The Wonder of the Church: Part 1 – Falling Short?
7. Appearance & Performance (2)
Mt 24:1 ‘Then Jesus went out and departed from the temple, and His disciples came up to show Him the buildings of the temple.
Jn 12:24 unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.
Recap: In the previous study I have dared tread on hallowed ground, risking offending those who hold great store in history, tradition and education and, indeed, religious formality. I only dare do this because I know where this is going and detractors of what I have been saying can only do it if they ignore or reject the teaching of the New Testament. In that previous study, I noted that appearance, self-confidence, performance, and unbelief are primary hindrances to Biblical faith. I maintained that religious performance should simply be the channel through which the presence of God can be manifest and promised to explain that in detail in later studies in this series. In considering unbelief in the life of a local church, I touched on worship and public prayer. Now I am going on to another vital aspect of church life that is so often a demonstration of unbelief, that of pastoral care.
Tolerating Pain: Many years ago, the first book I wrote was called ‘Creating a Secure Church’ and in the first chapter I imagined a typical congregation with people listening to their pastor, but with their minds filled with the worries of everyday living. Now nothing has changed. In a local church I know fairly well, a congregation of up to 150, the following are what I suspect are fairly typical anguishes: women with non-Christian husbands, men and women who are struggling to make ends meet financially, families with worries about their children and their teenagers, people wrestling with failures and guilts from the past, people with worries about their jobs, their finances and the future, young people worrying about study and/or exams and their futures. These are people with many and varied worries and concerns, hurts and anxieties, and so I have to ask the question, what do we do about them?
Ignore the Pain? This is the first expression of unbelief in respect of pastoral issues, and I believe it is true of so many churches. Pretend it is not there or if it is there, accept that this is what we all have to suffer, living in the Fallen World. But Pastors may be aware of it and yet feel out of their depth in dealing with the scope and breadth of such issues, so simply try to cover some of these things in a surface way in twenty-five minutes of Sunday morning preaching. Some churches have house groups but what I so often find, is that they do such spiritually sounding things as Bible Study and ‘praying for the nations’ yet fail to create an atmosphere of security whereby people are put first, people who are anguishing and struggling with burdens that almost overwhelm them. In church, if God is to be our first focus, people should be a close second, because they were with Jesus. A damaged people cannot be a community-transforming people. Our transformation should start within the church, and then when we learn to do that, we can reach out to do it in the community.
When Jesus declared the Isaiah mandate as his mandate, “to proclaim good news to the poor.… to proclaim freedom for the prisoners,” (Lk 4:18) the reality is that those poor prisoners are in our congregations too, and it is only unbelief that continues to tolerate that state of affairs; Jesus wants to heal, deliver, transform and change such people with their threatening circumstances.
We can in our churches be the same as the synagogues in Jesus’ day, shown by the classic instance in Mark 1 when a demon possessed man was in the synagogue and when Jesus delivered him, the reaction was amazement by the people who considered this something new. Presumably this man existed in the synagogue on a weekly basis at least and it was only when Jesus turned up that he was delivered. I have a suspicion that many in our churches (including leaders) would be utterly shocked if our neat and orderly services were interrupted by Jesus turning up and healing and delivering people publicly.
Misguided Disciples: In the first verse of Matt 24, the first of our starter verses above, Jesus’ disciples are carried away by the grandeur of Herod’s Temple. And, of course, that was how it was always described, Herod’s Temple. Herod the Great added on to the old, smaller temple, and created this great and beautiful building. And here is the irony of those verses: the disciples were excited by the amazing building and missed the fact that God, in the form of His Son, was walking away from it. Jesus, in his response to them, warns, “not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down,” (v.2) and of course that was exactly what happened within some forty years in AD70.
Now the example of the disciples in this instance is what is at the heart of the belief system of so many people and I only mention this in this study so that we will realise that this feeling of grandeur can never be at the heart of true faith. Please understand, I am not attacking great ecclesiastical buildings, or religious institutions or other institutions that support and strengthen our societies, but I am saying they have little place in creating biblical faith. Similarly, familiar religious practice and standard service formats are in no way an expression of the life of the church revealed in the New Testament and should in no way replace a vibrant life of the Spirit in the church.
Death to self: We have, in this study, been suggesting that it is so easy to look at status and size as means of gaining confidence in who we are, or of establishing a sense of security, and that regular format services can act as a means of creating a weekly comfort zone. However, there is a teaching in the New Testament that lays an axe to the particular belief that human effort and endeavour is the key to religion. It may be summarised as the need to die to self to become a follower of Jesus. The second of our starter verses today came from the lips of Jesus: “unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” He was, of course, referring to himself and his impending death but he was also laying down a principle that applies to each of us, and indeed dare we suggest it, the way we go about ‘church’.
Baptism: Baptism of believers in the New Testament period involved total immersion and the act of immersion was a picture of the spiritual reality of what would happen to Jesus and what has to happen to us. Going down into the water is symbolic of him – and us – dying, and then being raised up out of the water is symbolic of his resurrection and ours, as we are raised to a new life.
The Message version puts it, “That is what happened in baptism. When we went under the water, we left the old country of sin behind; when we came up out of the water, we entered into the new country of grace—a new life in a new land!” (Rom 6:2,3) It continues with the apostle Paul’s teaching, “That’s what baptism into the life of Jesus means. When we are lowered into the water, it is like the burial of Jesus; when we are raised up out of the water, it is like the resurrection of Jesus. Each of us is raised into a light-filled world by our Father.” (v.3-5) He explained the same thing to the Colossians: “Going under the water was a burial of your old life; coming up out of it was a resurrection, God raising you from the dead as he did Christ.” (Col 2:12 Message version)
This same concept comes up again and again in the New Testament, that in coming to Christ we have to die to our old life, i.e. we have to completely let go of it, we have to reject and leave that old self-centred life, the life of human endeavor, that is so often godless and which, so often, results in things going wrong We have already described Sin as self-centred godlessness that leads to unrighteous acts. God has designed us to live in relationship with Him but before we come to Christ, we will not have known that experience, we will have led self-centred lives, lives that are in reality, godless.
Being nice, having status, relying upon traditions, buildings, institutions, regular religious formats etc., none of these things counts for anything with God. We could say so much more here, but we will let the teaching of the following Parts speak further as it becomes applicable. These are the things that I have found had motivated and challenged me to come to this point of starting afresh to consider what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be part of the Church.
Instead of diving straight in and making suggestions about what the New Testament says about ‘church’ we need to start before that by considering what a Christian is, what has happened to them to be able to claim this title, and yet before that we need to consider what went before, their need, and what brought about the transformation that the New Testament speaks about. That is where we will go in the next Part.
(If you have simply come to this series and not followed it each day, you may wish to know where it is going, and so here at the end of each Part is an overview of the series)
Part 1 – Falling Short?
- Wonderings about Church
- Concern for People
- Challenged by Scripture
- Wondering about ‘Fitness for Purpose’
- Problems with Religion and Revival
- Appearance & Performance (1)
- Appearance & Performance (2)
Part 2 – A Different People
- Repentance and Conviction
- Needing to be ‘Saved’?
- A People of Faith
Part 3 – Making of Believers
- A Guilt-Free People
- No Longer Orphans
- Growing in Sonship
- The Yeast of Humility
- Getting on a Learning Curve
- The Reality of Sacrifice
- No Add-ons
- Servant-hearted (1)
- Servant-hearted (2)
Part 4 – Pondering on Vision
- The Significance of Vision
- More on ‘Why Vision?’
- The God Focus
- Spiritual Expressions
- Building People
Part 5 – Starting from Scratch
- Clear your Mind
- A New Creation
- Life (1)
- Life (2)
- Being Together
Part 6 – thinking about Leaders
- Local leaders – overseers
- Local leaders – shepherds
- Local leaders – elders
- Local Leaders – The Nature of the Church (1)
- Gifts of Ministries – Introduction
- Gifts of Ministries – to plant
- Gifts of Ministries – to build up
- The Servants – Deacons
- The Nature of the Church (2)
Part 7 – Unique Ingredients
- Another quick look at ‘Vision’
- Power – for Life Transformation
- Power – for Life Service
- Power – for Living
- The Need for Faith
- More on Faith.
- Finale – the Church on God’s heart