12.11.17 – Sola-Powered: Is Another Reformation Required? – Peter Cheyne

This was part of a less formal, interactive service. It might not make complete sense. I will add the results of people’s voting later in case it is of interest.

Five or six years ago I was in a discussion group at a conference and an elder in the church related this conversation she had had. Someone said to her, “I am not a Christian.” Her reply was “Yes you are. You do good things”!

You should be on your feet. There should be howls of protest. You should be in tears!

Here’s why you should be in tears. Last week we looked at the five solas of the Reformation – the five big themes

  • Sola scriptura – the Bible alone is our authority. Is that the teaching of the Bible? No, it is exactly the opposite of what the Bible teaches. How come a leader in the church is that ignorant? Because the Bible is not studied and the Bible is not taught and the Bible is not known.
  • Sola fide – we are saved by faith alone. And yet, here is an elder teaching that we are saved by good works. There is no mention of faith.
  • Sola gratia – we are saved by the grace of God alone. Salvation is a free gift from God. And yet, God wasn’t mentioned. His grace was not mentioned. On the contrary, this elder taught that salvation is not a free gift but something we earn.
  • Solus Christus – salvation is found in Jesus Christ alone. Was this person pointed to Jesus? No, if salvation is earnt by doing good works, Jesus is not even required.
  • Soli Deo Gloria – glory to God alone. Who was glorified in this exchange? The person. You are a good person. Nothing about the goodness of God. You are a good person. Go you!

You should also be in tears because this person was being led away from salvation. She will never find salvation in Jesus if she has been told that she doesn’t need it because she’s OK. And you should be in tears when you see that this is the state of the church.

But is that an extreme example or is that typical of the church in our country? Obviously there are some very fine churches and lots of amazing Christians who relate closely to God, who know the Bible and obey it, who give God glory daily, etc. But, in my opinion, there are also many churches around our country where there is little understanding of the Bible and little spiritual maturity and little commitment to mission. In fact, they probably don’t even know what the mission of the church is. There are many churches that are little more than social clubs – in my opinion.

I think there is a conventional understanding of what it means to be a Christian and a church, but it is miles away from a biblical understanding. By “conventional” I mean a generally held understanding – an assumed understanding because it is just what everybody thinks – but it is not what God thinks.

I think that is true of whole denominations, but I think it is also true of local churches, and I think it is true of vast numbers of church members. Many Christians cannot tell you what the gospel is. Many Christian leaders cannot tell you what the gospel is

If I am right, then there is a need for another reformation. There is a need for the church to look again at the Bible, see how far it has drifted and be willing to turn back and obey God. Another Latin phrase associated with the Reformation is “semper reformanda” – always reforming; the church is always in need of reform. The church is not yet perfect. We can drift away from the Word of God and become corrupt or simply weak. We have blind spots and we don’t even realise it. There is always the need to read the scriptures again and to be willing to repent.

But what do you think? Let’s do a little exercise to explore this a bit. I have put up the following 15 statements.

Sola scriptura (The Bible only)

  • The Bible is the Word of God. I read it regularly to hear God speak.
  • The Bible is of little relevance to the practical needs of today. I don’t read it much.

Sola Fide (Faith only)

  • I know I deserve judgement but I believe Jesus died so that I can be forgiven.
  • If I am a good person, I will go to heaven.
  • If I have prayed, inviting Jesus into my life, I am a Christian. I don’t have to do anything else.

Sola Gratia (Grace only)

  • Salvation is a free gift from a good God.
  • Because God is so loving, everyone will be saved.

Solus Christus (Jesus Christ only)

  • Jesus is the only way to God.
  • There are many roads to God besides Jesus

Soli Deo Gloria (to the glory of God only)

  • Every day and in every way I seek to show people that God is good.
  • I must look after my own reputation so I never mention God.

Judgement

  • Because of our sin, without faith in Jesus, all people are in danger of God’s judgement.
  • Concepts such as sin, judgement and wrath are old fashioned and unhelpful.

Mission (Why does the church exists?)

  • The church exists primarily to look after its members.
  • The church’s primary task is to share the gospel and to train Christians.

Can you please take your black dots – black dots only – and choose the four statements that you think are most typical of the church today in New Zealand. What do people in our churches believe? If you feel you don’t have a sense of where the church is at, think about the people you know – whether church members or not. What do you think are the things they believe most strongly?

Now, please take your red, orange and green dots. Green means “yes”. Find the five statements that you most strongly agree with. Orange means “I am not sure” or “I have questions”. Find the five statements you have the most doubts about. Red means “Stop! This is wrong. This upsets me.”

How are we going to decide whether a statement is true or not?

The five solas give us a grid to measure them against. But more importantly, what does the Bible say?

I have had some experience of the wider church. There are many churches that I have huge admiration for but, by-and-large, the church is not in a good state. IMHO, many churches have no idea why they exist and the members have little understanding of the Bible.

In broad terms, I think the conventional thinking about the church favours comfort

  • God won’t judge
  • Salvation is easy. All you have to do is pray this prayer.
  • I don’t need to make any changes to my life.

Clearly the Bible teaches about comfort as well but also there is a much bigger component of commitment and cost. God is looking for people who will pay the cost.

Read Luke 9:57-62

57 As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’

58 Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’

59 He said to another man, ‘Follow me.’

But he replied, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’

60 Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’

61 Still another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.’

62 Jesus replied, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.’

  • Am I willing to be transformed by the word of God and the Spirit of God?
    • God change me
  • Am I committed?
    • God use me

 

 

 

It always needs further reformation; it always needs to return to the scriptures. That is true of the church as an institution. But equally, who is the church? We are. We are always in need of being transformed and being called back to the scriptures. In my view, the church of today needs another reformation. Let’s explore that using the five solas.

 

Sola scriptura. Does the church believe that the Bible is the Word of God and the only authority? If we need a question answered or an issue resolved, do we search the scriptures to find out what God has said about it?

 

No, surveys have shown that the levels of Bible reading, and Bible knowledge, amongst Christians are abysmally low. At a higher level, in the politics and decision-making of the church, the Bible is hardly ever referred to. Much preaching is not a revealing of the message of the Bible but pop psychology or self-help teaching or the latest political fad with an occasional quote from the Bible if it supports the view of the preacher. Is the Bible front-and-centre? Is the Bible honoured?

 

In today’s church, the Bible needs to be rediscovered and re-honoured.

 

Sola fide. If you go to a funeral, often the message is “Tom will be in heaven (if there is any belief in heaven) because he was a good man.” The general impression in our society is that God loves good people and basically we are all good (except, perhaps for the very worst offenders). But that is a million miles away from what the Bible teaches. Who will be in heaven? Those who have recognised that they are not good people and who therefore repent and put their faith in Jesus. When the church fails to teach the good news of salvation through faith in Jesus, it leads people straight into hell.

 

But there is also an opposite problem. Sometimes the church goes too far with the message of faith alone, teaching that all you have to do to be saved is pray a particular prayer. Say this prayer and your eternity is assured.

 

Rubbish! Where does the Bible teach that? Again, that leads people straight into hell. It is a terrible thing when Christians are leading people into hell.

 

The Bible teaches that true faith will always lead to good works. Do you want to know if a person has faith in Jesus? Look at that person’s life. Jesus said, “By their fruit you will know them.” Is this person trusting Jesus daily? Is this person obedient to Jesus? Is this person serving Jesus?

 

Remember the passage we read last week, from Ephesians 2.

 

Ephesians 2:8-10 8For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

 

Matthew 7:21      Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven.

 

That is a very scary scripture because many people are sitting in our churches thinking, “I have faith in Jesus. I said the prayer once” but they are not daily obedient to God. According to Jesus, they will not be saved. It is not about saying, ‘Lord, Lord’; it is not about singing worship songs. It is about doing the good works that God has prepared in advance for us to do.

 

The Reformers taught that we are saved by faith alone but faith is never alone. All we need to do is trust in Jesus’ death in our place. But if we do, that will always lead to a life of daily obedience to God. If is no obedience (no good works), then it shows that there is no faith and there is no salvation.

 

We need to rediscover faith. But we also need to rediscover obedience.

 

Sola gratia. We have already said that many people believe that we are saved by our good works not by the grace of God. That is a problem but again there is an opposite problem. Some churches stress the grace of God to the point of teaching that everybody will be saved. God is so loving and gracious He would never judge anyone. Forgiveness is automatic. Everyone is forgiven. Everyone will go to heaven.

 

Rubbish! There is no way the Bible teaches that. Francis Chan says, “If you don’t believe in judgement, you haven’t read the Bible.”

 

Again, people are being told that they are saved when they are not. And because they think they are, they have no incentive to turn to Jesus in faith and repentance.

 

We need to rediscover grace. But we also need to rediscover some of the more challenging teachings of scripture such as sin, judgement, holiness, repentance.

 

Solus Christus. Well, that is an unpopular teaching today, isn’t it? How can Christians be so arrogant to claim that Jesus is the only way? Every religion teaches good things. There are lots of good people. God will save every person of good will.

 

That completely contradicts the Bible.

 

John 14:6            Jesus answered, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

 

Acts 4:12             Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved.

 

I know that that raises questions. What about those who have never heard of Jesus? Nevertheless, it is what the Bible teaches and I trust God to do the right thing. I am sure God knows about what is just and fair. I know that God is good and merciful. We do not need to advise Him on these matters.

 

If there is salvation apart from Jesus, then Jesus is not required. Jesus’ death was unnecessary and pointless. Really? Was the cross pointless or was the cross what made salvation possible?

 

I seldom read the sPanz magazine that the Presbyterian Church publishes but sometimes I scan it just to see how many times Jesus is mentioned. Not many! So much for “Jesus only”. We say we are followers of Jesus. Shouldn’t He then be very prominent in our teaching and our conversations?

 

We need to rediscover Jesus.

 

Soli Deo Gloria. This, it seems to me, is a forgotten doctrine

 

 

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5.11.17 – Sola Powered: Reformation Principles – Peter Cheyne

What would you think of a society that, every year, expressed its joy at the defeat of one of its enemies by making effigies of that person and then watching him burn? Everybody rejoicing in his destruction. Guy Fawkes has lost a lot of its momentum – perhaps overshadowed by Halloween – but when I was a child, we used to make “guys” stuffed effigies of this man called Guy Fawkes. Some of you might remember doing the same thing. We would take them through the neighbourhood on prams or trolleys, collecting donations and chanting “Guy Fawkes guy. Stick him up high. Put him on a lamppost and there let him die.” Then on Guy Fakes evening all of these guys would be burnt on a bonfire as everybody celebrated with fireworks. This week, I have suddenly realised how horrible that is and how horrible I am!

Every year we rejoiced in the capture and execution of a Catholic. I do not remember from my childhood how the Catholics felt about Guy Fawkes night but, if you look online, there is still some deep feeling between Protestants and Catholics around how we are to understand Guy Fawkes and the Reformation more generally. Guy Fawkes was all part of the Reformation started by Martin Luther (which we looked at last week.) In 1605 he was part of a group of Roman Catholics who plotted to blow up the Houses of Parliament in London. Because it would have been the state opening of parliament, they would have killed the King, his wife and the princes, all of the bishops and Lord and all of the MPs – virtually the entire ruling establishment in England and Scotland. It would have been an incredible act of rebellion and it is very easy to see that such a thing utterly treasonous. Thank God they were discovered before the big bang.

But why did they even plot such a thing? 88 years earlier, Martin Luther had begun a protest against the church of his day. That split the church. Whereas there had been only one church throughout Europe, now that church was divided and there were a growing number of breakaway churches – collectively called “Protestant”; the protesting churches. The divide was bitter. Both sides believed that they were the true church, maintaining the true faith. Both looked at the other as heretics and hated enemies. Many lives were lost. Wars were fought. In England, King Henry VIII broke the Church of England away from the Catholic Church, not for theological reasons, but for personal reasons when the Pope would not allow him to divorce his wife. In England, Catholics were persecuted. They were fined for not attending worship in a Protestant Church. Priests were banned and had to go into hiding fearing for their lives. That continued under Elizabeth I – also a Protestant monarch. With the ascension of James I, Catholics hoped for a new tolerance but it didn’t happen and the frustration led some hot-headed conspirators, in 1605, to decide to blow up the whole Parliament, especially the king, so as to have another Catholic monarch.

Often, we honour people who have had the courage of their convictions, who have stood up to the authorities at great cost to themselves. So, was Guy Fawkes a hero or a villain? Given that Catholics were severely persecuted, were they freedom-fighters? Was their cause justified? Or were they evil terrorists? Can you ever justify that level of violence? But what about the violence against them? The reformation of the church came at huge cost to both sides. There was about 130 years of warfare and hatred. Some of us will remember that even, say, 450 years later and on the other side of the world, bitter division between Catholics and Protestants was still a reality. People can be sinful whether Catholic or Protestant.

Our attitude to Guy Fawkes probably depends on which side we are on. But actually, some terrible things were done by both sides. How far should we go in fighting for what we believe? And how far is too far? Can we be passionate about a cause to the point that we are blinded to Jesus, like Peter grabbing a sword to defend Jesus but Jesus telling him to put it away. Those who draw the sword will die by the sword.

How do we judge these things?

The principles of the Reformation are often stated in terms of five solas. In Latin, they are:

  1. Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”): The Bible alone is our highest authority.
  2. Sola Fide (“faith alone”): We are saved through faith alone in Jesus Christ.
  3. Sola Gratia (“grace alone”): We are saved by the grace of God alone.
  4. Solus Christus (“Christ alone”): Jesus Christ alone is our Lord, Saviour, and King.
  5. Soli Deo Gloria (“to the glory of God alone”): We live for the glory of God alone.

You might recognise the importance of each of those from the story of Martin Luther that we looked at briefly last week. There were lots of abuses in the church at the time which became clear when Luther studied the scriptures. What the church was teaching and requiring of people was simply not biblical. The church saw its authority lying in its traditions and in the person of the Pope. But Luther said, “No, no no, the only authority is the Bible itself. Unless I am convinced by scripture… My conscience is captive to the word of God.”

He translated the Latin Bible into German so that the common people could hear it and read it in their own tongue. That way they wouldn’t be dependent only on what the priest told them but could know what God’s word said. He preached several times a week and wrote multiple books and pamphlets, all of them as a result of his diligent study of the Bible.

The same is true for all of the great figures of the Reformation such as John Calvin, John Knox, John Wycliffe, William Tyndale. They were all men (and some women) who held the Bible in high regard and that was evident in their lives. Some of them were executed for the crime of translating the Bible into their own language so that people could read it.

In a context too when the church was telling people that they would be saved if they paid some money or they went on a pilgrimage or they worshipped some supposed relic such as a splinter from the cross of Christ, Luther (and others) rediscovered the truth of the gospel. We are saved by the grace of God. It is not earned by doing good works or some religious act. It cannot be bought. It is free gift given by God when we put our faith in Jesus. Faith is all that is required for salvation. Nothing more. Sola fide. And it is by grace alone. There is no other way to receive salvation.

This is taught throughout the Bible but is perhaps clearest in Ephesians 2:1-10. Note how this passage has no qualms about saying that we are all sinners and, consequently, we are alienated from God and we are dead. We did our own thing. We gratified our own sinful nature. We were deserving of the wrath of God but then something changed. Listen to what changed. READ Ephesians 2:1-10.

Did you hear what the Bible teaches? We were dead but God made us alive. Why? Why did God bother? What motivated God to action? “Because of His great love for us, God who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ.”

You can take that as a personal message: because of His great love for you. God has a great love for you. His love and His mercy mean that He doesn’t want you dead because of sin. Despite your sin and your self-centredness, God loves you greatly. He is merciful. He offers new life. He makes us citizens of heaven.

Martin Luther’s understanding had been that God is a harsh judge, wanting to punish us. He longed for a loving, merciful God. He longed, actually for the God of the Bible – the God who loves us greatly and is merciful. The God who does not want to punish; the God who wants to rescue us and give us life.

It is vv.8-10 that very clearly say: “For it is by grace (pure generosity from God) that you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” Salvation is a free gift but it is received through faith. It is those who put their faith in Jesus who are saved. This has got nothing to do with you. It has nothing to do with your good works. None of us will be able to get to heaven and boast.

Imagine walking around heaven and having these conversations. “Good day to you, sir. Good day, madam. And how did you get here, may I ask? …Oh dear, how sad. That is all you had to offer? Goodness! I imagine you had to talk quite hard to St Peter at the gate. I could fully understand that he might have really doubted your credentials. Oh you are lucky. No luck was required in my case. I got here because I sponsored 15 TEAR Fund children. A great sacrifice it was. You can imagine, I am sure. I mean some days I had to go without caviar altogether. Of course, that is not all. I also helped four old ladies across the road and I didn’t cheat on my wife. And so you see, there was no doubt in my case. My CV simply sparkled.”

There will be no boasting because none of that will be worth a tin of fish. Everybody will say the same thing: “I was a miserable sinner and fully deserving of God’s wrath, but because of His great love for me, God who is rich in mercy made me alive with Christ. I do not deserve to be here but I received God’s grace when I put my faith in Jesus.” And others will say, “Wow! Me too!”

Please do note that in Ephesians 2, God says that we are not saved by our good works but we are saved for good works. V.9 says, “not by good works, so that no one can boast” and then, immediately, v.10 says, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” We are not saved by good works but we are saved to do good works. God recruits us to work. Are you now an employee of God? Do you go to work for Him every day? He already has a plan that He is expecting us to fulfil. Jesus said, “You did not choose me but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit – fruit that will last – and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.” (John 15:16) We might come back to that next week because I suspect that is an area in which the church today needs a new reformation.

The Reformers picked up these biblical truths and said, “Faith only. It is the only way. Grace only.” And “Jesus only”. The church has no power to grant salvation, although in those times they taught that they did. Salvation is found in Jesus only.

Which brings us to the last sola which we didn’t talk about in connection with Martin Luther. Soli Deo Gloria: to the glory of God alone.

Look at Ephesians 2:7. V.6 says that God raised us up and seated us in heavenly places. V.7 says why: so that, in the future, God might be able to show the incomparable riches of His grace, expressed in His kindness to us in Christ Jesus.” Our salvation is evidence of the incredible grace and kindness of God. Our salvation reveals how good God is. The point is that God will be proved beyond a shadow of a doubt, to be good, merciful, generous, forgiving, compassionate…

Why has God saved us? Because He loves us. But there is another purpose. The bigger purpose is that God might receive glory. Every Christian wants God to be honoured, to receive the worship and adoration that He deserves. Hallowed be your name. As Paul says in Romans 1:17 (and this was a verse that was instrumental in Martin Luther’s conversion) “for in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed”. The gospel reveals how good God is. Whatever we do, we are to do it for the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31). Everything – even our salvation – is for the glory of God.

These were hard-won truths that the Reformers re-discovered and we should hold onto them. If we remember these things, they will shape our thinking and our words and our actions. Scripture alone. Faith alone. Grace alone. Jesus alone. For the glory of God alone. For example, when you hear an opinion on the radio or Youtube but you hold to this principle of scripture alone, you will be like the Bereans in Acts 17:11. You will examine the scriptures to see if these things are true. If you believe that the Bible alone reveals truth, you will prioritise time each day to hear more from God.

We could spend a lot of time thinking about each of these solas. I don’t think we are going to do that but I actually believe that the church needs another reformation. We might be highly critical of the medieval church and its failures in these areas but maybe the modern church, in the west, is failing in exactly the same areas and, after 500 years, we also have drifted into unbiblical thinking and we need a kick in the pants to wake us up. Am I right? If there was going to be another reformation, now, what would God see was wrong about our church? What does He want to change? You might have thoughts about that. What is wrong, seriously wrong, in today’s church? We will talk about that next week, God willing.

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29.10.17 – Captive To The Word Of God – Peter Cheyne

We perhaps don’t immediately realise the courage that Martin Luther showed. He never intended to start a revolution but rather to start a discussion for change within the church of the day. However, his ideas resonated with people and spread like wildfire, helped by the recent invention of the printing press. But his opposition to the teachings and practices of the church created a backlash from the church. And the church was all-powerful and worked hand-in-glove with the secular rulers. There was no separation of church and state. The church controlled everything, but Luther was resolute.

After nailing his 95 theses (or statements) to the church door, the Pope demanded that he disown them. Luther refused. The Pope sent a cardinal to interrogate him. Luther mocked the cardinal. The Pope declared him a heretic. That meant that he could be cut off from the church and handed over to the civic authorities who could kill him. Luther demanded to be shown what was heretical in his teachings. He said he was bound to assert and defend the truth with his blood and his death. Then the Pope excommunicated him – expelled him from the church. Because the church granted salvation [Note that phrase: the church granted salvation] anyone who was excommunicated from the church would spend eternity in hell. Plus, he could be arrested by any secular or church authority. This was a battle between the most powerful institution on earth and one solitary monk. Luther threw the declaration of excommunication in a fire.

He was then summonsed to a trial at the Diet of Worms which sounds pretty gross but it was actually the Di’et of Vorms – “di’et” being a parliament and Vorms a town in Germany. There Luther faced some of the greatest powers in Europe: the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, the princes of the many Germany states and a Papal ambassador – the combined forces of church and state who could order his execution. Luther believed that he was going to his death, and he was genuinely frightened.

On the other hand, he knew what he believed. He was shown a pile of his books and told to recant all of them. All he had to do, to save his life, was to say, “I was wrong. I take it back.” But he refused. He stood before those men and said, “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason, my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience would be neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”

Actually, he might not have said, “Here I stand. I can do no other.” That might be part of the legend but it is a very famous line. He left that hearing saying, “I am finished.” He fully expected to have to stand trial in Rome and probably be executed. That didn’t happen but that is another story.

The back story was that Luther, as a monk, had been tormented by a sense of unworthiness before God. At the time, the church taught that a person achieved salvation by doing good works. He was part of a severe order of monks and Luther was utterly devoted to self-denial and to persecuting his own flesh. He would sleep outside in the snow with no covering and would have died if not rescued by other monks. He worked enormously hard, punishing himself, trying to please God. He would whip his own body. But all to no avail. No matter what he did, he felt that God had not forgiven his sins.

Eventually, a wise, senior monk appointed him to teach in the university in Wittenberg. That meant that Luther had to study the scriptures and as he did, he discovered that the Bible teaches something very different. Salvation is a free gift from God received through faith – not by works and suffering. Luther realised that you didn’t need the church and all its rituals and rules to be saved. It is Jesus who is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. It was between the individual and God. The church could not grant or withhold salvation. In contrast to all of the torment he had experienced before, when he discovered that forgiveness and salvation are given by God’s grace to those who have faith and who repent, he felt as if he had been born again and had entered into heaven.

But that meant that he was horrified by what the church was teaching and by the way the church held people captive. And also by the way the church used it supposed power to grant salvation to make money. In 1517, one of the big issues was the selling of indulgences. Indulgences were pieces of paper that people could buy and that granted forgiveness or that granted a loved one less time in purgatory. In reality, these indulgences were a way for the licentious Pope Leo X to raise money for the building of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. [Picture of indulgence]

Martin Luther was horrified at the corruption and greed of the church. More than that though, people were being misled. If they thought they could buy their salvation, there was no need for faith in Jesus or for repentance. They thought they were saved when they were not. For Luther, this was just wrong and the church was leading people straight into hell. That is what prompted him to nail his 95 theses to the church door. That spark started a revolution. Luther would not back down in the face of the wrath of the church.

What was behind his courage? His conscience. Remember his words: I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience would be neither right nor safe. But what was behind his conscience? The Bible; the word of God. It is not just about freedom of conscience as if we can all believe whatever we like. Luther said, “My conscience is captive to the word of God.” He had discovered truth and freedom and salvation in the Bible – which revealed lies and error and corruption in the church. “If I am wrong, show me from the Bible.” He would die defending the truths of the Bible and fighting for people’s salvation.

There is always a tendency for the church to drift away from the Bible – and for us as individuals to drift away – and so we always need to be reforming. It always must be the recovery of what is biblical. For example, Martin Luther had a strong sense of his sinfulness before God. Today, by-and-large, we don’t. We might think that is old-fashioned and superstitious but it is actually biblical. If we tell people that a loving God will save everyone, we also are leading people away from salvation – away from faith in Jesus. Luther is a model for us. What does the Bible say? Then that is what I will believe and I will teach, even if that gets me into trouble.

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24.9.17 – Trusting In Chariots – Peter Cheyne

Yesterday two very significant things happened: New Zealand had a general election and the world ended. Many people put material online predicting the end of the world on September 23. If you have been reading the emailed newsletters, you will know what I mean.

Now, of course, the world might still end on September 23. Does it mean September 23 in New Zealand or Israel or USA? It is already 24th in New Zealand and Israel but many of those who predicted the end of the world are from the United States of America. By the way, what do you call a person from the United States of America? It cannot be “American” since everyone in North and South America is presumably an American. I don’t think there is a word for the people from the USA. Isn’t that strange?

Anyway, these United Statesians on YouTube seem to think that the Bible is all about the USA. So, if God lives in, say, San Francisco, there are about another 9.5 hours in which the world might end.

So, I had in mind these two events that were coming up and I was wondering which to speak about today – which was kind of tricky because I didn’t know what was going to happen with either of them. Which is the more important – a New Zealand election or the end of the world. Clearly the end of the world. On the other hand, which is more important: a New Zealand election or speculation about the end of the world? Probably the New Zealand election. So let’s talk about the New Zealand election.

The Bible contains some very strange military tactics. Modern armies study ancient battles but I doubt they feel they can learn much from some of these battles. For example, how many modern armies would think it was a good idea to march around a city every day for six days blowing trumpets and then march around it seven times on the seventh day, and then shout? And yet that, of course, was what God told Joshua to do and the walls of Jericho collapsed. This is unconventional warfare.

Or how many armies would reduce their man-power to less than 1% of their original strength, and do that, in part, on the basis of the men’s river-drinking technique? But that is what God told Gideon to do. How many armies would believe that their success would depend on the ability of an old man up a mountain to hold his arms up in the air? And yet, while Moses held up his hands, the Israelites prevailed over the Amalekites, and when he grew tired and his hands slumped, the Amalekites started winning.

There are many more examples – times when the Israelites faced insurmountable odds but they won, not through their military might but by doing some very strange thing that God required of them. Most people would think that military victories result from military might but biblically, military might counts for nothing. What actually counts is God. God can defeat a whole army using only one man if He wants to. He did that, for example, using a shepherd-boy.

Listen to what David said to Goliath.

1 Samuel 17:45-47      45 David said to the Philistine, ‘You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. 46 This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. This very day I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds and the wild animals, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. 47 All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.’

In a contest between military might – sword, spear, javelin, training, armour, great size and strength – and God, who wins? God wins. We would feel far more comfortable having the sword and the spear and the javelin but David trusted God to be greater.

Note the phrase David used there: “the battle is the Lord’s”, or “the battle belongs to the Lord”.

That phrase is repeated in words spoken by a prophet to King Jehoshaphat

2 Chron 20:15     He said: ‘Listen, King Jehoshaphat and all who live in Judah and Jerusalem! This is what the Lord says to you: “Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours, but God’s.

God often warned Israel not to trust in military might – not to trust in horses and chariots and alliances with the super-powers of the time. Listen to…

Isaiah 31:1          Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help, who rely on horses, who trust in the multitude of their chariots and in the great strength of their horsemen, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel, or seek help from the Lord.

Woe to those who trust in horses and chariots but do not look to God. The passage goes on to say that God is powerful but the Egyptians are mortals and their horses are mere flesh. Do not trust in human strength; woe to those who trust in human might and military hardware and strategies and human organisation, and not in God. If modern armies were to learn tactics from the biblical battles, the lesson would be that they should seek God. That would be unconventional warfare.

When we vote in an election, we are looking for a saviour, and we have high hopes that this party or that party is going to solve our problems and save our country. We weigh up the policies and the skills of the people. But ultimately, every time we are disappointed. Why is it so unusual for a government to get a fourth term? We try one party and after a few years we are disillusioned and we see another party offering what this one has failed to deliver and our hopes sore again – only to be disillusioned again.

I am not saying we shouldn’t vote. I voted. I am not saying we don’t need leadership. Of course, we do. I am not saying we shouldn’t try to identify which party’s values most reflect God’s values. I hope we all did that. I am saying that every party is going to disappoint. Every party has feet of clay. There is not God-honouring party. Every party will be good at some things but weak in other areas. Because every party is merely human and humans are fallible and sinful. We make a fundamental mistake if we look to people to save our country

Isaiah 31:1          Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help, who rely on horses, who trust in the multitude of their chariots and in the great strength of their horsemen, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel, or seek help from the Lord.

Can our government fix our problems? No. Of course, a good government will do some good things. Sometimes we will make real progress. But that government will reveal its dark side as well. There will be scandals; there will be failures; selfishness and dishonesty will manifest because humans are selfish and dishonest. It is unavoidable. Even supposedly Christian parties have not proved to be above these things. Christians don’t seem to handle power very well. Society today is certainly more advanced in some ways but it has as many problems as previous generations. We have not proven that we can sort out our problems. We might have a rock-star economy – maybe – but we have increasing poverty and horrific levels of mental illness and polluted rivers and… That is why National’s opponents have harped on about being in power for 9 years but failing to solve our problems. But equivalent statements will be true after a Labour-led government has been in power.

There has been euphoria about Jacinda – not quite enough euphoria for her liking – and Jacinda will presumably be Prime Minister one day. But the time will come when people will be fed up with Jacinda too and demand a change. That is what we do – euphoria followed by disillusionment. We trust in chariots but chariots fail.

No secular government (of any colour) can bring in the Kingdom of God. Woe to us. Only God can establish the Kingdom of God. But we, as a nation, are not seeking God. And often, we, as Christians, are not seeking God but we are still trusting in the chariots and horses and strength and human skills.

This principle of “woe to those who trust in horses and chariots” applies in many areas of our lives. Many of us feel secure because we have money. We trust in money. Or we feel insecure because we don’t have enough money, or we are working to make money so that we can feel secure. Why are we trusting in money that can disappear overnight? We are trusting in material things, not in God.

If we are ill, do we look first to the doctor or first to God? Who do we trust more?

Churches that want to grow can rely on marketing techniques and gimmicks and pandering to people’s needs, and flashy events. I wonder if the result might be different is we just prayed. What do we trust?

Does this mean that we do nothing, leaving it all up to God? No, it means we do whatever God asks us to do. What is God’s plan? Sometimes God’s plan will seem silly. Maybe marching around Jericho seemed silly but the Israelites did it. Going out to meet Goliath with no armour and only a sling and five stones, seems reckless and foolish. Everyone said that David could not beat Goliath. They thought training and strength were necessary. Saul urged David to wear armour. Why? Because that is what sensible people do. Don’t trust God; wear armour. David chose no armour but he did have that sling and stones. He did walk out to confront Goliath. But his trust wasn’t in his own strength and ability with his weapon. His trust was in God. Without God, he was a lost cause.

Here’s something crazy. God plans to establish His Kingdom in Mornington through us, not through the government. We can have a much greater impact for good than the government. Society will not be transformed by government departments and think tanks and policies and taxes. Those things might all have their part to play but deep transformation comes only from Jesus. Do you know what God’s plan is for transforming our community? That we make disciples; that we help people to become followers of Jesus and to live following Jesus. Society is transformed when people are transformed.

So, what are the crazy things God is asking us to do? What is His strategy?

God commands us to do crazy things like love people, forgive them, pray, share the gospel of Jesus Christ, grow people to spiritual maturity. Those things will transform people and society.

2 Corinthians 10:3-4  For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. 4The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.

We don’t use the world’s weapons. Unconventional warfare. The weapons we use have divine power to break the strongholds holding people in bondage. What are those weapons that have divine power?

It is not the whole answer but let’s start with Ephesians 6 – the armour of God. Ephesians 6 lists 7 weapons. Let’s contrast them with 7 others which, just for fun, spell out chariot.

Committees Truth
Human ability Righteousness
Activity (programmes) The gospel
Riches Faith
Ideas, ideology & arguments Salvation
Order (law, power) The Bible
Technology & innovation Prayer
  1. What is the difference between those two lists?
  2. Which one better describes the governments strategies? Which list would actually work? (Proverbs 14:34 says that righteousness exalts a nation; righteousness makes a nation great. Do we believe that?)
  3. Which one better describes the church? Which one should describe the church?
  4. Which one do you trust more?
  5. If the world does end in the next 9 hours – or, whenever Jesus does return – which list will be important?
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27.8.17 – Lifestyle Does Matter – Peter Cheyne

Read 2 Thessalonians 3:6-18

This passage might be quite troubling for some people so I want to see if we can understand it.

The Aaron Smith saga is pretty sordid. It is shameful to even talk about such things but it provides a good example. Unfortunately, I guess we have all heard about his tryst with a woman in a toilet. That led to a one-match ban, a tearful apology and his return from South Africa to try to reconcile with his girlfriend.

But now, there are allegations that he lied to his coach and employer and that he tried to get the woman to sign a false affidavit. Consequently, the Rugby Union has re-opened the investigation.

  1. Why would Smith be disciplined? Initially there was the one-match ban and now the possibility that there will be further consequences. Why?
  2. What business is it of the NZRFU?

Sometimes players who turn up late for training are dropped from the team. Why?

Today’s passage says that lazy people should be rejected by the church. Is that what it says? And why?

In the NIV, the phrase “idle and disruptive” is used twice and “idle” used once. Plus, there are other words like “not willing to work”, “not busy” and it is contrasted with “earn the bread you eat” and “never tire of doing good”. There does seem to be a lot about laziness.

Twice – in vv.6 and 14 – it says, “Do not associate with idle people.” So, lazy people are to be shunned by the church. Have nothing to do with them. Are we OK with this? But this is the word of God. What are we going to do with it?

Church discipline is not a popular concept these days – the idea that the church should take action against people because of their lifestyle. But even if it was, wouldn’t we think it should be reserved for the worst of sins? Should the church really discipline lazy people?

Do you know what? In the original Greek, there is no word for idle or lazy!

So, how come it is in our translations? The word used in vv.6, 7, and 11 – where it is translated “idle” – is ataktos. Look it up; google it. It means disorderly, out of line. It means unruly, or refusing to obey God’s rules. Maybe we could say “rebellious” or “disobedient”.

It is very easy to see why the translators talk about idleness. Paul does talk about laziness – about people who refuse to work, etc. The context is about laziness; the word is about being unruly, so the translators have hedged their bets by saying both – idle and disruptive. Laziness is one aspect of an undisciplined life but the word is much more general. It is about any unruly – not following the rules – lifestyle.

v.11 talks about people who are “ataktos” but then says they are busybodies. Well, that doesn’t make sense. Busybodies are not idle; they are busy but they are busy meddling in other people’s business instead of getting on with their own. They were out of line but they weren’t idle. Paul said those people need to settle down. Lazy people do not need to settle down; they are already far too settled! So, ataktos doesn’t mean “idle”. It means out-of-line, disobedient, disruptive behaviour.

Aaron Smith’s wasn’t accused of being lazy but he was “out-of-line”. That required action.

Does that make the issue of church discipline any more understandable? Maybe not. Let’s pursue it further. Note that it is talking about Christians. V.6 says, “Keep away from any believer who is out of line.” He is not talking about the church condemning people in society but rather that Christians come under the discipline of the church. He is saying to the church, “You need to exercise that discipline.”

It is about maintaining discipline within the church but that is still a concept that will upset some people. Some people will bristle at any suggestion that the church has any authority over them. Let’s look at it.

In v.6, the church is commanded to dissociate from these disruptive people. It is not a piece of advice. It is a command. In fact, it is made even stronger: In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you… We are out-of-line if we reject a command.

What is this discipline to look like? V.6: “keep away from this person”. V.14: “do not associate with them.” It is not about public floggings or executions. It is about saying, “You cannot fellowship with us.”

Why? Why would a church do this? The passage gives us four reasons.

V.6 says, “keep away from this person”. V.7 gives us the reason: “For… because… you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example.”

The Greek is quite strong. “It is necessary – it is compulsory – it is required – that you follow our example.” For Christians, Christian living is not optional. Christians are expected to live according to God’s rules. And the church is expected to require that of its members.

So, the first reason for disciplining the unruly person is that for the Christian, Christian living is not optional. Christians are expected to obey God and the church has a responsibility to make that clear.

The second reason is implied by the word “disruptive” which is used in the NIV. Disobedient people disrupt the church. For example, they disrupt relationships. Think of the person who causes division, maybe spreading rumours, spreading discontent, dividing one group of people from another. The church should say, “No, sorry, that is not who we are. That is not acceptable. You are out-of-line”.

To give you a biblical example…

Titus 3:10            Warn a divisive person once, and then a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him/her.

Discipline is not even the first step, but if a person receives two warning and carries on causing division, the church is commanded to take action – exactly the same action as in 2 Thessalonians: have nothing to do with him/her.

The unity of the church is important to God. The person who is disobedient and therefore disruptive, should not be tolerated by the church.

But it could be anything else that is disrupted. Maybe the work of the church is disrupted by people who oppose change all of the time, or the witness of the church is damaged when the wider community sees greed or domestic violence or immorality amongst Christians. When Christians are unruly, the credibility of the church and of the gospel suffers. Jesus’ name is brought into disrepute. The damage is too serious and so the church should not tolerate it.

The second reason is that out-of-order behaviour damages the church and its witness and brings dishonour to the name of Jesus.

The third reason is that, if the church tolerates bad behaviour, other members think that it is OK and the bad behaviour becomes the norm. The church should not allow a bad apple to spoil the whole barrel.

Notice how conscious Paul was of his example because it influenced others. He chose not to eat anybody’s food without paying for it. He was within his rights to expect support from those he was teaching but he chose not to receive that support. Instead, he worked night and day, labouring and toiling. He modelled hard work and not bludging off others. Why? Look at v.9. “We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate.” Paul disciplined himself in order to be an example. Example influences the next generation. It is required of us that we follow his example and that we also be examples.

The third reason is: Others will do what they see the church allowing.

The fourth reason is in v.14: Do not associate with them in order that they may feel ashamed. Naming and shaming is often seen as a way of punishing and humiliating. But not in the Bible. The motivation is not to hurt people. Biblically, the motivation is to bring someone to repentance. The hope is that strong action will bring the person to his/her senses and back to God. The purpose is always redemptive. It is tough love. We can see that in v.15: Do not regard them as enemies, but warn them as fellow believers. This is not a way of hating people or hurting people. It is a way of loving people. A warning is designed to bring about a change; to shock the person into facing reality and changing his/her behaviour. Being cut off from the fellowship of the church is intended to say, “This is unacceptable. Please take heed.”

The disobedient person is still to be seen as a fellow believer (not an enemy); someone we love and want to see restored to the family.

The fourth reason is to bring shame on the person in the hope that that leads to repentance and that that leads to incorporating that person in the fellowship of the church again.

In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul dealt with a man who was sleeping with his step-mother. Again, he said that the man should be put out of the fellowship. But Paul’s motivation is: “so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord” (v.5). The objective is always the person’s salvation.

Should the church have higher standards or lower standards than the NZRFU?

Why does the NZRFU discipline its players? Because it is concerned to protect its reputation and its internal culture. It is the same for the church. The mission of the church is far more important than rugby and the reputation of God’s name is far more important than the reputation of the NZRFU.

v.13 nicely summarises how we are to live. “As for you, brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good.”

Paul mentions two ways to know what is good: Firstly, the teachings that have been handed down. In v.6 he talked about those who “do not live according to the teachings that you received from us”. Clearly for us that is primarily the Bible. The second way is through the example of godly Christians. We learn a lot about Christian living by watching Christians live. That is why it is so crucial for Christians to set a good example. Other people’s eternity is impacted by our example.

We have been looking at this letter under the heading of “Christians in a crazy world”. We live in a world where long-accepted standards are being jettisoned; where bizarre views seem to be main-stream; where everything is unpredictable and truth is hard to find. We wonder if the world has gone mad. In a crazy world, the church needs to be doubly sure that it is being the church; that we are being faithful to God. This is the time to be more focused on knowing what is right and doing it. When the world is ready to condemn, Christians are called to live to a higher standard and, corporately, we have a responsibility to uphold that standard.

  • Christian living is not optional
  • Out-of-line behaviour undermines the reputation of the church and the name of Jesus.
  • Others will do what they see the church allowing.
  • Tough love might lead to repentance whereas condoning bad behaviour never will.

“As for you, brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good.”

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20.8.17 – The Early Church As Family – Paul Trebilco

Readings: Mark 3:31-35: Mark 10:28-30

Imagine as a congregation that you had no buildings. Its not that something had happened to your buildings and so you have to make some arrangements while you build a replacement. No, its just that you don’t have any buildings, and that it has never occurred to any of you that you should have a building.

So where do you meet? In each other’s homes – each Sunday and on other days too.

That’s what it was like in the early Church during the first century. In fact it wasn’t until the end of the second century that the early Christians first started to own buildings. Prior to that, they met in each other’s homes, and occasionally in rented space. This was easier – no worries about land and about real estate. And it was very difficult for Christians to actually own a building – they weren’t an established religious group – as Jewish communities were, or as worshippers of pagan gods were. So owning land was difficult. And Christian groups were often persecuted – so buildings could be an easy target. It was better and safer to met in each other’s homes. They would have met in a dining room, or in poorer people’s homes, in the only main room of the house. This is spoken of a few times in the NT

** 1 Corinthians 16:19: “The churches of Asia send greetings. Aquila and Prisca, together with the church in their house, greet you warmly in the Lord.”

Colossians 4:15: “Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters in Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house.”

This also fitted very well with how they saw themselves. For one of the key theological ideas in the early church was that they were a new family – so meeting in a family home, around the family table – fitted in very well.

This goes back to Jesus’ ministry. Think about Mark 3:19-21, 31-35:

 

19 Then he [Jesus] went home; 20 and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. 21 When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” …

31 Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” 33 And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

In Mark 3:19-21, we learn that Jesus’ family aren’t on board with what Jesus is doing in his ministry at this point. They know Jesus as a brother and a son – and so his amazing authority is astounding – disturbing even. So we’re told that they come and try and restrain Jesus. They want him to take some time out – they think he’s overdone it. But Jesus wont be distracted from his mission.

And then in Mark 3:31, the family call to Jesus to come and talk – probably again to try and reason with him and to restrain him. How does Jesus respond? Jesus here actually redefines who his true family is. It’s not his biological family – but rather those who are following him, who are sitting around him, listening to his teaching – they are his ‘brothers and sisters and mother’. He is expressing ‘the will of God’ in his teaching – so those who listen to God’s will as he teaches it and who do it, are his ‘brothers and sisters and mother’. They are given the amazing privilege of being Jesus’ true family.

So Jesus’ followers are given this amazing gift of being Jesus’ brothers and sisters! This involves a sense of belonging, of closeness, of intimacy with Jesus. In the ancient world, the family was the place where you received your identity – where you came to understand who you were. Jesus gave his followers this sense of identity – they were his brothers and sisters. They belonged as part of his family. They were in an intimate and loving relationship to him, as his brothers and sisters. That’s a gift Jesus gives us.

But we also become brothers and sisters to each other. Look at Mark 10:28-30:

28 Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.

They have left their biological family behind – this reflects the fact that becoming a follower of Jesus for many in the early Church would have involved falling out with Mum or Dad, or siblings – they would have thought you were mad to follow Jesus. There was a huge cost involved.

But they also experienced a new family in the Christian community – in fact one-hundredfold!! They joined a new community of brothers and sisters, mothers and children.
But note they don’t get back everything they have left behind. They leave behind one thing … They don’t get back 100-fold fathers. This is a new type of community. The father in the ancient world had supreme power – even the power of life and death. This sort of authority figure was not to exist in the Christian community. Men became brothers to each other, and brothers to sisters.

Some of you might know the theme song from Cheers – an American TV programme. The song has the line ‘You wanna go where everyone knows your name’. It was like that in the early Church. One-hundred fold new brothers and sisters – where everyone knows your name.

So this is the ethos of early Christians. A new family of brothers and sisters meeting in a family home. One indication of this is how they addressed each other.

For how do you think someone like Paul would have addressed a group of Christians? Not fellow Christians, since that term emerges slowly. Not Presbyterians. Perhaps as ‘followers of the way’. ** But the key way they would have addressed one another was as ‘brothers and sisters’ – adelphoi. In the New Testament, authors address their readers or refer to their readers as ‘brothers and sisters’ 271 times – this is found in every NT book except Titus and Jude.

They experienced conversion as becoming brothers and sisters of Jesus, and brothers and sisters of one another – and so calling each other ‘brothers and sisters’ was their favoured term. This is all of a piece with where they met – a new family of brothers and sisters, meeting in the family home.

I want to go on to suggest why some of the success of the early church can be put down to seeing themselves as a new family, meeting in the house church – but let me first ask how we might replicate some of this ethos, this sense of belonging and of intimacy – today.

Clearly, small groups are part of the answer. For you can’t have this strong sense of belonging in a large church. You might feel you belong to the church – but I don’t think you can really feel you’re ‘brothers and sisters’ in a strong, caring and real way with hundreds of people. You simply can’t share life in depth with a whole lot of people. Imagine a biological family of 200! So this all strongly suggest that small groups – or some other way of really engaging with each other – is very important.

Which brings me back to the size of these groups. How big were they? The number of people involved would have been determined by the size of the largest dining room owned by a member of the group. That might be 20-30 people. Certainly it wouldn’t be bigger than that and might have been smaller.

But there are a few other things that result from the house church structure.

There is a sense of full involvement in worship – there’s no back row in a house church when you’re all sitting around in a dinning room. Note ** 1 Cor 14:26 “What should be done then, my brothers and sisters? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.”

Col 3:16 “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.”

Notice then that there’s lots of people contributing to worship – each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation – which makes sense, around the table. And there’s real sharing  – ‘teaching and admonishing one another’ – which can happen really well in small groups.

And of course Paul also speaks about all having gifts for ministry.  All members of the body have gifts for the up-building of the whole body. Paul uses the analogy of the body to say that everyone matters.

1 Cor 12:14-18

14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.

Everyone belongs, everyone matters, everyone has a role, everyone knows your name. There’s no back row around the table.

But we shouldn’t think of these as closed groups. In 1 Cor 14, Paul speaks of unbelievers and outsiders entering a worship gathering and being convicted by a word of prophecy and goes on: ** 1 Cor 14:25: After the secrets of the unbeliever’s heart are disclosed, that person will bow down before God and worship him, declaring, “God is really among you.”

So these aren’t closed groups. In fact, some of the ‘homes’ in which they met, may have been big apartment buildings – perhaps several stories high. They would have been quite flimsy and not sound-proofed. So non-members would have been aware of what was going on, and come by … Or if they met in a house, people would have been able to walk in off the street.

It’s also clear that everyone in the house church is responsible for the group’s life. In 1 Corinthians, there are all sorts of problems going on. But throughout that letter, Paul doesn’t simply tell the leaders to ‘fix the problem’. No, he addresses the whole community – it is the responsibility of all of them together to sort out the problems and to share in correcting issues.

So no back row, body ministry, shared responsibility, everyone has a place and a role. This fits small groups today really well.

When they got together weekly as a house church, they would have shared the Lord’s Supper – communion. It’s clear from 1 Cor 11 that this was shared in the context of a meal. So at some point during or after sharing a meal they would take bread, break it and share it, and in the same way they would share in the cup. Both would be done in memory of Christ. It would be the hosts of the house church – probably a married couple – who would preside over this.

Sitting around the table would be a variety of people. There would be the husband and wife who owned the house and their family – children, and aunt perhaps, perhaps grandparents. There might be slaves from the family. There would be another family or two. And there would be single people where the rest of the family weren’t Christians.

But the social mix would be important. There would be masters and slaves, socially privileged and under-privileged.

And there would be a mix of ethnicities too. There would be Jews and Gentiles – including Gentiles of a range of ethnic groups.

These different social and ethnic groups would rarely, if ever, mix in the ancient world. But here, they would all get together and sit around the same table. A master might even serve communion to their own slave. Revolutionary stuff! This is a new family, breaking down social and ethnic barriers – with powerful social implications.

So here the early Church lived out Gal 3:28:
Gal 3:28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Col 3:11 In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

This became real in the house church. So masters and slaves as brothers. And Jew and Gentile as brothers and sisters. Breaking down these huge barriers in the ancient world.

Of course, in the ancient world in a big gathering, you could have high-class people and lower class people – but the high class people would be up the front and they would eat special food – quite different from everyone else’s. But in a small group – everyone is sitting around the same table, everyone shares the same food. Everyone is equal. This was a revolution socially.

So through the work of Jesus, we have become a new family. We become brothers and sisters in the Lord. May this be a real experience for us – that the community of Christ might be a place of belonging, a place where we ‘do life together’ with each other, a place where everyone knows our name. Amen.

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9.7.17 – How Will They Know? – Mary Somerville

A few times in my life I have aspired to be a singer.  I even once paid for a voice coach.  I went to my lessons, listened to the tips the coach gave me… (Minnie Minnie…) and did the hard work for a while.  My voice improved but I will never be a great singer…not an Ella Fitzgerald or Kiri Takanawa.  This coaching and practice did help though.  I also aspired to be an artist…and began my drawing classes at the young age of 4. I went on to teach art after years and years of practice and training from my wonderful teachers and mentors.

The problem for me always seems to be that when I want to do something I want to be good at it …NOW…. not later…I don’t always want to put in the hard work to accomplish something.  I suspect we have many like that. But the reality is that in anything I have wanted to accomplish, music, art, ministry or my theology degree I have had the best results from having a steadfast commitment to taking the time to put in the work and listen to those who taught and mentored me along the way.

So, to get “good” at anything we need:

  • Discipline and time
  • a willingness to learn
  • teachers or mentors that guide well

I think that being a disciple and making disciples is worth our time to “get good at it”.    We are here because we feel called by God to be a disciple and follower.  In our conversion and baptism, we have realized that the call to follow Jesus is not just an idea, or something that makes us feel good, rather it is a journey we are invited to share with others. A journey that lasts our whole life.

The journey of Christian discipleship is a lot like singing or artwork or an even better image perhaps is that of an apprenticeship.  It requires openness to learning, attentiveness and discipline.  There is a lot of talk about discipleship in the churches currently.  I think it is because are tired of playing the church game, of running programmes and gathering with other Christians to talk about mission.  It doesn’t seem to be working for us as the church either.  My hunch is that we have been operating on a classroom kind of model of church for a long time, hearing interesting sermons, and doing very little about them, it is time for a change and I think the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch gives us some cues in the right direction.

In this story, I think we see a model for Christian ministry that models’ discipleship as apprenticeship –  as a getting alongside and journeying with.   This story captures what faithful ministry should look like and in some cases, does look like…. especially in our church today.

The story from Acts we have listened to today begins with an angel appearing to Philip and telling him to get up and go south.  So, Philip obeys and down the road he sees a eunuch coming.  Just for your information a eunuch is a man who was castrated and often performed social roles such as servant or slaves for royalty.

This eunuch was from the official court of the queen of the Ethiopians.  He had been on a journey of pilgrimage to worship in Jerusalem and was on his way back.  He was clearly a person seeking spirituality and it is also likely that being a eunuch he was treated as ritually unclean so he could only have a certain degree of access to worship in the temple, which wasn’t very much.  In other words, this Ethiopian traveller was a true outsider to the religious establishment, yet he was seeking God.

So, the first thing we might notice about the story is here as is so common in Luke and Acts we see a story of the Spirit of God reaching out to an outsider….

The Ethiopian Eunuch is a lot like the many people that we encounter today in the sense that he is an outsider to the religious establishment but is seeking God.  As you will know we live in a post-Christendom world.  Less people are coming looking to church for answers to spiritual questions, not because they are necessarily anti-church but perhaps more likely that it is the last place they would think of to look.

We live in a day and age where many people are seeking but not sure where to look.  Many have no idea even what a bible is or what it is used for.  They are lost, but still seek… (story about youth).

So – back to the story in Acts – This Eunuch was riding past and Philip gets a prompt from the Spirit, “Philip. Go over to the chariot and join it”.

Again, Philip obeys and goes over to the eunuch to have a chat.  Here we find another important element in the story.  Twice Philip is obedient to the leading of the God.  Philip is attentive to God’s voice and obeys when he hears it.  In this story, it is no coincidence that the eunuch rides past when Philip is there, this is a God ordained moment.  God is at work and he invites Philip to join him.

Here in Acts Philip is obedient to the prompting of the Holy Spirit.  Here is our second lesson – Faithful ministers listen and are obedient to the prompting of the Holy Spirit.  It is important here to think about this…we are all mentors…we are all Ministers!

Philip starts to chat with the eunuch.  The eunuch is reading Isaiah and Philip asks him, “Do you understand what you are reading?”  The eunuch replies, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”

This question that the Ethiopian asks should stick with all of us who do ministry.  “How can I unless someone guides me?”

It is a plea to understand, it is yearning to know.

There are many people out there who fit within the “How can I unless someone guides me?” category.  People are hungry for more than just 9-5 existence till they die.  Many people are seeking God, but how can they truly find without someone guiding them?  Think of your own journey and I can bet there have been people along the way who have guided you.  Take a moment to share with each other someone who mentored you and then share how you might mentor someone else on yours and their journey.

Faithful guides and ministers hear the spiritual questions that people are asking…

As we hear the Ethiopians question, yearning for guidance, let it ring in our ears.  We who are called to be ministers, which is every Christian, we are invited to interpret.  We are invited to interpret the spiritual questions that people are asking and we are invited to interpret Scripture and help make sense of both.

We don’t get to hear much of the conversation that Philip and the Eunuch have, we just hear the questions, and the passage from Isaiah.  We hear that Philip joins the dots between the suffering servant in Isaiah 53 and Jesus, shaping the churches interpretation of Isaiah for hundreds of years to come.

Faithful ministers know the story of the Gospel!

The story tells us that Philip proclaims the gospel news of Jesus to such an extent that the Ethiopian as soon as he spots some water proclaims “Look!  Here is water!  What is there to prevent me from being baptized?”

And the beauty of this exclamation should dazzle us!  Here is a person who is an outsider, who has been prevented in many ways from entering worship fully.  He is a Gentile, and a Eunuch, which both count towards bring ritually unclean and an outsider, and here in conversation with Philip he understands who Jesus is and what Jesus has done for him and he sees that there is now nothing preventing him from being baptized.  And so, Philip baptises him, and in a style reminiscent of Elijah, Philip is whisked away by the Spirit leaving the Eunuch to rejoice.

What might learn from the encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian?

Earlier in Acts chapter 8 Philip preaches to a crowd.  This is often how we do ministry.  It is our kind of default setting.  Services and programmes are our bread and butter.  I am not sure that this way of ministering is working in New Zealand today.  Sure, we can gather a religious crowd and every now and then new people come along and discover faith…. but overall the church isn’t growing this way.

What is being faithful ministers in the 21st century looks like taking some cues from the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch.  People that I meet both inside and outside of the church want meaningful spiritual connections, they want to know how to pray and how to hear God speak.  What if being faithful ministers today meant we ourselves learn afresh how to be apprentices of Jesus to learn from Jesus what it means to follow Him and then teach others.

I think that according to Acts chapter 8 this looks like:

  • Looking for where the Spirit is at work.
  • Being obedient to the promptings of the Spirit.
  • Engaging with the spiritual questions people are asking.
  • Knowing the Gospel story and living it.

Let us leave here today asking questions, learning from Jesus and engaging with outsiders who are seeking to know God more.

Let us pray….

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