The Communion of Saints (Ephesians 1:11-23)

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Since the early centuries of the Christian movement, followers of Jesus have said the words of the Apostles’ Creed together. This confession of faith serves God’s people in a few ways. It outlines the basic content of what we believe as Jesus’ disciples. It makes a declaration to the world of who we are and who we believe God is. The Apostles’ Creed also unites us with people around the world and across time who share our common faith. Confessing the Creed signifies that we belong to a community of faith that transcends time, space and denominational differences. It unites all Christians as one Church.

There is a lot in the Apostles’ Creed that we can reflect on and learn from. As we celebrated the Festival of All Saints on Sunday, there was one part in the Third Article that I thought it would be good to think about more: The Communion of Saints. It can easy to say the words of the Creed without giving much thought to what they mean. When we confess our faith in the Communion of Saints, however, there is a lot of depth in those few words.

Firstly, the Communion of Saints is about our identity. Most people that I talk to think of saints as people who have done a lot of good things in their lives. in a common way of thinking, sainthood is something we can aspire to and achieve by doing a lot of ‘good’ things. However, the New Testament gives us a very different idea of what a saint is. Six letters of St Paul begin by addressing the recipients of those letters as ‘God’s holy people’ or ‘saints’ (see Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Ephesians 1:1; Philippians 1:1; Colossians 1:2). Paul explains in Ephesians 1:11-23 that sainthood or holiness was God’s gift to his readers when they were united with Christ (v11 NLT) through faith by the power of the Holy Spirit (vv13,14 NLT). Here and in other places of the New Testament we can read that God gives us his holiness as a gift through the Holy Spirit on account of what Jesus has done for us in his life, death and resurrection.

Sainthood, or holiness, becomes the foundation of our identity in Christ. No matter what the world, other people or our own hearts might say to us or about us, we can always come back to God’s promise to us that we are his holy children through faith in Jesus. In those times when our sense of identity takes a beating, or when we have a negative view of ourselves, God’s promise to us is that we are saints, his holy people, because of Jesus’ redemptive love for us which makes us new and clean.

This leads us on to the second important aspect of the Communion of Saints. If God has made each of us saints by giving us the holiness of Jesus through his Spirit, and if he has done the same thing for every other believer, then we are united as one in our faith. This is what Paul means when he writes, ‘the church is his body; it is made full and complete by Christ, who fills all things everywhere with himself’ (Eph 1:23 NLT).

The Christian church, the body of Christ, is the community of God’s holy people which exists across time and space and into eternity. The words communion and community are closely connected, so we can think of the communion of saints as the community of God’s holy people. This community is the place where we can grow as God’s holy people as we encounter the reality of God’s love and grace in relationship with other believers. Following Jesus was never meant to be an individual exercise. Jesus’ command to love one another only makes sense when it is lived out in relationship with others. The communion of saints, then gives us a context to not only love other holy children of God, but to be loved by them so we can live together in the reality of Jesus’ life-changing grace.

This kind of community is vitally important in our time and place. I’ve heard it said a number of times that our digital age has made us more connected than ever before, but at the same time people are lonelier than ever before. People in the developed world are starved for real community where we can extend and encounter grace, love, forgiveness, hope, joy, and so much more through meaningful, Christ-centred relationships. Confessing our faith in the Communion of Saints means that we can find a place where we belong in a community of God’s holy people which transcends our differences and unites us as the living body of the risen Jesus in the world.

This brings me to a third aspect of the Communion of Saints. As the community of God’s holy people, we have a new purpose for our existence. We live in a broken world where people are alone and hurting, relationships are easily fractured, where virtual or fake attempts at community result in people feeling more isolated and lost. As God gifts us with his community of holy people, we have something good to give the people of our world. The Communion of Saints is also God’s gift to the world so that people can find a sense of who they are, where they fit and what they’re here for in relationship with God through their relationship with us.

The Communion of Saints is the community of God’s holy people that he calls into existence to praise and glorify him (Eph 1:14 NLT) by being part of his redemptive mission in the world. We can praise and glorify God by singing songs in worship, but we also praise and glorify God for his saving love in Jesus by living as God’s holy people in the world, bringing his goodness, grace and healing love to the people around us. God gifts his community of holy people in the world with the purpose of living in ways that are made holy through faith and love, and embracing others in the community of God’s holy people so they can find their identity, belonging and purpose through faith in Jesus and in relationship with us.

The next time you confess the Apostles’ Creed, I encourage you to keep some of these things in mind. There is a lot of depth in these few words. They talk about who we are as people who are gifted with Jesus’ holiness through his Spirit, where we belong as the community of God’s holy people, and what we’re here for as we praise and glorify God by embracing others in the community of holy people. The Communion of Saints is God’s gift to us. It is also his challenge to us. As we grow in relationship with him and with his people in this community, we also have the opportunity to gift God’s community of holy people to others.

Saved and Sent (Luke 8:26-39)

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The story of the Gerasene Demoniac in Luke 8:26-39 begins a bit like a horror movie. Jesus and his disciples get out of their boat after going through a severe storm on Lake Galilee. There they are confronted by a man possessed by so many demons that they identify themselves as ‘Legion’ which means ‘many’. This man had been driven from his home, was living among the dead in a cemetery, had broken chains that had been used to try to restrain him with superhuman strength, was naked and shouting at Jesus as he approached him.

We might not feel a strong connection with this story because it can sound very different from the reality of our lives. For most of us, our experience of the demonic is probably more from watching movies than day to day life. So when Jesus cast the demons into the pigs and then sent the man home to tell them how much God had done for him, we might think it’s a nice story but not really get anything out of it for ourselves.

However, if we look closer at the story, we can find that by casting the demons out of the man, Jesus did much more for him than we might initially see. Jesus freed him from the demons that were tormenting him. Jesus covered his nakedness, which is often associated with shame in the Bible, so that when the people found him at the end of the story, he was clothed (v35) showing that Jesus had covered his shame. Luke also tells us that the man was ‘in his right mind’ (v35), which means that his mental health was restored and he had control of his rational faculties again. Through his encounter with Jesus, the man no longer had to live in the tombs and the cemetery but was restored to the world of the living to resume his life again. In doing this, Jesus reconnected him in his relationships with his family and his community.

When we start to think about what Jesus did for this man in these terms, then it becomes easier to see ourselves in this story and to find God’s goodness in Jesus for ourselves. God is able to do all these things for us as well through Jesus’ death and resurrection for us. God can free us from our demons. These might be literal demons, or they might be other things which torment us. They might have names like Guilt, Fear, Regret, Addiction, Anxiety, Insecurity, and so on. God covers our shame by entering into our shame through the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus, and freeing us from shame by covering us with the clothes of Jesus’ righteousness and purity. God gives us the mind of Christ through the Holy Spirit so we can find a healthier state of mind and more control over our thoughts and mental faculties, which Paul says is a fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:23. Jesus lifts us out from living among the dead as he gifts us with new and eternal life through his resurrection. Death does not define us through Jesus, but the new life of the Spirit of God which is given to us through faith in Jesus. This new life overcomes our solitude and loneliness as God brings us into new relationship with himself and incorporates us in the community of faith, the family of God, the living, breathing body of Christ in the world, also known as the church.

When we encounter Jesus like this and we find God’s goodness at work in us through the Holy Spirit, then we have good news to bring to the world. In the same way that Jesus told the man to return to his home and tell how much God had done for him (v39), Jesus also tells us to go into the world to tell people how much good he has done for us.

One significant thing about Jesus’s instructions is that he tells the man to go back to his home. The mission of God begins in our homes as we pass on to those closest to us how much God does for us by setting us free, covering our shame, renewing our minds, giving us new lives to live, and restoring us in our relationships and in community. God’s mission doesn’t stop there obviously, but it starts in our homes and families as we share with them what God has already done for us, as well as the promise of what God can also do for them in Christ Jesus through the power of his Spirit.

Jesus tells us to share with others what God has already done in our lives through Jesus. I wonder sometimes whether we have been told to go out and witness to others about our faith before we have encountered the goodness and power of God in our own lives. In this story, Jesus gives the man something good to share with others. The good news the man had to share was his story, the way God had been at work in his life. Before we start telling others to go out and tell others about Jesus, maybe some of us need to be finding the life-changing goodness of God in our own lives through a deeper relationship with Jesus. When we find his goodness for ourselves, then we have a story to tell that can bring good news to others.

It would be easy to finish this message by repeating Jesus’ last words to the man he had set free from Legion, and telling you to go out and tell how much God has done for you. I want to ask you a question first: if someone asked you what God has done for you, what would you say? Some people in our church have stories of what God has done for them in Jesus and are happy to share that story with others. God bless you as you bring good news to others. If you don’t have a story yet, or don’t know what your story is, I hope and pray that over time, God will give you a story to tell as he works in your life to set you free, cover your shame, renew your mind, give you a new life to live, and restore your relationships and community.

Then you’ll be able to tell others how much God has done for you through Jesus.

More to think about:

  • What questions do you have about this story? What doesn’t make sense to you or are you not sure about?
  • Do you find it easy or more difficult to talk about your faith to others? Why is that?
  • If you were the man in the story, would you have told others about what Jesus had done for you? Explain why…
  • I’m suggesting that when we look closer at the story, we can see that Jesus frees this man from what is tormenting him, covers his shame, renews his mind, gives him a new life to live, and restores him in his relationships and community with others. Is there something like any of these that Jesus has done for you in your life? Is there one in particular that you need Jesus to do for you? Or is there something else you need Jesus to do for you?
  • Do you believe it’s possible that a growing relationship with Jesus can help you find what you’re looking for? Share some thoughts about how that might happen… (please let me know if there’s any way I can help)
  • If someone asked you about what Jesus had done for you, what would you say?
  • Who is one person you can tell about what Jesus has done for you this week?

A New Year’s Resolution (1 Peter 1:22-25)


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As we begin a new calendar year, many people will be making New Year’s resolutions. These are things they want to change about themselves or their behaviours in the next twelve months. Some can be realistic, while other New Year’s resolutions can seem utterly impossible.

I find it fascination to see how long New Year’s resolutions will last. While we can make these resolutions with the best of intentions, we can easily fall back into the same habits and patterns of behaviour. Nothing really changes. If we are to fulfil whatever New Year’s resolution we might make, we need sustained, intentional focus on what we want to change.

As we read 1 Peter 1:22-25, the New Testament reading for New Year’s Eve, we hear the Apostle Peter encouraging God’s people and followers of Jesus to ‘love each other deeply from the heart’ (v22 NLT). Anyone who is familiar with the teachings of Jesus will know that Peter is relaying Jesus’ message that the greatest command is to love God with all our hearts, minds, souls and strength and to love others like we love ourselves (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28). The new command Jesus gave his followers was like it: to love one another like he loves us (John 13:34; 15:12,17). Peter passes on this same message by encouraging his readers to grow in their love for each other beyond shallow expressions of love into deep, heart-felt, sincere love.

I talk a lot about practicing Christ-like love because I believe that learning to love like Jesus is at the heart of his call to follow him as his disciples. Too often our attempts to love are tainted with a degree of self-interest. We tend to consider how things will benefit us, what will we get out of them, or what they will cost us. Instead of a worldly kind of love which prioritizes what we get or how we feel, the love of Christ which Peter is talking about focusses on the other. Its orientation is towards others and what we can give to them, not ourselves and what we get from them. This kind of love is willing to do what is in the best interests of the other, no matter what it might cost us. It is willing to sacrifice everything for the other so they can know what Christ-like love is all about.

This is the love that God extends to us in Jesus. God’s love is seen in the gift of his Son to us at Christmas, which we continue to celebrate as we end one calendar year and start another. We see God’s love in the way Jesus welcomed the outsiders, healed the sick, restored broken people and forgave sinners. Ultimately, we encounter the perfect and infinite love of God in the death of Jesus. Jesus points us towards this love when he says, ‘There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’ (John 15:13 NLT). The Apostle John says the same thing when he writes, ‘We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us’ (1 John 3:16). Jesus then shows us that the love God has for us is stronger than death as he is raised to new life in his resurrection. The love God has for us in Jesus is so different from worldly versions of love. It is deep and strong and it lasts for ever.

Can you imagine how life might be different this year if we resolved to listen to what Peter is saying to us, and to ‘love one another deeply, from the heart’ (v22 NLT)? Instead of thinking about what we want for ourselves, or what suits us, how might our lives be different if we resolved together to prioritise others, no matter what the cost? How might our congregation operate differently if we thought more about what we could give to each other rather than what we can get from each other, if the needs of others outweighed our own, if we looked more towards what would help others encounter Jesus’ love in us rather than what is convenient or comfortable for us?

If we were to resolve to do this, we could only keep this resolution by relying on God’s grace for everything we need. Attempts to keep New Year’s resolutions often fail because it’s easy to revert back to what is comfortable, convenient or familiar. To be able to keep our resolution to ‘love one another deeply, from the heart’ would mean that we will need to rely totally on God doing this in us through his Holy Spirit. Any attempts to love others in a Christ-like way will fail when we rely on ourselves. When we are connected with God’s grace and love to us in Jesus, we will grow in his love which gives us the capacity and ability to love others in the same way. It will continue to grow in us as God plants, nourishes and feeds his word of grace and love in us through the Scriptures. As we remain in Christ and as Jesus remains in us, then God’s love will grow in us to produce the fruit he is looking for (John 15:1-17). Any resolution to love others in a Christ-like way will come from God’s love for us in Jesus, will grow from his sacrificial love for us, and will be sustained by that same love.

Can you imagine how this year might look differently if our one resolution was to ‘love each other deeply, from the heart’? How might that look? What changes might that bring about? In the busyness of congregational life, what might need to change and what changes might it bring if this was our one resolution?

There will be countless opportunities this year for us to ‘love one another deeply, from the heart.’ I hope and pray that as we enter 2019 that God’s Holy Spirit will be at work in us and among us, growing our faith in the deep and enduring love of God for us in Jesus, and he will graciously give us everything we need to love one another deeply, from the heart.

Generous Grace (2 Corinthians 8:7-15)

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What do you believe is more important: what you get or what you give?

I suspect that most of us would think the correct answer is that giving is more important than getting. We applaud and admire people who are generous with what they have, such as Bill Gates who donates a significant percentage of his fortune to those in need. I think that most of us would agree that it’s better to give than to get.

However, that’s not always the reality in our day to day life. In our consumer-driven culture, what we get can often end up being more important to us than what we give. For example, we can see this in relationships which break down because one person isn’t getting what they want from another. We can see it in our work where we look for greater job satisfaction or personal meaning out of what we do. We can also see it in the church, where people’s involvement with a community of faith depends on whether or not they are getting something out of it.

I actually hear the language of ‘getting’ a lot around the church. I hear it from people who want to ‘get’ something meaningful, relevant or enjoyable out of their experience of church. I hear it when we want to ‘get’ people more involved, ‘get’ them on positions of leadership, ‘get’ them on a roster or serving in some way, or ‘get’ people to give more money. I also regularly hear it from parents or grandparents who want to ‘get’ their children or grandchildren back to church.

In contrast, Paul wanted Christian congregations to be giving, not getting, communities. When he wrote his second letter to the church in Corinth, he talked about money he was collecting for Christians in Jerusalem who were in need. The Corinthian Christians had previously offered to give some money and Paul was encouraging them to fulfil their commitment. He wanted to test the sincerity of their love for Jesus by comparing their giving with what other congregations were contributing. Paul’s point is that Christian communities are meant to be places where people encounter the grace of Jesus through the giving of God’s people. God wants us to be giving communities, not getting communities.

Paul argues that giving is an act of faith. He gives two reasons for this. The first is that when we are willing to give to others in their need, we are trusting that God will give to us when we are in need through the people around us. Paul writes,

Right now you have plenty and can help those who are in need. Later, they will have plenty and can share with you when you need it. In this way, things will be equal.
(v14 NLT)

When we trust that God will give us what we need through others, we participate with God in his grace by being the means by which he provides for others. Believing that God will always give us what we need makes us more willing to give to others. This means that we also need to learn how to receive from others. We have opportunities to participate in God’s grace through what we both give and receive. In this way, the equality Paul talks about is realized as we live in mutually giving relationships and communities. Grace isn’t just about how much you give. It’s also about the ability to receive God’s grace through others.

The second reason why Paul talks about giving as an act of faith points us to Jesus. Paul uses a financial transaction as a picture of how Jesus won salvation for us when he writes,

You know the generous grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty he could make you rich.
(v9 NLT)

As the eternal Son of God, all of creation belonged to Jesus because he made it with the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit. However, Jesus gave it all up for our sake. He literally became poor when he was born in a manger. Jesus depended on the generosity of others throughout the three years of his earthly ministry. He died as a penniless pauper on the cross as the soldiers divided his clothes, Jesus’ only earthly possessions, between them. Jesus did all that so that we could become rich in the grace and love of God.

Imagine what it would be like for the richest person in the world to give everything he owned to you because he thinks you are worth it. That kind of generosity might be hard for us to comprehend, but it is a picture of the generosity of God’s grace to us in Jesus. He totally emptied himself of everything he had by going to the cross, and he gives all of himself to us as an extravagant act of selfless love. This is Paul’s understanding of grace: Jesus giving everything up so that we can live in the riches that come with being children of God whom he loves and with whom he is well pleased!

How do we grow as a community which reflects this kind of generous grace? How do we participate in the giving nature of Jesus so that others can encounter and experience Jesus’ generous grace in their relationship with us? My hope is that we might grow as a church which is known for its giving heart. There are so many opportunities to give our energy, our time, and our money so others can encounter God’s grace through us. Our congregation can only exist and do what we do because of the generous grace people show through your gifts of time, effort and money. On behalf of the congregational leadership, thanks to everyone who contributes to the life of our church for what you give!

We all give to our families, friends, work, social groups and others in many different ways. My intention is not to ask you to give to our church at their expense. Instead, Paul’s words are a reminder that we are called to be a giving community so people can experience God’s grace in relationship with us. There are many opportunities to give our congregation, from cleaning the church or serving morning tea after worship, to contributing to our financial commitments, to learning to live in the way of Jesus together in small groups. As our faith in God’s generous grace to us in Jesus grows, we will also grow in our willingness to give what God has first given us so everyone who connects with our church can experience the generous grace of God in community with us.

What is one way you might be able to ‘excel also in this gracious act of giving’?

Growing (Ephesians 1:15-23)

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I’m not the world’s most dedicated or skillful gardener. However, I like to have plants around our home that are healthy and look good. At times, some plants don’t seem to be doing as well as I had hoped, so I’m faced with a question: is this plant still alive or is it time to take it out and put something else in its place?

My way of trying to work out if a plant is still living is to look for signs of growth. If it is growing, I will continue to look after it and try to help it grow. If it isn’t growing, however, then it’s time to take it out so something else can grow in its place.

It’s a simple idea: growth is a sign of life.

Maybe that’s why the Apostle Paul prays that the early Christians is Ephesus ‘might grow in (their) knowledge of God’ (v17 NLT). Just like the plants in my garden, growth is a sign of life. He prays for them, and as we hear these words also for us, because when we are growing in our ‘knowledge of God’ then something is alive in us that is producing that growth.

It’s important to understand, though, that when Paul talks about ‘knowledge’ he isn’t talking about something that is primarily intellectual or academic. In this information age, we usually understand ‘knowledge’ as facts, figures or data about any given person or topic.

For pre-modern people, however, ‘knowledge’ was much more relational. It is the difference between knowing a whole lot of information about a person and actually having a relationship with them. For example, I can know everything there is to know about Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, but that won’t get me an invitation to their wedding. For that to happen, I would need to know them and be in relationship with them. This is how the Bible understands ‘knowledge.’ It is much more a relationship with people than just information about them.

What Paul is praying for, then, is that we are growing in relationship with God. Essentially, the Christian faith is relational. God welcomes us into relationship with him as his children and he asks us to call him ‘Father.’ Jesus, the Son of the Father, became one with us, died and is risen from the dead to restore the broken relationship with God. Jesus’ command to love others in the same way he has loved us is at its heart relational – we can only love God or other people when we are in relationship with them.

My relationship with my wife, children, other family members and friends will grow and change over time as we go through life’s challenges and joys together. In the same way, Paul is praying that our relationship with God will continue to grow as we journey through life in relationship with him. As we go through the ups and downs of life with God, giving thanks for the good times and looking for his grace in the tough times, we will be growing in our relationship with him as we learn to trust him in all circumstances of life.

Paul continues his prayer by asking that this growing knowledge of God would show itself in the lives of God’s people in two ways. The first is hope (v18). In a world where people are struggling for a lot of different reasons, we could all benefit from a greater sense of hope. Paul’s prayer is that we might grow in hope through a growing relationship with God.

The second is understanding ‘the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe him’ (v19 NLT). Paul describes this as the same power that raised Jesus from the dead and raised him up to share in God’s authority in his ascension. This is the power of God to bring light into dark places, to lift us up when we are at our lowest points, to bring us out of isolation into restored relationships with others, and to give us life when everything around us is trying to rob life from us. This power of God can show itself in lots of different ways, depending on what’s happening in our lives. It makes me wonder how God might display this power in your life…

We grow in our relationship with God the same way that we grow in any other relationship. We grow in our knowledge of God by making time for him in our busy lives, as we listen to his words of promise and grace in the Bible, as we talk honestly with him in prayer, and as we grow in our relationships with other Christians in community and especially in worship together. As we exercise these and other spiritual disciplines, and as we learn to love brothers and sisters in the faith and be loved by them, our relationship with God will grow as we participate in the body of Christ, which is the church (Ephesians 1:23), and journey through life together.

Our growth in knowing God is vital to our life as his people, so we included it as the second element of our congregation’s discipling plan. Because growing is a sign of life, we want to help people grow in their relationship with God. I pray, along with the Apostle Paul, that the members and friends of our community of faith, along with all who read these words, would be growing in their knowledge of and relationship with God, so that together we might also understand more and more the hope to which he has called us, and the incredible greatness of his power for us who trust him.
So, how can we help you grow?

United (Acts 4:32-35)

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Can you imagine being part of a community of faith like the one described in Acts 4:32-35?

Here we have a picture of a group of people living in the reality of Jesus’ victory over death. They had been following Jesus and witnessed his resurrection They were so convinced of God’s goodness and life-giving love in Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit that they were totally focused on the needs of the people around them. They were willing to do whatever it took to take care of others, even if it meant that they sold their homes or property to do it. All of this resulted from the unity the believers had in heart and mind. Their faith in the resurrection of Jesus brought their community together to the point where they were able to prioritise the needs of others because they trusted that God would provide for their own needs.

We can be so amazed at the disciples’ willingness to sell their homes and property that we miss the reason why they were willing and able to be so generous. What is crucial to this story is that they were united in heart and mind. During the years I spent growing up in the church as well as my years of ministry as a pastor, I have seen too many communities of faith divided over a range of issues. Particular aspects of the congregational activity were important to some and not to others. Some had very strong opinions about what the congregation was doing or how it should have been done. The result was divisions in the church as factions developed and relationships broke down.

I’m not saying this to be critical of the church. Instead, I believe we need to be honest about the realities in our churches before God if things are going to get better. When we compare the dis-unity and fractures that exist in our church with this community of believers in Acts 4:32ff, it is easy to see that we are not what we could be. As a result, just as the community in Acts was able to testify powerfully to the resurrection of Jesus and ‘God’s grace was … powerfully at work in them all’ through their unity, so our witness to Jesus’ resurrection and the flow of God’s grace is often impeded by our arguing, infighting and disputes.

Acts 4:32-35 gives us a glimpse of God’s vision for his church. Instead of adopting a consumer, individualistic attitude to the faith where our prime concern is what’s good for me, the vision that God gives us in this text is a community of people who are so convinced of the reality of Jesus’ resurrection that they are all willing to do whatever is necessary to look after each other, no matter what the cost to themselves.

This is what Paul describes in Philippians 2:2-5 when he writes:

… make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus… (NIV)

Paul was imploring the Christians in Philippi to be ‘like-minded’ with each other and with Jesus, just as the believers were in Acts 4:32-35. As members of the body of Christ, he wants them to give a faithful witness to the love of Jesus by ‘not looking to (their) own interests but each of (them) to the interests of the others.’ This is what was happening in Acts 4. This is the vision God has for our communities of faith. We give the most powerful witness to the resurrection of Jesus when we are able to put aside our own priorities, preferences or agendas, and come together as one by the power of the Holy Spirit to provide for the needs of others.

This is what faith is about: trusting in the giving nature of God so that we become giving communities. Faith in God is about trusting that our heavenly Father loved us enough to give us his one and only Son, that Jesus loved us enough to give his life for us on the cross, and that the Holy Spirit loves us enough to breathe the life of the risen Christ into us so we share in his life now and forever. Through this faith, we share in the nature of God so we become giving people. Faith in the giving nature of God will always shape us to become giving people, both as individuals and as a congregation, just like it did in Acts 4:32-35.

As I prepared this message for our congregation on Sunday, I kept asking myself, do we believe this is possible? It’s easy to read this story from Acts 4 and think it’s wonderful that they were so united in heart and mind that they were able to provide for the needs people had in their community, but is this just a nice story from a time long-gone? Or do we believe that the Spirit of the risen Christ can bring us together in heart and mind, to give us the heart and mind of Jesus, so we can live in unity with each other and live for the needs of those around us?

I’d like to believe it is. I’d like to believe that Jesus, who has overcome sin, death and the power of the devil, can also overcome our selfishness, our pettiness and our disunity to bring us together as one. Every person in a congregation or faith community has needs of one kind or another. The way God wants to provide for those needs is through the living, breathing body of the risen Christ – through you and me and the grace he gives us. The needs may be different from the needs in Acts 4, but the needs people in our communities have are still real. The way God wants to meet those needs is through us, people who believe in the resurrection of Jesus.

In Growing Young, one of the essential strategies for a congregation to be effective in its ministry with young people is fuelling a warm community. When I listen to this story about the early church being one in heart and mind and their willingness to share whatever they had with each other, I can see a community of believers that is warm with the love and grace of Jesus. Sure, they ran into problems, as the story of Ananias and Sapphira explains (Acts 5:1-11), but there was still unity among them which lead to God’s grace being powerfully at work among them.

How would you like to be part of a community like this? Do you believe that such a community is possible here and now? If the Spirit of the living God can raise Jesus to life, then I believe that he can also unite the hearts and minds of followers of Jesus in his grace and love. Like Jesus said, for people this might be impossible, but with God all things are possible (Matthew 19:26).

Which leaves me with one final question: what are we willing to give for this kind of community to exist in our communities of faith?

Living with Differences (Romans 14:1-12)

meat v vegetarian 01

Things weren’t going great for the congregation of Christian believers in Rome. They were a diverse mix of people from different backgrounds across the spectrum of Roman society, from the very rich and influential to poor slaves. They all came with different points of view and different ways of understanding the world around them. By the power of his Holy Spirit, God had brought these vastly different people into the diverse, complicated, messy and beautiful thing that is Christian community through faith in Jesus.

In chapter 14, the Apostle Paul writes about two issues the early Roman church was facing. One was whether Christians could eat meat or whether they should be vegetarian. The second was whether certain days should be observed as holy days or not. Biblical scholars don’t know the exact circumstances of the disputes. They might have been between some people who wanted to keep Old Testament Jewish rules, or others who were living in the freedom the gospel brings, or others still who were either observing local customs or reacting against a self-indulgent Roman lifestyle.

The result of these disputes, however, was that some members of the Christian congregation thought they were better that others and looked down on them. Others were judging people in the congregation who were not doing what they thought was right. There was conflict and division in the community of believers because of these ‘disputable matters.’

One good thing about not knowing the exact circumstances of the disputes in Rome is that we can apply Paul’s words to our time and place. Two thousand years down the track and things in the Christian church don’t seem to have changed very much. We might not get too upset about dietary rules or holy days, but we still have our disputes. Some of the ‘disputable matters’ being discussed in our church at the present time include styles of worship, the ordination of women, the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, or the upcoming postal vote on same sex marriage, for example. People on both sides of each issue might not like referring to these as ‘disputable matters’ because our minds might already be made up about what is right or wrong in each case. But just the fact that we have different ways of thinking about what is right and wrong in each matter and we are grappling with them as a church means that these are matters under dispute. So even what can be thought of as a ‘disputable matter’ can itself be a ‘disputable matter.’

Paul’s point in Romans 14, however, is that following in the way of Jesus means accepting others who see things differently. This is a radically different position from what our culture teaches us, and even from what comes to us naturally, where we stand our ground, argue our point, and try to prove that we are right and others are wrong. Instead, Paul teaches us that living as Jesus’ disciples means not trying to get our own way or making others agree with our point of view. Instead, following Jesus means accepting each other along with the different opinions we might have. This acceptance means much more than just tolerating, or putting up with others. To accept others as Paul uses the word means receiving others with open arms, welcoming and embracing others, no matter how differently we might see things.

Paul explains further what this acceptance looks like when he writes that we are to ‘aim for harmony in the church and try to build each other up’ (v19 NLT). Imagine what this could look like: people of diverse backgrounds with a wide range of opinions on different matters living together in perfect harmony with each other for the benefit of the other. The love we show each other composes a beautiful melody of praise to God as we dedicate ourselves to helping each other grow up together into maturity of faith and love. This becomes part of the picture of Christian community into which God wants to be transforming us by the power of his Spirit through the gospel, as we heard a few weeks ago from Romans 12.

All of this is on the basis of the way God accepts each of us for Jesus’ sake. Paul writes in verse 3 that we can’t look down on others or condemn them because God has already accepted them. Again in Romans 15:7, Paul explicitly states, ‘accept each other just as Christ has accepted you so that God will be given the glory’ (NLT). God has welcomed the people around us with open arms and embraced all of us as members of his family, not because we keep all the right rules or even hold the right theological opinions, but because Jesus has given his life for each of us on the cross and has made us right with the Father through the work of the Holy Spirit in faith. This has been Paul’s argument all the way through the letter to the Romans and really is the main message of the Bible. A clear example is chapter 3 verse 22 where Paul writes:

We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are. (NLT)

Because we are made right with God through faith in Jesus, a key part of living this faith out in our relationships and in community with each other is accepting, welcoming and embracing each other, no matter what our different points of view might be in matters that are in dispute. When we extend this grace to each other and show this love for each other, then Jesus tells us that the world will know we are his disciples (John 13:35). It is easy to love the people we like, who think the same way we do and who agree with our points of view. That’s why, for hundreds of years, and especially in our church culture today, it is too easy for individuals or groups to disconnect from church community to do their own thing. This is not the love that Jesus taught. The love of Christ, the love that Paul talks about in Romans 14 and throughout his letters, is a love that accepts people who have different points of view to us, a love that gives us the ability to live in harmony with each other no matter what our differences might be, and a love that works to build each other up in trusting God’s grace and in loving each other.

So how will we treat people who have different opinions to us? Will we look down on them because they don’t do things the way we do, or the way we think they should be done? Will we judge and condemn them because we think that what they are doing is wrong? Or will we accept each other, in the same way that God has accepted us for Jesus’ sake? In the Holy Spirit’s dynamic power, will we welcome and embrace each other in Christ-like love, living in harmony with each other, building each other up in trusting God and in serving each other?

How will we treat the people who think differently to us in the ‘disputable matters’ we face?

More to think about:

  • What do you usually do when you meet someone who has different opinions to yourself – do you try to persuade them to see things your way or do you accept their point of view? Can you give an example of when you did that?
  • What are some of the ‘disputable matters’ you have come across or are encountering in the church?
  • In your experience, have people been accepting of others with different opinions? Or do they argue the point to try to get people to agree with them? Why do you think that has happened?
  • If you are facing disagreements in the church, what might happen if you aimed for harmony in the church and tried to build others up (Romans 14:19)? What are some practical steps you could take towards that goal?
  • How important is it for you to feel accepted in your church community? How might you be able to give someone else that same sense of being accepted?

The Christian Pursuit (1 Timothy 6:6-19)

France Cycling Track World
Australian team from left, Jack Bobridge, Alexander Edmondson, Miles Scotson and Luke Davison compete during the final of the Men’s Team Pursuit race at the Track Cycling World Championships in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, outside Paris, France, Thursday, Feb. 19, 2015. The New Zealand team won gold, Britain won silver and Australia bronze. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

There is an event in track cycling known as the pursuit. In this event, two individual cyclists or teams start on opposite sides of the track. The goal of the pursuit is to ride as hard as you can for 4 kilometers to catch your opponent. During the pursuit, all of the focus and the energy of the cyclists are dedicated to one goal: chasing your opponent to catch them and win the race.

When Paul was writing to Timothy, he encouraged him to give all of his focus and energy in his pursuit as well. However, instead of pursuing an opposing cyclist on a track, Paul was urging Timothy to pursue key characteristics of the Christian life: righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness (v11). Each of these are some pretty big theological terms that carry a lot of meaning, so to help us understand what Paul was urging Timothy to pursue, I’m thinking of what Paul wrote in this way:

Chase after a life which:

  • Makes right all that is wrong
  • Reflects the goodness of God
  • Trusts Jesus in & for everything
  • Gives ourselves to others
  • Keeps going no matter what
  • Treats others gently

Paul contrasts this kind of life with a life in which a person is pursuing financial wealth. We need to hear these words in our society which dedicates so much time and energy pursuing wealth and financial affluence. Paul teaches Timothy that pursuing money will not bring us happiness and will probably cause us a lot of grief. He tells Timothy to run away from a life focused on making money, and instead chase after or pursue a life full of righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.

The main reason for pursuing these characteristics is that it leads us to a better life for ourselves and for the people around us. In John 10:10 Jesus says that he came to give us life to the full. Here we have one example of what a ‘life to the full’ looks like. It is a life that is dedicated to making the wrongs that we experience in this world right again. It reflects the goodness of God in all we say and do. It trusts Jesus for everything we need and in every circumstance of life so we can remain hopeful, peaceful and joyful. It is a life of self-giving love as we serve the people around us and do what is in their best interests, no matter what it might cost us. It is a life that hangs in there, no matter what difficulties, frustrations or challenges we might face. It is a life that treats other people gently, remembering that we all fail and struggle at times, and we all need the grace that comes from other people treating us in this same way. Ultimately, when we pursue this kind of life, it makes life better for ourselves as well as for the people around us, and God’s salvation enters the world through us.

The way in which we find and grow in this life is through the grace of God. We can understand grace as God giving to us what he wants from us for the sake of Jesus through the Holy Spirit. When we look at this text, then, we can find God’s grace as he provides us with righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness by the power of the Holy Spirit through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Pursuing righteousness, then, is trusting that God makes right what is wrong in us. Godliness is something that God gives to us as he unites us with himself and pours his goodness into our lives. He gives us the faith we need, even when believing God’s promises is difficult. God fills us with his love as he gives himself for us and to us in Jesus’ death and resurrection. God hangs in there with us no matter how many times we might get things wrong or stray along the way. God is gentle with us, not treating us as we deserve, but with grace, compassion, kindness and mercy. All of these are given to us through the power of the Holy Spirit for the sake of Jesus.

When Paul tells Timothy to pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness, he is telling us to purse these in our own lives, but also to pursue them in our relationship with Jesus. It’s not about trying harder to do these things in our own. The Christian life begins with God promising to provide what we need for us. In this faith, we can pursue these qualities like cyclists on a track as we experience God’s grace and mercy to us in Jesus.

It is worthwhile for all of us to ask ourselves what we are pursuing in life. A good way to work that out is to ask ourselves what our focus is and where do we spend our time and energy? Are these pursuits bringing us into a better quality of life? Do they make the lives of the people around us better? When we pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness, not only will we find a better quality of life for ourselves and for the people around us. As we pursue them, God’s kingdom enters the world and people encounter the God of love and grace in us.

More to think about:

  • If you think about where you focus your time and energy, what are you pursuing in life? Is it leading you into the life you hope for?
  • What do you think a life full of righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness would be like? Is this the kind of life you would like to grow into? Why / why not?
  • The promise of the gospel is that God gives us righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness through Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. How might his promise help you in the spiritual disciplines of reading God’s Word and praying?
  • In cycling, the pursuit is a team event as well as an individual event. How can pursuing righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness with others in Christian community help us in our pursuit?
  • What are you going to do this week to pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness in your life? In your relationship with Jesus?

Life in Christian Community (Hebrews 13:-18,15,16)

family of GodLast weekend, a dozen members of our congregation’s leadership teams went on retreat to spend time focussing on the future of the congregation. Our main topic of discussion was around the idea of being a ‘Simple Church.’ This is a complex congregation with a lot of activity, so we began to imagine how things might look if we simplified our activity to help people find a greater sense of peace and rest through a growing faith in Jesus.

Part of simplifying a complex congregation is working out what is central to our identity as a Christian community. It is kind of like packing to go on a trip. Once we realise that we cannot take everything because our luggage is limited, we begin to sort out what is necessary from what isn’t.

In this morning’s reading, we are given a picture of what the writer of the letter to this group of early Hebrew Christians thought was necessary for them. There is more throughout Hebrews about the nature of Christian community, but here we have list of the things the writer wanted the people receiving the letter to keep in mind that he hadn’t talked about yet. We can look at a shorter version of his instructions like this with an additional thought on each from me:

  • Love each other as brothers & sisters (even though we don’t always get along, family love means that we are still there for each other when we need it)
  • Show hospitality to strangers (when was the last time you invited someone from the congregation you don’t know well over for a meal?)
  • Remember those in prison or being mistreated (possibly this was more about Christians who were being persecuted than convicted criminals)
  • Honour & remain faithful in marriage (even for single people, this is about keeping promises and remaining sexually pure)
  • Be satisfied with what you have (hard to do in a consumer culture like ours)
  • Remember those who taught you the Word & follow their example (this is about modelling ourselves on others who display maturity in the faith)
  • Offer a continual sacrifice of praise (this is about how we speak and what we do with our bodies every day of the week [see Romans 12:1])
  • Do good & share with those in need (the things we give to others we also give to God)

There is a lot we could talk about on each of these 8 points, so If you would like to discuss them in more detail, we will be looking at this reading in Wednesday’s Listening to God’s Word Bible study (please contact me if you would like more details).

How many of these do we practice regularly? Ideally, everyone involved in Christian community would regularly practice all of these. What I would like us to consider, however, is which are we neglecting the most? Then, I would like us all to challenge ourselves to choose one and commit to putting it into practice at some stage over the next month. If you want to up the challenge, maybe think about choosing one a week for the next month, or one a week for every week until you have done them all.

It is critical, however, that we engage with these practices for the right reasons. We believe that every good thing we have is a gift from a loving God who blesses us because he loves us and wants the best for us. God wants to share his blessings with others and so he asks us to live like this as acts of grace to others, trusting in his grace for us. We can therefore think of each of these like this:

  • Our community of faith is a gift from God, so treat each other like family
  • We say grace before meals to acknowledge that our food is a gift from God; he also wants us to build strong relationships with others as we share our food together
  • We thank God for the freedom to worship him in this country, but there are others who do not share that freedom
  • Remember that your partner in life is God’s gift to you
  • God has blessed us with so much; why would we dishonour him by being unhappy with what he has given us and wanting more?
  • God wants us to remember that the people who have helped our faith grow strong are a blessing from him
  • God gave us everything in Jesus’ death and resurrection for us; if Jesus gave up his life for us, we can also praise him with our whole lives
  • When we trust that God will provide for all of our needs we can share what we have with others

Following these instructions really is about encountering God’s grace to us in all of its forms in every aspect of our lives, and then sharing that grace with others. That is what Christian community is about – encountering God’s grace to us through Jesus by the power of his Spirit and then encouraging each other to share that grace with the people around us, especially those who need it most and deserve it least.

As we begin to consider what our congregation could look like if we were to simplify, this reading from Hebrews gives us a good place to start. There are a lot of activities we engage in as a congregation that are not included in this list from Hebrews. What could our community look like if we focussed our time and energy on what God gives us to do in Hebrews 13? How would you like to be part of a community where you could encounter and grow in grace like we read it here?

More to think about:

  • Which of these practices in Hebrews 13 do you find easiest to do?
  • Which is the most difficult for you?
  • What could our congregation look like if we focussed on putting these into practice & helping others put them into practice?
  • How can each one point you to a deeper trust in God’s grace & goodness?
  • Which one(s) will you commit to putting into practice over the next month?