Living Members – Apostolic Teaching – Group Study Questions

Read Acts 2:42-47

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word ‘devotion’?

Read the following passages, and distill their core elements of Apostolic teaching

Are there any aspects of Apostolic teaching that is not covered by these verses?

What are they, and where do you find them in Scripture?

To what extent is it possible to accept apostolic teaching in an intellectual sense only?

Go around the room and give your definition of the word ‘devoted’

Does your definition of ‘devoted’ describe your approach to learning from Scripture?

What might account for the ‘gap’ between your definition of devotion and your practice of being devoted to apostolic teaching?

What would have to happen in your church community to bring this sort of devotion to greater expression?

In closing: Spend some time in prayer asking God to help you work toward greater devotion to apostolic teaching in your church

Feel free to leave comments as feedback…

Living Members: Why Apostolic Teaching Matters

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I learned to cook over an open fire when I was am member of the scouting movement. Later in life I developed a taste for Italian. Then, when Leonie and I were engaged, we did some fundraising by making Mexican Dinners for several couple at a time: we did the work, they enjoyed the meal, the school received the money.

These days, things get more interesting because I experiment a little. I have this apron which says “Real Men Don’t Use Recipes”. It reminds me of the first time I baked bread: When you bake bread you use a little salt. Typically, a teaspoon. The problem was that I read ‘tsp’ as ‘tablespoon’, so the bread came out tasting more like cooked play dough. I still made the family eat it. It was OK: They stopped drinking after a few days.

It is important to follow the recipe, right? A good recipe combines the finely balanced relationship between all the essential ingredients. You follow the recipe well, and you end up with a feast!

Apostolic Teaching

What if there was a recipe for a living church? A healthy church? A church that was like a good meal, or a feast? What would the ingredients be? While I’d like to avoid the idea of a ‘cookbook’ for the church, it just so happens we read about those ‘healthy church’ ingredients here in Acts 2.

And the first ingredient Paul mentions is found in v.42

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” (Acts 2:42, NIV)

Before we get to what that teaching was, we need to identify who the Apostles were. On occasions, the New Testament uses the term ‘apostle’ in a wider sense to refer to someone who is sent as a special messenger. Typically, however, Scripture typically uses the term in a very narrow sense to refer to a small group of people who

  1. Had been personally taught by Jesus
  2. Were eyewitnesses of the resurrection

This is critical: because the Bible places great importance on the teaching of these men. And it does so because God wants us to know that their teaching has not been changed over time. Like witnesses in a courtroom, the teaching of the apostles is totally reliable and absolutely trustworthy.

So, if apostles are no longer with us, how can we be devoted to their teaching? We do that by reading their writings, as they are recorded in the Nee Testament. We may not have those men, but we do have their words.

There are many examples of apostolic teaching in the New Testament. Here are some examples:

The Apostle Peter, speaking on the day of Pentecost, preaches the apostolic Gospel:

““…Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.” (Acts 2:22–24, NIV)

Or we have the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.” (1 Corinthians 15:3–5, NIV)

Or the Apostle Paul again in 2 Corinthians 5

“…if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. … God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:14–21, NIV)

Even if we consider the truths expressed in those three examples, we cover such themes as: Jesus is True Man and True God. Jesus Christ was crucified for sin. He became sin for his people. He was raised from the dead on the third day. His death reconciled people to the Father.

What we find is that the apostles were tasked by God Himself to communicate core truths like these to the church and to the world.

We see this in what the Apostle Paul writes to Timothy:

“… the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.” (2 Timothy 2:2, NIV)

Some years later, and after the New Testament witness had been settled, such core Apostolic truths were formulated into statements of faith which were used as teaching tools by the church. Perhaps the most well known of these is the Apostles Creed (c.325 AD):

I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth
And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
Born of the virgin Mary
Suffered under Pontius Pilate
Was crucified dead and buried
Having suffered the torments of hell
The third day He rose again from the dead
He ascended into heaven
And is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,
From there he shall come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit
The Holy catholic church
The communion of the saints;
The forgiveness of sins
The resurrection of the body
and the life everlasting

So, we can say that being devoted to apostles’ teaching involves committing to a body of truth. That is widely recognised. What is not always equally recognised is that being devoted to apostolic teaching is more than adopting a body of truth or giving assent to it. There’s more to being a Christian than simple working your way down the apostolic truth checklist:

Believe God the Father, Creator – check

Believe Jesus is his son – check

Accept the virgin birth – check      … and so on.

There’s more to being a Christian than agreeing to truth about Jesus: Christians are not only informed about Jesus, they are transformed by Jesus.  This is because being committed to apostolic teaching demands a faith commitment to Jesus Christ.

  • Apostolic teaching says Jesus is the Son of God: he demands your allegiance.
  • Apostolic teaching says Jesus died on the cross for sin. You are a sinner, and you cannot save yourself: You need to respond to his sacrificial death.
  • Apostolic teaching said Jesus rose from the dead: you need to bow the knee before his victorious majesty.
  • Apostolic teaching says Jesus lives in people of faith through his Spirit. He empowers them for life and obedience: you need to believe that and live in his power.
  • Apostolic teaching says he’s coming to judge the living and the dead: so, you’ll want to meet him as your Saviour and Redeemer, and not as the one who says ‘depart from me, I never knew you.”
  • Teaching is not just about knowledge. It is also about personal faith, trust, and belief.

So, this NT church devoted itself to the apostles’ teaching, not merely to know about Jesus, but to grow in him. To express their faith in him. To give expression to their relationship with him. Consequently, if we want to be a living church, faithfulness to apostolic teaching is going to be an essential ingredient of who we are and what we do.

As John Stott has written,

Fidelity to the apostles’ teaching is the very first mark of an authentic church.

Devoted Themselves

Once again, have a look at v.42:

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” (Acts 2:42, NIV)

The way the sentence runs shows us they were also devoted to the fellowship, to the breaking of prayer, and to prayer. Today, of course we’re talking about being devoted to the apostles’ teaching.

Let’s think about that word ‘devoted’. It can have a range of meanings:

To adhere to something: to stick with something

To persist in – despite any difficulty, inconvenience or opposition

To be faithful to – like to a person, a spouse, to have relational integrity

To hold fast to something – the opposite of getting blown about by the wind

In each of those examples we can envisage a threat, or a challenge, or simply pressure or temptation to let go, to go soft, not to bother. But the New Testament church would have none of that. Despite great pressure, opposition from the religious leaders in Jerusalem and persecution by the Sanhedrin they nevertheless devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching. They adhered to what the apostles taught. They remained faithful to the message of Jesus.

Such devotion was a primary means of declaring their faith in Jesus. As they sat under the apostles teaching they learned more about their Saviour. They understood more about their mission, their calling as his people. They had a clearer vision of what they were called to do.

Today, we need to look at the church, and consider whether our lack of capacity to engage with our world, or to answer h growing numbers of militant atheists, or simply to know how to share our faith stems from a lack of devotion to the apostolic Gospel. We need to ask whether some of growing disconnect between what we believe and how we live might be attributed to our lack of devotion to apostolic teaching. Conversely, if we want our church to be healthy, wholesome, primed and pumping with Jesus’ life, we need to rediscover, recommit to, and at very least, passionate reaffirm our devotion to apostolic teaching.

Challenge of credo

Here’s why it’s important: Last week we considered a church which is radiant with the risen life of Jesus, and holy and blameless in his love. Today all of us must ask: do we really want to see our church become radiant like that? The question may be more critical than what we realise. Consider what happens when a church loosens its grip on apostolic teaching:

  • Children won’t learn about Jesus
  • People won’t hear about Jesus or celebrate the significance of his death, rising and rule
  • The church will have no witness, and nothing to offer to the world around it
  • Within a generation or two, the church will either die, or be gathered around some false cause or idol

Who would want that?

So, once again, the question: Are we hungry for apostolic truth? Are we hungry to see our church shine in this truth? Are we hungry to learn? Then you need to be devoted to apostolic teaching as we find it in Scripture. We will need to stick with it, adhere to it, be faithful to it, hold fast to it. And that  will require recommitment, change and endurance.

If our devotion to the apostles’ teaching is to grow, then each of us needs to ask some questions:

  • How can I place myself in the best contexts to learn the apostolic Gospel?
  • How can I help others understand more of about apostolic teaching?
  • Where are the best places to get together with others to encourage them, support them and find for myself the necessary support to follow apostolic teaching?

You’ll note I am talking about contexts with others, because the best growth does not come on your own, or with a book, or via downloaded audio, or through video on your technology. In Acts 2 this devotion was expressed together, in community. And while I will spend more time on the idea of fellowship next week, allow me just to note how in the Greek word for ‘on your own’ is ἴδιος “idios.” Now, all you have to do is change one letter at the end, and what do you have? That’s right: “idiot”. Enough said, maybe. The Ancient greeks knew that a person on their own was not a good thing. They knew that a person cannot learn or grow effectively on their own. They pretty much were saying, ‘only an idiot would do that…”

Now, that doesn’t mean you should never have a personal quiet time or never do personal bible reading. To say would be ridiculous. But it does mean you can’t rely on your own personal intake of information to grow the way the Lord wants you to grow. So, we are going to be devoted to apostolic teaching, we will need to consider how to do that in community, together.

So: back to the question: what are the best contexts for you to meet with others and learn together how to follow Jesus?

Well, it’s contexts like today: worshipping together, sitting under the word, praying together. It’s Home Groups, where you can process material from Sunday, where you can pray together more intimately, where you can do life and share a meal and wrestle with apostolic truths together.

Here at Gateway Community Church we have three healthy home groups here at GCC. We have enough people for three or four more. Are you part of one? You should be! It’s one of the best ways we can grow in our devotion to teaching. If you opt out of things like home groups, or loosen your commitment to church, you weaken the church and you weaken yourself.

In addition to our weekly meetings and home groups, we as a church also need to find other teaching contexts to deepen our understanding of apostolic teaching. We could consider, for example

  • GCC 101 – where we can consider some of the broader themes of apostolic teaching in Scripture and explore their impact on faith, life and mission
  • Picking up a few units of the Reformed Theological College’s excellent raft of off distance eduction. These are tremendous ways to explore scriptural depth with theological rigour
  • Improving our processes of discipleship, where we do more to develop people’s gifts, where we empower passionate preaching, and develop contexts which clarify and affirm apostolic teaching

The reality is, Jesus built his church on the foundation of apostolic teaching. The better the foundation, the more durable and radiant the structure. May God give us the grace to rise to the challenge and learn from our glorious Saviour as we do so.

What Jesus Thinks About the Church – Study Group Questions

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Read Ephesians 5:21-33

Click this link to re-read the sermon 

Discuss

  • To what extent do you think our consumer driven culture interferes with how we connect with our local church?

Read Ephesians 5:25b-27

“…Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.

  • What factors influenced Jesus’ decision to love the church? Find passages elsewhere in Ephesians to confirm your answer
  • What are the key implications of Jesus’ love for the church, and how does this impact you?
  • In Ephesians 5:25-27, is the emphasis more negative or positive, and what does this mean for
    • How we view the church?
    • How we engage with the church?
  • Looking back over your life, who has shown you the greatest example of what it means to love the church?
  • What are three things your local church could do differently to bring this powerful picture to greater expression?
  • Spend some time praying for what you have just discussed, asking God to work in you to bring these things about.

What Jesus Thinks About the Church

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“…Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” (Ephesians 5:25–27, NIV)

Consider this question: Are you are worshipper or a consumer?

When you go to your local shopping centre, you are a consumer. You buy your coffee from Jamaica Blue, your Burger from Grill’d, Sushi from the Sushi Palace, and clothes form Kathmandu. You are the consumer, they are the providers. Our culture revolves around this dynamic.

Part of the challenge for us today is that we may be tempted to see our own church the way we see the local shopping centre: as a provider of services. You go to that church for Sunday worship, youth programs, children’s programs, and home groups. In one sense, it’s understandable: these programs are how we connect with our local church community. It can also be a problem: the more we think this way, the more we cease being worshippers and start being consumers, and we start to choose church because of what it can do for us.

Imagine if we chose our spouse like that: for what she can do for us. Imagine the night we go out on our first date we saying something like this:

OK, so here’s the deal. I’m looking for someone who can cook like Masterchef, look like Scarlett Johansen, get the housework done, parent the children, walk the dog, decorate the home, and snuggle up like (use your imagination) … so if that’s you, I reckon this will work fine. But if the day comes when a large portion of that is not happening, you need to know that I will be looking around. My season of love will have come to an end, and I’ll be entering into a season of someone else…

Guys, you say that to your lady, how’s that going to work for you? Even so, many people seem to approach the church that way. And shouldn’t be surprised to find them dissatisfied and frustrated with the church. But let us not focus on what some people might think. Let’s consider what Jesus thinks about the church. This section in Ephesians demonstrates this very clearly. It’s written about husband and wife relationships, sure, but the model for those relationships is how Jesus views the church. So what is that?

Christ loves the church

The short answer: Christ loves his church!

“…Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” (Ephesians 5:25–27, NIV)

Do you say that when the subject of church comes up: “I love my church!”?

Christ does! And get this: He doesn’t start with what the church does, or even what he wants from his church, he doesn’t make demands or set up a program. He just commits to loving it, straight up. At the very least, it is a wonderful statement of God’s sovereign grace. But before we dive into the love Christ has for his church, let’s make sure we know what we’re referring to when we use the word ‘church’.

When Christ loves the church, we know he’s not talking about a building, or even an organisation. He is talking about people. His body. Christians together. Christ loves the people he has called into his grace. He loves this community. He loves this new society. He loves this new humanity. He loves his church because through it he will announce his grand plan to the world:

“His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Ephesians 3:10–11, NIV)

Christ loves the church: he has huge plans for it. Plans that are greater than anything we can imagine. Through his church he will announce his great plan of grace and restoration. Not just to the rulers of the day: to Abbott, Obama, Merkel – but to the spiritual forces of our age. Every power. Every ruler. Every authority. Jesus is saying to these powers: you see this church? You see the community of my people? You might ignore them and write them off, but by my resurrection power through them I am going to restore my creation. You’d best bow the knee and come on board…

Can you see how when we see the church merely as a provider of services, we easily miss Christ’s true intention for it. And if we don’t understand his plan, we’re never going to understand our purpose.

Chuck Colson has said

We cannot understand the church without seeing her as part of the sweeping story the Bible tells, and we cannot be faithful Christians without affirming God’s central role for the church – the living body of Christ. The church is a reclamation project, reestablishing God’s rule in the midst of a world still mostly under Satan’s sway. [The Faith, p.148]

No doubt about it: Christ loves the church! The question we want to answer is how do we see him put this love into practice? We see the answer unfold in Ephesians 5:25 “he gave himself up for her” Right at the outset, Christ’s love is connected  to his death, to the cross. Think of the importance of those words. The reality is this: You won’t understand the church until you come to terms with the price Jesus paid to love it. The eternal Son, through whom everything was created, counted his glory as nothing, was rejected, suffered beatings and scourgings, was nailed to a cross to pay for the sin and to bear the punishment of undeserving people. That was the price he paid to love his church. The redemption he won was more costly than we can ever understand.

This redeeming love comes to expression in two key phrases in Ephesians 5:25-27:

First: He gave himself up for her to make her holy  Negatively, something had to be fixed, and that was the sin and rebellion of humanity. In Christ’s death he paid for all their unholiness. He cleansed them on his cross. As he bore their punishment he absorbed into his perfect being the wickedness of their heart, all their open rebellion to God’s loving care. In the acts of sacrificing himself up for this church, he separated his people from a rebellious and fallen humanity. He made them holy through his blood.

Christ did not chose these people because they were holy. They were dead in transgressions and sin (Eph 2:1). They were rebels. Rather, he made this plan, he chose them before the creation of the world, to make them holy. He fulfilled his plan in time, as v.25 reminds us, through the washing with water through the word: shorthand for the preaching of the word and baptism. What he planned in eternity he brought about in time because of his love.

So through his death he made them holy. He fixed what was broken.

“…Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word,” (Ephesians 5:25–26, NIV)

Secondly, and positively, he wanted his risen life to shine gloriously through them!

“…Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her … to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” (Ephesians 5:25–27, NIV)

Christ did not love his church for what she already was (because she was not much). He loved his church because of what she could become, because of how his grace would transform her. He will transform that church into a glorious, beautiful and radiant bride who resembles his true intention for humanity. He will remove the warts. Surgically treat the blemishes and stains. Apply his grace to all the wrinkles. And she would be gorgeous!

It will be such a beautiful change, that people will look at this new community, at this church, as say ‘hey, that’s a beautiful community! That’s just what life with others should be like! I love what’s going on there!

God always had this plan for his church. When his people were camped on the border of Canaan, the Lord told old Israel why he was showering them with his love, and it turns out to be a very similar picture:

“Then Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself…

[That is: I love my people and expend myself to rescue them]

…Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’…”” (Exodus 19:3–6, NIV)

Something had to be fixed: So in His death He cleansed her from her sin and rebellion. Something needed to be brought to life: He took up residence in her to make her beautiful and glorious and beaming with resurrection life! Isn’t that a beautiful picture?

Have you ever heard that platitude “God wants us to be all he has planned for us to be”. Truth is, sometimes I think that sort of language is a bit soppy. A too bit chick flick for reality. But the glorious picture of Ephesians 5 is no platitude! It has real substance! This is the ‘all’ Christ wants for his church: He wants it to be a brilliant community.

Gracious.

Open.

Inclusive.

Compassionate.

Creative.

Friendly.

Life giving.

Grace breathing.

Glorious.

Radiant.

Beaming with life!

This is what he wants for us! Right here in our church! Right here at 63 Spencer St, Cockburn Central!

He wants us to overflow with his life and love! And size? Size does not matter!

Love matters!

Grace matters!

Life matters!

Wow!

Now, here’s the question: Do you love the church like Jesus loves the church? Not so much because of what it is, but because of what he wants it to be?

Do you love the church like Jesus loves the church?

It’s a critical question because there’s a confronting implication: you are either working for that purpose, or working against it.

You might think you’re OK sitting on the fence. Like when you go to McDonalds you can decide pickle or no pickle. You might think you can come and go, and take a bit of this and a bit of that. But here’s the challenge: That ‘take what you like’ approach is not true Christianity. It is not following Jesus. It is not biblical church membership.

We look at Christ, and we see what he was prepared to do to love his church. How he suffered and died and bore all their sin. How he did that to create a glorious new community. How he has drawn you into that, and how more than anything he wants you to see and taste the love he has for this church. He wants you not only to be part of that church, but to love it, and seek its blessing.

Today, he is calling you to be committed to this church, to his church. To long for it to be radiant and beautiful and glorious and overflowing with love and life and grace and hope!

Is that what you want for your church?

Some here are working very hard to see the church become radiant, but some are on the sidelines. God is saying: you cannot sit on the sidelines. You cannot stay on the fence. Why not? Think of Jesus. Jesus didn’t stay on the sidelines, or sit on the fence. Jesus didn’t hold back. Jesus was not prepared to toss in a few coins. He went all out. He went to the Cross, out of love for his church. He did this because he could see a better day! He looked forward with joy to what his beloved church would become!

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:1–3, NIV)

Christ loves his church! He is calling you to have a love like his, to give yourself for what the church must become, not for what it is.

In the next weeks we will see how he is calling you to commit to biblical teaching, the apostolic Gospel; to fellowship, celebrating what we have in common; to engage in compassionate and merciful sharing; to give your heart to worship, more than what you have been; to be witnesses and signposts of His grace, and to work hard to build a church of gracious, winsome, redemptive character.

Jesus loves his church. As we see the depth and cost of his love for us, how could we do anything less?

New Series: Living Members

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This week we start a new series at Gateway examining some of the core activities of the church, the body of Christ.

The first in the series explores Christ’s own views on the church: a wonderful comfort and a timely challenge for Christians today.

The sermons that follow explore some common territory in Acts 2 and 4. Examining the New Testament church will help us assess our current ministries, corporate priorities and individual responses.

My prayer is that this next series will encourage you to deepen your engagement with your church and your love for Jesus.

Grace and peace,

Dave

Deep – Confused – Group Study Questions

You can also refer to the sermon text


Discuss
  • Has there ever been a time when you’ve been really confused about what God is doing in your life? Feel free to share with the group
  • To what extent do we expect following Jesus to be easy? What factors might be adding to this expectation?
  • In 2 Corinthians 12 Paul tells us about his thorn in the flesh. Views vary widely as to what this might have been, but there’s no doubt about its intensity. Besides the direct revelation of God, what Scriptures might have been a particular encouragement to Paul?
  • “We are settling for a Christianity that revolves around catering to ourselves when the central message of Christianity is about abandoning ourselves and following Jesus” – David Platt
    • What can we do to avoid the temptation to make worship serve our own ends? What would you say is the biblical focus of corporate worship?
In closing: spend some time praying through the issues you have discussed. Find a way to express your prayers in specific commitments to action. Covenant together to do what you have prayed for and discussed.

Deep – Confused

Psalm 73:25 (NIV)

Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.


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Additional reading: Psalm 73

There are three words which will make the strongest man weak in the knees; the most courageous man slink away like a wounded dog; the most upbeat man queuing up for a Zoloft script; and Dwayne Johnson wannabes crying like a baby. These three words will either be words of life or they will be words of death:

“Some Assembly Required”

Maybe it’s just my learning style – which in educational parlance is ‘when all else fails, read the instructions’, when I have to assemble something, I just look at the bits and pieces, line ‘em up, and get into it. But then, as my wife knows very well, there will also be tears.

One particular event – the desk – comes to mind. The instructions were written in Ingrish. Originally Chinese, then translated into Swahili, and then to English. Of sorts. The desk was an Officeworks item, and I was putting the top on the desk, and it looked all symmetrical, so I guessed it didn’t matter which way it went on, right? Unhappily, it was asymmetrical in one tiny place. And that stopped the  thing from going onto the rest of the frame… So I am huffing and puffing and kind of thankful that these flat packs do not come with their own blood pressure monitor, and we’re living in Queensland, and it’s frightfully humid, and it just should not be this difficult!!

To say that I was CONFUSED by the experience would have been delightfully G-Rated, but totally unlike what actually transpired…

Maybe we think that faith should be more like a flat pack: You have the instructions. You read and follow the instructions. So you should get what you spent your money on.

Confused

Many Christians, perhaps unawares, operate like this: I go to church. I identify as a Christian. I pray. So, life should not be this complicated, and the fact that it is this complicated leaves me pretty confused.

We all know people who have gotten stuck by life circumstances: they follow Jesus, but things don’t seem to work out the way they expected. So in their confusion they decide to unfriend and unfollow God.

Such confusion is not only an individual thing. It can affect communities. Attendances might be inconsistent. Finances can get tight. It can be a struggle to find people to serve in different aspects of ministry. It confuses us… it just should not be this difficult, right?? Let’s be open about that. But one thing we should not do is think it is too much of a struggle and  give up. We must not let our confusion or the discomfort of our situation determine our response.

My guess is this has only become a significant issue for the church over the last 200 years. The more we have modernised, become affluent, the more health and standards of living have improved the more we expect our faith to make life easier. Everything else is so much easier than it may have been for our grandparents. We have instant information via the internet. We have instant hot water. We have instant light. We arrange doctor’s appointments via a phone app. And we expect following Jesus to be much the same.

But if things are tough we should neither be confused nor surprised, for plenty of Christ’s people before us have shared that experience before us. Read the Scriptures however and you will that is not the experience of even the most faithful of God’s people. The writer of Psalm 73 could identify with our confusion:

“But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from common human burdens; they are not plagued by human ills.” (Psalm 73:2–5, NIV)

Or who could forget about Job? Lost his livelihood, his health and his children. Could not see any rhyme or reason to his sudden descent into the valley of the shadow of death, yet he maintained that God was not punishing him.

Think of Jesus. Sinless, holy son of God. Blameless. Righteous. Yet reviled and rejected. He had nowhere to lay his head. Beaten. Scorned. Crucified.

If this was Jesus’ experience, it should not surprise us if it is also ours. No servant is greater than his master.

My portion

Quite amazingly, the Psalmists who often lay tangled in the loose ends of suffering remained confident in God. The David who was hounded and exiled on several occasions could also write

“Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup; you make my lot secure. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance.” (Psalm 16:5–6, NIV)

The writer whose soul panted for God as a deer pants for water could also write

“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.” (Psalm 46:1–3, NIV)

As Paul remained in prison he could write

“I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:10–11, NIV)

Yet in suffering deep and unknown could confess

“…in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:7–10, NIV)

Rarely are we so honest.

These scriptures expose our tendency to place unhealthy, unwise and unwarranted expectations on the church and on the God whom we worship. That it should be easier. That it certainly should not be as difficult as it is.

I say this for two reasons.

One, I believe that in this time of challenge God is driving us back to himself, and challenging our the focus of our faith and discipleship. Frederick Beuchner has remarked that these situations are ‘the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.’

Part of the problem is that our church culture tends to be determined by what we want out of a church:

Great preaching. Brilliant music. Engaging programs for children and youth. Modern facilities. Effective discipleship. A vision and mission we can connect with. Powerful evangelism. Oh, and great coffee…

Is church a context in which we truly worship God, or just another context where we want God to make us happy?

All those things are good, but isn’t this just checklist Christianity? Where the church that gets the most ticks is the one we go for?

David Platt has said

We are settling for a Christianity that revolves around catering to ourselves when the central message of Christianity is about abandoning ourselves and following Jesus

So here is the challenge: Is corporate worship a context in which we truly worship God, or just another context where we want God to make us happy?

Two: think of what might have been. Imagine if we were never in challenging  and trying situations. That services were always full, that our music teams had a full complement of musicians and vocalists. That we had plenty of leaders for our ministries, oodles of room for activities, and outreach program that was pumping, producing converts. That disciples were growing and creating more disciples. That everything was just great.

Would we ever get to ask the hard questions we’re asking now? Would we be in touch with our thirst, or emptiness, our spiritual distance and our confusion?

See, when all we want to do is avoid the discomfort, God wants us to feel it, to know it, to own it, and to learn from it.

when all we want to do is avoid the discomfort, God wants us to feel it, to know it, to own it, and to learn from it

The best thing we can do with our difficult situation  is bring it to God, acknowledge the blessings we have received, acknowledge our tendency to trust in the work of our own hands, repent of that tendency, and ask him to revive us again.

Into God’s presence

That’s the point: we need to observe in the things that are not the best the promptings of the One who is the best. In the things that are not as good as they could be, we need to renew our love for the One who is more good than we can possibly imagine. In all our struggles and failures we look to Christ who is our victor and our glory. Our comfort can never be in the things we do. Our only comfort can be Jesus, knowing him, and being known by him.

So, if we’re confused with where things are at, here’s how we can respond:

Recognise Jesus

His death has brought us right into the presence of the living Lord!

“Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.” (Hebrews 10:19–23, NIV)

He is the living water, soothing the thirst of our hearts. He is the bread of life, satisfies our emptiness of soul. He counted his glory as nothing, gone the distance, bridged the gap, and reconciled us to God. Christ and Christ alone will resolve the confusion we feel, for in him is life, true life

He said:

“Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” (John 17:3, NIV)

Repent

Sounds like a big call, but where we’ve placed our trust in things, in people, we need to acknowledge that, turn to God, and seek his forgiveness. We have placed improper expectations on the church, and sought in the church that which only Christ can give. Blindly we have followed out culture, placed ourselves at the centre of life, even of the church. We need to turn around, and return to Jesus as the first love of our hearts, the living water, true bread, the One who died to reconcile us, who as the way, the truth, the life ends our confusion forever.

Live differently

Love Jesus daily, through renewed and daily prayer that he change and transform us, conforming us to his likeness. We can do this by loving others.

It takes time to rebuild, and where we end up will always be a little different to where we have been before. One thing you can do is commit to growing healthy God honouring community. Do all you can to help build a great church.

Love your church

Meaning? Well, that will be my next series, “Living Members” starting at Gateway on June 21. For now, start with a daily prayer:

Lord, Help us become a healthy church. Help me do whatever I need to do to make that happen. Together, bring us back to the core, to the heart, to Jesus himself.

DEEP – Distant – Group Study Questions

Warming up:

Have you ever had a sense that God was far away? What were the circumstances?

Read Psalm 63

Henry Nouwen writes: “I wonder if the Word of God can really be received in the center of our hearts if our constant chatter and noise and electronic interactions keep blocking the way of the heart.” 
  • What other things might be interfering with sense of close fellowship with God?
King David occupies a special place as a great leader of God’s people in the Old Testament. How might his experience of being distant from God be reflected in the modern days followers of God?
“Even if it feels God is far away, even when you feel you are far away form God, he is still with you.”
  • To what extent does this reflect the Bible’s teaching? What comfort or challenge does this present to you or your discussion group?
How can your church or Christian community bring the grace of God’s presence to greater expression
  • in your meetings
  • how you deal with one another
  • how you do mission in your world

Close

Spend time in prayer, asking God to bless your specific attempts to bring his presence to expression.

DEEP – Distant

Deep promo sm banner

[This series of sermons explores some of the challenges people face in their spirituality. This sermon “Distant” is third in a series of four sermons]

Psalm 63:1-8

This week I discovered I have a serious mental disorder. It turns out I have PSTD: Post Synod Tiredness Disorder.

The previous week saw the Synod of the Christian Reformed Churches of Australia meet, and delegates like myself worked 12 hour days, with committee work and other responsibilities beyond that. It’s not hard to imagine how tiring that sort of schedule can be.

So, I was sitting in my office the following Monday thinking I needed to get some work done on this message, and I just couldn’t concentrate for that long. I found I was restricted to pastoral hack work: emails, phone calls, catch ups, and stuff like that (apologies to anyone I may have visited or phoned Monday afternoon, as you have now been recipients of pastoral hack work…)

It’s not an uncommon picture. Life is so busy, and when it’s particularly full on, it’s easy to become discombobulated.

Discombobulate |ˌdɪskəmˈbɒbjʊleɪtverb [ with obj. ] humorous, chiefly N. Amer. disconcert or confuse (someone): (as adj.discombobulated:  ‘he is looking a little pained and discombobulated’

As Christians, we need to think about the level of our busyness, and ask whether it’s really helping us live well and connect with God.

Henri Nouwen writes

I wonder if the Word of God can really be received in the center of our hearts if our constant chatter and noise and electronic interactions keep blocking the way of the heart.

All that chatter and noise is actually making it hard to relate, not only to God, but to one another. If you’ve caught a train recently, you’ve probably seen something like this, right?

Passengers

You even see people doing this in restaurants, when they should be connecting and communicating meaningfully. So, what’s happening? The technologies that promise connection, community, togetherness are often at work to keep us apart.

39153_01_smartphone_use_in_the_restaurant_causing_disruptions_and_headaches_full

The writer of Ps 63 is longing for a connection with God, but there is a gulf between what he wants, and what he has:

“You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water.” (Psalm 63:1, NIV) 

In one sense, his words are not surprising. In the Old Testament, God’s presence was restricted to the Temple in Jerusalem, and at this point this writer – King David – had been forced into exile in the wilderness, far away from Jerusalem and its Temple.

But in another sense these words catch us unawares, because this is King David. The apple of God’s eye. The man after God’s own heart. Leader of a people of faith. We would say he is one of the greatest figures of faith in the Bible. And he is distant from God?? So distant he feels it physically??

People of faith will relate to this. Because you’re a card carrying Christian does not immunise you against spiritual distance. It may be life experiences, significant trauma, unemployment, relationship breakdown, overwork – we can come to a point in life when you realise ‘I feel so far from God!’ True?

‘I am with you’ – God

The surprising thing is that while this Psalmist feels great distance, he still takes comfort in God.

Psalm 63:2-8

Surprising, I say, because many think that if there’s distance in between them and God then God will not be happy. And if God is not happy, he gets all stand offish. And a stand offish God won’t mind the distance, or so we think. We see God as one who really couldn’t be bothered with people who couldn’t be bothered with him. But here’s the thing: you may be distant from God, but he’s not content to leave you there. One of the most surprising things about God is that he is with you even if you don’t want to be with him.

Ever thought about that? Even if it feels God is far away, even when you feel you are far away form God, he is still with you?

Hundreds of years ago John Calvin wrote that every person has this sense of divinity, a deep seated awareness that there is a god, a greater meaning to life, a bigger story that makes sense. Now, here’s the astonishing thing: this sense of the divine is not just something ‘religious’ people have. Two thousand years ago Paul the Apostle spoke to a bunch of philosophers and trend setters in Athens. None were Christians.

Even if it feels God is far away, even when you feel you are far away form God, he is still with you?

But this is what he said:

““The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’” (Acts 17:24–28, NIV) 

Did you catch that? He is not far form any of us; in Him we live and move and have our being. 

So, you might feel far from God, but God is not far from you.

You could say if you’ve ever found yourself wondering about life’s meaning, wondering whether there’s something, someone that makes sense of life, that gives us meaning, this is really God already at work in you. He made you. He made your world. And in the same way you want to be close to your children, God wants to be close to you. He’s not waiting for you to convert (as good as that might be), or to stop swearing, or start speaking churchy kind of language. His presence in your life does not depend on you doing anything.

Why? Because he’s a God of grace. He blesses you with his nearness simply because he is a good and loving God. He gifts you with his presence in your life. Pretty amazing, right? There’s an even more amazing fact: despite weakness of faith, or even an irreligious character, he sent his son Jesus to guarantee his presence in your life, your family and your world.

“The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” (John 1:9–11, NIV) 

They didn’t recognise him. They didn’t receive him. But he came anyway! That is what we call grace. Undeserved mercy.

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14, NIV) 

More: Jesus not only came to be with people, he came to draw these people who neither recognised him nor received him back to God. And he did it through the event we celebrate on Good Friday: his own death on the Cross

“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”” (John 12:32, NIV) 

This is what it means when we read “God so loved the world”. God gave his one and only son, who would give his life on a cross to bring you back, to reconcile you to himself.

Here’s the point: God is nearer than you think. He is close to everyone. Believer. Irreligious. Even those opposed. Even atheists like Richard Dawkins – he is never far away from the God he does not want to believe in! See, because Jesus went the distance, any distance you now sense between yourself and God has been overcome.

Isn’t this is an incredible comfort? If God is even close to those who hate him, how much more is he with those who love him!

This is the assurance Jesus gave when he returned to heaven:

“…Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”” (Matthew 28:20, NIV) 

And after Jesus returned to the Father, he gave his Spirit to the church, to live in every one who loves him, as a seal of his presence and nearness:

“And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—” (John 14:16, NIV) 

It’s all pretty clear: God has done everything he possibly can to ensure there is no distance between him and his people. He even sent Jesus to close the gap completely. Think about that:

God wants you, even before you wanted him.

God sought you, even before you sought him.

And even where you sense a distance, as far as God is concerned, he is committed to you with a faithfulness that we can scarcely comprehend.

Draw Near

So: how do we respond to this? Short answer: Draw near to God!

You’re looking for a bigger picture, a greater story, something that makes sense of your world, something that offers hope. Drawing near to God through Jesus is the way to this true life.

This morning we witnessed a baptism. And when two parents make their baptismal vows, they are actually making a confession of faith: that Jesus has bridged the gap, gone the distance, dies in their place and reconciled them to God. They are saying they will order their lives and witness so their little child will understand there is no other way to find life than with God through Jesus.

Think for a moment about physical hunger. I remember some years ago filling up my car with petrol early one morning. These two school kids – maybe 9 or 10 years old, upper primary – were walking out of the service area as I walked in to pay. One had two cans of V, and the other had a bag of chips and some snakes. The attendant saw me looking at them, and said ‘that’s their breakfast every morning.’ Best diet, much? I can imagine their teacher an hour or to later when these guys are high on caffeine and sugar!

Why do people feed themselves on things that can never bring them to health? In a similar way, why do we keep seeking life when we will only even find it in Jesus? If we’re longing for a connection with real meaning, with true life, we will only ever find it fully in relationship God. If we are distant from God, and feeling a spiritual hunger, why do we try to satisfy it with things that can never deliver?

God is saying to you: I am right here. I am with you. So close. So near! I am the closest friend you’ve ever had (or perhaps the closest friend you’ve never had!). I am the best life you can ever live! I am the hope that sits in your breast. I am the way, the truth, the life!

So, what should you do?

One: quieten yourself. With all the busyness around you, find a place at home where you can think about life and God. I like to find a place where it’s quiet, a place where it is warm and inviting. That’s where I want to sit and read and pray, and have the God who is near speak to me. Or I get out into the bush. Breathe some fresh air. Feel the sunshine. Just take a notebook and a pen, and let my thoughts flow. Sometimes that quietness is just what we need to know that he who says he is near is actually with us.

Two: Pray Simply – you don’t need holy language. You don’t need to be particularly religious. You don’t need to be in a holy place. God is everywhere, so anywhere is holy. Just breathe those simple words

“God, thankyou for opening the way back to you through Jesus. 

God, please draw me close to you. 

Open my heart. Open my eyes. Open my mind to who you are, and how you have removed the distance in Jesus…”

Three: Ask God to accept you in Jesus 

“And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6, NIV) 

And I am in no doubt that God will do exactly that. He has promised to do so:

“All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.” (John 6:37, NIV) 

And here we were thinking we had to bridge the gap. No doubt, God wants us to believe and trust. But the gap is already bridged, the distance is resolved through Jesus’ death and rising. So with in an attitude of thanksgiving for the Jesus who has bridged the gap for you, quieten yourself, pray, and ask that this races God accept you in and through his son.