The Church

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A while back, we interviewed someone about how he’d come to faith in Jesus – like we’ve done tonight. And he said that what first attracted him to Jesus was his experience of the Newcastle Uni Christian Union. He said, ‘It was totally unlike any other uni society. I found every other one basically just a clique of very similar people – and impossible to feel part of unless you were like them.’ And he said, ‘By contrast, the Christian Union was bewilderingly different (those were his exact his words).There was such a variety of people from such a variety of backgrounds that on paper it just shouldn’t have worked. But,’ he said, ‘It did work. And it was the one place where I found real acceptance and friendship. And it left me asking, ‘What have they got that I haven’t?’’ And that’s God’s vision for every Christian group or church. It’s that anyone who has a brush with us sees something so different and attractive that they’re left asking, ‘What have they got that I haven’t?’ – and wanting it, themselves.

But churches aren’t always like that, are they? Far from it. Let me read from an e-mail I got a while back.

I was raised in church and had really positive experiences as a child. But as I grew up I struggled increasingly with the lack of integrity, gossip and narrow-mindedness of the leaders. I tried to get more involved, and influence it positively, but was made to feel like I had no contribution to make. I left and tried numerous other churches only to feel like a perpetual outsider.

I no longer regularly attend any church because I don’t really see the point. However uplifting the teaching, I’m met continuously by individuals who fail to practice what they preach, hierarchies that are aloof and members who are indifferent or exclusive.

I’ve been saved from giving up totally on church only by a distant memory that true fellowship does exist and is fundamentally important.
But I think what I’ve realised is that I don’t believe in church any more.

What would you say to that? In particular, would you dare to say, ‘Come and try ours?’ The humbling truth is that they did.

Well, tonight’s topic in this series on discipleship is: church. So would you turn in the Bibles to Ephesians 4. Ephesians is the Bible book on church. In football terms, it’s a book of two halves. The first half is God’s vision of what he wants a church to be. The second half urges us to live up to that vision. And we join it at the re-start after half time. So look at Ephesians 4, v1 – this is the apostle Paul writing while under arrest for preaching Jesus:

1 As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. (v1)

And throughout this passage, the ‘you’ is plural – not you the individual (as if being a Christian was just about you having your personal relationship with God and me having mine) but you the church. And ‘the calling’ in v1 is simply the call you hear in the gospel – to accept Jesus as Lord, and to accept his offer of forgiveness for every way you’ve failed to give him that rightful place in your life. And Paul has just spent chapters 1-3 laying out God’s vision for people who’ve done that.

Everything today has a ‘vision statement’, doesn’t it? I took the car to Kwikfit recently and the poster said, ‘Our vision is complete customer delight.’ Well, my vision was just two new tyres, but I was happy to come away with some delight as well, so long as it didn’t cost extra. But in business, a ‘vision statement’ is a picture in your mind of your future – eg, where you’re going to be in 10 years’ time. So just turn back to Ephesians 1, to see God’s picture of our future if we’re trusting in Jesus – Ephesians 1 and v10. Paul is laying out God’s ‘business plan’ for the universe and, v10, the plan is

10 to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfilment [ie, when Jesus comes again] – to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ. (1.10)

So the plan is that Jesus will come again and separate those who’ve accepted him as Lord from those who haven’t. And those who have are going to be part of a place where everyone is ‘together under one head, even Christ’ – ie, getting on with each other perfectly, because they’re finally living under Jesus as Lord perfectly. That’s the eternal future.

But in Ephesians God also give us his vision for the church now – even though, this side of heaven, it’s always going to be far from perfect. So turn on to chapter 3 and v10:

His [ie, God’s] intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, 11according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. (3.10-11)

Later on, Paul explains that the ‘rulers and authorities’ there are the devil and his spiritual minions (see 6.12f). And he pictures them looking down on the world they’ve so successfully led us to mess up by turning our backs on God. And they’re delighted to see all the wars, and the divorce rate, and the friction in workplaces and arguments in families and so on. But then to their horror they see these pockets of humanity called churches where people – and the most unlikely mix of people (let’s face it, would this gathering ever have come together apart from the common factor of Jesus?)– are actually getting on in a way that’s supernatural. And they realise that their plan for messing up the universe has been out-played by a higher wisdom. So God’s vision for every local church is for it to give the world a glimpse (albeit imperfect) of that eternal future that chapter 1 says he’s working towards. We’re meant to be like the show house that gives an idea of what the finished estate will one day be like. And that leaves people thinking, ‘I’d love to live there – what have they got that I haven’t?’

That’s the calling that Paul is urging us to live up to. So back to chapter 4. I’ve got two headings to sum it up:

Firstly, KEEP THE PEACE (vv1-6)

Look on to chapter 4 and v2:

2Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. (vv2-3)

What he’s saying is this. If the Lord Jesus, by his Spirit, has brought me to faith in him and he’s also brought you to faith in him, then he’s created a unity and a bond between us that’s far deeper and longer-lasting than any other unity or bond – whether it’s biological family, marriage or even being a Newcastle United season-ticket holder. And he’s saying: make every effort to work at relationships in this spiritual family. And that is an effort, because, applying this to ourselves, there are two major threats to the unity and peace of JPC. One is me. And the other is the rest of you. Because even though God is working on us and we will one day be living perfectly under Jesus as Lord a la chapter 1, right now we’re still full of our own, sinful egos. So we each have our view on what church would be like if only we were the benign dictator. We each have our convictions on secondary issues – and wish that everyone else would see sense and agree with us. We each have our frustrations with the way things are and the personalities who lead us. We’re each different. And, above all that, we’re each sinful. And Paul’s recipe for keeping the peace is in v2:

2Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. (v2)

So, ‘be humble’ – ie, not self-important. So if your agenda in a discussion or a planning meeting is selfish, drop it. Learn to think not, ‘How would I like things to be’, but, ‘What would be best for everyone?’

Next, ‘be gentle’. The word in the original means ‘not over-reacting’. Which assumes there will be things to react to – like people disappointing you or rubbing you up the wrong way, or sinning against you. And I love the realism here: church is going to be like that – it’s going to be far from perfect this side of heaven. And I think one of the problems for that person whose e-mail I read earlier is that they’re looking for a church that simply doesn’t exist. And can I say: two situations where we’re most likely to blow it on ‘being gentle’ are: when giving criticism and when receiving criticism. Let’s be especially careful there.

Next it says, ‘be patient, bearing with one another in love’. One example of that is that I remember one student who’d floated unhealthily between churches coming to me and saying, ‘I want you to know I’ve finally decided to settle at JPC.’ And then (presumably to keep me humble!) he said, ‘It’s not that it’s my style as far as the services and the music goes – I think that leaves something to be desired. But I know I’ve grown through the teaching, and that I can bring my friends along, so I’ve decided I’m going to bear with those other things which I realise are to do with keeping a lot of people united, not just me. Well, that attitude is v2. Then, v3 again:

3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. (vv2-3)

Or, in the words from the marriage service, ‘What God has joined together, let man not separate.’ Because if we do split up into cliques within out church, or (more widely) if Christians split needlessly over secondary issues into lots of different churches, then the world will just look and say, ‘Well, they’re really no different from us – we can’t live together and nor can they.’

So, vv1-3 are saying that joining and belonging to a church is going to be an effort. Eg, those of you in CYFA are much more in touch than the rest of us with music and media culture, so you’ve got the biggest effort of bearing with how out of touch JPC is. For students, you’ve got the effort of stepping outside the student bubble and being part of something that’s not just designed for 18-21 or 22-year-olds. And students finding that hard have sometimes said to me, ‘Why should I bother with church when I’ve got CU?’ But as the Bible sees it, a Christian should be anchored in a local church – in the all-age-range body of Christ. You need that more than you imagine. That’s a must. And then whether or not you get involved in CU or Christians in Sport or Agape is optional. (And can I say: the point of a CU is not to duplicate or replace church, but to create extra opportunities for sharing the gospel on campus in ways that a local church can’t.) then for internationals here, you’ve got the effort of coping with British food when people in church invite you to meals in their homes (which, by the way, is an unsubtle hint to be inviting students whether international or not to meals in your home). Or maybe you’ve got the effort of getting on with a Japanese believer in your small group when you’re a Korean believer, or with a Taiwanese believer when you’re from mainland China.

So, ‘Keep the peace,’ says Paul. And as if knows that won’t be easy, he then reminds us how much we have in common. Look at v4:

4 There is one body [the body of Christ, the church] and one Spirit [who worked in your heart to bring you to faith if you’re a believer] – just as you were called to one hope when you were called [hope is Biblespeak for the certainty of that eternal future in chapter 1. So he’s saying, ‘We’re going to spend eternity together – there’s not going to be a ‘charismatic corner’ and a ‘non-charismatic corner’ – so we might as well start trying to get on well now.’], 5one Lord, one faith [ie, the doctrinal content of the Christian faith, the primary truths about Jesus and the cross by which we’re saved. So this isn’t unity at the expense of truth, unity at all costs. It’s unity around primary truths, with liberty to disagree on secondary issues], one baptism [the outward sign of the washing away of sins that we’ve seen tonight]; 6one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (vv4-6)

Ie, remember: what we have in common if we’re believers massively outweighs our differences. So let’s keep the peace.

The other main thing Paul says here is:

Second, BUILD UP THE BODY (vv7-16)

So God’s goal according to Ephesians 1 is top see all believers from down the ages finally living perfectly together under Jesus as Lord. And his aim right now is that every local church grows and approximates towards that goal. So look on to v7:

7 But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. [Ie, we’ve each got a contribution to make thanks to the abilities and experience the Lord Jesus has given us] 8 This is why it says: When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men. 9 (What does he ascended mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? 10 He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) (vv7-9)

So there’s a reminder of the central events of the Christian message: God the Son ‘descended’ from heaven to become human in the person of Jesus. He died for our forgiveness. And then he rose again from the dead and ‘ascended’ back to his Father in heaven. And since then his aim has been, end of v10, ‘to fill the whole universe’ – that is, to fill it with his rule: to bring more people under his rule, and then to deepen his rule in their lives individually and corporately. How did he plan to do that? Well, read on. V11:

11 It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (vv12-13)

So first of all, he gave some to be apostles and prophets. And back in chapter 3, Paul explained that they were the original eyewitnesses of Jesus, plus their associates, who gave us the New Testament (NT). Which means we now have a complete Bible – Old Testament (OT) which pointed forward to Jesus; and NT capturing everything we need to know about how to come into relationship with Jesus and then live for him. Which is why the Bible and expository Bible preaching and small group Bible study and Bible-based evangelism like Christianity Explored is at the heart of what we do.

Then read on in v11, he gave some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors (literally, shepherds) and teachers. So evangelism (sharing the gospel) is the responsibility of us all; but evangelists have a special ability to lead us in that – eg, Graham Daniels, who was here a few weeks back. And then the pastors and teachers are those who lead the church – plan for it, organise it, manage it, discipline it, and so on – and who also teach the church from the Bible. But they’re not the ‘professionals’ who do all the work, while everyone else just spectates The v11 ministry is, v12:

12to prepare [literally ‘equip’] God's people for works of service [or ‘ministry’ – it’s the same word in the original] (v12)

So the work of the church staff is not to do the ministry instead of you, but to equip you to do the ministry you should be doing. And if you’re feeling you haven’t found your ministry niche, yet, and like you’re not needed, can I say:

No.1: Apologies – we haven’t helped you as we should.

No.2: Do come and talk to one of us on the staff.

And no.3: You are needed. Please believe that, remembering v7 – ‘But to each one of us grace has been given’ – ie, every believer here has a contribution to make without which JPC won’t grow as God wants it to towards that chapter 1 goal. And I’m not just on about formal roles like being a small group leader or in music group – something for which there’s a leader list or a badge. Some of the most important work you’ll do for the Lord is totally informal – like making it your priority to look for and talk to new faces straight after each service; or like phoning or dropping in on someone in your small group because they let slip that things weren’t great right now. I major on the Bible side of ministry – but I’ve never forgotten being signed off sick, and so unwell that a church family took me in for a whole month. (This was before I was married, in case you’re wondering why Tess just farmed me out for a quiet four weeks!) And as I saw the phenomenal throughput of hospitality in that home, it opened my eyes to how many unlabelled, unsung ministries are needed. (But we do need sung ones as well – so let me say again that it’s not too late to join the choir for Carols by Candlelight…)

And v13, God’s aim through all the ministries of all of us is to work in us:

13until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ [ie, corporate Christlikeness]. (v13)

So the ‘evangelists’ in v11 remind us that God is working for numerical growth. But v13 says he’s then working for maturity. growth – and not just the individual maturity of each of us, but our corporate maturity., ‘attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ’ – ie, reflecting the character of the Lord Jesus in our life together, which in a word is: love. And that’s what the guy I began with saw in the Newcastle CU.

So my two parting shots are these: for one thing, get equipped. Use all the opportunities you can on Sundays and elsewhere to learn from the Bible. If you’re a student, don’t let The Bible Talks on Monday lunchtimes and the evangelism training before Focus on Tuesdays pass you by. And whoever you are, do use the training we lay on for leaders – and badger us where we’re failing to.

But the other thing is: get working to build others up. Just look on to v14 to finish:

14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth [ie, the truth of the Bible – keeping that at the centre] in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (vv14-16)

And the way to put vv15 and 16 into practice is to join a small group – a Home Group, or Focus or a GCF group or whatever. Because at its best, that’s where you can really get down to helping one another live out the Bible’s vision for our lives. And it’s where we can get close enough to one another that we really do get involved in one another’s lives – in one another’s joys and griefs and challenges and problems. Because the only way to learn to love people like Jesus wants us to is to get closer to them than we naturally want to. So take the plunge: join a small group. Or commit to the small group you’ve joined on paper. Because that’s how to belong and to build up the body.

As I hope you know, our vision for JPC is that, under God, in the next generation, we’ll grow to be a church of 5,000 with another 5,000 in church plants (from currently being a church of 1,000 with a recent plant of 250). But that vision, or anything remotely like it, will only happen if we give ourselves to living out this one from God’s Word tonight.

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