Midweek Reflections

Midweek Reflection 28 May - 4 June 2020

 

Reconnection 6 – The ministry of the Church

Listen to the worship song: Build your kingdom here

Pause to think about the role of the church in God’s ministry of reconnection

And he made known to us the mystery of His will according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfilment – to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ. Ephesians 1:9-10

“It is within the great pulsating heart of the Trinity that mission is located and from there it proceeds. To suggest that God has given the Church the task of mission is bordering on the blasphemous. Rather God’s missiological adventure proceeds within history and as many as are willing are invited to share in it” Michael Riddell – Threshold of the Future

  • Read - 2 Cor 5:18-20

Reflection 1 (Audio 1)

The focus of these reflections over the last six weeks has been to make the case, based on the evidence of the Bible, that God is working to restore His creation to its original perfection. I have attempted to demonstrate the essentially relational nature of creation and to suggest that God has a mission of reconnection in each of the relationships critical to life on earth. At the heart of this mission are the four essential relationships of humankind. Those with God, with other people, with the wider creation and those of body, mind and spirit within each person. The Bible puts forward the clear proposition that God will accomplish his mission in full, in the age to come (the primary evidence being the resurrection of Jesus). Yet the Bible demonstrates that God’s mission also takes place in the present age. The reconnection that will be complete in the age to come has been taking place throughout human history and is happening in our midst today. God it seems calls each person in every generation to be reconciled with him. Those who respond to his invitation, love Him and seek to follow His ways inevitably find themselves participating in His work. It started with the call of Israel and has continued with the call of the church, that is those who put their faith and trust in Jesus.

Michael Riddell suggests that it is not that God gives the church a job to do. The church does not have its own mission as such. The primary function of the church is to be a people that are reconciled to God and it is only in that in that process that we become involved in the reconciling work of God in our own generation. Reconciling is part of what it means to be reconciled. We are fulfilling the purpose that was originally intended for us.

This is seen in the Gospels as those who have become followers of Jesus are sent out into the towns and villages to carry out the same work of healing that he himself has been doing. Luke records in chapter 9 that Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases after which he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and heal those who were ill. In chapter 10 we are told that 72 others were sent out to do the same and they returned rejoicing about the results of their experience. The same ministry of reconnection performed by Jesus, is also the responsibility of those who follow him. To be reconciled to Jesus is also to participate in his ministry of reconciliation.

In his 2nd letter to the Corinthians Paul explains how reconciliation with God is made possible for each individual through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. He then appeals to his readers, ‘be reconciled to God’. As reconciled people they like Paul and his friends, become ambassadors for God. An ambassador is someone who represents a kingdom or nation. He or she is commissioned to put forward the ideals, the character and the mission of that nation and more specifically those of its sovereign, before others. The church is called by God, just as Israel was called, to demonstrate to the wider world, his nature, his ideals and his mission. In other words to show what life looks like when God has his way; and when God has His way the world becomes reconnected. God’s creation is one of functional, sustainable relationships. Graham Tomlin in his book, ‘The Provocative Church’ writes, ‘Churches are meant to be places where people can begin to understand and feel and experience what life is like under God’s rule, what a community might look like that really lived in Jesus’ kingdom.’ The essential role of the church then is to be a signpost to God’s kingdom and a signpost to the mission of reconnection and the state of Shalom.

  • Read Colossians 3:1-17

Reflection 2 (Audio 2)

There is a way of living that enables reconnection. It is summed up in one word, love. Jesus on being asked which is the greatest commandment? responds by quoting Deuteronomy 6:4-5 ‘Hear O Israel; The Lord your God is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ and then adds, ‘love your neighbour as yourself’, quoting Leviticus 19: 18.

Love is the foundation for relationships in the kingdom of God and is therefore to be the defining characteristic of a community that is formed in God’s name. Anything different does an injustice to the reputation of God. Jesus, in his last conversation with his closest friends emphasises the point (John 14-15). Here we find the phrase ‘If you love me, keep my commands’ (John 14:15). Then at various points over the following verses we see very similar words. Verse 21 Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my father, And I too will love them and show myself to them. Verse 23 Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. Chapter 15, verse 10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. Chapter 15 verse 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. And in chapter 14 first 24 we see the negative version: ‘Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching.’  

Love is a relational term, and Jesus emphasises that love is necessary to an intimate and functional relationship with God. He says ‘On that day you will realise that I am in my father, and you are in me, And I am in you. Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my father And I too will love them and show myself to them. (John 14:20-21). Jesus later using the image of a vine says Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. Jesus here is referring to the spiritual connection of God with those who love Him, a oneness with God made possible through access to His Holy Spirit. It is a relationship though that has to be nurtured. Jesus, in saying remain in me, implies that the believer can decide whether or not that happens. That decision is based on the believer’s response to the other half of the repeated phrase – those who keep my commands. It seems that love for Jesus should naturally express itself in believers being true to the things that Jesus asks of them.  Taken in reverse, obedience to the commands of Jesus, is a sign of love for Him and spiritual connection with Him.

Having dealt with the matter of love for him, Jesus also attends to matters of love for others.  In chapter 15 verse 12 he says My command is this, love one another as I have loved you and in verse 17 This is my command; love each other. In this whole conversation then, we see Jesus reinforce the merit of the two great commandments and urge his disciples to follow them. To be urged to love in general terms though is one thing but it is difficult to do unless you know the specifics of what love looks like in practice. Jesus in the passage we’ve been looking at here speaks not only of keeping to his commands but also his teaching. Jesus teaching is centered on love and in it the specifics of practical love can be found. Alongside the teaching of Jesus himself, there is much in the New Testament letters to guide us in this respect. Of the many possible examples, Colossians 3:1-17 is one that is worth attention.

The first section reminds us that whilst we have been brought into relationship with Jesus the imperative is still on us to allow his spirit to lead us in the ways of God. Paul reminds his readers, set your hearts on things above and set your minds on things above and not on earthly things. It is like re-setting the internal drivers of heart and mind away from the ways of broken humanity to the ways the ways of God. Paul reminds us that in relationship with God, we died to the old ways and our new life is hidden in Christ. I like the word hidden. It suggests that our old ways become unseen and when people look at us they do not see the fallen, broken people that we once were but something of Jesus himself.

The passage continues to explain how this might look by going through human characteristics that must be put aside, and highlighting other characteristics that must be taken up or nurtured. We are told to put to death, sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry and to rid ourselves of anger, rage, malice, slander, abusive language and lies. All of these things contribute to the state of disconnection that Paul here refers to as the wrath of God. In contrast we are advised to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. We are to bear with each other and forgive as the Lord forgave us, and over all these put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. It is not difficult to see how this second list contributes to Shalom, but it is quite another thing to live it out. The final section of the passage speaks of our need to foster relationship with God in order to make it happen, with prominence given to thanksgiving.

Paul writes in a similar way in Galatians 5:19-22 where he contrasts the acts of the flesh against the fruits of the Spirit and the famous passage in 1 Corinthians 13 gives another list of what practical  love looks like. These lists are worth committing to memory and praying through because they remind us that love is just not a feeling but an act of will that goes against our natural, self-centered inclinations. They reveal to us, our shortcomings, our tendency to return to the ways of broken humanity and our need to seek the constant empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

The Bible consistently points us towards an age in which there will be complete reconnection of heaven and earth; a realm in which all the essential relationships will be restored. Reconnection though is not just something that happens in the future but is part of God’s mission in the here and now. God is constantly seeking to reconnect, with people and through them, with the wider creation. For us to experience that reconnection in the present we must be reconciled with God not only as individuals but as a society in which his values underpin the way in which we live and under which, our society is built. Without the stabilising influence of God’s ways of love, society is destined for poverty. The church is called to be the embodiment of God’s kingdom on earth; a sign of what reconnection looks like in reality. A sign that a broken world can look at and see is good.

Before I conclude this reflection I would like to address two specific areas of ministry that I feel the church must engage with in its calling to participate in the reconciling work of God in our day.

The first area is Lament

I don’t like to dampen optimism but I sometimes feel that the church is overly positive and perhaps in some denial. I recognise that there is a time for celebration. It is right to celebrate and give thanks for good things but we must also recognise when things are not entirely in a good place. On the surface, things today are seemingly good. There is an appearance of prosperity but we should also recognise that there is poverty, pain and suffering at many levels. In such circumstances the consistent response of God’s people, as seen in the Bible, is lament. The book of Psalms for example contains over 40 psalms of lament, some of individual lament and others communal. Lament is the place where people get real with God. Lament frequently starts with confession. It is the peoples’ expression of how things really are and in many cases a recognition of their own contribution to the problems they face. Psalm 38 says ‘My guilt has overwhelmed me like a burden too heavy to bear. My wounds fester and are loathsome because of my sinful folly.’ Lament though, is more than anything a cry from the heart of just how hard things are and a sharing with God in desperation. It is the medium for questioning God of why things should be like they are. It can even go as far as making an accusation against God. Psalm 10 asks ‘Why Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?’  Psalm 13 and Psalm 79 both ask ‘how long, O Lord?’ Psalm 74 asks O God why have you rejected us? Psalm 22 includes the question made by Jesus on the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ After placing the situation before God lament becomes the place of request, an appeal to God to act. Psalm 85 for example asks ‘will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you? And follows it with ‘show us your unfailing love, Lord, and grant us your Salvation.’ Psalm 85:6-7. Finally, having laid out our pains, anguish, questions and requests, lament becomes the vehicle for an expression of trust in God. Most of the lament Psalms end in this way. Psalm 13 for example ends with these words, ‘But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your Salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.’

 When we look at our world today it is not difficult to see disconnection. The appearance of the coronavirus has taken our sights away from wars in Syria and Yemen, global warming, plastic pollution, destruction of habitats and loss of species, and in our own country an alarming increase in mental health issues and suicide. The coronavirus outbreak itself though has caused widespread disconnection and suffering. I have a feeling then, that the church today is being called to deeper acts of prayer on behalf of the wider world and I would argue that there is no more powerful model of intercessory prayer than lament.  

The second area is prophecy

Neither prophesy or evangelism are politically correct in secular contemporary culture. Tolerance is lauded as a virtue and people have freedom to believe what they want to believe and live as they want to live provided that they don’t attempt to impose that belief on others. I’m worried that in our day the church has become afraid of prophecy in case we offend. We are though, right to be cautious. Certain elements in the church under the guise of prophecy have pronounced words that simply judge, condemn, slander and blame. Prophecy is not a vehicle to justify vilification of certain elements of society. Rather, it is God’s appeal to his people to whole-heartedly return to him to find freedom and peace. In that, there is also a warning of the consequences of going our own way. Prophecy is in fact mainly to encourage, and guide the people of God, rather than the wider world but I do feel that it is relevant that a society such as ours with strong Christian roots should hear an authentic prophetic voice from the church. We are in effect a post-Christian society and I strongly believe that God is calling us to return to our inherited faith for our own well-being.

I am not here saying that the world outside of the church is wholly bad nor indeed that the world inside the church is wholly good. There are many things that we can be thankful for. I cannot deny that in our day there are many acts of kindness, love and generosity. There are many good people in all walks of our society. There are many in whom we see the qualities of Jesus, whether they are Christians or not and there are many who intentionally set out to follow him and pray to seek his guidance but at the heart of our society is an attitude that says we don’t need God. When our world needs a fix we do not as one people, seek God to help us find a solution. We turn instead to economics, science, medicine, politics, industry, education and many other human devices. All these can play a part in the work of reconnection but only when subject to the constraints and underpinned by the principles of the ways of God. To put our complete trust in any of these other things constitutes idolatry. The ways of God will be at best secondary concerns. When our trust is in economics, honesty and integrity, whilst valued, become secondary when they appear to threaten the potential for making money. When our trust is in a political ideal, truth can easily become secondary to the preservation of that ideal. When our trust is in education, elitism can readily surface. In this coronavirus pandemic our trust has been predominantly in science and medicine and although the prayers of individuals are heard, I wonder if our society as a whole, has been denied the supernatural power to heal and the guidance to direct decision makers that God alone can give. Many good things have come from churches during this pandemic and some of those actions are in themselves prophetic but I would also like to hear the clear voice of prophecy urging people to return to God to lead us to a more connected way of life.

At the conclusion of this series of reflections I hope that by drawing attention to the prominence of the theme of reconnection in the Bible, I have given some clarity and focus to the ways in which we respond to God as individual Christians and as church. I hope also that it has enabled us to appreciate (especially as we live in a secular culture) that a sound relationship with God is critical to the well-being of both individuals and society as a whole. There is a phrase that echoes right throughout the Bible, first as a promise to Israel following the Exodus. It then appears at various points in the Old Testament including eight references in the book of Jeremiah and five in the book of Ezekiel. It appears as a promise to the church in the New Testament letters (2 Corinthians 6:16 and Hebrews 8:10). The phrase makes its final appearance in Revelation 21:3 in a description of the new heaven and the new earth that is to come. The phrase is I will be their God and they will be my people or they will be my people and I will be their God. It is a phrase that encapsulates the essence of the primary relationship of humankind. The relationship between people and God. It is the ultimate relational aim of the mission of God.  The assertion of the Bible is that it will be fulfilled. 

  • Pray and think through the ways in which each item in Paul’s list of things to put to death or get rid of (Colossians 3:5-10) contributes to breakdown in each of the four essential relationships.
  • Pray and think through the ways in which each item in Paul’s list of things to be clothed with (Colossians 3:12-14) contributes to reconnection in each of the four essential relationships.

Listen to the worship song:  Restore O Lord

 

Download a .pdf of the above midweek reflection.