Real Faith for a Real Life in a Real World.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

What makes a healthy church?


1 Corinthians 12.12-27
Ephesians 4.1-16


Today, we will be looking mainly at Ephesians 4 and attempting to answer the question “What makes a healthy church?” I should warn you this sermon will be more of a “teach” than a “preach”.

I would dearly love to do a whole series of sermons on Ephesians because it's such a rich letter, full of life-enhancing truths. But don't worry: unless the way Methodism operates at a local level changes radically, that's a fate that will never be inflicted on you. So let me encourage you to read Ephesians for yourselves at home. When you read it, ask God to give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation so that you can really understand all that Paul has to say.

For me, chapter 4 verse 1 is the pivotal point of the letter. “... I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” Prior to this, Paul has described that calling and set out all that God has done for us in Christ, and it's on the basis of this that he makes his appeal. That's why it's important that you read the beginning of the letter. The rest of the letter is practical instruction on what it means to live a life worthy of the calling we have received. We are looking at only part of that instruction today, and that's why it's important you read the rest of it.

I've heard many a speaker say “If you ever find the perfect church, don't join it because you'll spoil it.” Our question today is not about how to be perfect but how to be healthy. A healthy body can still catch cold but because it's healthy it's less likely to and, if it does, it will recover quicker. A healthy body can still be injured but because it's healthy it will mend more easily.

A healthy church will still face problems and difficulties but because it's healthy it will overcome them more easily. So it's really important that a church is healthy. What, then, makes a church healthy? From our chapter in Ephesians and other readings, here are four points to take on board:
  • A healthy church takes unity seriously 
  • A healthy church is committed to discipleship 
  • A healthy church has gifted leaders 
  • A healthy church gets on with serving. 

A healthy church takes unity seriously 

There are two types of unity mentioned in this chapter. In verse three, Paul talks about the unity of the Spirit, and in verse 13 the unity of the faith. Let me try and explain the difference:
  • The unity of the Spirit is something given to us by God right from the outset of our Christian walk; that's why we're encouraged to keep it. 
  •  The unity of the faith is something that we grow towards along the path of discipleship. 
Every born-again believer has been called into fellowship with God and is sealed with the Holy Spirit. Someone who has been on the Christian road for five minutes has the Holy Spirit; someone who has been following Christ for decades also has the Holy Spirit. Because there is only one Spirit, these people share in the unity of the Spirit.

One would hope that the more experienced believer has learnt a thing or two along the way and has a much greater grasp of the faith than the new believer, who knows only that Jesus is amazing: they do not share the unity of the faith.

I had a colleague at work who was a Roman Catholic. We were fairly comparable in our time on the journey. We disagreed about a lot of doctrinal issues and matters of tradition but we were both indwelt by the Holy Spirit. We were perfectly happy to acknowledge each other as a brother in Christ; we enjoyed unity in the Spirit even though we didn't have unity in the faith.

You and I may disagree over some point of doctrine or practice but if you are Christ's and I am Christ's then we dare not allow those differences to cause division between us. The unity of the Spirit is essential for a healthy church.

The unity of the Spirit is something given to us by God; it's not something we strive to attain. But look at what Paul says in verse three: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” Unfortunately, Paul implies that the unity of Spirit can be lost or damaged. We cannot afford that if we are to be a healthy church. We cannot have bitter disputes within our ranks. We cannot have factions and cliques.   I've seen enough of those in my time, and nothing good has ever come from them.

The problem is not in disagreement. The problem is in dividing the church. As chapter five, verse 21 says, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Reverence for Christ in each of us must overrule our personal opinions of each other.

Paul tells us that the unity of the Spirit is so important that we must make every effort to keep it, through the bond of peace. Every effort. Whatever it takes.

If I have a problem with a fellow believer, who should make the first move? I should, whether I have something against them or they have something against me. In various places, scripture puts the onus on me to make peace. You can make the application to yourselves. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

A healthy church is committed to discipleship

Paul's expectation is that we all grow towards and attain the unity of the faith, that we all come to the same understanding of the faith. So, at some point along the road, you will all agree with me! Won't that be wonderful?

Actually, what really happens is that we all (including me) become increasingly like Jesus. As it says in verse 13, we are to “[attain] to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” That is our destiny. In Romans 8.29, Paul writes, “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.

God wants us all to bear the family traits. We often say of siblings that they are so alike. I can't think of a better complement to hear than this: he is so like Jesus. Now, that would be wonderful!

This wonderful transformation doesn't just happen as we sleep. It's not something conferred on us only when we get to Heaven. We attain the transformation by living this life as disciples of Jesus.

What is a disciple? The Greek word that we translate as “disciple” means “learner” or “apprentice.” In Jewish tradition, a rabbi would call apprentices (just like Jesus did). The disciples aimed to become like their rabbi: to think like him, to speak like him and to act like him. Eventually, they would become sufficiently competent and full of godly character that they would be able to call and train their own disciples. And that is what Jesus tells his disciples to do at the end of Matthew's gospel, “... go and make disciples of all nations … teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.

Verse 14 warns us of the danger of not being a disciple: we will remain spiritual infants; we will be unable to navigate the storms that threaten the Christian life; we may be easily fooled by unscrupulous teachers and their teachings.

Discipleship is the remedy for such problems. Jesus says, in John 8, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

In the early days, Methodists were derided as “Enthusiasts” because they were serious about discipleship. Discipleship is not only for the more enthusiastic among us. It's what being a Christian is all about; it's about being and doing like Jesus. If only we deserved the same derision in these times...

The first two points have emphasised unity. The next two points say something about diversity. Both unity and diversity are important for a healthy church.

A healthy church has gifted leaders

Christ has not left us to fathom out discipleship for ourselves. If you want to know what a disciple looks like, you could read through Ephesians. But to help us live as disciples, Christ has appointed gifted people to help us along the way. 1 Corinthians 12 has a slightly different list from the one here in Ephesians, but we'll just consider the Ephesians list for now.

The first thing to say is that, in my view, none of the ministries mentioned in verse 11 have become redundant, although they may be in different form from what some people imagine them to be. Christ still gives people such as these to his church because we have not yet “all reach[ed] unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God...

In the wider church there is the apostle.

Some say that the apostolic ministry died out with the original 12. However, there are others even in the New Testament who are referred to as apostles but were not in the original twelve: James, the Lord's brother, and Barnabas for example.

Post-biblical apostles, like the original however-many, establish new churches and lay strong foundations; they serve as ministers to other ministers and provide an informal leadership that goes beyond the local church, and they have a recognisable anointing for that. I know of people who function in this way. They may not call themselves apostles but that is the role they seem to operate in. You might consider John Wesley as an example of a post-biblical apostle.

In the wider church and also in the local church, there is the evangelist and the prophet.

The evangelist is gifted in presenting the gospel and leading others to faith in Christ, or may be in helping them along in their journey to faith. We may think of great names like Billy Graham, or perhaps the ordinary person who led you Christ. We are all called to be witnesses but some of us have the extra anointing that makes us evangelists. I know some people like that.

In the New Testament, a prophet is someone who is in tune with the Spirit and is able to hear what God is saying to the church now and to convey a living, active word for today. On a cautionary note, no such prophet, if genuine, would ever deliver a word contrary to Scripture, or claim something to be in addition to Scripture. A New Testament prophet is not the same as an Old Testament prophet.  I know some people with prophetic gifting, and I often pray that my preaching may have a prophetic edge to it. The last thing I want to do is provide nice services with no challenge in them.

In the local church particularly, there is the pastor/teacher.

These people care for the local flock: leading them to safe pasture, keeping them from straying, rescuing those who do stray, defending them from attack, making sure they have what they need to stay healthy and to grow.

Christ gives us leaders. A healthy church acknowledges its leaders, allows them to lead, gets behind them and follows their lead.

For many years, the church has expected all ministry to come through its one, ordained minister. But that's too much for any one person; we need the variety of people that Christ gives as gifts to his church. And, according to Paul, it isn't their job to do everything for us. He says they have a two-fold purpose:
  • to build up the body of Christ by helping us with our discipleship, and 
  • to equip all of us to do the work that's needed, which leads us to our last point: 

A healthy church gets on with serving

We'll be illustrating the 1 Corinthians 12 passage for this final part of the sermon. To help us do that, I've brought a visual aid (me!).

The human body is one united whole but it's made up of many different parts with different functions, directed by the head. For example I have two hands but they have very different skills. My left hand is very good at holding nails, for instance, and my right hand is quite good at wielding a hammer. [aside: more visual aids, a six-inch nail and an engineer's hammer.]

But what if my left hand decides it wants to do something else? Say it wants to wield the hammer and makes the right hand hold the nail. Well, I'd probably end up injuring myself, bending the nail and damaging the thing I was trying to nail down. Just think how bad it would be if my left foot said “Let me hold the nail!”

My right hand is very gifted but it can't knock a nail in unless the left hand is there to help. My right hand depends on my left hand doing its job. My left hand, though less skilled, is no less important or necessary than my right hand. To function well, my hands have to work together in cooperation, each of them doing the thing they're good at.

Just so with the church. Christ is the head of the church, the church is his body on Earth. Each one of us is an important part of the church. We have different callings and different skills.

I have a friend who, as a young man, felt himself pressured by people at his Brethren assembly towards preaching (because that's what men aspire to, don't they?) but the idea of standing up and speaking in public horrified him. He's since found other ways to serve that he's better suited for, and are still important for the witness of the church, including serving as a Street Pastor in Newcastle – a role he really loves.

As Paul says, “Now you are the body of Christ and each of you is a part of it.” It's important that we each find out what our calling is and that we do the work we are designed for. There are no age limits for service, there's no gender discrimination, there's no racial barrier. We each have a role to play. It's essential that we play it!

In a healthy body, each part performs its own work for the good of the whole. Do you know what your calling and gift is? Do you know the work of service you're being equipped for?

In Conclusion 

A healthy church expresses both unity and diversity.
  • We must be deeply committed to the Spirit who binds us together. 
  • We need to be enthusiastic disciples, growing together towards Christ-like maturity. 
  • We need leaders with a variety of gifts, and to allow them to equip us for service and build us up in discipleship. 
  • We need to find our individual places in the body and to play our parts in full. 
One final point: healthy things grow. If we are to grow rather than fizzle out we must be a healthy church.

We started with a question. Let me leave you with two more:
  • Are we a healthy church?
  • If not, how do you think we become one?

Sunday, October 12, 2014

A Meditation on God

Let me speak of God,
Tell you what I know.

Distinctly three
Yet indivisibly One,
Blended in perfect,
Mutual submission;
Perfect harmony,
Perfect love.

All-powerful in creation.
One God:
Father, Son, Spirit;
Pattern for our three-fold meld:
Body, soul, spirit.
Source of our diversity:
Adam and Eve.
The Light whose image we reflect.

Beyond compare
With mankind
Or any other being;
Deserving of unfeigned reverence.
Set apart,
Yet drawn alongside in compassion.

Beyond reproach;
In justice, perfect.
Yet slow to anger
And abounding in love,
Full of grace and mercy.

Exalted over all,
Yet stooping to dwell within
His precious children
By his Spirit;
Closer than breath.

Filling the universe,
Unbounded by time;
Yet expressed most clearly
To transient, limited minds
In the Son.

All-wise, all-knowing;
Complete, entire;
Yet seeking the company,
Of finite, broken man,
Lifting us to his knee.

When I speak of God,
I tell only what I know,
Or only what I think I know.
Far greater than the sum
Of all my thought and knowledge,
He may yet prove deficient
What I think I know.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Divine Encounters


Rev 1:12-18
Isaiah 6:1-8
Luke 5:1-10


In our Old Testament reading, we read Isaiah's account of his personal encounter with God.  It was one of those encounters that was extremely hard to ignore, one of those events that burnt itself indelibly into his memory, a life-changing event.  He's waited until chapter six to tell us but he can't hold it in any longer.  He can tell us exactly when it was and can describe it in vivid detail.

'In the year that King Uzziah died,' he tells us, giving us a fact that enables us to set the historical and cultural context of the event.  The nation of the Hebrews was by that time already split into two, with the kingdom of Israel in the north and the kingdom of Judah in the south.  Uzziah, was a king of Judah; he died in about 740 BC and was succeeded by Jotham, his son.

Under these two kings, the kingdom of Judah enjoyed a time of great prosperity and luxury.  But the whole region was experiencing growing pressure and unrest because of the expanding Assyrian empire.  The people of Judah were soon to see the northern kingdom of Israel fall, leaving them isolated and alone. 

But, in the year that king Uzziah died, Isaiah saw his vision of the LORD. 

The Holiness of God

The thing that struck on Isaiah's mind the most was the holiness of God.  God is described as 'Holy, holy, holy' by the seraphs, as if to bring clear emphasis to that fact.  The holiness of God was something that marked Isaiah's ministry forever after.  God is called 'The Holy one of Israel' 25 times in the book of Isaiah, a title used only twice in the rest of Scripture.

Isaiah really wants us to grasp this point: God is holy!

'Holy' is a concept quite alien to our modern culture.  One dictionary definition that I've found helpful is 'set apart, not for ordinary use.'

For example, we have the Holy Bible.  As Christians, we consider this book to be different from other books.  Some of us perhaps keep it set apart in pride of place next to our favourite armchair or at our bedside rather than sticking it on a shelf with all our other books.  We read it with reverence, allowing its words to speak into our lives.  We meditate upon it, and look to it for guidance.

This room we probably think of as a holy place.  It's not for ordinary use; it's a special place where we worship God.  We can be offended if people behave in here in ways we consider inappropriate.

A dictionary definition is useful but it doesn't really encompass all the Bible means in saying that God is holy.  It doesn't really convey the full meaning in Isaiah's encounter. 

Yes, God is set apart, he is altogether different from us, altogether greater, so utterly transcendent that we can only begin to imagine what he is like.  We don't really have the words to describe God's holiness.  But let's try . . .

God is glorious in his holiness.  The seraphs call out that the whole earth is full of his glory.

We can't think of God's holiness without becoming aware of his righteousness.  Isaiah writes in chapter five “... the holy God will be proved holy by his righteous acts.” 

Isaiah saw God as terrifyingly holy!  I suspect Isaiah was shown only as much as he could bear!

God is holy, and his Holy Spirit is here with us today. 

What does that fact do for you?

The Problem with the People

Isaiah was confronted with God in all his holiness.  In stark contrast to that, he became fully aware of his own sinfulness. 

Look at his response to the vision: “Woe to me! I am ruined!  For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”

At this point, Isaiah is in dread of losing his life.  He realises he has nowhere to hide.

First, he acknowledges his own problem: 'I am a man of unclean lips.'

Then he acknowledges the wider problem of his nation: 'I live among a people of unclean lips.'

'Unclean lips.'  What could he mean by this?  It can't simply mean that he used a lot of bad language . . .  In chapter 29:13, Isaiah records God as saying “These people come near to me with their mouth and honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.  Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught.”

As far as spirituality was concerned, it looks like Isaiah and his people were just going through the motions.  They turned up at the temple, did the formalities, but it was just the practice of empty religion. 

They said one thing and did another. 

I think this is the sense in which their lips were unclean.  It's as though they were lying to God.  Their lives didn't reflect what they claimed to believe.  They were talking the talk but they weren't walking the walk.

I wonder if this is typical of prosperous times.  Today, we see the church in decline in our prosperous land.  Church-goers are labelled as a boring bunch of hypocrites who offer nothing different, and religion is seen as irrelevant. 

Interestingly, God seems to think religion is irrelevant too!  You see, God doesn't want our religion. He wants our hearts. 

I'm not talking about being sentimental about our faith.  In our modern world, we use the word heart to mean the seat of our emotions.  So, I might say to my wife, 'I love you with all my heart.' 

In Biblical times, the bowels were thought of as the seat of the emotions – and it makes more sense really: we talk about having butterflies in our stomachs when we get nervous about something.  So, to be scriptural, I should tell my wife that I love her with all my guts!

In the Bible, the heart refers to the very core of our being, the essential us.  God wants all of each one of us, right to the very core of our being.  He wants our whole lives, our total devotion, our all-out commitment.  As God says through Jeremiah, 'You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.'

God wants people who are holy, who consider themselves set apart for him, who are not for ordinary use.  To borrow words from the prophet Micah, God wants people who will do justly, love mercy, and walk in humble relationship with him. 

Without this, our religious practices are without value or meaning before God.  And, 'without holiness,' Scripture tells us, 'no-one shall see the LORD.'

Are you walking the walk?  Does God have all of you?

Salvation and Service

Exposed by the holiness of God, what was Isaiah to do?  He couldn't think of anything.  He's seen what God is really like and has nothing to say in his own defence. 

But then, Isaiah sees a seraph coming towards him with a live coal taken from the altar.

Now, the altar is another holy thing.  Exodus 29:36b-37 says, " ... the altar will be most holy, and whatever touches it will be holy." NIV

So the seraph brought a holy, burning coal from the holy altar and touched Isaiah's unclean lips, transferring holiness in the process, setting Isaiah apart and taking his guilt away. 

The live fire on the altar speaks of a current sacrifice, an atonement for Isaiah's sin.  It seems that God was ready for Isaiah.

Imagine the transformation!  There you are before a holy God, condemned because of all that is wrong with you and suddenly you're forgiven and cleansed.  What would your response be?

In our New Testament reading, we saw Peter –  impetuous, impulsive Peter – who's had cause to spend some time listening to Jesus.  And in reward for his time, Jesus brings about a miraculous catch of fish. 

Well, Peter suddenly catches on to something.  This man Jesus, his words, his power – he must be a holy man!  And Peter is only too aware of his own condition. 

“Please go away,” he says to Jesus, “I'm a sinful man.”  But Jesus tells him not to be afraid.  He has a job for Peter: he is to become part of Jesus' team.  And so Peter leaves his livelihood and follows Jesus.

I've experienced something like it in my own life.  A number of years ago I went through a time of clinical depression (which God brought me through, but that's another story) and for a long time after I was no longer engaged in any sort of ministry, whereas before I'd been very involved. 

I lay fallow, if you like, for about 10 years and, to be honest, I found myself somewhat adrift and somewhat lax in my lifestyle. 

Then came the renewal of my call to preach.  I took a local arrangement service at my home church and was hugely encouraged that I was hearing a call from God.  But as I began to respond I found myself bombarded by memories of the things I'd done wrong in the past and the things that were wrong with me at the time – a whole pile of evidence for why I was unfit for service. 

It is not a pleasant experience to have God deal with you in this way.  But I'm so glad he did.

  • God confronted me not to demolish me but so that he could turn me around and make me useful.  He was refining me and dealing with the things that would stop him from working through me. 
  • When Jesus met Peter it was not to destroy him but to turn him around and work with him. 
  • When the risen, ascended Christ revealed himself to John on Patmos it was not to slay him but to give him a message of hope and encouragement for a persecuted church.
  • When God confronted Isaiah it was not to condemn him but to change his heart and give him a mission.

And if you are hearing any challenge today, God is not after your downfall: he wants to transform you and then work with and through you.

And so Isaiah hears God's question: Whom shall I send?  Who will go for us? 

Now, God has Isaiah's heart, not just his lip-service.  He doesn't yet know what the mission is but it doesn't matter and he can't hold back:  “I'm here!  Send me! I'll go for you!”

There's a great sadness in the mission that Isaiah was given.  He was to proclaim the truth to his people.  He was to deliver a severe warning that judgement was imminent.  But right from the outset he was told that the people would not hear, that judgement would come and the nation would go into exile.  But he was also given the promise of eventual recovery.

You see, God's longing in sending his word to us is that we will repent, turn our lives around and be restored to fellowship with him.  But if we reject the message, if we fail to heed the warning, all that remains is judgement.

I wonder if the Methodist church is on its final warning.  People have been telling us for years of the need to change but still we plough on towards extinction.  Will there be a remnant?  Unless God has our hearts I fear there will not be...

Final Challenge

If you find yourself confronted with God's holiness today, what will your response be?  Will you run away?  Or will you allow him to refine you and change you?

If you hear God's challenge and call to service today, what will your response be?

Does God have your heart?