I am busy convalescing after major surgery and a six week gap in my life over which I had no control. In the last weeks, in my more lucid moments, I had been dipping into the pastoral letters, latterly Paul’s Letter to Philemon. So much resonated with my observations of our little fellowships and of course the wider body as they have reflected at least something of the ‘life’ Paul writes about in this little letter.
You know the circumstances: Paul writes to his friend Philemon about his runaway slave Onesimus. Paul is in prison somewhere (Rome?) and had been the means of Onesimus’s conversion to Christ. Now he is sending Onesimus back to his owner Philemon, urging him not only to forgive his servant but to accept him as ‘brother’ and fellow-saint! Talk about Christ’s reconciling death in action…
Philemon headed up a ‘house church’ in his home in Colosse, which in one way or another related to other fellowships around the city, making up ‘the Church at Colosse.’ I believe it was the intimacy and relationships of such a smaller group that would make it so much easier to facilitate Onesimus’ home-coming and acceptance as a full member of Christ’s household. I’ve had the privilege of facilitating organic-type house churches over some eleven years after decades in the formal pastorate. I have been involved in every program imaginable, discipleship groups, cell groups, etc, but never have I witnessed the kind of koinonia I am seeing in more recent years, as we have sought simply to let Jesus be the head of his body. As somebody has said, we can build God’s church our way or his way. There’s just nothing like the ‘functional headship’ of Jesus at work within a fellowship seriously practising the priesthood of all believers. I constantly stand amazed at the integration of believers from different age groups, cultures, languages, social status, etc. It kind of just ‘happens.’
And it ‘happens’ because the living Christ is the common factor. His risen life is imparted through the indwelling of his Spirit, through the understanding of Jesus’ incarnation, life, death and resurrection: ‘And I am praying that you will put into action the generosity that comes from your faith as you understand and experience all the good things we have in Christ’ (v. 6; cf. Eph. 1 & Col. 1). It is a life that binds believers together in faith and love. All these things are evident as you read Paul’s opening statements to Philemon: ‘the Good News about Christ,’ ‘beloved co-workers,’ ‘faith in the Lord Jesus,’ ‘love for all God’s people,’ ‘joy’ and ‘kindness,’ etc. Paul is convinced that since Onesimus’ conversion he will be of much greater use to Philemon and of course the fellowship in his house and city. Check out the greetings listed at the end of the letter. Were there no difficulties to be ironed out, adjustments to be made on the part of Philemon and his fellow-believers? I’m sure there were many, but Paul is confident that through the gospel of reconciliation these things would be overcome.
Yes, ‘love’ and ‘faith’ are key-elements here and in every expression of the body of Christ.
If there is no genuine faith in Jesus Christ as person and in his life on our behalf, there is no Christian life at all. During one hospitalisation I was confronted by a belligerent ‘Free Mason.’ I had no intention of engaging him but, having heard one of the nurses address me as ‘reverend’ (from old hospital records), for some three hours (5 to 8 in the morning!) he badgered me about his movement: it was just a ‘charitable organisation,’ ‘not a religion,’ Christians hated them and persecuted them, etc. It was most unpleasant. God gave me much grace to stand firm on the simplicity of Christ , and on his love for all people. Sure he had been disappointed by some local believers (which I apologised for), but I was determined to shine in this encounter. You see, ultimately it’s all about Christ! ‘It is no less significant that in John 14:6 Jesus speaks of himself primarily and predominantly as the way: not as the beginning of the way; but as the way itself.’ (K. Barth, CD 111/2, 56)
Coming to love, it is that out-poured love in our hearts by the Holy Spirit himself (Rom. 5:5), it springs supernaturally from Christ, it is not a feeling or passing emotion, it is relational, practical and caring. Francis Schaeffer used to talk about ‘practical, observable love.’ The kind of thing that amazed pagans when they observed the behaviour and attitude of the early believers and led many to follow the Way.
We come back to our original point of Christ building his Church, and how in these days this is happening inside, but more particularly, outside of traditional structures. During this time of being laid aside, I have been amazed at the folk who have ministered to my wife and children when things were critical (here let me pay tribute to my amazing biological family, who exemplified caring concern for me and Melanie during this period – as a matter of interest, all three families follow the Way). Three of our fellowship decided to set their alarm clocks for 3 am every morning (I’m not sure how they arrived at that crazy time!) to remember us in prayer. Folk my wife and I discipled years ago when they were going through domestic upheaval, having moved out of the city, have been in contact more than once, sharing how in their deep trials since then they have learned to patiently trust God in everything. They don’t belong to a formal group but are serving the Lord fervently where they are. Folk who opposed my leadership more than ten years ago, when I was heading up a denominational church, have visited and come to pray. A couple I married decades ago, having also baptised the wife, have been so supportive of Melanie – they don’t belong to any formal church group. Before my hospitalisation I had been mentoring a young man desperate for a father-figure and suffering from depression. His condition got worse, but one of the brothers in our fellowship has taken it on himself to mentor him, taking him on his professional photo shoots, all the while providing that model the young man never enjoyed from his missing dad. Dozens of believers from all over the city and different traditions prayed at my bedside while I was in an induced coma – so I was told. And so we could go on…
Onesimus’ name means ‘useful.’ As Paul indicated, he would be most useful in the kingdom going forward. But he had to humble himself, start all over, submit to his former ‘boss’ and make all kinds of adjustments. We don’t know the end of the story. There is a tradition in the early church that he eventually became an episkopos, a bishop tending a flock, maybe even in Colosse.
This morning I read a helpful blog by Wayne Jacobson on how to go about things, having left ‘church as we have known it.’ Although I think Jacobson, with great respect, defines ekklesia too loosely at times, he makes some valuable points. One sentence struck me and in many ways sums up what I am trying to say: ‘I am convinced this is what it means to pastor God’s flock. It doesn’t require a degree or a job managing an institution; it is simply the ability and the desire to help others connect with Jesus and encourage them as they learn to follow him.’
Some observations regarding Christ and his Church … I trust something of the above has inspired, uplifted or even deeply challenged you! Grace, mercy and peace…
[Other health challenges lie ahead. My wife and I look to the Lord and his saints, and are grateful for the care of our medical team]