Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Some Words for Wednesday - The Talking Dead: A Survival Guide (James ch.2)

In the US, the TV show with the highest ratings is "The Walking Dead", gathering 18.4 million viewers for its season 6 finale a few months ago.  The gruesome series is about a world overrun by zombies, and tells the story of a small group of survivors and their struggle to remain alive.

In James 2v12-26, we read about a different kind of threat which I call "The Talking Dead", and this blog post is James's survival guide.

Question:  Who are The Talking Dead?

Answer:  They are people with a lifeless faith

James tells us of those with dead faith (2v17, 26).  They are people who say they trust God and sound like believers, but there is no evidence in their actions to confirm the truth of their words (v15-16).  What they say is denied by what they do.

As an illustration, I worked for Shropshire Council for 15 years, and during that time I learned that there were people who could interview for jobs really well, but it would turn out that they weren't able to do the job.  They could say all the right things, but they couldn't actually do the work.  If you've worked in the same place for a long time, you've probably met people like that, too.

James says there can be people like that in the church.  They say the right things, but their faith is dead.  They are the talking dead.

Question:  How do I check that I'm not one of the talking dead?

Answer:  My faith should be partnered with holiness.

In James 2v12, he writes that we must speak and act as those judged by the "law of liberty".  That is what a living faith looks like.  But what is this law, and how does it bring freedom?

James writes of the law of liberty in chapter one.  We look into this law when we hear the word (1v22-25).  It is through the Bible that God reveals this law to us and tells us what a living faith and true freedom look like.  If faith without works is dead, faith with works is freedom.

Active submission to the law of liberty is what we call "holiness".  Holiness is to be a part of our private lives and our relationships - in his letter, James gives emphasis to relationships and acts of loving kindness.  Holiness is a vital sign of a living faith.

Some might say we shouldn't be so demanding - that some people have an active faith, and others "just believe" (2v18).  But James says that is not enough - even demons just believe (2v19)!  

He gives two examples of people who had an active faith - Abraham and Rahab (v21-25).  In different ways, they both put their futures at risk by faith (Hebrews 11v17, 31).  They were justified because they believed God's promises and behaved accordingly.  Their faith was made whole by their actions (v22).

Remember, Christians are in a loving relationship with God, their Father in heaven, and loving relationships always have boundaries.  Often, the closer the relationship, the stricter the boundaries.  However, we recognise that those boundaries provide a framework within which relationships flourish.

Holiness is the framework within which my relationship with God flourishes, and it is the evidence of a living faith.

Question:  Why are the talking dead so dangerous?

Answer: They stop the living from thriving.  

If you ever watch a zombie movie, you'll always find the small band of survivors are struggling to get by.  It's almost impossible to thrive when you're surrounded by the undead.

In a similar way, the talking dead are a danger to the church community.  They will stifle love and discourage meaningful fellowship.  By their very nature, they want things to be superficial, and will influence the church so that they do not need to put their lives on the altar (Rom 12v1).

One type of defense many churches use against the talking dead is to have a process by which people become members of the church, usually overseen by the church elders.  Although not foolproof, it's a way of checking that those involved in church decision-making have an ongoing testimony of a living faith.

Question:  Are the talking dead dangerous in other ways?

Answer:  They discourage people who are looking for life.

Unbelievers can be very good at spotting the talking dead.  I'm sure we all have met people who have been discouraged from seeking the Lord because they went to a church and met hypocrites.  

Question:  Who else is in danger from the talking dead?

Answer:  The talking dead are a danger to themselves.

Unless something fundamental changes, the only future for the undead is decomposition.  Their time is always running out.

So what should we do?  We should behave mercifully because we have received mercy (2v13).  Our aim should be to put the talking dead out of their misery by helping them find new life in Jesus Christ.

Notice that James finishes his letter by telling the church how wonderful it is to bring back those who are wandering (5v19-20).  He wants people to find God's mercy.  What does that "bringing back" look like?  Sometimes it looks like rebuke (4v4) and sometimes it looks like encouragement (5v7).  James' tone is very different in these two verses, but his aim is the same - to make sure these people are in the land of the living.

We must pray for wisdom, so that we will know the most appropriate way to reveal to the talking dead their need of a living faith.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Just Another Melodic Monday - Speak, O Lord

The song "Speak, O Lord" (by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend) seems appropriate for sharing while we continue our series in James and are challenged to have a faith that is visible. 

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Some Words For Wednesday - Warm Welcomes and Cold Shoulders (James ch.2)

(Here are some notes from the message shared last Sunday when we gathered as a church.)

We've recently started a new series in the letter of James.  James is writing to "the Dispersion" (1v1) - a group of believers who had been scattered from their homes because of persecution.  They had left everything, and now were poor and vulnerable to exploitation.  

In chapter one, James writes about wisdom and having a faith that is visible.  James now begins chapter 2 by stating that there should be no favouritism within a church community.

What situation is James dealing with?  The wealthy were being given preferential treatment regarding seating (2v1-3).  The message being given was: "If you look pretty neat, you get a good seat.  If you look pretty poor, you sit on the floor!"

James initially deals with this favouritism by giving the church a God's eye view of things.  He has already done this in chapter 1 verses 9-10.  Now he reminds the church that God has chosen the poor to be heirs of the kingdom (2v5).  By discriminating against these poor Christians, they were making judgments contrary to God's judgments - hence James describes them as "judges with evil thoughts".  Their thoughts were evil because they were contrary to God's thoughts.

Within a church community, Christians are to treat each other as members of a spiritual family.  It isn't appropriate to give some a warm welcome, and others a cold shoulder.  In the church James is writing to, favouritism was related to social status, but there can be many other causes.  

Sometimes we overlook people because they're needy, just like the disciples who wanted to send away the hungry crowds (Matthew 14v15).  Sometimes we tut at those who are noisy, just like the disciples who wanted to stop mothers bringing their little children to Jesus (Mark 10v13).

Sometimes we treat believers differently based on their theological slants.  Perhaps they like songs we don't like, or they wear something on Sunday we don't like, or they raise their hands during corporate worship, or they never raise their hands during corporate worship.  For whatever reason, we think that we have an appropriate excuse to stop treating them as a brother or sister in Christ.

Sometimes we give some believers preferential treatment over others because they've been in the church for longer, or because they belong to a certain family.  I remember hearing a minister, in a public meeting, referring to "the core membership" of the church.  There was the membership, and then within that was a "core membership": what some might call the "inner circle".

There are many reasons why we might start to think it is acceptable to show favouritism.  But James says it is never appropriate within a church family.

Of course, not showing favouritism does not mean treating everyone in the same way all the time.  First, we are to show discernment in regard to people's gifts.  The church is a body made of different parts - there are Holy Spirit-intended ways we are meant to be different.  The apostle Paul writes that if we say that all Christians are basically the same, there is a sense in which the church ceases to exist! (1 Cor.12v17)

James himself writes that "not many of you should be teachers" (3v1).  In other words, only a few are meant to have that level of spiritual responsibility within the church.  It is appropriate for us to discern where people's gifts do or do not lie.

Secondly, it is appropriate to discern different needs in the church, and treat people differently in that respect.  For example, James tells us that true religion is not to visit everyone, but to visit "widows and orphans in their distress" (1v27).  In Acts 4v34-35, those who are wealthy give more than others, and what they give is not distributed evenly among the church, but to those who had greatest need.

So, we are not to show favouritism, but we are to be discerning in the area of gifts and needs.  In the church that James is writing to, it is clear that everyone equally needed a seat, and should therefore have been treated equally.

But why does favouritism matter so much?  Aren't there more important issues to worry about than seating?

James doesn't think so.  He writes that it breaks a law that is as important as royalty - "love your neighbour as yourself" (2v8-10).  Jesus clearly teaches that we are to treat all people as our neighbours, both the people we live next to and the people we would never live next to!  Favouritism breaks this law, and that is significant.  Sin has a rippling effect, and breaking one law is like breaking them all (2v10).

The big problem with favouritism is that it undermines the gospel message.  It implies that salvation isn't for all kinds of people.  The gospel teaches us that we must come to God as we are.  Favouritism teaches that we have to reach a certain standard before we can enter the inner circle or join the "core membership".

The challenge for the church is clear.  It's true that the church is a community where people make friends.  However, more importantly that that, the church is a community where God grows a family.  

We have to lay aside our personal preferences.  You are not to love and serve your brother or sister because they are from the right background or because they have the same theological leanings or because your personality clicks with their's.  You are to love and serve them because Christ first loved and served them by giving his life for them.  He did that "while we were still sinners" (Rom.5v8) - we did not win his approval.  Instead, we were won by his grace.

Jesus gives the same welcome to all who trust in him - none are ever turned away (John 6v37).  How can we judge differently to our Lord?

Monday, 16 May 2016

Just Another Melodic Monday - Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)

I thought I would have a look at the CCLI top 100 today.  This can be a useful way of discovering/remembering new or updated songs for the church you're a part of.  

Here's an example of a classic hymn that has been given a modern bridge: "Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)".  It's performed by Dave's Highway, and I could listen to those harmonies all day!

Friday, 13 May 2016

Friday to the Father - 13th May 2016

Jesus said: "This then is how you should pray: 'Our Father in heaven...' " (Matthew 6v9)

We were very encouraged last Sunday as we gathered for our morning service, and later on when we met at our house for lunch and afternoon fellowship.

Thank God for help from members of Newtown Evangelical Church (NEC).  Several people have offered to help us on a monthly basis, so I'm currently sorting out a timetable for that.

Please pray for NEC.  They're hosting an evening with Stuart Burgess on Tuesday 31st May, when he'll be giving the talk: "Inspiration from Creation: How Engineers are Copying God's Designs".  Pray that God will bless this evangelistic opportunity. 

We were encouraged by a couple called Roger and Rachel who came to the Sunday morning service.  They were visiting because they are planning to move into the area, and are taking a look at some of the local churches.  Please pray that the Lord will guide them and keep them in His will.

Please continue to pray that God will provide all we need as a church.  In particular, pray that our application to hire a room at the school next door to our meeting place will be successful.  This will allow us more space for the children's work on Sundays.

Thank you for your continued prayers.  Praise God from whom all blessings flow!

Monday, 9 May 2016

Just Another Melodic Monday - I Will Say of The Lord

The song "I will say of the Lord" by Lou Fellingham reminds us to seek our strength from the Lord, and trust in His limitless resources.

Friday, 6 May 2016

Friday to the Father - 6th May 2016

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. (Philippians 4v6)

Praise God for an encouraging weekend!  It was Ruth's 40th birthday recently, so we celebrated by having an open house over the Bank Holiday weekend.  We had over 80 visitors!  As I watched the children playing football in the garden (while I kept an eye on the barbeque!), my heart was provoked to give thanks.  It probably wasn't the first time we'd had an open house since my struggles last year, but it certainly felt like it.  Please pray for us, as Ruth and I are thinking about opening our home on Sunday afternoons during the Spring and Summer.

We were encouraged on Sunday morning by seeing Michelle, and then meeting her husband, Shaun, at the open house on Monday.  Please pray that God would bless and provide for Michelle, her husband and their children, and that Michelle would be able to come more regularly on Sundays.

We were also encouraged to see Ruth with her kids, Sian and Callum.  Please pray that God would bless and provide for Ruth, her husband Richard, and their children.  Sian is currently unwell, but there was an encouragement while she was with us on Sunday morning.  Please pray that God would restore her to good health.

Thank you for your continued prayers.  Praise God from whom all blessings flow!

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Some Words for Wednesday - A bother or a brother? Philemon pt.2

(Some notes from the message shared recently when we gathered as a church.)

Last week, we considered the first few verses of the letter to Philemon.  Using the example of the apostle Paul, we found a simple recipe for prayer:

1. Take some thanksgiving.
2. Add some petitions.
3. Mix them together in a caring Christian community.

This week we'll focus more on the purpose of Paul's letter.  He is writing to Philemon, who lives with his family in Colosse: Philemon's son, Archippus, and slave, Onesimus, are both mentioned in Paul's letter to the Colossians.  Onesimus had run away from Colosse to Rome, but was now returning.  How should Philemon react?

The first question we might ask is: Why doesn't Paul tell Philemon not to have slaves?  When we think of slavery, we probably link it to racism, kidnapping and human trafficking.  We know that none of these are acceptable, so why doesn't Paul condemn slavery in his letter to Philemon?

Well, slavery in Paul's day was very different to what we understand as slavery today.  Tim Keller, in his book "The Reason For God", writes:

"In the first-century Roman Empire, when the New Testament was written, there was not a great difference between slaves and the average free person.  Slaves were not distinguishable from others by race, speech or clothing.  They looked and lived like most everyone else, and were not segregated from the rest of society in any way.  

"From a financial standpoint, slaves made the same wages as free labourers, and therefore were not usually poor.  Also, slaves could accrue enough personal capital to buy themselves out.  Most important of all, very few slaves were slaves for life.  Most could reasonably hope to be manumitted within ten or fifteen years, or by their late thirties at the latest." (pg.110)

So, Paul doesn't condemn the kind of slavery he witnessed at that time - although elsewhere, he does advise that if someone can buy their freedom, they should do so (1 Cor.7v21).  Instead, he believes slaves and masters would be active members of the same churches, and both would be transformed by the gospel.

So what does Paul teach Philemon regarding how he should react to the return of Onesimus?

1) Paul sees sons instead of slaves.  This is clearly true of Onesimus (v10).  The slave had run away to Rome, and been converted under Paul's ministry.  Now the apostle felt fatherly concern for Onesimus.  We don't read of Paul having a family, but that doesn't stop him having a parental role within a church.

This is also how Paul views Philemon.  It's implied that Philemon was converted under Paul's ministry - he owes Paul his life (v19)!  Even though Paul has apostolic authority, he doesn't command Philemon - instead he appeals to him (v8-9).  As a spiritual father, he does not exercise the authority the role implies, but expresses the compassion the role demands.

The family dynamic of a church is not only expressed in this letter, but throughout the letters of the New Testament.  A good example is given in 1 Timothy: Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father.  Treat younger men like brothers, older women like mothers, younger women like sisters, in all purity." (5v1-2)

A person's position before God is more significant than their position at work.  Within our own churches, we must be careful we do not divide into cliques based on income or occupation.  No one is to think too highly of themselves, but we are to "associate with the lowly" (Rom. 12v16).

2)  Paul sees a brother instead of a bother.  Onesimus had become a believer since running away - but what does that change?  We might think it only changes the way a person lives, but it's far more than that.

a) There is a change of identity (v16).  Onesimus has entered the family of God, and is now a child of God.  He is able to see himself differently, and the church should also see him differently.

b) There is a change of expection.  Paul says Onesimus was useless, but is now useful (v11-13).  Paul has a different expectation of Onesimus now he is saved - he will be useful to the church.

The gospel makes useless people useful!  Have you learned that in your church?  Or, if the world has written someone off, do you just follow suit?  It's possible for a church to create a culture where believers with "complicated" lives are seen only as recipients of ministry.  The church has no expectation of grace, so the individual shows little evidence of it.  Ultimately, the church ends up seeing a believer as a bother instead of a brother.

But if someone has accepted Christ as their Saviour and Lord, it is wrong for us to see them as only recipients of ministry.  If they are in Christ, they have gifts to use for the benefit of the church: "To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good." (1 Cor. 12v7)  

There should be lots of opportunities for involvement in the life of a church community.  We are not to demand involvement as though someone's salvation depended on it, but we are to anticipate their involvement as though their salvation produces it.  We are then to enjoy their involvement - to be "glad" of their service (v13) - while they discover the joy of truly belonging to a spiritual family.  

3)  Paul expects Philemon to be inspired instead of insulted.  The gospel regularly challenges us, and it may be tempting to reject it because we feel insulted.  The problem for many people is that, although God accepts us just as we are, He won't leave us just as we are.  The gospel's aim is to make us more like Jesus - and for that to happen, we have to be willing to put everything that contributes to our identity on the altar.

Paul doesn't demand the obedience of Philemon, but he does anticipate it, because he anticipates the transforming power of the gospel.  This power will transform Philemon beyond what could be demanded, just as it was transforming Onesimus.

So our aim as members of a church community is to inspire and encourage one another, and to anticipate and enjoy the evidence of our faith.  We are challenged to not have favourites, but to treat all believers as active members of a spiritual family.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Just Another Melodic Monday - Nothing But The Blood

When you're part of a small church plant team, it's important to do things as simply as possible.  That may be why I'm so drawn at the moment to simple, acoustic performances of Christian hymns and songs.

Here's an example, providing a simple answer to a profound question: "What can wash away my sin?"