The Feast of St. James the Apostle: A Homily for Ministers

Readings: Psalm 34; Jeremiah 16:14-21; Mark 1:14-20

Like so many other feast days – scheduled, as they are, on the days of the namesakes’ deaths – the feast day of St. James the Apostle is a strong rebuke to our aspirations. To our aspirations as human beings, and especially to our aspirations as ministers of Christ’s Church.

Saint James the Greater *oil on canvas *92.1 x 74.9 cm *signed b.r.: Rembrandt f. 1661
Saint James the Greater, by Rembrandt

James & John: Fishermen No More?

You see, James started off as a mere fisherman. An admirable one, to be sure, because he and his brother John answered Jesus’ call in Mark 1. They left behind their father, their family, and – they grew to hope! – their family’s fishing profession.

James was off on a new adventure, hopeful and headstrong. So much so that, along with his brother John, he earned the nickname “Son of Thunder”! Coming from the Son of Man, that’s no small compliment!

But their headstrong passion proved to be a weakness as well. In Luke 9, after getting rejected in Samaria, the Sons of Thunder offer to call fire down from heaven to consume the Samaritan village! This earns them a stern rebuke from Jesus.

And, even more famously, they approached Jesus with the following request in Mark 10:37:

Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.

Princes? Or Fishermen?

Now, their request is, in effect: “O King Jesus, would you please make us princes?”

And, granted, this is Apocryphal, but I imagine Jesus putting his arms around them and saying the following:

“Princes? Princes?! Boys, if I had wanted princes, I would have called princes! But, I don’t need princes!

No, no, no. What I need are new fishermen! And that’s why I’ve called you!”

You see, James had been hoping for a new position. And instead he received his old professiontransformed!

James was no longer to be a mere fisherman, but a fisher of men.

And not even just a fisher of men like Jeremiah 16 spoke of – for there the fishermen and hunters are instruments of judgment and exile.

No! Instead, James was to go fishing with, go fishing for Jesus, to bring people back from exile.

Now, undoubtedly, this is a step up from fishing for literal fish.

Or is it?

Not necessarily. At least, not in the world’s eyes.

The Death of St. James the Apostle

Here’s Jesus’ actual answer to the “prince” request:

Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”

And they said to him, “We are able.”

And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

Now, granted, this isn’t one of the assigned lectionary passages for today, but I’d like us to look at the beginning of Acts 12:

About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also.

Swept aside, in just one verse! I doubt that sort of an abrupt, violent end awaited most of the fishermen working for Zebedee’s family business.

Was it worth it?

Was it worth it? Did James receive any sort of a promotion, after all?

Of course, we know the right answer. But do we live it out?

Are we thankful, are we satisfied with our roles as servants within Christ’s Church?

Are we willing to be “just” fishermen, even if it costs us our ambitions? Even if it costs us our lives?

Guido_Reni_-_Saint_James_the_Greater_-_Google_Art_ProjectBy God’s grace, I hope so.

By God’s grace, may we – with the Apostle James – be able to confess the final words of Psalm 34 with open eyes, and open hearts. Perhaps it will help to imagine the following words on the dying Apostle’s lips:

Many are the afflictions of the righteous,
but the Lord delivers him out of them all.
He keeps all his bones;
not one of them is broken.
Affliction will slay the wicked,
and those who hate the righteous will be condemned.
The Lord redeems the life of his servants;
none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.

Amen.

A Rookie Anglican Explains Holy Communion

Have you ever wondered what’s going on during a liturgical service of Holy Communion? So many moving parts! And what’s the deal with shaking hands in the middle?

You’re not alone.

Thankfully, a relatively simple overall structure unifies the many moving parts.

The Overall Structure:

Most services of Holy Communion – including those throughout the Anglican tradition – depict a fourfold journey of the Church

  1. from the world, into the eternal presence of God through
  2. Word and
  3. Sacrament, and
  4. back into the world again

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This macro-structure of the Eucharist finds a biblical precedent in Jesus’s exposition of the Scriptures (Word) before making himself known to two disciples in the breaking of the bread (Sacrament) at Emmaus (Luke 24:13-34).

Also, it follows the early Church’s example of devoting themselves “to the apostles’ teaching [Word] and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread [Sacrament] and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).

The Moving Parts of Holy Eucharist: Rite Two (1979 BCP)

The opening Acclamation states the entire journey’s destination: the Kingdom of the Triune God (Schmemann, 29).

Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And blessed be his kingdom, now and for ever. Amen.

The Processional, though not mandated in the 1979BCP, begins the enactment of the journey: following Christ, represented by the processional cross, God’s people enter God’s presence. They are only able to approach the altar by virtue of the sufficient sacrifice of Christ himself. On their own, they are impure and unfit for worship (Rom. 3:23). Through the Collect for Purity, then, the people ask for the Holy Spirit’s cleansing to enable proper worship.

After singing praises to a holy and merciful God (Ps 5:11), and being gathered together in prayer (Matt 18:20) by the Collect of the Day, the people are ready to hear the Word of God, first read aloud in the Lessons, and then proclaimed and exposited in the Sermon (1 Tim 4:13).

The Church then responds to God’s Word by confessing the Nicene Creed as a summary of its faith in both God and His Word. If heard correctly, God’s Word should bring concern for God’s world, for which the community then intercedes in the Prayers of the People (1 Tim 2:1).

Before the Liturgy of the Word of God leads to the Liturgy of the Holy Communion, the people must heed two warnings.

First, they heed Paul’s warning in 1 Corinthians 11:27-32, to examine themselves before partaking of the Eucharist, through the Confession of Sin and the priest’s declaration of Absolution.

Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.

Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins
through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all
goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in
eternal life. Amen.

Second, they heed Christ’s warning in Matthew 5:23-24, to reconcile with one another before coming to worship, by exchanging the Peace – for Christ’s peace is both vertical (with God) and horizontal (with others).

The peace of the Lord be always with you.
And also with you.

The transition now complete, the Liturgy of Holy Communion begins with the Offertory, in which God’s people offer Him their very selves, symbolized by the bread, wine, and money as the fruits of human labor.

Then comes the Great Thanksgiving to God, in which, at the phrase “lift up your hears” (sursum corda), the anaphora takes place as the Church itself is lifted up, as an offering, into the heavenly sanctuary (Chan, 142). Along with the angels in heaven, the Church praises God for His holiness in the Sanctus (“Holy”; Isa 6:3; Rev 4:8), and welcomes Christ’s presence in the Eucharist through the Benedictus qui venit (“Blessed is he who comes”; Ps 118:26; Matt 21:9; 23:39).

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

The redemptive acts of God, which enable the anaphora, are remembered (anamnesis) throughout the following Prayer of Consecration, culminating in the Words of Institution, in which the celebrant remembers and re-presents Christ’s words at the Last Supper (Matt 26:26-28 parr.).

On the night he was handed over to suffering and death, our Lord Jesus Christ took bread; and when he had given thanks to you, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, and said, “Take, eat: This is my Body, which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me.”

After supper he took the cup of wine; and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and said, “Drink this, all of you: This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink it, do this for the remembrance of me.”

The Church then proclaims the great mystery which it is in the process of enacting: a celebration of Christ’s resurrection after his death and before his second coming.

Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.

The celebrant then offers (oblation) the gifts of bread and wine to God, and invokes (epiclesis) the Holy Spirit to sanctify both the gifts and the people – that they may rightfully receive the Sacrament in anticipation of God’s eschatological kingdom – a kingdom which is the focus of the subsequent Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9-13).

The celebrant then breaks the bread, declares Christ’s redemptive role as the Church’s Passover (Exod 12; 1 Cor 5:7b), and invites the people to partake of his Body and Blood.

[Alleluia.] Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us;
Therefore let us keep the feast. [Alleluia.]

The Gifts of God for the People of God.

In the Post-Communion Prayer, the people thank God for his provision and ask for His blessing as they are sent back out into the world – a blessing which they then receive in the celebrant’s benediction (Luke 24:50; John 14:12), before being sent out into the world to serve Christ (Matt 28:16-20).

Almighty and everliving God,
we thank you for feeding us with the spiritual food
of the most precious Body and Blood
of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ;
and for assuring us in these holy mysteries
that we are living members of the Body of your Son,
and heirs of your eternal kingdom.
And now, Father, send us out
to do the work you have given us to do,
to love and serve you
as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.
To him, to you, and to the Holy Spirit,
be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

Let us go forth in the name of Christ.
Thanks be to God.

Frustrated with Church? You’re the Problem!

Yesterday, I asked you to join the Church if you, like me, are frustrated with the Church. The strongest critiques of religion come from within, not without, the Christian community. Plus, your frustrations are likely shared by many others within the Church!

However, it’s not enough to point the finger at others from your pew, instead of doing so from the public square. Yes, that’s a good first step, but another one is necessary.

You – and I – need to be willing to take ownership for the Church’s failures.

Continue reading “Frustrated with Church? You’re the Problem!”

Frustrated with Church? Join the Club…

…and by “club” I of course mean “Church”!

What am I getting at? Am I calling the Church a mere “club”?

No. Although, unfortunately, it often feels that way, doesn’t it?

  • A club full of hypocrisy, idolatry, indifference, and platitudes.
  • A club full of power-plays, fear-mongering, and Bible-thumping.
  • A club full of saints too afraid to admit that they are sinners.

Perhaps you’re sick of this “club,” and you’re ready to leave, if you haven’t left already.

I’m asking you to stay. To come back. To join for the first time.

Why?

Because the Church must be composed of people who realize the Church’s shortcomings and failures.

Otherwise, it is just a club.

I’m asking you to stay, because most leaders within the Church share your frustrations.

Because the strongest critiques of religion come from within, not without, the Christian community.

And because, as I’ll talk about tomorrow, you’re part of the problems. And so am I.

So, let’s work toward solving them together. Within the Church.

 

Thank God, I Went to Cedarville

As I prepare for my final semester at Beeson Divinity School, it strikes me just how well I was prepared for my seminary education by my undergraduate professors at Cedarville University.

All things considered, my time at CU exposed me to the riches of biblical and theological studies, and it left me hungry for more.

College gave me a love for Christ’s gospel and Christ’s Church – which has only increased since I arrived at Beeson.

Plus, I met my wife there! 🙂

pablo (10)

And yet, college also left a bad taste in my mouth.

See, in the year before I graduated, some crazy things went down at my alma mater.

Between my original blogpost and my “final farewell,” I tried to take a pretty active role in the student protests against what was going on at CU.

I’d like to think we made a bit of a difference – perhaps in slowing things down enough to let professors find jobs elsewhere before they got fired. Heck, we even made it into The New York Times. (Although, I will say: I’m embarrassed of the picture they chose for the article.)

However, in the long run, we failed.

Cedarville is now a much different place than when I arrived. What’s more, I became so entangled in the mess that I arrived to seminary with some burn wounds – from a prophetic fire that burnt a bit too hot.

I’m thankful for my time at Cedarville, however.

God has been healing those wounds. Beeson Divinity School and Anglicanism have both been balms to my spirit. And, with the healing has come the realization that I would not be who I am today were it not for my four years in Cedarville, Ohio.

Many of the lessons I learned there were sealed with blood, sweat, and tears – as it were. However, those kinds of lessons are often the most important and enduring.

By God’s grace, I hope to carry forward into my future ministry a combination of prophetic fire and patient faithfulness in the face of injustice and suffering.

Here’s the thing, though: I’m worried about the other members of the “Cedarville Diaspora.”

“Cedarville ex-pats”? Take your pick of terms.

No, not so much the professors who were pushed out. They’ve miraculously landed on their feet, and I’ve witnessed God’s powerful work of redemption through them in their current careers and ministries.

No, I’m talking about the alumni who got burned by fundamentalism and may have already thrown out the Christian baby with the fundamentalist bathwater. Or perhaps they’re seriously considering doing so.

See, God has blessed me with a wonderful seminary and church community in which to grow and heal after Cedarville. Without those things, I don’t know where I’d be after the awful ending to my Christian college experience.

Others, however, may be feeling very lonely and angry right now.

If that’s you, or if you know someone to whom this applies, would you let me know if there’s any way I can help you?

I’ll gladly listen to you vent. I’d love to pray for you specifically, and perhaps to share what I’ve found helpful along the journey.

~Josh (@joshuapsteele)

How Do You Want To Be Remembered?

Do you know what the worst thing about death is?

It’s not the dying itself – its the separation.

That is, we don’t suffer the most from our own deaths (a one-time occurrence), but from suffering the deaths of others (repeatedly). Instead of living relationships, we are left with distant memories.

A sad reality, to be sure.

What if, however, we could use death to our own advantage?

I’m convinced this is the truth behind Ecclesiastes 7:2 –

It is better to go to a house of mourning
    than to go to a house of feasting,
for death is the destiny of everyone;
    the living should take this to heart.

Now, obviously, simply taking death to heart isn’t enough to defeat our most ancient enemy. For that, we need (and have been given) a resurrection.

But, have you taken your own death to heart? I believe there’s something to be gained by considering how you’d like to be remembered by others after you die.

How do you want to be remembered:

  • by God?

  • by your spouse?

  • by your children?

  • by your parents?

  • by your family and friends?

  • by your colleagues?

For me, I’d like to be remembered:

  • …as God’s faithful servant.
  • …as my wife’s best friend.
  • …as my children’s most important teacher.
  • …as my parents’ legacy.
  • …as my family and friends’ loyal brother.
  • …as my colleagues inspiring teammate.

…which sounds great, right? But here’s the rub:

What changes do you and I need to make in our lives, to start making those hypothetical memories more realistic each day?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this in the comments below, as I consider how taking death to heart should impact one’s entire life.

~Josh (@joshuapsteele)

 

Let’s Take Seth Godin to Church

 

I’m not going to lie. My first reaction when I saw the cover of this book? 

No! Of course you’re not indispensable. What use could this crap possibly be to the Church, or to me – simultaneously a pastor and a pastor-in-training.

Then, however, I read the book. And I suggest you do, too!

(Note: affiliate link. I get paid if you make a purchase.)

Seth Godin, bald marketing extraordinaire, is convinced that a paradigm shift has taken place. I’ll quote from his annotated table of contents (which, by the way, I wish all books had):

We have gone from two teams (management and labor) to a third team, the linchpins. These are people who own their own means of production, who can make a difference, lead us, and connect us. The death of the factory means that the entire system we have built our lives around is now upside down. This is either a huge opportunity or a giant threat. Revolutions are frightening because the new benefits sometimes lag behind the old pain. This time, the opportunity is to bring your best self to the marketplace and be rewarded for it (vii).

For the past few generations, we’ve grown used to the implicit deal: If you go to school, learn how to follow instructions, work hard, and show up on time, we’ll take care of you.

But, at least in many sectors, the bargain has fallen apart.

So, Godin advises us to become linchpins in whatever industry we find ourselves. We must treat our work as art, and combine a variety of skills to address complex situations.

We must be able to figure out what to do next, without it being spelled out for us in an instruction manual.

OK, great. But what does this have to do with CHURCH?

I believe pastors are uniquely situated to be linchpins.

They are the leaders of a largely volunteer organization. And, Pastoral Epistles notwithstanding, there is no instruction manual (God forbid we treat the Bible like an instruction manual!).

So they must treat their work as art. If they just phone it in and serve their time, they’ll be left with only the people who phone it in and serve their time as church members!

I believe Christians are uniquely situated to be linchpins in their workplaces.

I plan to write more about this in future posts, but it’s ridiculous how much of the self-help advice out there these days aligns with the things Christians should be the very best at!

A bunch of Godin’s advice centers around treating other people as full human beings, and on giving freely without the expectation of debt or compensation (See chapters “The Powerful Culture of Gifts” and “The Culture of Connection”).

I don’t know about you, but that sounds familiar.

As pastors focus on leading by example – by being linchpins themselves – they could start explicit conversations about the connections between worship on Sunday and work (which should also be worship) on the other six days.

Finally, I believe that each church is uniquely situated to be a linchpin in its community.

What if churches were known for showing artful, personal, and prodigal love to their communities, without expectation of increased attendance on a Sunday morning?

What if we were seeker-sensitive, without selling out to the “latest” corporate and marketing strategies (which, often enough, rely upon the old paradigm)?

What if, especially in North America, we stopped complaining about “persecution,” and started creatively taking advantage of the situations in which we find ourselves?

I don’t have all the answers to these questions, but I’m convinced they’re worth asking!

Godin is convinced that people are starving for personal connection in a world filled with faceless factories and multinational corporations.
I’m convinced that the Church – the Body of Christ – has just the food to feed those starving.

~Josh (@joshuapsteele)


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What are you afraid of?

I’m scared. Are you?

Specifically, as I wrote in my journal this very morning:

I’m scared – I’m scared of wasting my life, I’m scared of not being worth anything outside of the classroom.

Fear drives so many aspects of our lives – from how we dress, to how we raise our children, to how we elect our leaders. And, if we’re honest with ourselves, fear can play a large role in what/whom we worship.

For example, perhaps we worship God out of a fear of going to hell, or a fear of our inherited religion being wrong. We secretly worry that, like Donald Miller’s father accuses him in the movie Blue Like Jazz, we “only believe that stuff ‘cuz [we]’re afraid to hang out with people that don’t.”

Or perhaps we don’t worship God – and instead worship a god of our choice/invention – because we’re afraid of the implications of God’s existence.

Now, there is, I’m persuaded, a holy fear. A salutary reverence and awe in the face of the divine.

But that’s not what I’m talking about here, I’m talking about the paralyzing fear – the cold sweat, the white knuckles, the tension headaches.

I’m talking about the same kind of fear as Seth Godin:

The power of fear

Fear will push you to avert your eyes.

Fear will make you think you have nothing to say.

It will create a buzz that makes it impossible to meditate…

or it will create a fog that makes it so you can do nothing but meditate.

Fear seduces us into losing our temper.

and fear belittles us into accepting unfairness.

Fear doesn’t like strangers, people who don’t look or act like us, and most of all, the unknown.

It causes us to carelessly make typos, or obsessively look for them.

Fear pushes us to fit in, so we won’t be noticed, but it also pushes us to rebel and to not be trustworthy, so we won’t be on the hook to produce.

It is subtle enough to trick us into thinking it isn’t pulling the strings, that it doesn’t exist, that it’s not the cause of, “I don’t feel like it.”

When in doubt, look for the fear.

Courage isn’t the absence of fear. It’s knowing how to deal with fear. And, for me, the first step toward dealing with my fears is frankly admitting them. 

  • I’m scared, because I don’t know what’s next after I graduate from Beeson in December.
  • I’m scared, because the thing I’ve felt called to for the longest time – getting a PhD in systematic theology – seems like an impractical pipe dream.
  • I’m scared, because I don’t know if I’ll get into a PhD program. And, if I don’t, I don’t know how I’ll react to not being able to rely upon good grades for self-worth.

Thankfully, none of these fears prevent me from being faithful with the day I’ve been given – today. The greatest failure would be to use fears of the future as an excuse for present faithlessness.

So, what are you afraid of? How are you dealing with those fears?

Have you admitted them to anyone? If not, I challenge you to do so today.

If you’ve got no one, not even a journal, to listen to your admission, I’m all ears, for what it’s worth.

~Josh (@joshuapsteele)

Kettlebell Swings: Back Balm for the Sedentary [Seminarian]

I love books. Books, however, do not like my back.

Can you relate?

Maybe it’s not sitting around reading books all day, but I imagine plenty of you out there suffer from back pain/fatigue.

Let me share a time-saving solution I’ve recently found: two-handed kettlebell swings.

Our small kettlebell family
Our small kettlebell family

How can these cannonballs with handles help your back?

Well, the kettlebell swing is one of the many exercises out there that activates your posterior chain – the muscles along the back of your body.

However, as BreakingMuscle.com clarifies:

for those with lower back issues traditional posterior chain exercises such as deadlifts, good mornings, etc. may exacerbate the condition, while swings may not. For those looking to strengthen the lower back and unable to use these traditional exercises the swing may be just the thing they’re looking for

Thanks to the full-body movement of the swing, you really don’t need to use a lot of weight to feel a difference. For example, I’ve been squatting 225 lbs. in maintenance mode recently, and after the first day of kettlebell swings with a 35 lb. kettlebell, my glutes and hamstrings were more sore than they’d been in months!

I’ve been very impressed with the results of a basic kettlebell workout, and it will enable me to get exercise at home during the semester, when going to the gym is more of a stretch.

Would you like to give kettlebell swings a try?

First, learn the proper form and then look for a kettlebell to give it a try.

For the CliffsNotes version, here’s the Tim Ferriss blogpost on the matter. For a more in-depth approach, BreakingMuscle.com, in addition to their article on why the kettlebell swing is such a great exercise, has this piece on how to do the perfect kettlebell swing.

If you’re more of a visual learner, here’s a helpful instructional video from Eric Moss:

What weight should you start with? I began with a 35 lb. (16 kg.). Kettlebells USA has one of the best guides on choosing a starting weight, based upon your gender and current fitness level.

What brand of kettlebell should you purchase? I went with Sweethome’s budget pick: the CAP Cast Iron Competition Weight Kettlebell. But, the in-depth review of different brands by Mark Bixby at Sweethome can’t be beat. I like the CAP, but I now agree with his assessment that the grip tears up your hands a bit on one-handed excercises.

Give two-handed kettlebell swings a try! Your back and body will thank you (although, full disclosure, you’ll be sore after the first time).

If you have any comments or questions about kettlebell swings or other methods of easing back pain in the midst of a sedentary lifestyle, please leave them below!

~Josh