Our Glorious Inheritance [Series: Hope Eternal]

Our Glorious Inheritance

Read: 1 Peter 1:3-5

Do you ever wonder why your faith doesn’t quite connect with life? Many Christians do. They are doing the right things. Believing the right things. Praying and reading the word. But they feel their faith does not connect with their life. We could spend a lot of time analysing the possible reasons.Perhaps more importantly, the words Peter writes are the best solution. Positively, the best way for faith in Christ to connect with and impact life.

Remember, he’s writing to exiles: displaced people. People who don’t fit in. Life was hard. They had lost a great deal. The culture they lived in considered them fools. Sometimes they must have looked at their lives and circumstances and asked whether in following Jesus they had made the best choice…

New Birth

Peter directs their minds to three surprising realities: realities that made an incredible difference to how they would live. The first surprising reality is found in v.3:

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth …” (1 Peter 1:3, NIV)

New birth is well accepted language in Christian circles, but what does it mean? At the very least, it means our natural birth is not enough to bring us into real life. Life is wonderful. Sure. But if we’re honest it falls short of expectations. Life holds great capacity for disappointment and pain. Sickness. Relationship breakdown. We fail ourselves and others. Warfare. Injustice. Violence and abuse.

The Bible says this has its roots in our separation from God. In human sin. At best we are indifferent to God. At worst, we are his enemies. Either way, without Jesus, people are on the road to hell.

Because of His mercy and grace, God gives new life to people

Peter does not disagree with that. But he wants us to see that because of Jesus sin does not have the last word. He wants to open our eyes to something glorious: Because of His mercy and grace, God gives new life to people. New life! Life that is not at the mercy of fallenness, sin and rebellion.

This is what Jesus refers to when he’s speaking with Nicodemus (see John 3:1-5). Later Jesus says,

“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” 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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:14–17, NIV)

This ‘lifting up’ refers to Jesus’ death on the Cross. God is rich in mercy: he lifted up his Son on the Cross so new birth would come to everyone who believes! Nicodemus was a religious leader, a rich man. Peter’s people were refugees. But all of them were born rebels and sinners. Yet in his great mercy God had given new life.

This is one of the most wonderful truths about Christianity. In his great mercy God has given us new life. A free gift to fallen people, even though the cost to Jesus was unfathomable. In his great mercy, God gives new life. Irrespective of your past. Irrespective of your failings, your sins, your inner rebellion. Irrespective of how much you have wronged others, or how they have broken and wronged you. In Jesus God gives new life to all who look to him in faith.

You know why it’s so good? Why Peter overflows with praise? Because this new birth transcends our circumstances.

new birth transcends our circumstances

How broken do you feel today? Is there heaviness within? Life’s circumstances bearing down on you?

God wants you to receive his new birth. To look to him in faith. To trust the Jesus whose death opens up a new reality.

Living Hope

The second surprising reality is seen in the second half of verse 3:

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…” (1 Peter 1:3, NIV)

For us, using the word ‘hope’ introduces a measure of uncertainty.

Are you going to get that new job? Hope so…

Will you have enough money for the holiday? I hope to!

I hope this new Government can get the economy back on track…

No certainty with any of that!

Christian hope is very different. Christian hope is not about uncertainty. Christian hope is about waiting, waiting for something you know is coming.

In a two weeks’ time, we’ll see the AFL Grand Final,* perhaps between the West Coast Eagles and Fremantle Dockers. None of us will be there. Many of us will watch it on the television. One of those teams will win. There’ll be all sorts of celebration when the final siren goes. And while the final is held over in Melbourne, 3435km away, we know that trophy is coming to Perth. We know there’s be a champion’s parade in the city or in Fremantle. We know the flag belongs in WA. It’s just that we’ll have to wait to see that reality.

That’s Christian hope. You know it’s coming. It’s an absolute certainty. You just have to wait for it. And you know it’s coming because a great victory has been won. Christian hope is based on a greater victory! The victory Jesus has won over death on the Cross. This victory is grounded Jesus’ defeat of the evil one! This victory is grounded in Jesus’ rising from the dead!

Think of what Paul writes to the Christians in Rome:

“…just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Romans 6:4, NIV)

Or to the Colossian Christians:

“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things…” (Colossians 3:1–3, NIV)

Can you see what it’s saying? Through Jesus’ resurrection we live a new life, now! Through Jesus’ resurrection our minds are set on things above, now! Our thoughts are directed to God’s things, now. Set on the things of his Kingdom, now.

God the Father has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

Just let that sink in. Not only is Jesus’ resurrection a real resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection is already at work in you.

No guilt in life, no fear in death. This is the power of Christ in me!

A new life has been born in us! Why? Because new life was born to the world through the resurrection of Jesus!

Just how Jesus’s resurrection makes a difference we will start to see when we look at verse 6 and following (next week). All we need to understand now is that the resurrection of Jesus is way more than a matter of Christian teaching! It is that, but it is way more! It is why you are alive in Jesus! It is why you can live differently, why you can cope with being rejected by your culture and the people around you. This living hope is the most astounding power of good in the world!

You’re not just a man trying to make ends meet, or a woman trying to make something of your life … you are living in hope through Christ’s resurrection!

Imperishable inheritance

This brings us to the third surprising reality. We find it in verses 4-5

“[In his great mercy he has given us new birth] … into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.” (1 Peter 1:4–5, NIV)

We think of inheritance as a financial gift which comes when someone dies. A good inheritance can set a person up, or relieve financial pressure. The inheritance Peter speaks of is so much better. It’s not money: it’s life itself. More life, and better life than we could ever imagine (see John 10:10, MSG). An inheritance that does not perish, spoil or fade.

This is the promise of God himself that we and our world will one day be fully liberated from sin, from the fall, from grief, from tears, from all the frustration of this fallen world. This inheritance is kept in heaven, and it’s fullness is out of sight. But one day, as N.T. Wright so aptly reminds us, heaven’s curtain would be drawn back, and the imperishable inheritance – which at present is kept safe in heaven – will be merged with our earthly reality. And all of life itself will be transformed fully. Christ’s new life will soak through our world and overflow with God’s presence, love and mercy!

Why does Peter mention this inheritance here? Because in a time when people rarely left their village, these people were now exiles in a foreign land. They had left behind livelihoods, homes, quite possibly members of their family. They had lost much. But in Jesus they had gained everything. The God who had given new birth, who had given his Son for them, would ensure than nothing would take their glorious inheritance.

The really interesting thing is that their eternal inheritance did not prevent them from engaging with their world. It didn’t get them just thinking about eternity, and forgetting about the world around them. On the contrary, it changed how they viewed the world. And this Kingdom life started to overflow and influence every aspect of their lives and existence. God’s eternal future started bubbling over into their everyday now.

There’s the connection between faith and life friends! There’s the power of the risen Christ in his people! They had been brought into the glorious reality of the Kingdom of God! This living hope empowered them to changed lives. Their inheritance was secure! This is the thing: as a believer your life, your existence is no longer shaped by this world’s society and culture.

Did you know that?

Do you understand?

You do not belong in the culture in which you reside. Remember: you’re exiles! Jesus is risen! And his resurrection life is now at work in you! You are raised with Christ! You live a new life! And so you do not belong to this world’s society and culture. You belong to the society and culture of the Kingdom. This new birth, this living hope, this inheritance is yours! It will never perish, spoil, or fade! By the power of Christ’s salvation the Father guards it in heaven for you! God calls you to live this life! To express it. Speak it.

Kingdom thoughts.

Kingdom values.

Kingdom behaviour.

Kingdom love.

Kingdom compassion.

This is where you belong! This is your country! Your true country. Your first and only allegiance. Isn’t that what Paul declares so powerfully?

“But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” (Philippians 3:20–21, NIV)

An imperishable inheritance! Grounded in the transformational death, resurrection and rule of Jesus Christ, kept in heaven for you!

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.” (1 Peter 1:3–5, NIV)


* This illustration shows my humanity. As it turned out, only one WA AFL side made it to the Grand Final, and then they lost – and woefully so. But you get the point: Christian hope is based on the rock solid certainty of Jesus’ victory. The battle is already won in principle, we’re just waiting for the consummation when Jesus returns for all to see as Victorious and Glorious Lord.

Our True Identity [Series: Hope Eternal]

Hope-Eternal---MM

Read: 1 Peter 1:1-2

If you’ve ever watched  Disney movie, you’ll know the story revolves around three basic questions:

  • Who am I?
  • What am I?
  • Where do I belong?

Lion King. Toy Story. Frozen. Terminator. All the same. OK, I’ll admit these questions aren’t as easy to pick up in Frozen… Even so, the Disney scriptwriters know something very important about us: they know our biggest question is one of identity.

Exiles

As Peter writes to these churches he starts with their identity.

“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia,” (1 Peter 1:1, NIV)

They are exiles. Foreigners. Many scholars believe these Christians started in Jerusalem, but had been forced out in waves of persecution. They are, in fact, refugees. They have been driven from Jerusalem to Asia Minor, or what we know as modern day Turkey.

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You probably know what exiles are. Some of you have done this yourselves: packed up belongings and headed to the other side of the known world in an effort to seek a better life. People from South Africa, India, Nertherlands, the Eastern States of Australia. Think about what it’s like for exiles:

  • When you’re an exile in a strange land you have no citizenship
  • You have reduced rights (no medical benefits, unable to vote, no social security)
  • You will have different values. A different language. Different dress style.

People like this stand out. You’ve seen the women in the burka at the shops? What do you think about that? Rightly or wrongly we make the assumption that they are foreigners. You’ve been on a plane with the Middle Eastern men, did that feel a little uncertain? I am confident that Middle Eastern people are as honourable and trustworthy as any Australian, but because of recent history we will have a few doubts. More a reflection on us than them, I think.

This is what Peter is saying about Christians. For the church, for Jesus’ people: We don’t fit in. This world is not your first home.

Now, we need to understand something before we go on: many will hear those words ‘this world is not my home’ and immediately think Peter’s contrast is between earth and heaven. Not correct. Sure, there is an eternal inheritance which Peter will talk about later in his letter, and we’ll get to that eventually. But the contrast here is not between heaven and earth, but between Christians ruled by Jesus, and the dominant culture around them. It is between the church as God’s new community, and the world as community ignorant of God and often opposed to him. That’s why Peter says ‘Don’t be surprised if people think you’re a bit weird. Don’t be surprised if people reject you.’ Christians, you are exiles. Church, you are foreigners. Displaced people.

We know this tension, don’t we?

For almost 2000 years the church was seen as part of the solution to our world’s woes. Now we are seen, by some at least, as part of the problem. We are exiles.

This is actually a challenge for us. Why? Because we listen to our culture and we are desperate to fit in. To be affirmed. To be noticed. We need to ask what this desire is doing to our faith and our following of Jesus. Are we seeking an identity that ultimately will dilute our relationship with Jesus? Is the identity we seek harmonious with the Kingdom of God, or it undermine who we are as the people of God? Will it strengthen God’s church, or will it weaken it?

Or think of what we have witnessed today as Clint and Tash have brought little Isla to receive the mark of the covenant in Christian baptism. Could there be a more important question for them today than to know their true identity in Christ?

Elect

Who am I? Who are we? Exiles, yes, but Peter notes a more profound reality that shapes our identity:

“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father…” (1 Peter 1:1–2, NIV)

Who are we? As people who love Jesus we are God’s elect. What does Peter mean? At one level, Peter uses that word to show the unity these NT Christians have with the OT people of God. He says ‘remember how God’s people were exiled to Babylon? You’re like them. Remember how God’s people were scattered under the Greek Empire after Malachi? You’re like them. The point he’s making is this: It’s not that there is an Old Testament people of God, and then the church as a different people of God. It’s the one covenant people of God all the way through, even through to today. So Peter is saying this to comfort them, and us.

You are the people of the King. Even though you are exiles and foreigners, you carry his rule into your world. You are exiles, not because earth is contrasted with heaven, but because Christ’s Kingdom is in contrast to your culture, your world. The rule of Lord Jesus is opposed to, and will overcome, the rule of Caesar. Jesus is Ruler of all rulers, King of kings, Lord of lords.

But there’s another level of meaning here. Peter calls them elect, and chosen by the foreknowledge of God (see vv.12).

What does this mean? Well, it does not mean that God kind of looked into the future and somehow saw who would honour him, and  then chooses them. That can’t be true: that would make God dependent on human response, and what sort of God would that be? I suggest not a particularly powerful one.

So: What does it mean that we are elect and chosen by the foreknowledge of God? Listen carefully: Even before the creation of the world, God had chosen whom he was going to redeem. He knew their names and everything about them. And even before the creation of the world, God had chosen who was going to to redeem them. He knew His name. And everything about Him.

Even before the creation of the world, God had chosen whom he was going to redeem and who was going to to redeem them

Think about that. You are not here today as a person of faith merely by reason of your own decision. You are here as a believer because before the creation of the world this gracious God chose you, knew you, and by his sovereign initiative, chose you as his own. Think of little Isla. What does she know? What can she do? She knows very little, and while she can make noises, fill her nappy, and eat, she can do little else. But God says to her – little baby that she is – Isla, I love you. I am your God. I will be with you. I want you to love me, serve me, believe in me. God speaks his promise into her life before she either understand or respond. God’s election is like his promise: it is not dependent on anything in us or anything we do. Election is simply an astounding display of sovereign grace and love!

Paul writes the same thing to the Ephesian Church:

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.” (Ephesians 1:3–6, NIV)

Or think of what we read in Romans 8

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” (Romans 8:28–30, NIV)

In fact, God’s choice of his people is like his choice of His Son’s saving role:

“[The Lamb of God/Jesus] was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.” (1 Peter 1:20, NIV)

The thing to note about Peter’s words, and those of Paul, is that every time we read about election or foreknowledge, it is written to comfort God’s people. It is never mentioned as a matter of bare theology. It is always connected with the dependability, the faithfulness, the absolute trustworthiness of God’s plan of salvation.

We are in the hands of this loving God who has guaranteed, by the precious blood of his own son, that he will bring his saving purpose to completion in us! Even before the creation of the world, God had chosen whom he was going to redeem. He knew their names and everything about them. And he has chosen who was going to to redeem them. He knew His name. And everything about Him.

Let’s read on:

“who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with his blood…” (1 Peter 1:2, NIV)

God has not only chosen you, he has drawn you to himself and made you holy through the work of His Spirit. His whole purpose is to change you, so you will obey, that your life will honour God and show the true nature of life in Jesus. We need to see this clearly: God’s purpose in choosing his people, and drawing them to himself through his Spirit, is so they will be holy and obedient. Frequently, people seem to miss this. They think they can just accept Jesus’ forgiveness and not worry about his call to change. They miss the point of God’s intention entirely.

Knowing Jesus is not just about information, Jesus lives in us for our transformation. You cannot honour Jesus and keep pursuing sinful behaviour. The Spirit will work in you so you will obey Christ, and live his new life.

This is why you are an exile. Why do you quite belong, why the church stands out as a different community. It’s different because God’s people are to live holy lives and behave differently. This is one of the core meanings of holiness. It’s not about being in a special building, or using religious sounding words, or wearing some distinctive clothing. To be holy is to be set apart, to be distinct, reserved for the purposes of God, set aside to live the new life he has given us in Jesus his son.

God has chosen you in his sovereign love, the Spirit is working His sanctifying, difference making, holyfying power in your life.

Let’s go back to the verse:

“who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with his blood…” (1 Peter 1:2, NIV)

When Peter says we have been sprinkled with the blood of the Saviour, he associates the Cross of Christ with the Old Testament Temple sacrifices. The priest used to sprinkle the people with the blood of animal sacrifice. As he did, he was saying something about the terrible depth of their sin, and the cost of atoning for it. He was saying sin was so bad, so grievous, that blood had to be shed for it. Something had to die. Someone had to pay.

The Gospel says this is what Jesus has done! When he died on the Cross, he was the great sacrifice. His death cleansed you from sin, and took your guilt. His suffering absorbed the wrath you deserve. That’s what Paul says as he writes to his Pastor colleague, Titus

“…our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, … gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” (Titus 2:13–14, NIV)

In the same way Peter comforted these people with his words about election, he is now comforting them with the power of Christ’s blood, poured out on the Cross. He knows he is writing to struggling, suffering Christians. The world may have rejected them, but the Sovereign Lord has elected them. The Father chose them before creation to be his own. The Spirit has opened their heart and drawn them to God. The Son has sprinkled them with his blood. Their situation may be precarious and uncertain, but their eternity is rock solid in the sovereign, all powerful, all gracious work of the Triune God!

This is who you are, Christian! This is what you are, Church! This is where you belong! Living for the glorious Kingdom of God!

Emboldened

Imagine how those words would have encouraged these Christians, Churches scattered throughout Asia Minor! They felt rejected by the world: no big deal! They feel out of place: OK. But God was with them, and he’s preparing a new heaven and a new earth more wonderful than they could ever imagine! Disenfranchised? Yep. But it’s not their vote or influence that mattered. God has chosen them. His Spirit is changing them. Jesus has cleansed them and set them free! Hallelujah!

You’ve seen the picture of the Coptic Christian martyrs. Twenty-one men beheaded on a beach in northern Africa. Sickening. Disturbing. Abhorrent violence. But sometimes I wonder whether, as they felt the hand of their captors on their shoulder, they also felt the loving and gracious and all powerful hand of the living God, comforting them? Whether they heard the voice of God, “They may reject you, but I have elected you! Do not fear! I am with you!”

And God is saying to us: remember who you are. Remember your true identity. Remember what Christ has done for you! This will bring you grace and peace in abundance (see the end of v.2)! He is saying: remember who I am! Remember what I have done for you! Remember Jesus is your good Shepherd, no one can snatch you out of the Father’s hand!

Church, the pressure may be on, but this is not a time to shrink back. This is not a time to be ducking for cover. This is a time to rise up! As salt and light, let the Kingdom shine like a city on a hill! Be strong and courageous! Because how you act and behave will reflect God’s great plan for his world.

Rise up church, as we have seen the church rise up this week, Christians all around the country – irrelevant, bigoted oddballs to some – but they open their home. Why? Because they know what it’s like to be rejected. They know what it’s like to have your heart in another place. They know what it’s like to be loved and saved by God, so when there are people who need loving and saving, you’ll find the church right there.

The times may be tough. Tougher, no doubt, for these Christians than for us today in Australia. But they knew their identity. They knew God had chosen them. They knew Jesus had saved them. They knew the Spirit was with them. And it emboldened  them to stand as God’s new people, reflecting his new life to a broken and fallen world. May God in his grace enable us to see, and to be, his people in his world today.

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

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

LM ppt background

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

“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]

Baptism and Children

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Read: Acts 2:22-24; 2:32-41; Genesis 17:1-17

As we see this little child baptised, we should all be asking a simple question: What is baptism about?

Answer: Promises. God’s promises. In baptism we hear God speaking to undeserving people, assuring them that he keeps his promises. As we hear these promises we are called to respond.

Peter’s words in Acts 2 can be summarised in one simple sentence: God keeps his promises. And he calls us to respond to them.

What the Bible says

In actual fact, Peter spoke to a crowd of murderers. Seven weeks before they had crucified Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, the Messiah. Ask yourself: Could there be a more undeserving crowd? Yet when they understood the gravity of their actions, they were cut to the heart, and asked ‘what should we do?’

Verse 38:

“Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”” (Acts 2:38–39, NIV)

Can you hear the words of promise? The promise of forgiveness and the gift of the Spirit. Given to everyone who repents. And Peter said these people were to express their repentance by being baptised.

But there’s something else going on, too. These people are Jews, and as we learned last week, they knew much of the Old Testament by heart. And there is a phrase Peter used which would have caught their attention immediately:

“…The promise is for you and your children …”” (Acts 2:38–39, NIV)

On face value, they may not mean too much to us. But when Peter’s hearers heard those words, they would have immediately thought of what we read in Gen 17 when God spoke his covenant promise to Abraham. Understanding these words is critical if we are to know why children of believing parents ought to be baptised.

The Lord said to Abraham,

“I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.” (Genesis 17:7, NIV)

In verse 8 were read ‘you and your descendants’

In verse 9 were read ‘you and your descendants’

And in case we missed it, in verse 10 were read ‘you and your descendants’.

So, what’s happening is that the covenant of promise is sovereignly bestowed. And the Lord required that circumcision was how people would show their submission to that promise. What really interests us today is how the Genesis phrase ‘you and your descendants’ is a conceptual match with Peter’s ‘you and your children’.

In Genesis 17, The Lord makes a covenant promise to Abraham and his children. In Acts 2, Peter declares the promise the Lord makes to believers and to their children. In Genesis 17, there’s a context in which that promise is to come to expression: the household of faith.

We are told that Abraham circumcised himself (that is commitment!). But that’s not all: Not only would he eventually circumcise Isaac, yet to be born. He also was to circumcise every male in his household. Every servant. Every servant’s son. Every foreigner who was living with them – even people who weren’t born in Israel. 

Consider the power of that word ‘household’: To us, it’s mum, dad and 2.1 kids. But in this culture, Abraham’s culture as well as New Testament culture, a household was several generations of people living together. Grandma. Grandpa. Parents. Children of all ages. Servants. Slaves. Foreign refuges who were living in that family. They were all part of the household.

“For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant.” (Genesis 17:12–13, NIV)

And that’s what Abraham did, as we read in Genesis 17:23-27. God’s covenant promises come to expression in households, in covenant families.

God’s covenant promises of grace come to expression in the context of the believing family

You may not know this, but this pattern is seen clearly in the New Testament. Check it out:

In Acts 16, Lydia is converted in Philippi. She’s a wealthy woman, a dealer in highly valued purple cloth. As a wealthy business woman, she would have had a number of servants. And we assume a family. Look at how believing Lydia submits to God’s promise:

“One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us.” (Acts 16:14–15, NIV)

She believes. Yet her household is baptised. God’s covenant promises of grace come to expression in the context of the believing family.

Soon after, other people are converted. Among them, a demon possessed girl who makes money for her ‘owners’ by revealing people’s secrets. Paul and Silas cast her demon out – which is great for her, but it infuriates those who had kept her as a slave, exploiting her condition. The slave girls owners slap a law suit on Paul and Silas. They are thrown in prison. No big deal: they are chilled and singing kumbaya when suddenly all the prison doors open, and all the prisoners’ chains fall off. The jailer sees this and is about the kill himself, when Paul, Silas and all the other prisoners point out no one has escaped. The jailer is overcome, sees that God is at work, and asks what to do. Now, notice how Paul shows the Jailer how to respond to the promise:

…“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.”” (Acts 16:31, NIV)

He believes, but it has implications for his household. See Acts 16:34

“Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.” (Acts 16:34, ESV)

God’s covenant promise comes to expression in the context of family.

There are other examples. In Acts 18:8, the household of Crispus believed and was baptised. In 1 Corinthians 1 we read that Gaius’ household was baptised (v.14). 1 Corinthians 1 Paul notes he also baptised the household of Stephanus (v.16). In all, five households are baptised. And it is inconceivable that those households did not include children and infants. It actually makes sense that they did, because it corresponds clearly to Genesis 17, where the sign and seal of God’s promise, circumcision, was applied to the household.

So when we take all this information together, what we see is a compelling continuity in the covenant promises of God, and the sign of those promises given in the context of family, including children.

Call and response

Think of what was signified:

Circumcision was a sign that sin need to be cut away. Baptism is a sign that sin needs to be washed away.

Circumcision pointed to the coming Messiah, Jesus. Baptism points back to the Messiah, Jesus.

Circumcision said ‘one day the Lord will do this’. Baptism says ‘God has done this in Jesus, His son’.

Both point us squarely to the action of God in saving his people, and his promise of cleansing in his Son. And the best context for God’s promise to be received, expressed and lived is the believing household, the Christian family.

In the water we hear God speak

This is why churches should never agree to baptise children of parents who do not believe. Churches should not do that because baptism is a sign of submission to God promise. That only has meaning in the context of faith.

That’s why we’re baptising little Daniel today. It’s not because he has faith. He doesn’t. It’s not because his parent’s faith somehow covers him. It doesn’t. It does not guarantee that Daniel will become a Christian: this is why Thomas and Clara promise to surround him with Christian example and influence. We all, along with Daniel, receive this sign and seal of his promises today: God gives grace to undeserving people like us. This is his covenant promise in Christ. We submit, we receive its sign in the context of family. Baptism points us to God. To the Cross. To Jesus sacrifice, which cleanses us from sin.

Today is about promise. In the water we hear God speak: I am your God, trust me, and believe the cleansing I have provided in my Son, Jesus. God can, and does, make this promise to children, to adults, to anyone who trusts in his Son: “I will be your God and the God of your descendants. My promise is to you and your children.”

And so today we hear God speak: Daniel, I will be your God. Daniel, I have sent my Son to rescue you from sin. Daniel, I am calling you to believe in me, to trust me. Your baptism shows I love you, and it’s calling you to love me back! To have faith in the Jesus who came for you.

That’s the one thing baptism does guarantee: and it’s the truth of what Jesus has done. He did not wait for us to love him before he gave his life. He did not wait for us to receive him before he bore the nails. No, while were were enemies, while we were sinners, God haters, Jesus died for us.

God’s covenant promise, made thousands of years before, are fulfilled in Christ. That’s grace! All the richest of Christ, all expenses paid by Jesus, no cost to me. And baptism wonderfully reflects that covenant grace: a promise given to Daniel before he can understand or know or love or receive. A promise of God’s grace, made through the blood of his Son, which cleanses us from all sin.

Living Members: Sharing

LM ppt background

Reading: Acts 2:44-45; Acts 4:32-37

So we have all seen those before and after diet ads. They show a picture of people like “Fred” [not his real name] before he started Weight Watchers. And then there’s a second picture taken after he’s been on the program. The change is unmistakable. In 12 months Fred lost 50kg. He’s a changed man!

biggest loser

Most people’s experience with diet, however, tends to be more like this:

robert-lost-his-glasses

In only two weeks Robert lost his glasses..

Experts are saying that crash diets do not lead to permanent change, so their suggestion is don’t throw out your old wardrobe just yet…

Moving on from diets, let’s talk church: does being part of a church change people? I read some research from George Barna this week which said that 46% of people say their lives had not changed as a result of being part of a church. Would that statistic be reflected in this church, do you think? That around half of us would say our lives have not changed as a result of being part of a church? That would be a very disturbing reality, wouldn’t it?

And it seems a picture very different to what we have in Acts 2:

Sharing…

 “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” (Acts 2:44–45, NIV)

This thought is extended in Acts 4:

“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.” (Acts 4:32–35, NIV)

Here’s the question: What is happening in this church that moves them to such compassionate sharing? We probably wouldn’t pick it up, but that little phrase ‘there were no needy persons among them’ would have been immediately recognised by the people Luke first wrote to. At this stage, all of them were people who identified as Jews, most of them well versed in the OT Scriptures. Many of them would have memorised at least the first five books of the Old Testament, some of them, even more than that. And a few of them would have know the entire Old Testament by heart. Their minds would have immediately gone to Deuteronomy 15, where the Lord gave commands about using wealth and freeing people in debt. As the Lord outlined how Israel was to live as people before the watching world, he said

“However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you,” (Deuteronomy 15:4, NIV)

In these few phrases in Acts 2:44, and Acts 4:34, God is telling this brand new church something very important: they are now His new people, the new Jerusalem, the new Israel, God’s new community.

That phrase “There were no needy persons among them” was a clear signal that God was living in them. Taken along with the outpouring of the Spirit into the church at Pentecost, it showed they were the temple of his Holy Spirit. It showed the Risen Christ had poured his new life into them! And they would never be the same.

God is telling this brand new church something very important: they are now His new people, the new Jerusalem, the new Israel, God’s new community

And because Christ’s new life was in them, those who had been drawn into Christ’s church considered it unthinkable that rich and poor could exist in the same community. See, when God is present in people, his compassion overflows into their lives, and from their lives into the lives of others. Through his Spirit Christ is living in these people, and has formed them into His Body. He is living in them corporately as the church, and living in them individually as his followers. They are an entirely new community, a new reality, a new spiritual entity.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer has said

Because Christian community is founded solely on Jesus Christ, it is a spiritual and not a human reality … which comes from the natural urges, powers, and capacities of the human spirit.
[Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p.21]

The church is not a human organisation, and what we see in Acts 2 & 4 is not typical human behaviour. Christ lives in the church, and his life is poured into this community by his spirit.

This sharing did not come about because they knew one another, because they’d grown up together, or because they were great friends. We saw earlier in Acts 2 this church had grown rapidly: 3000 people had been added in one day. People from all over the known world. So this church would have included some wealthy people, business people, farmers, freedmen, servants and slaves. It was an incredibly diverse community!

But look at what happens:

All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” (Acts 2:44–45, NIV)

Now, this is not the enforced abolition of private property. We know this because many of these people still lived in their own home, we see that in v.46. We see in Acts 12 that people some time later also owned homes. We see in 1 Corinthians 1 how as the church spread into areas like Corinth, that people are still holding meetings in their own homes. People’s homes, in fact, were the primary meeting places for the church as it spread and grew. So, private property was retained, and used to bless the church.

So, this is not totalitarianism. Rather, this is spirit filled transformation of people and their community. These people have had their lives changed by Jesus, transformed by Christ. So the sharing is voluntary. And we can tell by the way the original sentences are structured that it was a regular practice, and it was directed toward poverty and need.

“They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” (Acts 2:45, NIV)

See, these Christians had made a very conscious decision to use their money and wealth to show the grace of Jesus Christ and His Kingdom. And all it took for this to happen, it seems, was for someone to have a genuine need. Followers of Jesus would volunteer cash, or goods that could be sold, or shared, so the needs of that person to be met.

Of course, there is a caveat: this is not about throwing good money after bad, or rewarding poor choices. God does not want his people to sell their stuff so someone can use the money to support their substance abuse, or their gambling habit. Substance abuse and gambling are destructive behaviours. This sort of sharing would have been applied in a way that the restoration of the Kingdom, the values of heaven, would have been brought to expression. Both giver and receiver come under the same transformation.

It is an incredibly attractive picture, isn’t it?

Here’s the question: Would a church like this be a church you would like to be part of?

Materialism

Maybe you’d want to be part of that kind of community. At least on the receiving end. But would you want to be one of the givers? Would you be prepared to share something of your wealth or your assets to assist the genuinely needy?

I think this is a challenge for us, because we place so much emphasis on our possessions. Our struggle is not that our goods are bad. It’s more that it’s so easy to make them gods.

Tim Keller reminds us:

Sin isn’t only doing bad things, it is more fundamentally making good things into ultimate things

If we make good things ultimate things, they become our idols. They take the centre of our lives. They occupy our vision, they determine our gals and values. But when Jesus is Lord of your life, he occupies that place and hold those prerogatives. He is Lord of all, and as Lord of all he intends to cast every idol out.

Jesus in your heart changes how you use what is in your hands. When Jesus is your God, he’ll change how you see your goods.

This becomes more complicated the wealthier our society becomes. Go back generations, and there was less focus on what people had, because so few people had disposable wealth. Today in Australia, we are more wealthy than most of the world, and yet it’s hard for us to contemplate this kind of sharing. It shouldn’t be, really, because whether now, or 200 years ago, or 2000 years ago, Christians have always said that Jesus is their rock.

On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.

Christians have always said that their only comfort in life and in death, is not in what they own, but in that they are not their own, but belong, in body and soul, in life and in death, to the faithful Saviour, Jesus Christ.

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Because Christ holds me securely, I can hold other things loosely. Because I am treasured by Christ, I can treasure another reality:

““Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19–21, NIV)

Our treasure is heaven: that is, bringing God’s reality to expression in our lives. Our treasure is to live put that reality that we are seated in the heavenliness with Christ even now (see Colossians 3:1-4). We are living the life of our new citizenship in heaven.

Because Christ holds me securely, I can hold other things loosely

And look at these Christians! This sharing is a clear indicator that they are doing just that!

Gospel Transformation

See, something has happened and it has changed these people forever. And the thing that has happened is this: Jesus Christ is risen, and he is living in these people. That’s what Paul says in Romans 4:

“We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Romans 6:4, NIV)

That’s what has happened! They have been made alive forever in the resurrection of Christ! They have been drawn into his new community, into his church! They are his new people. In that sense the change that Jesus is working in them is already becoming visible. Jesus is living in them through his spirit, and he is changing they way they lived, and the values by which they lived their lives.

Think of it this way:

Imagine you had a rich uncle. You were his favourite niece or nephew. Imagine you uncle has died, and you’ve just had news that he’s left several million dollars to you in his will. And you will receive that inheritance in 3 months time. October 19, 2015. Do you think your life would be any different? Of course it would! Even though the inheritance had not been fully received, you’d start to make some changes immediately: you would tell people your good news, and the reality of that good news would change your disposition and your behaviour! How could it not do so?

See, this is what we mean when we say we are living a new life. Something has happened: we have the life of Christ! We have been given an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade! And while we don’t have its total consummation, the fact that we have this inheritance makes a difference today, in the here and now.

These people did not have its total consummation: but Christ living in them changed how they lived to such an extent that they used their possessions to bring him glory and to help the needy. They did this knowing not only that something had happened, but that something else was yet to happen. Christ would return, and bring the new heavens and the new earth. And until that happened, their calling was to live the values of that coming existence in their here and now.

It may be true that we lose out on something of the power of Christ’s new life because we do not intentionally live in his changed reality. Because we live like we do not have the inheritance he has given.

R Kent Hughes says

So many people never know the joys of Christian fellowship because they have never learned to give themselves away.

With this in mind, it’s not hard to see how sharing like this is one of the most powerful evidences of the presence of the Holy Spirit. That’s exactly what we read in Acts 4

“…God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them…” (Acts 4:33–34, NIV)

…so powerfully at work in them… – it’s not just a rhetorical expression. It’s the new life of Jesus Christ coming powerfully to expression!

I am incredibly challenged by this. I don’t think I am that driven by possessions. Just don’t ask me if you can borrow one of my bass guitars… Then again, if there was a real need, would I have the desire to put one or two on eBay and give the proceeds toward that need?

I started today by referring to research which said 46% of people were unchanged by being members of a church. Do you think people in the Acts 2 church would have said that? Far from it.

Do you think you would say that if such grace, such spirit power were flowing through you? Far from it.

The reality is, we all want to be this kind of church. We all want to be living members of precisely this kind of community.

Now, I do not know your need, or the extent of your wealth. But perhaps this message is challenging you to step up: “God has blessed be richly, I have some some money, and if there’s ever some genuine need, let me know…” Or maybe you’re being challenged from the other side of the ledger:  “I am so on the breadline, I have been through this awful financial catastrophe, and I don’t know what to do…’

Come, let us pray about it, let’s work this out like God’s people should. Jesus says: it’s time for us to reorient our approach to wealth and material possessions. And if we do, through the grace of Jesus, in the power of his Spirit, our lives will change, our church will change, and our sharing will bring powerful witness to the Christ, who changes everything.

[download sermon audio here, or via iTunes Podcast]

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

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