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COMMUNITY: Secrecy + Prayer Chats

Sun, Sep 06, 2020
Teacher: Mark Juers
Passage: Acts 21:1-6
Duration:25 mins 5 secs
This week we think about COMMUNITY and the exact thing we might be missing most right now!! The two practices to explore are SECRECY, which involves following the way of Christ that is often hidden, and PRAYER CHATS, which is the deliberate choice to include prayer into every possible conversation.

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Today we are talking about community, you might think, “what community?” we’re all stuck at home, there’s no “going to church to be physically in community”

A few weeks ago, Natalie was saying that talking about Confession is a bit of a hard sell, I think ISO-community is a bit of a hard sell too. Everything is digital and online, how could we possibly do Christian friendship, electronically.

WhatsApp, friend,

Why is community important, hair shaver, when you are embedded in a safe and loving and supportive community it helps you to know what is a good idea and what is a bad idea. For example I’ve heard along the way that mullets are back, what a good idea, I think that’s such a good idea, I don’t have anyone around me to tell me otherwise, but it’s so good that I’ve got my shaver here. I think all you do is shave the sides and leave the back long. Never mind that it hasn’t been tested and tagged to be used on this site, if only there was a lawyer or 5 in the building to help me, also, I’d normally do this in a mirror but all I’ve got is seeing myself on the screen and there’s a bit of a delay so if it looks like I shave up to here I’ve actually shaved up to here.

So this is one of the reasons why community is so important, they can tell you if an idea is really dumb

But we’re looking at two important practices that help with community especially in ISO, one is secrecy, doing things in secret that only God knows about, these aren’t bad things like stealing something and never owning up to it, and “only God knows”, no this is about expressing our faith positively, prayer, generosity, worship that is just between you and God and no one else ever finds out about, that’s secrecy, and the other is PRAYER CHATS which is simply taking every possible conversation you have with another person and deliberately choosing to include prayer into the conversation.

The practices we’ve chosen each week, one is a “letting go” or an “emptying” practice that involves releasing something and the other is a “filling up” practice. We’re clearing the canvas to paint the picture of Christ in our lives. So secrecy is letting go of human reward, letting go of praise and thanks we might get for our own good deeds, letting go of our social status and our pride. And then prayer chats is filling up our conversations with prayer

But it is really important for us to think about Christian community appropriately. Have a look at the picture on the back wall you can see the community of the disciples horizontally, they are relating to each other but the critical part that makes a community a Christian community is their gaze, they are looking up to God the Son.

Triangle of relationships, and that is critical because if we’re only looking at each other in community then we end up showing off our righteousness to others. We heard Jesus tell us to be very careful. Don’t practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them, if you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. If your eyes are only focussed horizontally, we miss out on God’s attention. He tells us to focus in on God. When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. When you pray, go into your room, close the door, then your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. And then similar for fasting.

We must have time with God that has him as our dedicated audience

It raises a sharp question for us, Is your faith relationship with a bunch of people, or is your faith relationship with God our Father,

There is nothing wrong with the act of righteousness, there’s a problem with how it is being performed and the audience of the heart

Which is why Jesus tells us not to show off, but to practice secrecy, secrecy is so important

Some of us might be finding ISO-faith really difficult because the community of faith is encouraging, we are motivated in the presence of others to pray for longer, to study the bible deeper,

When our community is taken away we lose some of that motivation

But Jesus is pointing out that community motivation can trip over into empty religion, it’s just a performance for getting the attention of others. We can easily rely on the reward, the community reward of a righteous faith, “look at me, I come to church every week, I serve the community in all these ways,

A quick check, an easy diagnostic tool to see if you might be suffering from such a symptom would simply be to take away all community reward. Take away all the thank yous and the positive feedback and the smiling faces and the feeling of having a good standing in the community. What are you left with? Well you’re left with stage 4 lockdown, we’ve all been given this little diagnostic test, and the slump of spiritual vigour, I was this passionate in my faith but in iso I’m down here, that difference is what you want to think about. Was that the amount of community reward I was getting in my faith. Was I doing all that for God or was I doing that to please others.

There are a lot of us ministers and pastors, preachers whatever you want to call us, working in the church who have been shocked by our own slump and that a big part of our motivation and pressing on is being in-person

Now, there could be other reasons in there, life has changed so much, work and family and rhythms are all over the place, screen time and zoom meetings are draining so please don’t hear me saying a simple “if you’ve slumped you’re a people pleasing hypocrite, that’s not what I’m saying, that’s not what Jesus is saying here” it’s just a diagnostic tool to start thinking about why, and maybe there’s something really important to learn here.

And not everyone has slumped, some people have grown in their faith during this time, there’s been something about ISO that has had the effect of invigorating their faith and they’ve come alive. And for many it’s actually the secrecy that has helped. Going into your room, closing the door and praying to God our Father. It’s the focussing of the audience, I no longer have this broad audience of people and God that I’m having my attention all over the place. My world has gotten smaller, there are fewer people asking for my attention.

God, you’ve got my attention. You’ve got more of my attention than perhaps you’ve ever had before. You are here with me and I am here with you. No other competing demands or expectations.

Secrecy feeds your relationship with God. Exclusive attention and focus on God that no one else knows about and they never find out about is a beautiful thing.

Now, you might be thinking, I’m an extrovert, God’s wired me to be energised by people then I say to you what a mentor said to me,

Maturity, Christian maturity is about knowing your strengths and growing into your weaknesses.

If you cannot keep a secret. If you can’t have an amazing time alone with God without sharing it with someone else then can I encourage you to grow and learn and practice doing some incredible act of faith, maybe that’s an act of service, generosity, prayer, singing in the Spirit anything and tell no one. Store it up as a treasure in heaven as an intimate moment between you and God.

This is from a book recommendation I would make on the topic of community, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a classic called Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran Pastor under the Nazi regime but he rebelled against the Nazis and spent much time in prison and then was executed just before the end of the war

“Let him who cannot be alone beware of community... Let him who is not in community beware of being alone... Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.”

― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community

This is why secrecy, doing things with God alone, no one else knowing actually helps you in community. Because when you are solidly grounded in God you are free to enter community with a radical grace and generosity that doesn’t expect or demand anything in return. The nature of most normal communities is that there is some reciprocity, you give something and you get something in return. Christians who have a secret life with God are people who come from the throne room of peace and love into a broken and fractured world ready to give it away, rather than coming into the world empty and hoping to be filled by others. Christians come into the world with less need for reciprocity, because we already have so much of what we need. And Melbournian Christians have an enforced opportunity to grow into this secret life with God.

And of course the good news for extraverts is in our second reading. And the challenge perhaps for introverts to grow into all maturity is actually to pray more and express their faith more with others.

PRAYER CHATS

Acts 21:1-6

After we had torn ourselves away from them, [isn’t that I lovely phrase, the community they were in was so close and so strong that they had to “tear themselves away”] we put out to sea and sailed straight to Kos. The next day we went to Rhodes and from there to Patara. 2 We found a ship crossing over to Phoenicia, went on board and set sail. 3 After sighting Cyprus and passing to the south of it, we sailed on to Syria. We landed at Tyre, where our ship was to unload its cargo. 4 We sought out the disciples there and stayed with them seven days. [and then see if you can figure this phrase out] Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. [so Paul and his crew come and stay for a week in Tyre and the disciples in Tyre “urge Paul through the Spirit not to go on to Jerusalem”, There’s Paul, the Spirit and the disciples. There are three parties to that conversation, there’s Paul, there’s the Tyre disciples, and there’s God the Holy Spirit, it’s hard to know from just a few words what exactly that looked like but it is some sort of prayer filled conversation] 5 When it was time to leave, we left and continued on our way. All of them, including wives and children, accompanied us out of the city, and there on the beach we knelt to pray. 6 After saying goodbye to each other, we went aboard the ship, and they returned home.

Partly I chose this reading because kneeling on the beach to pray sounds amazing right now. For a surfer, who would love nothing more than to have some time alone with God out in the waves, and yet I live in Kew so my five kilometre radius does not include any significant water features, the biggest water feature in my five kilometre radius is the Kew reservoir which is roofed over and definitely not open for paddling. So reading this passage about kneeling on the beach to pray, and then closing my eyes and picturing it is quite enjoyable actually. And there are a few things that are a bit opposite about this passage to the previous one, and that’s the first one, it’s very public prayer on a beach. They’re not doing it to show off, they’re not disobeying Jesus because they’re not locked alone in their room, they just don’t need that remedy right now. Their hearts are in the right place and they just happen to be on the beach because that’s where Paul is leaving from by boat. Praying on the beach is a problem if you’re just there to get an Instagram photo of yourself looking super spiritual but then you don’t actually pray. The beach here is just incidental, even if I think it is beautiful, what is important to see is “All of them, including wives and children, accompanied us out of the city” it was a community event to see Paul off, there would have been a lot of conversation on the way, lots of mingling and interacting, a bit of logistics involved and then when they get to the beach and the place where they part ways the embracing and tears and physical farewells. Now we’re starting to miss community and large physical gatherings, but hey, they’re outdoors, that’s more covid-safe than indoors and perhaps that might be where we have to start when we’re able to gather again. But they could have just walked out of the city together, said farewell on the beach and waved the boat off, but they stopped and prioritised prayer in community.

It can be easy for us to be embarrassed by prayer in public. In our wider cultural setting we’ve probably got the reverse sensation of praying with others around watching on. If you prayed in public back then you received a social reward, you were seen positively as someone spiritually disciplined, you were an upstanding citizen. Now, if you pray with someone outside a cafe or out on the street on a walk then there’s a bit of a thrill to it because it’s more likely to be embarrassing or just quite countercultural. I prayed with someone in a cafe a while ago who was just thinking about faith and I prayed before we finished up, and after I said Amen, he said, wow, that feels so alternative.

So it’s a great thing to pray with others, to step into it and grow confident and natural in. As long as you’re not doing it to show off.

What you want, here’s a fun little benchmark that I like to keep in mind is when you are in a meeting with someone who isn’t a Christian, maybe it’s a work meeting or just a casual chat with a friend who isn’t a Christian. What you want is that reflex feeling of closing the meeting in prayer but then realising that’s not what you do in this kind of meeting. I had a meeting with another local organisation late last year and at the end I stopped myself on the “well, great to chat and do some planning, let’s p..!” I stopped myself on the “p” of “let’s pray” and had to change it to let’s go and do those things we talked about. But I realised that’s good, it meant I’d been in so many conversations that ended with “let’s pray” that it was now a habit, it’s a good habit to instinctively go to God in prayer

Sometimes I do this well and a solid habit of prayer and heart instinct for prayer is there.

Sometimes not, I come away from a conversation and five minutes later realising I’d completely forgotten to actually pray with the person, not just pray afterwards for them on my own.

The practice of prayer chats is to shift from, “hey mate, I’ll pray FOR you” and to shift into “hey mate, let’s pray now”

Bonhoeffer on community

“A Christian fellowship lives and exists by the intercession of its members for one another, or it collapses. I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me. His face, that hitherto may have been strange and intolerable to me, is transformed in intercession into the countenance of a brother for whom Christ died, the face of a forgiven sinner.”

― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community

Prayer chats, and prayer in general when we pray for other members then the St Hil’s community lives and continues on, we overlook the annoyance and trouble we cause each other, we overlook reasons for division because we are united in Christ in prayer.

On that note let me pray. Lord Jesus you

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