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.

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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.’

From Hope to Holiness

1 Peter 1:13-16

Hope-Eternal---MM

Last night the New Zealand All Blacks defeated the South Africa Springboks 20-18. Tonight, The Wallabies will meet the South African Pumas, and the winner will play New Zealand in the final on October 31. Most Australians will be praying that the referees will be on our side in these coming games as much as they were when we played Scotland…

The stakes are always high in the world cup. And opposing teams are going to ridiculous lengths to gain an advantage.

  • There are accusations the English have been spying on the Australian teams with high tech photographic equipment. One report notes “a man with a very long lens was chased away from the Australian training venue”
  • There are reports of drones being used to film opposing team training sessions
  • The All Blacks have covered the fences of their Lensbury base in plastic – presumably all black plastic – and that they have stationed security guards around the perimeter

Why would a team go to such lengths? Because their eye is on the prize. And when your eye is on the prize, that one outcome will determine all your actions.

Set your hope fully

We see this in what Peter is saying:

“Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming.” (1 Peter 1:13, NIV)

He is saying, “Keep your eye on the prize! Look at what will happen in the end times!” Which is both odd and liberating.

Odd, because most people tend not to think of end times discussion as something that will bring anyone comfort. Most discussions around eschatology revolve around things that seem to vary on a scale from weird to cryptic: the rapture, the beast, the tribulation, the antiChrist. While many of these these things are mentioned in the Bible, teaching about them is often far from clear. Are they present things? Are they symbolic? Have they already happened? Should we be worried? Why can’t we understand it all? Seriously, a trawl through the end times section at your Christian bookshop will turn you off your burritos for good. Wasn’t it last week, or the week before, that some other Christian group claimed the world was going to end a few Wednesdays ago or something? Guys, if Jesus didn’t know how it was all going to play out, you can be sure it’s something we don’t need to know. He didn’t know. The people who claim to know don’t know. And you won’t know the timing either. So, yes, it may strike us as odd that Peter raises this as a reason for comfort.

It’s also liberating, because the comforting reality Peter writes about here is the proper focus of end time discussions:

“Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming.” (1 Peter 1:13, NIV)

Not: set your mind on all the stuff you can’t understand. Not: set your mind on working out when it’s all going to happen. But: set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming. Keep your eyes on the prize. Outcome determines action.

Remember: Peter is writing to people who are being persecuted. They are undergoing ridicule and rejection for following Jesus. And he’s saying: this may be happening now, but don’t give up! Set your minds on what will happen then! Keep your eye on the prize! Now, for a little while, you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. Now, it’s tough. Now, you’re under pressure. But then, when Jesus returns, it’s all going to be grace and celebration! Your saviour will welcome you with open arms!

You don’t have to fear punishment – that’s gone in the cross! You don’t have to think about God’s anger for sin – that’s fully and freely forgiven in Jesus! You don’t have to be hassled by your guilt and failing – there’s no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. You don’t even have to worry about death, because all that’s waiting for you is life, more life and better life than you’ve ever dreamed. Keep your eye on the prize. That outcome will determine your action.

In fact – and this is the point of this passage – Peter is saying: because you know what’s coming to you, it’s going to change the way you live. That’s clear from the first part of v.13:

Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (1 Peter 1:13, NIV84)

Interestingly, the old KJV used to read, “Wherefore, gird up the loins of your mind…” Think: parable  of the lost son. The father sees the son coming in the distance, tucks his outer cloak into his belt, and runs to meet him.That’s the point: we need to be ready to move. Ready for action. Be alert. Be sober. And let’s get going.

So, the flow of thought is this: You Christians are under pressure and doing it tough. You don’t want to live in denial, but don’t let circumstances dominate you. Think about the goal. Keep your eyes on the prize. A beautiful day of grace is coming your way. Let this outcome determine all your actions. So sleeves up, head down, and let’s get busy…

Be Holy

Which brings us to our second point:

“…But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”” (1 Peter 1:14–16, NIV)

When you have your eye on the prize, the outcome determines your action.

In this respect, we need to know what it means to be holy. Many think being holy means doing holy things: read your bible, say your prayers, go to church, take up a collection. As the old hymn says,

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Take time to holy, speak oft with thy Lord / Abide in him always, and feed on his word…

No doubt: the Christian disciplines of reading, prayer and public worship are part of ‘being holy’. The problem is there is confusion the rest of it. So, allow me to deliver some clarity: to be holy is to be like God. How are we to be like God? By reflecting his character.

“Be holy because I am holy – just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do”

Not just reading your Bible, or your prayer time, but in all you do. The scene was set in vv.3-5

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

to be holy is to be like God … reflecting his character

Long before Peter wrote, the Lord had revealed his character to his people, calling them to live such a distinct life as a nation as they entered the land of promise (see Leviticus 19:1-2). For Peter’s New Testament people, as for ancient Israel, the rationale for a holy life was the same: the Lord in his grace had provided a glorious deliverance. Petes point is that this new birth and living hope “necessarily implies a decisively altered way of life” [Karen Jobes, 1 Peter]

A holy life is not so much a religious life as a changed life, a different life, a distinctive life. A life set apart from others by how your character reflects God’s character, Jesus’ character. It certainly involves prayer, Bible reading, and worship meetings. It certainly involves moral behaviour: honesty, integrity, keeping marriage as the place for sexual fulfilment, keeping your language beautiful, instead of polluting it with profanity – all that is included.

A holy life is not so much a religious life as a changed life, a different life, a distinctive life…

But holiness goes deeper than external behaviour. It penetrates to the heart: to the deeper values of life, how we strive to live; the kind of world we are working for. Holiness is about love, mercy, humility and justice. Isn’t that what the Lord requires of us (see Micah 6:8, Matthew 5-7)?

When the Lord spoke to the people in Isaiah’s day, they made the mistake of thinking all he wanted was religious behaviour like fasting and worship. The Lord’s response was sobering, especially when you change the word ‘fast’ to ‘worship’…

“…You cannot [worship] as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of [worship] I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call [worship], a day acceptable to the Lord? “Is not this the kind of [worshipping] I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.” (Isaiah 58:4–8, NIV)

It is interesting some months ago I preached a series called ‘A Time for Justice’. In that series we were reminded how God calls us to a holiness which is beyond mere morality and religious actions. A holiness of love, mercy and justice. A few people found that confronting. One or two said they couldn’t relate to it. Friends, being holy, living a distinctly different life, is to reflect the character of our holy God. And if we struggle to relate to love, mercy and justice we’re going to struggle to relate to God himself.

Here,  Peter is saying: You do relate to God. More: your life is now defined by his Son’s life. And because your life is now defined by his Son’s life, you’re looking forward to the fullness of his grace transforming you and your world completely. So, because you are headed for an eternity of love, mercy and justice why not start living it now?! Stand up and stand out! Roll up your sleeves! Heads down! Let this holiness be seen in everything you do, everything you seek, everything you are and every will be. 

It’s true: Holy lives, Christian lives, stand out.

That’s challenge for us, isn’t it? Christians are more and more in the spotlight, facing more and more opposition, having to manage rejection. And the temptation is for us to pull back or go soft, right? But Peter is saying “be holy, be distinctly Christian, live out God’s character, be noticed.”

Here’s the question: Is this true of you? Your workmates, your neighbours, your acquaintances – Do they see your different life and behaviour, and know that you’re a follower of Jesus? If those around you cannot see that, what needs to change?

Can people see the holiness of God’s character in our church

Can people see the holiness of God’s character in our church? Are we worshipping by loosening the chains of oppression? Do we even know where oppression exists in our community? Do we want to know? What needs to change so that we can know that?

See, it’s not just about people seeing your faith or convictions. As good as that is, it’s actually about people seeing your God. As Peter says in the next chapter, that even though God’s people are misunderstood and maligned. they should let their holiness stand up and stand out “…so people will see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:12 – NIV)

That’s why we should not conform to the evil desires we had when we lived in ignorance. That is, the ‘before Jesus’ life. Peter’s readers remembered that time. Back then they were affirmed by all around. They had less trouble in their life. They weren’t maligned for their views. Life was easier. But they were ignorant of God. They weren’t his people. They lived without hope. They lived without mercy. They were headed to a Christless eternity.

But now, God has called them out of darkness, into his marvellous light. They stood up and they stand out. They stand out like a city on a hill. But they feel the pressure. Life is hard. They have a daily diet of ridicule, rejection, and misunderstanding.

Why do this? Because their eyes on the prize. Their vision is directed toward the goal. And holiness overflows as Christ pours his grace into them. Christ points them to a new day when the fullness of grace will be theirs as they live in a forever of love, mercy and justice.

So, let me ask: What is God saying to you in all this? Your life: is it holy? Are we living this holiness together?

In the power of Christ and his inheritance, looking forward to the abundance of grace to be poured into us, are we revealing God’s character in our communal life? What needs to go? What needs to be seen more? Is there behaviour which is tangling us up? Listen: God is speaking: You have to get rid of that. It’s blocking my character.

You may wonder whether you can do it, or why. The answer is: in Christ you have a glorious inheritance! You already know how its all going to end: Christ will pour his grace into your life. You are going to live his love, mercy and justice for all eternity. Even today he’s given His spirit to bring this life out of you now, to comfort you now, to encourage you now. Christ is with you, always. He’s your strength, your endurance, your ability to go on. To stand up. To stand out.

So today our eyes are on the prize, and that glorious inheritance will determine our every action. And we shall be holy, and God is holy.

That great outcome determines our individual and communal action

And our greatest joy is to have God’s holiness, his character, overflowing from our own.

Living Members: A Church of Character

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

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

Enjoying favour

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

Groenenboom family 1967

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the high calling Jesus gives his followers:

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

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

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

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

A story:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scot McKnight agrees:

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

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

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

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

Love your church

And why, ultimately, is that?

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

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

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

Friends: you know how this needs to be applied?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living Members: Witness

LM ppt background

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

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

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

God is sovereign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Witness is natural

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pass the salt…

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

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

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

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

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

So ask yourself: Am I salty?

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

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

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

Can I create some opportunities to witness?

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

Am I listening to what people are saying?

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

Do I need some Gospel upskilling?

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

Do I love people?

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

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

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

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

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

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