Clarence Jordan and the God Movement

In 1958, Clarence Jordan was invited to give a series of lectures in Montgomery, AL. The lectures were to focus on “The Church and the Kingdom of God.” The invitation came from Martin Luther King Jr. Both King and Jordan were in agreement that “Jesus had not come to start a religion but a revolution.” To support that emphasis, Jordan had even begun to translate basileia as “movement” rather than “kingdom.” (Jordan was the author of The Cotton Patch Version of the Bible).

In The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice, From the Civil Rights Movement to Today, Charles Marsh tells how Jordan preached a “God Movement” that was greater than the Civil Rights Movement.

He once preached a sermon about “the white southerner’s responsibility to the Negro.” His text was Galatians 5.23 and he emphasized how we all are one in Christ Jesus. Unfortunately, the response was what one might expect.

“At the conclusion of the service, an elderly woman made her way down the aisle… the woman was furious with Jordan for his harsh words for the South and his irreverence towards its time-honored customs. ‘I want you to know that my grandfather fought in the Civil War’, she told him, ‘and I will never believe a word you say.'”

Clarence Jordan responded “‘Well ma’m, I guess you’ve got to decide whether to follow your granddaddy or Jesus.'”


Obstacle as Gospel Opportunity: Another Look at Widows and Table Waiters in Acts

There is something to be gained by reading the section in Acts 4.32-6.7 together. I propose that 4.32-35 is an entry into the section and that 6.1-7 both concludes the section even as it provides a hinge into the following section.

This segment begins in chapter four where “the apostles were giving testimony to the Lord Jesus” and there “was not a needy person among them.” Barnabas is an example of one who was in tune with the Spirit (4.36) while Ananias and Saphira remind us that was not true for everyone (5.1ff.). The generosity of some like Barnabas strengthened the assembly by helping those in need. Likewise, to support the widows is to strengthen the congregation in Jerusalem. It is a strong possibility that the need presented in chapter six is related to the need in chapter four. Indeed, as Barnabas is a specific example of one who gave, the widows are a specific example of those who are in need. It is not likely an accident that selling possessions to care for the needy is stated alongside giving testimony about Jesus (4.32-33). This provides an entry or the front porch into the rest of the section.

The episode with Ananias and Saphira provide examples of situations that could derail the gospel. Yet the church continues to grow not only by caring for others but by ministry of the word. It is worth mentioning that the apostles themselves were almost killed on account of teaching in the name of Jesus. It was Gamaliel, a Pharisee of some influence, who spoke on their behalf to the council and their lives were saved. This is yet another obstacle that could have hindered the spread of the gospel. Perhaps we are to hear the words “we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (6.4) as a response to the request from the council in 5.40 “they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus.” Since the apostles obviously plan to continue the ministry of the word, it is a possibility they considered participation in suffering as part of their ministry.

When we finally arrive to 6.1-7, we find that the complaint of the widows resulted in the demonstration of both the ministry of caring for the needy and the ministry of the word of God. Both remain an important part of the narrative as the gospel continues to thrive and the church continues to grow.

I propose we can see the segment like this;

4.32-35 – An introduction to the joint ministries of caring for the needy and the apostle’s ministry of the gospel.

4.36-37 – An example of one from the Spirit filled congregation caring for the needy in the congregation.

5.1-11 – An example of a potential hindrance to the Spirit filled congregation as they care for the needy.

5.12-16 – An example of the apostles and their insistence to participate in the ministry of the word.

5.17-42 – An example of a potential hindrance to the apostles and their participation in the ministry of the word.

6.1-7 – A demonstration that both the ministry of caring for the needy and the apostle’s ministry of the word continue to bear fruit.

Preaching and Politics of Power

There is a strong possibility that preachers and congregants join with parties, positions, or rhetoric in order to belong to those who appear to hold the power. Although the gospel speaks about power differently than the world does, it remains a temptation for the church to hold some of that power. This is not the first century the church has decided to join the ways of the world in order to accomplish what it perceives to be good. The call to dwell in the world that God so loved in order to influence the world in the ways of God sometimes backfires. Whatever else may occur at this time, it is likely the world begins to see the church as just another group attempting to gain control by grabbing onto the world’s power structures.

The reasons preachers may be tempted to preach a political ideology that is something other than biblical may include; 1) a preacher’s own political bias. 2) an attempt to please congregants. 3) an effort to support a particular political effort. 4) a confusion that some political theory equals the gospel. 5) some other attempt to appear relevant. These may not be the only reasons but I suspect these occur frequently. All of them fall short of preaching the gospel.

A Present Problem

On a personal level, this preacher has experienced; 1) many instances of preaching that encouraged alignment with current political power structures. 2) frustration when preaching sounds like popular forms of political rhetoric. 3) concern about the direction of the church as it hears and responds to political rhetoric. 4) a conviction that preaching should reveal a biblical counter-politic to current political rhetoric.

What is your experience? Do you share these concerns? Do you disagree?

Complaint and Hospitality

Acts 6.1-7: A Written Sermon

At the start of this text, things are good. Disciples are increasing and the word is spreading. At the end of this text, things are good. Disciples are increasing and the word is spreading, things continue to be good.

That tells us that whatever happens in between the beginning and end of this text doesn’t stop disciples from increasing and doesn’t stop the word from spreading. It might surprise us then to discover that what happens in between is a complaint.

Complaining? Grumbling? Disagreement? Is that supposed to happen at church? Isn’t the church supposed to be a grumble free zone? Should we be telling attenders to leave complaints outside? We already have a prominent “No Skateboarding” sign, should we add a sign that says “No Complaining?”

We are told what this complaint is about. It is about food. Some are being left out during the daily distribution of food. No wonder a complaint is made.

But no one holds up a sign that says “no complaining.” Instead, the complaint is heard and not only is it heard, it is treated with dignity. It becomes important enough that everyone pitches in and they decide to call seven people specifically to serve as table waiters. They call people to make sure no one gets left out at dinnertime again.

These aren’t adolescents coming home from school and rummaging through a pantry full of things they do not want and claiming “there’s nothing to eat.”

No, these are widows who are likely without income or assistance and likely not getting anything to eat. So, the church calls seven people to wait on tables. We get the feeling this is an important part of the church’s story because we get the names of the seven. These are not just seven anonymous bodies called to perform a necessary task because they are the only ones available.

We may tend to think of things like waiting on tables as something necessary but less important than other work. But the New Testament tends to measure things differently. We may tend to value jobs by the level of compensation they offer but the New Testament appears to consider some other factors.

So, in this text we find serving to be something important. Serving becomes a priority. As soon as the need becomes known, the church begins to take care of it. We do not know how many people were being considered as table waiter, but we do know the seven who were chosen had rather impressive qualifications… these table waiters are to be “full of the Spirit” and “full of wisdom” and of “good reputation.” If nothing else, we discover that waiting on tables is not menial activity.

Maybe we overlook the significance of those who serve. Maybe we should see the whole table gathering differently. There is something valuable going on here… it is much more than physical sustenance. It is more than vitamins and minerals and nutrients. It is more than proteins and carbohydrates and antioxidants. There is something going on here that causes the church to grow.

Maybe we should think differently of those who grow food, think differently of those who harvest food, think differently of those who prepare food… maybe we should think of those who serve food differently. Maybe we should think differently of those who sit with us at table. Gathering at table around food is a bigger event than when we first imagined.

I am currently enrolled in a class and we were given an assignment to write a paper on this very text. We were to write 7500 words, for those curious that comes out to 28 pages double spaced. While involved in this project, I read this text over and over. I read it in different rooms. I read it in the car. I read it in a different language. Upstairs, downstairs, I read it standing on my head. I read it as if I was an apostle and as if I were a complainer. I read it as a widow and as a priest. I read it as if I was auditioning to be a table waiter.

Have you ever been involved in a project that no matter what else you were doing, you were still working on that project? It was that kind of project. And what became very obvious was that everyone mentioned in the text is very important. Overlooking others is not an option.

The idea of serving at table is not a new phenomenon with Acts. In the Gospel we find a scene at a table. In this scene the apostles are arguing over “who is the greatest?” Jesus interrupts to say “I am here at the table with you as one who serves.” We realize that those called to serve at table are following in the steps of Jesus.

In the Gospel we have a scene where Jesus introduces “serving” in a conversation about being the greatest. Here in Acts we have a scene where the church hears a complaint and responds by making serving a priority. We can’t help but notice how important serving becomes in potentially divisive situations. We cannot help but notice here the priority given to serve those who have been overlooked.

From the beginning, God desired to dwell among his people. That started way back in Genesis. God called a people to show the world the ways of God. A people to show the world what it looks like when God dwells among them. What began so long ago grew to include a gathering in Jerusalem where some were being overlooked. This grants importance to that gathering. This is a gathering that is taking seriously God’s plan by hearing a complaint and by serving those in need. The church is God’s plan to show the world what it is like for God to live here.

This text reminds us that serving is to be a priority. It also reminds us that love is more than polite agreement. Speaking up on behalf of others is also evidence of love. The text brings with it a complaint but the world takes notice of the way the church responds and the church grows. Overlooked widows, Greeks and Jews, priests and apostles, and table servers are all equal in this episode because they are all equal at God’s table.

We are reminded that complaints do not stop the work of the church. Instead it seems things that are not going well become opportunities for the ways of God to be demonstrated in the world.



A Clash of Kings

In the Thessalonian correspondence we are saturated with reminders that Jesus is the coming king. This is significant considering our introduction to the Thessalonian church is that they are preaching a king other than Caesar (Acts 17). This is no less than treason. History tells us the city had some level of infatuation with Rome and Caesar. The close ties with Rome were evidenced by a shrine in Thessalonica for the emperor cult. The emperor was seen as the universal savior whose benefactions were declared as good news. Such benefactions were enjoyed and the residents were under some responsibility to protect such a favored status. Added to this was a decree from Caesar banning any predictions of a new king (Witherington, New Testament History, 262).

It was not enough for those raised to be faithful to Rome to hear that this Jesus who had been crucified had also been risen from the dead. Now there was talk about him coming as king. I and II Thessalonians, in fact, cannot stop talking about Jesus as coming king. For those who may have lived their lives desiring to experience a visit from Caesar, the portrayals of Jesus arrival are particularly interesting. What might a coming of Caesar look like? How would a royal entrance be announced? Perhaps with a herald’s proclamation and royal trumpets?

This should not be lost on us when we read about the coming of King Jesus in I Thessalonians 4. Jesus comes from heaven, with a loud command, the voice of the archangel, and the trumpet of God. It sounds so royal. We are almost expecting the text to add that a red carpet is rolled out. On his best day, Caesar coming from the capital city, with a human herald, and roman trumpets is no match for that. And then, if that isn’t enough, II Thessalonians 1 tells us that he comes from heaven in blazing fire and powerful angels. Just saying, if this is a clash of kings, Caesar doesn’t stand much of a chance.

Preaching Holiness

Recently I had opportunity to attend a mini conference on “Preaching Holiness.” This is worthwhile conversation that reminds us we are not God and that God should always be the wow factor in the church.

This was an enjoyable conference for me not only because of the theme, but this gathering is full of friends and mentors and others I have served with for a long time. This is my family. I was raised among this crowd and this message. These are my people. Still, I cannot help but notice that we have some tendencies that are puzzling at times and perhaps disturbing at others.

Here is one small voice from the crowd who wants us to be able to articulate biblical holiness more articulately, effectively, and faithfully.

1 – I understand our desire to illustrate holiness with personal stories that serve as evidence for the work of God in our lives. I fear they sometimes make us sound as if we have mastered holiness or at least make us sound holier than most. Perhaps this draws some to our message but I admit to having doubts.

2 – It is easy to fall into a trap of thinking the best way to preach holiness is to emphasize what it is not. For example, it is not Calvinism. This tends to send messages of some sort of class system in the kingdom as if we are superior to others. I propose we would serve ourselves better to talk about what holiness is.

3 – We have a tendency to act as if preaching love and grace results in listeners thinking it is ok to stay the way they are. If we take the gospel seriously we know these are the very things that spur one to change. Perhaps we think prevenient grace is preferable or superior to other stages of grace.

4 – We love to reference John Wesley in our conversation about preaching holiness and rightly so, no one has been more influential in our branch of the family tree. But I cannot help but wonder what he would think if he felt we were branding our heritage as greater than others in the Body of Christ. Or if we began reading the bible to find evidence for his way of thinking. It was Dennis Kinlaw who said “I am a Wesleyan in theology, but I need to be very careful that when I read the Bible my concern is not to find what Wesley taught, but to discover the Word of God.”

5 – It is easy to make holiness sound as if it is an individual pursuit. Sometimes we make it sound as if it is lived best in our secret places. While no one would deny the importance of holiness in secret, should not our emphasis be on the influence holiness has in relationship with others? It was Wesley who said “Holy solitaries is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than Holy adulterers.”

Yet, I cannot help but notice how we emphasize sin as an individual matter. We even might refer to a sinful individual as a loser. What we tend to not talk about is the way sin hinders the body. The health of the body and the witness of the body are both hindered due to sin. Sin has corporate effects. I propose we would do well to discuss how church and world are cheated by sin. This is, as Wesley might emphasize, a relational religion.

We tend to do the same thing with ethics. Ethics is fitting to emphasize while in conversation about holiness. Still we tend to emphasize individual ethics. This is odd when we are reading texts that are written to congregations. Perhaps we would do well to emphasize how ethics support or hinder the body. Emphasize how Christian ethics influence the world. This becomes important when we speak of a gospel that knows of “no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness.”

While talking about ethics it is worth mentioning that to say slanderous things about politicians or pop stars while discussing holiness may be somewhat contradictory. Even these people belong to a world that “God so loved.” We know the holy work of a holy God is evident by the way we talk about others.

I spent most of our time together waiting for someone to talk about how holiness occurs in relationship. While God can perform His work in whatever way God desires, it is evident He has chosen the church to nurture and disciple one another. Perhaps some will resist this thought, but the New Testament appears to support the idea that holiness is a group project. We need one another. Perhaps that is the primary reason I am so grateful for the people I gathered with at this conference.

6 – Preaching about holiness can easily fall into the trap of simply repeating terms from a systematic theology text. This occurs despite our repeated emphasis that Wesley did not write a systematic theology. Yet we continue to preach a systematic theology. Perhaps this is most puzzling for me. We know a systematic theology, no matter how honest or helpful it may be, is always less. Always. This is not only wise counsel for sisters and brothers who adhere to a systematic theology different than our own, this is wise counsel for us also.

Much of what occurs in a setting like this is preaching to the choir. From one grateful to be part of the choir, I am glad for some diversity of thought. Though I may have questions about some things, I am glad to be part of this body. I was raised by this bunch and raised on this message. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.