TRUSTING THE BODY

For my overseas readers, let me explain. Besides soccer (our national team ‘no where’ at the moment), South Africans are fanatical about rugby (we lie 2nd in the world). Last Saturday our top SA franchise, the Sharks (supported by my son) played a quarter-final match against the top New Zealand franchise, the Crusaders in Christchurch NZ. We knew beforehand that our team didn’t stand much of a chance against the peaking Crusaders. However we were so badly beaten, due to generally poor play and specifically poor kicking for possession, that we were totally embarassed. For me and others, two half-time video clips in the respective dressing rooms told a significant story. As pointed out by the commentators, the Sharks dressing room depicted an agitated and animated coach Jake White, gesticulating and exhorting the troops, while the Crusaders dressing room revealed a calm team in a circle quietly engaging with the captain and senior players, while coach Todd Blackadder looked on from the outside of the circle, listening but never intervening. The first scenario appeared to be very much a one-man show (with respect) as the coach reminded them of the game plan and how it had to be carried out more accurately, the second scenario appeared to be a mixture of leadership and participation with a balance of structure and spontaneity (forgive the mixed metaphor, but speak to any musician worth their salt and they will tell you that basic structure and personal spontaneity are the right mix for a good performance).

From a worship and fellowship perspective, why can’t we trust the body, i.e. the body of Christ?? Yes there may be a leader or facilitator as such, but even that is a horizontal servant-leadership or facilitation.

When I say, ‘why can’t we trust the body’ I am of course also saying ‘why can’t we trust the head of the body, viz. Jesus Christ,’ to lead his gathered saints and ‘why can’t we trust the Holy Spirit’ who imparts the mind of Christ to those who are before him?

Certainly in the eight years my wife and I have been ‘facilitating’ (hopefully under the guidance of the Spirit) a number of small organic house church groups in our city, we have never encountered any rank heresy breaking out or a lack of order (in terms of 1 Cor. 12:26ff), etc. [Some years ago we had to caution and eventually challenge one particular family we were trying to help who were abusing that help through licentious living. They chose to move on. A few years later the husband passed away unexpectedly and the family asked me to preside over the funeral, which I did. They were very appreciative of my assistance, although sadly still continue to live a very disfunctional lifestyle]

On the contrary, in recent times I have repeatedly been blown away by the astute and edifying contribution of each member, even the humblest, as they have participated and contributed. God has given us some amazing revelation and personal breakthroughs in the process. Our newer, largely youthful group, is learning to participate with enthusiasm and real wisdom as they are mentored by three more experienced believers who lend stability and maturity going forward.

If we consider the ‘body life passages’ of the NT such as Rom. 12, 1 Cor. 12-14, Eph. 4-6, 1 Pet. 2 etc, they all reveal certain commonalities:

  • The Lordship of Jesus over the world and his body. Col. 1; Eph. 1:3-23, 4:1ff.
  • The sovereignty of God in dispensing spiritual gifts through the Spirit. 1 Cor. 12, etc.
  • The importance of godly character, i.e. the fruit of the Spirit. Gal. 5:13-26.
  • The ‘priesthood of all believers.’ 1 Pet. 2:4-12.
  • The motive of edification, service/mission, and the fulfilment of Christ’s purposes on earth to his praise and glory. Eph. 4:11ff; Col. 1 & 2.
  • The empowering resurrection life of Jesus Christ in all who believe. Jn. 7:37-39; Eph. 1:18-23.

I still, strangely enough, get asked to preach in traditional churches, mainly I suppose because of long-standing relationships of trust (I do this infrequently and only after hearing from God – the pastors also know my stance on issues). When I re-visit the old way of ‘church,’ I remember from my old days in that milieu the subtly controlling worship I used to be part of – I mean, after all, you had to fit everything into one hour twenty minutes (max 90 mins)! Once or twice during my ‘pastoring’ of thirty-eight years someone spoke in tongues (horrors, in a Baptist church!), and I recall my heart missing a beat… What to do now!?

So how do we, under God, and by his indwelling Christ, develop this more biblical kind of ‘trust in the body?’ I came across some helpful general guidelines a few days ago (please note, not a formula) by Joseph Horevay, when transitioning from organised church to simple church. He suggests we cultivate:

  • Intimacy with God
  • The priesthood of all believers
  • Rich inter-personal relationships
  • A sense of mission
  • Discipling one another
  • Expecting the supernatural. cf 1 Cor. 14.
  • Servanthood in all things

I take comfort in Jesus’ reply to Simon’s inspired confession ‘you are the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God,’ as recorded in Mt. 16:17ff: “God bless you, Simon, son of Jonah! You didn’t get that answer out of books or from teachers. My Father in heaven, God himself, let you in on this secret of who I really am. And now I am going to tell you who you are, really are. You are Peter, a rock. This is the rock on which I will put together my church, a church so expansive with energy that not even the gates of hell will be able to keep it out!” (my emphasis) (MSG).

We can safely trust the body, under the practical headship of Jesus and the sovereign guidance of the Spirit, and expect to be overwhelmed in community and damage to hell.

 

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THE STATE OF THE CHURCH: BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD! [PART 3]

Here’s the final part of our theme over the past week or two. Scanning through Part 1 and 2 would obviously help clarify Part 3 of a message I preached at a World Missions Conference in our city a fortnight ago.

BASIC 5:  GOD’S PEOPLE ARE ‘A MISSIONAL [INCARNATIONAL] PEOPLE’  [MK. 1:17b-18]…

As Jesus commits himself to Simon and Andrew, they commit to follow him:  v. 17b-18, “‘I will make you fishers of men (people).’ At once they left their nets and followed him.” [addendum to sermon:  a beloved missiologist used to ask his students, ‘Where is God?’ They would suggest all kinds of answers like ‘in eternity,’ ‘he’s omniscient,’ etc. The lecturer would listen, and then add ‘God is going into his world’]. Jesus was and is on a God-given, incarnational world mission. A little later in Mk. 6:6ff we read how Jesus, having apprenticed the Twelve from village to village, sends them out ‘two by two’ [true ministry always happens ‘ex-community’] with divine authority into Galilee and beyond: “‘Take nothing for the journey except a staffWhenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town…’ Those first disciples obeyed their Master and went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them” (v. 12-13) as confirmation of Christ’s kingdom message.

Later, John in his gospel-account, records how the risen Jesus appears to his disciples, greets them with a repeated ‘shalom’ and then makes the all-important statement (Jn. 21:21), “‘As the Father has sent me (that’s definitive), I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit…'” (v. 22).

Bonhoeffer wrote that Jesus came to make us ‘human.’ God wants to see human-beings, not ghosts who shun the world! [some Christians I know seem so super-spiritual they kind of glide a meter above the ground, they speak a ‘Christianese’ only they can understand, etc]. While we are clear that God never condones a ‘worldly’ (selfish, materialistic) spirit, he doesn’t call us out of his world but in fact sends us into that world he intends to redeem. Jesus’ is calling today for many, many ‘non-worldly,’ Spirit-indwelt ‘market-place disciples’ (who begin at home). [while not part of my message, the following appeared in my notes:  I have often told the story of how God called me at age 63 to work with the poor and young. I had read a statistic somewhere that 80% of the world was poor and young. So I launched out in faith. You may object that that in today’s materialistic world very few seem interested in hearing and knowing about Jesus. A bit of advice, look for people on the ‘fringe’ (as Jesus did), and start ‘being Jesus’ to them. It could involve shack-dwellers, the elderly, hungry children, prostitutes, etc.] Returning to Bonhoeffer’s call, our youth today are looking for human Christians, real people, authentic people, relational people, whom they can follow! [as I looked at the youth in the front rows, they were nodding their heads in enthusiastic approval:  two talked to me afterwards about informally mentoring them]

Are we incarnating Jesus? Are we a missional people? [additional to my sermon:  I have never understood so-called ‘organic churches/house churches’ that only look inward]. Quite literally, in a post-modern society you may be the only ‘Bible’ people would ever read (cf. 2 Cor. 3:2, we are God’s letter, ‘known and read by everbody’).

 

So there you have 5 ‘drawing-board basics’ for God’s Church in a time of crisis. At the end of the day, it’s not about returning to ‘basics’ so much as returning to a person, Jesus.

By way of application I have to make the point that many who have listened to me today may be tempted to respond by deciding to ‘try harder,’ i.e. in prayer, witness, etc. That route is doomed to failure! May I persuade one and all to focus rather on ‘the mystery of the Christ within you’ (Lk. 17:21, ‘the kingdom is within you’) (Col. 1:27, ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’):  read about it in Jer. 31:33-34, Eph. 1-2, Col. 1, Phil. 4), and then live it out to the glory of God!

 

 

 

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THE STATE OF THE CHURCH: BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD! [PART 2]

[It would really help, dear reader, if you browsed through Part 1 in order to get a better grip on the vital topic under discussion]

We have noted that the Church (certainly in the West/under Western influence) is in crisis. At our conference we examined a number of current threats to the fulfilment of the Great Commission in South Africa/Africa:  e.g. secular humanism in the Church, the ‘gospel of covetousness’ and wide-spread animism [our President is an outspoken animist and practising polygamist]. In the light of this, I suggested the Church in SA ‘return to basics,’ and chose as ‘drawing-board’ that simple discipleship passage recorded in Mk. 1:14-18. [Why was I not surprised when in rugby-mad South Africa SPORT 24 ran an article this morning on the top South African Supersport team, the Sharks, needing to ‘get back to basics’ to stand any chance of winning the competition after two disastrous losses against the Stormers and the Cheetahs?] A summary thus far:

BASIC 1:  GOD’S PEOPLE ARE ‘A KINGDOM PEOPLE’  [Mk. 1:14-15a)

BASIC 2:  GOD’S PEOPLE ARE ‘A GOOD NEWS PEOPLE’  [Mk. 1:14,15b]

BASIC 3:  ‘GOD’S PEOPLE ARE ‘A JESUS PEOPLE’  [Mk. 1:16]…

Mk. 1:16 sketches the Galilean scene where Jesus “saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. ‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said.” It was a simple, clear invitation to intimate association with him, friendship, relationship, fellowship. It was to be a relationship with Jesus as a person, the Messiah, the God-Man on earth.

They were not being called to some or other philosophy (like that of Plato), or a set of beliefs, or a moral code in the first place. They certainly were not being called to become members of some or other ‘denomination’ such as abound today [we have some 41,000 of them at this point, somewhat confusing to the person in the street, wouldn’t you say?]. They were not being called to follow some ‘Super Apostle’ or ‘Prophet’ or successful Business CEO as is common today. They certainly were not being called to follow some special ‘church program’:  how many church members today, or even pastors, cannot exist without some or other ‘program,’ keeping one and all from their real calling and mission in the world.

The older ones among us would recall the ‘Jesus Revolution’ of the 1960’s and 1970’s, when many students and young people, during the hippie and drug culture in the USA, turned to Jesus for meaning and deliverance. Their casual dress and behaviour often did not sit well with traditional Christians, and many genuinely converted young people were turned away from the traditional Church. It took Dr. Billy Graham to point out that this Jesus movement was in fact a  kind of spiritual revival, and that the Church had largely missed a golden opportunity of discipleship and renewal. It is generally known that many senior Christian leaders today look back to that time as their turning point in coming to know and follow and serve Christ.

Am I ‘a Jesus person?’ You recall the thrice-repeated key-question Jesus posed Peter after his reinstatement as disciple:  ‘Simon son of John, do you truly love me?’ (Jn. 21:15ff). It’s still the fundamental question for you and me today!

 

BASIC 4:  GOD’S PEOPLE ARE ‘A DISCIPLED PEOPLE’  [Mk. 1:17b]…

In v. 17 we read Jesus’ commitment to Peter and Andrew, “‘I will make you fishers of men.'” The ASV renders this, ‘I will make you to become fishers of men.’ Following Jesus is a commitment to a process, to a lifestyle centred in the Messiah, and Jesus would have his followers understand that from the outset. 

Jesus also spelt out to any would-be followers that discipleship would be a costly process. In a later setting, Mark records our Lord’s words as he called the crowd and his disciples to himself (Mk. 8:34-35): “‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me… whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.'” As subsequent followers have found out, it is not a ‘posture-pedic cross,’ nor some temporary or personal impediment [Afrikaans people speak of ‘each home having its cross’:  e.g. a difficult mother-in-law, etc]. Dietrich Bonhoeffer of the Confessing Church during World War 2 is famous for his statement, ‘When Christ bids a man come, he bids him come and die.’ In Bonhoeffer’s case it literally cost him his life – in our case it certainly will cost us death to our ego, self-importance, selfish ambitions and plans, on the basis of our faith-union with Christ in his death and resurrection (Rom. 6:1-14).

The aged German theologian Jurgen Moltmann, in a recent interview, spoke of ‘two kinds of crosses’ we live by:

  • The real cross, that of Golgotha. This is the cross that killed Christ and kills his followers.
  • A dream cross, that of Constantine, the Roman Emperor (300’s AD), who in a dream was told to conquer by the sign of the cross. Constantine institutionalised and professionalised the Church, and we have suffered the tragic consequences to this day. This cross is merely a symbol, an ornament, without life and power and love.

[The following paragraph I did not get to mention in my message at the conference, due to oversight under time constraints. I include it here as it was in my notes to preach]. A discipled people is also a relational people. Jesus called his immediate followers into a group of 12, then a group of 70/72, and so on. He spoke of his ‘body’ which was to incarnate him in the world.

Discipleship must always be understood and practised in the context of a faith community, where Jesus is truly Lord. There is no hierarchy here. All are priests and kings. There is true community (Acts 2:42ff). In Jesus’ eyes, smaller is often better. From experience in and outside of the institutional Church, I honestly believe that we cannot have true community, prayer and holiness in a kind of ‘toaster-rack’ ‘pulpit-and-pew’ scenario where we seldom if ever get to go really deep with Jesus and one another [witness Bonhoeffer’s commune-like underground seminary in Finkenwalde]. Henri Nouwen, who at Christ’s call went from Harvard academic to l’Arche Community pastor to the mentally challenged, made clear in his little gem ‘In the Name of Jesus’ that no-one can truly lead or minister apart from intimate community or truly ‘doing it together.’

I personally believe God is raising up ‘a remnant’ in these days – don’t be surprised, dear friends, if it includes many around the world living and serving outside of the institutional Church, e.g. the  underground House Church movement in China.

[This part I did include in my message]. At the end of the day only Jesus can disciple us. Yes a cell leader may help, or a mentor. Speak to any lonely missionary on a foreign field, and they will bear this out – it’s often just Jesus and them, them and Jesus! Are you and I part of Christ’s discipling process?

 

We have one more ‘basic’ and some conclusions to deal with. May I suggest that, instead of rushing these here, I leave it for a final and shorter ‘Part 3?’ Thank you sincerely for journeying so patiently with me thus far!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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THE STATE OF THE CHURCH: BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD! [PART 1]

This past Sunday morning I was privileged to preach to a large congregation made up of local church members plus a few hundred delegates, literally from all over the world, attending the 27th annual BLESS THE NATIONS missions conference in the Eastern Cape. Prior to the conference, those of us on the steering committee had wrestled with some issues we believed to be dire threats to the Church in South Africa today, such as rife nominalism, humanism, ancestral veneration, ‘prosperity teaching,’ etc. Hence the subject at hand in the Sunday plenary session, followed by several panel discussions dealing with the particular issues mentioned.

I thought I would share my message, under the above heading, for the interest of those unable to attend the conference and my wider readership.  

We began with a statement one of our house church members had sent me the week before preaching – it was by the famous Welsh preacher, Dr. Martyn Loyd-Jones to the effect that those God had used in revival in times past had as their first concern not so much ‘the state of the church’ as ‘the state of their own souls.’ What a call to humility at the outset for those who make up the very Church we are challenging, including myself!

The Church, certainly in the West, is (in my opinion) in dire crisis whether she realises it or not. Being a South African somewhat besotted about the game of rugby (our Springboks currently rank no. 2 in the world), I was reminded that whenever our rugby has been in crisis, the public and coaches have called for a return to ‘the basics,’ i.e. to ‘the drawing board.’ One ‘drawing board’ for the Church in crisis could well be Mk. 1:14-18, with its revelation of ‘5 basics’ I believe we need to re-visit.

BASIC 1:  GOD’S PEOPLE ARE A KINGDOM PEOPLE… (v. 14-15a)

Mk. 1:14-15a tells us that “After John was put into prison, Jesus went into Galilee… ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God is near'” (‘has arrived’).

Israel had longed for this moment, but were expecting their Messiah to usher in a cataclysmic, political triumph on behalf of his people which would deal with her enemies once and for all. However, along came John the Baptizer and Jesus claiming that the kingdom had indeed arrived in the person of ‘the Christ’ – but his kingdom was not to be a political one, rather a quiet inward rule in the hearts and lives of all (Jew and Gentile) who would heed him. Furthermore, we need to remember that Jesus made his claim to kingship in the context of Rome’s kingship in the form of an emperor referred to as ‘god.’ Every time a would-be follower of Jesus (to Romans an ‘atheist’ of sorts) handled a Roman coin, it was a concrete reminder that ‘Caesar is Lord’ in contrast to the confession ‘Jesus is Lord!’ Later the apostle Paul would exult in Christ’s unique lordship in Phil. 2:6-11:  ‘being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongues confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’

With this background we note the many ‘kingdoms’ of our time:  kingdoms of power (political, economic, personal), materialism, pleasure, egoism [I have come across narcissistic ‘Christians’], professional sport, and success. Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), in the face of Hitler’s early military success, declared that while man is after success, God is after obedience! To which of these afore-mentioned false kingdoms have we submitted, in one way or the other? The Keswick speaker Alan Redpath once challenged us: before we can pray ‘Your kingdom come’ we must learn to pray ‘My kingdom go!’ There is a sense in which if Jesus is not Lord of all, he is not Lord at all. 

BASIC 2:  GOD’S PEOPLE ARE A GOOD NEWS [GOSPEL] PEOPLE… (v. 14, 15b)

Mk. 1:14,15b reminds us that “After John was put into prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God… ‘Repent and believe the good news!'” Jesus declared.

Simon and Andrew and all good Jews would have heard echoes of Is. 52:7, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who bring salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!'” Every time a new emperor was appointed, runners would be sent out into the vast Roman empire, crossing mountains and valleys, heralding the news to all Roman citizens and those ruled by them. For the oppressed Jews in Palestine this was hardly good news. But here in Jesus was true good news, news of a unique and eternal peace, joy, salvation and kingdom the world knew nothing of!

This good news did demand that people ‘repent’ (a rare word today) and ‘believe.’ Repent from what? We can easily read our favourite systematic theology back into the answer, but in the immediate context it probably referred to God’s people repenting from the false gods and kingdoms of the time, including a Judaistic political kingdom as a final solution to all their problems. It was rather a call to repent from the ‘unbelief’ of the latter and to believe (trust) in ‘THE KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS’ (Rev. 19:16). Our greatest enemy as Christians of every age is in fact unbelief, the refusal to believe in Jesus and commit to him as ‘the Christ, the Son of the living God!’ (Mt. 16:16).

And what good news we have in the gospel today! It is infinitely more than Jn. 3:16 and Rom. 5:8, though including these. What about the good news of Gen. 1-2, where we have God and mankind in sublime communion? (the gospel doesn’t begin with the ‘fall,’ although it includes it). The gospel is the full story of the Bible, the full story of Jesus and his person, his incarnation, life, miracles, cross, resurrection, exaltation and coming again. Why do we stop at Good Friday when the gospel includes Jesus’ resurrection and our resurrection in him, both spiritual and physical? If you want a good summary of the gospel, I suggest you visit 1 Cor. 15, the whole of it. Recently I conducted the funeral of a friend in his fifties, who died suddenly and left his wife of just one year absolutely devastated. I explained from the pulpit that her comfort would be in the gospel, not as commonly understood but as revealed in 1 Cor. 15. She phoned me the next day to ask for the text again, as she had missed it in her distraught condition. She promised to read the passage concerned and seek a greater comfort in it’s full-orbed ‘good news.’

Many around the globe would agree with me when I say that much of the Church world-wide has simply ‘lost the gospel.’ We have for example fallen prey to easy-believism and its ‘3 quick steps’ to salvation and heaven, to morality in itself [in South Africa much of the Church has bought into the false notion that if only we can change the nation’s values, the nation itself will change]. Jesus didn’t come to make bad people good or good people better – ultimately he came to make dead people live! Certainly the Church in SA has in many places succumbed to religiosity, ritualism and ‘churchianity.’ Dietrich Bonhoeffer laid the German’s Church’s large-scale capitulation to Hitler and anti-Semitism in the 1930’s at the feet of rampant nominalism, ritualism and religiosity in his native Lutheran Church. 

Have we truly grasped the good news, i.e. the gospel? Perhaps more accurately, has the gospel ‘grasped’ us? Is it transforming us both individually and corporately, as it did Paul the Apostle and the NT Church that turned the world upside down?  

 

We’ll handle 3 more ‘basics’ for the Church today next time round… 

[ADDENDUM to sermon. On the matter of ‘the good news,’ I am no longer of the persuasion, as once I was, that we have to batter people with ‘the law’ before introducing them to the ‘good news’ of Jesus. This approach cannot stand the test of Scripture in my humble opinion, nor that of NT witnessing and preaching (e.g. Peter’s sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2). It is enough (initially any way) to be confronted with Jesus Christ, and his good news! (as defined earlier on)]