God Loves A Cheerful Giver

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Readings: 2 Corinthians 8:1-9 and 2 Corinthians 9:6-15

Today we want to listen to God’s word about money. Let’s acknowledge at the outset that’s not always an easy thing to do. Especially as a pastor. I think we realise that in a church like ours the pastor’s salary makes up a significant proportion of the overall budget, so preaching about giving can be construed as banging your own drum. Let’s just acknowledge that for what it is, and note that in no way do I want to bang my own drum. It’s more that we are framing our financials for the AGM, and so it’s timely for us to consider what God says to us about money, giving and generosity.

Generosity’s Motive

We’ve looked at what Paul has written in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9, and they reveal four things about generosity. First up, they tell us about generosity’s motive. It is important to see this clearly, because typically we start at the wrong place. We start with the idea of possession. That it’s our money. After all, we earn it, we work for it. We grow up with the idea of ‘my money’ and our parents teach us, as their parents taught them, that we have to build our future and strive for financial security. These things are basic to our culture.

When it comes to money, however, the bible does not start with our concepts of possession, our perception of need, or our preferred financial future. When it comes to money, the Bible starts with Jesus. We see this is 2 Cor 8-9.

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9, NIV)

Want to know about giving? Then this where we start. With the grace of Jesus, who considered the riches of glory as nothing to become poor. And having said that, I think we realise these words are not a comment on Jesus’ financial status. They refer to the riches of his glory before he took on the human nature, and the abject poverty of the Cross, where we suffered for undeserving people:

Philippians 2:5–8 (NIV)

5 …have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

6 Who, being in very nature God,

did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;

7 rather, he made himself nothing

by taking the very nature of a servant,

being made in human likeness.

8 And being found in appearance as a man,

he humbled himself

by becoming obedient to death—

even death on a cross!

This is where we start, but we can also go further: back to creation. There we see the Triune God giving his creative energy, giving life to all things. God gives, and creation comes out of nothing. The Son gives, and life is given to the dead. His death and resurrection mean that hope is replaces our despair. Forgiveness is given in exchange for our guilt. Beauty is given in exchange for our wretchedness.

In Isaiah 53-55 we read about the work of the servant of the Lord, we remember the very well know words of !Isaiah 53:5. But the prophet’s thoughts do not stop with the servant’s suffering, or even redemption he shall win. God has his eye set on the renewal of his entire creation:

Isaiah 55:12–13 (NIV84)

12 You will go out in joy

and be led forth in peace;

the mountains and hills

will burst into song before you,

and all the trees of the field

will clap their hands.

13 Instead of the thornbush will grow the pine tree,

and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.

This will be for the Lord’s renown,

for an everlasting sign,

which will not be destroyed.”

We should not be surprised to find, then, that in 2 Corinthians, Paul says this totally new life, this new creation, is for those who are ruled by Jesus:

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ  … 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 5:17-18,21 NIV84)

This is why God loves a cheerful giver. Giving is his nature. It is the core truth of the Gospel. We see this in those most recognisable words from John’s Gospel:

God so loved the world that he gave His One and Only Son…

If we are to understand anything about Christian giving and generosity this is where we have to start. The “giving-ness of God” is the defining truth of life itself: in Jesus we were given grace, life and hope that we never deserved.

Generosity’s Model

This helps us understand the power of Paul’s model for Christian generosity: the Macedonian Christians:

1 And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. 2 In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. 3 For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, 4 they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people. 5 And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us. – 2 Corinthians 8:1–5 (NIV)

For these Christians, there was only one thing worse than extreme poverty, and that was being extremely poor and being prevented from giving!

Beautiful, isn’t it? They had so little, but they gave so much. Check it out:

8:2: their extreme poverty overflowed  in extreme generosity.

8:3 they gave as much as they were able, even beyond their own ability, beyond what might have been reasonable.

8:5 …they exceeded even Paul’s expectations!

How is that possible? How does that work, that people so incredibly poor could be so deliciously generous? It works because they valued joy more than happiness. And joy is not necessarily happiness, is it? Happiness is my here and now. Joy, at least in biblical terms, is grounded in God’s faithfulness to his promises. Like Jesus himself, who despised his ‘here and now’, his circumstances, and for the joy set before him – that vision of what a gracious God would do through his death – went to the cross (see Hebrews 12:2).

So very different to us. We think if we just get this done, get that paid for, plan the holiday, pay the mortgage, then we will think about giving. We start with our circumstances, and then determine our giving. These Macedonian brothers and sisters would look at us and say we have got it the wrong way around. They started with Jesus’ giving, his gift of life, and it changed their world.

This is why we are confused about tithing, and by that I refer to the practice of giving 10% of one’s income for the work of the Lord through his church. The question is often asked: “do I have to give 10%?” To which the answer is “Of course not.” You don’t have to give anything! God’s grace is free! God’s gift of life and salvation in Jesus cannot be bought, earned or deserved.

What we fail to understand is that giving is not about obligation. Giving is about opportunity. Opportunity to show our love for Jesus. That’s why Paul says,

“I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others.” (2 Corinthians 8:8, NIV)

And

“Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7, NIV)

Listen: giving is a matter of the heart. Giving is about being cheerful. About being joyful and thankful for all we have received in Christ. If this is where you are, thankful for everything you have in Jesus, you’ll be a cheerful giver. So, start at the 10% figure.

On the matter of tithing, Tim Keller has a great question for us: what if your salary was cut by 10%? What would you have to do? No doubt, we’d have to make some adjustments, either in how much we save or in how much we spend. We get this. So Tim Keller says: “Go. Do it. And let this show your thanks to God for all he has given and continues to give in Jesus Christ.”

He adds:

The Bible says … there can be no significant spiritual growth in your life unless you put your money and what you think about your money into God’s hands. Because it’s just too big and just too pivotal an issue[1]

Generosity’s Promise

Now, I can guess what you’re thinking: “if I make that change, how will I be able to do what needs to be done, and pay what needs to be paid?”

Great question! The answer is our third point: Generosity’s Promise: We have to take God on his word, to trust the promise of the Lord:

“Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.” (2 Corinthians 9:6, NIV)

We are called to be generous sowers, and as we do we give God an opportunity to show more of his faithfulness.

“And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.” (2 Corinthians 9:8, NIV)

Do you believe that?

Do you believe that God will look after you?

Will you sit down with your bank statement, see your income, and say to your God “I believe you will provide for me as I do this. I trust you to keep your word”?

“Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness.” (2 Corinthians 9:10, NIV)

Take God on his word, friends!

Think about it: why do you live here? Why has the Lord given you life in this place, at this time, in this great city, in a wonderful country? His word reminds us:

“You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, … 2 Corinthians 9:11, NIV)

He has looked after you, hasn’t he? Of course he has! And he will continue to do so as you walk in his ways. The question is do you believe this? Really, this truth – that God will meet out needs – should thrill us! It should excite us! It should warm our heart!

God will look after us, not because we give, but because he loves us and has promised to care for us.

You want proof? Just look at the cross! The Cross shows us just how committed God is to giving us what we need to follow him and love him. He gave us his son!

Take God on his word. Adjust your giving. He will give you what you need. God loves cheerful givers.

Generosity’s goal

Finally, let’s think about the goal of this generosity. Again, as we think about this, we often focus on our immediate needs. Our financial position. Our salary. Our mortgage. Our church perhaps struggling to meet the budget, or a cash deficit which needs to be managed. All these things are important, and we need to be responsible as we address them. They are important, but they are not the most important consideration. For once again, Bible directs us to God. When we discussed generosity’s motive, we started with God’s grace. As we discuss generosity’s goal we are focussed not on our needs but on God’s glory. This emphasis permeates 2 Corinthians 9

“…through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.” (2 Corinthians 9:11, NIV)

When Christians are generous givers, God gets the praise!

“This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God.” (2 Corinthians 9:12, NIV)

“Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else.” (2 Corinthians 9:13, NIV)

“And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you.” (2 Corinthians 9:14, NIV)

You have already seen this today. We could miss the look of obvious delight in the faces of children in Operation Christmas Child they opens their shoebox? This past week I saw correspondence from Compassion which quoted a sponsored child saying “they [the sponsors] have no idea how much I praise God for their love.” Or who has not seen the look of absolute gratitude in the faces of people rescued by International Justice Mission operations?

One thing we do not see, which I sometimes see, is how people right here in this community, when they are helped by something we do, people who have nowhere else to turn, often express such rich gratitude. Do they become Christians? I am not aware that has happened. Do they thank God? I have not heard them doing that. But when God’s church is honoured and gratitude expressed for works of service, it is a win for the Kingdom. And I would like to think that that next time any of these people are engaged in a conversation about God’s love of his mercy in Jesus, it might just be a little easier for them to believe, as they have seen his love through his people’s generosity.

Jesus challenges us, quite starkly, to not focus on the things everyone else focuses on: What we drive. Where we live. What people think of us. The next cruise. What labels we wear.

Jesus’ people have their concern  elsewhere:

How great is the love the Father has lavished on us in Jesus – that we should be called children of God!

Look at what he has given me! The natural question then is, How can I give more? What does my church need? What is God calling us to do, and how can that happen through generous giving?

Jesus’ words are clear:

“So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:31–34, NIV)

Today, Jesus is inviting you, all of us, to step into His Kingdom existence. To have his Kingdom, his Lordship, change our view of money. To discover a whole new identity in him: new creation, new rules for living, new attitudes, new life, new hope, new values.

And as his people this we will do, and may he received all the praise and the glory.

Endnotes:

[1] Keller, T. J. (2013). The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive. New York City: Redeemer Presbyterian Church.

Living Members: A Church of Character – Group Study Questions

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Read Matthew 5:1-16

Which churches in your local community have ‘social standing’? What might the reasons be for this? Is their social standing a positive or negative thing?

How would you respond to someone who says the church should just stick to spiritual matters and should not involve itself in their local community? Which New Testament passage would you refer to to answer them?

In Matthew 5:1-16 Jesus does not say the church is ‘called’ to be salt and light, or that they should ‘strive to be salt and light’ He simply makes a declaration ‘you are the salt of the earth … you are the light of the world’ What’s the difference? And what does this mean for your church?

Read 1 Peter 2:11-12 What’s the ultimate motive for Christians to live a good life? What does this passage imply about the world around us?

Share some ideas about what things your church could do to live ‘a good life among the pagans’

Living Members: A Church of Character

Read: Matthew 5:1-16, Acts 2:42-47

Whenever I am asked to write a reference for someone, I find myself very humbled: I am being asked to write a few paragraphs that sum up a person’s character. So yes, humbled. Initially. And then, in the words of the great theologian Elmer Fudd, I feel vewy, vewy powerful… What you say,  and sometimes what you don’t say, can make all the difference.

Enjoying favour

There’s a sense in which this passage reads as a reference. A character reference for the Apostolic Church. Or you could say it’s like a family photo, like those great family photos of old. All you have to do is take one look and you know precisely the sort of people you’re dealing with….

Groenenboom family 1967

…not wanting to be the centre of attention. At all.

Acts 2 tells us about the character of this church from a number of different angles. And the angle we want to looks at today is seen in the last part of v.47:

“praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:47, NIV)

The word Luke uses for ‘favour’ is more commonly used for ‘grace’. What it tells us is the general population looked at this church, and saw it to be very good. They viewed it very graciously.

At first look this may not have been too difficult. They shared the same faith background as the bulk of the community. They were continuing to meet in the temple courts. The community around them were paying close attention. They saw their commitment to Temple worship. They saw their unity. They saw how they shared and supported the needy. And they liked what they saw. So in a very short time it seems this church had developed significant social standing.

Now, we will think of some churches or Christians which have developed significant social standing. And it is not always healthy. Like the Sadducees in Acts. They developed social standing by currying favour with the Romans. They played favourites with Herod. They were cunning political operators, the great pragmatists of their day.

But the Acts 2 church did not earn favour that way. Unlike the Sadducees, they did not go looking for favour or seeking influence. I say this because healthy favour is never sought. Healthy favour is always bestowed by others. Scot McKnight observes:

These deeds aren’t done in order to solicit their praise; they are done out of obedience and love, and their inherent goodness is inherently praiseworthy[Scot McKnight, Kingdom Conspiracy]

This is the kind of favour God calls us to in his word:

“Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” (1 Peter 2:12, NIV)

This is the high calling Jesus gives his followers:

“You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world … let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:13–16, NIV)

That’s what’s happening here. The light is shining. The salt is being tasted. The new community of Jesus are loving one another, caring for one another, meeting one another’s financial needs, worshipping together, contributing to temple life. And people are noticing. They see great things happening. They may not be sure what to think about Jesus, but they are saying ‘that’s the kind of church our community needs; if I was ever looking for a church, I’d check that one out, first.”

Now, we need to keep our feet on the ground here. A  few chapters on and those well connected Sadducees were playing more of their manipulative tricks. They are jealous of the attention Jesus’ church attracting so they resort to malicious slander, and the Apostles find themselves in front of the New Testament equivalent of a Senate Inquiry. And then it gets worse.

But here, the word is getting out and the light of new creation is shining into the darkness of humanity. Make no mistake: when the people of God are the kind of community he calls them to be, truth, love, and life always spill out into the world around them.

A story:

Some years ago I pastored a church in Hobart. That church was very active in assisting refugees to settle in Australia. I don’t know how many Bosnian and Sudanese people our church helped. Maybe a dozen families over the years. Around that time, a church on Tasmania’s north coast had been seeking a pastor for a number of years, without success. They decided to call a pastor from the reformed church family in South Africa. This was the first of the South African pastor called by the Christians Reformed Churches of Australia. At that time I was serving as the CRCA’s Ecumenical Secretary, and I was asked to countersign the sponsorship application for the Department of Immigration. We were informed it was going to be a long process: routinely taking 12-18 months for the visa to be granted.

The next day the phone rang. It was the local head of the Department of Immigration in Hobart. She said the visa application had been granted. I said “Um, OK, so you have received the completed visa application…” She said, “Well, yes we have received the application, but I am calling to tell you that application has been granted. Visa approved.”

So I asked the inevitable, “Doesn’t that normally take, like 12-18 months?”

Her answer: “Yes. But your church has done a lot to help refugees. This is our way of saying thanks…”

A process that normally took 12 – 14 months had been done in just over 24 hours. The calling church rejoiced. A South African pastor and his family packed his bags. And what is relevant to our text today is how that day we enjoyed the favour of the people.

Or take this article I grabbed from the newsfeed yesterday: The headline: “Churches are best social melting pots in modern Britain”. It said:

“…churches and other places of worship are more successful than any other social setting at bringing people of different backgrounds together, well ahead of gatherings such as parties, meetings, weddings or venues such as pubs and clubs.”

Scot McKnight agrees:

“When the church is the church it is fully engaged in loving everyone as neighbours. As such, the church becomes the most lovingly, compassionately, justly, peacefully engaged segment in all the world.” [Kingdom Conspiracy p.111]

Here’s the deal: When the church thrives, our community wins.

How important this is, friends. We tend to think that if we just keep our theology right then we will find God’s blessing. And true: It is critical that we remain committed to the apostle’s teaching – as did this church in Acts 2. But we live in such uncertain times that orthodox teaching, in and of itself, will not be enough to convince a watching world of the claims of Christ. It probably never has been enough. Our culture is becoming increasingly hostile: the ALPs Sam Dastayari’s outburst against Katy Faust on Q&S last Monday shows us just how hard it is to hold an opinion that is different from the latest pressure group. There are times when we will need to respond to such vilification with measured debate. But the church will never win with debate alone. We will only ever win as the power of the Risen Christ enables his church to live a distinctly different life, to live a better story. The Acts 2 story.

Let me say again: When the church thrives, our community wins.

Love your church

And why, ultimately, is that?

When it all comes down to it this community thrived for a reason. It wasn’t because they had a great mission statement, or because  they understood their theology so well. They were thriving because Jesus was alive in them. Jesus lived in them. Jesus has given them life. Jesus, just weeks before, had gone to the cross and taken their sin, their guilt, and borne their punishment. He has finished it utterly and completely. Jesus had risen from the dead. Conquered death. Rose as victor over the grave, over the devil and his kingdom. This risen Jesus now lived in his people. His Spirit had woken them up, brought them to life, softened their heart, opened their eyes, made them alive!

They were in Christ and they were new creation: a new community, new people, new shared life, wonderful hope bubbling out of them like living water. They were bearing the fruit of the Spirit. They were embodying the very Kingdom of God.

See this church? None of this can happen unless Jesus lives in people. Unless people bow the knee to this loving Saviour and call him Master. On their own they, and we on our own,  can do nothing. But with Jesus living in them they could do everything he had called them to do. When Jesus lives in the church, the church thrives! And when the church thrives, our community wins. This is why they enjoyed the favour of all the people.

Friends: you know how this needs to be applied?

First up: prayer. I do not know why we find it so hard to develop a culture of prayer. Yes, we are all busy. But we are all Christian. We all have Christ ruling our hearts. We all are washed by his selfless sacrifice. We all have life in his name. When loving, vibrant community can be such a powerful witness I do not know why we do not make the time to get together and pour our hearts out to the Lord on this (and other) issues.

I know we pray in our home groups. I know one or two meet on Wednesday mornings. Obviously, we pray on Sunday when we gather. But why is it so hard to have times specifically for prayer? Why is this not part of our communal life with Christ? I believe we need to open up this aspect of our spirituality, and we should do some soul searching as to why we have not embraced a prayerful communal spirit to this point. After all, doesn’t the word call us to this?

“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16–18, NIV)

Second: Love your church. Really, love your church! I don’t want to focus on negatives, but we realise, I think, that it is too easy to whinge, to complain, to compare. We have all done it, we are all sinners. I think, especially in our culture, that passive aggression is the besetting sin of today’s western church.

I have my checklist, and if you stop doing what I want, I will stop serving, I will stop paying, and if it gets any worse, I will just stop coming.

Christians don’t throw stuff when they get angry, they just withdraw.

Want to enjoy the favour of all the people? Then, yes, there is much good that needs to be done, and we should be eager to so it. That will bless our community. But perhaps the best thing we can do for our community, is to do everything we can to help our church thrive! Think of the various aspects we have covered over the course of this series, and consider what steps you are taking to bring these things to realisation:

Apostolic teaching: what plans are you making to connect with a Home Group, or to deepen your understanding and acceptance of God’s word?

Fellowship: to do whatever you can to celebrate the oneness we have in Jesus. How good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity

Sharing: being sensitive to the needs right here: when one weeps, we all weep; when one celebrates, we all rejoice; prepared to bear the cost to help out those with great need

Worship: do whatever you can to enrich what happens here on Sunday and through the week; develop a God centred view of worship together. Come ready, willing, keen to honour him, and to encourage others in worshipping our King

Witness: sharing the good news of Jesus, celebrating how much we love this church he has given us. The church is his bride! Let’s make her beautiful, and wear that love on our sleeve…

And as we do, the Lord’s goodness will overflow from the church into our community. The effect will be unmistakable. The fruit of the spirit. The character of Jesus. The Kingdom of God. The church will thrive, community will win, and Jesus will receive all the glory.

Living Members: Witness – Group Study Questions

wintessing

To start:

Share with your group about a time when you were able to share the good news about Jesus

Read: Acts 2:42-47

Is it hard or easy for you to see yourself as a witness? What factors are at work here?

We believe God is sovereign, drawing people to himself and adding to the church’s number (see John 6:35-40; Acts 2:47). So why does he still want to use us to get the good news out? What do we bring that might add something to the witnessing process?

Read 1 Peter 3:15-16 and discuss what this says about the manner of our witness

Read: Acts 2:14-41

As you read Peter’s sermon, try and identify the different ‘stages’ of his message. What elements of witnessing can you identify in what he says? (hint: there may be 5 or 6)

What would you need to do, or do differently, to improve your ability to witness?

To close: pray for the needs you have identified above, and in coming weeks continue to encourage one another in witnessing

Living Members: Witness

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Reading: Acts 2:42-47, Acts 16:11-15

As followers of Jesus, we know the message of Jesus is the best news. We know God is powerful. We know people are in need. But we struggle to witness. Why is that?

Today, God’s word challenges us to see who God really is. And when we see who God really is, when we accept what he says in his word, we may see the work of witnessing differently. Let me explain:

God is sovereign

When it comes to witnessing, we begin in Acts 1. Just prior to Jesus’ return to the Father, he assured his apostles

“…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”” (Acts 1:8, NIV)

You shall be my witnesses. With the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, this will happen. In Acts 2:47 we see the Lord honouring his promise:

“…And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:47, NIV)

See, the first thing we need to understand about witnessing is that it is the sovereign plan of God. It is a work we undertake it in the sovereign power of his Spirit. And when God gives the command, he also provides the charisma. Now straight up that is a rich comfort. You still might not know what to do or say. You may have doubts about your abilities. But you cannot doubt God’s call. You cannot doubt God’s capacity. And you cannot doubt his commitment to bring his plan to completion.

In our tradition, as part of the reformed family of churches, the sovereignty of God is perhaps the core of our theology. Augustine and Calvin were champions of the sovereignty of God. It is the warp and woof of our theological fabric. Strangely, the practice of witness is not a strong point of reformed church life. This is an anomaly. Either we don’t believe the sovereignty of God, or we live in neglect of its glorious implications. My view is we do accept the sovereignty of God, but we do not follow through on its implications. For really, this great truth should make us powerhouses of witness!

The sovereignty of God assures the result God has planned. When it comes to bringing those lost in sin into relationship with his Son, he has the whole process in his all powerful hands. This is what Jesus was talking about in the start of his ministry:

“All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”” (John 6:37–40, NIV)

Church, we have to get this the right way around. It’s not about us forming our mission and asking God to bless it. It is not about us struggling in vain to change people’s hearts and minds. This is about us joining God’s mission, engaging with God’s plan. Everything we do to witness we do in God’s almighty power. Jesus’ words remind us of this. The book of Acts show this happening.

 “…And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:47, NIV)

Witness is natural

We see this church living in that comfort:  Since God is sovereign, witness is natural. Natural in the sense that it is standard operating procedure for those who know Jesus. If you’re a Christian you don’t decide whether to be a witness or not. You simply are one. You might be a terrible witness to Jesus. You might be an indifferent witness. You might be a terrific witness. But one thing is for sure, you cannot decide not to be a witness.

Think again of Acts 1:8. Jesus did not say, “Please consider being a witness, when you’ve got the Bible under your belt, when you know all the answers, when the world is no longer hostile, and the blue bird of having-it-all-together sits happily upon your spiritually mature shoulders…”

Jesus simply declares “You will receive power, you shall be my witnesses…”

Something else: God’s sovereignty does not allow us to evade our responsibility. I have sometimes heard people say this in the past, that God is sovereign and he will bring people in his own good time. This is true: God is all powerful, and he draws people to himself and he draws people into churches. More often than not, however, he draws people to his son through the words and actions of his people. In his sovereign plan, God uses means. And he means to use you as his means. You: embracing his will. You: telling the story. That’s what Paul reminded the church in Rome:

“…“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”” (Romans 10:13–15, NIV)

When we see God as sovereign, we will see witness as natural. Think about it: What power does God lack? What wisdom has he missed? What does he not understand about the universe and the people in it? What does he not get about you? What has he missed about your Life? What has he not noticed about your friends and acquaintances? If you take the sovereign God at his word, our witnessing will be natural.

There will still be people who will resist and say, But I am not an evangelist!

Well, maybe not. Evangelism is a gift. Engaging in a specific ministry of proclaiming the good news is something not every Christian is called to do. But witnessing is not a ministry. It is natural Christian behaviour.

The word ‘witness’ carries courtroom imagery for us. So, think about what happens in a courtroom. If you’ve ever been a witness, it was not your opinion or intellect that mattered. Your emotions don’t come into it. The judge is not interested in how you felt at the time. All he wants to hear is what happened. What you saw, and the outcome of those things.

This is what I call the Cluedo principle. The board game gets the various players to work from the given facts to determine what actually happened. It was Mrs Peacock in the library with the candlestick… This is what happened. This is when it happened. This is the consequence.

So, when you witness, you want to be as prepared as you can be, but you don’t have to have all the answers. You don’t have to be able to explain six day creation, or be able to name Methusaleh’s father in law, or know the difference between the Canaanites, the Jebusites, the Vegemites and the Gigabytes. You simply have to say “this is what happened, and this is the impact on my life”.

Here’s what happened: Jesus came. He lived the life we could never live, died the death we should have died. He was raised on the third day. And now he is seated in the most powerful place in the universe. That’s what happened.

And I was living this way, doing this, believing that, and he entered my life, forgiving all my wrongs, cleansed me of my sin, poured his new life into me, freed me from my guilt, made me a new creation. That’s what happened.

Jesus gave me his Spirit, who lives in me and all others who believe. His Spirit is bringing Christ’s new life to expression in mine. I don’t always get it right, I don’t do it best, but by his power my life is changing, here’s what is happening…  That’s what happened and that is how Jesus is changing my life. Would you like to know more about him?

That’s witnessing. This is what happened. This is the outcome. Quite possibly that’s what these people in Acts 2 were doing. Going to the Temple daily, not just to worship together, but to tell people what happened. They were his witnesses. And the Lord added to their number daily.

See, this church was in Jerusalem. A prominent city of the Roman Empire. Historians estimate that at this time, some 20-30% of the Roman Empire were slaves and servants. So a significant proportion of the population were drawn to the message of life and freedom.

From the other end of the social scale, historian Rodney Stark shows how the Gospel was also carried by the rich and famous. People like Lydia (Acts 16): a trader, a successful business woman. Or Cornelis (Acts 10): a Roman Centurion. Well connected in the Roman Army. A God fearer, well connected in the Jewish Temple, and part of the Italian Regiment. They had very little theology. Very little experience. They probably made more than their share of mistakes. These people became powerful witnesses to Jesus simply by talking about what had happened and how Jesus had made a difference in their lives.

They knew God was sovereign. Their witnessing was natural. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Pass the salt…

The word is clear: God intends for us to be witnesses. One of the challenges Christians and churches often feel, however, is that they believe either they or their church is not quite ‘ready’ to witness. The thought is that the church needs to be built up before it reaches out. People say “We need to get our own house in order before we look outside…”

Now, we know good teaching is critical for a healthy church, and that the goal of teaching is to lead people toward maturity in Christ. All true. But one thing you never read in the New Testament is that you have to get one of these done before you start the other. That is, get good teaching sorted, and then work on witnessing, or get a good evangelism strategy, and then worry about teaching. The consistent picture in the New Testament is that alongside healthy teaching a core means to building the church up is to have healthy witnessing and evangelism. Here in Acts they were committed to the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42) AND the Lord was adding to their number (Acts 2:47). They had a strategic goal to equip, they had a strategic focus to reach and grow. Heard that before? That would probably be the Great Commission:

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”” (Matthew 28:19–20, NIV)

So let us understand this very clearly: we will never reach the sort of maturity God wants us to attain unless we are also witnessing to what he has done in Jesus.

With this in mind, let’s ask some questions. Jesus calls his disciples salt of the earth and light of the world.

So ask yourself: Am I salty?

The church cannot be salt unless its people are salty. Bill Hybels asks

Does my schedule and do my relationships allow me to be salty enough, and light enough in a dark world, to remind me what the world is really like?

Of course, we’re all busy. But it’s also true we all get 24hrs a day. Do some of our priorities need to change so we can be more salty?

Can I create some opportunities to witness?

If we’re serious about witnessing to Jesus, we’ll be making sure we’re connecting with people outside church circles. Take people for coffee, or lunch, or chai [why anyone would want to drink Chai is beyond me…]. Even so, pray that the sovereign Lord will give you opportunities to tell what happened and the difference it makes. Those opportunities will come. Step into them.

Am I listening to what people are saying?

Sometimes, improving your witness skills can come by simply intentionally listening for opportunities to tell people what has happened and what difference it makes. Careful listening can pick up when people talk about thing that matter. When we listen to what matters to people, they may also listen to what matters to us. Thinking of it this way we can understand that many opportunities present themselves every week, maybe even every day.

Do I need some Gospel upskilling?

It’s possible that we could all benefit from a workshop where we could improve our skills and get a few tools which might help us be better witnesses. There would have to be some benefit in meeting together to build our confidence and proficiency.

Do I love people?

Isn’t this the most important question of all? Isn’t this the attitude that reflects our Lord’s own love for his world? Isn’t this the attitude that prompted Christ to endure the cross? Surely if we love the people around us we would want the very best for them. We would want them to know Jesus.

Think of the people you know. Some of them are terrific people. Some are better people than Christians you know, right? Imagine what would happen if they became followers of Jesus?

So, pray for God to use your words and your life. Make the most of every opportunity. Share what happened. Talk about the difference Jesus makes.

Do I trust my Sovereign God to work through me and my church?

This is the bottom line. I love people because I want the best ever life for them. I know this life can only come through Jesus. And my Sovereign Lord will lead me, support me, and work in this situation to bring his saving and loving well to expression. This sovereign God has all power. I can trust him to lead me. While I do not know how everything will work out, God does know how things will work out, so all I need to do is say what happened and share the consequences.

This is what powered the witness of the New Testament church. They believed God was sovereign. Their witness was natural. And God added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Living Members: Worship – Group Study Questions

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Read: Acts 2:42-47

Share your most memorable worship experience.

Dave spoke of our ambivalence with worship: Do you think we typically have difficulty preparing for corporate worship? What factors might be at work here?

To what extent is it OK to have self directed expectations about worshipping together? How might these get in the way of actually doing worship?

How could we minimise the tendency of our busy lives to dilute our desire and intention to worship?

Share your thoughts on ‘awe’.

Dave defined it as ‘an engaging wonder, flowing from a deep awareness of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, result in purposeful behaviour.’

In closing:

Pray that together you will be able to embody and implement in your church/fellowship the desires for worship your group has discussed

Living Members: Worship

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Read: Acts 2:43, 46

This week’s sign was a little bit cheeky:

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How many people would have driven past that and said to themselves ‘you gotta be kidding’? In fact, how many Christians would have driven past the sign and said ‘yeah, right’? How many of you looked at the FB post and thought ‘what is that about’?

Worship

We have this issue with worship: we know it’s critical, but it’s not something that often captures our hearts. Some of us, admittedly, will come through the door wanting to hear a good message, or wanting to sing some good songs. But few of us, if we’re honest (and I am not being too unkind), will have walked through the door with a consuming desire to direct our hearts to the living God and worship him with everything we are.

Now, here we read:

“Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God” (Acts 2:46, NIV)

One of the problems with worship is that we read our experiences back into texts like these. And we think it’s talking about people like us worshipping in a place like this the way we do it today.

Bad idea.

Look how Luke begins: “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts…”

It speaks of meeting together. Meeting daily. Meeting in homes. Meeting in the temple. Why? Well for this fledgling church worship was not a time in their weekly schedule. In biblical terms, all of life is worship. The true heart of worship is a Jesus honouring life: heart, soul, and body directed to the glory of the Risen Lord! It’s what we read in Romans 12:

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” (Romans 12:1, NIV)

These people met daily in their home, in the temple, because they were worshipping the Risen Jesus. That’s the connection Luke wants us to make. His gospel tells the what Jesus began to do: his birth, life, death, resurrection and return to the father. His sequel, the Acts of the Apostles, tells us what Jesus continued  to do through his Spirit acting in his people.

We cannot escape the conclusion that community is alive! They will never be the same!

  • They are devoted to the apostles’ teaching
  • They have fellowship in the new life of Christ
  • They share compassionately with those in need
  • Their lives are wall to wall worship

How did Jesus come to these people? He came through his Spirit and took up residence in them. This is what Jesus told them a few days before he went to the cross:

“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” (John 14:18, NIV)

This is what we see happening at Pentecost: the Spirit is poured out and the Rien Christ is alive in his church. So we should not be surprised to see them overflow with praise and worship, meeting together as often as they can: daily, sometimes several times a day.

One question we do need to address, however, is what is ‘worship’?

In the New Testament sense, worship means ‘to bow, to kiss, to serve, to worship’. Worship is directing one’s entire being to the praise of God, a spirit of unconditional submission, honour, obedience and praise. Look how it is expressed in Acts 2

“Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God…” (Acts 2:46, NIV)

They were glad! They were sincere! In fact ‘glad’ is a bit of a limp translation. The original denotes an exuberant outburst of joy. This was a true sense of celebration. This is what it looks like to be a living member of Christ! Why? Because worship is the overflow of what you believe in your heart. Here, we can see Christ living in their hearts by the way their lives are filled with worship. Worship is the overflow of the heart. It works both ways. John Stott, commenting on this passage says:

The fruit of the Spirit is joy, and sometimes a more uninhibited joy than our ecclesiastical traditions encourage. When I attend some church services, I think I have come to a funeral by mistake. Nobody smiles or talks. The hymns or songs are played at the pace of a snail or tortoise, and the who atmosphere is lugubrious. But Christianity is a joyful religion, and every meeting should  be a celebration of joy.

One of the great things about reading John Stott, of course, is how he expands your vocabulary. To be lugubrious, in case you wondered, is to be sad and mournful (from the Latin Lugere).

Here’s what is happening in this passage: Luke is telling us two very important things. First: he’s saying, look at these people! They are Jesus’ new community, the new Israel, God’s new society. See what happens when Jesus lives in people? When he gives them new life, new forgiveness, new grace, new understanding of their world and how it works? Their lives become an every day expression of unconditional submission, honour, obedience and praise.

Keep in mind how much a miracle of grace this was. This is the 3000+ people who were added to the disciples’ number at Pentecost. This huge community had grown overnight. And they are meeting in a variety of forms and contexts. In the temple courts (at least they could all gather there) but also in smaller groups in their homes. Despite the fact they are from all quarters and a variety of nations, we see them meeting together daily, gladly, sincerely, joyfully, exuberantly. The Spirit of Christ has broken down the social and ethnic barriers that often keep people apart.

Now, it is obvious that our world is very different to theirs. There are 2000 years, half a world, and many cultural divides between us and the Acts 2 church. So, we need to be careful before expecting every aspect of what we read here be replicated in our own church. Who can repeat Pentecost, for example? Yet we should ask why our worship experience often seems so far away from what we read here. Personally, I do not believe the simplistic criticism of some that if our worship lacks something it is because we don’t have the Spirit, or we don’t have enough faith.

And yet, we should ask why the joy, the attitude of unconditional obedience, the fullness of God in the fullness of life is not as apparent in some western churches. Churches like ours, perhaps. Haven’t you ever wondered about that?

As I said, I don’t think it is because we don’t have the Holy Spirit. But I do sometimes think we allow the ‘spirit of the age’ to quench his work. Isn’t it true that the exertion required to pursue our lifestyle and wants often exhausts our desire to worship and submit? Life’s busyness, life’s insatiable demands, our leisure pursuits, our moral dalliances, even our gross indifference to matters of justice and mercy, so dominates our lives that any intentional mindset of unconditional submission, honour, obedience and praise often simply evaporates.

Don’t you find this happening?

Then don’t give in to it. Don’t confirm to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. One way you can do that is by developing a prayerful, worship intention.

Don’t you think that would change the way we engage when we meet with God’s people – whenever and however that might happen? Isn’t that what we should be praying about before we meet on a Sunday, before we go to our home groups, before we meet with other Christians?

With that in mind I penned a short prayer. You don’t have to use these specific words, of course. But it may just help you focus your thoughts and your heart before you meet:

Lord, I come before the throne of your risen Son. I submit myself fully to you, Lord Jesus, my Creator and Redeemer.

Jesus Christ, I honour you will all my being. I seek to obey you in everything and I commit to ordering my life to your will.

I seek to praise you in every act of life, relationship, work and leisure.

Let my eyes be on you, allow me to focus on you, and have me leave my wants, my desires, and pleasures behind.

In your name,

Amen

Awe

One of the reasons prayers like that might not feature too much in our lives is because we don’t always know what to do with the second thing Luke wants us to see. We find it in verse 43.

“Everyone was filled with awe ….” (Acts 2:43, NIV)

Use European westerners struggle with that little word. Part of the reason is the original meaning includes the idea of ‘fear’. And we don’t know what to do with that. Fear, to us, is being afraid, being terrified, scared witless. How many of us were horrified by the footage of Australian pro surfer Mick Fanning being attacked by a shark?

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That kind of fear comes from a very specific part of the brain, called the amygdala. It’s the source of the basic ‘fright or flight’ response. Mick Fanning did not have to think about what he needed to do: it just kicked in. Get me outta here!!

That is fear. But it is not the fear or worship, or the awe referred to in v.43. There is another kind of fear. This fear, this awe, comes from a different part of the brian where responses are reasoned and intentional. This awe is an engaging wonder, flowing from a specific event, resulting in purposeful behaviour.

The Christians in Acts 2 are overflowing with wonder of Jesus Christ. Their awe and wonder flows from the specific event of his death and resurrection, and it results in them purposefully directing their entire lives to his honour and praise.

Knowing this, we will often ask ‘well, if this arises from awe and wonder, what can we do to engender a response like this?’

We often think we need to create contexts which will draw the same response. Some churches have huge auditoriums filled with thousands, stage works, lighting effects, incredible sound systems, massive subwoofers. And what happens there amy well be awesome. People’s lives are often deeply impacted. And so we think: how do we make that happen? How do we create that context of holy fear where we are?

And the answer is: bad question.

See, this awe, the awe and wonder and fear of v.43, is not circumstantial. It’s not a context to be created or managed. This awe is a reasoned response, yes. It involves the mind, the will, the heart and the emotions – the fullness of one’s being. But these people are not responding to what’s happened in the building. They are responding to what has happened on the cross and in the resurrection.

We see this in the context. Peter preaches, proclaiming the confronting truth that his listeners had crucified the Lord of glory, Jesus, whom the Father had declared both Lord and Christ. They realise their sin and were cut to the heart. They asked: what shall we do? Peter told them to repent, to receive the covenant promise of grace in Christ. Many believe and are baptised, and they are this community we read about in Acts 2:42-47.

See the connection? They are not responding to circumstances. They have come under the reign and rule of the risen Jesus! That’s why they are filled with awe! They are so deeply moved by Christ’s grace that they can’t stop worshipping him. Together, in community, they respond in awe: engaging wonder, unconditional submission, honour, obedience and praise.

Not because the lights have come down, not because the keys are playing under the pastor while he prays, or because the preacher is so eloquent.

It’s because of Jesus. They see Jesus. They know Jesus! They know that we went to the Cross – for them – some of whom were responsible for his death just seven or eight weeks before!

THAT’S what is happening here. Awe is the response of wonder from people whose hearts have been cleansed and washed in the blood of an innocent Saviour. Christ in one’s heart will always leads to change in one’s life. It’s Phil 2 a few decades before its time, isn’t it? They have considered Jesus…

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This is what Jesus has done for us! God be praised! Hallelujah!

How can you apprehend that truth and not respond in joyful exuberance and awe! With a considered response which says ‘this is what Jesus has done for me, praise his name, now it’s time to celebrate him with my church family and all of life.’

So, the sign is really true for those who know Jesus, right? Once you undersrahd what Jesus has done for you all you want to do is live a life full of worship!

WORSHIP – IT’S WHAT YOU REALLY WANT

If we don’t understand the cross we won’t ever get the worship thing. And we’ll be stuck in the land of ‘why should I go?’ forever.

These people were filled with awe… they worshipped  daily. In their homes: It is impossible to read these verses and imagine these people thinking an hour on so on Sunday was enough. They are doing life, godward life, together. They shared meals. They shared lives. Their voice echoes down the ages to us, drawing us to connect with people beyond the weekly ‘big group’ many of us call Sunday worship.

They also continued to meet in the temple. This fledgling church challenges our own engagement with worship, doesn’t it? Can you imagine these people being satisfied with a three weekly attendance cycle?

This is a beautiful church because Jesus is in the centre of everything they are and everything they do. Wouldn’t you love to be part of a church like this?

Then stop praying. Stop praying for others to change. Stop praying that God will bring other people. More people.

And start praying. Start praying that you will see Jesus so clearly. That you will consider what he has done for you. Pray that he will change your heart. Pray you will be overcome by his death and resurrection – for you that your life will be filled with worship as it was here. Pray this for your church and for your Christian community.

Jesus did this, for me? For me? Then here’s my life, Lord! I bow before you in full submission, honour, obedience and praise. Let your love overflow in my life, and let my life be constant worship, wonder and awe, for all you have done for me, for all you are doing in me, and for everything you will continue to do through me.

Marriage Equality & Same Sex Attraction: Group Study Questions

Introduction:

Go around the room and share how these issues impact each one of you

Discuss together how the church – your church – has typically responded to these issues.

Read: Romans 1:16 – 2:1

What would make people read this list and single out same sex attraction/homosexuality as being more grievous than any of the other behaviours listed?

Discuss together whether this passage has the effect of lessening the importance of same sex attraction, or whether it more underscores the gravity of all sin and rebellious acts.

“Instead of reading this passage and recoiling in horror, we should read this passage and weep for all humanity, for the brokenness of our our lives”

  • Why do we tend to see this passage as more about “them” and less about “us”? (…see Romans 2:1)

“Same sex attracted people are not kept out of the Kingdom of God because they are gay. In the same way heterosexual people do not make it to heaven because they are straight. What keeps us out of heaven, out of the Kingdom, and away from God is sin. What brings us to God and his heaven is Jesus and his grace.” 

How does this change the way you think about this issue?

How could your church do a better job of being God’s new community for those who live with same sex attraction? Identify one thing you can do together to help your church make some of these changes.

To close

Spend time together in prayer bringing these things before God’s throne of grace.

“Marriage Equality” and Same Sex Attraction

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Reading: Romans 1:16 – 2:1

Today there is good news! Something has happened, and the world is different as a result. Jesus has come into the world: his life, death, rise and rule has changed everything, changed our world. This is good news: not just good advice. Not something you can take or leave. This good news says Jesus changes people, empowering them to live a new life of love.

This love is not an unrestricted love. It is love within limits. And these limits are good, and our society typically knows this (as the arrest of that man, who with 8 of his friends, allegedly systematically abused his 13 year old daughter over a two year period). There are some in our world who say that sexual love between adults and consenting children should be allowed. This is a heinous crime, however, and it not love. It is abuse of the worst kind. It has crossed the line. We say this because we know love has boundaries.

But do those boundaries preclude Same Sex Marriage and homosexuality? I want to address this and the related issue of same sex attraction by responding to a number of questions and seeking to bring Scripture’s light to bear on them.

Question One: What is the issue with marriage equality?

People who are same sex attracted want the right to marry, like any heterosexual couple might. The question is being positioned as one of rights: The marriage equality lobby argues that if they they are not allowed to marry, they somehow have less rights than everyone else. If you believe the polls, most Australians seem to agree with this. If anything, this indicates that we do not really understand what marriage is.

My first comment is that marriage is not a right: it is the God given, legally protected, socially received institution whereby a man and a woman maintain family life. All through human history, people have seen marriage as a means to legitimise, protect and raise children. It is the way people have solidified family and blessed society. If marriage is a right, then those who do not have it are somehow deficient. This is what the marriage equality lobby believe. But it is not true: for we would never say that widows or single people are deficient in their rights compared with those who are married.

Even so, the marriage equality lobby has positioned the discussion very effectively as a rights issue when it is not a rights issue at all. I think this has led many people to connect the issue with human rights, and who then can stand opposed to such rights? In a sense, this had led most Australians to think less critically about the issue than they ought.

Question Two: is the church just being bigoted when it opposes marriage equality and same sex attraction?

Once again, the marriage equality lobby has very effectively positioned anyone who disagrees as bigoted and hopelessly out of touch. This has been an intentional strategy for the last 25 years. Today, Christians and anyone else who upholds a traditional understanding of marriage is immediately and vociferously pigeon holed.

But having said that, I would also say that Christians and churches have sometimes, maybe often, displayed prejudice when dealing with those who are same sex attracted. We have joked about gays, teased gays, and parodied their behaviour, and in Christian communities, often left them marginalised. This exposes our fear and prejudice. Such actions, however, only last as long as it takes to discover the gay people in your family, or amongst your friends.

To complicate this further, the church has dropped the ball on this issue several decades ago. In the early 90s I was a founding member of United Christian Aids Concern along with Tim Costello, Eugene Goh and others. We sought to develop a compassionate response among conservative churches toward the growing numbers of AIDS victims. Apart from small handful of exceptions, churches were not interested. The Christian Reformed Churches [CRCA] in Victoria were not interested. My own church at the time was not interested. This illustrates how we have insulated ourselves and lost important opportunities to speak the grace of the Gospel into this issue. So it is harder now for us to engage with credibility.

Question Three: What does the Bible say about “marriage equality”

Marriage equality, as it is being discussed in the media today, is not directly addressed in Scripture, but we do have some very direct teaching about marriage itself. Scripture sees marriage as a permanent covenant between one man and one woman for life. Marriage is not a human invention: God spoke this covenant into the human race.

“That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24, NIV)

Our own marriage form says:

Marriage is for the mutual enrichment of husband and wife, so they might love each other with delight and tenderness.

Marriage is given to provide the secure environment into which children may be born so they may know and love the Lord
[CRCA Book of Forms]

One thing we must remember: while Christians have clear views about marriage and its biblical purpose, the church does not ‘own’ marriage: it is not a sacrament. Further, Australia has a secular constitution. So the church cannot demand that laws about marriage are consistent with biblical teaching. Nor can the Government make religious laws: they cannot tell churches how to practise their religion. This is also seen in how we celebrate marriages in the Christian church. In Australia, religious celebrants like me can only marry “in accordance with the rites of the CRCA”. If the CRCA believes that its rites preclude same sex marriage, that may be enough to free us from any obligation to perform same sex marriages should they become legalised. But the legislation has not yet been framed. Our response will need to wait until that time.

Paul Kelly argues, if parliament legalises same sex marriage, they must also act to uphold the religious freedom of those who do not believe it is a biblical practise. One group’s freedom cannot be used to overrule the conscience of another group.

All this is not to say Christian marriages are necessarily better or happier than the marriages of those who are not Christians. With a heavy heart we have to agree that some Christians have dysfunctional and abusive marriages, and some of those marriages fail. This too is totally other than God’s plan. Further, many same sex parents do an excellent job, and we should be thankful for any context of love, security and safety for children.

Question Four: What does the bible say about same sex attraction?

For over 4000 years the church has consistently seen homosexual practice as something outside of God’s created order. The few texts we have to deal with: Leviticus 20, Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6 consistently describe homosexual activity as sin. I want to look at Romans 1 to illustrate this.

Paul’s main argument in Romans 1 opens with a beautiful proclamation:

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.” (Romans 1:16, NIV)

Paul goes on the teach us how the wrath of God is being revealed against fallen humanity because they neither knew God nor glorified him as God. Then he works through a number of examples which show the result of human separation from God.

A few things to note:

Homosexual practise is included, but it is included with other destructive behaviours, including idolatry, degradation of mind and desire, shameful lusts, homosexual practice, wickedness, evil, greed, arrogance, boasting, habitual gossip, slander, incapacity to show love and mercy… These things are often spoken of as the cause of God’s wrath. That is, people live like this, God gets angry, and casts these people away.

In actual fact, these behaviours are not the cause of separation from God, but the effect of separation from God. Separation from God results in a whole range of behaviours that affect all humanity: homosexual behaviour is one of those.

The point of Romans 1-3 is that sin affects and impacts us all. As Paul says in 2:1

“You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” (Romans 2:1, NIV)

True: Who has not lusted? Who has not had feelings of greed? Who has not on occasions refused to show mercy? Compulsive gossips – are they nowhere to be seen?

This is how God’s word cuts to the heart, friends. It drives us to see the fall in our own hearts, and we are convicted by the word as much as any same sex attracted person.

“…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23, NIV)

So, does God reject homosexual activity? Yes. As much as he rejects all behaviour which neither glorifies him or give thanks to him: arrogance, judgemental attitudes, greed, sexual unfaithfulness, and sexual immorality before marriage to name a few.

We need to remember that same sex attracted people are not kept out of the Kingdom of God because they are gay. In the same way heterosexual people do not make it to heaven because they are straight. What keeps us out of heaven, out of the Kingdom, and away from God is sin. What brings us to God and his heaven is Jesus and his grace

To sum up on this question: what does the Bible teach about homosexual practise? Scripture says homosexual practice as a distortion of God’s created order for creation. This is not something Christians should feel superior about. If they reflect the heart of God, as Richard Hayes reminds us, people who love and follow Jesus will see this is a heartbreaking tragedy. Romans 1 is not about homosexual practice per se, it is about how separation from God has led to the distortion of God’s created order. The effect are everywhere: sexual activity and desires which do not reflect God’s design, substance abuse, compulsive gambling, murder, greed, and habitual gossip.

…people are more than their sexual choices and desires

So: Can I follow Jesus and hold that same sex activity is OK? No. Jesus came to restore God’s design for life and relationship, and those who are in relationship with him are called to bring that new restored life to light. They don’t just receive the good news, they live the new good. They don’t just receive new life in Christ, they must also live to his glory.

“In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.” (Romans 6:11–14, NIV)

Question Five: What about the studies which show a genetic connection with same sex attraction?

If there is a gene that predisposes someone to one or the other activity, that does not mean the activity is necessarily a good thing. Not all inborn traits are desirable and welcomed. For example, some studies are suggesting ‘the gambling gene’, or ‘the substance abuse/alcohol gene’. A gene may be there, but it doesn’t mean there is no other choice. It doesn’t remove personal responsibility. It does not determine one’s behaviour. If anything, it reminds us that the fall has affected every aspect of our being. It reminds us how important it is to find restoration in Christ.

Question Six: How should Christians view people who are same sex attracted? How can we love our same sex attracted friend or family member?

Think of it this way: Anyone here have an arrogant family member? Can you still love them? Can you love a greedy family member? Can you love a Muslim family member? Of course. To love a person does not mean we’re happy with a person’s behaviour. So you should love your SSA friend or family member. You should love them very much. God’s of to us is not conditional on perfect behaviour, neither should your love for others be conditional on their behaviour.

A few things to keep in mind here. One: all human beings are created as God’s image. Before we say anything about a person’s behaviour or life choices, we say “You are created as God’s image”. Think of the way God looks at people. He does not just tolerate people – he loves them. Isn’t that what we read in John’s Gospel?

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, NIV)

God so loved the world. That world is fallen humanity. His love for the world is a love which, through Jesus, will have them find more life than they could even imagine.

Two: we must remember people are more than their sexual choices and desires. I do not think of same sex attracted people as ‘homosexuals’. In the same way I did not walk in here and think, ‘Well here I am talking to a bunch of  heterosexuals.’ That would be just bizarre and weird. So let us not reduce people to their sexual choices. This is as bad as judging people by the size of their bellies or their skin colour. We must see every person as someone who needs the forgiveness, love, and restoration Jesus gives. As Deb Hirsch reminds us “When you invite the messiness of broken humanity, you also invite the amazingness of grace” (Redeeming Sex, 2015)

As Christians we must not view one section of the community as being more sinful than another. God calls us to look into our own heart, and decide whether we can throw any stones.

“Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:1–2, NIV)

Question Seven: If I am same sex attracted, can I still follow Jesus and will he love me?

Just ask: Do we believe the Gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes? Or not? Of course we do! Hallelujah! Then Jesus can bring healing and forgiveness and transformation to any fallen, sinful, broken person, right? God loved the world which was in open rebellion. He still loves people who live in open rebellion. The reason Jesus came was to redeem us from that open rebellion. This redemption is a free gift. He lived the life we could never live. He died the death we should have died. This Jesus comes into our lives purposefully: he forgives and cleanses to lead us into a new life.

When you follow Jesus, you bow before him as Lord, and you commit to living life his way. This is necessary aspect of following Jesus. This is true for everyone who receives his grace. So, the claims Jesus makes on any same sex attracted person are no more or no less than the claims he makes on any other person. Christ calls us all to change. His promise is that he will bless us with his Spirit, enabling and empowering the change he calls us into.

“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.” (Romans 8:1–2, NIV)

“Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.” (Romans 8:5, NIV)

Question Eight: If I am same sex attracted, can I switch to heterosexual preference?

Studies have shown that claims which suggest people can be routinely delivered form same sex attraction are overblown. A few years ago the major organisations which promoted this view, like Exodus International, stepped away from it very publicly.

So, you may not be able to change the inclinations, but you may be able to change the behaviour. In this respect the challenges facing a same sex attracted person who follows Jesus are no different to the challenges faced by any heterosexual person. Persons who do not marry are required to lead a celibate lifestyle. Yes, celibacy is a challenge, but quite probably Paul and most certainly Jesus led this life. It is a comfort to know that the Christ who calls us to follow him knows the struggles we face, and will be with us as we walk with him.

Question Nine: How should the church respond to same sex attracted people? Can I be part of a church if I am same sex attracted?

Can a person who struggles with addiction be part of a church? Or someone who struggles with compulsive gossiping? Yes, of course. But they must embrace God’s call to resist their behavioural tendencies. Desires may still be there, but we choose our actions. The most fallen and failing people need to be part of a loving community of likewise broken and failing people. Together, we must find our restoration in the grace of Christ and the new life he gives us.

As church we must accept all the broken, love them, enfold them, provide accountability – without agreeing with the behaviour or judging harshly or hypocritically. We must accept everyone as persons in their own right, The church must accept all people. They are God’s image. That image is broken by sin. Yet that image can be restored by the powerful work of Christ.

When Jesus started his ministry, he proclaimed freedom for captives and prisoners. This is not a freedom where anything goes. It is the freedom, granted through his own sacrificial death, to – at last – live the life we were created to live. The life God gives by grace through his Son.

Some 700 years before, the prophet Isaiah saw that day, when those with messed up sexuality (like us), where those who have been outside God’s grace, where all who have been separated from God will be brought right into God’s presence, healed and restored (se Isaiah 56:1-8). This is God’s work through Jesus, for all who receive him, and who in sheer gratitude, choose to do what pleases him and who hold fast to his covenant.

Jesus says

““Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28, NIV)

Jesus says

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10, NIV)

[Sermon Audio is available from Gateway Community Church’s Podcast on iTunes]