Christ Centred Community of Faith Gen 1:26-28; Ps 2; Col 1:15-20; John 12:20-33 St Marks 5/11/17
At the next Church Council meeting there will be a annual review of Dale’s ministry; this is straightforward, but do we realise that Jesus regularly audits his churches? As Ezekiel was taken on a visionary tour of the temple and heard the Lord declare its destruction because of idolatry (Ezek 8-10), as Jesus walks in the midst of the 7 churches of the book of Revelation and makes promises and warnings concerning each congregation (Rev 1:13, 20; 2-3), so Christ inspects his church in Bassendean and makes decisions of judgement or mercy. If Jesus says repeatedly to his churches in Revelation, “I know your works”, and speaks rebuke, encouragement and instruction (2:2, 5, 6, 19, 22, 23, 26; 3:1, 2, 8, 15) so it is for us (Am 3:7). To hear clearly what Jesus is saying to us we must never compare ourselves to the state of other congregations, the only point of reference for Christ’s assessment of our faithfulness is his own testimony. (Which is why each address to a church begins with a title of Christ (2:1, 12, 18, 23; 3:1, 7, 14).
St Mark’s exists solely for the purpose of reflecting in the world who Jesus is, for, as Paul put it in our New Testament reading for today, “all things were created through him and for him” (Col 1:16). Some of the churches in Revelation were patient, enduring, doing good works, and were materially prosperous, but only those who were on fire with love for Christ and suffering for his name’s sake were unconditionally commended (Smyrna, Philadelphia).
God’s vision for our church is to be a totally Christ-centred community of faith where anyone, not yet believer, new believer or mature believer, serious about finding or growing in Jesus can be assured that this will happen if they come into our midst. Is this how the Spirit of Jesus sees our life together today (cf. Rev 2:7 etc.)?
Where is Jesus?
Jesus promised, ““where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in the midst of them.””” (Matt 18:20) and in Revelation we see the glorious Son of Man is walking amongst all his churches (Rev 1:13, 20). Christ’s last words on earth in Matthew are, ““behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.””” (28:20). The Bible’s testimony to the presence of Jesus amongst his people is unanimous but to what degree do we sense and see this is true. To what degree is Jesus presence manifest with us?
I was teaching somewhere once and described Jesus as the centre and circumference of everything, to which Donna replied (once a maths teacher always a maths teacher), Jesus must be the whole point. (To those who didn’t have good teachers like Donna, the centre and circumference of a perfect point is one and the same thing.) Does everything we say or do lead us to Jesus? Is, for example, the conversation that happens before church starts Christian fellowship, or is it simply friendship…? Hint: the New Testament Greek word for “fellowship” means “sharing together in something”, Christian fellowship means sharing together in Christ. I remember counselling a young man who stopped attending another church because after the service people really talked about trivia. What are people talking about after the service in the hall? There is nothing at all wrong with talking about health or work or family or….as long as it is somehow related to Christ – for whom everything exists.
St Mark’s has a reputation for being a friendly place, which is a good thing. But, for example, the future of our Benefit Shop (op shop) will not be decided by the state of the building or the amount of money it raises or the number of people it helps materially but whether “the name that is above every name” is spoken (Phil 2:9). The same could be said for the Pastoral Team, or Mothers Union or the Men’s Breakfast or the Welcomers or any other activity of the Church. Our sole purpose is to be a people through whom Christ’s saving work is revealed. On the day of judgement Jesus will say to many people who were on church rosters, including ours, ““I never knew you”” (Matt 7:21-23). This is a frightening prospect.
Renewal and Revival
Last week Dale was preaching about how the rediscovery of the message of the Bible was central to the Protestant Reformation. Somewhere during the sermon he mentioned how St Mark’s had plateaud and was in need of revival or at least renewal; he was being nice, we are in the rut of a slow spiritual and so numerical decline and only Jesus can get us out of it. Speaking of the rediscovery of the power of the scriptures I must confess that I don’t have the same energy towards the Bible I had as a young Christian. I remember making my own hand written summary of the whole Bible, writing down probably hundreds of verses to help me memorise them, taping myself reading sections of scripture so I could play it back on my portable tape recorder as I was driving along. I need spiritual renewal in my experience of the Bible, I have become “dull of hearing” (Heb 5:11) and deeply need the Holy Spirit to refresh the inner ears of my heart (Ps 40:6).
If God moves everything forward by his Word and prayer (Acts 6:4), what would the Lord say to us about our prayer life. The weekly prayer meeting has long been regarded as the spiritual thermometer of the congregation (Spurgeon). When we started a Wednesday 5.30 p.m. prayer meeting for a new minister a decent cross-section of the congregation used to turn up. Since the Lord answered our prayers and sent Dale and Joy we have scaled right down in terms of attendance, which is a sign that most people are pretty contented with things as they are. 5.30 on a Wednesday will not suit everybody, but from 3rd December we are calling, and I believe Christ is calling, his people to come to pray for the half hour before the new service starting time of 9.30 am. In every revival from Pentecost onwards God always gets his people praying in advance of the outpouring of his Spirit (Acts 1:14). Prayer holds the key to the kingdom of God coming in our midst with power.
The Lord has been incredibly kind to this fellowship. I read with interest Murray’s parish history of the 1980’s, and how Bassendean Shire Council’s giving of $12,000 to the parish in 1989 cleared the overdraft with the bank. This was surely a miracle, because the Lord wanted the church to survive until today. But we must not be confused into thinking the Holy Spirit is indefinitely committed to the survival of an Anglican presence here i; he is dedicated to the presence of the kingdom of Christ in Bassendean. If we do not make Jesus known to lost people the lampstand of St Marks as a church will be removed and the Lord will raise up another body to do his work in this area (Rev 2:5).
In praying about this sermon the Lord has been speaking to me about a number of possible ways in which St Mark’ might die. If the congregations continue to age and decline the diocese would progressively amalgamate the parishes of Guildford, Lockridge and Bassendean; the history and beauty of the Guildford building is likely to save it, the fact that the Anglican Church in Lockridge is the only Protestant church in that very needy suburb might save it, but the release of this whole block for development would prove too difficult for the Diocesan Trustees to resist. I see no glory for Christ in this scenario, so let’s move on to other possible deaths.
Another scenario is already being mentioned around the diocese and one with precedents in other places. The largest Anglican congregation in Canada lost all its buildings and left the Church in Canada over the blessing of same-sex relations when this became official church policy. Dale and my names, with around 50 other priests, were on a letter sent to the archbishop’s selection committee some months ago that touched on the issue of defending traditional marriage. If we as a body experience renewal and revival our uncompromising following of Jesus could lead to parting ways with the diocese, which would mean losing this property. This would be sorrowful but if it brought Christ glory in the church it would be worth it (Mark 14:34; Eph 3:21). To some degree these thoughts are speculative, but there is another form of painful death I am sure the Lord has on his mind today.
If a Muslim becomes a Christian in the Middle East, or a Hindu in India, or a Buddhist in Sri Lanka, these men and women must die to an old identity and be born again/raised into a new identity in Jesus and they will be persecuted (Rom 6:1-11). Such sacrificial conversions possess a powerful testimony to Jesus; “And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.” (Rev 12:11). The words of these believers bear weight their actions work power and when they gather together the presence of Christ is manifest in their midst. This is what we are lacking as a community.
It must be the case, it is the case, that the Spirit of Christ is telling us to fight for the future glory of Christ in this community of faith, even if this might mean the end of St Mark’s Anglican Church. Jesus is not an Anglican or a Baptist or a Catholic …years ago I prophesied in a Pentecostal meeting, “There will be no lasting revival in Australia until the cross goes through the heart of the Church.” There can be no major spiritual shift in this nation without the sort of identity shattering transformation that the Spirit brought about at the Reformation. To move from Catholic to Protestant wasn’t just to shift a set of theological ideas it was to move from one identity to another. If Christ is the true centre and circumference of the life of the Church then at the centre of this centre is the cross.
Death for Life
Like us, Jesus too once stood at a cross road concerning his deepest identity. John chapter 12 is John’s equivalent to the struggle of Jesus to obey the will of his Father in Gethsemane (Mark 14:36).
““The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. …27 “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”” (John 12:23-24, 27-28)
This prayer possesses tremendous gravity. Jesus knows that unless he dies no-one can be saved. The death of the seed for the birth of many seeds is both a natural and spiritual law. With the approval of the archbishop Alison and I started work on a teaching programme for Lent a few years ago, especially for the benefit of parishes in the country where most are dying. The series was based on a conviction that churches that strive in their natural strength to survive will perish, but those who surrender their situation to the Lord in readiness to die according to his will shall experience the presence of resurrection life (2 Cor 4:12; Phil 3:10). This is the mystery and power of the gospel. But something is missing.
If Jesus knew from the beginning that he must die on the cross (John 6:64), why did he find it so difficult to obey his Father to the end? The transparent reason is found in the cry of dereliction, the centre of the centre of the cross; the cry, ““My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”” (Mark 15:34) is Jesus’ testimony that the most dreadful thing that could ever happen to him has taken place to atone for our sin, he has lost the glory of his identity as the Son of God, he no longer knows God as his Father. If Jesus suffered so much for us what are we willing to suffer for him? This reminds me of an encounter with Christ which in turn would spark the 18th century Evangelical revival in England and re-reform the Church there and across the world.
Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf was born into one of the noblest families in Europe and as a young man visited an art museum in Dusseldorf. There he encountered a painting titled Ecce Homo, “Behold the Man.” (John 19:5) It portrayed the crucified Christ with the words underneath, “This have I done for you – Now what will you do for me?”, at that moment Zinzendorf felt that Jesus was speaking to him personally and he went through an identity transforming experience which led him away from the privileges of an aristocratic lifestyle to a radical and sacrificial Christ-centred identity. His life motto became, “I have one passion; it is Jesus, Jesus only.” All of Zinzendorf’s thinking, writing, spending, composing and praying became focused on missionary outreach and renewal so that the world would know Jesus.
Do we want to be a Christ-centred community that can lead men and women to Jesus as the centre of all things? St Mark’s is at the cross road. Where is our identity located today? Is it exclusively in Christ, or Christ plus something else? When Donna and I were in Toowoomba in September we witnessed the public announcement that one of the local Lutheran churches had left their denomination. I could sense the pain in the heart of God over this break in unity, but also that it was right, because the mission of the kingdom of God is bigger than any temporary form of the Church. All the great Reformers understood this, but today few grasp that this is the ongoing cost of following the crucified Christ.
Jesus is in our midst, but presently he is largely hiding (Isa 45:15; 57:17). What can we do to invite Jesus to manifest his presence to us? The one thing the Church has always done before a major move of God is to pray. The Spirit of the Lord is already talking to us about prayer, prayer and more prayer. From the 3rd of December there will be prayer at 9 a.m., the Lord is calling Joy Appleby to fasting and prayer and she wants others to join her, and I am sure that the Lord will quicken a vision of prayer to others…married couples, families….