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NoCompromiseLast week  someone asked me where I thought it would all end? All these adaptations the church seems to be making to culture. We used to get hung up on keeping Sunday special, but who is bothered anymore? It was only 20 years ago that the Church of England allowed women priests, but who can deny that women bishops will shortly follow? Right now, much ado is being made about gay marriage, but won’t that also seem like an outdated scruple in years to come. Isn’t the trend basically one of distinctives gradually eroded away?  And all those conservative Christians who have fought so hard, won’t they just watch their children accommodate themselves to the very compromises they so feared?

Trouble is… that predictive model is based on the very thing that is shifting most fundamentally. It’s based on the idea of ‘Christian Britain’ and a church that can expect (and demand!) the state to be at least Christian-ish.  But it seems plain to me that this is the one thing that’s really changing. Or rather, this is the reality that’s most obviously being revealed in all the other changes. The culture is not Christian-ish.  It’s not even Christian-ish-ish.  The church doesn’t have the political voice it wants to have. And shouting louder is not helping.  It’s basically communicating peripheral issues as our central message (that’s what’s being heard anyway).

But what if we extrapolate from the real change that’s occurring – the realization that the Christian vision of work/rest, men/women, sex and sexuality really isn’t the world’s?  What then?  Maybe then we’d see church as the place where true rest is enjoyed, true gender relations modeled and true  enjoyment of singleness and marriage nurtured. And we’ll see the world as a place that almost must find the way of Christ baffling and wrong.

If we follow that trajectory then, yes, we’ll have to accept persecution as part of the deal. But I’m pretty sure we all signed up to that at the outset, and, on the upside, it means that we’re not at all destined to ever-increasing compromise. Nor are we doomed to fight all our battles for peripheral issues like sex.  In fact we  might actually find our churches modelling a counter-culture more distinctive than ever.  Meanwhile, those who focus the battle on Westminster may find that they are being just as defined by the culture as ‘the compromisers’ (even if negatively).

I’m no kind of culture-vulture and I couldn’t spot a political trend if it tap-danced on my face. But it seems to me that whatever trajectory we’re on, it does not need to end in a loss of Christian distinctives. Instead in might be the birth of some real distinctives. What’s more it may help us re-assign resources to the true front line – the church – as we re-centre ourselves on our true mission – proclaiming Jesus.

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unitarian worshipContinued from here

In his book, “Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace”, James Torrance sums up much of the teaching we’re considering, especially as he highlights the difference between Unitarian and Trinitarian worship.

Unitarian and Trinitarian Worship

According to Torrance these are the two broad models of worship.  Unitarian worship is not necessarily that offered by Unitarians – most often it simply reflects the functionally monadic doctrine of God latent in our congregations.  Worship on this model sees only two parties – the LORD who is simply the recipient of worship; and the human worshipper (or congregation) who may be divinely enabled and empowered but who, nonetheless, is wholly responsible for performing the worship.

As against this, Trinitarian worship recognizes that God the Father has set forth God the Son to be the True High Priest who, by God the Spirit, offers to the Father that which He demands.  Worship is therefore not the efforts of humanity in approaching God but a participation in Christ’s perfect worship of the Father, graciously offered through the Spirit.

This, in turn, leads to different accounts of intimacy.  On the Unitarian model, intimacy is an ideal to be reached (if only we can raise our moral and mystical games).  We are external to God and must figure out how to approach Him in an acceptable way.  The only priesthood here is our priesthood.  The only offering involved is our offering.  The only intercession is our intercession.  And if we get all these things right, then, perhaps, we will attain to a measure of intimacy.

On the Trinitarian model, adoption into the life of God through the Son and by the Spirit is the incomparable intimacy which guarantees true and acceptable worship.  The order is thus reversed. Worship does not bring us near to God.  Rather ‘the blood of Christ’ has brought us near (Ephesians 2:13) that ‘through Him we… have access to the Father by one Spirit.’ (Ephesians 2:18).  Blood-bought intimacy with God is the beginning of true worship – not an added bonus when the mood is right.

The Perfect and Eternal Priesthood of Christ guarantees our acceptable worship before the Father.  Therefore we’re always late to worship. We’re always joining something that is already under way. We begin our worship in the embrace of the divine love – our worship is merely God’s appointed means of experiencing such intimacy.

How then do we worship?

When we think of “intimacy with God”, what do we picture?  Probably we’re thinking of a private experience.  But in the Bible our intimacy with the Father, through the Son and by the Spirit is expressed corporately.  In community we reflect the Triune life to which we have been called.  As a community we are Christ’s Body and Bride.  A merely private intimacy with God is a rejection of the terms on which we have been offered fellowship.  It’s true that worship of God is 24/7 (Romans 12:1ff).  And it’s true that I am continually ‘one with Christ’, whether by myself or with others. But consider the marriage analogy.  I may be ‘one with my wife’ even when we’re separated by oceans.  Yet our experience of intimacy comes with setting aside times and places.  So it is with our experience of intimacy – the Scriptures envisage corporate fellowship with God, as we gather.

The Gathering

Acts 2:42 gives four characteristic marks of the post-Pentecost church: the Apostle’s teaching, the fellowship (koinonia), the breaking of bread and prayer.

Firstly, the Word is set forth. This is essential.  The Spirit brings us Christ through the Word since, as Calvin would say, Christ comes clothed in His promises.  There is no unmediated or self-generated approach to God.  It is of the essence of grace that God approaches us at His initiative and by His appointed means.  In the Bible, Christ is offered to us freely in words of promise.  God has ordained that ‘faith comes by hearing’ (Romans 10:17), thus the Bible must be at the absolute centre.  There ought not to be any meeting without the Word. When Luther wrote ‘Concerning the Order of Public Worship’ he advised: ‘Let everything be done so that the Word may have free course… We can spare everything except the Word.  Again we profit by nothing as much as by the Word.’

‘The fellowship’ is an objective, Spirit-created, communion to which believers are to be ‘devoted’.  This fellowship subsists in the organic union we share as the Body of Christ.  In it we are given various gifts and roles for our mutual edification and mission to the world (cf 1 Cor 12-14).  To be devoted to this involves the exercise of gifts in ministering to one another (cf Romans 12:4-8) and practical, costly service (eg 1 John 3:17-18).

‘The breaking of bread’ we take to be sacramental (hence the).  Along with the preached Word, the dispensing of the sacraments was taken by reformers as the other defining mark of a true Church.  Christ has given us Himself in this supper through ‘visible words’ (Augustine’s phrase).  Via these, we ‘feed on Christ in our hearts by faith, with thanksgiving’ (Cranmer’s phrase).  This sacrament is communal by its very nature – uniting us with Christ and each other.  It ought to be a genuine high point in our gatherings though always attended by the Word, by clear teaching on its purpose, and eaten in peaceable fellowship with all (1 Corinthians 11:17-22).

Corporate prayer is an essential part of worship.  The prayer Jesus taught His disciples was corporate – ‘Our Father’.  The Spirit equips the Bride to call on her Husband ‘Come’ (Revelation 22:17).  Prayer is an activity of the Church and one that expresses our complete dependence on, and devotion to, the Lord.  Our intimacy with God could not be more evident than when the Father sends the Spirit of His Son into our hearts “who calls out ‘Abba, Father’” (Galatians 4:6).  All kinds of prayers should therefore be made in our services – prayers of praise (Revelation 5:9-14), of thanksgiving (Ephesians 5:20), of confession (Nehemiah 9) and of supplication (1 Timothy 2:1ff).

Conclusion

Right worship is possible only on the basis of our intimate union with Christ, under-written by His blood and sealed by His Spirit.  Intimacy should not be held out as the goal of Christian worship but the ground.  Our experience of intimacy with the Triune God comes as we appreciate that which is already ours in Christ.

Grace, therefore, is the very atmosphere of Christian worship since Christ, our great High Priest, has already performed the perfect service to God.  Even worship is a gift that comes from on high – not a work to be generated by us. We receive the benefits of His priestly worship through faith-union with Him, and we experience, understand and deepen that union especially in corporate worship.

The Communion of Father, Son and Spirit is known most fully in the communion of His people.  This happens as the Spirit works through word and sacrament, through a communal lifting of our hearts in prayer and through mutual encouragement, to awaken us to Christ’s presence in and with us.  As we grasp and appreciate Him we know our exalted position, caught up in the intimate life of God Himself.

 

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TEP-PodcastCover-1024x1024The church has been sent as God’s missionary organisation to the world. What does that mean for church? What does it mean for evangelism?

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Ephesians Sit Walk Stand

A Sermon on Ephesians 4:1-16

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The Christian life is a down-hill WALK.

It’s also a battle, we’ll see that in chapter 6. There are forces to STAND against. But we STAND because we hold the high ground.  And if you hold the high ground, you don’t need to advance, you don’t need to retreat, you don’t need to go anywhere. You just STAND in the strength of Jesus.

But this is the Christian life: First SIT at God’s right hand in Christ. Understand all that we have.  Then WALK out into the world and, all the while, be prepared to STAND against the enemy’s schemes.  But notice this: NOTHING in the Christian life is about uphill struggle. NOTHING.

There is a WALK out into the world. There is a STAND to take against spiritual powers. But there’s never a climb.  Jesus has climbed. He’s the only one.  We sit, we walk, we stand, we never climb. We are already on top of the world.  We have gone to heaven already, in Christ.  We have the fullness of God.  And now, what’s life about?

What’s the essence of this WALK? What’s the goal of this wonderful gospel?

In a word: CHURCH…

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communityLeon preached a corker tonight at Emmanuel, Plymouth.

From Psalm 84 he answered the question, Why isn’t church more exciting?

We’re the only source of life for this dying world.

We’re the only place where people can meet with God.

We’re the only place where the broken and hurt can find healing and refuge.

We’re the only place on earth where God lives.

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I wrote this two years ago in response to the views of an influential minister who I respect greatly.  I haven’t kept up with the minister’s views on this subject and he might be saying different things now so I’ve removed reference to him specifically.  But I think the issue is still very much out there in the evangelical ether, so I’ll address the issue more generally…

I long for church communities that are Christ-centred, grace-filled, all-of-life and intentionally missional.  I love ministers and ministries that emphasize these things.  But let me raise one caution.  It’s common in such circles to affirm church as an on-going family life and to deny that church is an event.

I can understand, to some extent, why language of “event” grates on people.  It can seem like an ungodly waste of resources to turn Sunday morning into a grand performance.  So true.  I’ve heard people speak in hushed tones about some gold standard of sermon preparation – an hour in the study for every minute in the pulpit.  Yowsers!  If that’s the cost of gathering around word and sacrament then I can well understand the desire to re-balance the expenditure of resources.

But there’s something deeper to discuss than the re-allocation of resources or the degree of formality to our meetings.  What I want to establish is the absolute necessity of the event for the life of church.  Church is not just family, it is also an event and irreducibly so.  I’ll say it that starkly because I know how popular it is to speak of church as ongoing-missional-community in opposition to chuch as event.

Church has its being in becoming.  It ever becomes what it is as it hears God’s word.  In this way church is the community called out (ekklesia) to listen to its risen Lord in the proclamation of word and sacrament.  This is the centre of the life of the community.

Let me just take one Scriptural example from Paul.  We are one body because we all share in the one bread (1 Cor 10:17). That is pretty stunning language – and it’s very ‘eventist’.  Here is a consummation of one-body-ness in which we become what we are. The event and the on-going life of the body are inter-dependent.

Think of marriage.  The covenant reality is that husband and wife are one flesh.  But there is an event in which they become one flesh (if you were Presbyterian you might even call it covenant renewal!).

It’s commanded in Scripture (cf 1 Cor 7) and it takes time and effort and a measure of ritual and it’s irreducibly an event.  Of course the degree of ritual and cost and time-expenditure will vary according to many factors.  But to imagine I can think of an ongoing covenant life without also thinking about the one-flesh event is a big danger in marriage.

And, by parallel, church life needs to be maintained by consciously enjoyed, anticipated and ritualised “events” in our church life together.  We can’t do without them.  And however much it’s necessary to speak of day-in, day-out community life we dare not lose language of event either.  The old reformed ecclesiologies speak of gathering around word and sacrament.  They didn’t forget that we were family, but they did highlight that there were foundational “events” at the centre of church life.

So we say Yes to shared life, Yes to Christ-centred community.  But the way in which our community is “centred” around Christ takes a certain form.  The centre is an actual, concrete centre around which we orient ourselves.  As Christ’s community therefore we order ourselves around the place where Christ is given to us. And He is given to us supremely in word and sacrament.

Therefore we must maintain language of “event”.  As we do so we are upholding two related concerns:

1) We are communities of grace.

Christians keen to ditch “event” language are usually big on “grace.”  They commonly reject rituals in the name of gospel grace.  But I would urge caution here.  If we want to be communities of grace we need to orient ourselves around where Christ is given to us, not primarily around what Christ would have us do.  To be a community of grace requires us to centre on events.

2) We are communities of proclamation.

Where we honour the “event” of Church, we honour “proclamation”.  While our community life preaches to the world (John 13:35; 17:21) I’d want to co-ordinate this to a centre of verbal proclamation that constitutes and re-constitutes the community.

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I’m well aware that many who reject the word “event” bang a big and important drum for “grace” and “proclamation”.  But I want to say, “grace” and “proclamation” requires “events.”  We must never lose our centre.

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A friend of mine is very supportive of my ministry but is passionately opposed to parachurch organisations.  He makes many different arguments, but here’s an argument that might persuade me (though I haven’t heard him make it)…

If a local church rented advertising space on the side of a bus, what slogans do you think it would run with?

Anything like “Not Gay, Ex-Gay, Post-Gay and Proud.  Get over it”?

I’m not saying they’re wrong. I think the reification of ‘sexuality’ as an unchanging marker of personal identity deeply undermines our humanity.  I think the elimination of choice (such that one in unable to be ex-anything) is akin to Islam’s apostasy laws!  I think the ad’s censorship betrays the deep intolerance of many so-called liberals.

But, but, but, when those behind the ads say that the controversy was a God-send, I have to wonder whether they’re mission lines up with mine (which I hope is Christ’s!).

INTERVIEWER: You couldn’t buy this level of publicity, now that it’s been banned…

REV LYNDA ROSE: We couldn’t, one has to wonder whether God is not perhaps active in this. It wasn’t our intention to provoke this situation… The publicity is obviously good.  (From Channel 4 News)

Lynda, maybe the publicity’s good for you.  Speaking as an evangelist, let me tell you it aint so good from where I’m sitting!

And it just  makes me wonder, who gets to be a spokesperson for Christianity in the world?  The church, right?  But when does the church lose it’s voice and get drowned out by interest groups?  Certainly the media can’t tell these things apart – and I can’t blame them for it.

It seems to me that our public face needs to be a lot more aligned to both Head and body!  Otherwise local churches (and parachurch evangelists!) are going to have to pick up the pieces.

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was placarded as crucified. (Galatians 3:1)

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