1. Wonderings about Church

The Wonder of the Church: Part 1 – Falling Short?
1. Wonderings about Church

Matt 16:18 I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.
Rev 2:1 To the messenger of the church in …. Write….

I wonder: I wonder how much we let Jesus build his church? Or perhaps another way of putting it, I wonder how much of what we call church today is actually built by Jesus? What is church? How has it come into being? How will it continue to come into being? Are all the people in ‘church buildings’ actually part of the church? Just wonderings. I look around at the various expressions of ‘church’ that I know and wonder how the Lord of the Church feels about them. I’m not wanting to be negative, just real, just curious.

Direction: The overall plan for this series will start as follows:
• Part One: Falling Short – things that have challenged me about the modern Church
• Part Two: Making of Believers: What makes a believer different, what are they?
• The following parts will consider ‘Church’

Objective: In this and the following ‘studies’ of this first Part, I want to consider fairly generally some of the things that challenge me about ‘the church’ today. The heading of this Part gives away my goals, to face the things I see and hear of modern church life that suggest to me that we may be falling short of God’s intentions for us.

In the studies that follow I will use the capital form ‘Church’ to designate who we are as a whole, all the believers across the world, and the lower case ‘church’ where it applies to the local congregation, the local expression of believers.

Structure of Part 1: The Content of Part 1– Falling Short? – will be as follows:
1. Wonderings about Church
2. Concern for People
3. Challenged by Scripture
4. Wondering about ‘Fitness for Purpose’
5. Problems with Religion and Revival
6. Appearance & Performance (1)
7. Appearance & Performance (2)

Prompted by Reading: Very well, let me explain what first started me off down this particular track. I have recently been in the psalms and then in John’s Gospel and, in many ways, I prefer meditating on Scripture, taking it as it comes, verse by verse, and the list of such series on this blog will testify to that. However, my starting point is that as I have been praying and reading, I find an urge to return to a specific ‘subject’ or ‘theme’ approach next.

I just mentioned reading and I recently read Francis Chan’s book, ‘Letters to the Church’, and within it he covers various specific subjects or themes for the Church to consider. I am about to read it a second time to make sure I take it in. I think I agree with all he says and, indeed, I find he has been expressing much that has been on my own heart over recent years, but he probably says it better than I might. (He has such church experience that I think I feel a bit like John the Baptist felt: “I am not worthy to undo his sandals!”) So, as I pray, I sense my next area of investigation within these pages should be the Church itself.

Approach: I have, I find, a same concern within me that Chan speaks about, that of the need to approach the subject in humility and without a critical spirit – and that is quite difficult if you are an honest observer of the Church, comparing what is, with what should or could be. Crusading atheists such as Richard Dawkins have been most scathing about the Church or, to be accurate, parts of the Church and, to be fair, many of the points he has made are valid. However, he only refers to a small part of the Church, I believe, and so as an overall criticism of the whole Church, his comments are quite unfair and inaccurate.

My objective, I think, is different from Chan’s because this is first and foremost a ‘Bible-study site’ and so the ‘meditations’ I write start and finish with the Bible (or at least that is its intention, although this first Part will be more discussional). He does seek to build all his comments on the New Testament teachings and I will do likewise though, I suspect, I will have a broader and more basic approach. He observes our shortcomings and prescribes New Testament remedies, all of which I think I agree with. I would like, as this is more a ‘Bible Study’ series, to take simple scriptures from the New Testament and build the picture from there and, for the sake of those for whom perhaps these things are not so familiar, will start at a very much more basic level. So, hold on to that word ‘basic’ if you will.

Grace not Legalism: I agree wholeheartedly with Chan that such writing about the Church can be used as a weapon by the critical to bash leaders. Never let that happen. I am aware in my own writings that sometimes my comments that challenge the modern church could be seen as lacking grace, although I never want that to be; that is not my heart and if my writings have come over like that, I apologise.

Preaching and teaching and imparting vision can be quite legalistic, and I suspect there is often a lot of this around. The ‘law’ or ‘rules’ approach says, “This is what it ought to be,” and comes with a heavy judgmental hand on all expressions of modern church life that deviate from New Testament teaching. I would like to present, if I can, a grace approach that says, “I believe (agree with me if you can) that here is the vision of what the Lord puts before us in the New Testament – I wonder how we could rise to apprehend this vision and enter into it?” But of course, to do that we have to identify what the New Testament says, make sense of it, and then, if we can honestly face how we presently fall short of it, ponder on how, perhaps, we can reach for it. OK, so hold on to two more words – vision and grace, if you will.

The Context of Revelation: The structure of the book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible, is intriguing. Chapter 1 presents the Lord of the Church, Jesus, but not in the form of the Gospels that emphasise him humanity, but a human form that is also very clearly divine, and as such he comes to the seven churches of Asia Minor and presents a devastatingly revealing assessment of each of them. This is the Lord who sees all and knows everything about the Church – and that includes each and every expression of it today.

And Today? But whether it is the worldwide expression or the local expression, I wonder what the Lord thinks of these gatherings of us, His people, today? How much do we match the teachings of the New Testament? How secure are we, I wonder, in who we are and how we express ‘church’ here in the first quarter of the twenty-first century? Is it a security that comes from having aligned ourselves against the teaching of the New Testament, or is it a false security that just hopes for the best, a hope built on ignorance, a hope built on, “Well, we’ve always done it like this so it must be all right”? This must be the challenge of all that follows here.

22. Ending & Starting

Meditations in Ecclesiastes : 22 :  A Time for Ending or Starting

Eccles 3:3   a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build,

I sometimes think that people that live in large towns or cities are less aware of the realities of life than those who live in the country. In the country there seems a greater awareness of ‘nature’, of animals and the seasons. When our children were small we kept rabbits, a number of them. From time to time that scourge of rabbits, myxomatosis, struck and it was left to dad to put the poor creatures out of their misery. It was a time to kill. In the past decade we have had disease scares with cattle and with chickens and thousands have had to be slaughtered to stop the spread of disease. There are times when it is better to kill to preserve life than allow the living to remain alive and infect the rest of the population. When I read Genesis and read of the violence that plagued the world, I suspect that this was why the Lord had to bring the flood to put the world out of its misery and to start again. When I read of the Lord instructing his people to totally wipe out another people, I think we are on the same unpleasant ground: destroy in order that a spiritual virus will not spread and cause more destruction.

In the New Testament I find the words,Put to death” and realise, it is a time to kill! Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.” (Col 3:5) and a little later Paul adds to that list,But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.” (Col 3:8). There are these ‘viruses’ which if allowed in our lives will grow and flourish, and the only answer is, without pity, to destroy them. It is a time to kill!  Death is necessary when there is a threat to life and this is the only way out. When it comes to sin, we have got to kill of any remnants lest they grow and destroy us. It is a time to kill.

My wife, I think, must be a descendant of St. Francis of Assisi. We can look back in our family memories to the times when she rescued and sought to revive an ailing vole, a pigeon with a damaged wing, and numerous Bumble Bees that had run out of energy and just needed a little honey on a teaspoon to give them the ability to get up and go again. She was the one who patched up our children time and again when they cut themselves. She was the one who knew what to do when their temperature soared or they were violently sick. She knew it was a time to heal. Today, possibly more than at any other time perhaps, we live in a society with damaged people, people who have simply been told they are stupid, or people who have been rejected as children when their father walked out, or people who were abused by the fathers before they walked out. As every new person becomes a Christian, it seems they come with an even bigger list of things that need healing up. When a whole society turns from God as ours has done, then the whole land needs healing:I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land,” (2 Chron 7:14) was God’s response to a people who repented and sought Him. Healing of the mind, the body and the spirit is the work of Jesus. Sometimes we refer to ‘the Great Physician’ because of His tendency to heal. Where there is ailing life, unless as we saw yesterday it has come to the end of its allotted time, the Lord comes with healing power. Jesus did it again and again when he walked the earth. Today, when he is given the faith, he does it still.

We have a long garden and I build sheds. It’s almost a hobby and my family make fun of me for it. When we first moved into this home with its long garden the grass was very long, the garden unkempt from lack of attention by an elderly couple. Hidden away were a variety of sheds. As we slowly restored the garden, I found this new hobby, restoring sheds! But there were some that were too far gone and the only thing was to pull them down. It was a time to tear down. As a church leader for many years, I have watched church activities that have reached the end of their useful lives, and now the blessing of God had clearly left them. It was a time to tear down.

But there have also been times in our family’s history when there was a new need was presented and so a summerhouse was constructed on a spare space. It was a time to build. When we first moved into our house and our family was just about to increase, we needed another bedroom and so it was necessary for me to build a big dormer across the back of upstairs to extend. It was a time to build. From time to time when we as a church have looked out on the community, and perceived a new need that the Lord was burdening us with, we realised we needed to put into operation some new work. It was a time to build.

This is what life is about. It is rarely static. We see bad things in our lives and we realise it is a time to kill. We see people coming in with hurts and anguishes from life and we know it is a time to heal. We see things built in the past which have passed their useful date and are now merely acting as monuments to the past, and we know it is a time to tear down. New needs are presented and new structures of caring, or whatever, are needed, and we know it is a time for building. Yes, there is an ongoing kaleidoscope of activities that make up the constant change of what we call life. Don’t be afraid of it; it’s what we do to ensure ongoing life and vitality to ourselves, our families, and our churches. Enjoy it.

34. A Growing Body

Ephesians Meditations No.34

Eph  4:16 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.

In the previous meditation we started thinking about the concept of growth in the Christian life. Our verse today continues that concept but adds a crucial aspect to it. It may be helpful here to recap a little to see where Paul has come from. Back in chapter 3 he spoke how he wanted us to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ,” (3:18) so that the outworking would, “to him be glory in the church.” (3:21). He then went on to exhort them to “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (4:3), also explaining that Christ has given gifts of ministries, “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up,” (4:12), so that “we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.” (4:15).

So it is now, that he starts, “From him…” (4:16). This has all been about the ‘body’ which is the church, of which Christ is the head. Now here is the crucial addition to all that he has said so far: growth of the church depends on the relationship with the head. This verse speaks about the church which “grows and builds itself up” i.e. there is addition to the body (grows) and that new, bigger body is then to be strengthened (builds). That is what is supposed to be happening to the church; it is supposed to be getting bigger and bigger and stronger and stronger.

If you are of the mind that only looks for a diminishing church in the last days, remember Jesus parable about the mustard seed: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree.” (Mt 31,32). No, the call is to expect Jesus’ rule in and through his church to grow. But note in all this that there is a responsibility on the church to build itself up! Now that ‘building’ or strengthening will come about as the individual members relate properly to Christ and to each other. When Paul was counseling the Corinthian church he said, “Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church.” (1 Cor 14:12). To the Thessalonians he said, “encourage one another and build each other up.” (1 Thess 5:11). Building or strengthening comes through encouragement. Can we ask ourselves do we encourage others in our part of the local church? Do we actively seek to build up the local church by building up individuals? Are people, blessed, encouraged and built up after they have encountered us?

So there are two concepts here: growth (numerically) and strengthening, and both of them come about when we are rightly related to the head and to the other members of the body. Remember, Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit.” (Jn 15:5) I quite like the older versions that speak of ‘abiding’ in Christ rather than just ‘remaining’ in him. It speaks of living with, sharing with, being in harmony with, him. If Christ is merely a figure from the past, we will not have this sort of living relationship with him, but it is this sort of relationship that brings this flow of life that produces change and fruit in us.

But let’s now think about rightly relating to one another. Paul’s analogy is not easy: the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament.” Now whatever else that means it speaks of each member being linked to, joined to all other members. What are the ‘supporting ligaments’? I’m not sure I know. Perhaps it refers to the mutual faith in Christ that we have, the beliefs from the Scriptures that we live by, and certainly the love of Christ that flows between us. These things, surely, bind us together.

But there’s a sting in the tail of this verse today: “as each part does its work.” Wow! Now don’t try and escape from this.  Remember what Paul said, “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” (1 Cor 12:27). YOU are a part of the body of Christ that is the church if you are a Christian, and the body will grow and be built up if YOU do YOUR part!  So, here’s the crucial question: are you doing your part? It’s no good complaining about the state of the church if you are not doing your part with the gifts and abilities and love that God gives you. Passivity is not an option! Is it any wonder that some churches are in a poor state when the members see ‘the minister’ as the one who is to do all the stuff and they can just sit there in the pews and absorb! No, a thousand times, no! That is not the church that Jesus desires!

I realise we haven’t focused on one word in our verse today – love.the whole body….. grows and builds itself up in love.” It is love that builds the church. If you have anything against a brother or sister in your church may I remind you that “love covers a multitude of sins.” (1 Pet 4:8). There is no room for division, dissension, criticism, gossip or anything that pulls down the others in the church. Jesus command was that we Love each other as I have loved you.(Jn 15:12).

These verses that we have been covering recently speak very strongly to the modern church which is so often so very far from the Biblical model – get it together, obey what God has said, start being what Jesus wants. If you nothing else do what these verses in these two chapters have been saying.