I think the early church, although not a perfect church, is a good example of a church that sought to rely on the guidance of the Spirit as it read Scripture. Take the organization and structure of the church, for example. In the Book of Acts we have a small, fledgling church that was basically a group of house churches. But as it grew, and as the people “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42 NLT), it developed meaningful ecclesiastical systems, like appointing elders and deacons to lead the church, so that the church grew in faith and numbers, and was blessed. So how are we listening to the voice of the Spirit today? Just as the Spirit led the early church, so it seeks to lead us today as we continue to read and apply the Scriptures as individuals and as a community of faith. One thing’s for sure: If the Spirit’s job is to speak the words of Christ (v. 13), and if the primary source for Christ’s word is the Scriptures, then how can we expect to clearly and consistently hear the voice of the Spirit if we’re not reading Scripture? So how are you doing in this regard?
I just read an interesting interview with Ross Douthat, author of Bad Religion, in the May 2012 issue of Christianity Today that I want to reflect on for a moment. As he says in response to a question on addressing heresy in the church: “For evangelicals, it means thinking more seriously about ecclesiology and what it will take to sustain Christianity across the generations. Promise Keepers, Campus Crusade for Christ, and other parachurch groups have been important to evangelicalism. But ‘parachurch’ makes sense over the long term in the context of a church. The danger for evangelicalism is becoming too parachurch without enough church. Some megachurches seem to function like parachurches rather than churches, as though everything else that’s going on is more important than the central life of the community of worship” (39). I resonate with Douthat’s perspective in this regard. Many evangelical churches seem to be overly programatic and less confessional. One of the things that attracted me to the Reformed tradition was its confessional base. I love the evangelical church of my childhood, which focusses heavily on Scripture and contemporary worship, but it lacked a systematic theology to ground me in the faith. So the Lord has used the Reformed tradition to lay a solid theological foundation in my life. But perhaps even more influential has been the Reformed liturgy. When I encountered the Reformed worship service, with its theological and dialogical focus, I was hooked. I guess the rest is, as they say, history, for a few years later I became a Reformed pastor. Thanks be to God! So as a pastor of a local Reformed church that very much belongs to the evangelical tradition, I’m asking myself: How can I help my local church retain its evangelical flavor and fervor, but grow deeper in the Christian faith?
As a contemporary evangelical Christian, I didn’t grow up being very aware of the Church Calendar. For us, there were basically two main Christian holidays: Christmas and Easter. These are, of course, primary holidays for most followers of Christ, but did you know that there are many more Christian holidays that we are invited to celebrate? For example, today (May 17) is Ascension Day, which is the fortieth day after Easter Sunday, and which marks the day on which Jesus ascended to heaven (see Acts 1:1-12). So why is this important? Well, as it is written in The Worship Sourcebook: “Christ’s ascension means that in heaven there is one who, knowing firsthand the experience of suffering and temptation, prays for us and perfects our prayers. The ascension is a witness and guarantee of our own bodily resurrection, as well as an invitation for us to set our hearts and minds ‘on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God’ (Col. 3:1-2)” (655). In addition, as the Apostles’ Creed declares, Ascension Day reminds us that Christ is truly Lord over all, as he is now “seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.” So although Ascension Day may not seem like a big deal to the average (evangelical) Christian, it conveys some significant truths: that Christ is the sovereign King and that one day we too will experience resurrection. So how will you serve your king today? Also, how will you seek to live each day with the surprising hope of the resurrection?
In the Bible God’s people are often called sheep. We encountered this metaphor earlier in John 10, where Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd, and his followers are the sheep who listen to his voice. Now he applies the sheep and shepherd metaphors to Peter. He is the shepherd and the other followers of Christ are the sheep that must be fed and cared for. So what is involved in feeding and caring for the sheep?
The shepherd (or pastor’s) primary role is to teach God’s Word. As it is written in the “Ordination of Ministers of the Word” (Psalter Hymnal [Grand Rapids: CRC Publications, 1988], 995): “The minister of the Word is called to preach the gospel of his kingdom. This preaching has the twofold object of calling sinners to reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ and nurturing believers in the faith and life of the kingdom of God.” In order to do this well, the pastor must not only receive a rigorous theological training, but he must also regularly and consistently immerse himself in God’s Word, so that he can effectively teach it to others over the long haul. It’s through the teaching ministry of the pastor (and other spiritual leaders) that the sheep are effectively fed and cared for.
I invite you to imagine that you, not Peter, are sitting at that campfire with Jesus. And he turns to you and asks: “Do you love me?” So what is your response? Don’t worry about what others will think. Jesus is talking to you! And he asks, “Do you love me?” If you can’t truly say “yes” to that question, then I invite you to begin or resume a relationship with Jesus that will hopefully lead to your loving him. I invite you to join his school of discipleship as an apprentice for life. As you begin to follow him through the pages of the New Testament gospels, and as you seek to emulate his example as you go about your daily life, you will experience his love and will come to love him more than anything or anyone in the world.
I just read an article by Duane Liftin entitled, “You Can’t Preach the Gospel with Deeds and Why It’s Important to Say So” (May 2012 issue of Christianity Today). I found this essay so instructive and inspiring, that I want to reflect on it today. Liftin acknowledges the ongoing tension that exists between word and deed in the proclamation of the gospel. As I understand the history of the church, verbal proclamation was for centuries the preferred and primary way of evangelism. Paul seems to model this for us in the New Testament. Accordingly, Liftin directs our attention to 1 Corinthians 15:1-8, one of the classic summaries of the gospel, which was penned by Paul. Liftin points out that this good news can’t be communicated non-verbally. It’s an impossibility. Yes, this gospel has changed lives, including my own, so there’s a strong sense that we do live it out. We embody the gospel through our deeds (the way we live, serve and love, etc.). But when it comes to proclamation, Liftin argues, actions aren’t enough. Indeed, they are the foundation and/or support for the verbal proclamation. As he concludes: “The gospel of Jesus Christ is a verbal thing, and communicating it requires putting it into words. This verbal witness is scarcely the whole of our calling, but neither is it dispensable. Nothing can replace it.” I think this is an accurate view of gospel proclamation and a helpful corrective for us, who tend to believe that our actions speak louder than words (that the gospel is somehow more effectively communicated through our deeds, rather than our words). It’s understandable why we would go this way in North America, where absolute truth claims (i.e., that Jesus is the only way to the Father) are often considered unacceptable. But the truth-claims of the gospel have always offended people, and they always will. I’m thankful for Liftin, who has reminded me of the importance of the verbal proclamation of the gospel. So how can we winsomely and creatively proclaim the gospel in word, and then support or affirm our gospel proclamation through deeds?
Last week at Wolf Creek Community Church we were instructed through the Gospel of John 15 to remain in the vine (Jesus), which we do primarily by reading (meditating) on God’s Word and seeking to obey it. To continue with Jesus’ gardening metaphor, we, as the branches, must remain connected to the vine, if we are to bear spiritual fruit. In other words, we must be dependant on the Lord. Naturally, this goes against the grain of our modern western culture, which promotes independence, not dependence. Perhaps this is why later on, in John 17, Jesus prays that we will be one. What amazes me about this text is the realization that he prayed for us centuries ago! As it is written: “I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message” (v. 20). That’s you and me! I’m sure you’ll agree with me that Jesus’ prayers were effective–probably the most effective prayers ever prayed! So why, then, do we not see more unity in his church? Realizing that Jesus wants us to be a unified Body of Christ causes me to self-examine: Do I, through my words, actions and attitudes, promote unity or disunity? It also motivates me: How can I increase the unity in the church? May the Lord show us ways that we can increase our unity, so that, as Jesus says, “the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you loved me” (v. 23). I leave you with a thought: Just imagine what would happen in our community if the church of Jesus Christ was truly unified. Who wouldn’t want to join such a prayerful community of love?