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Thank God, they want us

This week’s topical buffet offers the options of God, church, salvation, Christian behavior and lies. Writing a mere twelve hundred words about God or salvation or even Christian behavior seems like throwing a tiny dart on a large wall. I’m attracted to the topic of lies. Lies are on my mind a lot –– especially when I try to spot the plagiarism and cheating that goes on in my classes.
Lying and liars are big issues to John, too. Three times in the last chapters of Revelation he provides a list of those who will be on the outside of the Holy City (21:8, 27; 22:15). All the lists are different or partial. But each list mentions lying. And in each list, lying is mentioned last, so it lingers in the hearers’ heads.
But it is the church to which I wish to devote this small space, because I spent the summer in Greece. Five college students and I were there in a seaside hotel south of Athens, to immerse ourselves in intermediate New Testament Greek for six weeks, with breaks for educational sightseeing. Along with six others devoted to Biblical Hebrew, we viewed the Parthenon by day and night, stood on the Areopagus, climbed the ruins at Delphi, looked down the road to the sea from the Roman agora in Corinth, and spent three blessed days on the island of Hydra recuperating from our mental exertions.
But the most vivid memory I have of this summer in Greece centers around the Adventist congregations in Athens. On Sabbath most of students chose to ride the bus into the center of Athens and walk a half mile or so in the summer heat to the church on the street called Keramikou where they were embraced by the modest group of English-speaking Adventists. We added our apples and assorted items to the potluck on the second floor after church, offered prayers, gave testimonies and even preached to fellow believers from Africa, Australia, and the Philippines. .
Five times this summer I attended worship services in the mission conference building now located in a rundown section of Athens. Sometimes drug dealers and drug addicts almost in waves would surround the building, selling and shooting up until the police drove them off. I watched them from the window in amazement while trying to listen to the Sabbath School lesson. But what was going on inside the church over that six weeks period was even more memorable.
The first time I arrived late in the sermon and stayed for the English group’s potluck upstairs. Afterwards a gentle man from Kenya insisted on walking with me to a safer section to catch the bus. Later I would find that he was the unofficial leader of the English group and that his mother had given him a marvelous first name: “Thank God”. During my second visit to the church a painful dialogue with Mark [not his real name], an African brother, kept us both from the Communion service in the main sanctuary He angrily pointed out that some non-Greek immigrants, who faithfully attended over 20 years, were still classified as guests of the local church in spite of repeated efforts to transfer their membership. True, the local church had extended itself to meet the needs of the growing number of immigrants and guest workers—including the installation of translation services for those seated in the balcony and the proliferation of various Sabbath Schools and afternoon testimony services in the four floors of the mission building for the benefit of Romanian, Bulgarian, Russian and English speaking believers. But inclusion as members in the life of the local church remained elusive over the decades. Receipts for tithe from the immigrants were not given because of their visitor status. Missionary-minded immigrants felt they could not invite their friends to a church that excluded them. Matters had come to a head once again, within a month of my arrival, involving conference administration. Promises were made but for weeks afterwards nothing seemed to be happening. For some members of the English-speaking group, including my African brother, the hope of being recognized, included, and empowered, instead of being seen as rebellious, had dwindled to hopelessness. In the Sabbath School lesson discussions the words of 1 John on unity seemed a mockery; “Brother” and “Sister”, euphemisms to keep us in our place.
It is not hard for me to construct some of the natural feelings and fears on the other side—after all, the entire Adventist membership in Greece numbered only in the hundreds. Without a miracle of God, it will only be a matter of time before the Greek Adventists will be outnumbered in their own country by immigrants who would invite more of their kind and might take over the controls and change the way of worship. After all, it had taken years of faithful giving by the Greek members to purchase the building and the worship center that the guests have been allowed to use without charge. Being overrun in your own church is painful. As for the conference administration, membership is always the prerogative of the local congregation. No edict or demand could change that.
Yet I saw signs for optimism in the sermons by conference and local leadership that pointed out to the congregation that the immigrants were a gift and that God is inclusive. The outsiders were less easily convinced that progress was afoot. “We’ve heard this talk before,” they said. But on my fourth Sabbath it happened. With little advance notice twenty English speaking worshippers, including Mark, were invited to stand in the front of the congregation where they were introduced by the aging pastor and, one at a time, voted on and voted in. Half way through the voting a Greek member stood up and asked out loud whether the pastor was including in the count the hands of those who were non- members. He assured her that he was not and the voting continued. When I left for the States the remaining 25-30 were still waiting for their turn. Hopefully by now they too are part of that family.
If we gather up the scattered remarks throughout 1 John, we discover several related reasons for the writing the little tract (1:3,4; 2:1; 2:7,8; 2:12-14; 2:21; 2:26; 5:13). Prominent among these reasons was John’s hope of attaining full fellowship between John and the recipients of the letter (1:3). In the disputed reading of 1:4, most scholars believe the benefit would be the completion of John’s joy. Throughout the letter he continues to speak of being in unity with the Father and the Son and with one another. The call to love one another really predominates. John uses the Greek words for love 28 times in 4:7-21. When we ask how it is that the believers are to love each other, the specifics John offers are sparse—providing material necessities for another believer in need (3:17) and interceding in confident prayer for those who have stumbled but not yet disappeared in the darkness (5:14-16). Warnings also abound in the book against hating one’s brother, although we are left to guess as to the available options for expressing that awful hatred. The Greek word for hate should not be restricted to active loathing, but includes showing favoritism or even disregard for the spiritual and physical needs of others in the community. To fail in compassion when a fellow believer is hungry or homeless, or to ignore the self-destructive behavior of a brother would, in fact, be seen as expressions of hatred, though the recipients may not have considered matters this way without John’s guidance.
Abstract words like “fellowship” and “church-is-a-family” may rattle around without lodging if you’ve never tasted the bitterness of exclusion. But, oh the joy when the hands go up! Thank God, they want us! At least most do. We’re in. Fellowship, oh blessed fellowship! Brothers and sisters, let us love one another. For love is of God.

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