Prayer Is the Heartbeat of the Church (Acts 1:12-17, 21-26)

“The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs” by Italian painter Fra Angelico (1395-1455)

Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city. When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.

In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) and said, “Brothers and sisters, the Scripture had to be fulfilled in which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus. He was one of our number and shared in our ministry….”

Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.”

So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. Then they prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.” Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles. (New International Version)

So, what do you do when you don’t know what to do? And what do you do when you have a problem or challenge?

Good old American ingenuity, the Protestant work ethic, and fixing things is the reflexive response of many people. In the belief that we can solve anything, what typically gets left out of the equation is seeking God’s presence and power in order to rightly discern next steps.

But that wasn’t the response of the earliest church. When faced with their small numbers and a large mission to accomplish, they prayed. They more than prayed. They continually got together, just to pray. Prayer was the air they breathed. The believers understood they needed God (not simply to rubber stamp their plans) for moving forward in mission and ministry.

Christians need the vision and imagination that can only come through consistent daily prayer. Otherwise, they will not choose wisely and find themselves in a quandary of their own making.

Imagine not having to purchase what you need the most today.

Maybe you’re in a real pinch. Your financial budget isn’t budging. Perhaps you’re wondering what items you need to do without for a while. It could be that the bills aren’t all getting paid. Or maybe you’re concerned with how in the world you’re going to buy Christmas presents for the family.

Imagine having all the love you need today without working to earn it.

Maybe you have a strained relationship. It might be that you’re hurt from a marriage or a love that has gone sour. Perhaps a friendship is on the rocks, or a family member won’t talk to you. You’re wondering if it will ever be better, wondering if love will find you again.

Imagine continually having a church experience of being full of the grace of Jesus, the love of God the Father, and the power of the Holy Spirit.

Maybe your church has a legalistic bent. Perhaps the church is withdrawn into cliques and special interest groups. It could be that the Spirit hasn’t shown up since 1959. You’re tired, weary of the chronic sameness and status quo of a stagnant place.

For all these things, and so many more of life’s problems and situations, there is good news… really good news!

Prayer is the currency to what you need most, the means of receiving and giving love, and the path to a gracious and powerful Christian and Church life.

Prayer is the heartbeat of the church. The promise of prayer still stands. God gives. We receive. But we must ask!

You didn’t choose me, but I chose you. I have appointed you to go, to produce fruit that will last, and to ask the Father in my name to give you whatever you ask for. (John 15:16, GW)

Sometimes God just gives without us asking. That’s great. Yet, God wants so much more for you and me and our faith communities. God longs for us to be vitally connected to Christ, and that connection happens through prayer. We can bank on the answers to our prayers when we:

  • Stay joined to Jesus (John 15:4)
  • Let Christ’s teachings become part of you (John 15:7)
  • Remain faithful to Christ’s love for you (John 15:9)
  • Obey Jesus (John 15:10)

Imagine having your will align with the perfect will of God.

Stay joined to me and let my teachings become part of you. Then you can pray for whatever you want, and your prayer will be answered. (John 15:7, CEV)

Perhaps you are skeptical. You’ve prayed a long time with nothing happening. You’re discouraged and feel like prayer doesn’t work, or that something is wrong with you. 

There is a mysterious and mystical aspect to prayer that we will never quite understand. However, I do know that Jesus didn’t put a timetable on the answers – they will come when they come. And they will come. 

Maybe we’ll discover that what we want and need the most is to let God’s will and way be done in us, no matter what it is. Perhaps the point is to change us, and not always to change our circumstances.

We have an incredible privilege; we get to ask, without having to buy answers to prayer.

We don’t have to do backflips to get God’s attention. We simply ask. 

We don’t have to try and work to earn God’s favor. We don’t have to draw up detailed plans like some sort of architectural design to see a fruitful, loving, and powerful church. We just ask and remain closely connected to Jesus. 

O Lord, grant me to greet the coming of this day in peace. 

Help me in all things to rely upon Your holy will. 

In every hour of the day, reveal your good and holy will to me. 

Bless my dealings with all who surround me. 

Teach me to treat all that comes to me throughout the day with peace of soul and with the firm conviction that your will governs all. 

In all my deeds and words, guide my thoughts and feelings. 

In unforeseen events, let me not forget that all situations, no matter what, are sent by you. 

Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering and embarrassing others. 

Give me the strength to bear the fatigue of this day with all that it shall bring. 

Direct my will; teach me to pray; pray you yourself in me. Amen.

 –A Prayer from St. Philaret of Moscow (1782-1867)

To the Family of God (2 John 1:1-16)

St. John the Apostle, by sculptor Thomas Ball (1819-1911)

From the Elder—

To the dear Lady and to her children, whom I truly love. And I am not the only one, but all who know the truth love you, because the truth remains in us and will be with us forever.

May God the Father and Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, give us grace, mercy, and peace; may they be ours in truth and love.

How happy I was to find that some of your children live in the truth, just as the Father commanded us. And so I ask you, dear Lady: let us all love one another. This is no new command I am writing you; it is the command which we have had from the beginning. This love I speak of means that we must live in obedience to God’s commands. The command, as you have all heard from the beginning, is that you must all live in love.

Many deceivers have gone out over the world, people who do not acknowledge that Jesus Christ came as a human being. Such a person is a deceiver and the Enemy of Christ. Be on your guard, then, so that you will not lose what we have worked for but will receive your reward in full.

Anyone who does not stay with the teaching of Christ, but goes beyond it, does not have God. Whoever does stay with the teaching has both the Father and the Son. So then, if some come to you who do not bring this teaching, do not welcome them in your homes; do not even say, “Peace be with you.” For anyone who wishes them peace becomes their partner in the evil things they do.

I have so much to tell you, but I would rather not do it with paper and ink; instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you personally, so that we shall be completely happy.

The children of your dear Sister send you their greetings. (Good News Translation)

The Pastor

Tucked away near the back of the Bible is a short little letter from the Apostle John, identifying himself as “The Elder.” This is meant to convey both his venerable leadership and his affectionate relation as the grandfatherly old man who has something important to say. In other words, John was, in our terms, a Pastor responsible for shepherding the church with care.

The Church and Christians

“The dear Lady” is a metaphor for the church. Through personifying the church, John was assigning worth, respect, and dignity to the mother with spiritual progeny.

“Her children” are the believers within the church, spiritual offspring with the church as their mother. This has been an important motif for most of Christian history – an understanding that has gotten lost over the centuries in much of the Protestant world. Yet, one of the magisterial reformers, John Calvin, retained this view of the church and its members:

“The Church is the bosom which God is pleased to gather his children… who are guided by her motherly care until they mature and at last reach the goal of faith…. How useful, indeed how necessary, it is that we should know her. For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and keep us under her care and guidance… Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives.”

(Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.1, 4)

Indeed, Calvin was merely upholding the words of St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (c.200-258, C.E.)  who stated 1,300 years earlier than the reformer:

“No one can have God as Father who does not have the church as Mother.”

St. Cyprian (On the Unity of the Catholic Church, ch.vi)

Love and Truth

The relationship between the mother and her children is to be always characterized by familial love. Everything within Christianity rises and falls with love because God is love.

God extends loving words and actions because love is the stuff that God is made up of. The very character of God is love, through and through. There is never a time when God is not loving.

In fact, God’s anger and wrath are expressions of love – for God is opposed to all which is unloving. Therefore, God extends justice and confronts sin so that love will freely flow once again amongst humanity and all creation.

God is not okay with deceit, not at all alright with errant understandings of his Son, Jesus Christ, being made out as a mere phantom without a real flesh-and-blood body. He had to be made like us in every way. Otherwise, there is no deliverance from the deceitfulness of sin, the sting of death, and the agony of hell.

John, as the Apostle of love, consistently espoused the primacy and permanence of love whenever he had the chance. Truth and love go together, always, insisted John. Love is only really possible when there is truth in the heart.

The true muster of mother church and of individual believing children is their love. No matter what is done – whether outreach, fellowship, or worship – it is all to be done in love and in truth. It’s not enough to be right; the rightness must be applied with the generosity, grace, and liberality of love.

The telltale sign of the deceiver, the false teacher, is that he proclaims only one without the other, either truth or love, but never both together.  

A profound lack of love is the litmus test that belies a faulty and heretical doctrine of Jesus. The absence of love is a red flag that impure teaching is happening. The real enemy of Christ is the one who claims Christianity but does not love, neither in word nor deed. If we really want to love God, we will love one another, and vice-versa.

Love and truth always go together. A mother is a mother because of her children; and a child is a child because of the mother. You cannot have one without the other.

To embrace truth is to love a group of people wherever they are. It is to see them, listen to them, then act on their behalf. Far too often Christians are known for their hubris in superimposing on others what those others need – believing they already know the truth of both Bible and them.

Love abides with the truth of a people. Genuine love seeks the truth and responds accordingly. Love is willing to find out what the issues are of a people. Assuming others need our money, our plans, our service, or our solutions, assumes we already understand their situation without hearing from them.

Love is longsuffering. It is willing to sit with folks for as long as it takes. Love finds itself by carefully applying biblical truth to the truth of a people. And that takes a great deal of time and effort. There are no shortcuts to love.

Love must have its way, or it isn’t love.

Since God is love, God must have his way in us first.

Hope and Happiness

Hope is a confident expectation that promises will be kept and realized.

Happiness is the result.

Hope and happiness go together like bacon and eggs, Tom and Jerry, the moonwalk and Michael Jackson, Friday and fish fry, Harry Potter and Hogwarts, salt and pepper, Adam and Eve, Jesus and the Spirit, and well, I think you get the picture.

Unhappiness is the inevitable result of feeling hopeless. Hope and happiness are both relational terms. They come from having good relations based in love and truth.

Love and truth are very much relational terms, being realized because of mother church’s nurturing.

And the chosen mother came into being because of the Father’s gracious will.

So, tell me, what is your takeaway from this quite brief reflection on John’s little letter?…

Ephesians 4:7-16 – Be Mature

Christ has generously divided out his gifts to us. As the Scriptures say,

“When he went up
    to the highest place,
he led away many prisoners
    and gave gifts to people.”

When it says, “he went up,” it means that Christ had been deep in the earth. This also means that the one who went deep into the earth is the same one who went into the highest heaven, so he would fill the whole universe.

Christ chose some of us to be apostles, prophets, missionaries, pastors, and teachers, so his people would learn to serve, and his body would grow strong. This will continue until we are united by our faith and by our understanding of the Son of God. Then we will be mature, just as Christ is, and we will be completely like him.

We must stop acting like children. We must not let deceitful people trick us by their false teachings, which are like winds that toss us around from place to place. Love should always make us tell the truth. Then we will grow in every way and be more like Christ, the head of the body. Christ holds it together and makes all of its parts work perfectly, as it grows and becomes strong because of love. (Contemporary English Version)

The Body of Christ, without love as its skeletal structure, would be as ridiculous and silly as a boneless chicken ranch. 

The Apostle Paul, a concerned spiritual father, was encouraging the Church toward maturity, to act as adults in the faith and not like immature children.

Just as the physical body begins small, then grows and matures over time, so the spiritual body (the church) is to focus on incremental slow growth across the years so that it realizes maturity. And the consummate evidence of that spiritual development is strong bonds of love.

Ten days after the Lord Jesus ascended to heaven, the Day of Pentecost occurred. On that day, the Holy Spirit came upon the small band of believers and the church became a full-fledged phenomenon, growing and expanding. (Acts 2:1-47)

The gracious gifts of the Spirit are given to each and every Christian so that growth and strength will come to the Body of Christ through love. Each spiritual gift might be different from person to person, but every one of them is meant to be used in love for the benefit of the entire church.

Without any bones or skeleton, the church will be weak and ineffective. It might look like a church but will not be able to do anything in the world. 

For spiritual maturity to happen, it is necessary for every single Christian in the church to discover their spiritual gift, and then, use it in love to build up the entire Body. This is the God-ordained means of realizing a healthy functioning church. 

It may appear that you and I, as believers in and followers of Jesus, have the luxury of pursuing other interests rather than providing loving and gifted service to Christ’s Church. After all, church attendance, Christian mission and service are all voluntary, right? A volunteer can choose to sit out, right?

Uh-hem (clearing of throat). Wrong. That sort of thinking is based in the goofy notion that the Church is a voluntary society which we choose to become a part of, or not. It isn’t. The Body of Christ, the Church, the people for whom Christ died, was chosen by God – and not the other way around.

Before we chose God, God chose us. We can no more choose to decline Christian mission and service anymore than a physical heart or bodily organ can decide it needs to go do something else – as if they could simply leave the Body or just stop doing what they’re doing without consequence.

No, my friends, for the Body to function, it must work in concert, paying attention to the unique parts which keep it alive and thriving, while at the same time, maintaining the overall health of all the Bodily systems.

Bottom line: We need one another. Going off and continually doing my own thing or picking up my marbles and going home because I’m mad or frustrated, is what children do. When adults act like children, we rightly discern they are immature and need to grow up.

So, instead of lacking self-awareness or being pouty about my blog post, focus on the following questions:

What is your passion and desire for Christ’s church? 

What issues stir you emotionally? 

What group of people do you feel most attracted to reach? 

What area of Christian mission or church ministry would you most like to influence? 

Are there people whom you notice that others seem to ignore? 

Will you step out in faith and learn how God has wired you for ministry? 

Will you speak and serve in the name of Jesus through the enablement of the Spirit?

Loving God, I ask you to give me a heart of faith to trust the Spirit and the Spirit’s work in my life. I ask for a heart that desires the gifts of the Spirit for the common good of all persons. I ask you to help me be open to the gifts of the Spirit in others. I ask for jealousy of others’ gifts to be quieted in me. I pray that my gifts would build up the church. Most of all, I ask for the gift of love. Use me for the strengthening of Christ’s church, and for a positive influence in the world. Amen.

Philippians 1:3-11 – Better Together

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joybecause of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God. (New International Version)

The need for a medical intervention means there is ill health in the body. And the need for a spiritual intervention means there is ill health in the Body. Physical health does not just happen. Care of the body is necessary through eating well, exercising, and coping adequately with stress. Bodily sickness prevents us from doing normal activities. Illness causes us to need care and to have an inability in caregiving to others.

Spiritual health in the Body of Christ occurs when we put every effort into keeping the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3). When spiritual health breaks down in the Body of Christ there is an inability for service and mission, a lack of unity, and an absence of joy. It was in such a situation that the Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians as a spiritual intervention meant to help restore their spiritual health.

In our New Testament lesson for today, the Apostle Paul begins his letter with emphasizing that the Body of Christ realizes unity, joy, and fellowship through a shared purpose of embracing the good news of Jesus Christ and proclaiming it to others. Paul emphasizes throughout his letter that the church is to be a common community, sharing life together, working on supporting one another and reaching out to others.

“We are only as strong as we are united, and as weak as we are divided.” 

J.K. Rowling

Every pronoun, “you,” used in these verses is not singular but plural. We are meant to establish our common life together around a shared mission of gospel proclamation: The kingdom of God is near. Through repentance and faith in the person and work of Jesus there is forgiveness of sins, new life, and participation in the life of God. The mission is not for larger church attendance, although that is nice and may happen; it isn’t to do more, or to get other people to stop swearing, avoid tattoos, or vote Republican.

The Apostle Paul knew without a focus on mission, on encouraging one another with the good news and sharing the gospel with others, the lack of purpose would create spiritual sickness. Apart from a deliberate focus on centering life and mission around the person and work of Christ, a group of people will nit-pick one another to death with their various opinions and wants. Wherever there is an absence of shared purpose, there you will find complaining, arguing, and a bunch of crotchety curmudgeons who nobody wants to be around.

Conversely, with a polestar on mission, the community of the redeemed work together in close fellowship with the result being joy. Happy people are a breath of fresh air to be around. A good healthy spirit is a delight to others. In fact, folks will find hope and healing through a common purpose of life together which imbibes liberally from the redemptive events of Jesus.

Good news is fun to share. It is joyful. The gospel of Jesus Christ is wonderful news, worthy of exuberant celebration. The Apostle Paul had fond memories of his partnership in the gospel with the Philippian believers. Although he had been jailed and beaten, Paul joyously sang in the prison – to the point where the jailer took notice and listened to the gospel of new life in Christ. The jailer and his entire family became followers of Jesus. (Acts 16:16-34)

“The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The Philippians were Paul’s spiritual children. They had sacrificed with Paul toward the shared vision of proclaiming good news. So, Paul wanted them to remember their own significant events of coming to faith, enjoying fellowship together, and working toward common objectives. In reminding the Philippian believers, Paul hoped to help get their heads screwed on straight again. He was confident this would happen, having an unshakable belief that God would continue the good work started within them.

This confidence was the basis of Paul’s prayers for the church. He beseeched God to unleash the Philippians’ collective love in a grand experiential knowledge of the divine so that they might discern well, making solid decisions which place the gospel as central to all of life.

There is an incredible depth to human need – a deep spiritual longing for what is good and beautiful. Relational unity brings out the beauty and majesty of humanity. Sometimes, when we are facing hard circumstances, we need to recall past days when this was true of us and remember why we were joyful.

In difficult times of injustice, we need a vision of humanity which locks arms in unity without vilifying one another. When we place priority on the good news, I believe we will again discover the joy of life, of knowing Christ. Perhaps, with a watching world observing basic human kindness and joyful relations, we will find ways of being better together and working toward the common good of all persons. And methinks, Jesus wants to help with this, if we will only let him.

May the hope of Advent and the anticipation of Christ’s coming, give us a way to understand our past and order our steps in the present so that the rule and reign of God is planted in our hearts and spread throughout the world.

O God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace to set aside our cranky unhappiness and divisive spirits. Take away all hatred and prejudice, and everything which hinders us from godly union and connection: that, as there is but one Body, and one Spirit, and one hope of our calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all; so we may be all of one heart, and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and love, and with one mind and one mouth to glorify you, through Jesus Christ our Lord, and in the strength of the Holy Spirit. Amen.