Of Shepherds and Hope (Advent)

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[Artwork: www.nomorestoneheart.com Used with permission]

Read: Luke 2:8-20

[This short sermon is the first in our Advent series. May God in his goodness bless you richly as you worship Jesus the King this Christmas]

Hope: to cherish a desire with anticipation. That is, to nurse a longing for things to be different, very different, and have some sense that this will one day happen.

We speak of hope like we speak of a wish, a strong desire for something that cannot or probably will not happen. The hope of the Scriptures is quite different. It is a strong and robust thing. Meaty. Grounded. And full of substance.

These shepherds out in the field were not so much men of hope. They were men’s men. Gutsy. They slept rough. There was life and death under their fingernails. They had been born to shepherds. They lived as shepherds. They would die as shepherds. They were regarded as despised, dirty and deceitful. That’s just how it was, and how it would ever would be.

Children today are taught they can make something of themselves. Not these shepherds. Caught between the rock of  religious legalism and the hard place of social prejudice, they would never change.

In our generation hope is more common. Parents hope their children will learn well, work hard, and get on in life.

But do you sometimes hope for more? Not more possessions or more money,  but deeper. Do we still nurse that deeper hope? That life can change? That we can change, or be changed?

Do you ever think that our hope is too limited? That our gaze is set too low? That our hope, far from being courageous, is often limp and insipid.

What we need is conversion. A new mind. A new heart. A new hope.

The good news is that the Christmas Gospel is given by God to convert us to hope. Christmas points us to the better life we all desire, and also sense that it will come to pass. It’s what we sing: a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!

That’s what we hope for. Because of Jesus we are hoping for a new world, a new city, for new people, for a new church, for new relationships.

This is the Gospel: that through Jesus God is bringing the world we anticipate to reality. And God says ‘In and through Jesus I will do this in you. I will make you into a new person!”

In Jesus God is is bringing a world where heaven and nature sing! How many times do we sing these words at Christmas without so much as a thought to the hope they profess?

Heaven is rejoicing, and nature – our world – is rejoicing. It’s like they’ve been brought back together. It’s like a new beginning, a new world. God is directing us to that world and saying ‘My Son has come to open up that reality for you.”

Luke 2:11 Jesus Christ, the Saviour, has been born to you. He is the Messiah. The Lord.

Sometimes we wonder what difference the birth of Jesus actually makes. We sing about the birth of Jesus – if we’re lucky – for five weeks of the year, and then often we go on living the pother 47 weeks as if nothing has happened. How does that work?

How can our hope in him stand in the face of all the world’s threats? Hope, when there’s atrocity in Paris one week, another in the Sinai Peninsula, then San Bernadino. Next week, will we still have hope? How can we hope in a world like this? How can the hope of Jesus really resonate in our hearts?

It is probably too easy to think that our age is the only age where atrocities are commonplace. History shows such things in every age. At every time. In every place.

History also shows how the victory of the Gospel of Christ transformed men and women, cities, nations and empires.

The hope that one day creation’s heavy groans will be replaced with a rejoicing universe is grounded in the reality that, because of the death, rising, reign and rule of Jesus.

Think about that manger. It’s a picture of poverty and weakness. A skerrick of life on the margins of humanity. But to that manger, God sent his son. And through his son, God transforms our weakness, drawing us out of the cold of sin’s winter into the glorious warmth of the Kingdom of God. Draws us out of spiritual hunger into Father’s glorious banquet.

The little child, surrounded by lambs and cattle, would one day be our sacrifice. His life for ours. As people of hope in Christ this the message we bear: this is what we get to carry, to live in our world: Hope in Christ does not disappoint.

God, through his grace in Christ, is giving new birth to a different people. As Christ rules people, the hope of all the earth is seen.

Let us embrace that hope, and carry it, gracious and unashamed, into our world. Let us sing about the King who has come to give us new life.

 

Craving Pure Spiritual Milk

Reading: 1 Peter 2:1-3, Psalm 34

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This is my little grandson, Cedar Rae Groenenboom. Today he is six and a half months old.

He has grown quite a lot. When we was born he was a scrawny little runt. Now, he looks like someone has slipped him into a Sumo suit. Just this last week he sprouted two front teeth. When we skype, he smiles at us. He’s sitting, clutching, started on solids. He is smarter and more handsome than any other child on the face of the earth.

All that growth happens naturally. Just feed him, and he packs it on. As followers of Jesus, we also a called to growth. And it would be good if our growth were as easy and as automatic as Cedar’s. But that is not the case.

Pure Spiritual Milk

God’s word says

“Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation,” (1 Peter 2:2, NIV)

What is this ‘spiritual milk’ and what is ‘growth’?

It’s at this point our ‘bible eyes’ kick in. These are the eyes that read something, assume you know what’s being referred to, and read on, without giving too much thought. So, we read verse 2, and think ‘right: that’s talking about reading the Bible, and hungering for God’s word…”

And we think it’s then calling us to a range of activities that centre on the Bible. Things like

  • Bible reading and personal devotions
  • Listening to podcasts: download great preachers onto your phone or tablet, and you’ve got iWorship and iGrowth anywhere as you drink your pure iMilk
  • Great reading: good Christian books. Seen Tim Keller’s latest? Looks like a cracker
  • Attend worship: sit under the word, get some great preaching under your belt

Now all these activities are good, obviously. And we should be doing a lot more of them. They are relevant to what this verse calls us to. But it’s only half right to suggest they are the totality of what is commanded here.

The problem – if you can call it that – is that they do not actually make us grow. They are a means to growth, for sure, but they do not bring us growth themselves. The distinction is important. Because there is only one thing that actually brings us growth. One thing that makes us alive. There is only one that saves, and it is Jesus.

That’s what Peter is saying here: crave Jesus. Crave him so much! Crave him because relationship with him is the only way you can grow, and live, and have the wherewithal to be people of hope in a hostile world. Crave Christ!

Christ alone both conceives and sustains the life of the new birth. They are to crave the Lord God for spiritual nourishment [Karen Jobes: 1 Peter]

As I said the distinction is important. Why?

  • Because we can read the word, love the word, but miss the ultimate Word, miss Jesus
  • We can enjoy podcasts, but we can love the speaker, even worship the speaker, more than the Jesus he speaks about
  • We can read good Christian literature, but miss the One which gives ultimate meaning to the story
  • We can love worship, love the singing, love prayer, love the act more than worship for the one true audience: the Triune God. [This is the one sole reason for any and every worship war: people lose sight of Christ, and make the form of worship their functional idol – but that’s another sermon]

Crave pure spiritual milk. Crave Jesus. Crave the life only he can give. Crave him above everything else. Only he can bring you life. Only he can bring you growth.

Crave it

Which brings us to the primary command of this passage:

Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk

The picture is of a newborn: she seeks the breast instinctively, eagerly, incessantly. She won’t rest until she’s sated, and then she’ll slip into blissful milk coma. Crave like that.

Consider the overwhelming urge for a favourite food, we call that a craving. Two of the most craved foods in the western world are, of course, chocolate and crispy bacon. Unhappily, bacon has recently fallen out of favour as it may ever so slightly increase the risk of cancer. Dark chocolate, however, is known to contain substances that attack free radicals, and so reduce one’s risk of cancer. So it turns out if you eat bacon, and then have chocolate for dessert, even everything will be ok. [Actually, I have basically made this up, and the paragraphs above is only anecdotal, and is not supported by any scientific evidence whatsoever]

But we know about craving: It’s urgent. Overpowering. And you’ll want that desire to be satisfied.

So, taking into account what I’ve said before, this command is calling us to crave Jesus. To crave his life. To crave his grace.

Does ‘craving’ along the lines of what we have discussed in any way describe your attitude to Jesus?

The question is: Does ‘craving’ along the lines of what we have discussed in any way describe your attitude to Jesus? Does that describe what was in your mind when you walked into this place of worship?

I just want to honour Jesus!
I just want to be drawn into his love and grace!
I want to be nourished by Christ!

That’s what God is saying to us today: crave Jesus! Only he can nourish you, and bring you growth! Your growth in Jesus, growing up in him, becomes the criteria by which all your attitudes, actions, and shared life are evaluated.

Does this help me see Jesus more clearly?

Does this help me love Jesus more dearly?

Does this help us follow him more nearly?

This is why Peter starts negatively. Because if you want to grow in Christ there are a number of things that will stunt your growth:

“Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.” (1 Peter 2:1, NIV)

  • Where maybe someone would say they love the church, but they gossip behind the scenes.
  • Or where they celebrate someone’s giftedness, but in their heart they are green with envy.
  • Or they make out they are people of integrity, but are actually engaged in shonky practices or secret immorality.

If you seriously crave Jesus, you won’t have any part in those things. Why? Because knowing Jesus and growing up in him becomes the criteria by which everything is evaluated.

So, think about how you are nourished, with others, in Christ.

  • This is why we have Home Groups. Think about why you go. The goal is not to know more per se. The goal is not to connect with others per se. The goal is to see Jesus, to know Jesus, to share Jesus, to encourage others in Jesus.
    • Are your discussions drawing you deeper into Jesus?
  • Think about Bible Reading. Many struggle here. Want to know why? Sometimes it’s because we are not praying to see Jesus in his word – who does that? Who prays that simple prayer “Lord, as I read, help me to see who you really are, nourish me with the life only you can give.” There are some steps you can take with others to see Jesus more clearly in his Word
    • Start a discussion group around that goal. Do it online. People spend hours on FB – why not online Bible discussions? A place where you can chat with others specifically about what you’re reading and how it reveals Jesus. A few suggestions
      • Faithlife.com – this is good online Bible software, developed by the Logos group. If you get the app, you can make comments right out of the Bible Reading app into your online community
      • Join Gateway Online Community and join the discussion
    • Facebook: If you must use Facebook, why not follow Gateway’s Advent readings. These readings will lead you through Old Testament and New Testament passages that will focus your mind on the coming of Jesus into our world. Seriously, there is so much Christmas rubbish out there, and we are so busy, it would be a smart thing for us all to do this. It’s like taking a pure spiritual milk chill pill…
  • Sunday Worship. Craving Jesus should be the frame we have when we meet with our Christian brothers and sisters, although it rarely is.
    • What were you actually thinking about when you were driving to worship today? Some where thinking about the stress at home to get ready, others thinking that they’d rather be somewhere else – is it any wonder worship does often do it for us? Most of the time we get the worship our hearts expect, and that ain’t often good for us or glorifying to God
    • If ever there was a Sunday morning prayer, or something to pray while you’re driving to worship, it is “Lord, be my focus. Let me worship you. Honour you. Pray to you. Give to you.” That is a prayer for true Christ-centred worship, right? When that is our attitude, we don’t even have to pray for blessing, because when Christ is at the centre, you cannot help but be blessed in the worship you bring.
  • Crave times of thanksgiving together. We need to find times to tell the stories of how God has blessed us. Or share how the Scriptures have comforted you. Or celebrate how Jesus has forgiven you! Why is it that we do not often hear people speak of their challenges, their burdens, their joys and victories, and how Jesus impacts on those experiences?

As these things draw is into Christ, they are mother’s milk! Crave it! Desire it! Seek those opportunities. Let’s do what we can to turn this church into a powerhouse of nourishment.

Grow up in your salvation

That’s the thing: we want to grow!

“Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation,” (1 Peter 2:2, NIV)

We’ve tasted the goodness of God’s glorious grace in Jesus, and we want to grow! In terms of New Testament language, growth in Jesus is always something we do with others, and it is always angled toward maturity.

That is,

  • the full expression of Christ’s character in my life, and
  • the full expression of God’s will for community in the church

For any Christian and for any church this is challenge and privilege. Challenge because we have to let go of stuff that is less important to do that which is supremely important. It might be letting go of some TV time to get to a Home Group. Or letting go of some luxury items to give intentionally to the church. Or letting go of my selfishness, so I can sensitively listen to others, encourage them and pray for them. Or managing my time differently so I can meet with others, and we can together draw one another into a deeper walk with Jesus. As a church community, it might be letting go of some traditions that keep us from growing up in our salvation.

But it’s also a privilege, because when you start to grow up in your salvation, when you’re working it out with fear and trembling, when you get this sense of growing together, of sharing together in new community, it’s brilliant! When we move toward greater spiritual health, when we’re praying for one another, working together toward better ministry and mission, when we’re driven to depend on Jesus more – together – there is no better place, so more stimulating community than the church!

Paul gave his life to the goal of a mature church:
“He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.” (Colossians 1:28–29, NIV)

You probably know Paul was a man of great learning and spiritual depth. But even he knew that on his own he could never reach the maturity God desired for him. His prayer is his admission:

“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:16–19, NIV)

The only way we will grow up in our salvation is with one another, seeking pure spiritual milk, Christ himself. And then to seek the very things that draw us deeper into him, together.

As we read in Psalm 34, we’ve tasted, and we know the Lord is good. Today, God is calling you to grow up into Christ. To be nourished by Him.
Don’t stop at the first taste… You need to let go of some things. And you need to embrace Jesus, and start doing things that draw you deeper into him.

You are not alone: He has given his Spirit who will empower you to change, to grow, to be nourished by Christ.

You can taste it, right? That desire to grow, that overwhelming urge to have a more Christ centred life, that hunger to be in a wonderfully restored community, bringing to expression the life Christ himself has put in you. May Christ himself satisfy us as we crave this life in Him together.

How Should Christians Respond to Terrorist Attacks?

Paris

Read: Romans 12:9-21

Seeing the images coming out of Paris in the last 24 hours has been confronting and disturbing. As these events were unfolding, there was an world class cricket match being played at the WACA in Perth. And I thought: what if an attack happened there?

So, I was asking questions: Are we safe? What should we do? What should Christians say and think as they respond to Da’esh sponsored violence?

I want to mention three or four things we must do, and three or four things we must not do. Some of these were inspired by Ed Stetzer’s recent post on The Exchange . I have used Ed’s heading, though written my own content. This message was written late Saturday after I had fully completed a message for the Hope Eternal series – we’ll get to that some other time. So, I am indebted to Ed for the idea… thank you, brother.

So, how can Christians respond to acts of terror?

As this question is framed, let’s remember that his past week saw terrorist attacks in other places, including Lebanon. Earlier this year, after the first attack in France at Charlie Hebdo, a Boko Haram attack in Nigeria saw 2000 deaths. Compared to the press attention on France, these other attacks received little attention in Australian media. Two things: 1) terrorist attacks like e saw in Paris are very common in some parts of the world, and 2) our press is quite selective in what is presented. We don’t have to get all suspicious about that: no news service will cover everything.

These realities serve to show that our response needs to be more than occasional. we need to draw these responses into our everyday living as followers of Jesus.

So, back to the question: How can Christians respond to increasing prevalence of terror attacks?

1.Pray

It is for no small reason that Paul, persecuted and in prison, writes to his Christian friends in Philippi

“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:4–7, NIV)

More than any other time, when our hearts are full of fear, we must be a praying people. We call out to the One who knows all, sees all, rules all, and we have the assurance that our powerful God will hear us.

Psalm 116:1-6

Get together with people and pray. Pray for our world. Pray for Paris. Pray that Da’esh evil will be brought to nothing and our world will be rid of it. Pray that Christ will rule people through grace, love, mercy and selflessness.

2.Love the hurting

Jesus, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, reminds us that anyone who is in need, anyone who is hurting, should receive our love, mercy and attention.

We know the story: Samaritans hated Jews. Jews hated Samaritans. But Jesus tells this parable to show us that when God rules hearts, hate is replaced with compassion.

when God rules hearts, hate is replaced with compassion

We may not know anyone hurting as a direct result of these attacks. Pray for the hurting anyway. And find some way to express that. If you use social media, Tweet like a Christian and tell people you’re praying for the hurting.

3.Love your enemies

Do you sometimes think we are becoming less tolerant and gracious? I do. And some comments in social media have confirmed that thought for me. I have seen Christians posting garbage on facebook, whipping up a frenzy of clicktivism against Muslims in particular.

Seriously friends, we shake the fist and give the finger way too easily. And it’s ugly. It drags the name of Jesus through the foulest of human mud.

Read the Scriptures: Jesus never said we should get angry or get even. Jesus never said we should talk about lining them all up and shooting them. Remember: that is what they would do to us.

Jesus says:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. …” (Matthew 5:43–48, NIV)

To be honest, I am finding it very hard to pray for the perpetrators of these acts, or Isis/Da’esh. But Jesus commands me to pray for them. So I will pray they will be overcome, by the grace of God. I pray they would see how Jesus transforms people by grace. I pray they will see that fear and terror cannot win.

Think of early Christian martyrs. Thrown to wild beasts. Burned at the stake. Stories of Polycarp being burned, and yet singing hymns as the fire was set around his feet. Think of Jesus, as he was being crucified, praying “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” There’s our model, friends. Let us go and do likewise, and let us do that together.

4.Live good lives

It’s no coincidence that we have been studying 1 Peter in the Hope Eternal series. Peter wrote to persecuted people. They were hated, maligned and misunderstood. His advice? Keep living godly lives in the public square. Don’t retreat to the bunker. Keep doing good. Keep wearing the grace of Jesus on your sleeve.

“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)

Think about that when terror strikes: Keep living good lives, Gospel hearted behaviour. Let the love of the King be seen in the people of his Kingdom.

How do Jesus’ people respond to terror? To the horror of Paris?

Romans 12:14–21 (NIV)

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;

if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.

In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Jesus’ kingdom, quite clearly, is not of this world, but it is our prayer that, living in his likeness and to his glory, our world will be transformed and evil will be undone.

There are some things to do. Here are a few things not to do:

1.Do not hate people

Do not hate people. It’s a fine line, but when Paul says “hate what is evil” he’s talking about actions and behaviour, not people. Even so, we need to guard our heart here.

Hatred, especially in the face of terror, feels good. There’s something about indignation that will sometimes strangely warm us. But it’s a slippery emotion.

“Hatred stirs up conflict, but love covers over all wrongs.” (Proverbs 10:12, NIV)

The Gospel transforms hatred into a love that seeks Gospel good and Gospel change:

“Do not repay anyone evil for evil…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21, NIV)

Remember Christian, we know how all this will end. It won’t be with the destruction of the church, or with the Christian faith being eradicated. Jesus’ promise is that the gates of hell will not prevail against his church.

His promise is that a day is coming when

“They will neither harm nor destroy on [the Lord’s] holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:9, NIV)

In the words of 20th century Christian martyr, Martin Luther King Jr,

The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice

And again

Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive our hate: only love can do that.

Vengeance belongs to God, and he will defend and vindicate his faithful ones. Believe this and make it your comfort.

2.Don’t blame refugees

It did not take long for some to associate the attacks in Paris with the refugee crisis. Seriously! It was not refugees who mounted the attacks. It was Da’esh. The refugees we tend to see, the refugees our country puts in detention camps, are people fleeing what we saw in Paris.

We are one with refugees, friends. All of us run from these attacks. Let’s not allow the uninformed opinions of some be all we see in this picture.

The Bible reminds us ver directly: God has his eye on refugees, and how we treat them. His people were refugees from Egypt, from Assyria, from Babylon, from Rome, from Hitler, from Stalin, from the Iron & Bamboo curtains. His own dear son and his family were refugees from Herod. (A few days after I preached this message, my sister created this meme – great work Jo!) …

Refugees n Christmas

 

Christians should be the first to respond in grace.

“The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:34, NIV)

3. Don’t blame Muslims

Bracketing all Muslims with Da’esh is like saying all Christians are KKK. It’s like saying because some Christian institutions have been places of abuse, that all Christians are abusers of children.

We believe Jesus is the only way to the Father. We want Muslims to come to know Jesus, (and they want us to know the prophet). But we must not answer injustice with prejudice. The Paris attacks were the work of extremists using Islam for their own evil ends.

4. Do not call for war on Islam

To do so is to embark on a Christian Jihad, our own holy war, a crusade. And that is repaying evil with evil, all the worse because we lump all Muslims together. When we do this we do the very thing Da’esh is doing to us.

The truth: everyone needs Jesus

The Gospel is about the transformation of the world under Jesus’ rule.

Jesus’ Kingdom is not perpetuated by fear or violence.

Jesus’ Kingdom is advanced through love, peace and selflessness in his people.

Jesus Kingdom transforms our world one life at a time, as people bow they knee, coming under his grace, and live in his likeness.

The impact of his Kingdom in people is described as fruit:

“…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22–23, NIV)

And when people like you and I come under Christ’s Lordship, we have new life, we are given a new start, and we start to live a miracle of grace:

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17, NIV)

As Da’esh shows the world the face of terror, Christians must show the world the face of Christ.

In the day of terror, He is our hope. Christ in us, the hope of glory!

We see the horror, and we weep. But we know, in the end, Christ’s love will win.

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails….” (1 Corinthians 13:4–8, NIV)

A Prayer

Compassionate God and Father of all,

We are horrified at violence

In so many parts of the world

It seems that none are safe

And some are terrified,

others grieving lost loved ones, and lost freedom

 

Hold back the hands that kill and maim

Turn around the hearts that hate

Remove the scourge of evil from our cities

And from our world.

 

Grant instead your powerful spirit of peace

Peace won in the cross of Christ our King

Peace that came through persecution and violence

 

Help us remember that nothing can separate us from your love

That you are with us always

That Christ’s life in us is our power to be

A people of good and a people for good

 

Keep us from prejudice, from judgemental attitudes

From superiority, and from living in fear

 

And until Christ returns,

May we live as new creation, fleeing sin

Walking in newness of life

That people everywhere will know

That because of Jesus

Our world belongs to God.

 

 

 

Love One Another Deeply

Hope-Eternal---MM

1 Peter 1:22-25

I bet there isn’t a single person here who has not received an email from someone in Africa, claiming to be the wife of a recently assassinated national figure. She has access to millions, and despite the existence of Swiss banks and Fort Knox, out of every person on the face of the earth, she thinks the best person to trust with all her millions is actually you. You will have looked at that email and said “Is this for real?”

Or you go down to the car yard, and the salesman offers you more for your trade in than you know you can get in a private sale. You’ll think about that and ask yourself, “Is this for real?”

Or you’re down at the Fremantle markets, and you’re looking at the watches. They have all the great brands Tag Heuer, Rolex, Casio. The prices are unbelievably cheap. You’ll be wondering, “Are they for real?”

Now, people look at the church, they hear words about life, a fresh start, and transformation, and you know what are they asking?

“Is this for real?”

The Prescription

If you’re wondering how to spot authentic Christianity, Peter’s words are just what you need to hear. They open our eyes to the very thing that shows whether Christians are genuine.

“Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart. For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.” (1 Peter 1:22–23, NIV)

Love is the mark of the Christian. Love identifies true community from false community. Love strengthens relationship and authenticates witness.

Of course, love can be a variety of things: Altruistic love. Brotherly love. Erotic love. The love commanded here, however, is a sacrificial, selfless love. This is the love of decision. A commitment. A covenant to love despite the cost, despite rebuke, despite rejection. It is unconditional, and in many ways, unconventional. It’s a love demonstrated in God’s saving acts in Jesus. A love that goes to rebels, to enemies. It restores relationship. It builds togetherness. It develops oneness where there is division. It makes friends out of sinners.

Peter is saying to his readers: now that you are purified and holy through Jesus, there is one core reality to operate in. One central behaviour to show Christ is living in you. One thing that matters above all: love one another.

As Jesus had said some years before

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34–35, NIV)

See, Christianity is cruciform. There’s the vertical dimension where we love God with all our heart, soul mind and strength. We believe him. He honour him. We trust him. We love him.

There’s also the horizontal dimension: love your neighbour as yourself. We’re compassionate, friendly, considerate, gracious.

Here’s the deal: love for God demands love for others. Being joined to God in faith means being joined to others in love. When God’s people love one another deeply, it’s like a new reality, new creation is born. It doesn’t get any better.

We also know the fall is still around us and in us. Christians fail each other. Communities of love can become contexts of pain and hurt. And then it’s easy to pull away, and just seek to do faith on our own. And that’s an easy option these days. If you listen to podcasts, you can have Tim Keller one day, John Piper the next, followed by John Ortberg, Matt Chandler, David Platt – your whole week can be immersed in the world’s best preachers. You can bail out of church and do it all at home. But the problem is that on your own, all you’ve got to love is yourself. And that is far from what the Lord calls you to in these verses. Loving God is never merely an individual thing. You can’t be a lone ranger in the kingdom of Jesus. Life with Jesus cannot be lived apart from Jesus’ community. Additionally, if we withdraw when we’re hurt, the hurt is never healed, it’s multiplied. Dragged deeper within, it becomes bitter and ugly.

Yet, when Jesus’ people love each other deeply, Christian community becomes the context of growth and healing where hurt and resentment can become a catalyst for growth and restoration. So: Love one another deeply, from the heart.

It’s your purpose

Second: we need to love deeply because it’s a core purpose of God in saving us. Loving others deeply is not an option. It’s not something that some people are good at or gifted in, while others aren’t. It is core behaviour for the followers of Jesus. Check out that first section of v.22:

“Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other…” (1 Peter 1:22, NIV)

Christ has purified us so that we can love sincerely. Christ is doing a work in you. He’s making his love overflow. A love that is active, persistent and practical. It’s expressed in relationships, in what we think about one another, how we help one another, how we bless one another, how we serve one another.

I started the sermon with the question of authenticity. How do we know if it’s the real deal? How do you spot the true church? Surprisingly, sincere love for each other is the sole distinguishing characteristic of Gospel community. Not truth. Not doctrine. Not systems of church government. Not your affiliation. Not the level of your commitment or the amount of your tithe. These are all important, but if you do not have sincere love, it’s irritating, useless and ultimately destructive.

God has chosen the church, us, to show the world what sincere love really is. At Gateway Church we have just renewed our commitment to grow healthy Gospel community.

GCC Vision Template

We want to be a church where there’s sincere love, where the Gospel is seen. A place where we both live and proclaim Christ’s love for sinners. Where that love is expressed as his people love each other. Where it’s reflected in their love for their world.

Where this sincere love is seen the Gospel is more easily heard and believed and accepted. Where sincere love exists, every anti Christian argument, every attack on the church, is blunted. Where that sincere love persists in the face of attack, those attacks are neutralised. When sincere love thrives, anti Christ is overcome and the flaming arrows of the evil one are extinguished.

I saw last week that Richard Dawkins tweeted an article from the Economist suggesting a religious upbringing diminished generosity.

Screen Shot 2015-11-07 at 6.05.11 PM

What ahistorical piffle. Dawkin’s thought bubble doesn’t even have a rim. It’s nothing. It’s air.

History shows us that sincere love drove the church to mission, to compassion, to cultural advancement. Churches started hospitals, churches developed public education. Christians like William Wilberforce worked to abolish the trans atlantic slave trade. Christians continue today, through the work of organisations like International Justice Mission, to repair broken systems of justice, to stop the violence that perpetuates the poverty of the developing world.

Why do they do this? Because when Jesus rules people, when they are purified through his precious blood, all they can do is love sincerely! That has to be the outcome. It has to work. It cannot not work.

It’s God empowered

Hang on, you say. It cannot not work? Is this for real?

I look at myself and I acknowledge my weakness. We are imperfect. And look around, we can see plenty of contexts where it does not work well. True: this sincere love is not going to be perfect this side of heaven, but we do need to think through what Peter is saying.

First, as we’ve already seen, this love is purposed by God. And what God purposes will come about. Second, this love is commanded by God to people he lives in by his Spirit.

God never commands his people to do an impossible task. When he commands us to “love one another deeply, from the heart” he’s only enjoining what he already empowers. Check it out:

“For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. For, “All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” And this is the word that was preached to you.” (1 Peter 1:23–25, NIV)

Love one another deeply, from the heart (why?) … You have been born again or imperishable seed…

The Perth summer is fast approaching. Coming Saturday the temperature will be some 37C. For the last few months we have been working on our lawn. Enriching it with water retention material. Organic material. Other substances that retain goodness. Keeping the water up. Because if we don’t, we know the harsh summer is going to transform our green lawn into crunchy brown nothingness.

Peter wants us to know people a like grass. Soft and green one day. Brown and crunchy the next. People don’t last. Their efforts often come to nothing.

But when God acts savingly in people’s lives, he begins to transform human weakness – your weakness – by the power of his risen son.

Christians don’t just bear fruit. With Jesus living in them they bear fruit that will last. When God saves people, they move from the realm of the mortal, to the realm of the immortal.

““I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.” (John 5:24, NIV84)

There’s no denying: we’re not in heaven yet. We still fail, and fall, and our love is imperfect. (That’s obvious, otherwise it wouldn’t have to be commanded.) By the same token, I think we underestimate the power of our great God in us.

It’s why in our tradition we’re often short on prayer (which times do you gather specifically for prayer?). It’s why we get worried and anxious when things don’t work out – we think we’ve got to do it all. We react as if God is not in the picture. It’s why the most discussed half of the glass can often be the empty half…

But God is saying, loving this way is not about your limitations. It’s not about you being fallen. It’s not about you perishing. It’s about my living and enduring word doing the very thing that I purposed it to do. It’s about the love and grace and mercy of Jesus doing the very thing I intended it to do in you! It’s about the word that has not only been proclaimed to to, you’ve received it, believed it, it has taken root, and it is bearing fruit.

Christian you are not the same as the unsaved, powerless, sinful person you were before Jesus entered your life! Just as Christ was raised from the dead to the glory of the father, we too may live a new life (Romans 6:4)

God is saying: here’s my prescription, I have saved you for this very purpose, and you can do this, I will do this through you, you can obey my call in my power!

Jesus frees us to be a community of sincere love, deep love, because the God of love has redeemed us with the precious blood of his son!

“Love one another deeply, from the heart”

People talk about body language. You look at how a person is sitting and you can gauge their level of interest. If someone is in the meeting and they lean back with their hands on their head, we all know they think they’ve got the whole thing down and they may be feeling pretty superior. Body language. You can look at body language and get a reasonably accurate idea if what’s going on inside.

Guess what: Sincere love is the body language of the people of God, those who have been born with the imperishable word of God. You observe the sincere love of the people of God and you know what’s happening on the inside! God is at work, and they have been born again with imperishable seed! They are loving each other because they both love God and have been loved by him through Jesus.

Challenge:

So: is there enough sincere love here? Are we maxed out on love? Didn’t think so.

And the question, therefore, is what specific action will you take to start loving your brothers and sisters more?

I know: There’s always stuff that others can do more of, or less of. But this is about you. You and God. He has purposed this love to overflow from your life. So, what steps will you take to make that happen?

You in a home group? Discuss this question. Wrestle with it. Ask yourselves: do what you can to show more love in that context? Who’s on the sideline? Who’s fragile? Who’s in need? Speak into that. Love into that. Do something in love for them.

You’re not in a home group? Best reconsider. How can you love your brothers and sisters if you’re limiting the contexts where that love can be seen and felt and demonstrated? You’re too busy? Too tired? Best reconsider. We all get the same number of hours, and many are time poor. Instead of adjusting contexts of sincere love out of your schedule, adjust other components of your schedule to develop contexts of sincere love. Others will be the better for it, and so will be your heart.

Your church: what specific steps will you take to make your church more a place of love? Where people go out of their way to love? Where they forget about their own interests, and look to the interests of others? How will you start to do that, or extend that?

What will you change to better enfold people on the fringe? People in need? Sincere love says I can do something about that. Visit some people. Ask them around for a  BBQ or a Coffee. Steak and caffeine – what a wonderful ministry of love! See, it doesn’t have to be hard.

Like the eternal seed that started it all in us, the love and mercy of Jesus, such acts last forever.

When it gets tough, when things fall apart, the fact that God’s imperishable seed is at work in us will be our only hope, our only comfort, and our one reason for bringing glory to Jesus.

When that sincere love is good, it will be very good fruit. Those actions and events will be tasty kingdom morsels. We’ll taste them and instead of saying ‘Is this for real?’ we’ll say to ourselves ‘This is great, let’s have some more.’

Transforming Suffering [Hope Eternal #3]

Hope-Eternal---MM

Read: 1 Peter 1:6-9

There comes a time in the life of every child when they realise the power of questions.

Why is milk cold?

Why is grass green?

Why is their air?

Why can’t I see it?

Why can’t I touch the sky?

I found one article recently which claimed a typical 4yr old could ask 400 questions a day, while a typical mother can field over 200 questions from her children. I found that hard to believe, but it was in Brisbane’s Courier Mail, so maybe we can take it with a grain of salt.

Even so, we never lose the capacity to ask why. It’s just that the questions become more serious and probing.

Why are relationships so difficult?

Why am I suffering with this cancer?

Why can’t I be happy?

Why do my friends reject me for being a Christian?

We can be sure Peter’s readers wondered why they were suffering. But the thing that catches our attention is that as they asked that question, they were also rejoicing:

“In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.” (1 Peter 1:6, NIV)

How did they hold these two things together? How can you rejoice while you suffer?

Suffering Purifies Faith

Peter says there are three reasons. First: they can rejoice because suffering purifies their faith

“These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed. …” (1 Peter 1:7–8, NIV)

In biblical times, gold was purified in a furnace. Heated to great temperatures so impurities would be burned away. It was a harsh process, but it left a beautiful result. If they wanted pure gold, this is what had to be done.

If you want faith that is pure, suffering may well be part of it. It’s a harsh process, but God assures us it will leave a beautiful result. Peter wants these Christians to see their troubles in this light.

Do you seek a strong faith? A beautiful faith? A pure faith? In some ways it will come through the crucible of pain. It’s an extreme process, but it delivers a beautiful result.

Church history bears this out. Around the time this letter was written one particular Roman Emperor, Nero, hated Christians. He persecuted them. Punished them. Made a public spectacle of them. There are accounts of Nero illuminating the Vatican area with Christian human torches. He used Christians for blood sport with wild beasts. He was trying to kill the church. And you know what they say, right? If you don’t kill it, you make it stronger. Well, Nero did not kill the church. He just made it stronger. The faith of these Christians was purified in the furnace of trial and persecution.

Something else: look at the words

“…for a little while you may have had to suffer …” (1 Peter 1:6, NIV)

The original indicates their suffering was necessary because it happened under the sovereign hand of God. This tells us the universe is not operating at random. We do not believe in fate, or luck, or karma. We believe in a moral universe and a loving God who holds us and our world in his hands. We trust a God who restrains evil so it cannot swallow us and our world completely. And in his sovereign rule he also allows trouble and trial so we become a strong and healthy church with a vibrant and muscular faith.

This is what we understand by the providence of God. It’s not that things will always be good, that we’ll get what we want, or that the green grass will grow all around. Rather, for his own glory, God will give us what we need to accomplish his will in our here and now.

27 Q. A. What do you understandby the providence of God?

The almighty and ever present power of God

by which God upholds, as with his hand, heaven

and earth

and all creatures, and so rules them that

leaf and blade,
rain and drought,
fruitful and lean years, food and drink,
health and sickness, prosperity and poverty—

all things, in fact,
come to us

not by chance but

by his fatherly hand.

Think of Job: his suffering came from the evil one, but only in accord with the limits God imposed.

Let me be the first to admit: there is deep mystery here. So rather than try and figure out this relationship between a sovereign God and a world of pain, we should recognise the limits of our understanding, note that our great God is sovereign, that Christ has all power, and that we are ultimately, eternally, and actually safe in his hands.

So, yes, we rejoice that through suffering and trial God strengthens our faith.

Transformation by Faith

Secondly, we can rejoice because faith transforms trials in two ways. One: our faith in Christ gets us seeing trials differently.

Suffering, of course, is painful. But we look beyond it to God’s great victory. We see this in Jesus, don’t we? In the garden he experienced such pain that his sweat was like drops of blood. He was deeply grieved that his disciples could not discern the burden he was carrying. But he still prayed ‘Not my will, but yours be done’.

The next day he was whipped to within an inch of his life. A crown of thorns was jammed on his head. His hands and feet were nailed through to the beams of a cross. He was hung there to die an agonising death.

Was he happy? The question itself is offensive. And yet we read

“let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2, NIV)

The joy set before him was his coming victory over death. So he scorned the humiliation of the cross. His faith in his Father gave him a different perspective on suffering.

Joy is not dependent on circumstances, is it? That’s why these Christians can respond to suffering in such a surprising manner. Their joy is not based in their circumstances. Their faith, or should I say, the object of their faith – Christ’s victory over all – allowed them to rejoice despite their suffering.

“Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy,” (1 Peter 1:8, NIV)

Secondly, faith transforms trials because through them Jesus changes us. Suffering teaches lessons about the nearness of the Saviour which cannot be learnt in any other context. Think of Psalm 23: How will we know his powerful right hand will lead us and hold us and guide us, if he never allows us to walk through the valley? How will we know that Jesus actually prays that our faith will not fail, unless we feel the sifting of the evil one?

These things are hard for us to hear, but they are true. And because they are true, while they are hard, they do us good. Faith changes how I see my trials. And faith allows me to learn more about Jesus’ loving care.

Saved through Faith

Finally, these Christians can rejoice in times of trial because they know how the story of Jesus ends. Through all our troubles, we know Jesus Christ will vindicate his people

“These [trials] have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (1 Peter 1:7, NIV)

“Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Peter 1:8–9, NIV)

We know this because our eternal inheritance is guarded by God. In suffering our mind goes to heaven. Some will scoff at this as ‘pie in the sky’. Karl Marx said getting the poor and broken to think about heaven turned faith into an opiate. Something that stopped people from addressing injustice on earth. Peter would never say that. In fact he says something quite different.

Faith in heaven should make us good and and godly citizens.

  • They are to have attitudes that display Christ’s rule in their lives (2:1)
  • They are to live good lives among the pagans (2:12)
  • They are even to submit to human authority – even to people like Nero. By doing good they would silence foolish and abusive talk (2:13)
  • Slaves has to serve their masters as though they were Jesus
  • Marriage and family would become a context of Gospel transformation, instead of a context of domination, inequity, and abuse.

Christians must not use thoughts of eternity to neglect their world. Rather, being saved for eternity they seek to live eternity’s values in their here and now. Their hope is fixed in one enduring reality:

“…you are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Peter 1:8–9, NIV)

This hope is what gave the early church such strength! Writing after both Nero and Caligula, the apostle John writes of the great victory which will be won by the King of Kings (see Rev 7:9-17)

These people were victorious because they were washed in the blood of the lamb. This is critical: if you’re suffering, the only way you will endure is to claim the ultimate victory of Christ on the Cross. That’s when every force was defeated. That’s when the evil head of Satan was crushed. That’s where life was won!

And ultimately, the really big deal is not about us, it’s that the glorious Lord, Jesus our Saviour, is glorified for the rescue he has won! Honoured for the world he has redeemed. Lifted up for the injustice he has banished from the face of the earth. Worshipped because he has borne our iniquities, carried out sorrows, and drawn us through his spirit into everlasting life!

“These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (1 Peter 1:7, NIV)

Friends, faith is purified in the context of trial. Faith in Jesus changes how we see trial, and becomes a context for us learn new things about his loving grace and care. And faith points us to the great day when Christ shall be all in all, and every tear will be wiped from our eyes, every pain will end, and every injustice made right.

“Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!”” (Revelation 7:12, NIV)

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

Living Members: Sharing – Group Study Questions

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Read: Acts 2:42-47 and Acts 4:32-37

“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.”

1. It could be that your church does not have a level of need that would require the kind of sharing we see in Acts 2 and 4. If this is the case, how would you apply these passages in your setting?

2. Imagine Jesus would do into your church meeting one day. What might he have to say about the way you look at possessions and material wealth?

3. What are some of the ways we are tempted to turn ‘good things’ into ‘ultimate things’? (Tim Keller)

4. R Kent Hughes says “So many people never know the joys of Christian fellowship because they have never learned to give themselves away.” Question: what makes it hard for us to be more giving of ourselves?

5. Share some examples of Christians you know who have modelled this kind os generous giving. What did they do, and what impact did it have on people?

6. How is God challenging you in this passage? What changes is he leading you to make?

In closing: spend some time praying for one another and for your church.

Living Members – Apostolic Teaching – Group Study Questions

Read Acts 2:42-47

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feel free to leave comments as feedback…

Living Members: Why Apostolic Teaching Matters

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

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

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

Apostolic Teaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or we have the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15

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

Or the Apostle Paul again in 2 Corinthians 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Believe God the Father, Creator – check

Believe Jesus is his son – check

Accept the virgin birth – check      … and so on.

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

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

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

As John Stott has written,

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

Devoted Themselves

Once again, have a look at v.42:

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

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

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

To adhere to something: to stick with something

To persist in – despite any difficulty, inconvenience or opposition

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

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

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

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

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

Challenge of credo

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

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

Who would want that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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