Claiming Christ’s victory

April 27, 2017
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The sword of the Spirit (Eph 6:18)

What do you think of when you hear the words “spiritual warfare?”

I guess some of us are quite uncomfortable with the term. We don’t like to entertain the idea that there may be unseen forces ranged against us, and we don’t want to have a faith which contains any idea of a spiritual battle. Yet it doesn’t take too much imagination to see that there really are dark forces in the word; we can just look at the news headlines, for example, or even what sadly sometimes goes on in our own city. The apostle Paul reminds us our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Eph 6:12).

Yet, as in most areas of our Christian faith, we need to have a right balance. There are some believers who see dark forces behind every misfortune, every suffering, every wrong decision.  The danger here is that in seeing spiritual warfare in each and every turn we focus too much on the opposition rather on the person and presence of the Lord Jesus Christ.

So when it is right to identify spiritual warfare at work? My answer would be when we see a series of events that appear to hinder the purposes of God and the growth of His kingdom.

A specific example: we had tremendous Easter celebrations this year and the church was packed on Easter Sunday. The following week a whole load of people found at the last minute that circumstances prevented them from getting to church. This week two of our small groups have had to cancel due to unforeseen events. Surely the timing is not coincidental. The tactics of the evil one are always the same: to try and disrupt, discourage and disturb.

That’s why I found this verse, from Colossians 2:15, so helpful when we gathered for Evening Prayer yesterday. Talking of the finished work of Jesus Christ, Paul writes:

And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

Isn’t interesting that Paul talks about spiritual forces as powers and authorities? The forces of evil would like us to believe they have power (or the right to rule) and authority. They would like to us to believe they are in control. But on the cross Jesus defeated them once and for all. His very public death was a very public defeat of their ultimate power.

So at Evening Prayer we claimed this verse and simply prayed that the victory which Jesus won at the cross would become real for us. Can I ask you join in this prayer?

  • That nothing would prevent people from joining us for worship each Sunday and hearing the good news of Jesus Christ.
  • That as we prepare for Thy Kingdom Come we would be united in prayer and so disarm whatever powers and authorities pretend to hold sway in our area.
  • That as we make plans for the growth and mission of the church we would be guided only by the Holy Spirit to make His Kingdom come.

Because engaging in spiritual warfare is not an optional extra when it comes to the Christian faith. Let’s then focus on Christ’s victory so that we can see His kingdom come and His will done in Devonport and Stoke as in heaven.

 


Let us go outside the camp

April 9, 2017

No doubt by now you will have seen the photos of our Palm Sunday procession, and it always fascinates me to see how people react to a bunch of Christians walking up a street praying and singing. Some put up their hoods and walk past as quickly as possible; some put out their cigarettes and disappear back inside the pub; a few join in; while I am sure that at a distance not a few mutter unfavourable comments about these strange religious types.

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And I guess for some of us the idea of taking part in a procession seems perhaps rather odd or embarrassing. After all, if you are a shy British introvert like me, the last thing you want to do is to make a public spectacle of yourself. Witnessing in the open air takes you way outside your comfort zone, and you may well be wondering why on earth you are taking part.

But that is precisely the point of the Palm Sunday procession. As we enter Holy Week, we are remembering our Lord who exposed Himself not only to the praise of the crowds, but also the ridicule of the teachers, who just a few days later was openly humiliated by jeering crowds as He carried His cross to Calvary. Our procession is a sign that we are willing to identify with this Jesus and follow in His footsteps, a recognition that we are not called to a comfortable faith, but a willing, obedient faith, whatever the cost.

The writer to the Hebrews had it spot on when he wrote:

And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. (Heb 13:12-14)

After all, if we as a church were a merely human institution striving to raise our profile, then we would be doing something far more user-friendly to attract more members. But our goal is to build the kingdom of God, as we look forward to the city that is yet to come. That is why we take up our cross; that why we process, and why we keep on witnessing, no matter what others may think of us.

So next year will you join our Palm Sunday procession?

And in this Holy Week what will you do to identify with Jesus, who for our sake was humiliated, stripped and nailed to a cross?


How is Lent going for you?

April 8, 2017

As we begin Holy Week tomorrow, now seems a good time to sit down and review how Lent has been going.

For some, Lent seems to be 40 days of doing without, whether it be chocolate or Facebook, or anything else, and by this stage Easter can’t come soon enough! Indeed we may have a few relapses already, and it is only with grim determination that we are going to stay the course.

For others, Lent has been about starting some new spiritual discipline, but by now it’s become clear that taking up a new discipline has been more complicated than we thought. The general busyness of each time, or fatigue or illness, have taken their toll. We may well be wondering by now whether we really want to carry on with it.

I shared at the beginning of Lent that I had two goals for the season. One was to actually start the day by doing something productive, rather than wasting time on the Internet. The other was to try and find some space in each day. I have found the first goal relatively straightforward, and I can see how I really have benefited by concentrating on the task on hand. The second goal, however, has been more difficult to achieve and like many people I guess I can blame circumstances for that.

But I will persevere, because I believe Lent is meant to be far more than a time of denial where we count down the days before we go back to what we really enjoy doing.

After all, the basic standard that the Lord demands of our life is holiness. The people of Israel were told: Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy (Lev 19:2 and elsewhere) and this demand is repeated in the New Testament (1 Pet 1:15-16). Indeed we are told in Hebrews 12:14 that without holiness no-one will see the Lord. Why? Because it is the quality of our lives which will prove whether we really are the children of our heavenly Father.

Now holiness doesn’t come overnight. It takes time and effort and indeed is a lifetime’s work. Lent as a season of self-discipline is part of this process of becoming more like the Lord, and it needs to be seen in this broader perspective. So the purpose of each Lent is to produce fruit that will last, rather than serve as an interruption to our normal way of life.

All this can make the Christian life sound like hard work, and indeed sometimes it is. But as we strive to become more like the Lord, we need always to remember He gives us His Holy Spirit. The Lord doesn’t give us a standard to keep and expect us to reach it in our own strength. Rather, as we understand the challenge of becoming more the people He calls us to be, so we are meant to recognise and realise our utter dependence on the work of His Holy Spirit in our lives.

So before we begin Holy Week, it seems to me good that we use what remains of Lent remembering just why we are in need of God’s grace. So that when Easter comes, our greatest desire will not be go onto Facebook or raid the chocolate box (even though we may feel both are necessary) but to offer our lives in thankfulness for all that Jesus has done for us, who underwent the discipline of the cross so that we could become children of our loving Heavenly Father.


How to poison the body of Christ

March 23, 2017

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Often I am asked by outsiders, “Why can’t I see Jesus?” There are many ways you can answer that question. But the model answer ought to be that we can see Jesus in the local church. As I have said many times, the church is the body of Christ. Its calling is to be the visible presence of Jesus of the wider world.

For the church to fufil that calling, however, there needs to be open, trusting and loving relationships. Our love for each other shows that Jesus really is Lord in our lives. And it involves more than simply being nice with each other. It involves being honest with each other, recognising our differences and yet being committed to respecting the other person as someone for whom Christ died.

This is why gossip is so poisonous. Gossip often comes from the most unlikely of sources, from people who would be considered mature Christians and yet betray their maturity by the way they speak about other people. Such people, in my experience, would be horrified if they thought they were called gossips. They would justify their sharing of information as providing fuel for prayers, expressing concerns in confidence, wanting just to let you know “in case”.

But I want to name gossip for what it is – a dark and ugly sin that poisons the whole body of Christ. Any form of gossip goes against the Lord’s command to love your neighbour as yourself. It involves saying something about someone else you would not say to their face, and passing your judgement to a third party. Often that person sharing the information does not themselves question their source. So gossip feeds half-truths, and deception which spreads and spreads and spreads. It produces cliques of those in the know and those who feel excluded, vaguely aware without being able to get to the bottom of it all, that someone somewhere is talking about them. That is why a gossiping church cannot be a gospel church.

The Bible has plenty to say about gossip, particularly in the book of Proverbs.

A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy man keeps a secret. (Prov 11:13). In other words, anything shared in confidence stays in confidence. If you feel to have to share something said, ask the other person’s permission first.

A perverse man stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates close friends. (Prov 16:28). This needs no comment – words thoughtlessly about spoken about another person destroy relationships again and again.

The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to a man’s inmost parts. (Prov 18:8). Like most sin, gossip is something all of us enjoy from time to time. But just because you enjoy something, it doesn’t mean it’s right. And gossip is as much as what we post on social media as anything we share we face to face.

A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid a man who talks too much. (Prov 20:19). One of the fruits of the Spirit is self-control. Someone who is desperate to share with you the latest titbit of news needs to avoided or challenged. It is rare for that person to have a genuine concern for whoever they are gossiping about.

Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down. (Prov 26:20). Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Yet time after time we see churches rent asunder by warring factions, and so often gossip is at the heart of the issue. We need to learn to listen, to really listen to one another. We need to learn to repent and recognise when our words have offended others. We need to invest our time in building other people up, rather than looking for opportunities to take them down.

Recently I have several times been told information about someone from a third hand source who themselves were not directly involved in the issue in question. I respect people who share genuine concerns with me, and I am always willing to hear these concerns in confidence. But if those concerns come to me only by a very indirect route, I immediately become concerned as to who else knows and who else doesn’t know what is going on. In any situation and in any organisation the shortest line of communication is best, and the longer the chain, the more likely it is that gossip has broken out. I would far rather hear news face-to-face than third or fourth hand.

So for the sake of the mission of the church, for the sake of those who are dying to see Jesus, let’s make every effort to avoid gossip. Some of the fruits of the sinful nature are dissension, factions and envy (Gal 5:20-21), and we must be clear – gossip plants their seeds. Let’s rather keep in step with the Spirit and make sure our words to one another reflect the good news we all long to make known.


My accidental Lent

March 5, 2017
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Taking things slowly…

Like quite a few people, I didn’t get round to thinking about Lent until it had already started this year. I could claim I had only just got back from Australia and I was mentally unprepared, but I certainly couldn’t pretend I didn’t know it was coming!

So gradually over the past few days I have decided to mark the season by making two small and not particularly profound changes in my daily routine.

The first is to make sure each day that I actually make myself stop and take a proper break. There is always more I could be doing, but I would be more productive if I actually let myself have some time out. So on Thursday I combined a meeting in Exeter with a walk along the River Exe in bright sunshine. On Friday I had a nap. Yesterday I finally cleared the debris of an old chicken house from the garden.

The second and related change is to use my time in front of the computer more wisely. I work best in the mornings. But the danger of being permanently connected to the Internet is that I can spend, say, half an hour before I achieve anything browsing or catching up on Facebook. I need the discipline of going into the study and focusing on the task in hand.

If there is a theological reflection to be made on these changes, it is this. We claim we will live by grace, yet I suspect that as believers we all too often define ourselves by our busyness. We live in a world which expects us to be busy, and to do more and more. Living by grace, however, means accepting I am not defined how much I do or how much I achieve. God does not love me more if I am busy, and indeed I suspect He would rather I slowed down so I allow myself the space to communicate with Him.

Yet grace does not mean that I can simply fritter away the time as I see fit. I am a steward of the time and gifts I have been given, and when I am busy, I need the discipline to make the main thing the main thing. Cute animal stories and tales of sporting success can wait, they really can. (Although I wonder how England are getting on against the West Indies at the moment … no, my first priority really is to finish this post.)

And as I said last Wednesday, the point of Lent is not to have a season of discipline only to cast it aside when we reach Easter. It’s to take up new habits which will hopefully enable us to spread the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection more effectively. I can’t say my new disciplines will be easy, because they never are. I am already finding I need the strength and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and that can only be a good thing.


How big is your church?

January 26, 2017

How would you answer that question?

Over the past few days I have networked with a wide variety of people. Once I have introduced myself and explained where St Michael’s is, I can almost guarantee that at some point in the conversation this question will come up. It’s a useful conversation starter, and it helps people to understand what our church is like. But nonetheless I find it a difficult question to answer, for a variety of reasons.

First of all, St Michael’s and St Barnabas is not my church, it is God’s. That sounds very pious, but there is a hard-edged reality to this point. In my experience most tensions and disputes in churches break out because someone comes to see the local church as their church. So when the church changes for any reason, even if that change is of the Lord, that is when people tend to feel insecure and threatened, and relationships come under strain. After all, we all find change hard, and that is why it is so important to constantly make sure the church is going in the direction Lord intends, following only His agenda and His priorities.

Beyond that, it’s also interesting I am always asked how big my church is, not how small. Now the question may be perfectly innocent, but I recognise in myself the tendency to measure the church by the world’s standards. Size is seen as good, a big church is often valued more than a small church. And in case you think I am exaggerating, when was the last time you went to a conference where the speaker was introduced as the minister of a small, struggling congregation!?

And even if I could give a finite answer to the question, the church, because it is constantly changing, is always fluctuating in numbers. So often when I give a definite answer, I find only about half the people turn up the next week! I think God has a sense of humour and likes to keep me humble. It can be all too easy to boast of numbers and statistics, but God’s interest is people in all their infinite complexity, whose lives are so often so difficult to measure.

Nonetheless… each year I  meet with the churchwardens because we are required to fill in the annual Statistics for Mission where we try and quantify what is happening at St Michael’s and St Barnabas. So here is the information we have recorded, to attempt to give some kind of answer to the question.

There are 75 people on the electoral rolls of both parishes.

Over the past ten months, since the merger, we have had an average (median) attendance of 51 adults and 6 children.

We have about 60 regular worshippers who come at least once a month, and plenty more who attend more infrequently. Of these, we have 2 children, 30 aged 18-69 and 28 aged 70 and over (Apologies for those placed in the wrong category!)

How has the merger impacted on the congregation? Our average attendance has gone back up to the levels of 2013. The difference is that since then the number of people who are able to actively participate in various activities have grown.

How does this compare with other churches? According to the Church of England Statistics for Mission for 2015 published in October 2016:

The median church had 37 people attending worship in an average week in October, the majority being adults, with 29 on a usual Sunday. It had 56 people at Easter, 90 at Christmas, and a worshipping community of 45. It carried out 4 baptisms, 2 marriages, and 5 funerals in 2015.

We are slightly above the median in most areas, except for Christmas attendance and weddings. But there is no room for complacency – 60 regular worshippers is well short of even 1% of the parish population. So what of the future? Our aim must surely be to increase the number of children who regularly worship with us and raise up a new generation of believers. And we must do so constantly remembering it is the Lord’s church not ours, and trusting Him alone.

So to finish, a verse from Philippians 1:6 which is fast becoming my verse for this year:

…being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.


Small group update

January 21, 2017

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Here is a quick update on our small groups:

Our Monday evening group called Grow the Word for the young at heart and young in faith may be small but they are having a great time! We are looking at the stories from 1 Samuel and seeing how these stories connect with real life today. Looking at issues such as prayer, friendship and jealousy, we are learning so much about our faith and how it impacts on our everyday life.

Our Wednesday evening group called Live the Word group takes the theme of the Sunday sermon and asks the question, “OK, we’ve heard the words – now what?” Taking seriously Jesus’ call to make Him Lord over every part of our life this group is seeking direct, practical application of Scriptural truths to the issues that confront us daily.

Our Thursday afternoon group known as a GIFT Group (Growing in Faith Together) is at the moment tackling that most important of subjects – prayer. The disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray” and this group is seeking to learn the lessons Jesus taught them.

Our Thursday evening group called Know the Word recently finished Luke’s gospel after two years! We learnt so much along the way, we have decided to plunge into the sequel, otherwise known as the Acts of the Apostles. We have grown so much by studying the word of God and we have seen so many answers to prayer. It is thrilling to see confirmation of the Scriptural truth that the word of God is alive and active.

Once a month (except this February) the groups get together for the Big Picture. The aim is to look not so much at a small chunk of Scripture but get an overview of the whole story of the Bible and see our part in it. We’ve looked so far at creation, at human sexuality and at sin. Plus we’re trying to learn the books of the Bible in order – who knew clothes pegs could be so useful?

Whether you are used to a small group or not, there must be something here for you. To find out more, just ask, and don’t be afraid to show up! Our small groups are there for you, to help you discover more about the life Jesus offers you, and to provide the support we all need week by week.

And if you don’t feel you are ready for a small group yet we also offer Christianity Explored for those who just beginning to look at the Christian faith.

Why not join us?