Marriage Equality & Same Sex Attraction: Group Study Questions

Introduction:

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

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

Read: Romans 1:16 – 2:1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To close

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

“Marriage Equality” and Same Sex Attraction

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Reading: Romans 1:16 – 2:1

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

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

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

Question One: What is the issue with marriage equality?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our own marriage form says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few things to note:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…people are more than their sexual choices and desires

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus says

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

Jesus says

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

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

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: Why Apostolic Teaching Matters

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

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

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

Apostolic Teaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or we have the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15

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

Or the Apostle Paul again in 2 Corinthians 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Believe God the Father, Creator – check

Believe Jesus is his son – check

Accept the virgin birth – check      … and so on.

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

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

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

As John Stott has written,

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

Devoted Themselves

Once again, have a look at v.42:

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

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

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

To adhere to something: to stick with something

To persist in – despite any difficulty, inconvenience or opposition

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

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

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

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

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

Challenge of credo

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

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

Who would want that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Jesus Thinks About the Church – Study Group Questions

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Read Ephesians 5:21-33

Click this link to re-read the sermon 

Discuss

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

Read Ephesians 5:25b-27

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

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

DEEP – Distant – Group Study Questions

Warming up:

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

Read Psalm 63

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

Close

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

DEEP – Distant

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

Psalm 63:1-8

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

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

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

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

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

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

Henri Nouwen writes

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

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

Passengers

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

39153_01_smartphone_use_in_the_restaurant_causing_disruptions_and_headaches_full

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

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

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

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

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

‘I am with you’ – God

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

Psalm 63:2-8

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

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

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

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

But this is what he said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God wants you, even before you wanted him.

God sought you, even before you sought him.

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

Draw Near

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what should you do?

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

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

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

God, please draw me close to you. 

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

Three: Ask God to accept you in Jesus 

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

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

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

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