[first published in the monthly congregational “Notes” for July, 2015]
The New Testament metaphors for the Church highlight the fact that the Church has both individual and collective aspects. The Church is at once a collection of individual sheep, stones and body parts, as well as a flock, a complete house, and a body. As Paul illustrates so well, an eye is not a foot, and neither is an ear, yet all are integral parts of the body. Christ has one flock through all history, yet there are many “little flocks” scattered throughout the world. There is one Church Universal body, and yet surely each congregation functions as a body as well as it can. There is simultaneously a One-ness and Many-ness to the Church that always needs balance. Unity does not swamp individuality and individuality does not trump unity. But what happens when that balance seems to fail in something as basic as our vision for the Church or of mission?
In Acts 15:36-41 the two great stalwarts of the early Church’s mission outreach, Paul and Barnabas could not agree on who should accompany them on their second trip. Barnabas, that great encourager [Acts 4:36] who himself had been instrumental in mentoring Paul after his conversion [9:27] and who had arranged Paul’s first ministry appointment [11:25-26] wanted to take with them his nephew, John Mark, but Paul disagreed. Remembering how Mark had crumbled under the rigors of their first trip he did not want to risk giving Mark a second failure. Who was right? Should Mark go or not? Yes, or No? Simple! But, great and godly as Paul and Barnabas were, they were unable to come to a resolution. Barnabas kept wanting Mark, and Paul kept insisting that Mark not go! There was such a sharp disagreement [a paroxysm of opinions] that the working partnership of some years was broken! [15:39]
It is tempting from wisdom of some 1965 years to draw pious conclusions as to who was right and who as wrong, or how the disagreement ought to have been settled. But that is not what the Holy Spirit has given us, and we must not be wiser than He. For every bit of “evidence” that affirms Paul, we may find another to support Barnabas. No doubt both parties prayed fervently seeking God’s will but no answer came. No doubt both appealed to Christian love and wisdom and wrestled with the theology of the Church yet neither was able to convince the other. No doubt each was grieved at the intransigence of the other. No doubt some sided with Barnabas and some with Paul and some probably looked for a middle way! Perhaps some wanted to make a “doctrinal” issue out of it, but in the end Barnabas and Mark went to Cyprus where the first mission had begun and where Mark had been useful [13:5] and Paul and Silas commenced at the point where Mark had departed. “Surely someone must be right??” Perhaps this the wrong question to ask lest we use the answer for self-justification!!
We are given no answer other than that the end was a nett doubling of mission effort! We do not read that either disparaged the other, prayed publicly that the other change their mind, or lobbied the Church to take sides. The work just went on and God owned it; One-ness and Many-ness triumphed. The Church as a whole did not split and many more churches were blessed. Years later Paul expressed high regard for Mark and a deep desire that he come and assist him [2 Tim 4:11]. What changed his mind? Had he written to Mark to encourage him? God does not tell us! God does tell us that throughout it all, Paul upheld Barnabas as worthy of mission giving[1 Cor 9:6].
Christian mission is vital but clearly it is not important that everyone does it “my” way. Sometimes, we might have to quietly move on and leave other things to the Lord.
First published in the monthly congregational “Notes” , June 2015.
We have probably all been conditioned to think that persistence is generally a good thing. “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again” the saying goes. Experience tells us that much can be gained by doggedly continuing despite initial setbacks. If our parents or teachers had allowed us to give up each time we tearfully complained “It’s too hard,” we would each one have been the poorer. Thankfully those older and wiser pushed us forwards. They persisted so that we might learn the value of persistence, even if in our immaturity we were convinced that a different course of action was warranted. Jesus even told a parable to encourage persistence in prayer, [Lk 18:1-8] though his illustration was more by means of establishing a contrast than by teaching directly. In his story, a persistent widow gets a decision in her favour, simply because she persists. She did not get judgment because the judge agreed with her cause but merely because he was getting tired out by her persistence. Of course Jesus did not intend to teach that a reluctant God is “won over” by our persistence; the story has resonance because we know how easy it can be for us to give way when faced with a constant barrage of demand upon demand. Many a child has learned that noisy persistence will eventually win the lolly from an exasperated mother!
Persistence, of course is only good when the thing persisted in is good. There is no value in persisting in a wrong. Merely alleging a point of view ad nauseam does not make it correct however many times it is repeated. Such persistence must be resisted as simplistic, or if deliberate and informed, even deceitful.
We are seeing something like this in our own day with the persistence of the “same-sex-marriage” lobby. Not content with previous failed attempts to gain approval, we face push after push, aided and abetted by a generally sympathetic media, for the law to change. Again and again, all manner of arguments are presented, all previously rebutted (and many highly emotional or irrelevant) as if somehow mere repetition should automatically lead to winning the cause. Sadly, in some nations this process of “victory by weariness” has already succeeded and if Australia’s parliament does change its legal definition of marriage to incorporate same-sex couples, it will most likely not be because our legislators have been won over by careful reasoning, but because they have simply given way to the pressure exerted by a very noisy minority who have succeeded in reducing the issue to glib sound bites and slogans.
As this minority well knows, rebutting simplistic slogans requires much more than shouting out a counter slogan. The presuppositions behind the slogan have to be set out and shown to be either false or misleading, and this can require hard work, time and intellectual rigor a listener is unwilling to give or does not have. The claim, “people who love each other should be allowed to marry” can seem fair enough at a simplistic level but answering it requires addressing a lot of separate issues and definitions, and highlighting consequences.. When this happens in a culture conditioned to want quick responses and not used to wrestling with hard issues, the force of a reply is often lost, so that the proponents of “same sex marriage” often gain some credibility.
Slogans and catch phrases usually exist when arguments are weak or non-existent and taking a stand against them is often wearying because slogans built on false premises cannot always be rebutted by arguments—they are often matters of the will and no amount of persuasion can suffice until Christ sets the will free. Resist then, but know why, and pray also that Christ set the sloganeer free.
First published in the monthly congregational “Notes” , May 2015.
In 1877, Charles Spurgeon used the account of Joseph and his brothers as the basis for an address to his Sunday School teachers. Using Reuben’s words in Gen 42:22, “Did I not say, ‘Do not Sin Against the child’?” Spurgeon expanded the words and sought to illustrate how such sin might happen in other situations. His gospel focus is equally relevant for all of us in our day, and not just for Sunday School teachers! What follows is a précis of his address. The full text is available on request.
I speak to every parent, elder brother or sister, schoolmaster, employer, man and woman, whether they have families or not, “Do not sin against the child whether your own child, or anybody’s child, nor against the poor waif of the street whom they call “nobody’s child.” According to the story of Joseph, there are three ways of sinning against the child. The first is described by the brothers’ initial thought to kill Joseph. We may not kill physically, but there is such a thing as “Spiritual” killing.” Do not train him in dishonesty, lying, vice or drunkenness. No one does so deliberately, but many sons are ruined by the bad example of their fathers. The same evil may be committed by indoctrinating children with evil teaching.
There is a second way of sinning against the child. Ruben wanted to leave Joseph in the pit and then go back later to rescue him. This is like the common notion that leaves children alone and unconverted, thinking that it would be better to rescue them later by seeking their conversion when they are adults This should never be charged against us. Our great aim must be that our children are brought to Christ, and parents should seek this with all their hearts! “Why leave your Joseph in the pit?” Those who brought their children into this world of punishment should not be content to leave them there.
The third way of sinning against the child is to sell him to the “Midianite traders” of this world. A good schooling is no reason to give up on Sunday School or parental instruction. Excellence in geography will not get anyone to heaven, and arithmetic cannot remove their many sins. Instead, the more our children learn, the more they will need to learn of the fear of the Lord! We must not sell our children to worldly interests by encouraging them to care more about employment, reputation or the prospect of a good marriage than godliness.
Sometimes a child is sinned against by being disliked. The excuse for undue harshness and severity is, “He is such a strange child!” Do not put down what heavenly thoughts God may be putting in the soul. If they grow up to be distinguished servants of the Lord, your conscience will prick you, when you see what God has done in spite of your neglect. On the other hand, if your child should become an Absalom through your poor example or neglect, it will he a horrible thing to cry, “I slew my child! and when I did it, I knew better, but I disregarded the voice which said to me, ‘Do not sin against the child.’” Others are sinned against by excessive praise which leads only to conceit and vanity. Spoiled children are like spoiled fruit: the less we see of them the better! Do not water your young plants either with vinegar or with syrup. Do not rebuke too much or too little. Seek wisdom of the Lord, and keep the middle of the way.
Do not pick up every little thing against a good child, and throw it at back at them with the accusation “You would not do this if you were a Christian!” I am sure that you who are heads of families still do wrong yourselves, and if your father in heaven were to be as severe with you as you are with the sincere little ones when you are in a bad mood, I am afraid it would go, very hard with you. Be gentle, and kind, and tender, and loving….
This is surely wise counsel. May God give us grace to be worthy of our children.
[First published in the monthly congregational “Notes” April, 2015]
From time to time, we still read of people who think that the resurrection is somehow incidental to the message of Jesus, as if it can quietly be dismissed for the 21st century as an unnecessary, and even “unscientific,” addition to the “real” message of Jesus. Nothing could be further from the truth! The entire Christian Gospel is built upon the reality of the resurrection of Jesus. Without it, every hope collapses into vain and wishful thinking, but with it every promise of God to mankind is confirmed. In the minds of many, the cross is the recognisable Christian symbol, but let it be an empty cross! Why? Because the empty cross points to the tomb, and the tomb also is empty! And, the empty tomb proves the cross’ power!
Without a resurrection, Jesus is still dead, still suffering some of or all (and who could ever know for sure?) the due penalty for sin, which is death. A Jesus who did not rise from the dead is therefore no saviour at all. At best, we might hope for a time when His payment might be sufficient, but that is not yet. At worst, He might stay dead, and be no hope at all. On the other hand a living Jesus is a sure Saviour! His life proves that the death penalty so thoroughly deserved by our sins has been met in full and exhausted, so that death no longer has any dominion over Him. So on the day of Pentecost when Peter spoke of the resurrection, he was emphatic: Jesus rose from the dead because it was not possible that He should stay dead (Acts 2:24).
All of this has very real, and encouraging implications. In the gracious conjunction of the justice and mercy of God, Jesus is legally able to stand as a substitute for all who come to Him in true repentance and faith. If that should describe you, what happened to Him is reckoned as happening to you: He died, He rose, He overcame!
There are two aspects to this. The first is the one we often think of; at death we shall enter into the blessedness of eternal life (Jn 3:16, Rev 21:1-5). O resurrection Joy! But what about the here and now? For many who read this, beset with temptations, failure and struggle, that life can seem so distant as to be discouraging. Must we now seek death as the only escape, and in order to live? Thankfully No. The resurrection brings new life for us now, and what Paul wrote to the Colossians is also for us, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:1-3)
A new life IS possible! The resurrection of Jesus Christ proves that the death of Jesus breaks the power of sin and the devil over us and opens up a pathway to victory. We do not have to fail! Yes, it will be a struggle, but it will be one in which we can know victories. Paul continues, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you… seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” (Col 3:5–10) The same Holy Spirit who led and sustained the Saviour is at work in us and for us (1 Cor 6:11; Heb 9:14)! He brings Christ to us. He transforms our minds and brings the strength we so desperately need but do not have in ourselves. Do not grieve the Spirit!
Spurgeon wrote, “If you have made any advance in the divine life it has been by the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ applied by the Holy Spirit. … recollect that you are always weak when you get away from the cross… Do not attempt to flog yourself into grace, … Go to the cross for motive and energy as to holiness.” The Cross has this power for you because both it and the tomb, are empty! Christ is Risen and Ascended.
[First published in the Congregational “Notes” for March, 2015]
The word “whinger” is not uniquely Australian, but it has come into the Australian vocabulary to describe someone who regularly complains or protests about things they don’t like, in an annoying or persistent manner. A whinger is usually self-centred and unable to look far beyond himself or herself, and focuses only on how annoyed they are when things don’t happen the way they want them to happen. In the whinger’s mind this is just not fair and someone, perhaps even God is at fault! Whingers often have few friends except perhaps other whingers but “no-one likes a whinger!” But before we get too smug, we have to admit that because we are all sinners with a sinner’s bias to self-centredness, we all have the potential to whinge!
So, what can we do when we find our circumstances in life are hard? Do we ever have warrant to complain? And if we do, how can we tell the difference between a legitimate desire for something better and a whinge? Can we blame God? Well, we must turn again to God’s word to see what He says. We shall find many examples! When God called Moses, he said that he had heard the cry of His people and seen their affliction and would deliver them (Exod 3:7-8). Their cry over many years was quite legitimate; the Egyptians were oppressing God’s chosen people and it hurt! He miraculous delivered them. But Israel soon forgot this and complained bitterly. They whinged. They protested a lack of food, no water and no “comforts” of Egypt. They even said they would rather reject God’s salvation and be slaves again, and all for the sake of some temporary comfort. How foolish! How ungrateful! Hunger and thirst may make us anxious but they should never make us doubt the goodness of God and His love. Not surprisingly, God was moved to anger in response to their ingratitude and lack of faith (Num 14). At other times they whinged when He chastised them for their sins but as Jeremiah wryly observed, there is little point in complaining against God when He punishes sin (Lam 3:39). It only makes the situation worse.
But we do find other complaints in Scripture. The Psalms have many serious cries to God pleading that life often hurts and is unfair.“ Lord, my enemies have increased,” (3:4). “I am weary with my sighing,” (6:6). “Lord why do you stand a far off?” (10:1). “Why have you forsaken me?” (22:1). “Everyone scoffs at us,” (44:13-14). “O God you have rejected us and made our life hard,” (60:1-3) … There are many, many more.
But at the same time as we read of these complaints in the Psalms, God is always (and quite rightly) worshiped and praised as the Sovereign over all things. And, it is only because God is Sovereign that it makes sense to tell Him—not because He does not already know but because ‘somehow’ in giving voice to our uncertainty and pain, it is the best way to show that we acknowledge Him as fully just and completely trust-worthy. These are not the cries of whingers but the legitimate pleas and prayers of those who know that although there might not be any immediate answers, telling God is the only way to begin making sense of our life. Indeed, not to cry out for relief would be to contradict all we know about Him, and all that He is as our Saviour.
Ultimately in this fallen world, only God knows the reason why things happen to us as they do. He knows that sin is destructive and depersonalizing and brings only hurt upon hurt. But He also knows that though the death of His Son, the greatest of unjust “hurts” in the universe, He has made the only provision for sin to be justly overcome, and forever. So, whatever we hurts may come our way, and however puzzling, there is still only one place to take them—to Jesus, not as a whinger, but a worshiper!