A forum for occasional thoughts and messages from Muskoka Community Church.
Threefold Communion is a Brethren tradition that reaches back over three centuries, involving a time of reflection and worship, a footwashing service for men and women (separately), a simple meal, and then communion at the tables. It was their way of re-enacting the last supper of Jesus and obeying his commands to “do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19), and “now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14).
I had my first experience with Threefold Communion when I was a part of Grace Community Church, a new Brethren church plant in Winchester, Virginia. I have to admit, I wasn’t thrilled about going. Of course I was looking forward to the meal, but the footwashing part "freaked me right out.” If you know me, I’m not even particularly comfortable with hugs. So having another guy touch my foot seemed way over the line. I intended to sit that part out.
However, when the time came, one of the leaders in the church approached me with a towel around his waist and invited me to come to the footwashing station. I felt a little nudge from the Holy Spirit that this was a good chance to push myself out of my comfort zone, so I went with him. Despite the extreme awkwardness I felt, I found that the experience was deeply meaningful and humbling. He prayed for me, we hugged, and it was (thankfully!) over before I knew it.
As an Associate Pastor, I was soon in charge of future events, and got to witness up-close just how meaningful the experience could be. People always went away profoundly moved—relationships were healed, and Jesus was experienced in an up-close and personal way. So, when I came to Huntsville, I intended to continue this Brethren tradition at Muskoka Community Church. However, I have often struggled with convincing people to participate.
Part of this is because I wasn’t completely clear on why we were doing it or what it accomplished. Early Brethren did it because they believed that was the only Biblical way to celebrate the Lord’s Supper (Communion). I don’t share that conviction, so I’m not prepared to argue this is the “right” thing to do. I just think it’s a “good” thing to do. Why?
Often I have referred to this as an interesting part of our Brethren heritage. But the truth is, there isn’t one person in our church who was born or raised Brethren (including me), and so heritage is not much of a motivating factor—at least not motivating enough to get me to touch peoples’ feet!
But last semester I took a class in ritual studies and began to learn more about what happens when human beings engage in rituals (like this one). I wrote a long, boring, academic paper on Threefold Communion and how/why it is an effective practice for us to continue engaging in today (you’re welcome to take a look at it if you’re into that sort of stuff—just shoot me an email). This is the essence of what I learned:
Human behaviour is filled with rituals. From our Christmas celebrations to going to the mall, you can learn a lot about our real values by examining these rituals closely. When we engage in ritual action, we are learning (and expressing) things at a deep, subconscious level—inscribing it on our bodies, as well as our brains.
Now, think of the kinds of things we might be teaching ourselves when we engage in Threefold Communion. First, the time of reflection is a recognition that none of us is here because we deserve it. By making space to consider our need for forgiveness, we uphold confession as a practice that we need to continually engage in. By spending time in worship, we set this time apart from “regular” life and remind ourselves of the sacredness of this gathering.
Second, the footwashing, though uncomfortable, embodies many Christian values. In fact, it is because it is uncomfortable that it is powerful—something like fasting, or other “ascetic” practices, that allow us to express our love for God by doing things we wouldn’t normally or naturally do. To force yourself to participate, simply for the sake of Jesus, is a way of training your will to follow Christ even when it’s uncomfortable. To kneel down on the floor in front of someone, for the sake of Christ, is a deep reminder that our posture towards others should always be servanthood. To allow my feet to be washed is a physical, tangible reminder of my connectedness to others in the church, and that I must allow them to meet my needs (something that is much harder for many of us that meeting their needs!).
Third, meals are always sacred signs of fellowship and connection. We sit at the same level, looking at each other as we eat this special meal, a visual reminder that the church is a community of equals. In the body of Christ, every part is important and needed. It is also a reminder that according to the Bible, there will be a great feast at the end of time, where we all eat and drink with Jesus when he comes into his kingdom!
Finally, taking communion is always a moving ritual. To ingest the bread and juice as a reminder of our deep dependence on Christ is more powerful than simply singing a song or saying a few words of thanks for his sacrifice. We admit with our bodies that we are in need of his grace and nourishment. However, often when we take communion there is a sense that it is “just me and Jesus.” We avoid looking around, and take the bread and cup in our own little world. But to take it around tables is a serious visual reminder that a relationship with Jesus involves his family—there is no such thing as “individual” Christianity. “Communion” is not just with God, our Father, but with our brothers and sisters as well, who share the deep bond of being brought together into a church by the Holy Spirit.
Many people have read the story of the Last Supper. Many have seen paintings or movies that portray it in exquisite detail. But to participate in Threefold Communion is to experience this important event in a way that sinks deeply into our souls. It teaches us—in a way that a sermon never could—values like humility, repentance, equality, unity, mutuality, acceptance, servanthood, dependence, celebration, and hope. It is a spiritual discipline that we practice as a group.
I know it’s weird. I have a confession: I am always awkward and uncomfortable, even after 15 years of participating. Every. Single. Time. But I think there are things that I learn when I push through that discomfort to engage in this ritual that I could not learn any other way. I always come away changed. Now, no one will force you or pressure you to do something you don’t want to do (though they might invite you!). But if you’re a part of MCC, from one chicken to another, I challenge you to attend—and to participate fully and wholeheartedly (even if uncomfortably) and see what God does in your heart.
We have a Threefold Communion Service scheduled for Saturday, March 16, 2019 from 5:00-7:00 p.m. You can RSVP by clicking here.
Even the nicest, most expensive, fastest car is useless without fuel. You could have your dream car—a Ferrari or Lamborghini—and without gasoline it’s just a really expensive lawn ornament. If you want to go somewhere, it’s better to have an old clunker with gas in the tank than a luxury car sitting on E. In the same way, it’s better to have a praying church that does everything wrong than a cool, hip, cutting edge church that’s based primarily on human effort.Read More
In the weeks leading up to Easter (the season of Lent), we talked about toxins that can build up in our souls, and the need to “purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God” (2 Corinthians 7:1). These contaminants can enter through our environment (the culture we live in), through the things we consume, or from our own tendencies—but they are always damaging to our relationship with God and our ability to enjoy the gift of life he has given us.
While there are many things that need to be regularly cleansed from our souls, we looked at five that are particularly insidious: entitlement, doubt, apathy, busyness, and unforgiveness.Read More
Vision is a clear picture of where we believe God is leading. Of course it's never a completely accurate picture, because there are surprises, obstacles, and opportunities that come along that we never could predict. But when a church discerns and communicates a vision, it can bring synergy and clarity to its efforts. Vision helps to unite teams, direct expenditures, allot time, and focus efforts.
This past Sunday we shared our vision for Muskoka Community Church (click here for the handout). It involves a long term vision, to become the hands and feet of Jesus in every community across Muskoka and Almaguin. It involves a short term vision, to get better at making disciples in 2018. It involves some other steps along the way (in the near and distant future), like hiring an additional staff member, working on support systems, launching small groups, and experimenting with different models. And it involves a price tag, which is represented by the budget that Leadership Team presented (click here for the budget handout).
However, the most important part of a vision is not how well-articulated it was, how certain the leaders are, how much it costs, or how many people came to the meeting. The most essential aspect of this kind of vision is buy-in: we need to know that we're all in it together, that the whole congregation is affirming this direction and prepared to do their part to make it happen. We want this vision to be planted in hearts, and come to naturally and persistently bear fruit over the coming months and years.
If you're a part of MCC, we need to know if you're in this with us, so please:
- Take the time to watch the presentation (above), and read through the handouts (if you weren't there on Sunday).
- Pray about what you've heard/read. Ask God to give you a sense of whether this is the direction he has for us, and ask him about the role he has for you to play in it.
- If you have questions, feel free to click here to email them to the Leadership Team (Jeremy, Lynda, Paul, Mike, Mark), or the Finance Team (Mike, Barb), or Jeremy.
- When you have sufficiently thought and prayed, before February 28, please click here to fill out our quick online survey to let us know where you're at, and how you're feeling.
At this point the vision is really just a a draft that we're looking for feedback on. Once we get the affirmation (or correction) of the many people who make up MCC, we will proceed at full speed ahead. Until then, it's on probation, waiting to hear what God's Spirit has to to say through you. Thank you for joining with us in this process!
Churches want to help people grow. I can’t think of any church that would overtly say they want people to attend their services, hear their sermons, participate in their programs, and walk away unchanged. This is one thing most churches are united in—their desire to see their people transformed.
The real question is how to facilitate transformation. When I asked about the stereotypical “churchy” ways that churches try to get people to change, the immediate answer was guilt, followed by fear and a few other negative ideas. Unfortunately, that is often what churches are known for. And while Jesus was in the business of seeing people transformed, he certainly didn’t seem to use guilt as a primary tool.
Take, for example, the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10. Though this famously short man was a chief tax collector and wealthy (read in our day, an accomplished swindler and oppressor), Jesus invites himself over to his house for dinner—a gesture of friendship and acceptance. Without guilting him, manipulating him, or threatening him, Zacchaeus experiences a sudden transformation in the way he related to him money. He went from greedy to generous in (seemingly) 6.7 seconds—without any of those "churchy" techniques of manipulation.
There are three shifts we need to make in the way we approach growth:
1. From Guilt to Grace
Though Jesus wasn’t “soft on sin,” (after all, he called sinners sick and in need of a doctor), he did not lead with guilt or make his main message “you’re not good enough.” His friendship with sinners created an atmosphere in which real transformation could take place. This is true not only at the beginning of our relationship with God, but throughout our lives. Grace is a better motivator for change than guilt. That does not mean that it is unhealthy to feel guilt (or conviction) when we’ve done something wrong. Nor does it mean that there is never a time to confront each other on bad behaviour (see Galatians 6:1). But guilt should not be the primary message or motivator the church uses to help people grow.
2. From Legalism to Love
When asked what the most important commandments were, Jesus famously replied that they were to love God and love others (see Matthew 22:36-40). God’s desire is (and always has been) for people to love him freely, and to demonstrate that love in their relationships with others (and themselves). The “rules” of Christianity are not the point—they are simply a way to express our love for God. A gardener provides a trellis in order to give a path for the growth of a vine. A trellis does not cause growth, it is not the essence of the plant, it simply shapes it. In the same way, rules are not the essence of what God wants from us, and knowing them certainly does not cause us to grow. However, as love for God and others grows inside of us, the “rules” give clear path on which transformation may grow. Of course, sometimes love pushes us beyond the rules, just like it did with Zacchaeus (who, while legally required only to add 20% to his restitution, offers 400% voluntarily).
3. From Human Effort to the Holy Spirit
The Bible is not a self-help manual, and the Christian faith is not meant to be undertaken alone. The presence, guidance, and empowerment of the Holy Spirit is absolutely central to transformation in our lives. The Scriptures promise that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on until completion” (Philippians 1:6). Our temptation is to trust less in God’s work inside of us, and more in our own ability to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Paul scolds the Galatian church for slipping into legalism and human effort: “Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3). He goes on to describe a life of keeping in step (cooperating) with the Spirit, a life that will naturally produce “fruit” like love, joy, patience, peace, etc. We must not forget that the Holy Spirit is in charge of the renovation of our life, and he supplies the plans, the agenda, and the tools to make us into the people he wants us to be. Our job is simply to show up and do the work when and where he asks us to contribute.
You can check out my sermon on this topic here.
Are there other changes churches should make in their approach to helping people transform?
A few weeks ago we started a teaching series called “Church Without the Curchiness.” Perhaps not surprisingly, people readily understood what was meant by “churchy”—and it wasn’t good. Most of the words we came up with (such as hypocritical, judgmental, boring, holier-than-thou, etc.) were not words anyone would use to describe Jesus—and they shouldn’t describe his followers, either.
Our first topic in this series had to do with the church’s attitude toward the world around it. “Churchy” postures toward outsiders often fall into one of three categories: hostile, indifferent, or appeasing. Each of these may be rooted in a desire to please God, but they can become distortions that are far from the kind of relationship Jesus had with “outsiders.”
In order to be the kind of church he intended, we need turn away from these “churchy” ways of relating to the world, and toward a more Christ-like posture. We need to shift:
1. From Hostility to Servanthood
Too often the church views the people in the world around it as the enemy and takes on a posture of hostility toward them. While the New Testament often uses harsh language to describe our relationship with the world (e.g. 1 John 2:15), it is referring to the world’s values and systems, not its people. Jesus’ posture toward the world (people) was not one of enmity, but servanthood. He came to serve (Mark 10:45), which means he came to meet real needs—to benefit others. Of course, the ultimate act of servanthood was giving his life on the cross, but this was not the only way he served. He spent a lot of time working as a carpenter/builder, training disciples, and healing the sick. He earned a reputation as someone who “went around doing good” (Acts 10:38). Far from just a way to kill time until he could get to the real business of dying, servanthood was a way of life that demonstrated the love of God in tangible ways. The church should likewise find ways to “do good,” and benefit the community it finds itself in.
2. From Indifference to Love
Many churches act as if the outside world doesn’t exist. They rarely engage with secular culture, fail to build relationships with non-Christians, and insulate themselves in the Christian bubble. They schedule their lives so full of “church stuff” that they have no time or emotional energy to interact in any meaningful way with their neighbours, coworkers, or those who live in their town or city. The opposite of love is not hate (which at least carries a sense of passion with it), but apathy. One of the most famous verses in the Bible says that God “loved the world” (John 3:16). Churches are called to emulate that love in a way that is not willing to sit back and watch it “go to hell in a handbasket,” as if it had nothing to do with us. Ignoring the world around us is just not an option.
3. From appeasing culture to counterculture.
Sometimes churches are tempted to give into the world around them, to take on its, values, morals, worldview, and every whim of society. Sometimes this is a sort of peer pressure (we want to be like everyone else so we can fit in), and sometimes it is an outreach strategy (we want to seem like everyone else so they can hear our message). Either way, the last thing the world around us needs are Christians who live exactly the same lifestyle as everyone else. We are called to be countercultural, to offer an alternative to “the empty way of life handed down from our ancestors” (1 Peter 1:18).
Jesus calls us to be “the light of the world,” (Matt 5:14-16), but too often churches have hidden under a basket—either because they saw the outside world as the enemy, or they were simply content to light up their own little space. To be the kind of bright light Jesus intended, we need to take our place on the lamp stand, and allow our light to be a gift to those around us. We need to “let [our] light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:16).
God With Us – To Make Himself Known
The following readings are designed help you slow down, reflect on the meaning of Christmas, and continue to interact with Sunday's message which can be found here.
Read Isaiah 9:1-7, a prophesy from about 700 years before the birth of Jesus.
What does the passage have to say about the identity of the child that would someday be born?
Reflect on the four descriptive terms: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. How did Jesus fulfill each of these titles?
What were to be the results of this child’s birth? What would change because of him?
Read John 5:16-30, a piece of a conversation Jesus is having with religious leaders about his rights to heal on the Sabbath day (when work was forbidden).
What does Jesus say about his relationship with the Father?
Jesus talks about two implications of his divine identity: the ability to give life, and the responsibility to judge. How did his subsequent death on the cross add further meaning to what he says here?
Verse 19 describes something like “Simon says” taking place between Jesus and his Father. How closely are you following what God wants you to do? What would happen in your life, our church, and our world if we could do a better job as imitating God’s movements?
Read Colossians 1:15-20, part of a letter the apostle Paul wrote to an early church.
What specific things does this passage say about the identity of Jesus?
What does this passage say about what Jesus came to accomplish? How were his identity & purpose connected?
Think about the tiny newborn lying in the manger 2000 year ago, and read the passage again, reflecting on the miracle of the incarnation.
Read John 14:5-21, part of Jesus’ farewell speech to his twelve disciples.
What can we learn from this passage about the relationship of Jesus to the Father and to the Spirit?
What do you think Jesus meant when he said those who believed in him would do the works he did, and even greater things?
Reflect on the last verse in this passage. Has Jesus showed himself to you?
Read Philippians 2:1-8, in which Paul encourages early Christian’s to imitate the humility of Jesus.
The phrase in v. 7 “he made himself nothing” could also be rendered “he emptied himself.” What do you think this entailed? What did Jesus have to give up in order to become human?
Why is it significant to us that Jesus took on the nature of a servant? How did he demonstrate this?
What have you given up in order to follow Jesus? What have you gained? How might God be calling you to follow in Jesus’ footsteps?
Submission is an essential aspect of a healthy relationship with God, but it can seem foreign in today’s culture.
This is because we live in a society that values (or is trying to value) equality. Though some are still hungry for power, for the most part our culture believes that one person is not better than another. We have come a long way toward viewing one another as brothers and sisters. With this rise of equality, the concepts of submission and authority are waning. As teachers and retail managers can confirm, the impulse to submit is fading fast.
So I am aware that when I talk about submission in our relationship with God, it may ruffle a few feathers. People may associate that word with the injustices and imbalances of patriarchy. And yet, how else could we approach the eternal Creator of the universe but in a posture of humble submission? Anything else would not only be arrogant, but ludicrous. When a human being approaches God, it is not a relationship of equals. Submission is necessary and proper.
The Greek word for submit used in the New Testament means “to arrange under,” and was used to describe the way that soldiers were “arranged under” a military commander. To submit to God is to arrange our lives in such a way that they are “under” God—under his leadership, under his authority, under his rule. To submit means to allow his will to become our top priority. This is what Jesus is teaching when he instructs his disciples to pray, “may your kingdom come, may your will be done.” To pray in this way is to arrange our own wills and kingdoms under God’s.
How can we incorporate submission into a balanced prayer life? First, it is important to note that the intention to submit is as different from actual submission as wedding vows are from an actual marriage. No matter how many times you submit your life to God in prayer, if it doesn’t come out in your actions, your words are meaningless.
Submission needs to be lived out in real time as we go about our day. In the same way that a labourer on a construction site will keep returning to the boss to ask what he or she should do next, we should constantly be asking what God wants us to do next. Regularly asking God, “what now?” is a short, simple way to incorporate submission into your prayer life.
Much of the time when we ask God what he wants us to do, we intuitively know the answer. Even without a voice from heaven we can do whatever is loving, humble, pure, obedient, helpful, selfless, and healthy—with some confidence that we are doing his will.
But when it is unclear, it’s important to listen for God’s voice nudging us in the right direction. God does this in many ways. He speaks through the Scriptures, whether it is general teachings or a “just-in-time” verse that pops out at you. God may use other people to speak, whether the wisdom of a friend, a sermon or book, or a miraculous message from God. God can speak through circumstances, by closing or opening doors, or sending an unmistakable coincidence. Or he may speak directly to our hearts, through a word or phrase that enters our thoughts seemingly from the outside, or an unexplainable sense of peace (or anxiety) about a certain course of action. It can be frustrating to try to learn how to hear God’s voice, but it is essential to remember that our job is to ask and listen—it’s God’s job to answer, which he will do in his own time, using his own method.
Submission really is that simple. It’s arranging our lives under God by regularly asking him what he wants us to do, and doing it. Three words capture the gist, words we should incorporate into our relationship with God moment by moment:
More than simple manners, to say “please” is to ask without demanding, to recognize that a positive response relies on the good graces of the one who is addressed. And to say “thank you” is to formally acknowledge that someone has given you something beyond what you deserved (unless you are just being polite).
For most of us, these are among the first words we learn when we are toddlers. It is especially important for children to know these words because they live in a state of continually dependency. They are completely reliant on their parents and caregivers for all they receive, and so "please" and "thank you" must be an early and regular part of their vocabulary.
But as children grow into adults, they naturally find fewer occasions to use these words (though hopefully they don’t forget them altogether!). Healthy people learn to rely on themselves and become more independent. Maturity is becoming less and less dependent on parents and other authority figures, and learning self-reliance and establishing give and take relationships with equals.
However, the opposite is true in our relationship with God. To grow in our relationship with God, we must learn to rely more and more on his grace and love. We begin to understand that there is nothing we can offer him that he truly needs, and so everything is to be received as an undeserved gift from his hand. We move away from independence, and toward greater dependence.
This is why saying please and thank you are so essential to a healthy prayer life (the technical terms are supplication and thanksgiving). And they’re not reserved for desperate situations and holidays. The Scriptures make it clear we’re to present our requests to God “in every situation,” (Phil 4:6) and that we’re to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess 5:18).
That sounds like a day shouldn’t go by where we don’t ask God for something and thank him for something. Probably not even an hour.
Jesus said that this lifestyle of asking and receiving would lead to full joy (John 16:24). The apostle Paul said it would lead to a peace beyond understanding (Phil 4:7). But the essence of a daily pattern of saying please and thank you is that it develops our sense of dependence on God, and moves us away from the independence that we naturally gravitate to.
Try it. Ask and receive.
Say please and thank you every every day, and see how your relationship with God grows.
For more, listen to last Sunday’s sermon.