The Wonder of the Church: Part 5 – Starting from Scratch
30. Life (1)
Mk 2:21,22 “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.”
Life? According to my concordance the word ‘life’ occurs 565 times in the NIV. It is possibly one of the most often read words (229 of them in the New Testament) and yet, I suspect, one of the most least unthought about words. We speak so easily of ‘eternal life’ and we see Jesus speaking of it so often, for example,
Quote 1: “I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?” (Mt 6:25) and,
Quote 2: “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” (Mt 6:27) and
Quote 3: “small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Mt 7:14)
Even that little selection should get us thinking. Life, says Jesus, is more than about eating. Well yes, we might respond, it’s about meaningful things like relationships, family, work, fulfilment and so on. And indeed, that is the life in both the first and second quotes, but then then comes the challenge of Mt 7:14 about another dimension, life that is more than mere physical existence; it has to be spiritual life he is referring to.
John’s perspective: Look up life in John’s Gospel and it is mostly this spiritual dimension. John, who had had decades to ponder on the things he had personally heard Jesus say, comes into the Gospel accounts at a much more profound level: “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind,” (Jn 1:24) and, “For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it,” (Jn 5:21) not to mention the numerous references to eternal life (e.g. 3:15,16,36, 4:14,36 etc. etc.)
And So? What is the outworking of this? It must be to ask the questions, “Do we know and experience this ‘life’ individually and in a corporate sense in the church, is this what we seek to impart to one another, and is this the dimension we seek to introduce others to?” To this we might add, “Where in our church experience is this ‘life’ evident?” The discerning Christian recognises another Christian by the sense of ‘life’ about them. I have shared previously how, when I came to the Lord, I woke up next morning a completely different person. There was ‘life’ there in way that had not been previously. I was once in East Malaysia in a jungle village waiting for a translator to turn up and our Christian hosts were having to communicate by sign language, and I have testified many times that I had this bursting sense to want to be able to speak language to them because there was this sense of ‘life’ in these Malaysian Christians, a life that wanted to be communicated.
It’s Absence: But then, I have attended services that were pure performance and the dear man out the front was ‘doing his job’ and life was not flowing. You know it when you see it, but you also know it when it’s not there, whether it be Nuns in a Convent who may be overflowing with life or monks in a Monastery who may be there for a quiet life but there is no ‘life’; it may be in an Anglican church where the Spirit has been let loose and life abounds, or it may be a little evangelical church where law, conformity and lifelessness abound. The ‘streams’ tend to have let the Lord loose but many denominational churches hold fast to a rigid past, fearing a God on the loose. Its absence is seen in an environment where, “We don’t do it like that,” prevails, very similar to “We’ve always done it like this.” Its absence is also seen where there are power groups in the church who exercise control, whether it be ‘the choir’, or ‘the worship band’ or even a family that has been here since the church began a hundred years ago, who want to hold fast to tradition at the cost of the Presence of God!
Recapping? But why do I seem to be recapping where we’ve been before, I hear you say, I thought we are moving on to look in detail at the church of the New Testament? And so we are but whatever we talk about as aspects of the life of the Church, we must keep reminding ourselves of the foundation upon which we are built. So, yes, we’ve previously considered the language of ‘being born again’ which, although disliked by some, nevertheless is language used by Jesus and language which points us at this very subject, and we perhaps need to remind ourselves what is at the heart of it.
Life involves Movement: When you look at Jesus’ words in Jn 3 through the lens of the Message version, it sheds light: “You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it’s headed next. That’s the way it is with everyone ‘born from above’ by the wind of God, the Spirit of God.” (Jn 3:8 paraphrase) Jesus spoke of the moving of the Spirit upon us using the picture of wind, and then it indwelling us. Now that is very helpful because it is something with which we are all conversant. Who hasn’t felt the wind on our face, watched the trees sway and bend, and all this speaks of movement?
When a child is born, if there is no movement, we know something is wrong. When a person is born again, we expect to see movement, change, and if there is none, we question the reality of it. When a person says they have been filled with the Spirit, we expect to see change, movement. When it happens, signs of it happening (or happening again) may be a release of tongues or prophecy (see instances in Acts) and will certainly be accompanied by a fresh outpouring of joy with a sense of being loved. There is always a release of ‘life’ and sense of ‘freedom’. I have entitled this Part as “Starting from Scratch” and this is exactly what we are doing. At the heart of the life of the individual AND the Church has to be ‘life’ and life involves change and movement.
Church involves Change: Because of all this, the life of a Spirit-led, Spirit-empowered, Spirit-directed church will mean that ‘change is here to stay’ as is sometimes said. In a healthy church, those changes will be seen in several different ways. First, in the addition of new members, new people coming to Christ and being added to the Church. Second, as people grow up and develop spiritually, they will change. Are we different from what we were say five years ago? We should be? We should be learning new things that change our outlook, the way we think, and that in turn will change our behaviour, the things we say and do. But, third, as we grow and mature, that will also include in areas of gifting and ministry, as we learn to recognise the gifting God has put within us and we become more confident in using it, and thus become more fruitful. We recently quoted Jesus’ teaching of the vine which is applicable here: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (Jn 15:5) That speaks about life flow, Jesus life flowing in us and as we maintain this relationship, so it brings forth fruit in and through us.
And So? We should conclude by asking those questions we asked before and hold them before us, to ponder the reality of our answers: “Do we know and experience this ‘life’ individually and in a corporate sense in the church, is this what we seek to impart to one another, and is this the dimension we seek to introduce others to?” To this we might add, “Where in our church life is this evident?” Stuff to think about.