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Rekindling God’s gift…

October 3, 2010

World Communion Sunday
SMC Covenant signing

Scripture reading: Luke 17:5-10; 2 Timothy 1:1-9

Is Christian faith…following Jesus about belief, behavior, or belonging?

I invite us to hold that question as we dwell in scripture and listen to several distinctly different faith stories. One story comes to us from the early 3rd century. It is the story of Perpetua and Felicity. Perpetua is a wealthy noblewoman. Felicity is a slave. Both are catechumans preparing to be baptized into the Christian church in Northern Africa.

It is during the persecutions of emperor Septimius Severus that Perpetua, the mother of an infant, and Felicity, who  is pregnant, are arrested.  Perpetua is still breastfeeding, so her baby is brought to her in prison. Her family tries to negotiate for her release, but she is unwavering in her desire to confess Jesus as Lord even if it means death. Even in a culture known for its blood sport, the Romans are not anxious to kill a pregnant woman, so they wait until Felicity has given birth. Then Perpetua and Felicity are brought into the arena. They exchange the kiss of peace which was a part of Christian worship. The wild animals are released. Even though they had not yet been baptized, their martyrdom would have been considered a baptism of blood by the early church. A story of faith. A story of baptism.

Fast forward to the year 2010. Rachel Held Evans identifies herself as a writer, a skeptic and a Christ-follower. In a blog post this week she admits that she occasionally wakes up unsure if there is a God. Her friends and acquaintances wonder why she just can’t have more faith. Stop reading so much, they say. Stop asking so many uncomfortable questions.  Then maybe you could see God. What would you say to her? Perhaps you can identify with her.

In our gospel reading, the disciples are asking for more faith. What are they asking for? More information (belief)? Confirmation of their status (belonging)? The context of their question is important. Jesus has been teaching about money (Luke 15-16). Now he addresses another topic–forgiveness. As in forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. The disciples are stunned that Jesus would instruct them to forgive injustice—not just once, but as many as seven times a day. To them this seems impossible (behavior). So they ask Jesus, “Increase our faith!

The disciples are on a journey of conversion. This has to do with belief, behavior and belonging. All throughout the gospels we see Jesus calling all kinds of people to follow him—tax collectors, revolutionaries, women with bad reputations…children.  Each person, including the disciples, has a choice—to submit to the comprehensive change that Jesus’ invitation would bring to their lives or to “go away grieving” (Mark 10:22). Jesus’ friendship was demanding. Yet again Jesus is stretching their thinking, calling them to behavior that challenges them to a deeper level of conversion.

Stanley Hauerwas says that the Christian life only makes sense if we are willing to live “out of control.” To accept that it’s not our job to make everything turn out right in history—just to live faithfully. So we are free to forgive those who sin against us, to not hold a grudge, to seek reconciliation rather than revenge. We are free to extend mercy and grace, be vulnerable in relationships rather than attempting to control the outcome through passive—aggression or violence.

Question: Where do you have the opportunity to practice forgiveness?

Paul’s letter to Timothy provides another important window into how we understand faith. Paul is writing as a person who knows about conversion as a journey of believing, behaving, and belonging. He knows that giving his life to Jesus means belonging to a community in which salvation is worked out in practical ways. So he is writing letters to emerging Christian communities where there are issues of discernment as salvation is being worked out.

He writes to Timothy, an emerging leader in the Christian movement, whom he calls his beloved child. We know from Paul’s letter that family has played an important role in shaping faith in Timothy. Grandmother Lois and mother Eunice are named as models of a sincere faith. A faith that now lives in Timothy.

Kenda Creasy Dean is a minister and a professor of youth ministry at Princeton University. Her recent book, Almost Christian, looks at what the faith of teenagers is telling the American church. The study found that most American teens who called themselves Christians were indifferent and inarticulate about their faith.

Dean is challenging the church to offer more than the gospel of niceness to teens where faith is simply doing good and not ruffling feathers…staying off drugs and not having premarital sex. She is telling us the gospel of niceness can’t teach teens how to confront tragedy. It can’t bear the weight of deeper questions: Why are my parents getting a divorce? Why did my best friend commit suicide? Why, in this economy, can’t I get the good job I was promised if I was a good kid?

In Paul’s letter, we see that Timothy has been formed by a mother and grandmother who have apparently modeled a sincere and living faith. Dean says the best thing a parent can do in the face of teenage apathy toward Christianity is to get radical. She says parents who perform one act of radical faith in front of their children convey more than a multitude of sermons and mission trips.

No matter their background, Dean says committed Christian teens share four traits: they have a personal story about God they can share, a deep connection to a faith community, a sense of purpose and a sense of hope about their future.

Timothy has a deep connection to the faith community. We see this not only in what Paul says about his family, but in verse 6 where Paul writes: “For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands.”

As modern readers of this ancient text, we might think Paul is referring to some special ministry time he had with Timothy where there was a special outpouring… When we read the writings of the early church, we discover that Paul is likely referring to Timothy’s baptism. In the early church, following water baptism, the bishop would anoint with oil, lay hands on and pray for those who had been baptized.

Paul is calling Timothy to remember his baptism and to live into it. He is talking about behavior made possible by a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. He is talking about behavior when he invites Timothy to join him in talking about Jesus…in suffering for the gospel. He is talking about behavior and belonging when he reminds Timothy that God saves us and calls us with a holy calling. He is talking about belief when he calls Timothy to guard the good treasure entrusted to him. Timothy is on a journey of conversion. The gift of God needs to be rekindled.  It is about belief, behavior and belonging (although I’m not sure it’s a fixed order in our post-Christendom).

It is a journey of conversion in which we belong to a community of compassion where we become the kind of person Jesus calls us to be. This does not happen quickly. It is only possible when candidates submit themselves to a process of “resocialization” by which their new community superintends the transformation of their beliefs, their sense of belonging, and their patterns of behavior.
–Wayne Meeks as cited in Alan Kreider, The Change in Conversion and the Origin of Christendom (1999)

Conversion happens in many different ways, at many different times in our life.

Scott grew up going to church. He was a part of the youth group. He went to Mennonite schools. After graduating from Eastern University as a youth ministry major he went to work at a Methodist church in a wealthy suburb outside of Houston, Texas.   He became disillusioned with his own shallowness, of individualism and material pursuits during his time in ministry.  He began to question his beliefs and went searching for different kinds of Christian behavior. He engaged with emerging expressions of Christianity.  Like the prodigal son, he eventually lost faith and decided to return  home.  He partner in business with his father—supplying fair-trade coffees through social networking.  Through a number of significant relationships, he begin to re-engage with faith.  His beliefs and behavior are being reoriented on this journey of conversion as he belongs to a particular community–the Anabaptist Christian community. He describes this journey as a second conversion. His story is one of the gift of God being rekindled.

Perpetua, Felicity, Rachel, and Scott–cultivating faith through radical love, uncomfortable questions, and conversion journeys.

This morning we are being invited to remember our baptism. This is an opportunity to rekindle the gift of God within us. We are being invited by the Word, the Spirit and the Communion of Saints to believe, behave and belong. Today we remember that we are not independent Christians, but we are members of a body. As we sign the SMC Covenant today we affirm our commitment to live into our baptism together as Sunnyside Mennonite Church–as we gather in this place and beyond. May the gift of God be rekindled in us. AMEN.

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 5, 2010 9:42 pm

    Thank you for sharing my story I hope it was a help to all who listened.

    Do you mind changing one phrase in a sentence. This would be my perspective now:

    Your sentence states:

    He became disillusioned with “the” shallow, individualistic, materialistic expression of Christianity he was swimming in.

    Could you change it to “He became disillusioned with his own shallowness, of individualism and material pursuits during his time in ministry.”

    The church I served in TX, (the young people, families and pastoral leaders), are some amazing followers of Jesus and I would not want to paint them with the same brush of judgment I paint myself, because in reflecting on my time, I realized there are people who can be in the context I was in and not follow the “isms” or idols that so often confused, trap and lead away from following Jesus.

    Also, I am thankful to my wife, daughter and several close friends and family in our faith community who have helped me develop better behaviors. I belonged to this new community and my behavior and beliefs are in process of continual conversation.

    This week during communion Sunday I took part in foot washing with an 87 year old sage in our community and experienced one of the most transformational times of belonging yet.

    As I study at EMU through PA campus, I am learning from the early church, as well as the Gospels on what it means to believe in more than myself, belong to more than myself, and develop behavior in ways that goes against my own selfish desires. I am in process, ever changing, but never fully changed.

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