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Gathered in Community: Growing in Ministry

By Dorlan Bales

The 2014 January-February Quaker Life scripture study focused on Jesus’ own calling, his choice of an inner circle of disciples and his definition of discipleship. The study continued to highlight the response of the first Quakers to the living Christ’s call and the allegiance followers have to Jesus today.

The heart’s response to the Spirit’s call is the decision to follow Jesus. That choice and continuing recommitment to Christian discipleship takes place in the context of a spiritual community.

In this study you are invited to rediscover the Good News Jesus taught and embodied as you open yourself to the words of Luke’s gospel. You are encouraged to remember how the gathered disciples were transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit. As in our previous study, reflect upon early Quaker experiences of being gathered and then consider the process of growing in ministry in this, the 21st century.

Jesus’ Teaching According to Luke’s Gospel

How did Jesus help the men and women he gathered to grow in their ability to share the Good News? What did he teach them? A careful reading of Luke’s gospel reveals four powerful themes:

1) Love God and Your Neighbor as Yourself

Firmly rooted in prophetic Judaism, the most fundamental teaching of Jesus is best summarized in his response to an expert on the Mosaic Law. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the lawyer queried. Jesus responded by asking this man to identify what the law said. To which the lawyer replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus affirmed his statement and urged him to obey the great commandment, rather than merely knowing it intellectually (See Luke 10:25-28.).

The lawyer then asked Jesus to define the word, neighbor. Consider Jesus’ response found in Luke 10:29-37.

Who is your neighbor?

Who have you ignored, walked past or avoided? What individuals or groups do you find easiest to judge and condemn rather than forgive?

Consider Luke 6:27-36, in which Jesus teaches about loving those who do not love us. Hold these words in your heart. What action is God asking you to do? Share your insights.

2) Blessed are the Poor, the Hungry, the Sorrowful and the Excluded

Jesus was frequently judged to be a lawbreaker by those who objected to his healing the sick on the Sabbath day. (See Luke 6:6-11; 13:10-17; 14:1-6). His disciples, themselves common people, were taught to discern the condition of people’s hearts rather than judge them by the usual social standards.

Jesus reached out to poor working people and the despised, including those who had become wealthy by collecting taxes for the Roman occupiers. The affluent “keepers of morality” were often angry with Jesus for befriending those they considered impure. Luke 15 provides a series of Jesus’ parables about being lost and then found. In a later chapter (20:47), another parable aims at the scribes and Pharisees who were getting rich by “devouring” widows’ houses. Then there is the story about a man who invited lots of guests to a banquet. Like the host, they were affluent, and having better things to do; they made excuses. The host, incensed, invited “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” and even sent servants to find others and force them to come. (14:15-24).

All these parables provide insight about the motivations from which Jesus’ actions sprang.

Study the above stories drawn from everyday life. Create a list of the truths Jesus taught in these parables. What insights does this list offer you?

Consider the people and groups around us upon whom society looks down. Using the list created, how would Jesus have us relate to them? What makes it hard for people to follow Jesus’ example? What are some of our unspoken rules that keep us from ministering to the people Jesus loves?

3) Take up Your Cross Daily and Humbly Put the Kingdom of God First

Jesus never said that being his disciple was easy. He was forthright about what was going to happen to him, and told his followers they must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow his lead. He said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?” (Luke 9:23-25)

Although Jesus’ humility redefined greatness, his closest friends argued about which of them was greatest during their last meal with their master! Jesus explained to them that “the Kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.” Then, stating the obvious, Jesus said, “But I am among you as one who serves (Luke 22:24-27 see also Luke 9:46-48; 13:30; 18:14).”

Jesus warned his disciples not to be like the Pharisees, saying “you cannot serve God and wealth” (Luke 16:13) and said that one’s heart and treasure are likely to be side by side (Luke 12:33-34).

How would you translate “taking up one’s cross daily” in order to follow Jesus in a way that speaks to you?

How does our society define greatness? What does humility look like today?

Is having wealth the same thing as serving wealth? Is it spiritually helpful, or harmful, to store up wealth for retirement and/or to pass it along to family members, a faith community, or good causes?

4) The Kingdom of God is Within and Among People Now

“The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among/within you (Luke 17:20-21).”

Jesus knew the world’s tendency to create hierarchies and bestow divine authority upon them as did the Roman Empire. Jesus told his hearers that the kingdom of God is already come, a present spiritual reality for those who follow him. Accessible to all, the reign of God is small as salt, yeast and mustard seeds yet exceedingly powerful. The Kingdom of God is a reality within and among those who love God, themselves, and their neighbors near and far (Luke 13:18-21; 14:34).

How do you respond to Jesus’ teaching that the kingdom of God is something powerful in and among his followers now?

How is the kingdom of God a reality within your life and in the midst of your faith community?

The Gathering of the Jerusalem Church

The last few verses of Luke’s Gospel and the first few verses of his Acts of the Apostles connect the risen Christ and the Holy Spirit, which was poured out upon the disciples on the Day of Pentecost soon after his crucifixion and resurrection. “I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). “While staying with them he [the risen Christ], ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now (Acts 1:4-5).’”

That day Jesus’ disciples were baptized with the Holy Spirit. Thousands of people in Jerusalem for the feast day were added to the new Jerusalem Church. Their gathered life was powerful! Read about it in Acts 2:38-47 and consider these questions:

What surprises or impresses you about the nature of the newly-gathered church? What do you think has drawn Quakers to this passage of scripture?

The Early Quaker Experience of Being Gathered as God’s People

In 17th century England, a group of people nicknamed Quakers began a movement based upon the Holy Spirit baptism spoken of by John the Baptist and described by Luke in his Acts of the Apostles. This vibrant group proclaimed a present, living Christ, “Christ come to teach people himself by his power and spirit and to bring them off all the world’s ways and teachers to his own free teaching . . . (Fox’s Journal Nickalls ed. 1952, page 104; see also 98, 107).”

In 1652, after five years of active ministry, George Fox preached to a large cluster of northern England Seeker groups, men and women who had already separated themselves from existing church structures. His sermon, from a hill in Firbank Fell in the Westmorland region, and his encounter with Margaret Fell of Swarthmore Hall that year were turning points in the growth of the Quaker movement. Virtually all of the hundreds present at Firbank Fell were persuaded by the Gospel as Fox experienced, understood and proclaimed it.

Francis Howgill (1618-1669), one of the Seeker leaders who joined this new movement, later wrote that Fox’s sermon:

reached unto all our consciences and entered into the inmost part of our hearts, which drove us to a narrow search, and to a diligent inquisition concerning our state, through the Light of Christ Jesus. The Lord of Heaven and earth we found to be near at hand, and, as we waited upon him in pure silence, our minds out of all things, his heavenly presence appeared in our assemblies, when there was no language, tongue nor speech from any creature. The Kingdom of Heaven did gather us and catch us all, as in a net, and his heavenly power at one time drew many hundreds to land.

[Note Howgill’s Luke 5:1-7 fishing imagery above and the similarities to the Jerusalem church’s experience in what follows.] We came to know a place to stand in and what to wait in; and the Lord appeared daily to us, to our astonishment, amazement and great admiration … And from that day forward, our hearts were knit unto the Lord and one unto another in true and fervent love, in the covenant of Life with God; and that was a strong obligation or bond upon all our spirits, which united us one unto another … And thus the Lord, in short, did form us to be a people for his praise in our generation. (Quaker Faith & Practice: Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain, 1995, 19.08)

Margaret Fell, like Francis Howgill, became a Quaker leader after responding to Fox’s Spirit-filled preaching not many days after the Westmorland Seekers added tremendous new energy to the fledgling Quaker movement. She and her husband, Judge Fell, often extended hospitality to traveling ministers. A friend introduced George Fox to the Fell household. The next day Fox went to the nearby steeple house with Margaret. He stood on his seat and asked permission to speak. He said that those who wrote the scriptures, “came to the Spirit that gave them forth. You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?”

Margaret had not heard preaching like this and it resounded within her. As she later wrote, “This opened me so that it
cut me to the heart; and then I saw clearly that we were all wrong.” She sat down on her pew, tears flowing freely as she
cried out inwardly, “We are all thieves, we are all thieves. We have taken the Scriptures in words and know nothing of them in ourselves (Quaker Faith & Practice 19.07).” Note Margaret Fell’s use of the phrase “cut to the heart”. It may have been drawn from Acts 2:37 where it described those who heard Peter’s Pentecost message.

Compare the testimony of Francis Howgill and Margaret Fell and their 1652 experiences. What similarities are there? What differences? What part of their testimony strikes your heart? Explain.

Why do you think Margaret Fell cried out, “We are all thieves?”

Can you remember gatherings when “the Lord of Heaven and Earth felt near at hand”?

How have you experienced a faith community that came to know “a place to stand in and what to wait in?”

Gathered Today in Communities Led by Christ and Growing in Ministry

Though I have not been caught up in God’s kingdom net as dramatically as the apostles or the early Quakers were, I have known some occasions of unusual spiritual presence, including the years around the turn of the 21st century when I was privileged to be part of the Friends of Jesus Community here in Kansas. It was an important time of growth for me, as we learned together how to love God, ourselves, and our neighbors in a cultural setting that was new to us. Because of the FOJ Community’s willingness to follow Jesus beyond its members’ comfort zones, it contributed some grains of salt, a bit of yeast and a few rays of light to the world, despite its small membership.

It has been seven years since FOJ was laid down, but I continue to value my relationships with its members and am closely involved with two of the three social ministries that grew out of that time in the heart of low wealth neighborhoods of color. As I look forward to years ahead, which are perhaps less busy and more creative, I am asking how God might use me to be a channel of God’s love both to those who are my spiritual brothers and sisters now and to people I will meet.

I’m pondering questions like these:

What would it take for Quakers to be gathered more powerfully, both locally and worldwide, in ways that go beyond self-care and mutual aid in times of personal crisis?

In what ways are we Friends willing to spend ourselves for others, even suffer for obeying the living Christ rather than another master?

What will make it possible for me and other Quakers to keep growing as ministers of God’s love in our various locales and circumstances?

One thing does seem clear. Being a witness to Jesus Christ’s good news about the Kingdom of God is much easier for those who are supported by a spiritual community that is willing to go deeper than Sunday morning pleasantries. In order to discern if I am being led by Christ, not following “the world’s ways,” and having the courage to obey the Holy Spirit, I need a spiritual community that encourages all its members to listen inwardly to the living Christ and grow in ministry to others.

A vital spiritual community provides grounding opportunities to study the Bible and more recent writings, creates spaces where individuals share deeply about their hopes and spiritual leadings, and moves to action when directed by the Living Christ. This is not the description of an ordinary social circle or interest group! Our loving God is still able to pour out the Holy Spirit upon those who are gathered together and eager to respond in faith, hope, love, and joy!

Describe your own spiritual pathway in the last ten years. Can you remember times when the living Christ spoke to you inwardly about ministry to someone?

What are the obstacles that keep people from seeking first the kingdom of God?

If you currently have a spiritual community, how does it offer you both support and challenge? How could you lovingly reach out to others in your spiritual community so that you are both receiving and giving?

If you are not currently blessed with a spiritual community, how might you find or help create one?
 
Dorlan BalesDorlan Bales grew up in Northwest Yearly Meeting, the eldest child of pastor/teachers George and Elenita. Between ministry studies at George Fox University and Earlham School of Religion, he completed two years of alternative service at a children’s hospital in Vietnam. After studying theology in Chicago, he was led to Wichita, Kansas where he lives with his wife Kathryn Damiano, stays in touch with sons Micah and Andrew and writes grant proposals for Sunflower Community Action, which he helped found. He is a member of Heartland Friends Meeting, works for peace and justice, and enjoys playing and making violins.

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