.

One of the most beautiful pictures I’ve come across so far is in the chapter “Icons.”  Building on the idea that an icon is a trustworthy image (as opposed to an idol, which is an untrustworthy image), Andy recounts a trip to the Greek island of Patmos where he discovered a unique icon.  The following are a series of excerpts from p. 94-96 of the book, highlighting some powerful ruminations by Andy on the artwork.



Most icons show one saint; this one showed two, Saints Peter and Paul.  And they were embracing.  Indeed, they were nearly kissing; their faces were pressed up against one another in an intimate greeting, presumably something like the “holy kiss” that Paul refers to in his letters.  The traditional circular halos behind their heads overlapped, forming a kind of heart shape.  The icon was a series of symmetries from top to bottom–their halos, their hands on one another’s shoulders and forearms, their overlapping garments of deep green, crimson, blue and gold all combining in a moment of balanced but dynamic harmony.

I ended up paying several visits to the icon during my week of Patmos, drawn back to it by the tension between its harmonious beauty and the complicated historical moment it portrays.  The icon, as a visiting Greek scholar did his best to explain to me using his limited English one day as we stood in the dry cool air of the gallery, shows the moment when Peter and Paul meet for the first time.  “Synaspismos,” he said emphatically.  “At yes, synaspismos,” I responded, pretending that my four years of classical Greek were not wasted.  For many years I though he was telling me the name of the icon; only later did I learn that the word refers to an ancient battle practice of advancing with shields overlapping one anther, just as the saints overlap in this moment of greeting.  It is a word for shared strength, comradeship, and partnership–the sharing of power that enabled both Peter and Paul to fulfill their vocations as ambassadors of the gospel across the Roman Empire.

But while Peter and Paul are indeed greeting one another with a holy miss, fellow warriors lending one another their strength and blessing, the longer I looked at that icon the more I suspected that Peter and Paul’s feelings about this meeting were, well, complicated.  The express on each of their faces is somber, even a bit suspicious.  Indeed, as they embrace they are quite conspicuously not looking one another in the eyes the way I do when I meet a long-lost friend; they gaze across and out of frame of the icon, each looking at something beyond the other.  These are not old friends reunited after a long journey.  They are, in fact, very recent enemies meeting shortly after Paul’s conversion from persecutor of the church to energetic defender of the Way of Jesus.

Peter and Paul were alike in some ways.  Both seem to have been bold if not brash, both were evangelists, both seem to have had an instinct for seeking out and training young leaders like Mark and Timothy.  Yet they were also undeniably different.  Paul, the cosmopolitan Pharisee and student of Gamaliel; Peter, the fisherman with the Galilean accent.  Oddly, the Galilean outsider become a leading figure in the Jerusalem church and ultimately was thought of as the apostle to the Jews; the Pharisee insider ultimately made his greatest contribution to Christian history by embracing a mission to the Gentiles.  The iconography of the Synaspismos icon plays up their differences even as it brings them together in their embrace–Peter with his traditional bushy head of hair, Paul darker in complexion and already balding (the iconographer thoughtfully gives him a little tuft of hair on top of his head–fortunately, the combover seems to have bee a later invention).  It also emphasizes, if not exaggerates, the difference in age between the two men: Peter is portrayed with gray hair and beard, oso that Paul, in spite of his premature balding, looks like the young man.

So the Synaspismos icon has become for me a picture of fellowship, partnership and community, and also of difference, distance and difficulty.  Ultimately they are all part of the same thing.  It is perhaps the best portrayal I have seen of the reality that love is as much an act of the will as an impulse of the heart.  In the Synaspismos we witness two strong leaders willing to submit to one another–to embrace the gifts the other brings and to join together, shields overlapping, in a shared mission.


Prayer as Incubator of Intimacy

I believe each of us wants and needs a meaningful connection on two levels: with God with others.  Prayer is an incubator for both.

Intimacy with Others

“28 About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray” (Luke 9:28)

Notice Jesus takes a few close friends with him to pray.  Have you ever prayed with someone in a really meaningful way?  It’s a very powerful and humbling experience. It connects us to others in a way that nothing else can.  When prayer is sincere and vulnerable we can’t help but become closer to those we pray with; we can’t help but deepen our love for them.  In fact, prayer is so powerful in creating intimacy between people the campus ministry Young Life includes as part of its training program the mantra, “the couple that prays together lays together.” It’s their way of warning dating to be careful about spending too much time alone in prayer, because when your heart connects with someone on that level–if there’s an existing foundation of attraction–your body will want to follow suit.  Prayer is a powerful incubator for intimacy with others.

Intimacy with God

“32 Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. 33 As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah’” (Luke 9:32-33).

During his time of prayer Peter has an experience of Jesus that is so awesome, he immediately tries to figure out  a way to hold onto the moment forever.  Peter’s experience of Jesus’ glory is so pervasie, so good, so restorative, so deep, that he’s willing to stay on the mountaintop forever.  Those kind of profound personal experiences of God’s immanence (i.e. closeness) don’t happen very often in the context of prayer (at least for me).  But sometimes God allows His presence to be experienced in a profoundly powerful and personal way.  Those encounters are a gift, and often only happen within the incubator of prayer.  They are beautiful and mysterious and build your faith and intimacy with God by leaps and bounds.

But if I want to experience that level of closeness with God, I need to follow Jesus’ way and consistently seek out places of voluntary under-stimulation (i.e. “wilderness”) where I can just be with God.  Unhurried.  At ease.  Open.

In that environment–in that incubator–intimacy with God is generated, sustained, and deepened.


Culture Making, Playing God, and the Common Good

Last year our lead pastoral team attended a Q session in New York City that featured Andy Crouch and Timothy Keller exploring what it means for Christians to be culture-making agents for the common good.

It was a fantastic experience. Keller has long been a major theological/pastoral mentor of mine, so I was looking forward to meeting him and “sitting at his feet.” What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was the impact that Crouch’s sessions would have on me. At the time of the conference I had just started to wade into Crouch’s writings (I was about half-way through Culture Making). Having written about the relationship between power and Christian leadership in my own book, Andy’s reflections brought a new level of coherence to my thinking as I was challenged to develop a more nuanced understanding of how power is connected to culture making, playing God, and the common good.

During the New York sessions I remember being struck by how timely his thoughts were to my own pastoral context and the issues facing the city of Hamilton in particular. After his third session I approached Andy and asked if he would be willing to come up to Hamilton and facilitate a TrueCity event that would help galvanize Christians in this area into a deeper engagement with his themes. He was incredibly warm to the idea, and after hearing about the TrueCity movement it only took a few emails to secure a date: January 16th, 2014.

I’m still working with the TrueCity leadership team to figure out the exact parameters of the one day event, but the following two questions will be framing our time together:

1. “What is the role of the church in pursuing the ‘common good’?”

2. “How do we [church leaders] handle power in a way that causes our churches to flourish in the pursuit of the ‘common good’?”

Although the event is still months away, I find myself increasingly excited as Andy’s influence grows and his ideas continue to resonate and build momentum within the Christian community.

If you’re new to Andy Crouch, here is a series of six short videos that give you an introduction the six big ideas found in his new book Playing God: Redeemer the Gift of Power. I hope they entice you to dive into Andy’s writings and let them shape your discipleship journey:

Andy Crouch, author of Playing God, on Playing the Cello from InterVarsity Press on Vimeo.

Andy Crouch, author of Playing God, on Either/Or from InterVarsity Press on Vimeo.

Andy Crouch, author of Playing God, on Idolatry from InterVarsity Press on Vimeo.

Andy Crouch, author of Playing God, on Poverty from InterVarsity Press on Vimeo.

Andy Crouch, author of Playing God, on Flourishing from InterVarsity Press on Vimeo.

Andy Crouch, author of Playing God, on Institutions from InterVarsity Press on Vimeo.