WHAT IS GOSSIP?

gossip

You don’t have to bury all conflict or hurt. But you should share your hurts and conflicts and struggles with the appropriate person, rather than talking about it with someone else.

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Experiencing Life Together #10. Biblical Communication in the Church

Matthew 5:23-24; Matthew 18:15-17

What I am about to discuss here cannot be properly put into action without a strong commitment to loving others in the house-church. In order for the following principles to be practiced in a way that honors God, they must be used in the context of a commitment to value others – that is, in the context of Christian love.

Within churches in the United States, there is a pervasive unwillingness to deal openly with sin and/or conflict. This unwillingness is not only unhealthy, but it is also unbiblical, and unchristian. Many times, churches have been torn apart by conflicts that could have been resolved peacefully following biblical directives. Let me describe what commonly happens, and then we will look at what God would like to happen.

Linda was a member of Rachel’s house church. They had never been best friends, but they got along OK until Rachel invited every child in the group to her daughter’s birthday party – every child except Linda’s twins, who were the same age as Rachel’s daughter. Linda was enraged – the next week she could hardly look at Rachel. The following week she missed church, because she couldn’t stand to be around that snobby, stuck up woman. So full of hurt and anger, she couldn’t contain it, Linda called her friend Susan, also a member of the house church. In her anger, Linda had begun to see more of Rachel’s faults, and she sounded off at length to Susan, who listened sympathetically, promising not to pass any of it on to Rachel. Linda felt better for a while after this, but she could never be more than cold toward Rachel, and she stopped sharing anything personal or significant with the house church meeting. In the meantime, Susan was burdened with the rift between her two house-church mates. In a chance conversation with Rachel, Susan hinted that someone was upset with her. When Rachel wanted to know who, and why, Susan refused to tell, because she “didn’t want to gossip.” Rachel was puzzled and hurt, and she too, stopped sharing anything significant in church. This affected the rest of the group, and soon sharing and praying was just superficial.

This is just a hypothetical story, but it portrays a very real phenomenon. Not only that, but we could carry it on, ad infinitum. Susan may share with a friend in another house-church what is going on, and that person may call the pastor and sworn to “secrecy,” simply tell the pastor that there’s a big problem with the other house-church group. This sort of backward communication weaves an intricate and love-killing web. The Bible has a name for it – it is called gossip.

Paul saw it at work in several churches, among them, the Corinthian house churches:

For I fear that perhaps when I come I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish—that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder. (2Cor 12:20, ESV2011)

He knew that it all goes together: gossip, quarreling, jealousy hostility and anger.

Now, some of you may have been shocked to hear this called “gossip.” Many people think that gossip is simply sharing vicious or dirty secrets that shouldn’t be shared. While that is also part of gossip, I believe that gossip, in essence, is saying what shouldn’t be said to anyone, or saying what should be said to the wrong person. Some of you may protest and object that Linda should have the right to express her frustration to her friend whenever she wants to. The truth is, Linda does not have the right to say anything about Rachel that she has not already said to her face. She should not share her frustration with anyone until she has first brought it to Rachel herself. The only possible exception to this is her spouse, if it is understood that he is one with Linda, and will not share it with anyone else, and will encourage her to go to Rachel.

It is important also to note that two people committed the sin of gossip in the above story. Linda was the first, and Susan was the second. As unfair as it sounds, listening to gossip is a sin in the same way that speaking gossip is. Without a listener, there can be no gossip. Not only that, but by listening, Susan provided an inappropriate emotional outlet for Linda’s anger. The appropriate outlet would be for her to lovingly confront Rachel. But instead, she felt a bit better after talking to Susan, and so did not feel the need to talk directly with Rachel. Thus, by listening, Susan gave tension and hidden conflict a place to grow. By listening, Susan perpetuated and strengthened an unhealthy pattern of communication. Not only did her listening do further damage to the relationship between Rachel and Linda, but it also did damage to the whole house-church group. What happened between Linda, Rachel and Susan is a well-known communication pattern, referred to in psychological jargon as “triangulation.” You see, it is not only sinful – it is also recognized in secular psychological circles as an unhealthy and destructive way of relating. It ruins families and house-church groups wherever it occurs.

In contrast to this, let us look at God’s design for conflict resolution in Matthew 18:15-17.

“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” (emphasis mine)

First we need to recognize that these instructions were intended for a situation in which one person is actually sinning. I’m not sure that snubbing someone at a birthday party qualifies as a sin. However, it may in fact, qualify as a sin against you even if it is not against God. In addition, sin or no sin, this passage also contains some universal principles relating to conflict resolution and communication. And the basic underlying principle is to talk with the person directly, one on one. There is no thought, Biblically, of going to someone other than who you have the problem with – at least not until you have tried going to them directly. Even after this has been done, there is not really room to gossip – instead the idea is to bring a few more people, and again, talk to the person directly. Talking about the person to someone else simply has no place. The difficulty is, of course, that it is a scary and unpleasant thing to go directly to someone you have an issue with. Some people, faced with either sinning when they tell someone else about their conflict, or facing the other person directly, choose to do neither. Now, this is fine if you can forgive the other person, and get over the issue, and move on. But if your anger continues to burn inside, and you find yourself treating the person who hurt you differently than before, these are signals that you need to talk to them directly. Clamming up may not be sinful in the same way that gossip is, but it can be nearly as destructive if you are unable to forgive and move on. Matthew 5:23-24 speaks of this:

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”

The basic point is, we cannot worship God when our grudges remain unsettled. Worship is something we Christians do together, in community, and it is very hard to do that when we remain angry or unforgiving toward someone who is worshipping with us. If we cannot truly forgive it and move on, we need to settle it by going directly to the one we have a conflict with – as soon as humanly possible. Jesus uses as an example someone who is in the very act of bringing a sacrifice to the temple, and he urges such a person to break off their worship until reconciliation can be made.

As always, this applies to us as individual Christians, but it also applies to our churches. I want you to know that it is absolutely possible to have a church that does not engage in gossip. I’ve been in such churches. It starts when people rely on the Holy Spirit to stop them from saying what they should not say (or saying it to the wrong person), and also from listening to something they should not be involved in. For those of us in Life Together Churches, I want to encourage you to be that sort of church.

I don’t mean you should bury all conflict or hurt. I mean you should share your hurts and conflicts and struggles with the appropriate person, rather than talking about it with someone else. If that person does not listen, share it with them again, only this time feel free to bring along one or two trusted others.

I realize that some folks really would rather avoid the hassle that comes from talking one-on-one with someone with whom you have an issue. But the truth is, talking directly with a person about an area of significant conflict, is far more loving than suppressing it. When you deal directly with people, you are investing in your relationship with them. You are saying that this person is worth the hassle, worth working it out. When you suppress the conflict without being able to get over it, you are saying “this person is not worth the trouble. I’d rather be superficial with them my whole life, than invest the time and energy in working out our differences.” It is love that leads us to deal honestly and openly with each other.

Some people do find this whole topic a bit confusing. Can you ever listen to someone’s frustrations with another person? Can you ever share your aggravation with a non-involved party? One good way to determine whether you are saying something that ought to be said to a different person, is to imagine what you would feel if the person you are talking about were to overhear your conversation.

Suppose you are mad at Bob about something. You are at a coffee shop, talking to your friend Rex about Bob. Now, suddenly, you realize that Bob is sitting in the booth right behind you, and he’s heard everything you’ve said. Are you embarrassed? Are you sorry that Bob heard you saying that? Do you feel a little awkward? If the answer is “yes” to any of those questions, then you have been engaged in gossip.

Or suppose you are Rex, listening to your friend talk about Bob. If you suddenly noticed Bob in the booth behind your friend, would you feel badly? If so, you need to stop your friend, and ask him gently to go see Bob first, before you can have this conversation. Gossip cannot spread if no one will listen to it.

Large churches can sometimes get away with gossip. It is still a sin, but in a large congregation, two people can attend without really have a relationship with each other. However, in networked house-churches, gossip and talk-behind-backs will absolutely kill a house church. It is too small to avoid somebody. It is too intimate to be so superficial. Since the New Testament was written by and for people in house-churches, we need take what it says about gossip and slander very seriously.

Ask for guidance from the Holy Spirit as you seek to apply what he has already said through the Word, which we have looked at this week.

WORSHIP IN SPIRIT AND IN TRUTH

worship
Worship in spirit involves giving ourselves wholly over to God and abandoning ourselves to his mercy, grace and joy. Worship in truth means our worship is based upon the revelation of Jesus in the Bible.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

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Experiencing Life Together #9. Worship

Worship is central to what we do together as a church, and therefore it is central to what house churches do together. Unfortunately, the average, modern-day American Christian has become somewhat confused by the bewildering amount of information about worship. “Worship” can now refer to a style of contemporary Christian music. “Worship” has also been artificially distinguished from something else called “praise.” For many people, worship is synonymous with singing. For many others, worship involves litanies, bowing, sitting, kneeling and standing. For some, worship is something that we do for God. For others, worship is something God does for us. It is time for some clarity concerning worship in general, and hopefully this clarity can lead us to a practical way to truly worship God in our house churches.

What is worship? At the risk of muddying the waters even further, consider this simple definition of worship: Worship is our response to God’s presence and activity in our lives. This is a very basic, obvious understanding of what worship is; in fact as you read the scriptures it becomes almost self-evident, although sometimes it gets lost in the commercialized “worship movement” of our day. The book of Psalms is sometimes called the “hymnal” of the Bible. Throughout the Psalms you see various calls to worship and almost always the pattern goes something like this:

Sing joyfully to the Lord you righteous; it is fitting for the upright to praise him.

Praise the Lord with the harp; make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre.

Sing to him a new song; play skillfully and shout for joy.

For the word of the Lord is right and true; he is faithful in all he does. (Psalm 33:1-4, emphasis added)

What we have here is the psalmist calling believers in God to worship. He is in essence calling them to respond to the goodness and faithfulness of the Lord. And that is what worship is. Here is another example from the Psalms:

Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things; his right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him. (Psalm 98:1)

There are far too many references of this sort to list in full. Again, the point is that worship is an interaction between God and us. God does something for his people, or he reveals a certain attribute of his nature, or he makes his presence known or felt in some way and then his people respond through singing, praying, kneeling, playing instruments, dancing or in a variety of other ways that are all exhibited in Scripture.

We also find in the book of Psalms people crying out to God for help. This too, is a form of worship, and it involves the same elements of worship. When we cry out to God for help, we are actually exhibiting faith in his goodness and his power to help us.

So how do we worship? As mentioned briefly above, there are a variety of ways described in Scripture in which people worship the Lord. Singing, dancing, playing instruments, lying flat on the ground, clapping, raising hands, giving tithes and offerings — all of these are ways (recorded by Scripture), in which God’s people worship him. It seems safe to say that if we use Scripture as our guide there are many possible activities and styles by which we might respond to God in worship. Jesus, when he speaks about worship in John Chapter four, appears to be more concerned with what is going on in the heart when people worship than with the external expression of worship:

Yet a time is coming and has now come, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth. (John 4: 23-24)

What exactly did Jesus mean by this? When Jesus said we must worship in truth, he meant that worship must proceed from an acknowledgment and acceptance of the truth about ourselves, God, and this world. And the truth about those things comes from the Bible. The Bible says the only way we can have a relationship with God is by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2: 8-9). Therefore, true worship cannot take place without faith in Jesus Christ. Without faith in Jesus Christ we are “dead in our transgressions” (Ephesians 2: 1), that is, spiritually dead. To truly worship God we must be reconciled with him through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If we do have this faith and we are reconciled with him then true worship is possible, and it is based, not on correctly performing external ceremonies or singing certain kinds of songs, but rather on the truth that we are sinful people who have been saved by God’s grace through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ on the Cross. In addition, worship must have at its heart the central truths and themes of Scripture: God’s goodness, our need for him, his love and joy, and so on.

Worship in spirit means that we are responding to God in a way that goes beyond simply thinking about him with our mind or going through external motions. Worship in spirit involves giving ourselves wholly over to God and abandoning ourselves to his mercy, grace and joy. It means that we have allowed the truth of God’s word to penetrate our lives to such an extent that our will and emotions respond. Worship in spirit is relational as we truly interact spiritually with the living God. To worship in Spirit also means that we allow God’s Spirit – the Holy Spirit – to direct our hearts and minds as we respond to Him.

Worship without Spirit is dead formalism. You may have experienced such a thing at times, where it felt to you like you were simply going through the motions with no enthusiasm. Worship without truth is empty emotionalism. This too is an experience some people have. You may feel like all the hype and excitement is really empty and pointless. Real worship involves both Spirit and truth.

We need to remember that worship is not a neutral activity. One way of looking at it is that worship stirs things up in the spiritual realm. Worship can help us feel closer to God, it can lead us to a place of repentance and it can often release spiritual power. The devil does not want these things to happen, nor does our sin-riddled flesh. Therefore, when we set out to worship it is normal to expect a certain kind of opposition. We need to recognize this and rebuke the devil and resist the impulses of our own flesh.

Following are four steps to take to help us worship more fully in spirit and in truth:

1. Kill the flesh (sinful nature) – eliminate the opposition. This is an act of Will. Practically, this might mean an internal dialogue like this: “I don’t feel like worshiping right now. I’m distracted by all sorts of other things. But I am making a choice to ignore my feelings and other distractions. I make a choice to give God the honor and glory that he deserves.”

2. Remember and Think about the greatness of God. This involves recalling the truth, reading and listening to Scripture, and it is an act of the mind. This means, we don’t just sit around and wait for some worshipful emotion to strike us. We actively read and listen to scripture, we actively think about God, who he is and what he has done.

3. Experience and visualize (enter in to) His presence. This is an act of emotion. In other words, let your emotions get engaged, if you can. God’s love is truly overwhelming. Many people have no trouble getting very excited at a sports game, but allow themselves to feel nothing when they come into the presence of the God who created the entire universe. When emotion is guided by a will and mind for worship, it is a good thing. Sometimes it is useful to use your body to help focus your emotions on worship. When I am not playing guitar, I often lift my hands in worship. I almost always do that, not because I feel tremendous emotion, but because I know that if I honor God with my body (the lifting of hands, or lying or kneeling) emotions of worship often follow. And that is what often happens.

4. Release the Spirit to lead. This is a spiritual act. It is also an act of faith. To let the spirit lead is to consciously invite him to lead your thoughts, will and emotions. When you get a little idea or picture or feeling that you think might be the Spirit, go ahead and follow it. The great thing about house-churches is that you can do that, and if you make a mistake, it’s okay. You and your church will figure it out. So maybe, at the Spirit’s leading, you suggest singing a song, or repeating a verse, or praying.

Here’s a practical example of letting the Spirit lead. Last Sunday, I did not pick the songs for worship. For various reasons, I didn’t even know what the songs would be until about an hour before-hand. I’m sorry to say, I was busy getting ready for church, so I just printed them out. But during our singing time, one of the songs was “Surrender.” As we were singing it, I felt the Lord prompting me to pause and invite people to name things that they wanted to surrender to the Lord. So I did that. The great thing about house-church is, it doesn’t have to always be the worship or music leader who does this. Anyone can be prompted by the Holy Spirit.

When we approach worship this way, we find that style becomes far less important. It is true that some people prefer contemporary praise songs, while others prefer litanies and hymns. There is nothing wrong with these preferences as long as we are willing to subordinate them to the greater cause, which is to worship the Lord. The main thing is what we’re doing (worshiping the Lord), not how we’re doing it.

By the way, that last paragraph is a challenge for me. When I visit other churches, or attend conferences, I often find myself not appreciating the style of worship. I’m not much for liturgy, but a lot of contemporary worship seems to me to be performed too loudly, and in musical keys that are far too high for the average person to sing comfortably. I get the message that my singing is not really intended to be part of the worship service, because I can’t even hear myself, let alone the people around me, and often the band will go off into a solo while the rest of us just sort of stand around.

Now, as a pastor and theologian, I have issues with that approach to worship. However, as a worshiper, I have learned that I can worship in that environment anyway. Because worship is more than singing, and more than style. If I apply my will, my mind, and my emotions to worship, and follow the Spirit, I can worship in Spirit and in Truth, even when the style bothers me a little bit.

WITNESS

witness

We don’t have to argue people into following Jesus. We don’t have to be great theologians, with all the answers. We simply have to bear witness to what we do know, what we believe to be true, and what we have experienced with Jesus.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

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Experiencing Life Together #8.

Acts 2:47 – “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

We have been looking at the early church, and some of the things that characterized it. We’ve been seeking to apply those things to our own walk with Jesus, and, for those in the house church/cell church context, we’ve been trying to apply them to how we function in our churches. We see that when they focused on the bible, the fellowship, prayer, and the breaking of bread, the result was that God worked wonderfully among them to do miracles; he led them to be generous stewards of the resources he had give them; and here, we see that another result was that more people became disciples of Jesus.

We’ve mentioned this in the last few weeks, but it bears repeating. Jesus does not simply call us to “get saved.” He calls us to be disciples and to make disciples. That is our mission as individual Christians, and it is our mission as a church. Here’s how Jesus put it at the beginning of the book of Acts:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8, HCSB)

And Mark records this:

Later, He appeared to the Eleven themselves as they were reclining at the table. He rebuked their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they did not believe those who saw Him after He had been resurrected. Then He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. (Mark 16:14-16, HCSB)

The essential thing to remember is this: we are called to be witnesses. It is our job to tell people what we have seen and experienced and come to know about Jesus. It is our job to let others see how our lives are different because of Jesus. We need to let Jesus work in us and through us to impact the lives of others however he wants.

Now, I want you to pay attention to what I just said, and how I worded it. It is not our job to convince other people. It is not our job to make them change their minds. In court, a witness tells, to the best of his ability, what he knows. He responds to questions as truthfully as possible. The job of the witness is to explain what he experienced, and what he believes to be true. The conclusions are up to the jury. A witness presents the information so that other people can make an informed choice.

This is important when it comes to Christians reaching out to those who do not know Jesus yet. We don’t have to argue them into discipleship. We don’t have to be great theologians, with all the answers. We simply have to bear witness to what we do know, what we believe to be true, and what we have experienced with Jesus.

The results are not up to us. Remember, the verse we started with says that the Lord added to their number. The church (meaning “all believers”) has a role to play, but the ultimate work belongs to God. Nothing we do can make someone put their trust in Jesus. No matter how appealing we make it, other people still have to decide for themselves whether to respond to our invitations to visit church or to receive Jesus. That is one of the reasons prayer is so important – only God can really influence the outcome of our efforts.

Some of the greatest mistakes in Christian history came about because Christians tried to force other people to follow Jesus. They thought the result was up to them. The Spanish Inquisition was a result of that sort of thing. Today, though no one is using the power of the law or government to force Christian faith on others, there are some people who turn others off because they feel like they must “get a conversion,” like it is somehow up to them to make it happen.

However, these days, the other mistake is far too common. Most of us stay in our own shells when we are “out in the world,” and we stay in our Christian bubbles the rest of the time, and we don’t even serve as witnesses, for fear of “offending” someone.

In Ezekiel 3:16-21, the Lord tells Ezekiel that he must speak to the people of Israel whatever the Lord gives him to say. The Lord says that the people may not listen to Ezekiel. If Ezekiel tells them what God says, and they ignore him, then they will suffer the consequences, but Ezekiel will be blameless. If however, Ezekiel fails to share what the Lord has showed him, then he will share in the blame for death of the person who does not follow God. Ezekiel was not responsible for the results, but he was responsible to say what he knew.

That is what it means to be a witness.

Jesus called Philip to follow him. Philip knew almost nothing about Jesus, but he followed him. He told his friend Nathanael about it. Nathanael was skeptical. He posed a theological question, and question that Philip could not answer. All Philip said was, “Come and see for yourself.” Both of them eventually became part of the group of the twelve original apostles (John 1:43-46). Philip just told Nathanael what he knew, which wasn’t much. Nathanael didn’t follow Jesus because Philip convinced him. Jesus himself convinced Nathanael. And Jesus himself will convince our friends, family and co-workers, if we simply tell what little we know.

Throughout the years we Christians have designed many intriguing ways to try to reach people for Jesus. Most of the innovations tend to relieve individual believers of their responsibilities to reach those who don’t know Jesus, and instead, make it the responsibility of an organization, program, or individual. Evangelistic crusades, for instance, take the pressure off most Christians, and place it on the evangelist. Church programs take the pressure off of the “common man” and put it on the pastor, or the church organization. But the truth is, the most effective means of bringing people to Jesus, is one-on-one relational interaction. Consider these facts. In a survey of over 14,000 lay people in churches, the question was asked: “What or who was responsible for your coming to Christ and the church?” The percentage of answers was as follows:

A special need 1-2%

Walked in to church 2-3%

Pastor 5-6%

Visitation 1-2%

Sunday School 4-5%

Evangelistic Crusade 0.5%

Church Program 2-3%

A friend or Relative 75-90%

You will notice that of all the paths to meeting Jesus, friends and relatives are the most frequent determining factor. None of the other “methods” even approach 10% at their most optimistic levels. Most churches concentrate on the least-effective methods. House-church ministry does not usually include a separate “evangelism program” – but we all have people who are friends and relatives to other people who don’t know Jesus. Even when tools like the Alpha Course (which has elements of “program” in it) are used, it is up to house-church members to invite people to attend it, and it is our relational sharing that will ultimately invite them to receive Jesus. Even the Alpha course will not work if we are not inviting others and praying for them. The “how” of bringing people to Jesus is not complex – in fact it is very simple. Love people, spend time with them, pray for them, and invite them, share what you know and have experienced. It is true that sometimes this is hard to do, but it is not complicated.

Acts 2:47 belongs with the verses which go before it. In other words, churches are most effective in reaching those who don’t know Jesus when they follow the underlying pattern of Acts 2:42-46. When churches are devoted to God’s word, fellowship, the Lord’s Supper and prayer; and when they allow and seek the supernatural working of the Holy Spirit; and when they also live as stewards with a single purpose – then more and more people meet Jesus. God still does the work, but in these verses He has shown us how to live in such a way that His work through us is most effective.

Should you behave differently when those who aren’t believers come to a house-church meeting? No. People are convinced by the Holy Spirit when they see Christians naturally living out their lives and “doing church” as described in Acts 2:42-47. It is a trap of modern thinking to assume that we must somehow “shield” non-believers from true Christianity lest they be turned off. As a pastor with years of experience in house church, I assure you that when people see you genuinely trying (and sometimes even failing) to live out God’s pattern for the church, they will be touched and excited. Don’t forget the statistics shown above! The Holy Spirit shows them the real thing, and trying to manipulate a church meeting to be “more sensitive” to unbelievers usually backfires. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be personally sensitive to those who don’t know Jesus; it just means you should do what you normally do as a church while including the visitor in as much of it as he or she likes.

We are called to be witnesses. We don’t have to be theologians.We don’t have to have all the answers. We are not responsible for the results. But we are responsible to telling others what we believe and know, and inviting them. The results are between them and the Holy Spirit.

YOUR MONEY, OR YOUR LIFE?

money

Spiritually speaking, you get more value when you give than you do when you keep.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Experiencing Life Together Part 7

Experiencing Life Together #7. Acts 2:44 – Christian Stewardship

All the believers kept meeting together, and they shared everything with each other. From time to time they sold their property and other possessions and distributed the money to anyone who needed it. (Acts 2:44).

The evidence here and elsewhere seems to indicate however, that this first Christian church shared all their possessions and financial resources. That sounds pretty radical to me. I don’t know that I’m ready for communal finances, and I don’t believe that this verse means we must put everything into a common pot. However, there is an underlying principle here, and I think it is important. The principle is that these believers understood that their time, abilities and possessions were given to them by God, and were to be used as resources for fulfilling God’s purposes on earth.

One term often used to describe this principle is “Christian Stewardship.” It’s as good a phrase as any, but it needs some explanation. A steward is someone who manages resources that belong to someone else. Usually the owner of the resources wants the steward to accomplish certain goals with those resources. For example, if you use an investment broker, that broker is a steward of your investments. He does not own your money – you do. But your broker manages your money for you, with the purpose of helping you to achieve your financial goals. When all is said and done, your broker is accountable to you for how he invested the money you gave him to use. He needs to give an accounting of what he has done with it. While he is investing for you, he needs to keep in mind your goals for the money. Of course, he is entitled to his fees from what you have given him – after all, he has to have something to live on. However, the money, and the goals are yours.

We are something like investment brokers for God. We are stewards. The “money” he gives us to manage is really everything we have in life: time; abilities & talents; possessions, including financial resources; opportunities and relationships. These things really belong to God, not us. Sometimes we get hung up on tithing, and feel that if we just give God 10% of our money, everything else in life belongs to us – but it isn’t true. It all belongs to God. It is given to us simply so that we can manage it according to His goals and purposes. Of course some of it we have to use to support ourselves during our time here as stewards for God. But we should never lose sight of the fact that we are stewards, and all of these resources have been given to us so that we can invest them in reaching God’s goals. Your time, your money, your abilities, your possessions – these are not yours. They are on loan from God, to be used for his purposes.

Jesus taught extensively about this idea of stewardship. Matthew 21:33-46 recounts the parable of the tenants. Matthew 25:14-30 offers the parable of the talents. Luke 16:1-15 records the parable of the shrewd manager. Please read at least two of the three this week, so you can get a flavor for Jesus’ attitude about this. The central point in each of these stories (and it is quite forcefully made in each) is that we are stewards of what God has given us in life. It is not ours, but we are to take care of it, and use it to accomplish His goals. God’s primary goal of course, is to bring more and more people into a genuine, righteous, loving relationship with Himself. If he’s going to do that, he’ll need to use the speaking gift he gave Peter; the energy he entrusted to Paul; the thoughtfulness that John was to invest; the time that Philip devoted and the willingness that Stephen had. All that comes from just a few chapters in the book of Acts. He has given you and me many other gifts – time, talents, money, relationships and opportunities. He needs them to achieve his purpose. We were put here to use them for Him.

Now, at this point, something must be made absolutely clear. Doing things for God does not earn you “brownie points” with him. Being a good steward will not make Him love you any more, and being a bad steward will not make him love you less. We are saved and have a relationship with God simply and only because Jesus sacrificed himself in our place, and we trust him to forgive our sins. Our relationship with God is not based on what we do (or don’t do) for Him – it is based on His love for us, and our willingness to believe in and receive that love.

You may ask, “Why do we need to bother with being a good steward then? What’s the point, if it doesn’t make God love me more, and it isn’t necessary in order to go to heaven?” If you ask that question, or something like that, I want to gently urge you to really examine your relationship with God. If you really know Him and love Him, do you want to waste His resources? Do you really not care whether or not you are living the way He made you to live?

You see, I love my children whether or not they obey me. I don’t love them more when they obey me, or less when they don’t. However, when they disobey me it causes a breach in our relationship. Obedience does not earn my love, but when they are disobedient, our relationship is injured. There is something wrong between us. In extreme cases, disobedience in children could lead to their injury or death. If I tell them not to play with a knife and they disobey me, something terrible could happen. If tell them to stay well away from the edge of a cliff and they say to themselves “well, daddy will love me even if I go to edge,” the consequences could be tragic.

Go back to the stock broker analogy. Say you are the broker, and you have a client who is extremely forgiving. You totally mismanaged her funds, and lost it all. She chooses not to pursue any legal action against you. Even so, it would hardly be possible for the two of you to be good friends unless some sort of reconciliation had taken place.

With this in mind, consider this question: Why are you still here on earth? If you know Jesus, and your eternal future is assured, why doesn’t God just take you to heaven to be with Him right now? God loves you, he has promised you eternal joy with Himself, and a new heaven and a new earth for us to enjoy with Him. Why hasn’t he simply taken us to that right away? The answer comes from 2 Peter

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promises as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)

If you know Jesus Christ, and he is both your savior and King of your life, there is only one reason you are not in heaven this very moment – God has things for you do here. Specifically, he wants you to play a part in bringing others to know Jesus. In order for you to do that, you need to “invest” the resources He has given you.

As with everything else in the Christian life, good stewardship is “God-thing.” What I mean is you can’t be a good steward by yourself, any more than you could get salvation for yourself. The first step in being a steward of God’s resources is to tell your client (God) that you can’t do it without his help. Let Him give you the inner strength to reject selfishness and live for His purposes. Let Him give you wisdom in how to use what He has given you. As always, the main thing is simply to be willing and then He can (and will) do the rest – everything from showing you what to do, to even to giving you the motivation to do it.

I want to talk briefly about money. Bear in mind, managing God’s money (and everything you call “yours” is really God’s) is just one part of stewardship. Too many churches, when they say “stewardship” are really just talking about money. However, it is important to talk specifically about money, because it is one of the great idols and spiritual dangers in this world.

We know what the world thinks of money. It is the primary means that people use to get what they want in the world, therefore the world highly values it. But what does God think about money?

But godliness with contentment is a great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation, a trap, and many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and by craving it, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. (1Tim 6:6-10, HCSB)

Instruct those who are rich in the present age not to be arrogant or to set their hope on the uncertainty of wealth, but on God, who richly provides us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do what is good, to be rich in good works, to be generous, willing to share, storing up for themselves a good reserve for the age to come, so that they may take hold of life that is real. (1Tim 6:17-19, HCSB)

“Don’t collect for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But collect for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves don’t break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matt 6:19-21, HCSB)

“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. (Matt 6:24, ESV2011)

Come now, you rich people! Weep and wail over the miseries that are coming on you. Your wealth is ruined and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your silver and gold are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You stored up treasure in the last days! (Jas 5:1-3, HCSB)

I think these verses are generally representative of what the New Testament says about money. And I think we might summarize the message in two parts:

1. When we treasure money for itself, or for what it can achieve for us (security, comfort, pleasure, peace, a future) it is a great spiritual danger. Spiritually speaking, it is not positive to be wealthy, if we care about what wealth can do for us or those we love.

2. When we invest money in the kingdom of God, that is, when we give it away for the cause of Jesus, it is of great spiritual benefit.

These things are true, no matter how much or how little we are talking about. Consider this little incident:

Sitting across from the temple treasury, Jesus watched how the crowd dropped money into the treasury. Many rich people were putting in large sums. And a poor widow came and dropped in two tiny coins worth very little. Summoning His disciples, He said to them, “I assure you: This poor widow has put in more than all those giving to the temple treasury. For they all gave out of their surplus, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she possessed — all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:41-44, HCSB)

Have you ever thought about this? He knew it was her last two pennies. Though she might not have known it, she was giving it to him, and he didn’t need two pennies just then. In fact, though it was given to him, it didn’t go to him while he walked on earth. Two little pennies probably did not make that much difference to the temple treasury, and they might have made a big difference to what the widow ate that day. Think about it. Why didn’t Jesus stop her?

Because giving the last of her money, though it made no difference to the temple treasury, made a huge difference in the spiritual realm. Her tiny bit of money was worth far more spiritually, given freely as it was, than it was in the marketplace. If you want to look at this way, it achieved more for her when she gave it away than it ever could have helped her by keeping it.

Jesus didn’t stop her, because she did the right thing, and he knew that she would get more benefit from giving than from keeping.

You get more real value when you give than you do when you keep. You get a better investment in your life right now by giving. You get a better return on your real and important future by investing in the kingdom of God.

I’m not saying this is easy. The entire world around us screams that this is nonsense. But it is what Jesus and the rest of the New Testament taught. I had to face this myself this week. This may be a silly little illustration, but I’ll let you into my own struggle to accept this in my life.

Whenever someone gives me money for my birthday, or Christmas, I put it aside, and call it my “personal money.” Sometimes, when have a little bit to spare, we give everyone in the family an “allowance” – money that each person can spend however they wish. I get an allowance too, when we do it. I also consider this “my personal money.” I can use my personal money to go out to eat, or buy a fishing pole. It isn’t for the family budget and for needs. It’s mine to spend as I wish.

I have a little bit of personal money saved up right now. I’ve been wanting to buy a pair of really nice headphones for music. I wanted some noise-cancelling ones, for traveling (and frankly, for sitting in my living room). I’ve been looking at a pair that would cost about $125. This week, as I was preparing this message, I went shopping for headphones. I was thinking over the things I just said to you, and I realized, I’m not taking it seriously. Instead, I’m out, seeking a way to spend “my money” on myself. I’m not taking the spiritual value of giving seriously. I’m acting like I think a $125 pair of headphones will benefit me more than giving $125 away.

Don’t ever be a preacher, if you can avoid it. It will mess up your plans, if you take it seriously. Anyway, I decided to give the $125 away, rather than buy headphones. I’m not doing it to be noble. I’m just trying to take this message seriously.

What is the Lord saying to you about your time? Your money? Your energy and abilities? They aren’t yours, you know. They belong to him. How are you investing it for him?

DO MIRACLES HAPPEN TODAY?

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EXPERIENCING LIFE TOGETHER #6.

AWE & WONDERS

Acts 2:43 “Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles.”

We have examined the four things that the first Church was devoted to. I hope you’ll agree that any church and even any Christian ought to be growing in devotion to the Word, Fellowship, Intimacy with Jesus (characterized by the Lord’s Supper) and Prayer. These things are essential to what it means to have a relationship with Jesus Christ. They are therefore also central to the community life of those who know Jesus. The first Church was also characterized by living for a single purpose. This too is part of the core of Christian discipleship. In addition to these, however, there are a few other things that characterized that very first Christian church. These other things are also meant to be characteristic of all Christians and all churches. The first of these that the text mentions is a sense of awe, which is accompanied by “wonders and miraculous signs.”

The word translated as “awe” in the NIV Bible is actually the Greek word “phobos” from which we get the English “phobia.” In other words, the word means fear. I think that we in modern American culture are afraid (no pun intended!) to use this word in connection with our experience of God. It sounds like the dark ages somehow – “they were filled with fear.” However, it is a Biblical word, and it is used many times to describe people’s relationship with God. A God we fear is not an altogether comfortable God. He is not the kind of God we can control. Now I don’t believe that this whole concept of “fear of God” is meant to be negative. Perhaps the best rendering of the concept I ever heard comes through the children’s books written by C.S. Lewis: The Chronicles of Narnia. In these stories there is a character called Aslan, the Son of the Great Emperor-over-the-Sea. Aslan was intended by Lewis to be a picture of what Jesus is like. And one more thing – Aslan is a lion. In the stories, people who haven’t met Aslan want to know what he’s like. Upon hearing that he is lion, one character asks about him:

“Then, isn’t he safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

I think that Lewis has really captured what the fear of God is about. God is out of our control. He is powerful, and, dare I say, even a little wild, like a lion. He isn’t quite safe because of his great power and his complete otherness. But he is good. This was the kind of “fear” that everyone was filled with in Acts 2:43 – the fear of God who is not quite safe, but is good. We Americans are not usually comfortable with this (which is sort of the point). We like to think that we can respect anyone who is worthy of it, but that we fear no one. But when we try to reduce the fear of God to mere “respect” we have lost part of the true Biblical understanding of who God is. Now the “fear of God” is not the same as being afraid of Him. We do not need to fear that He won’t love us or forgive us. But at some level the thought of what God can really do – how completely at His mercy we are – ought to give us a kind of thrilled fear. He is God and we are truly nothing in comparison.

The first Christian church was characterized by this sort of “fear.” I think it probably influenced how they worshipped and prayed in very positive ways – they did not take God for granted. I think this sense of “fear” also made the miracle of their salvation even more wonderful and incredible to them. The fruit of their fear was altogether positive. Their fear of God only led to a greater wonder that He would consider them worth loving and dying for. Personally, I think it heightened their joy at knowing Jesus as well as their thankfulness to him.

Accompanying this very positive fear, were wonders and miraculous signs. I have no doubt that these manifestations of supernatural things helped them to continue in this positive sort of “fear-of-God.”

Perhaps three main questions can help us to dive more deeply into the question of wonders and miracles: What were the signs and wonders? And, Do signs and wonders still happen today? And, Are we meant to experience them as well?

First, what were they? There is no doubt among any serious scholars that the text is referring to God’s supernatural working. The specific things that He did supernaturally remain somewhat vague in this passage; but we can infer what they were from other passages, with a high probability of being correct. In Acts, we see two primary supernatural manifestations of Gods power: healings and exorcisms. You can bet that these two things were part of what is being referred to in Acts 2:43. In fact, in the passage immediately following this one, the apostle Peter was used by God to heal a crippled man (Acts 3:1-10. For an example of exorcism, see Acts 16;16-18). But Acts also records other things. The great outpouring of the Holy Spirit was accompanied by the miraculous sign of tongues – people from all over the world heard the apostles speaking in their own languages when they preached (Acts 2:5-12). In Acts chapter 12 Peter was miraculously freed from prison. The Holy Spirit gave a word of prophecy to the congregation at Antioch in Acts 13. Paul was bitten by a poisonous snake but suffered no ill effects (Acts 28:3-5). The rest of New Testament also records other sorts of miracles, signs and supernatural workings apart from healings and the driving out of evil spirits. The important thing is not really what the specific events entailed – instead the point is that God intervened in ways that were clearly supernatural. Another significant point is the choice of the words “miraculous signs.” The effect of these things was to strengthen the faith of the believers, and to help in bringing unbelievers to faith. Even today, the fastest growing churches worldwide are those where God is doing supernatural things. The first Church clearly viewed the miracles and wonders as portents of God’s presence. The supernatural events gave them opportunities to preach (Acts 3) and often helped convince unbelievers (Acts 8:9-13).

Now, do these things still happen today? I must be fair and tell you that there are people who genuinely know and love Jesus, who believe that God no longer does miracles like these. For theological support, they point out that in this passage, it only mentions the apostles as those who did the miracles, and since the apostles are now with the Lord, there are no more miracles. They claim that these supernatural actions were merely intended to help the very first church establish itself. Now that the church worldwide is no longer in danger of not being established, miracles aren’t needed. I believe that these people are sincerely misled. There are plenty of other New Testament passages (including some in Acts) that demonstrate that supernatural things are done by God through people other than the apostles. In 1 Corinthians chapters 12-14, Paul clearly expects non-apostolic, ordinary Corinthian house-church members to exhibit miraculous gifts of various sorts. In John, Jesus said this:

“I assure you: The one who believes in Me will also do the works that I do. And he will do even greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in My name, I will do it so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it. (John 14:12-14, HCSB)

Jesus expected that the kinds of things he did, would also be done by his Holy Spirit-empowered disciples. The truth is, the church needs to be re-established in every generation. The Christian message is no more secure now than it was in the time of the apostles – the gospel needs to be communicated again and again to each generation, or it will be lost. There are plenty of local churches that are closing their doors, precisely because they have not done this. We are certainly not in any less need than the first Christians for supernatural power to assist us in our efforts to introduce people to Jesus.

In addition, the evidence demands that we take seriously the premise that God still works supernaturally. As G.K. Chesterton points out,

There is a choking cataract of human testimony in favour of the supernatural.

The fact is… the believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them. The open, obvious thing is to believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a miracle, just as you would believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a murder.

Recent studies have even confirmed that hospital patients recover more quickly, with fewer complications and have an better overall chance of recovery, when they are prayed for. The studies included people who were being prayed for, but were not aware of that fact. They included people who do not believe in the power of prayer. It is indeed accurate to say that God’s supernatural power is alive and still active in our world.

I think part of the difficulty that many people have with miracles is that they seem so unreliable. Let’s be honest. Sometimes, it seems like the perfect situation for God to do a miracle, and yet, he does not. Other times, he may do something that even seems almost unnecessary. I mean, Jesus didn’t have to feed the five thousand. They might have gone hungry that day, but no one was going to starve to death. They would have made it home and found something to eat the next day at the latest. Also, He certainly didn’t have to walk on water. So we hear about miracles that happen for others, and think, “I need a miracle even more than that.” And yet, we don’t get one.

This problem of miracles being unreliable is hangover from our scientific world view. We think if anything is real, we should be able to reliably duplicate the results. But if you think about it, this lack of “reliability” is exactly what makes a miracle miraculous. It can’t be duplicated, because it is an instance of God’s intervention – it isn’t “normal.” In addition, we can’t duplicate it, because we cannot control God, who is the main variable in the experiment.

I suffer from chronic kidney stones. They are extraordinarily painful, and usually, they do not pass for many days. One time, I developed a kidney stone just as I was about to start speaking at a retreat. The people there prayed for me, and within seconds, the pain disappeared. The kidney stone was gone, as quickly as that. I’ve never personally experienced anything like it, before or since. I feel like I sound foolish, sharing this. But it really happened. About six months later, I developed another stone. This time it was a Sunday morning, right before I was about to preach. It was basically the same situation as before. The same group of people prayed for me, and nothing happened. I went home and spent three days of misery until that stone passed. There is no doubt that God healed me from the one stone. There is no doubt that he did not deliver me from the next one. To this day I don’t know why. What I do know, is that God does do miracles, and also that we cannot control when and where he does them.

So, what is our part in all this? Does God want us to be involved in these kinds of things? If you feel a little thrill of fear at that thought, then you’re on the right track! The answer is of course, YES! God wants to do incredible things through us. Of course sometimes we want to “move in the supernatural” all the time and never “come back to earth” – that is not God’s plan either. God uses the supernatural for three main purposes: to set people free (either from sickness, emotional pain or demonization); to strengthen the faith of believers; and to help unbelievers come to faith. He doesn’t work supernaturally simply to give us another cool experience. He wants his children to grow to the point where we walk by faith and not by sight. So the first part of allowing God to work miracles is to release control to Him. Many of us who have had some supernatural experience try to control Him by attempting to arrange things so he’ll come do it again. But we can’t make Him do a miracle. At the same time, we should not try to prevent his working because we are afraid. Primarily what he wants from us in the arena of miracles is an openness, a willingness to be used (or not used), and a sense of fear and awe, that at any time He can come and do whatever He wants.

If we are willing for God to work in ways that might inspire holy fear, what is our part in making that happen? We need to ask him to act, invite him to work. Do we want him to set people free, to strengthen and encourage our faith, and to bring unbelievers to faith? Well, then ask him for a miracle. Ask him to physically heal someone. Ask him to deliver your friend from addiction to drugs or alcohol. Ask him to encourage someone who is struggling. Ask him to find a job for someone who has lost his. The result is up to God, not to us. He is not a machine that we can manipulate. Sometimes he WILL do a miracle. Sometimes he won’t. But, for whatever reason, God has chosen work through us as we are open and as we ask. he best way I know of to PREVENT miracles, is to not ask God for them. So go ahead and ask.

If you are in a house-church, I want to remind you that you are in the perfect context for God to do awe-inspiring things. It was a house church that prayed for the release of Peter when he was imprisoned by Herod. Even so, they did not believe at first the miraculous release that occurred. It was in a house church where a young boy fell out of a high window and died, and Paul prayed and he was made alive again. Prophecies, and the Lord speaking, came often in those first New Testament house-churches. I personally know a man who was instantly delivered from addiction to cigarettes when his house-church prayed for him. I was there when it happened, and frankly, I didn’t believe it at first, but the man hasn’t had a smoke since that night, fourteen years ago.

I encourage you to be open to these types of things that the Lord does. If the thought brings a little thrill of fear, then you are probably on the right track.

SINGLE PURPOSE

Jesus with the Disciples_discipleship

Jesus is calling you – not just to be a member of a church, not only to repent of your sins and receive his forgiveness. He is calling you to walk with him daily; To have a relationship with him that is more important to you than anyone or anything else in this life.

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Experiencing Life Together #5: Single Purpose

John 18:36; Ephesians 2:10

The very first Christians exhibited a very important characteristic. Their lives had a single focus:

The believers had a single purpose, and went to the temple courts every day. They were joyful and humble as they ate at each other’s homes and shared their food. (Acts 2:46)

The key phrase here is “single purpose.” Their lives were aimed at one target. Their focus both individually, and as a church, was on one thing. They were led by this purpose in everything they did, and every decision they made. Their purpose was discipleship. Jesus told them to be disciples, and to make disciples.

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

The word “disciple” in Greek is closely associated with learning from a teacher. As we look at Jesus’ disciples in the gospels, we see that they listened to his teaching and tried to put it into practice (Mark 3:31-34). They were “followers” of Jesus’ teachings. The disciples often asked Jesus questions, but didn’t understand when he explained the answers to them (Matthew 16:5-12; Mark 4:10-14). Even so, though they had their struggles, they made his teaching central to their lives.

They not only followed his teaching, but they followed Jesus physically, wherever he went. They shared his life and had experiences with him. They walked together with Jesus on the rough mountain roads of Galilee. They lodged together, ate together and talked together.

They went across the lake with him, and experienced the storm, and then were awed by his power over it. They went to a lonely place with him, and saw him feed 5,000 people. They watched him drive demons out of people, and heal others. They went to Jerusalem and saw him die and later they saw him alive again.

Jesus’ disciples also had relationships with each other. They weren’t isolated in their relationship with Jesus. They talked with each other, fought with each other and helped each other. Jesus called them (and us) to love each other (John 13:34-35).

Besides teaching and sharing his life, Jesus also trained his disciples. He recruited them for the same work that he was engaged in – spreading the good news (Luke 10:1-24). He involved them in exercises of faith and ministry (Matt 14:18). He gave them instructions, sent them out on tasks, and then debriefed them (Luke 10:1-24).

Jesus wanted his relationship with his disciples to be the closest, most important relationship they had. He was dramatic in stating this. He said that in comparison to their relationship with Him, it would seem like they hated their own families (Matt 10:37-39; Matt 12:48). All this is to say that He became absolutely the most important person in their lives. He took precedence in everything.

Even before he returned to heaven, Jesus gave his disciples authority to be a part of His mission, authority to accomplish His purposes in the world (Matt 10:1). He promised that he would be with them spiritually at all times (Matthew 28:18-20).They were witnesses to His life, death resurrection and power (Acts 1:8), and they had a responsibility to tell about their life with Jesus, and to recruit new disciples to Him.

In John chapter 15, Jesus called his disciples to “abide” in him. He said this just a few hours before he was captured and crucified. One of the things he meant by it, was that the disciples were to keep on being his disciples, even after his death and resurrection. Their relationship – the sharing of Jesus teaching and their lives together – would go on. Jesus would come and live with them again, this time in their spirits, through His Holy Spirit. Discipleship goes on.

So what does it all mean for us? Now that we see how the first disciples were, how can we be disciples? How can we live with a single purpose? First, I think we ought to recognize that Christians were called “disciples” before they were ever called “Christians” (Acts 11:25). In other words, the very first followers of Jesus understood that it was not about being a member of a church, or even of being converts, but rather of being learners who lived life in the midst of their on-going relationship with Jesus.

Jesus is calling you – not just to keep things as they are, not just to be a member of a church, not only to repent of your sins and receive his forgiveness. He is calling you to walk with him daily. To have a relationship with him that is more important to you than anyone or anything else in this life. To engage with him as you work, as you eat, as you rest. To be trained and equipped by him to take your part in recruiting and training more disciples. He is calling you to listen to, and follow his teachings. He is calling you to be a part of a group of disciples – folks who are a bit rough around the edges maybe, but who love one another and love Jesus like you do.

When you are a disciple, everything in your life is filtered through your relationship with Jesus. We still have to go to work, and pay the bills, and deal with crises. But we do all these things with an awareness that we are not living our own life anymore. We are here to let Jesus live his life through us. That is our single purpose in everything.

When you let Jesus live your life, that is, when you live as his disciple, you are immediately confronted by the temptations and challenges of what life offers us apart from Jesus. If we live for the single-purpose of discipleship, we might find that many things we are used to doing are actually at cross purposes with the life of Jesus. Sin, of course, diverts us from the purpose of Jesus in us. But sometimes, I think the biggest threat to Christians is not outright sin, but rather, good things; things, however, that Jesus does not want us to waste our time with. Jesus said something very challenging:

“My kingdom is not of this world,” said Jesus. “If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I wouldn’t be handed over to the Jews. As it is, My kingdom does not have its origin here.” (John 18:36, HCSB)

Are you struggling and fighting for something in this world? I know I can get sucked into this all too easily. I want to follow Jesus, yes, but I also want other things: comfort and security while I am on earth. The moment I pursue comfort and security in addition to being a disciple, is the moment I lose my single purpose. That takes me a step backward in following Jesus. Jesus’ kingdom, his life and purpose are far beyond the temporary, cheap things of this world.

This is one of the reasons the Christian faith has always appealed to the poor more than the rich. If your life right now is a struggle, and you have little hope of improving it, it is easier to place your hope more fully in eternity. Poor folks know that security in this life is not really attainable. People with more resources tend to keep believing that their salvation is in this life. They tend to keep striving for the temporary treasures and goals that this life offers.

Ephesians 2:10 says this:

“For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

Have you ever wondered about your purpose in life? Well there it is – to do the “good works” which God created you to do. And those good works ultimately all lead to encouraging believers and reaching out to those who don’t believe. This was the single purpose of the church in Acts 2:42-47. This is what they lived for. This purpose influenced all of their decisions, particularly decisions about the use of time.

Especially in America, living with a single purpose has enormous implications for the way we use our time. I am convinced that most of us try to live with more than one purpose in life. When I try to do that, if I was honest, my purpose in life could be described as: “ To serve God, and to be comfortable.” The first part is OK, but that “to be comfortable” makes it a dual purpose. And that causes problems when the purposes conflict with each other. What if being comfortable isn’t conducive to serving God, or vice versa? Others might want to “serve God, and have a good career” or “Be a disciple, make disciples, and achieve certain financial goals.” There is nothing Biblical about this. Sometimes, God makes his servants comfortable. Sometimes he gives them fulfilling careers, or wealth. But we need to pursue God – not the other things. If wants to give the other things also, well and good. If not, can we still say, “well and good”?

Others of us really do live to “be a disciple and make disciples”. But we fall into the trap of doing many good things, instead of the two or three best things. We might run all over town participating in workshops, ministries and conferences – all good and wonderful things. But often these wonderful spiritual things, keep us from truly connecting with Jesus, and concentrating on the two or three things that will be most effective, and are most important. Many times, perhaps almost always, we need to turn down the good things for the best things; the non-essential for the essential.

In most house-churches, things are deliberately structured so that members focus on just two or three important things in the process of becoming and making disciples. They generally don’t have “programs”. They focus on ministry in the group, outreach, and equipping (worship & prayer are underlying elements of all of these). None of these things should be “programmatic” – instead they are structured so that they take place in the context of lives that are lived with a single purpose. Thus, our “community life” can be oriented to that single purpose; and we are not so distracted with the “busyness” of many other things going on all the time.

Our personal lives ought to be structured this way as well. America is the land of opportunity, but enough already! We put our three-year-olds in T-ball in spite of the fact that they will almost certainly never become professional athletes. We put in extra hours in case we miss the opportunity to make more money. We run from activity to activity and it absolutely drains us spiritually and emotionally. The crucial and difficult task in learning to orient our lives around a single purpose, is saying “no” to things that are good, but which are not best, or essential.

We strongly encourage you to pray about this during the next week, and then ask your house church for help and prayer in determining what is essential and best for you to be doing at this point in your life. Make sure to address that question with an open Bible and an open heart.

HOW SHOULD YOU PRAY?

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For to pray is to open the door unto Jesus. And that requires no strength. It is only a question of our wills. Will we give Jesus access to our needs? That is the one great and fundamental question in connection with prayer. – Ole Hallesby

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Experiencing Life Together Part 4

Experiencing Life Together #4. Acts 2:42-47: Prayer

When you pray, don’t babble like the idolaters, since they imagine they’ll be heard for their many words. Don’t be like them, because your Father knows the things you need before you ask Him. (Matt 6:7-8, HCSB)

“I assure you: Anything you ask the Father in My name, He will give you. Until now you have asked for nothing in My name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete. (John 16:23-24, HCSB)

“Keep asking, and it will be given to you. Keep searching, and you will find. Keep knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who searches finds, and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. What man among you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask Him! (Matt 7:7-11, HCSB)

Prayer is the final of four things that those first Christians were devoted to. Remember, that word “devoted” means that they held closely to it, they committed to persisting in prayer in spite of resistance and struggle. Prayer was a defining characteristic of their lives.

If you have never read a Christian classic, we highly recommend Prayer by Ole Hallesby. It is possibly one of the best books on prayer ever written. As we begin to look at prayer this week, in connection with God’s plan for the church, and for all Christians, consider some of what Hallesby says:

To pray is nothing more involved than to let Jesus into our needs. To pray is to give Jesus permission to employ His powers in the alleviation of our distress…

The results of prayer are, therefore, not dependent upon the powers of the one who prays. His intense will, his fervent emotions, or his clear comprehension of what he is praying for are not the reasons why his prayers will be heard and answered. Nay, God be praised, the results of prayer are not dependent on these things…

For to pray is to open the door unto Jesus. And that requires no strength. It is only a question of our wills. Will we give Jesus access to our needs? That is the one great and fundamental question in connection with prayer.

One of the reasons Hallesby’s book is so helpful is that he takes the mystery and “hocus-pocus” out of prayer. Explained like it is above, prayer no longer seems like such a difficult enterprise. It even seems (gasp!) like anyone could do it.

There are two core questions that arise when we read that the first Christians devoted themselves to prayer. First: how did they make prayer central to their lives? What does a life devoted to prayer look like? And second is the question of methodology: how did they pray? What did it sound like? What “method” did they use?

The first question is perhaps the most important for us. The apostle Paul exhorts the Thessalonians to “pray continually.” How can this take place? How can a life be devoted to prayer? The first thing is to get rid of the idea that prayer is a formalized ritual wherein a person comes to God with a list of petitions and presents them in as spiritual a manner as possible. If that were the case, no one could “pray continually” (even super-Christians have to sleep!) And though it might still be theoretically possible to devote our lives to prayer, frankly it sounds like it would be pretty boring. You’d need to become a monk and have others support you and make knee pads for you. However, as Hallesby says, prayer is simply giving Jesus access to our lives. If we endeavor to be open to Jesus at all times and in all places, we will end up devoting ourselves to prayer. If we make a habit of opening up to Jesus in every situation, we will learn how to pray continually. I don’t want to minimize the power and usefulness of concentrated, deliberate prayer. Even so, we need to see that prayer is more than just the ten minutes we set aside, during which we list our requests and concerns to God. Prayer is a constant, ongoing connection with the Lord, which learns to release every aspect of our thoughts, circumstances and lives into the care of the loving heavenly Father.

Most often we simply think of prayer in terms of those special times when we purpose to pray. We sit down, fold our hands, (or lay them on someone) and then pray. Sometimes, we may wonder why these times aren’t more meaningful, or why we don’t experience more of God when we do it. For some, the answer to this is that they are not praying at any other times as they go throughout the day. What I mean is, some people go through the whole day without consciously giving Jesus access, and sort of keep prayer in its allotted time slot with their quiet time, or with cell. In short, many of us only really pray when that is our consciously stated purpose for the time. Now it is important to set aside specific times when we do nothing except pray. But these are supposed to be just the pinnacle times of a whole life that is bathed in a constant referral of things to God. When we begin to live this way, we will start to yearn for times when we are doing nothing but praying, and we will start to experience His peace and presence more fully in those special times. What I’m trying to say is that we need to look at what we call “prayer times” (set aside for prayer and nothing else) as special times, while we give Jesus access at all times. It is true that there is no life devoted to prayer without those “special times” set aside purposefully for prayer alone. But there is also no devotion to prayer if we try to fit all of our praying just into those “special times” only. God designed prayer not just for the “prayer closet” but also for the construction site, the office and the ball field. He made things in such a way that our praying can take up a lifetime, in a very real and useful way. Make an experiment of this during the next week. Try to give Jesus access into whatever you are doing or saying, at each moment of your day. As concerns or people come to your mind, refer them to Him. When you need to make decisions, give Him permission to help you. You may find that sometimes you want to stop for a moment for more deliberate prayer. Perhaps that would be all right too. J

The second major question was: how did they pray? Frankly, the only reason this is important at all, is because it can become a hindrance to prayer. Often people are intimidated by considering the praying of other people. We feel that we could never pray like them. In this connection, let’s consider a few more comments from Ole Hallesby:

Prayer is something deeper than words…Prayer is a definite attitude of our hearts toward God, an attitude which He in heaven immediately recognizes as prayer, an appeal to His heart. Whether it takes the form of words or not does not mean anything to God, only to ourselves.

What is this spiritual condition? What is that attitude of heart which God recognizes as prayer?

Hallesby explains that there are two essential conditions that, when taken together, God recognizes as prayer: helplessness and faith. Helplessness combined with faith equals prayer. Helplessness without faith is simply despair. Faith without helplessness is arrogance. But put the two together, and you have prayer.

Prayer and helplessness are inseparable. Consider the helplessness of a baby, which so moves the hearts of its parents. A baby cannot formulate words, but its helplessness and dependence are a powerful appeal to the parents. Just as parents are continually occupied in helping their helpless newborn, so God is attuned to the cries of His helpless, dependent children. God does not “help those who help themselves.” If we ask God for something, but are actually relying on some other source for help, are we really praying? Are we truly depending helplessly on God? This helplessness applies also to our own inability to pray. When we feel so sin-ridden and worldly that we cannot see how our prayers can be answered, our very helplessness arises as a prayer to the Father.

Faith is also inseparable from prayer. Without faith, a person does not even turn to Jesus for help in the first place. Prayer is a definite thing. We cannot simply claim some kind of vague feeling about “the universe,” and claim “I’m praying all the time.” The “faith” part of praying means that our hearts and minds are truly turned toward God, and looking to Him for help, grace, comfort and, yes, answers.

I would like to add “looking to God alone.” What I mean is, all our help comes ultimately from God, even if it comes by means of another human being sometimes. For instance, suppose you are sick. It is only common sense to go to a doctor. I have done so, many times. But even as I go to the doctor, my hope and trust are in God, more than the doctor. I trust that it is God who will work through the doctor. There is nothing wrong with praying for healing, and then seeing a doctor. But even as I submit to the care of the doctor, my trust in in God for healing, through whatever means he chooses.

Now, God does not need some kind of tremendous level of faith to help Him answer our prayers – He just needs enough faith for us to truly say “yes Jesus,” to open the door and allow Him access. In case we might feel too helpless to have faith, or be concerned that we do not have a enough faith when we pray, let’s hear again from our friend Ole:

You and I can now tell how much faith we need in order to pray. We have faith enough when we in our helplessness turn to Jesus.

So you see, it doesn’t much matter how the first Christians prayed. They allowed themselves to be helpless before God, and they had enough faith to ask Him in to their lives and into specific situations. That’s all we need to do as well. I honestly don’t think God cares how your prayer sounds. He isn’t concerned about how long or short your prayers are. All he wants is access, and he can teach you how to have a life devoted to prayer.

I want to add a few more practical suggestions. You may have heard people say, “All we can do now, is pray.” The attitude behind that statement, is that prayer is a last resort. I want to encourage you instead, to make prayer a first response. If we think prayer is not really “doing something,” or that it isn’t helpful to people, then we don’t really understand what prayer is all about.

Another suggestion is to get into the habit of praying with other believers. I don’t mean, “have prayer meetings.” I mean make prayer more a part of everyday conversation. When I was a young man, I had several mentors who modeled this beautifully. Many times we would be talking about things, and some concern or need or struggle would come up. In the middle of the conversation, my mentors would stop and say, “let’s pray about that right now.” We would pray, and then go on talking. I admit, I have lost this habit in recent years, but I would like to get back to it, and I encourage you to do the same. It feels a little funny at first, when you are the one to say “let’s pray about that right now,” but I know from experience that others will be tremendously blessed by that.

For those of you who are worshipping in house church networks or cell churches, I want to emphasize how important prayer is to your effectiveness at making disciples. Prayer is what will cause you and others to grow in Jesus. Prayer is what will bring new people to Jesus. Prayer is what will heal your relationships and change the lives of those we pray for. Prayer is what will address the sicknesses and needs in your life, and the lives of those you want to reach. If your group is praying group, you will have a great impact for God’s kingdom.

The Presence, Power and Purpose of Jesus

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The church is not a therapy group, or an advice repository. It is a gathering of unique people who experience the Presence, Power and Purpose of the living God as we come together in his name.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Experiencing Life Together Part 2

EXPERIENCING LIFE TOGETHER #2

We were almost all set to wrap up the house-church meeting. Our discussion was over, we had spent some time in worship and now we were praying for one another.

“Does anyone else want prayer?”

“I’ll take prayer.” It was a neighbor lady, who came to house church, off and on. She had been raised Roman Catholic, and it was clear that she knew the right answers. But it was also clear that somehow, she had not fully connected with the life that is in Jesus Christ. She shared a few things that she wanted prayer for: her relationship with her boss, a sore back and a few other things. These were mostly shallow issues and it seemed to me that if all her prayers were answered the way she wanted them to be, nothing much would change in her life. But we stepped forward to pray for her anyhow. Tonight, we were anointing the people with oil as we prayed for them. I explained that this practice came from the book of James 5:13-16. I opened my Bible and read from it. Usually, I simply read vs. 14 to show newcomers that were not completely wacky to anoint people with a little olive oil as we pray for them. But for some reason, this time I continued to read all the way to the end of verse 16. And this is what vs. 16 says:

“Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.”

I opened my mouth to begin the prayer. But the woman held up her hand and said “wait.”

She continued, “that little verse you read at the end, about confessing your sins to one another? I need to confess something. I’m a witch.”

It is my suspicion that in many churches this is not a particularly common scenario. In any case, however, she spoke a little longer, and then we prayed with her and for her, and the next day she took all of her witching paraphernalia and burned it. Shortly after that she turned her life over to Jesus Christ as her Lord and savior.

In our experiences of networked-house-church, we could tell many such stories — all of them true. But the fact is, these things don’t happen simply because we strictly adhere to some sort of methodology. They happen because house-church ministry is used as a vehicle for the Presence, Power and Purpose of Jesus Christ. Last time, we considered the fact that our basic need is Jesus, not a certain way of doing church or small groups. We believe that house-church ministry lends itself quite well to being used by Jesus. But when we come together, we are not meeting as a therapy group, social club or even a Bible study. Instead, we come together to experience that Presence, Power and Purpose of Jesus Christ. For the sake of brevity, we often call these the three P’s. Whenever we come together, we keep in mind that we are here to facilitate the three P’s. Sometimes, like in the case above, this happens quite dramatically. At other times, we seem to have a “normal” night. We usually employ a house-church agenda, but we always have in mind that the true agenda belongs to the Holy Spirit.

On the night which I described above, we did not set out to find out if there were any witches in our midst and to get them to confess their sins and come to Jesus. We purposed instead to experience the presence, power and purpose of Jesus in our midst. It was the Holy Spirit who prompted me to read a verse that I don’t usually read. It was the Holy Spirit, working on that woman’s heart, who prompted her to confess her involvement in witchcraft. It was the Holy Spirit who directed our response. We had an agenda for that evening, and in fact we followed it for the most part. But when something came up that was not on our agenda (for example a person confessing involvement in witchcraft), we adjusted our agenda to fit what God was doing that night.

Let’s take a brief moment to examine the biblical bases of the three P’s.

1. The presence of Jesus.

I assure you: Whatever you bind on earth is already bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is already loosed in heaven. Again, I assure you: If two of you on earth agree about any matter that you pray for, it will be done for you by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there among them.” (Matt 18:18-20, HCSB)

These verses are about exercising the authority of Jesus. It is a promise that when we come together under his authority, for his purposes, his presence is with us. In fact, this verse ties together the three P’s — his power (authority), his and his presence. When we come to house-church meetings, we are not there merely to socialize, nor even simply to study the Bible. We are there to be in the presence of Jesus.

We know that Jesus is always with us. He said he would be, in Matthew 28:20 (more on that in a moment). But this verse tells us, and Christians have always recognized, that Jesus is with us in a special way, when we gather together in his name. The gathering of believers is not just social interaction – it invites Jesus to be with us in a way that he cannot be with us when we are alone. I believe he does this because he wants his people to understand that they need each other. The Holy Spirit expressed His desire for His people to keep meeting together in Hebrews 10:24-25

And let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works, not staying away from our worship meetings, as some habitually do, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day drawing near. (Heb 10:24-25, HCSB)

We need each other, because the Presence of Jesus is expressed differently through each individual.

2. The power of Jesus.

For I didn’t think it was a good idea to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I came to you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom but with a powerful demonstration by the Spirit, so that your faith might not be based on men’s wisdom but on God’s power. (1Cor 2:2-5, HCSB)

The fact is, if we are going to follow the agenda of the Holy Spirit, we must rely on the power of the Holy Spirit to do so. There is a tendency at times within small groups to try and find a solution within the resources of the group itself. For instance, if somebody is struggling with an emotional issue, other group members may be tempted to offer their advice or to share their past experiences with similar issues. While advice is not always inappropriate, we must make sure that it does not keep us from relying on the power of God. We must always keep in mind that the only resource of lasting value within the house-church group is the power of God. In practical terms this means that prayer is almost always a first response to a need or problem that a shared with the group. This doesn’t mean that the group never offers practical help to its members, however, that practical help should arise from the Lord’s direction as we look to him for his resources. We don’t rely on human wisdom, but rather, the Spirit’s power.

Practically, that means when someone shares a struggle, we should start racking our brains for a solution; nor should we simply pretend we are therapists, and just listen sympathetically. Instead, we should listen carefully, both the person, and the Lord. We should ask the Lord quietly, “What do you want to do here and now? In what way do you want to use me to accomplish your goal?”

3. The purpose of Jesus.

Then Jesus came near and said to them, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:18-20, HCSB)

When we come together in a house-church group we ought to have one unified purpose: to make disciples of Jesus. Making disciples involves helping those who are already Christians to grow in their faith (becoming better disciples) and also helping to lead others who don’t know Jesus to true saving faith in him. We don’t come to church simply to increase our knowledge or to fulfill a program of the church. We come to be motivated by Jesus’ mission.

It should be obvious as we consider the presence, the power and the purpose of Jesus, that we cannot experience these things without being completely dependent upon God. We cannot make Jesus come to us. We cannot fake his power. And we cannot fulfill his purpose without his presence and his power. In the house-church we do not depend on our own resources, rather we depend fully and completely upon God. God may use other house-church members to minister to you; or he may use you to minister to other house-church members. But in the end it is God who is doing the ministering through us.

ONLY JESUS SATISFIES

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To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Experiencing Life Together Part 1

Experiencing Life Together #1

Psalm 63

The chances are, if you’ve decided to try out this “house-church thing” you may be feeling a bit dry in your Christian life lately. One person I know expressed it as a feeling of “surface-level interaction.” Another expressed it as a shallowness. Others may feel like they’re running on empty. It may be that you are dissatisfied with the way things are, particularly in your church, and you are interested in trying something new. Make no mistake about it — we (the developers of this curriculum) believe very strongly in the house Church model, and we think it presents solutions to many common church problems. However, there is no structure or method of doing church that can, in and of itself, offer true spiritual life. The answer to our struggles and issues is not a new way of doing church, but rather Jesus himself. Therefore we want to start this “house Church experience” by focusing not on house Church, but on the person of Jesus Christ.

On the surface, a feeling of dryness or shallowness in one’s spiritual life seems like a bad thing. After all, it can be frustrating to feel that you aren’t connecting with God, or with fellow believers. Worship might seem dull, and prayer might feel like empty repetition. There might be almost a dreary sameness to your spiritual life. But believe it or not, these are good signs! The problem is, we don’t always recognize them as such, and act accordingly. Many people blame themselves for these symptoms, and they try to overcome these feelings by sheer willpower. Some may blame their worship environments, and either work hard to change things, or simply leave. Others simply grit their teeth and wait it out. But sometimes God is responsible for our feelings of dryness and shallowness! That is because God wants to give us a greater thirst for Himself. God does not want us to become complacent, or self-satisfied about our relationship with Him. And so while feelings of discontent, restlessness and shallowness can be disturbing, they actually serve the wonderful purpose of making us hunger after more of God’s presence in our lives.

How should we respond to these feelings? I believe that there are several responses that are helpful, and some that are not helpful. Keep in mind that what God is after is a deeper relationship with you – the end result should be more of God’s presence in your life. First, some things to avoid – these are things that will cover up, or waste the thirst that God is creating in you:

1. Avoid making other people responsible to “fix” the problem. It may be a temptation to look to your church or your pastor to make things “deeper” or more meaningful. Maybe if your pastor was more like Chuck Swindoll, or your worship leader more like Michael W. Smith, you wouldn’t feel this way. While you certainly ought to bring up concerns you have about your church to your pastor or another appropriate leader, you cannot make them or anyone else responsible for your spiritual condition. God doesn’t want you to thirst for a certain kind of structure– He wants you to thirst for Himself. If you respond by seeking God, I can almost guarantee that your experience of house-church meetings during these few weeks will also be richer, particularly if others in your house-church do the same. If, on the other hand, you respond to spiritual dryness by trying to find some kind of experience (within, or outside of the house-church) you will eventually be disappointed. Once again, it is certainly legitimate to bring up for discussion issues that your church ought to address. But the start of a richer house Church experience is always found in a richer personal experience with God. The house-church model cannot take you farther than you are willing to go with God alone. The house-church cannot satisfy a thirst for God – only God can.

2. Avoid trying to fix the problem with other things. Human nature is such that we are almost always discontent. The great Christian thinker, C.S. Lewis found this to be one of the greatest indicators that we have an eternal, spiritual nature. Unfortunately, many of us attribute our discontent to something other than a need for more of God’s presence in our lives. We sometimes try to fill the void with relationships, activities, material things or lifestyle changes. While none of these things are of themselves bad, they are not the proper prescription for someone whom God has made thirsty. Some people may respond to spiritual dryness by attending all sorts of conferences and meetings and increasing the number of “spiritual” activities they are involved in. Once again, though these things are not bad, they miss the point – in fact, one of the greatest dangers to the spiritual life is often busyness with church and para-church activities. God is calling you to get alone with Him, and receive a deeper measure of His presence in your life. Church activities, shopping, friendships and so on will not accomplish this for you.

3. Don’t Ignore your thirst. Actually, the things I have just written about are ways to ignore, or divert, the thirst God is giving you for Himself. Don’t put it off until later – our spiritual sensitivity decreases every time we put God on hold. Own up to the dryness you feel, and own up to the reason for it – it is something that God wants you to respond to.

On the other hand, here are some thoughts on how to cultivate, and make use of, a thirst for God.

1. Get alone with God. Though we are responsible to other people, no one else is responsible for us. Only you and God know the status of your walk with Him. When He gives you a thirst for Himself, it can only be quenched in His presence. Get up early, or stay up late to be with Him. Perhaps you could go for a walk by yourself on your lunch break, or trade off watching the kids with your spouse on a Saturday, so that you can each have some time alone with Him.

2. Read your Bible. Peter said to Jesus: “You have the Words of eternal life.” Scripture is God’s primary way of “talking to us.” Hearing God through the Bible helps us to soak in presence. Without the written Word of scripture, our faith experience can become just so much spiritualized imagination. We can rely on God’s voice through the Bible. Some good places to read for those thirsting for God are Psalm 119, 63 and in fact, any of the Psalms. One of the Prophets, like Hosea, Isaiah, Malachi or Joel can also encourage the thirsty reader.

3. Pray conversationally. As you get alone with the Lord, talk to Him just like you would to a best friend. I personally pray this way best while I walk. Others may find kneeling more helpful. We can take for granted that He is with us and listening. As you pray, also take time to be quiet and “listen” to the thoughts and feelings that the Holy Spirit plants in your heart. If they truly are from the Lord, these thoughts and feelings will agree with what scripture says, which is another reason why it is so important to read your Bible.

What if you’re not thirsty right now? I believe a thirst for God is a gift that God gives His children. I believe very strongly that He will give it to you if you ask him for it. The key of course, is to recognize it for what it is, and not cover it up by trying to acquire more things, or by trying to satisfy it by church activities or human relationships. In addition, you can help fuel a desire for God by avoiding television. No other single influence does so much to direct us to seek contentment in things other than God. A hunger for God can also be aided by reading devotional books and/or listening to audio tapes. The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer is a terrific book I know to encourage a thirst for God’s presence in your life. Another is “Journey of Desire” by John Eldredge.

WHERE ARE YOUR INVESTMENTS?

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Today let us live not as citizens of earth trying to make it to heaven, but like citizens of heaven sojourning on earth.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Galatians Part 24

Galatians #24 . Chapter 6:6-10

Paul is finishing his letter with some practical instructions for Christian living, and for functioning as a church. Verse six is basically a command for the Galatians to provide material/financial support to those who teach them the Bible. It’s a little awkward, because in some ways, this passage is about me. I am a teacher/preacher of the bible. But I want to remind you of this: it is about you, too. You are one who is taught.

Before I dive into this, I want to make a deal with you. I will try to be as objective and “disinterested” about this as I can. I’ll try not to be self-serving in how I teach this. But here’s the deal – I want to ask the same of you. This passage is about you as much as me. So I’m asking you to try and be as objective as you can, and really listen to what the Lord wants to say to you. Try not to be self-serving in how you receive this.

For the record, I do believe that even if I received no money from teaching the Bible, I would still say the same things. More significantly, Paul said the same thing to a group of people from whom he refused to receive money: the Corinthians.

Who ever goes to war at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat its fruit? Or who shepherds a flock and does not drink the milk from the flock? Am I saying this from a human perspective? Doesn’t the law also say the same thing? For it is written in the law of Moses, Do not muzzle an ox while it treads out grain. Is God really concerned with oxen? Or isn’t He really saying it for us? Yes, this is written for us, because he who plows ought to plow in hope, and he who threshes should do so in hope of sharing the crop. If we have sown spiritual things for you, is it too much if we reap material benefits from you? If others have this right to receive benefits from you, don’t we even more?

However, we have not made use of this right; instead we endure everything so that we will not hinder the gospel of Christ. Don’t you know that those who perform the temple services eat the food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the offerings of the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should earn their living by the gospel. (1Cor 9:7-14, HCSB)

Paul chose not to ask for support from the Corinthians. Many Christians make a big deal out of that. I say, “Good for Paul.” But I want to point out two things:

First, Paul’s main point is that, properly, they were supposed to support him. None of what he is saying makes sense unless that is true. In other words, this passage from Corinthians teaches that the normal thing is for local churches to support local bible teachers, and apostles.

Second, though Paul supported himself through tent-making (or, leatherworking) for a short time when he was in Corinth, he did not do so for very long. After a short while, he devoted his full time to teaching the word (Acts 18:5). It is almost certain that Silas and Timothy brought gifts from other churches that allowed Paul to do this. So, though he was not supported by the Corinthians, he was supported by other churches during most of his ministry. In any case, the main point of the Corinthian passage is that it is God’s design that those who preach the gospel make their living at it.

1 Timothy 5:17-18 says,

The elders who are good leaders should be considered worthy of an ample honorarium, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says: Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain, and, the worker is worthy of his wages. (1Tim 5:17-18, HCSB)

Taken together, these three passages present a clear, consistent, unambiguous picture: Some people are called to be full-time Bible teachers and preachers; and in most cases these people are supposed to receive their living (financial and material support) from those they teach. This is good and right, both practically speaking, and in God’s eyes.

This isn’t a call for everyone who gets the fancy. It isn’t a frivolous thing to be a bible teacher. James wrote this:

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. (Jas 3:1, ESV2011)

In other words, this is a specific and unique calling, not given to every Christian, and perhaps not given to very many at all, proportionally, speaking. I will say from experience that it is not as easy as it looks from the outside. My advice to any people who are wondering if they are called to do this, is, try to do something else. Twice in my life I myself have tried to do something else, and the Lord has compelled me to come to back teaching and preaching. If you are called, you won’t be able to avoid it. So go ahead and try to avoid it, and see what happens.

In recent years, I have noticed that many people seem to look down people who are called to study, teach and preach the bible full-time. I’ve heard people mis-quote Paul from the Corinthians passage above, and suggest that no one is called to full-time bible teaching. For me, that only illustrates the need for good teachers, since it is the exact opposite of what the passage clearly says; and is in fact the opposite of the way Paul lived. I’ve seen many people who definitely should not have presumed to teach. Some people seem to think that any old fool can get up and talk about the bible. I suppose, in one way, that’s true, and you’ll hear almost any old foolish thing come out of their mouths. I’ve heard false teaching, and even heresy from such people. I would not want to be in their shoes when they have to explain themselves to the Lord. But the biblical position is that some few people are called to the unique ministry of teaching, and they should be provided for by churches, so that they can devote a great deal of time and prayer to it.

Every Christian should learn how to study the bible for himself or herself. We should all take personal responsibility for following Jesus and being better disciples. But that does not eliminate this special ministry of teaching. Ideally, we take what the teachers give us, and incorporate it into our own walk of faith. Paul’s point to the Galatians, Corinthians and Timothy is that the teacher offers spiritual blessing, and the churches offer material blessing in return so that the teacher can continue to give that spiritual blessing.

Both here in Galatians, and in the Corinthian passage, Paul refers to sowing and reaping. “Sowing” is another way of saying “planting seeds.” The bible uses it often to mean “investing for the future.” “Reaping” means “gathering the harvest.” It refers to getting the results of what you sowed.

There is no doubt in my mind that Paul is talking generally about where you invest your time, energy, talent and focus. However, there is also no doubt in my mind that he is also talking about how you use your money. Jesus talked extensively about investing earthly money in spiritual things. The entire parable of the shrewd manager (Luke 16) is about that. Jesus summed it up at the end:

And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of the unrighteous money so that when it fails, they may welcome you into eternal dwellings. Whoever is faithful in very little is also faithful in much, and whoever is unrighteous in very little is also unrighteous in much. So if you have not been faithful with the unrighteous money, who will trust you with what is genuine? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to someone else, who will give you what is your own? No household slave can be the slave of two masters, since either he will hate one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You can’t be slaves to both God and money.” (Luke 16:9-13, HCSB)

Jesus seems to be saying that you can use money (which he calls “unrighteous”) to gain a spiritual result. This isn’t about buying your way into heaven. It is about investing your money (along with the rest of the life) in spiritual, eternal things. He told the rich young ruler that giving money away could help him to have eternal treasure:

“If you want to be perfect,” Jesus said to him, “go, sell your belongings and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me.” (Matt 19:21, HCSB)

Let’s be completely honest. We sow most of our money to the flesh. In other words, we generally spend money in ways that gratify our external, earthly desires, or the desires of our loved ones. When we do that, the payoff is in the flesh. That means our reward is temporary, fleeting and fading away. Gratifying your flesh now, gets you nothing in eternity. Jesus said:

“Don’t collect for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But collect for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves don’t break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matt 6:19-21, HCSB)

And again:

“But seek His kingdom, and these things will be provided for you. Don’t be afraid, little flock, because your Father delights to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Make money-bags for yourselves that won’t grow old, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Luke 12:31-34, HCSB)

Jesus actually suggests that we trade earthly money for inexhaustible, eternal treasure in heaven. Some people teach that if you give away earthly money, God will give it back to you, plus interest – in earthly money. Jesus doesn’t say exactly that. He tells us not worry about our physical needs, and tells us that we can invest in eternity with our earthly money. Again, this is not about buying your way into heaven. It is about weakening the connection between you and your flesh. It is about breaking the hold that money has on us, and strengthening the hold that heaven has on us. It is about consciously actiquarter in god we trustng as if your real treasure is in heaven; because it is. Every time you give money for spiritual purposes you are affirming that you are really a citizen of heaven. You are agreeing that your real retirement begins, not in your sixties, but after you shed your flesh through death, and step into the new creation.

One final thought, and this is why I took the time to talk about money here:

But those who want to be rich fall into temptation, a trap, and many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and by craving it, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. (1Tim 6:9-10, HCSB)

So, it is clear to me that Paul is saying, “Look, your teachers and preachers should receive support from you. And to spend money for a spiritual purpose leads to a spiritual result, an eternal result. You store up treasure in heaven for yourself when you do that.”

Now, I do think Paul is also talking about more than money. I think when he talks about sowing and reaping, he means this: “You can invest in the flesh, or you can invest in the Spirit.” We can spend our time, money and energy on self-gratification (flesh-gratification) or on spiritual things. Another way to invest in spiritual things, according to these verses, is to “do good,” and “work for the good of all, especially for those who belong to the household of faith.” The Christian church should be like a family, and we should consider it a priority to bless each other, and work for the good of each other. That’s a spiritual investment. Sometimes that may mean saying an uplifting word, or writing a note. It may mean helping someone fix their home or car. We could work for good for each other by staying in touch and encouraging each other, by sharing our time, knowledge and abilities with each other. There are many, many ways.

I’ve tried flesh-gratification from time to time. It never seems to last very long. It doesn’t produce any long term benefits even in this life, let alone for eternity. Paul says that investing in the spirit yields eternal life. I have noticed that when I invest in spiritual things, it begins to yield positive and lasting results, even now. Paul says, therefore:

we must not get tired of doing good, for we will reap at the proper time if we don’t give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, we must work for the good of all, especially for those who belong to the household of faith. (Gal 6:6-10, HCSB)

Flesh-gratification is immediate. Sowing to the Spirit is a long-term proposition. Immediate results are fun, but we probably should not expect them. We shouldn’t expect the final and full results until after this mortal life is over. We Christians are a people of hope, and that means that our desires and investments come to fruition in the future, not now. As a friend of mine said on facebook this week:

Today let us live not as citizens of earth trying to make it to heaven, but like citizens of heaven sojourning on earth.

With that in mind, with our focus on the hope and life to come, we can ignore the call to self-gratification and seek instead, to bring good to others.