Friday, November 21, 2008

4 Paths of Economic Surrender: A Scriptural Guide

1. Leaving one’s wealth
Mark 1-2—Disciples left their occupations and families
Mark 10—The disciples told that they will gain eternal life and more for leaving all they had.
John 1—Disciples told to leave their occupations and families

2. Selling one’s wealth and giving to the poor
Luke 12:33—Sell your possessions and give to the poor
Mark 10:21—Sell your possessions and give to the poor
Acts 4:32-37—Many in the church selling what they had, which was then distributed to the poor

3. Becoming a patron of the poor—keeping a certain amount of wealth for the well-being of the righteous poor
Luke 8:2-3—Women who followed Jesus provided for his needs and the needs of the disciples.
Romans 16:2—Phoebe was a patroness of Paul.
II Kings 4:8-11—Elisha had a patron who provided room and board when he was in town

4. Living a life of hospitality to the poor
Luke 16:9—Give unrighteous mammon to those who will welcome you into eternal dwellings
Luke 14:12-14—Invite the poor to your festivals and parties.
Acts 28:7—Pubius welcomed Paul and his companions to stay with him for three days.
Rom 16:3-5; I Cor 16:19—Prisca and Aquilla allowed churches to meet in their homes.
II Tim 1:16—Onesiphorus gave hospitality to Paul
Philemon 1-7—Philemon provided hospitality to Paul and many others.
3 John 5-6—Send brothers on their way in a manner worthy of God.
Matthew 25:31-46—To assist the poor brothers and sisters in Christ is assisting Christ himself.
Matthew 10:40-42—The one who does the smallest act of hospitality in the name of a disciple will not lose his reward.
I John 3:17—Those who do not provide for brothers or sisters in need , yet have the resources, do not know of God’s love.

Paul and Economics, Part II

Paul the apostle, the ancient missionary and theologian, has appeared on a 21st century university campus! With his good friend, Don, a professor of ancient Hebrew literature, they speak the truth of the ancient Christians to students who ask Paul questions!

Adam: Well, I am glad that the church is a bit more economically savvy, now than it was in the ancient past.

Paul: Economically wise? In what way?

Adam: You were just saying that the church provides charity for anyone in need. This system creates laziness and dependence and an unstable economic system. And you were initiating the very system that the Reformation had to do away with—paying for a priestly class that provided nothing to the community.

Paul: Ah, like your pastors today, you mean?

Adam: A pastor today is paid by the excess of a particular community. If a community isn’t fiscally wealthy, they don’t get a pastor. And the pastor is paid because of his or her superior education. So they had to prove their place. Not just show up and say, “I’m an apostle” or a monk or whatever, and expected any stranger to provide for them.

Paul: And this is superior, why?

Adam: Because the church isn’t providing assistance to those who are just taking advantage of the system. This supports the economy of the country, it is not a drain from it.

Paul: So everyone only receives that which they deserve?

Adam: That is correct.

Paul: So no one lives off of charity?

Adam: There are some people who live off of the government. However, eventually, the government will stop giving to those who don’t deserve it.

Paul: I hope so.

Adam: You do? That’s good. I was afraid that you’d be some kind of socialist…

Paul: I hope the government steps out of welfare so the church could step in.

Adam: What?

Paul: It is the church’s witness to the world, to provide charity that no one else provides. It is the demonstration of God’s care to give food to those who are not able to provide for themselves. And that without a large administration, a book of policies or hired workers.

Adam: But you would create a class of unproductive people in society. It would destroy the economy!

Paul: Not at all. Rather, you would have a group who would provide work for people that would be in accord with their ability. Remember, we began this discussion talking about work. It is a principle of the church that everyone should work, should be productive, but that the church should provide charity to everyone in need.

Adam: And you will create a class of people who only do “god work” a spiritual glut.

Paul: You are so concerned about unproductive people. Yet the economic system you support seems to have many people whom I consider unproductive. Pencil pushers, over-qualified decision makers, people who never make food or assist another person, but they only make money or paperwork appear out of thin air. The church would create a class of people who would work to build God’s kingdom. Build a class of people who will be followers of Jesus and not just speakers of Jesus.

Adam: Just as I said, lazy people—unproductive.

Paul: Is it unproductive to know people well enough to be able to meet their needs? Is it unproductive to visit people in the hospital or in prison? Is it unproductive to be friends with the friendless, to provide hope for the depressed? Is it unproductive to create places where the sick can rest in peace instead of on the street? Is it unproductive to grow food and give it to the poor? Is it unproductive to help the “sinners” of society to repent and depend on God’s grace? Is it unproductive to pick up food from those who cannot use it and give it to the needy? Rather, it is a work of honor. And even if it does not pay in this world, those who do this work in Jesus’ name will be rewarded by Him on the final day.
Adam: But you don’t understand. Such a society would economically self-destruct! There is nothing there to provide economic security—just like you were saying about the ancient economy.

Paul: If we have a whole sub-structure of society that is based on work toward mutual need and charity, it would be supported by God’s grace and power. Such a society would never need to worry about their needs because God would provide for them daily and make sure that everyone would be provided for, as long as they share with whoever is in need.

Adam: This is magic, not sound economic principles.

Paul: It seems to me that your capitalism is based on magic. Your “invisible hand” directs economic prosperity, as long as everyone is promoting their own economic self-interest. That’s the theory. But the reality is that you have to have a sub-structure of people perpetually in poverty to support your economic system. You must have a two-tiered structure—the poor struggling for survival behind the scenes, all the while supporting the “middle class” of the West, who are really the ruling aristocrats of today. The immigrants in your country, those who can only afford to work “under the table”, those who work below a living wage in your fast food restaurants and bargain stores, as well as the millions around the world who work on farms and factories— they are all the backbone on which your economic prosperity is dependant on. If you paid them for their work, rather than for the education level of their work, then your whole economy would collapse. The structure is only beginning to creak now, but soon it will fall throughout the world.

Adam: So you are a socialist, as I thought.

Paul: No. A socialist believes that the government should provide for those in need. I don’t think that we need to make demands of the rich. Rather, the Lord makes a request of those who have more than they need, and they obey if they follow the Lord. I am a Christian. I trust in God to provide for me, and do as he commands. That is my real work, to obey the Father through Jesus. And I believe that every Christian should do the same.

Adam: That is just too simplistic to be a real economic system.

Paul: Whatever you want to think. But the reality of it is that God is in control of His people. He knows what work He wants them to do, and we do it, if we are listening to Him. And part of that work is to provide both sustenance and work for those who are in need. Everyone takes their turn. Everyone, at some point, has more than what they need, and so they provide. Everyone, at some point, is in need of assistance and so they receive help.

Adam: I will never need help from anyone.

Paul: Oh, yes you will. And when it happens you will wish that you were a part of a community that assists you instead of treating you like it was your own fault. And when that day happens, cry out to the Lord. Perhaps he will help you.

Distinctive #22-- Common Goods

Disciples must share what they have with those in the church who have needs. This has more recently been called - “Mutual Aid.” This comes from the teaching of Jesus (Luke 12:33) and from the example of the early church in the book of Acts. Salvation encompasses one’s economic practices. Hutterites went on to say that there could be no private property, but everyone in the congregation must hold all goods literally in common. Other Anabaptists simply held a common treasury, used for those in need in the community.

A Sermon On Swearing Oaths

Swearing oaths isn’t really a popular topic today. You can find many books about divorce in the NT or about the relation between government and the Christian, yet Jesus speaks just as much (if not more!) about swearing oaths—especially in Matthew—as he does about these topics. Why don’t we speak on it? For one, it doesn’t really seem relevant. In the first century, and even in the sixteenth century, when Anabaptism began, most people would swear oaths continuously. Some common phrases throughout history are: “May God strike me if I do not…” or, “I swear before God that I will…” or, “May many curses come upon me if I do not…”. But, even so, this topic is not dead. Even though oath-making is rare in our society, the topic Jesus is speaking about is still significant for us and for our daily lives.

First, though, we need to know what Jesus was actually talking about. Let’s look at what he said about swearing oaths:
Read: Matthew 5:33-37—“ Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, 'YOU SHALL NOT MAKE FALSE VOWS, BUT SHALL FULFILL YOUR VOWS TO THE LORD.' But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is THE CITY OF THE GREAT KING. Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your statement be, 'Yes, yes ' or 'No, no'; anything beyond these is of evil.”

Matthew 23:16-22—"Woe to you, blind guides, who say, 'Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple is obligated.' You fools and blind men! Which is more important, the gold or the temple that sanctified the gold? And, 'Whoever swears by the altar, that is nothing, but whoever swears by the offering on it, he is obligated.' You blind men, which is more important, the offering, or the altar that sanctifies the offering? Therefore, whoever swears by the altar, swears both by the altar and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple, swears both by the temple and by Him who dwells within it. And whoever swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it.”

What is Jesus talking about?
There are a couple points I want to move quickly over. First of all, Jesus is specifically speaking about the oaths themselves, and how they are problematic. In Matthew 23, Jesus goes into detail that no matter what kind of oath you are making, you are making it before God. The conclusion from this is that every oath, no matter what specifically it is made to, is made before God. Secondly, Jesus says that we are powerless to determine whether we receive a curse on ourselves or not—that is up to God. With this, Jesus says, it is better to say no oaths at all—because they relate to God’s name and they are foolish to make.

But now we have a problem. You see, Paul made oaths. They aren’t as strong as the ones Jesus speaks to the Pharisees about, but Paul states that he is swearing before God that such and such is true. An example is in Romans 9—“I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart.” Again, this is not as strong as some other oaths, but he is swearing that something is true before Christ.. There are other examples of Paul doing this, and potentially even Jesus. So is Paul just disregarding the teaching of Jesus? I don’t think so.

Again, Paul is swearing that something is true—an oath to declare one’s truthfulness. Jesus is really speaking about something different. He is speaking about an oath about what one would do in the future—a promise, or a guarantee that something would be done in the future. In James, this is more clearly stated, “Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit." Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, "If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.” But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.” (4:13-16). James also repeats Jesus’ statement, “But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but your yes is to be yes, and your no, no, so that you may not fall under judgment.” (5:12). So Jesus is specifically speaking to statements about the future—promises in specific.

And what is he saying about those promises? Let’s look at Matthew 5. He says, first of all, don’t use oaths to confirm a promise. Secondly, recognize that the future is in God’s hands, not ours—we have no control over the future. Third, if you make a promise, keep it. If you can’t keep it, just say no.

So what is the main point of what Jesus is saying? Keep your promises! Don’t promise to do something that you will not or cannot do. Don’t use other language to confuse what the promise is or to make it seem that you are making a promise that you really are not. Keep your language simple and do what you say. That’s it. Now, we can see that even if we don’t swear oaths, Jesus’ statement is very relavent to us today.

So let me take this out a bit and give a few applications for us from these texts.

First of all, let’s look at Jesus’ key phrase, “Let your yes be yes and your no, no”. There is something significant here that we often miss practically. We CAN say “no”. In fact, if we cannot do something, we MUST say no. Many of us have a hard time saying “no.” But, according to Jesus’ word, saying “no” is a discipline that we must develop. If we cannot do something, we must say “no” and just accept it. Yes, the person asking you to do something might get upset; they might feel that you have failed them. But you have not. You are refusing to make a promise that is a lie. If you had said “yes” and then not done it, you would have really failed them. But by saying “no” you have stated clearly, ahead of time, what you are and are not able to do.

And that brings up another point. If we are to have integrity in our promises, then we need to be self-aware enough to know what we can and cannot do. It is so easy to say, “Yes, I’ll do that,” when we don’t actually have the time, the energy, the ability, the know-how, or the desire to do it. If we are to follow Jesus’ command to have integrity in our promises, then we have to know what we can and will do. To say “yes” isn’t to say, “I want to do this.” It is to say, “I will do it.” Jesus told a parable about two sons, one who heard what his father wanted and said, “Yes, I’ll do it”, but he never did. The other replied to his father, “No, I won’t do it” and then he changed his mind and he did. Now, Jesus didn’t ask the question that most people would ask—which one was right? Which one was righteous? Rather, he asked a very leading question, “Which one did the will of his father?” Of course, the second one. Both were unrighteous in one way—they both broke their statements. But the second was more righteous because he did what his father asked him to. The first one had the desire, and he had the right response—he sounded submissive and righteous. But he was not. He had every good intention—but the significant thing is that he needed to do what he said he would do. My point is this, Don’t make a promise based on your intention. Rather, be realistic and make a promise based on what you can really do. Otherwise, say “no”. It is better to say no than to break your promise.

Also we need to remember James’ point—we don’t really know what will happen in the future. We can make a promise and then realize that we can’t fulfill it. So when we make a promise, let’s be careful in what we say. Let’s make allowances that the future is in God’s hands, and that anything can happen.
In areas outside of our normal responsibility, especially, let’s offer conditions on our statements. If I have time, if God allows me. This isn’t a loophole for the promise, but it makes our statement have more integrity.

At the same time, in our promises, let’s be clear about what we will and will not do. Oaths were made, many times, in order to complicate the promise, to get a loophole if nessesary. Let’s have our statements have integrity. We should keep our statements simple and clear, so that they can be clearly understood. Let’s not complicate it with a lot of speech, but try our best to be simple.

One other thing. Jesus said that anything but a simple promise made before God to be done—that anything beside that is evil, or from the evil one. This means that any promise we make and then break, we will be judged for that. Anytime we complicate a promise with language that makes it confusing, we will be judged for that. Jesus said, “I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned." We need to remember this every time we are making a descision about whether to promise something or to say no.

Distinctive #21-- No Oaths

Disciples are literally not to swear oaths - Matthew 5:33-37. This also meant that Christians could not be a part of much of the civic and economic life of the day which required oaths.

Distinctive #20-- Enemy Love

Disciples are literally to love enemies and not to resist evildoers - Matthew 5:38-48. This means that Christians cannot be political leaders or in the military. This separates all disciples from the world system which demands warfare and violence.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Denominations and Partisanship

I am firmly opposed to the two party system in American politics. It doesn’t really give anyone a real choice, just two sides of the same coin. Real change isn’t possible, because the issues are all blocked by partisan rhetoric and limited logic. No one can take a really effective new look at politics and effect real change. Rather, change is slow and bogged down by the fact that nothing will change until it is obvious to almost everyone that the old system has completely failed.

But is denominationalism just another form of the same kind of system? Are we locked into traditionalism this way? Can we really accomplish anything new and exciting in the Spirit through the forms of denominational agreement? Are we not locked into old institutions, with their old systems of bureaucracy, unable to enact the true change of the Spirit?

And if that is the case, then should we be supporting these old systems? And why do we support them? Because of money? If we follow the old means of doing church business, then the old money and the old resources will follow. But should we be limited by these old means? Or should we be set free to seek out the direction the Holy Spirit is going, so that we can also be freed from these old ways of doing God’s business?

I am not denying God’s Spirit in the denominations, nor in traditional ways. I know that God was there, especially in the past. But it reminds me of an ant trail. Certain worker ants, when they find food or something of benefit to the colony, leave a trail that other ants can follow to the significant resource. And that trail will last, and the ants will follow it, long after the food or resource is gone.

Even so, it seems that denominations follow these trails to the Spirit, only to find, in the end, that the old measures are empty and devoid of the Spirit’s true life. Sure, we can obtain the world’s resources through these old trails—money, denominational contacts, the support of the old guard. But when it is empty of God, what is the use?

We need to first seek God, His kingdom and His righteousness. We need to stop first seeking the resources of this world, as if that’s our real goal. Our goal should always be God through Jesus and the Spirit. If something is but the empty shell which Jesus and the Spirit left behind, then it is time to go. This doesn’t mean that I’m saying that we should leave denominations behind, necessarily. But perhaps we need to see where in a denomination God is really working. Where is the Spirit really moving? Who is living out the life of the power of God? Where is Jesus’ word and live truly being fleshed out in the denomination? That should be the direction of any denomination, leaving the past behind.

Because God is not I Was. God is I Am.

And finally, we should not allow the resources of God’s people be limited to those who are a part of a denomination. We should allow God’s resources be used by whoever is doing God’s work, and take it away from those who are only following the structure of old tradition.

Who is giving generously for the poor, not just seeking the least for the least?
Who is living successfully on faith, not just depending on a regular salary for doing the same old thing?
Who is receiving the outcast and helping them life for Jesus, not just keeping an arm’s distance from those outside the church?
Who is discipling the people of God, not just educating them?
Who is getting the world ready for Jesus’ coming, not just talking about it?
Who is building bridges between the separated, not just creating new divisions?
Who is delivering the healing of God, not just the pomp and circumstance that surrounds it?
Who is living out God’s generosity, faithfulness, mercy, truth and forgiveness, not just preaching about it?

This first group should be the focus of any denomination. The second group is the empty shell that should be discarded. However, the difficulty is that the first group is hidden within each denomination. They are the ones who cannot be found unless sought for. They are the hidden saints, the secret heart of the body of Christ. If any denomination, any conference, any board, any bishop, any minister is worth the salt of the earth they claim to be, they will spend their energy seeking these out and pouring all of their effort supporting them.

Otherwise, the denomination is no light of the world, no city on the hill. It is just another part of the shadow f the world.

Set aside the ways of the world, and find the hidden power of God within your ranks.