One-Hit Wonders

This summer, when churches in my area resumed having in-person services, I visited a small congregation where my friend is the pastor. He was finishing a series on Ephesians, and he read some of Paul’s final words as he wrapped up the letter: In order that you know how I am – what I’m doing – Tychicus the beloved brother and faithful servant in the Lord – he’ll make sure you know everything. I’ve sent him to you for this reason, so that you might know about us, and your hearts might be encouraged (Ephesians 6.21-22).

After he read this scripture, it got me thinking: I’ve heard the name Tychicus, but I don’t really know anything about this guy. So, confession: as my friend continued to preach, I listened, but I also searched “Tychicus” on my Bible app. Turns out,  he’s mentioned 4 other times in the NT.

In Acts 20, he’s listed with a bunch of Paul’s traveling companions. In 2 Timothy 4.12, we have another reference to Paul sending him to Ephesus. In Colossians 4.7, we read basically the same description of him that we see in Ephesians – pretty much word-for-word. In Titus 3.12, Paul is considering sending Tychicus to Crete. Even though we know very little about him, it appears that Tychicus was one of Paul’s most trusted emissaries; if someone needed to go and share with a congregation in need, Tychicus was one of Paul’s first choices.

This got me to thinking how the Bible is full of plenty of names we know, and rightly so. Names that readily come to mind, like Ruth, Abraham, David, Isaiah, Esther, Elijah, Moses. Peter, James, & John. Timothy and Titus. Or pick your favorite Mary.

Each name we know. Each one has a story to tell. But what about the Tychicuses of the Bible? (Or would that be Tychici?) What about them? What stories do they have?

I think it matters, because they matter. If we believe that every person has value – then every name counts, right? Every person – EVERY person – has a name, a place, and a story.

Like Onesimus, for example – the slave who’s at the center of the Letter to Philemon. His name means Useful – likely named that way so that, as a slave, he would live up to that name.

In Colossians 4.9, we read that, along with Tychicus, Paul has sent Onesimus to the Colossian church. He’s one of yours, Paul says. And Paul calls him “the faithful and beloved brother.”

Don’t miss this. A slave, being sent back to his home city, but now his enslaved status is no longer his primary identity. His “usefulness” has nothing to do with worldly status; instead, Paul says, he’s our brother, loved and faithful to our God. In fact, in verse 10 of Philemon, Paul calls him “my child” – and literally says, I birthed him while I was in prison.

But Paul isn’t finished. There are more people he wants to mention. And so, as he is wrapping up Colossians, he says in 4.10: Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, and Mark, the cousin of Barnabas – you’re received instruction about him. If he comes to you, receive him.

Not only was Aristarchus a prisoner with Paul, Acts 27 tells us that he had been on the ship Paul took to Rome as a prisoner – and so, would have been shipwrecked with him. We don’t even know this guy; but can you imagine how important he was to Paul? Could Paul have been Paul without this guy we know nothing about?

And then there’s Mark. He’s the guy whose name is behind one of our 4 gospels. He’s also the one who came between Paul and Barnabas. In Acts 15, as the two are about to set out on a missionary trip, Barny wants to take Mark, but Paul remembers that Mark left them on a previous trip. Paul says no. Barny says yes. Paul says No Way. Barny says Yes way. And then they part ways – over Mark.

But here we are, in Colossians 4.10, and who is Paul speaking up for? It’s Mark. Somehow, the two came back together. Maybe there were tears of confession, owning up to impatience on the one hand, and immaturity on the other. Surely there was a heart-to-heart – with forgiveness offered, and received. Something clearly happened, for here Paul is, standing with Mark. Together, again.

How about verse 15? Paul greets Nympha – and the church that meets at her house. This is the only mention of Nympha in scripture; she’s what we might call a biblical “one-hit wonder.” Even so, she’s an important part of the church, and Paul doesn’t want to overlook her. For when the NT talks about those who have church at their home, it’s usually not simply referring to the hostess. It’s a reference to one who leads and shepherds those who gather there. And Nympha is among them.

So, here in Colossians 4, in just a few verses, we get just a few names from Paul. We’d love to know more. But what we do know, speaks volumes.

If a slave and a woman and a Gentile can be so vitally important to the mission of a man who was a Pharisee, zealous for the law – if these people are life and breath to Paul – then we should be sure not to miss the message here. And the relationships Paul has formed with these folk is simply a living-out of what he describes in Galatians 3.26-28: For we are ALL sons (and daughters) of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. For whoever has been baptized into Christ, has put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is not man and woman. For ALL of YOU are One in Christ Jesus.

That’s the message we need to live as the Church. This is who we are. This is who we are becoming. And every time Paul points to some unknown Gentile, or woman, or slave – and says, Here is a brother or sister – he is pointing to the new family God has made through Jesus; a family that includes each person who wears his name.

And every time Paul does that, he is breaking new ground – where the Church is forming a new culture, one where we all are one – where everyone has a seat at the table – because at the center of that table is the cross. And seated at the Head of that table is the resurrected Jesus, whose resurrection defeats our disunity, our discord – forming a brand-new, resurrected family. A family for all of us – for those who are well-connected, and those un-connected. For those with status, and those with no status. For those who feel wanted, and those who don’t.

And isn’t that exactly what our worlds need today?

Maybe you’ve heard of the ancient Roman practice of “infant exposure” – where an unwanted newborn would be left on a trash heap or other abandoned place – to die or be gathered up by someone. Often, those who came by and “saved babies from dying” did so in order to raise the child for sale into slavery. NT historian Larry Hurtado says that by one estimate, the Roman empire needed 500,000 new slaves each year – of which 150,000 would have come from “discarded” babies.

Hurtado points to a letter from around the time of Jesus’ birth. It’s from a man named Hilarion, who was likely a soldier in the Roman army. In 1 BC, he writes to his wife, Alis. She is expecting, and Hilarion writes to her, “If it is a boy, let it be; if it is a girl, cast it out.”  Hurtado notes that this was a common Roman practice – that basically, a newborn didn’t become a part of the family until it was accepted into the family.

Folk in the Roman world could pick and choose who belonged. How counter-cultural it must have been, then, to have this movement come along, and say: Everyone has a place. God chooses to welcome all who need a family.

ALL are welcome, for all of us have equal need of the grace and redemption from our Father that comes through our Brother Jesus. We don’t open our arms to people because they are useful to us or have the right status –  or because they look like us, or agree with us. The Spirit invites into the family all who recognize our desperate need for Jesus – folk like slaves, who became brothers. Women, who became leaders. And Jews & Gentiles, who sat down at the same table, as one. It’s the original plan for the Church, and it still applies today.

Ephesians 5: Submission, Slavery, & Siblings

Last year, I did a 2-month interim preaching gig for a nearby church. I decided to use our time together by walking through Ephesians. Using a tree as a metaphor, I started by talking about our foundations – the roots of our faith, as found in the first 2 chapters of Ephesians. We then went into the “trunk” – what holds us together in unity.

But there was a final section – one that we didn’t reach during the time I was with them. It was “fruit” – what we produce when we’ve got healthy roots and a strong, united body. And a big part of the fruit that we read about in Ephesians comes in chapters 5-6, where Paul addresses the household: husbands & wives, parents & children, masters & slaves.

Honestly, when I planned this series, I wasn’t sure I wanted to tackle that section. As an interim preacher, did I really want to talk about wives, husbands, and submission? Wouldn’t it be easier to stick with non-controversial passages? On the other hand, I’m just the fill-in guy – maybe I was the one to talk about something that isn’t as simple as we sometimes make it.

As it turned out, I never made it into Ephesians 5. The church found a permanent pastor just in time – right before I got to that section. I’m glad for that congregation, and excited about what God has in store for them. Even so, it leaves me chewing on what I would have said – what I still would say – about Ephesians 5 & 6.

And then I began reading God and the Crisis of Freedom by Richard Bauckham – where, in chapter 1, he dives into this section of Ephesians. And while he doesn’t say much about husbands & wives, he does say this about masters & slaves: “…The way the master-slave relationship is here transcended is not by making everyone masters.” In a easy-to-overlook statement, Bauckham points to a profound interpretive key to this passage: Jesus came, not to raise us all to be “masters of our domains,” but to be servants of each other. He came to set us free – and to use that freedom to love and serve others.

As Bauckham points out, Jesus moves us from the category of “ownership” – of who is “in charge” – to the place of “belonging.” In the family of faith that is inaugurated by the death and resurrection of Christ, all are gifted by One Spirit in One Body, as servants. And where servants are involved, it’s not a matter of power or privilege, but opportunity.

Which means, it’s simply not true that the New Testament treats slavery as acceptable; instead, Paul undercuts it at its very root, which is all he and his fledgling community could do. Paul completely upends the Roman structure of power, by saying that in the Church, no one truly owns or controls another – not slave master, not husband, not parent. Rather, in the Church, we all belong to each other, and we mutually submit to each other (which is where he starts, in Ephesians 5.21). Deeper than husband and wife, parent and child, master and slave – the label we all carry in the Church is sibling. In Jesus, we are first brother and sister – equal in our need for him, and equal in our opportunity to serve.

So, if I ever get an opportunity to teach on Ephesians 5 & 6, I think I’ll say something like that. Because there is nothing more transformational than the revolutionary grace of Jesus Christ that calls us to serve one another in love.

Ways to Worship

The surprising thing about the New Testament is that it gives very few particulars regarding how the early church worshiped. There are important clues, yes. There are key elements, for sure. But the NT is surprisingly light on liturgy. There simply is no simple formula (though churches I’ve been a part of my entire life have followed a very similar one — something like: 2 or 3 songs, communion, offering, sermon, invitation, announcements, closing prayer).

I think this “lack of a liturgy” is intentional, and is an invitation to be creative and culturally relevant in whatever context a church finds itself. So, expressive dance works well in some places, and would be shocking in others. Video is a great communication tool in some parts of the world, but completely inaccessible and unnecessary in others. There are a number of ways to worship, and those who help lead are wise to consider culturally appropriate and creative ways to invite folks into God’s presence.

But the New Testament’s flexibility when it comes to the ways we worship does not mean there isn’t a way to worship. In other words: we can (and should) come up with different styles of worship — but this should not detract from some essential elements that worship should include.

So, when it comes to worship, whether it’s in Louisville or Laos, South Africa or Southampton, Guinea or Guyana, I think it should include these key components.

First is Scripture. When we gather as God’s people, scripture is a vital component. Whether it is sung, spoken, prayed, dramatized, or proclaimed — or, better yet, all of those — it is scripture that most clearly presents the voice and the will of God. Now, I doubt most folks with disagree with this. But what we believe, and what we practice, often don’t seem to be in sync. For example: how often are 80%, 90%, or even more of the words that are spoken and sung and ad-libbed from the stage our words, instead of God’s?

I have been preaching recently at a very small congregation. I’ve enjoyed sharing with them, but, honestly, they don’t really need me. Sure, it’s nice for them to have a preacher each Sunday; and I’m glad they’ve asked me to come. It’s good for them to have someone open the Word. But the simple truth is: they don’t have to have an outside “professional” come in each Sunday. One (or 2 or 3) of them can get up and read some scripture on Sunday, and speak a word or two of encouragement — and they will hear from God (which, apparently, is what happened in the church in Corinth; see 1 Corinthians 14).

A second essential element of worship is response. If God speaks through scripture (and whatever words of encouragement we might add), then His speaking demands a response. And so, in most churches I’ve been in, we invite folks to make a first-time decision to follow Jesus and be baptized.

That’s a good thing. But it’s not the only thing. For the Word of God always demands a response, of every one. Sometimes that response is a first-time decision, but 90% of the people in our churches — a number that is higher in some, lower in others — have already made that decision. So, we shouldn’t just invite the 10% to make a decision; we should invite everyone to respond. Sometimes, that might look like weeping and repentance; other times it might involve arms raised and joyful shouts.

Worship should be a place where confession is included; where repentance is spoken — where prayer isn’t just the words 2 or 3 men pray from the platform. Instead, prayer is the essence of our response. Prayer must be what we invite everyone to speak and to share, to sing and to silently voice.

While I’m on the subject of response: one way the churches I’ve been part of include response is the Lord’s Supper. Communion is an important time to touch and taste the Word of God — and to respond. But in basically every church I’ve been in, communion is almost always a silent, solitary affair. While this is ok, it doesn’t seem to have been the practice of the early church. Again, in the church at Corinth, we see communion as very much a community affair — one where sharing in communion involves looking out for your fellow believers (see 1 Corinthians 11).

Imagine the opportunity we would provide people if we carved out more space for response — through communion, and otherwise. As one example, think about what it would look like to have a worship service where people were invited to go and say “thank you,” or “I’m sorry,” or “Can I pray for you?” — and we then gave worshipers 10 minutes to do just that, during the service, with anyone in the room.

Awkward? For some, sure. Impossible? In some circumstances, yes. But I believe that a core element of worship has to be response — a response that is rarely solitary.

This leads to another element vital to healthy worship: community. Worship as a church must be done as a church. Of course a person can worship God alone on a hike in the woods. But it’s not complete. For worship of God always involves relationship with others. We never worship in isolation, even if we are alone — for worship always changes us; a change that impacts, and involves, others.

It is simply not true, biblical worship if we sneak in the back, talk to no one, and slip out before the final prayer. Sure, some folks need to do that as they figure out the church thing. But for those of us who “get” the church thing — even if just a little bit — then church is simply not about any one of us, but instead is about all of us; coming together to hear from God, and be changed by God to be more like Jesus, empowered and driven by the Spirit of God.

So, dance, or not. Raise your hands, or not. Clap, or don’t. Use instruments, or just a keyboard, or none at all. Meet in a building, or under a bamboo tree. Wear blue jeans or Brooks Brothers. But don’t miss what is essential to worship itself: the Word of God, which calls for a response to God, from all who gather as the people of God.