The Faithful Servant

<A sermon I did for seminary chapel>

I would like to go over a very familiar parable of Jesus. It is the parable of the Faithful Servant. It is found in Matthew 24:45-51 However, I would like to go through it with a bit of a missiological spin to it.

An expression that has been commonly thrown about in the late 20th century up to today in Missions is “Finishing the Task.” The idea is that God has a missional task for His people and that particular task is almost done… or perhaps can be almost done. Groups like Student Volunteer Mission, Discipling a Whole Nation and AD2000 have used this phrase or a similar one like “Evangelizing the Whole World in This Generation” to inspire people to do certain things. When this is tied to Unreached People Groups and linking it to a dubious interpretation of Matthew 24:14, the idea has sprung up that once Missionaries have shared the gospel to every single unreached people group on earth in a way such that they can now form an indigenized church, the task of missions is done, and Christ can finally return. Until then, Jesus is waiting in heaven for us to Finish the Task.

I don’t believe in that interpretation, and, frankly, I don’t really like the expression FINISHING THE TASK. I prefer the expression FAITHFUL TO CHRIST’S MISSION. Why is that? It is because I believe that the first one puts the focus in the wrong things.

First of all… Finishing the task has the focus on… finishing… or being done. This doesn’t sound bad. However, I believe that it commonly leads to problems. Decades ago I ran on the track team at my high school, believe it or not. Watching runners near the finish line— most of them would slow down before they reached the end. Why? Because they are so focused on the finish line that they lose focus on running. The same happens with jobs where people often begin to work less hard as one nears the end of one’s time on the job. But perhaps even more common is for people to do the exact opposite. It is tempting to be lazy or sluggish until a deadline nears. Perhaps teenagers are supposed to take care of the house while the parents are gone. They might be tempted to leave it a mess until just before mom and dad get home.

They hope they can get everything done just in time. Or perhaps one is a seminarian and should be faithfully studying every day. But it is tempting to not study very hard until right before the test. Focusing on the finish line often leads to laziness and lack of quality in one’s work. I believe it is better to focus on faithfulness to the work and on the one who assigned that work

Second, I don’t really like the term “Task” in the expression Finishing the task. Over time, people tend to become confused about what their task really is. Early on it may seem clear that their task is to act as ambassadors of Christ, serving as witnesses of Christ, and following the example of Christ. But as time goes on, there is a tendency to drift away from this. The task often becomes something that may sound like it is the same… but is very different. Maybe the task is now… Growing the number of people in my church… or Growing the people who are part of my sect or denomination… or me planting as many churches as fast as possible… or get people to dress and act like me rather than like people in their own culture…. or see how many people I can get to say the sinner’s prayer. Some of these may sound right and good… but they really aren’t the mission that Christ has given the you or the church

So with all of that in mind, let’s go to Matthew 24:45-51

45 “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? 46 It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. 47 Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. 48 But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ 49 and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. 50 The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. 51 He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

When we first look at this, it is tempting to see this as a contrast between Saint and Sinner— between the Narrow Path and the Wide Path. However, there are no unsaved in this story.

This is about two servants… trusted and competent servants of the Master.

In fact, it is not even about two servants, but only one. And only one Master. This one servant has been given the job to maintain the Master’s business of the household including those who serve within the household until he returns. The Master leaves, and this servant is doing a good job taking care of things.

But then one day the servant realizes something. The Master has not returned as soon as he expected. The servant will have to keep doing his job for longer time… not sure when it will end.

This is the challenge. We can handle almost anything except time.We can be enthusiastic and committed for a day… a week… maybe a month. But as time goes on, it becomes harder to keep the motivation going— even more so when it is unclear when the end will come. The servant can choose NOT to focus on when the master returns… but in doing each day what the master wants, in the way the master wanted it done. This decision is identified as being for a faithful and wise servant, one who pleases the master.

But that is not the only possibility. The servant could become focused on when the master returns, and allow his understanding of his task to drift. He still does his job generally. He still keeps the household running. He still handles the accounting. He still feeds the people under his care. We know that because the business has not collapsed, the bank has not foreclosed on the house, and the other servants have not starved. But he is no longer doing things the way the master wanted. He begins seeing the other servants not as people but as tools to get his job done and make his life easier. When they fail to do this, he beats them.. He uses the benefits accorded to him to increase his comfort and extend his authority and power. He is not stupid… he knows the master could return, but he probably thinks that he can get warning when the master will return and can get things in order in time. But much like the seminary student who thinks he or she can figure out when there will be a pop quiz in class, this servant is likely to be shocked and disappointed. He will not know when the master will return. He was focused on the wrong thing. Jesus calls this servant a wicked servant. It may be true, but frankly, few of us can keep our motivation and focus unchanged year after year.

As I suggested before, I don’t believe the parable is about good versus evil in the classic dualistic sense. The servant corresponds to a disciple of Christ. But the story gives warning that it is all too easy to lose track of what it takes to be a good disciple— faithful to the mission of Christ— following the example of Christ.

Let me give a parallel story from church history. A few years after Pentecost, Philip of the Seven traveled into Samaria to be a witness of Christ to the people there. He followed the example that Christ gave. Jesus healed the people and shared the good news. He did not use His power and authority to abuse them. When they did not want to listen to Him, Jesus simply went to another village. When Jesus sent out the 70 disciples to Jewish, Gentile, and Samaritan villages, He ensured that they would bless the people and in no way harm them. In fact, if the people of the village did not want them there, Jesus instructed them to leave and take nothing from them… not even the dust that stuck to their sandals.

I believe Philip was a good and faithful servant. He was focused not only on the mission of Christ, but sought to follow the example of Christ.

A few centuries later, things changed. In the late 400s, Emperor Zeno, of the Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire, ruled over Samaria. The Byzantines were Christians and they had legal authority and military power now over the Samaritans. Emperor Zeno was the Christian leader given responsibility over the land and people of his dominion. Emperor Zeno decided to require all Samaritans to become Christianity. At this time there were between 1 and 2 million Samaritans in his realm. The Samaritans, understandably, revolted. So, tens of thousands were killed by the Byzantine army. A few decades later, Emperor Justinian, also the Christian leader of the land, essentially made being a Samaritan illegal. To avoid charges of being a criminal, they had to convert to Christianity. Again the Samaritans revolted and tens of thousands more Samaritans were killed by the Christian Byzantine army.

Some time later the Muslims invaded. At first they were better than the Byzantine Christians. However, they also gradually gave in to the temptation to abuse power and lose track of their own mission… so much so that by 1000 AD, there were only around 1000 Samaritans alive— a 99.9% reduction of their numbers.

I cannot speak for the leaders of the Muslim Umayyad Caliphate, but I believe that the Christian Byzantine emperors felt like they were good servants of God. By using their political and military power to require Samaritans to convert, I think they felt that they were doing the task of bringing people into the church. And Samaritans rebelling against the Christian rulers probably felt like them rebelling against God and so killing these rebels could certainly feel like finishing the task. Using the power God gave them to force people to become Christians might sound like doing the Lord’s work. Nevertheless, I believe they were bad servants. They had lost track of the mission given to them by Christ, and had become abusive much like the servant in the parable became abusive.

Probably none of us will have an army that we can control… or have millions of people that we use or abuse. But all of us will have to decide whether in church, in school, or the mission field… what type of servant will we be. Will we be focused on finishing or on being faithful. Will we have our attention caught up in tasks, or on Christ has has sent us on mission.

Good Theological Questions from 19th Century Seneca

I was raised up near the Cattaraugus Reservation of the Seneca Nation of Indians— a prominent Iroquois tribe.

Recently, I was reading “Kinzua: From Cornplanter to the Corps” by William N. Hoover. In it, he shares a quote from another book that speaks questions that Seneca students had for white missionary teachers serving among them.

In A Nineteenth-Century Journal of a Visit to the Indians of New York, Deardorff and Snyderman noted that often in the evenings Henry Simmons sat with the Indian men and tried to answer many of the questions the Indians had about the whites and their ways. Especially thorny for Simmons to explain was how the whites reconciled their religious professions with their treatment of the Indians. Such problematic questions as: ‘Was it right for whites and Indians to marry since each went to a different Heaven (or Hell) when he died? What happened to the half-breed children? Why, if the Bible was intended for Indians hadn’t it been fixed so the Indians could read it?’ Explaining such contradictions and shortfalls in the ways of the white man would not have been an enviable task for anyone.

William N. Hoover, Kinzua: From Cornplanter to the Corps (Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2006), 39.

These are great theological questions? Questions about intermarriage and of mixed race children were extremely practical questions that relate to Soteriology and the eternal destiny of Man. The question of the Bible and why it is not translated into the Seneca language is a hugely important contextual/missiological question. But of these the most challenging was reconciling the high principles of white Christians with their sinful activities. How can Christians be coming to the Seneca expressing high morality while deceiving and cheating the Seneca?

Truthfully, there is no excuse. The correct answer is that Christians often rationalize great evil when there is financial advantage to do so. This is even more so when that great evil is directed at people who are consider to be from “Them” rather than “Us.”

However, I do think that I have a suggested answer. Boccaccio’s Decameron has the First Day, Second Story a situation where a non-Christian discovers how far Christians fall short of their high ideals. I would suggest you reading it yourself. It is a great story. But from it, I would suggest this answer.

“You are right. So many Whites have mistreated your people. I am sorry for this. What makes it even worse is that we claim to be Christians meaning that we claim to follow the guidance of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ would never approve of stealing from your people, or cheating your people, or abusing your people. I am convinced that Jesus Christ, God’s Son is very displeased that people claim to follow Him and yet do such evil things. My hope is that you will not follow the example of so many of the White people you have met, but follow the example and guidance of Jesus Christ.”

This would make sense because as missionaries we are not to lead people to ourselves, or even people like ourselves. We are to lead people to Christ. In fact, it is the great gulf that exists between Jesus and Christians that can help people see Christ more clearly. I don’t recommend, being ungodly so that people identify the godliness of Jesus in contrast. But it is important to recognize that Christianity is not a man-made faith from good people. It is a God-given faith that aspires to that which is beyond the reach of man to attain. That is what led the non-Christian in that story in the Decameron to become a Christian. The sinfulness of religious leaders convinced him that Christianity did not come from them.

An Inspiring Failure

This is a sermon I preached at a church in the Philippines on its anniversary. This was a few years ago. I am calling it “An Inspiring Failure” because a key illustration in is is on the early Protestant missionary—- Justinian von Welz.

It is wonderful to finally be here to visit your church. We have known Ptr. Noel and Tita since 2004. We visited here many years ago, but not on a Sunday. So much has happened here at Mabalacat Good Harvest Community Church. I believe God has been doing great things here.

But of course, in an Anniversary, we don’t just look back to the past. We take time to think about the future.

I have two jobs generally. I act as administrator for Bukal Life Care, a Christian counseling center in Baguio. The other is that I teach missions at Philippine Baptist Theological Seminary, or PBTS. I often find inspiration in the stories of Christian missions. God has blessed us with his word… the Bible. But he has also blessed us with the stories of those who have come before us. Because of my involvement in missions, I especially like to read about missionaries throughout history. So I would like to tell you a story. It is the story of a man name Justinian von Welz. I think it is safe to say that few, if any here, have heard of him.

Welz, was born in 1621 into a Protestant, Lutheran, family in Austria… a country dominated by Catholicism..  His family was persecuted for their faith so they moved to Germany. 

As an adult into his early 40s, he led a rather carefree and sinful life (he had money and he was of noble blood, meaning he could do pretty much anything he wanted) but then he began to read the Bible and church teachings. He repented of his sins, and became a true follower of Christ. His values and goals were completely changed by the experience of his conversion. He lived a simple life and dedicated himself to that which would glorify God.  Although he was of noble birth, being a baron, he decided to set that aside to serve God. He believed that God so loved the entire world, that God gave His one and unique son, that whoever believes in Him no matter who they are or where they live, should not perish but have eternal life.

He proposed the formation of an organization called the “Jesus Loving Society.”  This was a mission organization…. Long long before anyone had thought of such a thing. He urged that everyone… every church… every minister should share the gospel to lost people groups… not just preaching to those already in the church, or just waiting for some calling from God.

Welz suggested that The Jesus Loving Society was to be composed of three groups:

Missions sponsors and promoters (they provided the money)

Missions directors and secretaries (they provided the organization and leadership)

Missionary volunteers who would serve overseas for 2 to 3 years, sharing the Gospel. (They provided the hands, feet, and voice… to bring the message of Christ to all people)

Each missionary would study geography, history of the church, early church missions, Paul’s missionary journeys, evangelism, and foreign languages. Once the missionaries would arrive in their ministry country, they would study local customs, and local religions. They would learn the local language, translate portions of the Bible, and send back regular reports to home supporters.

This is a new idea. The Protestant churches at that time, did not think of the Gospel as for the whole world. They just focused on their own neighborhoods. Some of the theologians actually taught that it was wrong or evil to share the Gospel with non-Christians… or “heathens” as they would call non-Christians.

Welz felt that universities should train students to be missionaries. They should be trained in language, world religions, and other subjects related to missions. He invested a large amount of money to accomplish this. His ideas, however, were not accepted.

Welz, asked “Is it right for Christians to keep the Gospel to themselves rather than sharing it with others?  Is it right for so many theological students to sit around awaiting suitable appointments or perhaps becoming schoolmasters rather than venturing forth to preach to the heathen?  Is it right for Christians to spend so much money on amusement, expensive habits of food and dress, give no thought or money for the dissemination of the Gospel?” 

He could not interest others in his day to serve as missionaries, so he chose to go himself. A religious leader described him as ““… a dreamer, fanatic, hypocrite and heretic, …. it was absurd, even wicked, to cast the pearls of the gospel before the heathen.” He left for Suriname… a tropical region in South America. He left in 1666. We know that he was dead by 1668, probably of malaria. As far as we know, he was unable to lead a single person in Suriname to Christ.

At the end of his life, one could call his story: “Justinian von Welz— the Failure.” There were other men of his time… noblemen… kings… who built palaces… conquered countries… did things that changed the world. But von Welz died a failure… changing nothing.

But his story did not end with his death….

Less than 30 years after his death, the University of Halle set up a program for training missionaries built on the principles and proposals of von Welz. They were able to train university students to travel all over the world as missionaries.

70 years after von Welz’ departure for Suriname, mission families from Moravia, Germany travelled to Suriname to restart the work that von Welz had begun.

125 years after von Welz death, William Carey, Andrew Fuller and others established the first real Mission Society or Mission agency, based largely on the principles that von Welz had described over a century before.

150 years after von Welz death, there are dozens of mission agencies built on similar principles to his Jesus Loving Society, sending out hundreds of missionaries throughout the world.

350 years after von Welz death, we are here in the Philippines, in Mabalacat, Pampanga, talking about how we are joining Justinian von Welz in seeing what we can do to share the Gospel of Christ to the whole world.

Justinian von Welz was a success… in God’s eyes.

He is not alone. Jesus had a similar life story. He preached and healed for three years… he trained disciples… but then he was captured. His friends and supporters deserted him. Jesus was judged and found guilty… and killed as a criminal… an enemy of the State. And if we stopped there, we could easily say that he was a failure…. Died a failure. But we know that there is more to that story.

Jesus conquered death and was recognized as a true success. And in his actions, we have inspiration for what we are to do. Read Philippians 2:3-11

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

He obediently humbled himself… and God the Father raised him up and exalted him.

The Bible said that Jesus did not count equality with God a thing to use for His own advantage… He was a King but chose to be a humble servant… and seen as a failure to the world around that thinks of emperors, and military leaders as successes. Because of this… God has exalted Him… raised him high… declared him victorious.  

You know… when you think about it. God has a very different view of success than we commonly do. Consider what Jesus said in Matthew 20:25-27

25But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant,c 27and whoever would be first among you must be your slave

That is a very different attitude. Tacitus, Suetonius, Josephus were great historians from the first century. One mentioned Jesus in a couple of sentences. One mentioned him in only one sentence and even then mispelled his name. Another did not mention him at all. But today, there is no one better known in human history than Jesus Christ. A king who became a servant.

Justinian von Welz was a nobleman… a baron. He was rich and could have used his position and wealth to impress the world. Instead he gave away his money, and renounced his noble birth to serve God. Today, 350 years later, we still talk about Justinian von Welz… while nearly all of the people who lived when he lived lie silent in forgotten graves.

So what? What does that have to do with us?

I like to look at what your church has done over the years. We have known Ptr. Noel and Tita for 11 years, and Ryanne almost as long. It is exciting the various outreaches that are being done here. I see children’s outreach, music and youth ministries, feeding programs… and more. You have much to look back upon and feel pride.

Anniversaries are special this way. They are a time to look backwards… but also to look forwards. What path has God led us on. What is God doing right now. Where is God taking us into the future. After all God is always at work… whether we are working or not. But we must always ask ourselves the question… Are we working for God… or working for ourselves?

Another story… I like stories. This one is about my dad. My father was an engineer… a mechanico. He was hard working and smart. In fact, in addition to being an engineer… he was the President of the Board of Trustees of the local school… a school of several hundred students. One day, when I was 7 years old, my dad came home from the school and told me that he quit his work with the school. I was shocked. Even at 7 years old, I knew that this was a job of respect and power in our town. I asked my dad… “Why did you quit?” My dad responded, “That job required me to be gone so many evenings, so I quit. It is more important for me to be home with my family.” That seemed so stupid. I didn’t tell my dad that, of course. But it seemed so obvious that you would keep a job that adds status and honor… even if it means being away from the family. But over time, I began to understand that my dad was choosing what was most important. A few years later, his engineering boss retired… and my dad was offered that higher job. My dad said NO… he did not want the job. My dad said he did not want the job because it would require him to travel a lot, and he wanted to be home with his family, and serving in the church as head deacon. By this time… I did not think this was stupid. I understood his wisdom. Instead of choosing what was important… he was choosing what was MOST important.

He taught me what was most important.

So when I look back at my Dad, I see someone who knew what was most important. His family and his church were more important than money or status or prestige. And I would suggest that you reflect on this too… make sure that you take care of your church family. Prioritize what is most important as an example to the next generation… both inside your church and outside of your church.

When I look back at Justinian von Welz… I see someone who is a man of divine vision… ahead of his time… breaking away from what those around said was God’s will. He moved forward with such passion that even though he was seen as a failure in his time, he left a vision that has inspired generations of Christians down to the present age. You have the opportunity to transform Mabalacat, Pampanga, Tarlac… the Philippines… the World in ways that you may now think is impossible. To do so, may produce ridicule from others… but when doing the will of God, one may have to set aside comfort… ease… for something better… an inspiration for future generations.

When I look at Jesus… who set aside his glory to be a servant… and example of humility driven by love… He set His heart on the Kingdom of God… not some little kingdom here. I see one whose heart inspires me to stop trying to be a king… stop trying to build my little kingdom… but seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness. You can create a great church… with a great and mighty ministry. And that would certainly be exciting. But maybe better than a great church… is a good church… one that humbly serves God by humbly serving the community it is in… a safe harbor in stormy seas.

How does one make that happen? I don’t know. I am not part of your church… it is between you and God. But be reminded of the verses we read:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,

But whoever would be great among you must be your servant,c 27and whoever would be first among you must be your slave

This sounds backwards… but it is not. Jesus said this is how the kingdom of God works. Those who humble themselves before God… will be exalted. Those who seek to be first will be last… and those who are last… they shall be first. Those who seek greatness, must serve others. Those who who will serve God and others like a slave might… we be first before God.

And this is what I hope and pray for you all and your church. I want your church to be a mighty, a great, a prestigious, a powerful church. I want your church be honored by those around and members of the church to be people of influence in the community. I want those things. I I suspect you want those things too. However, don’t want them too much. Don’t seek might, greatness, prestige, honor, influence.

Seek to be humble servants of those in need of help. Take on the role of a servant in your community, in your country, in the world. Faithfully serving God and not yourself. In due time, you will be exalted… a success… in the eyes of God.

Actually— Sort of a Missions Sermon

I don’t preach missions sermons very often. Why? Well… as bad as many (most?) churches are in terms of missions, I rarely feel that that is the topic that is needed on Sunday. However, I am in the US right now, and preached this Sermon at one church, and will preach this same sermon three times this Sunday. So I may as well share it here.


Good Morning, We will be in Acts chapter 8 today, but I would like to start with a story. The story is called “The Three Little Pigs.” This is not the more common version of the story, with the house of straw, the house of sticks, and the house of bricks. It is more like a follow-on to the story.

In this story, the three little pigs are now wiser. They each have their own solid brick houses. One day the first little pig returns home after work. He opens his front door… and discovers that his house is now filled up with manure. Perhaps the family of the big bad wolf had done this as a malicious trick. Even though the three little pigs were… pigs… they did not really want to live in messy homes. They liked things tidy.

The first little pig was angry and unhappy but outside of griping never did anything about it. Every day he would come home to his filthy home that smelled worse each day. He would take pictures, put them on Instagram and complain about how this is proof that the country is falling apart.

The second little pig also returned home one day. He too found his house fool of manure. After thinking about it a bit… he rolled up his pig sleeves and got his pig shovel and pig mop, and began cleaning and cleaning and cleaning. He filled up a big dumpster and a truck came and hauled all of the manure away, Soon he was able to return to a clean house— as good as new.

The third little pig also came home to his own house and found it full of manure. He thought about it and thought about it and then got to work. Rolling up his pig sleeves and getting out his pig shovel and pig mop, He cleaned the whole house from top to bottom. As he did, he spread the manure on his garden. Soon he had a clean house and the best vegetables and flowers in the land.

Hold onto that story and please open your Bibles to Acts 8.

At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2 And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him.

3 As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison.

This is a bad situation… a real problem. There is persecution. Perhaps you are like me and don’t like to use that term. So many have watered down the term so much that almost anyone can claim to be persecuted for almost anything. But this was real persectution. People were breaking into the homes of Christians and throwing them in jail. Stephen was actually killed, and certainly more might be added to that list. Things were so bad that those who were not yet in prision felt the need to escape the city. Many went into the surrounding villages in Judea. Some went into the villages of Samaria.

Things seemed so good in the first four chapters of the book of Acts.— almost perfect. It seemed so good that 2000 years later we will still talk about trying to recapture the spirit of the first century church. But I don’t think God wants the church today to embrace some unhealthy nostalgia of the past. After all, God inspired the writer of Ecclesiastes to warn people not to embrace the foolish notion that things were better in the past than they are now. So God through Luke showed the church in Chapters 1 through 4 as almost perfect, but then clarifies things in Chapters 5 through 8 showing that things were far from perfect.

Chapters 1 through 4 showed the church of Jerusalem growing in leaps and bounds. Chapter 8 shows the church of Jerusalem shrinking back to almost nothing. Chapter 4 shows generous selfless giving. Chapter 5 shows giving that was selfish and deceptive. Chapter 2 shows a joyous church praising God. Chapter 5 shows a fearful church, Chapter 2 showed a church receiving the favor of their neighbors. Chapter 8 shows a church hunted by their neighbors. Chapter 4 shows a united church. Chapter 6 shows a divided church. Chapter 1 shows a church started by resurrection and miracles. Chapter 7 shows a church suffering its first murder— its first martyr.

In many ways, the church of the book of Acts is like the church of today. A mixture of good and bad. Of great highs and great lows.

The wording of this passage suggests that the only ones still in Jerusalem (outside of those locked up in prison) are the Apostles— the Twelve. The rest of the church went to Judea and Samaria

But as we move to verse 4… we discover, surprisingly, that this is good news, not bad.

4 Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word. 5 Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria and preached Christ to them. 6 And the multitudes with one accord heeded the things spoken by Philip, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did. 7 For unclean spirits, crying with a loud voice, came out of many who were possessed; and many who were paralyzed and lame were healed. 8 And there was great joy in that city.

Now we need to look at the story from this new angle. The trials going on in Jerusalem were not destroying the church. Rather those trials were like a gust of wind hitting a dandelion seed ball. Whoosh… seeds scatter everywhere to start new plants wherever the wind sets them. The stronger the wind the further they go. Those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word. These were not necessarily professional ministers. These were most likely pretty ordinarily people. They preached God’s message of hope to those around them. Where? Wherever they were taken as they were fleeing the city.

And then we learn about Philip. He was one of the 7, like Stephen who died. Stephen’s death did not destroy the witness of these 7. As one went down another rose up. Philip goes to Samaria. Jesus told His disciples that they would be His witnesses even to the ends of the earth. That is an awful lot of places. He specifically mentioned Samaria as one of the places to be a witness. Philip went to Samaria. Samaria is close to Jerusalem. However, Samaritans were very unpopular with the Jews. Samaritans were like the neighbors that we ignore, or wish would move away. But sometimes those are the very neighbors who were placed there for a reason. Or maybe we were placed next to them for a reason.

Philip did not wait for the Samaritans to come to him. He went deep into the heart of Samaria… and began preaching and healing. And they responded to the message and there was great joy.

I won’t keep going through this passage verse by verse for the sake of brevity. But word gets back to the Apostles in Jerusalem that something big is going on in Samaria… so they hurry up there. Persecution would not make them leave Jerusalem— but the excitement of seeing the Spirit of God do amazing things? Yes. They must see that. And they WERE amazed by what they saw. People were praising God and the Holy Spirit confirmed that they were God’s own. It says that Peter and John who had hurried up there… well, they then returned to Jerusalem. But on the way back they did not hurry. Rather they preached along the way in Samaritan villages.

That is pretty shocking. Consider John, for a moment. Only a few years prior John asked Jesus if He would give himself and James permission to call down fire on a Samaritan village that had not welcomed them in. That tells you a lot about the disciple’s view of Samaritans, I think. Jesus and the disciples were rejected in many Jewish villages, but there is no record of them asking Jesus permission to call down fire on them. God did not bring down the fire of judgment on the Samaritans. Instead, here in Acts, He brought down the fire of the Holy Spirit. Now John, as well as Peter, is caught up in the excitement of what God is doing.

So what are some lessons we might take from this.

Let’s return to the story of the three pigs. All three pigs had a bad thing come into their life. Each was in a bad situation… a problem… something that ruined their day. All three were given problems.

The first pig embraced a strategy I would call, “Resignation.” He resigned himself to the situation. In the Philippines, we use the expression, “Bahala na.” Hard to translate into English but something like. “It is fate… so you may as well accept it.” One may complain… but ultimately one does nothing substantive about it. The problem remained and grew.

I would say that the second pig embraced a strategy I would call “Restoration.” It means to restore… or bring back to normal. It is like a TV sitcom. Things are doing well. A problem springs up… craziness ensues. Eventually, someone comes up with a solution and everything returns back as they were at the beginning of the episode… all ready for a new situation next week. The second pig did this. He undid the problem. The problem is now gone. Things are back to normal. No worse, but also no better.

This seems like a pretty good strategy. It is the strategy of the fixit-man. Find problem. Fix problem. Not bad… but in the Bible, I think we find a better way. And that way is the strategy of the third pig.

I would call this strategy, the the strategy of Redemption. Redemption means saving or returning value to something ruined or broken. Usually it implies making things better than they were before. Can a problem be turned into a benefit. We often speak of God’s salvation in terms of redemption. When I was young, I was taught the memory aid for Justification— “Just as if I never sinned.” It is a good memory aid, but still inadequate. That is because, in God’s saving work, we get more… we get… “More than if I never sinned.” We are not just returned to the Garden— literal hedged-in place— called Eden… we are a part of a whole new creation… as joint heirs of this creation with Christ. We are not just receiving visits from God, strolling with Him in the cool of the morning. We will be dwelling with Him… Heaven and Earth joined.

The churchmembers of Jerusalem were certainly fearful and probably angry… and they could have simply embraced those feelings… effectively doing nothing. But this is not what they did.

Perhaps they could have aimed for the Second Strategy. Restoration. Perhaps they could have tried to work against the problems in Jerusalem and get everyone back into the city with the church as it was before.

But they went to the Third Strategy. Redemption. They did not do nothing. They did not simply reverse the problem. They embraced the problem. Under persecution they spread out over the land. The church was not crushed by hate, attacks, persecution. It grew— outward. Did they understand that they were carrying out Jesus’ plan to be witnesses in Jerusalem, and Judea and Samaria, and even the ends of the world. I don’t know. Whether they understood it or not, God led them into that situation and they responded. Philip was only one of them.

Persecution does not automatically lead to good things. I teach missions history… and history is complicated in this area. In the first three centuries of the church, persecution appears to have fueled its growth. However, in 7th and 8th century in North Africa, the church disappeared under persecution. In other places like in Lebanon and Egypt, the church has not grown or dissolved under persection, but has faithfully endured. But even today, God has used persecution to grow His church. In modern-day China and Iran, persecution has led to great growth of the church. Why do some places grow and others wither under persecution? I don’t really know. And I think it is better to admit ignorance than to claim knowledge I don’t have. But I have to think that how one responds to it… must be part of it. The people fled Jerusalem, but they did not see themselves as fleeing from God. They understood that God was with them in persecution and they were bringing Christ and His message wherever they went. It is not wrong to run… it just depends on where and what one is running to.

Maybe that is something we can gain from the first century church. We live in a time of pandemic. We live in a time of nuclear, chemical, biological, and cyber weaponry. We live in a time of scary technology and environmental disasters. We live in a time of great suffering and immorality. Most of these things we cannot fix. The problems are too big, and we are too small. But we are not called to fix things… undo the problem.

We are called upon to redeem. To open our minds and hearts to God’s plan to transform… bringing hope and salvation to a broken world.

As a church, don’t look back at the first century church and say, “Oh we want to be like the 1st century church… perfect, and growing in leaps and bounds.” That was not the whole story. Rather, maybe we could say, “Oh we want to be like the 1st century church that responded faithfully to trials and tribulations and transformed what was evil for good… and in the process turned the world upside down.”We want to be like the church that embraced problems as potentially… good.

You have supported Celia and myself in serving God in the Philippines, training up Christians in Asia and Africa to serve God. These Asian and African Christians as we train them, often serve in places of great persecution. Sometimes as missionaries, sometimes as pastors, chaplains, or pastoral counselors. We thank you for your support and prayers, and pray that those we train will serve God fearlessly in dangerous places serving redemptively, flowers for ashes,… embracing the heart of Joseph who told his brothers who sold him into slavery— “What you meant for evil, God used it for good.”

The Missionary Journeys of Peter (Part 1)

In Sunday School, and college, and seminary we studied the four missionary journeys of Paul. Of course the fourth journey was hardly a missionary journey, but I can see why it is called that because it completes the structure of the book of Acts (of the Apostles). Most of the latter half of Acts is structured on these journeys. Perhaps this was because Luke was developing background material for “Theophilus” in Paul’s defense in Rome. I don’t know. But the structure can lead some to see the New Testament church as being all about Paul. That is, of course, a discussion for a different website.

But it is an interesting thought exercise as to whether the Book of Acts could have been structured off of another Apostle’s journeys. Let’s consider a few candidates.

Option 1. Philip. Philip was one of the Seven. He was also PROBABLY one of the 70 and one of the 120, though that is not certain. His known ministry started in Jerusalem in Acts 6. His missionary journeys come up starting in Acts 8 and consist of two phases— a Samaritan phase and a Judean phase. It ends with him settled in Caesarea. Noting the structure of Acts built around Acts 1:8 (Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, Ends of the earth), Philip had an important role in the early church but not enough “ends of the earth” to provide that structure.

Option 2. John. John was involved in the early church from the very beginning as one of the Twelve. However. we know little of John’s mission journeys with certainty. He was certainly part of the Samaritan Mission. Later, we believe he is in Ephesus. Some argue for two Johns (the apostle and the presbyter) but I will go with them being one and the same. The Didache speaks of Prophets (traveling preachers) choosing to change roles to Elder (Presbyter) in a church. The context suggests to me at least that this applied also to Apostles (churchplanters). As such, we may imply a second missionary journey, one that ended in Ephesus and the surrounding region. Unfortunately, that seems inadequate for us. Since we don’t know more, we must move on.

Option 3. Barnabas. This case seems more promising. Barnabas (Joseph) came from Cyprus to Jerusalem originally, but that cannot be described as a missionary journey. We first come upon him in Acts 4. We could see him as having a first missionary journey— The Antiochan Mission that started and ended in Jerusalem with his work in Antioch and a side-trip to Tarsus. His second trip could be seen as starting in Jerusalem or Antioch (and ending in either as well). This was his mission trip to Cyprus and Asia Minor with Paul (the “First Missionary Trip” of Paul). After that Barnabas and John Mark travel to Cyprus. It is hard to say whether this was his Third Missionary voyage or he was simply returning to his family home. If we accept Barnabas as the author of Hebrews (which does make sense to me in terms of theology, style, and target audience), then Barnabas knew Timothy, suggesting that his travels continued after his time in Cyprus. The apparent age of the “Book of Barnabas” and some similarities between it and Hebrews is suggestive, but we just don’t know enough with any certainty to take it further.

Option 4. John Mark. The challenge with Mark is that we don’t know how many Marks there were. Both John and Mark were common names. This is hardly a unique case. I already mentioned earlier about questions regarding the Apostle John versus John the Presbyter, and the early church often confused the Apostle Philip with Philip the Evangelist (especially since Philip the evangelist could clearly be labeled an apostle even if he was not one of the Twelve). However, I will discount the “Three Marks” and “Two Marks” and assume there is only one Mark. If so, there are tantalizing suggestions that he might make a strong candidate. He probably references himself in the Gospel of Mark, making him a young follower of Jesus and probably with the church from the beginning in Jerusalem. He eventually is in Antioch. Perhaps he joined Barnabas as part of his mission work in Antioch. Then he joins Paul and Barnabas in the Mission journey to Cyprus. If we take seriously early church tradition (and if we link the Marks together), John Mark joined Peter and wrote the Gospel of Mark based on the recollections of Peter. We do know that John Mark also helped Paul later in his life and that Paul sought for John Mark to join him in Rome. We have no idea whether he did indeed make it to Rome. Early church tradition suggests him going to Alexandria and establishing the church there. There is too much speculation due to lack of sources. However, if the speculation was true, what a great biography of his life would be, and what a great framework for understanding the early church!

Option 5. Peter. Peter, in my opinion, is the one person other than Paul that we have enough information about to provide a valuable structure for the history of the early church based on his missionary journeys. While some of it is speculative, I believe there is enough there that we could talk about the expansion of the early church through the framework of the missionary journeys of Peter.

You are welcome to go to Part 2 to continue

Philip (of the 7) and the (3) Little Pigs

I wrote a story based (sort of) on the Three Little Pigs. The story is Reflection, Restoration, Redemption and Three Little Pigs

However, I think I want to change the story a bit. I think that first little pig representing Reflection is wrong. Rather, it should be Resignation.

The responses to a bad situation (choosing three from among many) are:

  1. Resignation. Accepting the situation without doing anything about it.
  2. Restoration. Fixing or undoing the situation.
  3. Redemption. Making good out a bad situation.

The difference between restoration and redemption the assumed endpoint. In Restoration, the goal is to return to status quo. Classically, in a sitcom, the goal is to bring up a (sometimes ridiculous problem) and end the episode with a return to normal. This is useful because it makes it easier for the writers. They start from the same place each time. Of course, this can be unsatisfying. It is nice to have characters learn and grow. It is nice to have story arcs that are more than 22 minutes long. With redemption, the bad stuff is used for good. Ideally, the end would not have been as good if it were not for the bad. This theme is not unusual in the Bible. The Joseph arc in Genesis starts with jealousy, family conflict and enslavement, and ends with family restoration and salvation. The viciousness of humanity in the Passion story is used as an opportunity to demonstrate God’s sacrificial love, and message of salvation.

A great example of this sort of redemption is found in Acts 8 with Philip of the Seven (or the Evangelist). The church has been growing in Jerusalem but appears not to be spreading much outside of the city. Conflicts with the religious establishment leads to great persecution. Followers of the Way begin to escape from Jerusalem. Curiously, it is noted that among those that did not leave were the Twelve— the ones who were specifically called by God to leave Jerusalem. (See Acts 1:8).

Those that left began to share the gospel message to their fellow Jews in Judea. The persecution in Jerusalem was like a blowing on a fire to put it out, but instead of putting it out, it causes the flame to spread faster. Among those who left was Philip. Philip did something different. He did not go to the towns of Judea. He went to Samaria. There was not a lot of warm feelings between the Jews and the Samaritans. It is quite possible that Philip was not only one “of the 7” of Acts 6, he may have also been one “of the 70” from Luke 10. While the Twelve were sent to the Jews, the 70 (or 72) had no such constraints placed upon them. And Philip was probably a Hellenistic Jew (based on the Greek name and his call to minister to Hellenistic Jewish widows in the church. If so, he would be bicultural and perhaps more open to minister to a group that was arguably rather bicultural (or syncretistic). Reaching out to a Jewish proselyte (assuming the Ethiopian Eunuch was a proselyte) would be quite consistent with his adventurous spirit in sharing the faith across cultural divides.

You can read starting in Acts 8 in his role not only of bringing the Christian faith to Samaritans, but also getting some of the apostles to leave Jerusalem and begin to share their faith beyond. Then you can read about his ministry of bringing the Ethiopian Eunuch to Christ. The Ethiopian church sees this man as its founder. Is that true? It is hard to say, but he certainly inspired the Ethiopian church— one of the most enduring vibrant ancient Christian groups. Then one can read about his work in Judea, and eventually settling in Cesarea and ministering there with his family.

One can focus on Philip. Why not? It certainly makes sense to look at it biographically. But this story can be seen in terms of redemptive responses to problems.

  1. In Acts 6, there is conflict in the church over racism. The response was to give a ministerial role and authority to seven Hellenistic Jews (including Stephen and Philip). The story shows this to be more than simply restoration. Acts doesn’t simply show things as “fixed.” Out of this situation, Stephen is described as a courageous preacher, and first martyr. And Philip is described as the cross-cultural missionary of the church.
  2. The persecution of the church… leads to the Gospel spreading in all directions, including crossing cultural boundaries.

There is a lot of redemption. In grief response, one of the responses is that of the Activist. This person is inspired to turn tragedy into something positive. This is not the only positive response, but it can be valuable when this happens.

Of course, I have talked of redeeming and restoring, but what about resignation. Resigning oneself doesn’t always mean enduring with a sigh. Ultimately, resignation is to not fix and not redeem. It does concern me that I see so many on FB and Twitter (especially before I started to back out of those platforms) who would share stories like this:

—Here is a story… you should be fearful about it.

—You are fearful? Well now here is a story for you to be angry about.

—Angry now? It’s time to hear a new story so that you can be fearful.

—Fearful? Now here is something to be angry about….

And so on… more and more. I never really figured out the reason why people share these things. Ideally, they can inspire fervent prayer, and action to to restore what is good… or redeem the problem for good. More often it is just to cycle people through useless or even destructive emotional cycles.

I think we can do better. Philip did…

Anti-Missions Theology Article

I took my latest book on Mission Theology (Go to the Welcome for this website to access the “Beta” Version of the book) and I turned one of the chapters into an article to share on Academia.edu.

If you are interested in reading this topic of Anti-missions theology in Protestant Church History, but don’t want to look at the whole book, you can go to…

https://www.academia.edu/45640342/Theological_Objections_to_Christian_Missions_in_Protestant_Church_History?source=swp_share

The Potato Blight and Pastoral Theology

My wife is a certified pastoral counselor, so I sometimes get pulled in on CPE (Clinical Pastoral Training/Education) groups to lead a small training session. This weekend, I led one in Pastoral Theology. I utilize the definition for Pastoral Theology used by Margaret Whipp, in her book “SCM Guidebook: Pastoral Theology,”

PASTORAL THEOLOGY IS THE STUDY OF HOW AND WHY CHRISTIANS CARE.

Several times (too many times?) I made the statement that good pastoral care depends on good pastoral theology. I also made the statement that how we carry out pastoral care points to our pastoral theology. Thus, if we don’t have a reflected on pastoral theology, we will simply have a tacit (and typically bad) pastoral theology.

This seems a bit ridiculous, especially considering how busy people seem to be in Christian ministry who appear to have no time to worry about such unnecessary things as theology or theological reflection.

But I found a nice little example of tacit pastoral theology in a Youtube Video I watched from a strange source. The channel is “Tasting History” and the particular video is “Irish Stew from 1900 & the Irish Potato Famine.”

It is not a religious or theological channel. But it is quite relevant.

Starting around 1845, Potato Blight hit Ireland hard. People were starving and different people responded differently.

Charles Trevelyan. This man was placed in charge of the relief work by the British government for those starving in Ireland. In the youtube video (link above) it quotes Trevelyan as saying,

“The judgment of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated… The real evil which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse, and turbulent character of the people.” (Charles Trevelyan)

Admittedly, Trevelyan’s views reflected the views of many in power in England. Those in power commonly do see those without power as unworthy in some way… presumably because that implies that they with power have somehow earned their position. However, Trevelyan’s perspective does have an underlying theological perspective. Bad things are happening to the Irish because God wants bad things to happen to them. They have earned what they are getting. And to help people under the judgment of God is to work against God. This is a bit akin to what happened in the 1980s and 1990s when many saw the AIDs epidemic as a judgment of God against homosexuals (particularly). The thought of some was that to work on a cure was to undermine God’s good work.

So what was Trevelyan’s pastoral theology? It is hard to say, but by appearance it seems to be that Christians should care for those who appear to be cared for by God. In other words, we should provide care only for people who don’t require care. This may not be true. Perhaps he was simply an ethnic or religious bigot, and simply justified his prejudices with theological language. In the end, however, it doesn’t matter. In practice this was his theology within this specific context. Pastoral theology is highly contexstual.

Bible Societies. Tasting History noted that many Bible Societies (essentially parachurch mission organizations) provided food for the Irish who were starving…. BUT ONLY IF THEY CONVERT TO THE SOCIETY’S DENOMINATION. Since the vast majority of the Irish were staunchly (religiously and culturally) Roman Catholic, care was only given if people left the Roman Catholic Church.

So what is the pastoral theology here? Since conversion (at least change of denominational affiliation) was a prerequisite for receiving care, they were in essence saying, “Christians care for people only if they are like us Christians. If they are different, they can starve.” This sort of thing has happened a lot in Christian (and non-Christian) societies. There has been many times where the “Cross or the Sword” form of evangelism has been active going back to at least Charlemagne. Again, other groups have their own versions, such as the “Shahada or the Scimitar.” Essentially, the idea is that converting to our faith (or in some cases converting to our denominational perspective) is such an inherent eternal good, that pretty much any means to make that happen is a good thing.

Sometimes, it can go the opposite way a bit. As noted, my wife is a pastoral counselor. Usually, she counsels Christians. Sometimes, however, she counsels non-Christians. Some pastoral counselors say that one can only counsel Christians— for all others, the only thing one can do is Evangelize. That is quite a statement if one thinks about it. Probably, they don’t mean this. Probably what they mean is that Conversion to Christ is such a totally important and good thing, that any other good thing we might be able to do with and for this person pales in comparison. That seems a bit dubious. After all, if someone is suicidal and a Christian counselor talks that person out of committing suicide, that hardly pales in comparison to salvation. In fact, not being dead is an essential prerequisite to conversion. Regardless, it is likely that the refusal to help (except evangelize) a non-Christian is likely to be interpreted as “You have NOTHING to offer me that I presently see as valuable.”

This view tends to lend itself to the perspective of the “Ulterior Motive.” We don’t provide care because we love all people. We don’t do it because Jesus commanded us, and modeled it for us. Rather we do it, to get because we expected a quid pro quo. Quid pro quo can be initiated by either side. When a typhoon hit our area, a mission care provider came to the Philippines to provide resources for those hurt by the landslides. The local missionary he was working with began to plan out all of the places they would visit to help. However, the mission care provider had no interest in that list. He only wanted to go to places where there were churches tied to their denomination to provide care. If one of their churches wasn’t there, that was someone else’s problem. While I understand the logic of it, I still must say that it is a sub-Biblical perspective.

Society of Friends. The video noted that one group that did things differently was the Society of Friends (Quakers). There may have been others, but this is one that was singled out by the video. They gave based on the need of the people… regardless of anything else. This has a very different underlying pastoral theology— of how and why Christians provide care to others. In my mind, this is the one

Doubting Doubting Thomas

I was teaching a class– “Research in the History of Missions.” I noticed something strange. One of the missionaries I asked a student to research, and all to respond to, was St. Thomas. That is, the first St. Thomas— “Doubting Thomas.” I was so surprised at how uncomfortable my students were with researching Thomas. The discomfort is that so much of what we know about Thomas is speculative or apocryphal. One way around this is by studying Thomas as a character, rather than a historical living human being. Of course, I teach at an Evangelical School… where that may strike people unpleasantly close to the arguments about studying the “Jesus of Faith” versus the “Historical Jesus.”

The problem to me however, is different. Pretty much every mission figure I asked them to research had an issue of a gap between the “missionary as portrayed” versus the “missionary who is.” In the case of St. Thomas, the uncertainty was seemingly greater because some of the sources have a certain ramifications. To accept the Gospel of Thomas as actually written by Thomas means giving a certain amount of authority to a work that is commonly viewed as “Gnostic.” are problems with accepting the other works ascribed to Thomas as actually his work as well.

But such discomfort should not cause discomfort, but reflection. After all, the fact that these works were in Syraic, may be suggestive that Thomas ministered in Syria. No guarantee of course. The Spanish stories of Saint Iago doesn’t mean that St. James had come anywhere near the place. However, numerous works ascribed to Thomas from one place does seem suggestive. The early tradition of Thomas (probably not Bartholomew) founding the church of Southern India doesn’t necessarily mean he founded it, but it probably at least suggests its founding by his disciples. The fact that the last Gospel written (John) was the only one that singled out the actions of Thomas suggest, perhaps, that he was more important apostle in his later years than in his early years. Such evidences don’t tell us much with certainty, but do point to impact. It seems probable that Thomas was an important missionary/apostle in Syria, and considering how Edessa, for example, was an early center of Christianity, suggests that he has had considerable impact. Research like this does not lead to certainty, but does lead to new questions, and tentative thoughts.

This is pretty common in history in general. We never get full unambiguous answers. From the Evangelical perspective, the Bible is fully reliable, including in its historical record. However, even from that perspective, it must be remembered that the historical record in the Bible is very incomplete, and our ability to fill in those blanks is highly doubtful. Also, our ability to accurately analyze and interpret what is explicitly stated is also doubtful.

When my students researched Herman of Alaska, Francis Xavier, Betsy Stockton, and others, they should have gone in with the same reflective uncertainty. Some like a certain scientific certainty… but no such thing exists. Science can’t accurately analyze anything in history since it is unrepeatable phenomenon.

We need the illiative sense (converging probabilities)— the skills of the historian and lawyer, not the astronomer or physicist.