To be blunt, sometimes we just need to get people in love with Jesus, and then free to be who and how He wants them/us to be. We all carry baggage but…
John 8:32, 36 [Jesus said:] “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free… “…So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
We have seen some dramatic turnarounds based on this headline truth. Neil Anderson has developed this in a biblically balanced way under the banner ‘Freedom in Christ’ and we used it in a very damaged church full of hurting people in the 1990s to great effect, since when it has become a national ministry (another story…)
Faith, not form
How is that expressed?
Getting them in love with Jesus is a pre-requisite, though. This is more of a ‘given’ in Baptist ministry, because they are all used to hearing people’s stories of how they came to know Jesus, told round the baptism pool.
In the C of E we can find ourselves starting at a completely different place, where they don’t think about ‘journey’ or ‘story’ or ‘experience’ much, if at all.
Developing a sense of a personal story – and journey
DAY 1 Isaiah 7:14 and Isaiah 9:6 — Immanuel announced
Fundamental to the season that many Christians call Advent is the expectation of Almighty God presencing Himself in His created world in a new way. He was going to reveal Himself to those who would receive Him, in a new and much more approachable way. Of course, this has happened – near enough 2,000 years ago. But in preparing to celebrate His first coming, we are keenly reminded (and Scripture shows us repeatedly) that He will come again. We don’t know when. We do know that we are to be prepared, at readiness. This is the point.
Isaiah 7:14 and Isaiah 9:6
Therefore the Lord Himself will give [all of] you a sign: the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And He will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Matthew, narrating the event which came to pass in his time, records in Matthew 1:22-23:
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
SOAP – Scripture, Observe, Apply, Pray
S – Scripture – This promise was received about 700 years before the birth of Christ. Generally in Scripture ‘a sign’ is fulfilled in a few years, not hundreds or thousands of years. The Early Church eagerly anticipated Jesus’ final return – soon. As we now know, the timeframe is longer.
O – Observe – The four titles of Isaiah 9:6 (read it again: Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace) headline four aspects of Immanuel:
– a ‘counsellor’ is someone who carries out a plan or action…
– …with divine power…
– …bringing the Father’s compassion and protection… and
– …exercising a style of rulership which brings wholeness and wellbeing to the whole of society.
A – Apply – This speaks to us of a much greater plan than we can readily comprehend. It’s too big for us, and we find it hard to grasp an eternal timescale because we’re used to time we can measure. So we are forced to ‘think big’!
P – Pray – for spiritual eyes to be able to see the bigger picture of what God is doing. How do we align with this? Pray for the wisdom to prepare for it.
DAY 2 Psalm 80:1-7 — Restore us, O God
Setting the scene – this psalm speaks of our need and our longing for God to presence Himself again
1-2 Hear us, Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock.You who sit enthroned between the cherubim, shine forth before Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh. Awaken your might;come and save us.
3 Restore us, O God; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.4 How long, Lord God Almighty, will your anger smoulder against the prayers of your people?
5 You have fed them with the bread of tears; you have made them drink tears by the bowlful.
6 You have made us an object of derision to our neighbours, and our enemies mock us.
7 Restore us, God Almighty; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.
SOAP – re-read and reflect: Scripture, Observe, Apply, Pray
S – Scripture A psalm of lament probably written around 722 BC when the northern kingdom (Ephraim, Benjamin, Manasseh etc) was overrun. ‘Joseph’ is an allusion to all tribes. Like all Scripture, these words reach into our time and beyond, and bring God’s voice to speak into a Christian witness that appears marginalised and challenging.
O – Observe – It speaks of us being restored that we may be saved, v.3, v.7. – Not all prayers please God, evidently, v.4. – There is the sense that derision and being mocked, v.6, has been allowed by God. – There is a prayer – and an expectation – of God coming to save us, vv.2-3.
A – Apply What kind of prayers might make God angry? To carry on with our familiar routine in worship, without giving heed to what God is saying might be a cause – didn’t the prophets say a lot about this at times when there was urgency to change? What is our sense of need, for God to come near and save?
Was the “Come and save us’ plea fulfilled with Jesus, the Son of God, coming in human form, as we remember especially at this time of year – or is this still a prayer and urgency for us today?
P – Pray “Lord, we come to You in our world of wars, conflicts, injustice, sickness and pain and ask that You will restore us with new direction, and presence Yourself with us. In Jesus, we pray. Amen.”
DAY 3 Psalm 25:1-10 — Show me Your ways
The anticipation of looking forward to God’s kingdom coming in full, through David’s prophetic appeal.
1 In you, Lord my God, I put my trust. I trust in you;
2 do not let me be put to shame, nor let my enemies triumph over me.
3 No one who hopes in You will ever be put to shame, but shame will come on those who are treacherous without cause.
4 Show me Your ways, Lord, teach me Your paths.
5 Guide me in Your truth and teach me, for You are God my Saviour, and my hope is in You all day long.
6 Remember, Lord, Your great mercy and love, for they are from of old.
7 Do not remember the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways; according to Your love remember me, for You, Lord, are good.
8 Good and upright is the Lord; therefore He instructs sinners in His ways.
9 He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them His way.
10 All the ways of the Lord are loving and faithful toward those who keep the demands of His covenant.
S – Scripture Read and soak (re-read). This is, at first sight, a supplication prayer for guidance, particularly clarity about the difference between His ways and man’s independent ways. Just beneath the surface is a texture of praise which draws out who God is, in character: – One who is faithful and able to be trusted, v.1, because of the covenant relationship, v.10, which is what gives Biblical hope its surety, v3 and v.5; – One who is true, merciful, and loving; – One who understands man’s tendency to independence, v.7, and reaches out to those who transgress, v.8, seeking those who are humble enough to be teachable, vv.8-9.
O – Observe There is a contrast drawn between “Your ways” and “my ways”:
“Your ways, Your paths” (vv.4, 7, 8, 9, 10) “Your truth” (v.5) “Your mercy and love” (vv.6, 7)
A – Apply There is a sense of expecting the Lord to again seek out those who relate to Him in a right attitude of dependence, vv. 1, 9-10. In examining my dependence on God, does that need to change? Does my chosen path, and my ways of achieving it, run parallel with God’s ways, or are they tending to diverge?
P – Pray Lord, You are good and upright, loving and faithful, and utterly trustworthy. Show me Your ways and Your paths once again in this season. Amen.
DAY 4 Jeremiah 23:1-6 — The announcement of the Lord our Righteousness
The promise of the raising up of ‘a righteous branch’ called Yahweh Tsidqenu, the Lord Our Righteousness. Read with Jer. 33:14-16.
1 “Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of My pasture!” declares the Lord.
2 Therefore this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says to the shepherds who tend My people: “Because you have scattered My flock and driven them away and have not bestowed care on them, I will bestow punishment on you for the evil you have done,” declares the Lord.
3 “I myself will gather the remnant of My flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture, where they will be fruitful and increase in number.
4 I will place shepherds over them who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any be missing,” declares the Lord. 5 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land. 6 In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. This is the name by which He will be called: The Lord Our Righteous Saviour [Yahweh Tsidqenu].
S – Scripture – read and re-read The shepherds are the people’s rulers. The original hearers were in siege and facing deportation after a lengthy period of leadership that was rebellious towards God, vv.1-2. Following Josiah’s good and godly reforms, there was a succession of short and damaging reigns (Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim and Johoiachin) which were not God-fearing, ending with the last king of Judah whose name, Zedekiah, means ‘The Lord is Righteous’ – but he did not live up to his name. Hence the irony of “I will raise up for David a righteous branch”, v.5.
O – Observe “For David”, v.5, means recognition of the covenant made earlier with David, regarding a special descendant of his. The passage also speaks of a future restoration of people and their leaders, vv.3-4, and of God being with them in a new kind of redeeming relationship, vv.5-6.
A – Apply What does “Judah” and “Israel” stand for (v.6) in our expectation of “the days…coming” of “The Lord Our Righteous Saviour”? What might this mean for us?
Are there believers scattered by the actions of ungodly leaders (v.2) who are being brought back and fed again, to become fruitful? What does this say about our understanding and relationships with the wider and non-traditional part of the church?
P – Pray Lord Jesus, we welcome You as the Righteous Branch and invite You to be Lord of Your church – in every aspect. Amen.
DAY 5 Jeremiah 33:14-16 — The fulfilment of the promise
The righteous branch growing out of the historic rootstock of King David appears, at first, to be a just and fair king to rule over the Jewish nation – who is then described as the Lord Himself.
Read with Jer. 23:1-6 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will fulfil the good promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah.
“In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line; He will do what is just and right in the land.In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.
This is the name by which it [He] will be called:
The Lord Our Righteous Saviour [The Lord Our Righteousness].”
S – Scripture to read and re-read. This is a repetition of the prophetic promise in Jer. 23:1-6. Here it is not only the Saviour who is called by the covenant name, but Jerusalem and Judah, representing the people of the Saviour.
O – Observe The promise of the ‘righteous branch”, the Saviour of David’s line, bringing what is just and right, is repeated. What does the repetition emphasise for us?
A – Apply How does our knowing “the Lord my righteousness” change us? How does it release? How might it also constrain our attitudes and actions? When The Lord Our Righteousness comes again, what does He expect of those who belong to Him?
P – Pray “Come, Lord Jesus” – but help me prepare my heart for Your coming.
DAY 6 Isaiah 11:1-5 — The new shoot
A prophecy from Isaiah, 300 years earlier than Jeremiah’s, about a righteous branch, growing and bearing fruit
1 A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from His roots a Branch will bear fruit.
2 The Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him — the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord —
3 and He will delight in the fear of the Lord. He will not judge by what He sees with his eyes, or decide by what He hears with His ears;
4 but with righteousness He will judge the needy, with justice He will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of His mouth; with the breath of His lips he will slay the wicked.
5 Righteousness will be His belt and faithfulness the sash around His waist.
S – Scripture Read, and re-read in the awareness that chapter 10 ends with a picture of the destruction of of a majestic and proud forest, brought low by the Lord. But there will be regrowth of a different kind.
O – Observe Why did the “lofty” and “tall” “forest thickets” have to come down – be “brought low”? What attitudes can grow up to block what the Lord wants to do?How many different expressions of righteousness, faithfulness, etc?The picture is that of a shoot, or new life, that is growing. Where is it growing? Certainly in the One the Spirit of the Lord rests upon, whose uniform is righteousness and faithfulness – who we now know to be the Messiah and our Lord Jesus.
A – Apply This is also about us. There’s a new life we have in Jesus (and only in Jesus) and a new kind of fruitfulness He wants for us as His body on earth. He models this in knowing God’s will and following it carefully, not just relying on natural senses. He needs us to partner with Him in this spiritual way. The new shoot we now recognise as Jesus is new life that grows in us, and bears fruit for Him. As we allow Him to! As we know, these Scriptures point to the coming of the Messiah, but also to His coming again. We don’t know how that partnership will go, but it will be an even closer one than the partnership we have now. We have a partial experience of His kingdom order – one day it will come in full.
P – Pray Lord, we are so grateful for the new life we have in You, and for You choosing us to partner with you. Help us to be prepared to be available to You as ‘new shoots’ of Your kingdom, growing up wherever You deploy us. Amen.
DAY 7 Romans 3:21-22, 2 Corinthians 5:21 — Our new identity in Christ Jesus
This is the New Covenant revelation of who we are in Christ Jesus, that the Old Covenant prophecy anticipates. That is Christian living in the fullness of the Spirit now – with implications for the time will Jesus will come again to rule and reign, with the gathering of those that are His.
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.
God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.
S – Scripture Read and re-read, especially this short passage which is one of the most empowering in the Bible. The revelation that comes through Scripture is progressive. Jeremiah’s prophetic words are set in the context of the Old Covenant, but resonate both with Jesus’ own words, and with post-resurrection teaching when the Holy Spirit was given.
O – Observe In His “I am” sayings, Jesus states a series of righteous roles that He performs. Each one imparts a dimension of His righteousness to us. – The bread of life, John 6:35 and 51 – The light of the world, John 8:12 – The gate for the sheep, John 10:7 and 9 – The good shepherd, John 10:11 and 14 – The resurrection and the life, John 11:25 – The way, the truth and the life, John 14:6 – The vine, John 15:1 and 5. In this progressive revelation, this point is the bridge between the end of the Old Covenant (pre-Resurrection), and the New Covenant (post-Resurrection) instituted by Jesus on the Cross but revealed by the Holy Spirit as an entirely new kind of relationship.
The “righteousness given by faith” that in Christ Jesus “we might become the righteousness of God” is an immense, arresting truth. We need the Holy Spirit to coach us, as we try to grasp this! This is what we now see, which Jeremiah saw less clearly in giving his 400-years-before-Christ prophecies.
A – Apply If we are seen by heaven as righteous before God because of our relationship with Jesus, what does that say about our prayer and worship influence in a dark world? What does that say about the confidence with which we not only pray supplication (asking) but also declare truth to the heavenlies?Do we believe it? Do we act on it? Do we live it out? Plenty to reflect on in this preparation season.
P – Pray Thank you, gracious Father, for the revelation of this great truth of who I am in Jesus that I already hold. “More, Lord” – help me to get it more fully, and live it more fruitfully. Thank You, Jesus, Amen.
The veteran rock-star Mick Jagger, I think, spoke for many when he said this: ‘Jesus Christ was fantastic, but I do not like the church. The church does more harm than good.’ So is it possible to be a Christian, to be a follower of Jesus, and not go to church?’ And anyway, what does ‘going to church’ mean? What is church?
Before I was a Christian, I didn’t like the church. When I heard the word ‘church’, my heart sank. The first thing that I thought of when I heard the word ‘church’ was church services. And I always found church services so dull, boring. I had sympathy with something that Abraham Lincoln once said. He said this: ‘If all the people who fell asleep in church on Sunday morning were laid out end to end, they would be a great deal more comfortable.’ The other thing I thought of when I heard the word ‘church’ is I thought of kind of people who went into the church — that was their job. I thought of people like priests and vicars and ministers.
There was an advert in the church press recently which said this: ‘Are you aged 45 and getting nowhere? Why not consider the Christian ministry?’
And then the other thing I thought of, I suppose, when I heard the word `church’ was kind of something that you were born into, it was a kind of denomination that you were born into. So if you were born in England, then that makes you Church of England.
My mother, before she became a Christian, I remember her filling out a form which said: Religion: and she put None — brackets — (Church of England). And then the other association I had with it, I suppose, was church buildings. Now, all these things are the trappings, if you like, but they’re not the essence of what the church is about. It’s a bit like if you say, ‘Well, what is marriage?’ and you said, ‘Well, marriage is a ring. It’s a marriage certificate. It’s a wedding service. It’s the marriage laws.’ Now, marriage may involve all of those things, but that’s not the essence. At the heart of marriage is something far more profound. And at the heart of the church is something amazing, something wonderful, something beautiful. And over the years since I’ve been a Christian, I’ve come not just to like the church; I love the church! And in the New Testament there are hundreds of images and metaphors which describe the church, and I want to pick tonight on five which explain why I love the church so much.
The first reason is because the church is people. It’s the people of God.
1 Peter 2:9
Peter writes this: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God …”
The Christian faith involves, of course, first of all a vertical relationship — our relationship with God. But it also involves a horizontal relationship — with other people. And we’re part of a community which began with God’s call to Abraham. And the people of Israel prefigured the church. So the universal church consists of all those, right the way across the world, all the way back in time, who profess or have professed the name of Christ.
And we become a member of the church not by birth, but by new birth. Jesus spoke about being born of water and the Spirit. Jesus baptised and he commanded his disciples to baptise. And becoming a Christian involves three things.
First of all, something we do: repentance and faith.
Secondly, something God does: He gives us the Holy Spirit.-
And thirdly, something the church does: baptism.
Baptism is a visible mark of what it means to be a member of the church. It’s a visible sign of what it means to be a Christian. It signifies — the water signifies washing, cleansing from sin. Water also in the New Testament signifies the Holy Spirit — Jesus talked about ‘rivers of living water’ coming out from us. ‘By this’, John tells us, ‘he meant the Holy Spirit’. And it’s a picture of all the blessings God brings through his Spirit. But thirdly it signifies dying and rising with Christ. So, St. Paul puts it like this:
He said,”All of you have been baptised into Christ Jesus.”
So, imagine this piece of paper is you and this Bible is Jesus. What Paul is saying in Romans 6, he says: ‘All of you were baptised into Christ Jesus.’ When you became a Christian, in a kind of mystical way you became part of Christ. You are now ‘in Christ’. And therefore whatever happened to Jesus happened, in this kind of mystical way, to you. So, Paul says, ‘all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death …’ That means that when Jesus died on the cross, you died in him. We were buried with him through baptism.
He says this symbol of going down into the water in baptism is a symbol of the fact that you were buried — when Jesus was buried, because you’re in him, you were buried with Christ:
“… in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead, we too may live a new life.”
So when Jesus rose from the dead, you rose in him. And coming up out of the water of baptism symbolises the resurrection, starting a completely new life.
One time I was walking across Clapham Common, and I heard somebody shout, ‘Nick!’ And I looked up, and there was this guy on the balcony, and he said, ‘Are you Nicky Gumbel?’ So I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Alpha?’ So I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Wait there!’ So I stood there and he came down and he said, ‘Hello, my name’s Dave.’ He said, ‘I did Alpha in prison.’ He said, ‘I was serving 15 years for armed robbery. Do you want to come inside?’ So I said, ‘I’d love to, but let’s just chat out here, shall we!’ And we talked and I got to know him, and I got to know him reasonably well, and one time I bumped into him, and I said, ‘Dave, what are you up to?’ He said, ‘I’m just off to be baptised.’ And I said to him, ‘Think of this, Dave. As you go down into the water of baptism, all your old life is gone — that’s what the picture is. Your life has gone. And as you come up out of the water, that pictures the fact that a completely new life has begun.’
Universal church of 2 billion
The universal church is vast. Do you know, there are two billion Christians in the world today, 2,000 million — about a third of the world’s population. And tens of thousands of people become Christians every single day. Now, we live in Western Europe, and in Western Europe the church has been in decline for fifty, eighty years. And so it’s easy to think — I used to think — I remember before I was a Christian, I thought: ‘Look, the number of Christians, the number of churchgoers declining all the time — surely in a few years’ time it will have died out completely.’ But I had a totally blinkered, narrow view of the world: because when you look globally it’s a totally different picture.
The church is growing faster than ever. The church in Africa just over 100 years ago, 1900, there were 10 million Christians in Africa. 100 years later there were 360 million Christians in Africa. Look at what’s happening in South America, in China, in the East — all over the world. America, you know, the church is still very strong: about 6 per cent of our population in the UK goes to church on Sunday; in America it’s about 50 per cent of the population. It’s Western Europe where the church is in decline, but in many parts of the world the church is growing rapidly.
In some parts of the church there is persecution. In fact, in more than 60 countries in the world, I read, Christians are harassed, abused, arrested, tortured or executed specifically because of their faith. 200 million Christians throughout the world live in daily fear of secret police, vigilantes or state repression and discrimination. Yet the church in those parts of the world, according to all accounts, seems to be, again, very strong. The universal church has local expressions. This would be one local expression of the universal church. And Paul, wherever he went, he planted churches: churches we read about in the New Testament in Asia, churches in Galatia. And these local churches themselves break down into smaller gatherings. And for practical purposes you could say that there are three different sizes.
First size – small group
The first size is a small group, like the small groups you’ve been on at Alpha. Usually that’s a group of about twelve. Jesus had a group of about twelve people He met with. And one of the things that I find so amazing about the small groups and I love being in a small group is that in the small group it’s amazing how quickly people begin to drop their barriers and people start to talk openly about things that are real. There’s this kind of authenticity — what’s really going on in their lives. People talk about their issues, their doubts, their fears, their failures. And often in the world relationships can be quite superficial, but in a small group, even though we’ve only known each other for quite a short time, there’s a depth of friendship that develops. And we can ask one another to pray for each other, we can encourage each other, support each other in difficult times. There’s this confidentiality, there’s respect for one another; where we listen and learn, we eat together, we learn together, pray together. And I would encourage you to keep on meeting in a small group. This is not the end; this is the beginning.
But what we found is we need more than just a small group. We need a slightly larger group, which some would call a’ congregation’. We call it in this church a ‘pastorate’: because it’s quite a large church, we break down into smaller congregations, which we call ‘pastorates’, which is about 25 or 30 people. There you can get to know a wider group of people. There you can develop gifts. I love being involved in a pastorate because it’s so amazing to see people develop — worship leaders, people who’ve never before led worship. They’ve developed that gift in a pastorate. People who’ve never given a talk before — they give a talk for the first time in the pastorate. And the friendships that developed were amazing. And again, just as in, if I look back at the small groups that we’ve been involved in on Alpha, many of those people are such close friends still, from maybe fifteen years ago. And the same with the pastorate, this level of friendship.
Third size: celebration
And then there’s the bigger gathering: Sundays. For this church that’s a large gathering. For other churches it’s occasions when they get together as a whole group of churches. And that’s amazing. It’s different. There you get a sense of worship, awe — hundreds of people worshipping God together. Sometimes we may be the only Christian in our office, in our factory, in our family. We come to a gathering and we think, ‘Ah, I’m not the only one.’ There’s a sense of confidence, excitement, joy, to be with the people of God. That’s why I love the church: it’s people. You know, Bill Hybels, the American pastor, he says that ‘the local church is the hope for the world’. There’s nothing like the local church when it’s working well.
The second reason I love the church is because it’s a family — it’s the family of God.
1 John 5:1
St John writes this:
‘Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well.’
So what St John says is when you come into a relationship with God, you come into a family. Because there are other people who are in that same relationship with God — they’re sons and daughters of God: that means they’re your brothers and sisters. So, you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family. So take a look around you — I don’t see much movement at all! You’re very British — you’re all sort of sitting there like this! Take a look around you, because this is your family! Have a look. Have a look at your brothers and your sisters — or, if you’re not a Christian yet, your potential brothers and sisters! I don’t know whether that encourages you to become a Christian or puts you off forever! Brothers and sisters can squabble, they can fall out, they can not see each other, but they remain brothers and sisters. Nothing can end that relationship.
History of disunity
And as you know, the history of the church has been a sad one because it’s been a story of disunity. As you look back in the history of the church there have been four major sort of breaks. In the fourth and fifth century the lesser Eastern churches separated. In the eleventh century you had the break between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. At the time of the Reformation you had the split between Catholics and Protestants. In the nineteenth century you had the start of denominations — there were no denominations until the nineteenth century. But by 1900 there were 2,000 denominations; by 1980 there were 20,000 denominations; and by the year 2000 there were 34,000 denominations. And the church has divided on just about every conceivable issue — in fact, on every inconceivable issue as well.
I once was … We were in San Francisco and we went to the Golden Gate Bridge — an amazing sight and amazing views from there. And I heard about a man who was standing in the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge, admiring the view, when another tourist walked up alongside him to do the same. And he said: ‘I heard him say quietly as he took in the beauty of the view: “What an awesome God!” I turned to him and I said, “Oh, are you a Christian?” He said, “Yes, I am a Christian.” I said, “So am I,” and we shook hands. ‘I said, “Are you a liberal or a fundamental Christian?” He said, “I’m a fundamental Christian.” I said, “So am I,” and we smiled and nodded to each other. I said, “Are you a covenant or dispensational fundamental Christian?” He said, “I’m a dispensational fundamental Christian.” I said, “So am I,” and we slapped one another on the back. I said, “Are you an early Acts, mid Acts, or late Acts dispensational fundamental Christian?” He said, “I’m a mid Acts dispensational fundamental Christian.” I said, “So am I,” and we agreed to exchange Christmas cards each year. I said, “Are you an Acts 9 or 13 mid Acts dispensational fundamental Christian?” He said, “I’m an Acts 9 mid Acts dispensational fundamental Christian.” I said, “So am I,” and we hugged one another right there on the bridge. I said, “Are you a pre-Trib or post-Trib Acts 9 mid Acts dispensational fundamental Christian?” He said, “I’m a pre-Trib Acts 9 mid Acts dispensational fundamental Christian.” I said, “So am I,” and we agreed to exchange our kids for the summer. I said, “Are you a twelve-in or twelve-out pre-Trib Acts 9 mid Acts dispensational fundamental Christian?” He said, “I’m a twelve-in pre-Trib Acts 9 mid Acts dispensational fundamental Christian.” I said, “You heretic!” and I pushed him off the bridge.’
From disunity to keeping unity
So that’s been the history of the church. But we live in a very exciting time, actually, when these kind of denominational barriers are coming down. And disunity is a scandal. Of course, outside the church, people look in and they say, `Look, if you guys can’t even agree amongst yourselves what you believe in, why should I be interested?’ But Jesus prayed — just before he died, Jesus prayed that we should ‘be one so that the world would believe’.
And Paul says: ‘Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit’ — of course, not at the expense of truth. St Augustine prayed that in the really essential things of the faith, the things that are at the core of our belief, there would be unity. In the things that are more peripheral, the non-essentials, there be freedom — people can believe different things — that’s fine; and in everything, love. Father Raniero Cantalamessa, who is the preacher to the Papal Household, amazing man, I heard him talk once — it was back in 1991 and I never forgot his talk, and he’s become a friend since. But what he said was: “What unites us as Christians right across the denominations is infinitely greater than what divides us.”
Alpha used by different parts of the church
And to me it’s been one of the most astonishing things in the last years as we’ve watched Alpha grow around the world and being run by all the different parts — being run by Roman Catholics and Orthodox churches and Pentecostal and every variety of Protestant churches; Baptist, Salvation Army. It’s been so amazing to meet with people from all those different parts of the church and to be so enriched by learning from them. And what the New Testament talks about is a word, a Greek word: koinōnia [κοινωνια], which means fellowship’. It’s a kind of intimate relationship that we’re meant to have with God and also with one another. And it cuts across race, colour, education, background — every other cultural barrier. And it leads to a level of friendship which I had never experienced outside the context of the church.
And we need each other. John Wesley said ‘the New Testament knows nothing of solitary religion’. There are two things you can’t do alone: you can’t get married alone, and you can’t be a Christian alone! So the writer of Hebrews said: ‘Let’s not give up the habit of meeting together, as some have done.’ Because if we don’t meet together — this is my experience of watching people who have professed faith in Jesus Christ: unless they meet with other Christians, they find it almost impossible to survive as a Christian.
The red hot coal that cooled
I heard about one young man who was really struggling. He had come to faith in Christ, but he just found himself drifting away, drifting in doubts and difficulties and losing his faith. And he went to see a wise older man, who lived in a cottage, and there was a fire, a coal fire. And as they were discussing — this young man told this older man about what was going on in his life — the older man didn’t say anything. But he just went to the fire and he took a red-hot coal, with tongs, out of the fire, and he put it on the hearth. And as the young man talked, he just allowed that coal to go from red-hot to black, dark. And then he got the tongs again and he put the coal back in the fire, and within a few minutes the coal was red-hot again. He didn’t need to say anything. The young man left knowing exactly why his faith had gone dull.
That’s the second reason I love the church: it’s a family, it’s the family of God.
The third reason I love the church is the church is the way in which people see Jesus today. It’s the body of Christ.
1 Corinthians 12:27
St Paul says this:
‘Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.’
As John Calvin, the great reformer, sixteenth century reformer, put it: ‘He calls the church “Christ”.’ Bishop Lesslie Newbigin said this: he said, ‘Jesus Christ never wrote a book; what he did was leave behind a community: the church.’ And what St Paul is saying here is: ‘You are the church, and you are Christ to the world.’ So each of you represents Jesus wherever you go — in your family, in your place of work, in your neighbourhood, in your leisure activities. You’re Christ.
You’re the church
The American pastor John Wimber told us many years ago — John Wimber’s no longer alive, but he told us this story and I’ve never forgotten it. He told us this story about how he was standing in church one time and a man came up to him and told him how he’d been contacted by somebody in great need. And he talked about his frustration in trying to get help for this needy person. He said, ‘The man needed a place to stay, food, support, till he gets on his feet and looks for a job.’ He said, ‘I’m really frustrated. I tried calling the church office, but no one could see me, and they couldn’t help me. I finally ended up having to let him stay with me for the week. Don’t you think the church should take care of people like this?’ John Wimber said, ‘I thought for a moment and said: “It looks like the church did.”‘
Because you’re the church. Every time you feed the hungry, that’s the church doing it. Every time you visit the sick or visit someone in prison, that’s the church. And Paul develops this analogy of the unity of the body of Christ, but also that unity does not involve uniformity. Look at this room — there’s huge diversity within this room. Each person here is unique and beautifully made. And you have a unique contribution to make to the body of Christ. So my encouragement to you would be to get involved. Don’t just be a kind of consumer; be a contributor. Don’t just be an attender at church; be a member! And then there’s a kind of mutual dependence. He says: The eye can’t say to the hand, “Oh well, I don’t need you!’ So what he’s saying is the church needs you. And you need everybody else — you need the church. And together, if everybody’s playing their part, then there’s something really beautiful, like an orchestra where everybody is performing. And I think this is true globally as well. Rather than saying about other parts of the church, Oh, well, they’re not us! We’re Anglicans and they’re whatever’, so what’s wrong with them; we can say, ‘Ah, they’re a different part of this body around the world. I wonder what we could learn from them? I wonder how we could be enriched by their tradition?’ That’s the third reason I love the church: it’s the body of Christ.
The fourth reason I love the church: it’s where we experience the presence of God in a special way. The church is a holy temple.
I heard about a little boy called Tommy, who was a very naughty little boy. And his mother despaired of him, and she tried everything and eventually thought, ‘I know what I’ll do. I’ll take him down to see the vicar — that will sort him out!’ So she took young Tommy down to see the vicar. The vicar was quite an austere man. He had a great big leather desk, and he sat down Tommy opposite, and he thought, Well, I’ll find out how much this little boy knows about God.’ So he said, ‘Tommy, where is God?’ And the little boy began to look nervous, and so he said again:Tommy, where is God?’He looked even more nervous. So he said, ‘Tommy, where is God?’ By this time the boy was so terrified he got up and he ran, and he ran out of the vicar’s study, out of his house, and he ran all … The mother thought this was amazing. She thought, ‘This has done it! This has really sorted him out!’ The little boy ran in through his front door, and he saw his father sitting there. He said, ‘Dad, Dad, they’ve lost God down at the church! And now they’re trying to blame me for that!’ Where is God? What was the right answer?
Ephesians 2:19 – Presence of God
‘Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow-citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the chief cornerstone. In Him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in Him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.’
The New Testament answer is: God lives in you. That’s where He is. The only building that the New Testament knows about or speaks about is a building made up of people. The only church building mentioned in the New Testament is one made of ‘living stones’. And that’s where God is, God’s presence is. There’s a longing for God in every human heart; whether people admit it or acknowledge or recognise it or not, there’s a longing for God. St Augustine said this, speaking to God: he says,’You have made us for yourself, and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you.’ So the presence of God.
Professor Gordon Fee, says that “the word ‘presence’ is a delicious word. If you love someone, what you want more than anything else is that person’s presence. Photos, great. Telephone call, fantastic. Letters, great. But what you really long for is their presence. And that’s what Adam and Eve lost in the Garden of Eden when they sinned: they lost that sense of the presence of God. And as you look at the people of Israel, what distinguished the people of Israel in the Old Testament was not the law so much as the presence of God with them. And that’s why the Temple meant so much to them. They didn’t associate the Temple so much with sacrifices; they associated it with the presence of God.
God’s presence poured out: the new temple
And when the people of God were in exile, what they missed more than anything was the presence of God, the Temple. And what happened on the day of Pentecost was God’s Spirit, God’s presence, was poured out on all people. The New Testament speaks of you individually: ‘You are the temple of the Holy Spirit.’ The Holy Spirit comes to live in you. But more often it speaks corporately, of a gathering of Christians: ‘You are the temple of the Holy Spirit.’ There’s something amazing when we come together. And sometimes people walk into a gathering of Christians and they say, ‘Wow, there’s an amazing atmosphere here!’ They can’t quite put their finger on what it is, but they’re experiencing the presence of God.
Jesus said: ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am also.’
The fifth reason I love the church is because Jesus loves the church! It’s His bride — the church is the bride of Christ! Would you like to turn just over the page:
St Paul says this:
‘Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.’
And then he goes on to talk about the marriage relationship. But then in verse 32 he says this: ‘This is a profound mystery’ — but — he says, ‘It looked like I was talking about marriage’; actually, he says — ‘but I’m talking about Christ and the church’. ‘This is a profound mystery — but I am talking about Christ and the church.’
It’s all about love – the closest possible relationship
And this really sums up everything we’ve been looking at on Alpha: because at the heart of Christianity is love. The New Testament tries to use analogies of the closest possible relationship: parent/child. Here it says actually that perhaps the best analogy for this is the love between a husband and a wife: that intimate love. And that is the love that Jesus has for you. St Augustine said that ‘God loves each one of us as if there was only one of us to love.’ And if you had been the only person in the world, Jesus would have died for you. That’s how much he loves you. He laid down his life for the church. I don’t know about you, but I look at myself and I think I’m not as I really long to be. I long to be different. And Jesus died so that we could become the person that deep down we long to be. And the picture here is of being the bride of Christ.
Bride coming down the aisle
I love my job! I love being a vicar! It’s an amazing job. But one of the things I love most is taking weddings. Those doors at the back are closed, and the bride arrives at 2:32 — she wants to be late, but not too late! And the doors there are closed. And then I come and stand out here. And the bride is at the back; the pages, bridesmaids are all around her. The bridegroom’s sitting here at the front. The bride has spent all day making herself look absolutely beautiful! The bridegroom’s probably spent all day, but it doesn’t look so obvious! And we train the bridegrooms beforehand. We say: ‘There are three options that you can have. You can either, as the doors open, you can turn round’ — he’s standing there and he can just turn round and welcome the bride as she comes down the aisle. ‘Or you can stand to attention and wait until she’s level. What you mustn’t do is just kind of look over your shoulder, because that looks very untidy, just kind of looking like that!’ Nearly always they choose to turn round rather than stand to attention until she’s level with them — I only had one army officer who decided he’d stand to attention! But the moment happens, and the music starts, the doors open, and the bride walks down the aisle. And at that moment I usually start crying, actually — even if I’m taking the wedding, sometimes I start crying! But it’s such an amazing moment, because she walks down, ‘a bride beautifully dressed for her husband’. Revelation 21, verse 2: ‘I saw the Holy City’ — this is a picture of the church — ‘the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband’.
When Alfreda became a Christian and got married (story)
So is it possible to be a Christian and not go to church? The answer is: we don’t go to church — you are the church. I think I’ve mentioned before: Jackie Pullinger runs a place in Hong Kong — she works particularly with heroin addicts and with prostitutes. And she told us once about a 72-year old woman called Alfreda. And Alfreda had been a heroin addict for 60 years, and she’d been a prostitute for 60 years, or involved in the prostitution business for 60 years. But she was too old, obviously, to work, and she used to sit outside a brothel and just poke the sewers in this very run-down area with a stick to keep them moving freely. And she’d inject her back three times a day with heroin, because her legs and her arms, they’d been overused. She had no identity card, and as far as the Hong Kong government was concerned she didn’t even exist. But a few years ago she gave her life to Christ, and she received forgiveness, and she began to change. And she went to live in one of Jackie’s houses. And to begin with she was quite difficult, but then God started to heal her, and she saw that there were people who were worse off than her, and she began to try and help them. And she changed. And then, Jackie told us, she met a man called Little Wa, who was aged 75, and they got married. And Jackie described her wedding as ‘the wedding of the decade’: because this former prostitute, heroin addict, walked down the aisle, in white, cleansed, forgiven, transformed by the love of Jesus Christ.
And that to me is a picture of the church. There’s only one way into the church, and that’s to say: ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’ And the moment we say that, God in his love says: ‘You are part of my people. You’re my family. You’re my representative. You’re my body on earth. You’re a holy temple. My Spirit lives within you. You’re my bride.’
Lord, we thank you for this amazing privilege of being part of the church of Jesus Christ. Thank you so much that you make us part of the people of God, that you accept us as your family, sons and daughters of God; that you allow us to be your body on earth so that people see Jesus through us. Thank you that you make your presence known, as we gather together, particularly. And thank you that you love us so much that you call us your bride. Thank you, Lord Jesus, Amen.