Monday, 13 October 2014

How to have a (near) perfect Church

The following sermon is from last Sunday 10.30 service where I spoke on Philippians 4:1-9. The theme follows on from a previous blog and so I thought it worth including for that reason

There is no such thing as a perfect church. If you ever think you have found one please don’t join it because from that moment on it will cease to be one!

The church in Philippi however is the closest you can get to one. It gave Paul greatest happiness and his letter reflects that. There are more references to joy/rejoicing here than any other book in the Bible. But even here—especially in Chapter four in first few verses—Paul feels the need to address certain issues and offer advice:

First he advises them (v1) is to “stand firm in the Lord.”

Paul's first cause of concern is wrong doctrine or belief. In the last chapter this took the form of individuals who were advocating that as well as faith in Jesus converts needed to be circumcised. Paul was furious describing them as "dogs", "evil" and "mutilators of the flesh" (Phil 3:2). Later he identifies another group (or maybe the same ones) as "enemies of the cross" who worship their appetites (Phil 3:18-19).

The point he is making that WHAT we believe is as important as THAT we believe. I remember one radio presenter - can't remember her name - once saying that it doesn't matter what you believe as long as you are sincere! I am sure Hitler was sincere and I am sure suicide bombers are sincere but it doesn't make what they believe in as right. The Nicene Creed which we repeat most Sundays came about as a result of the Church wanting to ensure that people knew the truth about God so that when it came under attack from various heresies it would discern they were wrong. In other words the Creed was a way of measuring sound doctrine. That is what makes it as relevant today as 1700 years ago.

Jesus once said that "the truth shall set you free" (John 10:10). If that is the case then error or untruth will have the opposite effect and enslave us and lead you away from Him who is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:7).

So Paul urges the Philippians to "stand firm in the Lord" (Phil 4:1) and uses the same word for a soldier standing fast in battle, or gladiator in amphitheatre fighting for his life. Don't budge from your position as a follower of Jesus and his teachings and set aside everything that contradicts who he is and what he teaches. Get to know his teachings so you can stand firm in them (and Him).

Second he advises 2 people to "agree with each other in the Lord. (verse 2)" 
It appears two women are not getting along—we are even given their names Euodia and Syntyche—so Paul pleads with them to set aside their differences and be united.

We don't know what they were disagreeing about - was it personal, about Christian belief or wrong behaviour. Whatever it was Paul's main concern is that it does not spoil the unity of the Church family because that then undermines the work we are called to do. So he pleads with them to come together and work together for God. The word he uses - parakaleo - is the same word that is used of the work of the Holy Spirit who pleads on out behalf with the father. So it's a strong word showing great longing.

He pleads for unity. “agree with one another” This idea of working together/being united is a big theme in the NT and a big concern of Jesus’. E.g. in John 17 he prays a long prayer, called the High Priestly Prayer and in it unity is a predominant theme. Listen to verse 11:

“...protect them (the disciples) by the power of your name—the name you gave me—so that they may be one as we are one.” (John 17:11)

It's interesting that Jesus prays for the disciples protection. In other words he knows that they face attacks from an enemy. That seems to be the case here as these two women have, until now, "contended at Paul's (my) side in the cause of the Gospel" (verse 3). In other words in the past they have worked with him to spread the good news about Jesus but now this quarrel is threatening to undermine all of that. 'Someone' has got to them, they have fallen out and the work of God is suffering.

I read recently that there are now 33,000 separate Christian denominations in the world. How is that helping the Christian cause? I was speaking to someone recently who told me that a number of people have left a local thriving church. Where have they gone? A new Church has started somewhere the other side of town and so they have joined that. A friend of mine has a church in a challenging part of the city and is struggling to get things going and reach out to the community. Recently he heard of a minister from another side of town wants to start a new separate church in the same area right under the nose of my friend. They both have a heart to evangelise but where is the unity? Why have two church buildings and two sets of heating and lighting bills? Can't they join forces?

So unity is important but we do need to add one note of caution. Both "standing firm" and "being in agreement" with one another needs to be "in the Lord" i.e. according to his teaching. Darkness cannot fellowship with light. If someone believes something that clearly contradicts the Christian message we cannot have unity "in the Lord." Its not unity at all costs if the cost is truth.

Third he advises about anxiety (verse 6)
Paul doesn't say where the anxiety he talks about in verse 6 is coming from - probably all the things mentioned - but he is concerned that that anxiety does not take root in the church. Why? Because anxiety and worry is the very opposite of faith. It's a question of focus. If you are anxious about something your focus will be on that and as long as it's on that it's not on God. IT will become god not God. So anxiety or worry is a kind of anti-faith that stops you looking to God and can undermine your trust in him. So Paul says: "Do not be anxious about anything...."

Jesus says the same thing to his disciples "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in me." (John 14:1-7). The word trouble refers to the boiling sea of a storm. If our hearts are troubled or anxious we will spend all our time just trying to stay afloat. We won’t get anywhere and we will drift away from God who is the source of our peace. So we are to look to God and trust him, sharing our concerns with Him and leaving them there for Him to deal with.

It was said of D.L.Moody that he came home so tired and worried that he determined he could not handle the both so he let God stay up and deal with his worries while he dealt with his tiredness and slept! Exactly Paul's advice.

Paul’s last piece of advice is an antidote to pessimism and negative thinking (verse 8).

"Finally, brothers, whatever is true...."

There’s a lot of negativity floating around at the moment. Whenever the news is on my son leaves the room because it's all doom and gloom. He is right. Not that we should avoid the news but we should not let it dominate our thinking. The world is bad but there is goodness everywhere.

It is something clerics are particularly prone to. On my blog someone left this comment a while back:

“Reading your earlier posts regarding prayer, your calling, your tendency to pessimism etc...I wonder whether the missing ingredient might be… God?”

Brother Lawrence was a 16th century Saint known for his ability to practice the presence of God every moment of the day. In a meeting with him one biographer wrote this:

Brother Lawrence wasn't surprised by the amount of sin and unhappiness in the world. Rather, he wondered why there wasn't more, considering the extremes to which the enemy is capable of going. He said he prayed about it (as Paul advocates) but because he knew God could rectify the situation in a moment if He willed it, he didn't allow himself to be come greatly concerned.”
"The Practice of the Presence of God” Chapter 1 (Whitaker)

It is easy to let the darkness creep into our thinking and our lives but it doesn't have to. In fact we must make a determined effort to stop it. Paul has already told us to pray and give our anxieties to God. He also tells us to do it with thanksgiving. If you make an effort to remember the goodness of God every day and thank Him for it you will be surprised how much there is to say.

Finally then he tells us to focus our minds and think about what is good. Paul gives a list: whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, praiseworthy. Think about these things. And the promise? As in verse 7 - you will experience the peace that comes from God and knowing that He is still at work in His world.

The Church at Philippi was not perfect—and neither is St. James—but that doesn't stop us working towards it. “Be perfect” Jesus says in Matthew—in other words make perfection your goal and follow Paul’s advice.

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