Thursday, November 29, 2018

Saturate Groups | Going with the Presence of God: Confronting Our Fears & Growing in Faith in Jesus Together

Each person is invited to enjoy Jesus' presence throughout the regular and exciting of each day. 

In the beginning of October 2018, I had the joy of sharing with some churches from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Virginia about how God with us has always been His plan for us, whether we are alone, at work, in our neighborhood, or gathered and sent with His Church. Some of the resources I utilized during this "holy imagination" conversation are included in these posts below:

Immanuel Has Always Been His Plan for Us   
Practice-Based Living, Community, & Mission  
Praying the Daily Examen

And now, in participating in a Saturate group with Emmaus City this fall, I continue to wonder about how this powerful Good News of "God with us" also helps shape us for being witnesses in transformational communities with others in our neighborhood and City Groups, as well as in the places Jesus sends us to walk with Him in day-to-day life, including school, work, and among others where our interests and passions come alive. 

To live humbly, boldly, and consistently as a witness to Jesus no matter the environment or people we are among takes trust in Him that He is always with us and that He is at work no matter where we are.

Both David Fitch in Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines That Shape the Church for Mission (an excerpt can be found in the article,"How the Presence of God Fuels Our Mission") and Dhati Lewis in Among Wolves: Disciple-Making in the City have been very beneficial in helping me be more prayerful, active, and attentive to not only Jesus' call, but what He is doing wherever I go. The content below contains words and wisdom from them both. 

Jesus Is with Us "In Here" and "Out There"

When we emphasize God’s mission in the world and urge each other to participate in it, sometimes due to an absence of discipleship, some Christians struggle to connect what happens “in here” as God's children gathered for a service of worship on a Sabbath to what happens “out there” where we live daily among others in the hopes and fears, mercies and injustices of the world. Our perspective changes when we are discipled to understand that Jesus draws near and is always present and at work with us among whomever we are with in the world (Matthew 28:18-20), and His Church who follows Him is called to be faithful to His presence wherever we are sent by the power of His Spirit (John 20:21-22). We not only gather in His presence together at His table during a mass or service of worship, we live in His presence as Jesus dwells in us and with us by His Spirit (Ephesians 3:16-21) with others at the tables in our town, city, neighborhood, and home. 

For an example of moments with His Church, in Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus tells His disciples that when you have a conflict, and two or three come together and agree, “I am there among you." And when Jesus inaugurated the Lord’s Table, He said, “Whenever you eat this meal, be present to My presence” [Fitch's translation of the Greek word anamnesis, which is typically translated as "remember Me”] (Luke 22:19). As for moments when we are with those who do not know Jesus yet, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells His disciples that “those who listened to you heard Me, and those who rejected you reject Me” (Luke 10:16). Jesus is saying He is present in the proclaiming of the Gospel. When He welcomes little children and blesses them, He says that we are to do the same, and that when we welcome and bless little children in Jesus' name, we are welcoming Him (Matthew 18:1-5). And in the parable in Matthew 25:34-46, Jesus tells His disciples that when they are with “the least of these,” ministering among the poor, He is there present with them.

So we are invited to discern His presence with others and witness to His presence with others throughout each day among a diversity of people in a varied amount of spaces and places. What we do with the gathered Church, tending to the presence of Christ as we listen to the Scriptures and participate in the sacrament of the Eucharist, helps to prepare and enable us to discern His presence at work in the rest of our lives among our friends and in our neighborhoods.

Jesus Calls Us to Embrace Being with Him as Integral to Our Discipleship When We are in the Midst of Opportunity and Hostility

When Jesus commissions us to be His disciples wherever we go, we are called to do with Him the very things He did, bringing healing to others, confronting evil, opening our tables to anyone, and sharing with them the Gospel of His Kingdom of mercy, justice, and peace in word and deed. You can imagine the disciples in the moment Jesus expressed as much to them in Matthew 10:1-14 and Luke 10:1-1117. Everything had been going so well; Jesus was the One, the Rabbi, the Messiah, healing and performing amazing miraculous feats in small and large settings with all sorts of people. So it might have seemed a bit abrupt when He began commissioning them to now do the same things He was doing. "Really? Me? Us? Now? How?" 

In Matthew 10:16-25, Jesus lets the reality sink in even more: Jesus asks the disciples to stop and imagine a nightmare coming true. This will be a dangerous calling. "I am sending you out in the midst of wolves and while being in the midst of wolves you will be vulnerable" (Matthew 10:16). "There will be authorities who persecute you and there will be family members who won't understand and will turn away from you" (Matthew 10:17-23). Like Jesus, His followers will be accused and misunderstood, but He promises the "Spirit of your Father" will be with you and "speak for you" (Matthew 10:20).

If we haven't experienced rejection from anyone in our family or neighbors or friends, we may not have shared yet Jesus' Gospel like He did. He said hard moments would come if/when we do. He is calling us to confront our fears and trust Him through it all (Matthew 10:26-33). Jesus commands us to pray that God would send us to go be among new people into new experiences, because left to ourselves and our own thoughts and strength, we will hesitate and tend not to go out and witness. We must pray that God would put us in a position where He makes evident that we have to share His Good News regardless of the result, that we would be deeply uncomfortable with anything less than whole-hearted love and obedience to Him. Each follower of Jesus is sent to be both bold and blameless in the midst of persecution. It's part of His calling and commission for us. Some people will hate us, including coworkers, neighbors, and even family, because people hated Jesus in His time. 

Charles Spurgeon encourages us with this calling in this way, "He who has gone on to prepare heaven for us will not leave us without provision for the journey." So you ask, what is God's provision for perseverance in persecution? The answer is simple: His presence by His Holy Spirit. His presence is our provision. If you walk through the Gospel of Matthew in particular, you see it's all about His presence. He never promises us escape from persecution; He only promises to be present with us throughout the good and bad times. In Matthew 3:17, God is with Jesus supernaturally in His baptism and says, "This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased." In Matthew 4:17-23, the call is to follow Jesus, to be with Him. Then, He calls us to go into the harvest and labor among the harvest, to be with the harvest. Later on He says He is building His Church, and we see the idea of the need for God's people to come together and be present with one another (Ex. Matthew 18). And look ahead to how Matthew ends. The greatest commission of all: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (28:19-20), and how does it end? Presence. Jesus says, "And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age" (vs. 20). God promises us His presence. His presence is His provision.

We Can Embrace the Presence of Jesus in the Midst of Our Fears

Our prayer is that we would not define God's will by the path of least resistance. The question is not merely, what do you want to do with your life? The question is, what is Jesus doing and how do we join Him where He is moving in the world, which can be much more abundant life than what our initial desires limited us to? To be with God is more precious and valuable than any safety, security, power, or pleasure that He does not offer us.

Many of us have probably been taught to avoid fear. But ultimately, fear is not evil. It is simply an emotion that tells us we are not in control. Fear leads us to try and take control of things. This response can lead followers of Jesus to determine not to share their faith so we can control what criticism or mockery comes our way. However, the other option is that we can allow fear to lead us to greater confidence, faith, and wisdom in Jesus to share Him with others.

N.T. Wright says, "'Fear not' is the most frequently repeated command in the entire Bible." Managing our fears is important because a mismanagement of our fear can silence our witness. It will keep us from wisdom. Chip Dodd says, "Fear offers the opportunity to trust God and others with our need for help or it entices us to stay stuck in the distrust and self will." The Bible tells us that the beginning of wisdom is a fear of the Lord (Proverbs 9:10). A mismanagement of our fear can cripple us from experiencing God's presence even when He is near. But a well-placed fear can lead us to wisdom, rooted faith, and greater intimacy with the Father and with others.

Missional Community Life: Recognizing His Presence at Our Meals

When we gather in homes to eat with others like Jesus did, we are giving the opportunity to practice being attentive to Him and to others among us. We welcome others around the tables in our lives like Christ welcomes His own to His (Lord's) Table. We give thanks and open our lives to whatever God would do here among us. 

At a Church gathering, the bread and the cup teach us how God works in Christ to provide us forgiveness and reconciliation. So we look for God bringing His forgiveness to people—His reconciliation and renewal of all things—among our friends and coworkers at tables with them, whether in our home at family meals or in restaurants, bars, and others' homes where we eat together, talk, and listen to one another. With confidence in Christ that helps us be with vulnerable with others, we share about joys and struggles, and we learn how to listen well to each other as we share decisions and conflicts we are struggling through. Some may join the conversation, others may just listen or observe. But in the midst of it all, we can listen and look for what God is doing and seek to join Him. As we pray before, during, or after our times with others, we bring all these people and moments before God, asking Him to reveal His presence. And as we make time to reflect later that week or even months later, we will be given eyes to see and recognize how our tables opened up space for Christ’s presence to work in all of our lives as He discipled us in His ways among our friends, neighbors, and families.

Missional Community Life: Recognizing His Presence Among the People in Our Towns or Cities

Jesus is also at work among those who do not yet recognize Him as Savior and King. And so the things we practice as Jesus' Church during our services of worship (i.e. welcoming each other, praying together, listening to the Scriptures together, eating together, reconciling at Jesus' Table), as well as live into during the week around our tables at home, must extend into the places where He is not yet recognized in our workplaces, neighborhoods, towns, and cities where He has called us to live most of our time.

As we go to the various places of our lives—the YMCAs, the restaurants, bars, and coffee houses, the parks where people hike and families play, the city hall meetings, the places where we work, or wherever we share a meal or a beverage—we go in the confidence that God is already present there as well. The only difference between these places and our homes is that we are guests in these places. We come to sit, listen, and tend to what God is doing among others, and in the power of the Spirit, we offer reconciliation, pray for healing, and proclaim the Gospel of Jesus. We know Christ is there, but we cannot assume He or we will be welcomed every time. All of our lives is under His reign of mercy, justice, and peace, though He may not be acknowledged or seen.

Missional Community Life: Being Present with Jesus Among Anyone

Consider the relationships you have with people in your workplaces and neighborhoods. It could be your neighbor next door, the person you work with the most, the waitress or waiter you see regularly, or someone you recently met at a party or school event. Who has God involved with you in long-term, real-life relationships in the various places He sends you to each week?

In God's presence, we don't need to separate Jesus' discipleship of us from friendship, being a good neighbor, worship with other Jesus followers, or evangelism. When discipleship means discerning Christ’s presence in my life, in the people around me and in all my encounters with others—whether at work, with His Church, in schools or neighborhoods—discipleship becomes about all of life. Discipleship is no longer shrunk into a program at the local church; evangelism is not exclusively for one weeknight at an outreach event. Instead, the words, work, and way of Jesus given to His Church involves His call for us to join Him in sharing and showing His faithful presence in the world.

In His Presence, We Can Be Free to Be Vulnerable with God and Others

In order to welcome this holistic approach to being disciples of Jesus, we need to be free to be vulnerable with God, ourselves, and others. 

Too often, we fear vulnerability; but it's in vulnerability we have the power to say, "I am afraid, but I choose to be willing to show that Christ is greater than my fears." Jesus doesn't tell us to lose our fear; He empowers us by His Spirit to manage our fear. Instead of placing our fear in the things we can't control, He invites us to place our fear in the One who is in control and holds all things together. The question then becomes when we are afraid: How can I embrace God and encounter His presence in the midst of my fears?

Don't be afraid of failure. Many of us seem to hold out because we are afraid to be all in. We want to reserve a little bit back because we are afraid to fail. But even if/when we fail in this life, we can know that we won't ultimately fail because Jesus has shared His victory over death with us. He invites us to trust in His promises and power in all things. And His presence is the fuel that empowers us to be all in, without hesitation, living fully with others.

Christ is all,

Rev. Mike “Sully” Sullivan

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