". . .many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. 'You do not want to leave too do you?' Jesus asked . . . Simon Peter answered him, 'Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life'" (John 6:68).
Following Christ is not easy. He describes it in terms of self-denial and cross-bearing (Mark 8:34). Left to ourselves, we are constantly susceptible to the allure of short-cuts, distractions, and simplifications that accommodate the faith to our more natural preferences. For this reason, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who was instrumental in the nurture of a "confessing church" that stood opposed to Hitler's regime, defined discipleship with the apparently contradictory phrase costly grace. "It is costly," he said, "because it costs people their lives; it is grace because it thereby makes them live" (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol 4 , Fortress Augsburg, 2001, 45). In order to maintain this dynamic tension we want to hold our thinking, relationships, and worship practices subject to the ongoing scrutiny of God's word. The phrase reformed and ever reforming emerged in the early Protestant era as a way of flagging this same concern. In its formative stages, the early church identified four defining priorities. "They devoted themselves," we are told, "to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, the breaking of bread and to prayer" (Acts 2:42). We believe these practices provide a vital and enduring structure for the ongoing renewal of the Christ-following community.
The Roman cultural context of the first century church was a complex combination of amazing achievement and de-humanizing extravagance. The aqueducts, for example, were an impressive engineering accomplishment. The Coliseum, on the other hand, became the cauldron in which staggering spectacles of human brutality were cynically packaged for popular entertainment. It was not coincidental, according to the Apostle Paul in Galatians 4:4, that this was the time and place of God's choosing for the incarnation of his Son. Typically, this culture demonstrated the extent to which the truth, beauty, and goodness of God's creation groans under the staggering burden of human pride, self-assertion, and tragic failure. The creation, in God's gracious purpose, is destined to be redeemed. Human creatures, by that same determination, will be sifted and shaken to their deepest core. The historical events pertaining to a particular man named Jesus, the eldest son of an obscure family from the northern vicinity of Nazareth, became the focal point of God's redemptive designs. In his wisdom and goodness, God has not left us to interpret these events according to our own narrative preferences. His divinely authorized interpretations constitute the enduring message of the New Testament. The apostle John, writing near the end of his lifetime, looks back and sums up the meaning of the gospel -the good news - of Jesus Christ under an astonishing claim: "the word," which he identifies as the personal incarnation of God, "became flesh and lived for a while among us" (John 1:14). Since that time, the Christian church has insisted that the Apostles' teaching - contained in the New Testament, but intricately dependent upon the sacred writings of the Jewish prophets who preceded them - contains everything that we need for life and godliness. The whole Bible is therefore the primary-text curriculum of a fruitful Christian existence. Given its scope and its significance, we believe that constant re-reading and renewed study of the Bible is our first and highest priority. The focal point of all our study, moreover, must remain the incomparable meaning and identity of Jesus, the Christ - the anointed one - of God.
In our context of late-modernity, the problem of interpretations has become almost overwhelming. Everyone must interpret for themselves the meanings of all of the messages that they are constantly receiving every day. Furthermore, individualism has become a primary lens for our interpretive practices. This means that we tend to prioritize "the meaning of the message for me" over any suggestion of its enduring message for all people at all times. The followers of Christ, however, have consistently confessed its belief in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. For us today, this means that we are not free to interpret the Bible according to our own understanding, but must continue to bring our interpretations under the discipline of the faithful men and women who have struggled to live as faithful disciples of Christ through the many other centuries and contexts of the whole church's experience.
Christian "fellowship," or koinonia is not just sharing common interests and friendship, although it certainly includes those elements. It refers, more specifically, to the mutual experience of having our lives both wrecked and reconstructed by the redemptive reality of Jesus Christ as he speaks to us through his Spirit in his Word. The early church symbolized this commonality in their use of the "fish" symbol. Actually, it was an acronym. Spelled i-x-th-u-s, in Greek, the letters stood for "Jesus," "Christ," "God's" "Son," "saviour." By stringing this set of words together, a person declared themselves loyal to a higher authority than that of Caesar. It was a symbol both of belonging to Jesus Christ and of no longer belonging anywhere else. This is a difficult way to live. Augustine, an influential Christian teacher in the fourth and fifth centuries, developed his understanding of the Christian life as the dynamic tension between repentance and remorse on the one hand, and forgiveness and comfort on the other. Sharing this deep sense of belonging and non-belonging, is the foundation of the unique kind of "fellowship" that we believe constitutes the one enduring church.
Just as over-attentiveness to the felt needs of our individual contexts can hijack our interpretations of God's abiding truth, our understanding and experience of fellowship is similarly susceptible to misrepresentations. In Ephesians 3:18 Paul identifies the role of fellowship within the life of the church. What is at stake in our relationships to one another, according to Paul , is not primarily the satisfaction of personal needs, but a much fuller capacity to love and glorify God. Our gatherings, and our daily interactions should be oriented toward this upward call of God in Christ Jesus: as we follow after him we are learning to prefer his Father's glory over our own self-determinations.
Bread is an important symbol throughout the Bible. From the abundance of food in the Garden of Eden, to the cursed ground and the struggle for survival outside it, bread reminds us that we do not live self-sustaining lives. Moses expands the significance of this theme when he reminds the survivors of Israel's wilderness wanderings that God provided them with manna to teach them that bread alone is not enough to sustain a fully human existence (Deuteronomy 8:3). Jesus uses this verse in his duel with the devil (Matthew 4:4). He further sharpens its significance by describing himself as "the bread of life" (John 6:35). His claim culminates in the controversial declaration that "eating his flesh and drinking his blood" will become the ultimate source of life-sustenance ( John 6:51). Repeatedly, therefore, the Gospels report that "Jesus took bread and broke it." On one occasion he fed five thousand people (Matthew 14:19). On another he commemorated his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension in advance (Matthew 26:26-29). In a final instance, he caused two hopelessly disillusioned followers to realize that he had accomplished infinitely more than they had ever dared to dream or imagine (Luke 24:30-32). Like the early disciples, therefore, we believe it is essential to devote ourselves to the practice and understanding of what it means to feed our souls on Jesus Christ.
Again, in our contemporary context, we need to be alert to the domestication of transcendent grace for the mere satisfaction of our personal sensibilities. We do not want to view the "Breaking of bread' as a religious practice but as a progressively dominant mindset of total dependence upon Jesus Christ--the Word of God who has became flesh for us. He himself is our eternal nourishment.
Much more than an act of speaking to God, prayer is the breathing system of human life at its deepest level. As Theodore W. Jennings Jr. suggests in a book entitled, Life as Worship: Prayer and Praise in Jesus' Name (Eerdmans, 1982), we breathe in when we sense the presence of God in our lives. This is prayer in the form of praise. And we breathe out when we sense his absence. This is prayer in the form of expressing our needs to the only person capable of satisfying them. That we pray and praise "in Jesus' name" is both the great prospect and the great litmus test of our respiratory health. Praying, both together and alone before God, is essential to the sanctification of our desires and the cultivation of Jesus' life of absolute dependence upon the Father within our grace-redeemed souls.