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“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)

“May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:23)

“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matt 5:14-16)

The congregational life of the church has breath-taking potential.  We are on show to the world – even beyond this world! (Eph 3:10).  Jesus wants the world to look on and to say “The love these people display reminds me of Christ.  This love is out of this world. Now I believe that Christ came from the Father.  Praise be to God!”

If we took this seriously we would see that there is not ‘fellowship’ on the one hand and ‘mission’ on the other.  But in the plan and purpose of Jesus our fellowship is missional.  Our life together is to the end that we witness to the world.  We are a missionary body – a kingdom of priests. (Ex 19:6; 1 Pet 2:9; Rev 5:10).  The community of the church is not a community for its own sake but for the sake of the world.  This outward focus is constitutive of our life together.  Thus we are neither a ‘holy huddle’ nor a loose association of evangelists. 

These are the two errors we could fall into.  On the ‘holy huddle’ side we may invest in community life for its own sake.  And yet Jesus expects that the world will be able to see our united love.  On the other side we may neglect our brothers and sisters for the sake of mission.  Yet this is impossible if we’ve understood Jesus’ commands above.   Loving the ‘brotherhood’ is missional.  Thus when Paul says to do good “especially to those who belong to the household of faith” (Gal 6:10) it is not simply an inwardly-looking nepotism.  The love of the Christian family is the shop-window of the gospel and has unparalleled magnetic potential!

The question in practice is how do we make this gospel fellowship visible to the outside world?  I have three suggestions, I’d love to hear any that you have.

  1. Churches should keep ‘church’ commitments to a minimum so that Christians can actually engage in the world around us.
  2. Home groups should be places where non-Christian friends can come along and see fellowship (over meals preferably)
  3. Church members should be encouraged to collaborate in efforts to ‘infiltrate’ clubs, sports teams, bars etc.  This way Christians can ‘love one another’ before the watching world rather than having guerilla soldiers go on individual ‘raids.’

Any other thoughts on the practicalities of this?

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For a sermon I just preached on John 13 which prompted these thoughts go here.

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State, Explain, Illustrate, Apply.  That’s apparently the blueprint for the young preacher.  Find three points in the text (regardless of the genre of the passage, regardless of how many ‘points’ the Scripture might be making).  For each of the points (it’s best if they all begin with ‘P’): state it, explain it, illustrate it and – in a discrete section of the sermon – apply it. 

This almost inevitably means turning each point into a law to be enjoined on the congregation.  Thus: point one – Jesus is faithful.  Application – how will you be faithful this week?  For the preacher who is very keen on ‘application’ they will offer all manner of suggestions as to how the congregation can be faithful in the minutiae of their lives.

All this begs the question: what is preaching for?  If it is faith that comes by hearing why do our sermons aim at awakening works?   Why do both preachers and congregations love to cut to the ‘application.’  You know the phrases that get a whole church wide eyed, edging to the front of their pews, pliant in the preacher’s hand: “Now where does the rubber hit the road?” “What about on a Monday morning?” “How does this play out in the nitty gritty of life?”  And of course the answer given by the preacher (the answer that all our flesh longs to hear) is “You’ve heard this abstract, ‘unearthed’ stuff about Christ’s righteousness, now, go, establish your own righteousness in your home, school or office.  You’ve heard of Christ, now you go and be the Faithful One.” 

On this understanding, application looks like this:

preaching 1 

In my experience the more ‘concrete’ and ‘earthed’ an application the better.  Specific moral instructions are thought to really liven up the sermon.  Now of course this puts a huge onus on the preacher to be able to discern the thoughts and attitudes of the heart – something which surely only the Spirit by His Word is competent to do.  And the more specific these applications become the more easily they slide off the backs of a congregation safe in the knowledge they didn’t commit that sin this week. 

But that’s not the real issue with such an understanding of ‘application’.  The real issue is – what are we aiming at in preaching?  Here’s my question: what if we took seriously the fact that the gospel is to be believed?  Christ is to be received.  The Word is to be heard.  What would application look like then?  I suggest it should look much more like this:

preaching 2

Application ought to be the pointed driving home of the gospel.  It is the lively and repeated application of the Word to the heart of the congregation to the end that it might be believed.  It is not the derivation of principles which can then be turned into moral instruction.  Application is the Spirit’s work of awakening faith in the Christ who we proclaim.  It is a work which we cannot perform ourselves but to which we are called nonetheless.  In prayerful dependence we follow the way of witness in the Scriptures as they point to Christ.  And we point too.  With excitement, with passion, with entreaty.  And we say like Moses did regarding the bronze serpent: Look and live!

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Ok – just one more digression before we get back to missions.  This flows on from our discussions about the trinity…

 I’m a bit slow in my travels around the blogosphere so I apologise that this is about a week out of date.  But, Ben Witherington (recently-ish) managed to get 83 comments on a post called “Is God a narcisist?”.  He was reacting against a Piper-ist, Schreiner-ist theology that says “The chief end of God is to glorify God and enjoy Himself forever.” 

Being a good biblical (NT) theologian he made excellent points on the meaning of kabod (Hebrew) and doxa (Greek) and the difference between this and God’s Name (which is about vindicating His reputation).  I’ve skim-read the comments as much as I’m going to but nowhere (as far as I can see) do people discuss the trinity.  This is kind of surprising!

Growing out of our discussion about One-ness and Three-ness, one of the chief conclusions to be drawn is the fact that God ought never to be thought of in anything approaching unitarian terms.  The One-ness of God does not connote a single centre of action or personal consciousness in God.  Yet when a theologian asserts that “God’s chief end is self-glorification” then almost certainly a doctrine of the one God, divorced from trinitarian reciprocity, is in view.  

We ought to ask all such theologians “Which Person of God are you speaking of?”  They surely cannot be referring to the trinitarian life of Father, Son and Spirit – that communion is the essence of self-giving.  God is love.  And they surely cannot be referring to the Father for He has committed all things into His Son’s hands (John 3:35).  They mustn’t be speaking of the Son, He only ever glorifies the Father. (John 4:34).  And they can’t be speaking of the Spirit, He simply takes from what is the Father’s and the Son’s and makes it known (John 16:15).  So what god are they speaking of when they say “His chief end is to glorify Himself”?  Clearly the “God” referred to here is one abstracted from considerations of the trinitarian life.  Yet as my last post was trying to argue – the living God cannot for a second be abstracted from considerations of trinitarian self-giving.  The only God there is is the Trinity!  The One God is precisely the community of sacrificial love between Father, Son and Spirit. (see also The Cruciform God

When the LORD says in Isaiah 42:8, “I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols.” it is only because He has been glorifying His Servant for the last seven verses – “Here is My Servant, whom I uphold, My Chosen One in Whom I delight; I will put My Spirit on Him and He will bring justice to the nations…” (Isaiah 42:1ff)  The Father glorifies His Son and anoints Him with His Spirit.  Therefore He will not give that glory to another.  This is the very opposite of self-love.  Instead His other-centred glory requires that He be exclusively committed to His Son in holy love. 

God is not a narcisist.  A proper doctrine of the trinity guarantees it.  And wherever God is portrayed as a narcisist you can guarantee that a defective trinity is lurking in the background.

Next time you hear such a theology, ask yourself what doctrine of the trinity is being espoused here?  Has this theologian conceived of God apart from the communion of the Three?  Almost certainly they have – and a selfish God is the outcome.

Two verses from John to finish:

Jesus replied, “If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me.” (John 8:54)

“All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.” (John 16:15)

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