Thursday 28 March 2013

Loving your church (Part 1 of 3)

How to love your church. If this were the title of a book, I wonder what kind of reader it would appeal to?

A book entitled, “How to love your kids” would probably be found in the self-help section of the bookshop and recommended to parents of troubled teenagers. It would contain tips on how to relate to your kid, how to understand their angst, how to maintain discipline at home. That kind of thing. Or a book entitled, “How to love your spouse” might be picked up by couples in counselling who want to rekindle that spark in their relationship.

So, inevitably, as I prepare to lead a workshop this week on “Loving the church” at a local Christian conference for students, I anticipate the kind of person signing up for such a workshop doing so precisely because they face difficulty loving their church. They have problems loving their church or they find it challenging helping others to love their church.

How many times have you heard someone say, “I love Jesus. It’s the church I can’t stand.” I think of one teenager who was brave enough to say that out loud to his mother. How would you have responded?

What I hope to do at the workshop this week is to help Christians look at their local church as it is, warts and all. To see their church as it is now - not what it should be or what it ought to be in five years. To see the reality of what is going on in their local church right now.

But to do so not just from our perspective but God’s.

That is what Paul does in his letter to the Ephesians. Ephesians is a letter to a real church with real people and real problems. It is a church which he obviously loves and adores; Ephesians is, I think, the most positive letter in all of the New Testament; full of praise and thanksgiving. And yet, the reason he is able to do so is because Paul sees the church the way God sees the church.

And what Paul does in Ephesians is help us to do the same.

I do no cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe.
Ephesians 1:16-19

This has been my recent prayer for myself as well as for my brothers and sisters at the Chinese Church. “God, help us to see the church the way you do. Open the eyes of our hearts, by your Spirit, such that we might know this hope, this love and this power that you have revealed in the gospel and made visible through the church.”

Because only when we are able to see the church the way God does can we hope to love the church the way God does.

Praise and worship

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, 8 which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight 9 making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

11 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, 12 so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.
Ephesians 1:3-14

There are 202 words (in the original Greek) in these two paragraphs. And the thing to note is that these 202 words are strung together in one single sentence. Take a deep breath and try reading the entire section in one go!

Paul begins by praising God, as many of our church gatherings begin, with a time of praise and worship and singing to God. The first half of our time is typically led by a worship leader accompanied by a team of musicians. I know that many of you have spent time in preparation for this camp, planning the worship and practising the songs.

What was your emphasis in preparing for that time of worship? An experience of God, perhaps. What are you leading your people to do? To sing, to pray, maybe even, to fall on their knees in worship. How do your people typically respond after that time of worship each week? “Wow, I needed that.” “That was awesome!”

Friends, when you read these words of praise in Ephesians, I think the response that most people will have to these words is, “I didn’t know that about God before.” “Wow, did God really do that?”

I wonder if you’ve ever had that experience before. You hear someone pray aloud, and you’re praying along with him, but as you do, you’re mind is going, “This guy’s God seems so much more awesome than the God I know. I want to know his God.”

The unique thing about Paul’s praise is how it leads us to want to praise God. He does this by praising God for who he is and what he has done.

Now, many of us need to understand what praise really means. It’s advertising. Praise means to advertise; to speak well of something or someone that deserves to be praised. The word eulogetos, translated in our English bibles as “praise” or “blessing” is actually where we get the word eulogy. I mention that because a eulogy is what you say at a funeral. Meaning, praise is not just for the joyful. You can lead someone to praise God even in their darkest moments, as Job did, “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” (Job 1:21)

If we get that, especially if you are a worship leader, then what you are doing when you lead your church in praise is you are representing God. Your focus is not, first and foremost, “Are they going to enjoy the music?” You are representing God; meaning, your focus should be, “Is what I am saying true?” Because, if it isn’t, then, what you are doing is, in effect, false advertising.

How can you tell when this happens? Over time, your praise becomes shallow. You run out of things to say about God and end up repeating the same canned phrase over and over again. It’s not that what you are saying isn’t true, but if that happens, it is a symptom that you aren’t tapped into the truth. You are running on your own steam.

That’s not Paul, is it? Praise just tumbles out of him. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.”

Yet at the same time, his praise is continually focussed on Jesus. That’s the source of his praise. God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing “in Christ.” God has chosen us before the foundation of the world “in him”. God has adopted us as sons to praise of his glorious grace, which he has blessed us “in the Beloved.”

This is not generic praise. True praise of the true and living God is only possible through Jesus Christ. Meaning, not everyone can praise God in this way, only those who are in Christ. Very soberly, you have to ask yourself if you are a worship leader tasked with leading your church in praising God, “Are my people in Christ?” Because that’s where we need to be in order to praise him the way Paul is praising God here in Ephesians. Any other praise is meaningless. Indeed, any other praise is offensive to God.

Some who hear these words, “Blessed be God... who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing,” will think, “Wow, God has blessed me so much today, I must thank him and sing my heart out in this song,” while others might think, “I haven’t been blessed by God. In fact, my life is quite crummy right now.” Both are thinking like pagans - the guy who think he’s blessed and the guy who think he isn’t. Both of them are thinking in terms of the blessing that they get from God as a measure of their praise to offer up to God.

As a worship leader, your job is to point your church to the source of blessing, the God who has “blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.” If you are in Christ, you have every spiritual blessing. It’s all yours. But if you are outside of Christ, whatever blessing you do have is, at best, temporary.

In fact, Paul’s praise is not so much what God will do for us but what God will do for Jesus. His plan is to glorify him by pulling all things together and placing them under Jesus’ authority.

His purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
Ephesians 1:9-10

God’s eternal plan is to glorify his Son and Paul’s praise points us in that direction. Now the interesting thing about Paul’s praise in Ephesians Chapter 1 is that it is immediately followed by Paul’s prayer which restates God’s plan (to put all things under Christ) except that here, at the end of the prayer, Paul makes it clear that God has given us a preview of that plan through the church.

And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
Ephesians 1:22-23

What does God see when he looks at the church? What does God see when he looks at your church? In a word, it’s heaven.

Now, you might not think of your church as heaven (and at the back of your minds, you might be thinking of a place quite different from heaven!) But that’s because you don’t know the bible’s definition of heaven. Heaven represents God’s rule under King Jesus. It is creation under its rightful Creator.

And granted that even Jesus has lots to say about the seven churches in Revelation, many of which are called to repent and clean up their act, because he knows everything that goes on his church (Revelation Chapters 2 and 3). Still, the church is a preview of God’s final plan to bring all of creation under the rule of King Jesus.

Which is why Paul prays for the eyes of our hearts to be opened to see this reality (Ephesians 1:18). He wants us to see the church the way God sees it. From his perspective. We need God’s help to be able to do this, for sure. Paul prays for God to give the Ephesians the Spirit of wisdom and revelation.

This is also why Paul keeps using the phrase, “in the heavenly places,” throughout the letter. Hence, we are blessed with every spiritual blessing “in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:3). We are raised and seated with Jesus “in the heavenly places” (speaking about our status as Christians in Ephesians 2:6). Even our struggles against Satan and his spiritual forces are described as being “in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).

Paul’s prayer (indeed, his whole purpose in writing the letter) is that Christians would grasp the reality of God’s full and final plan for the universe - seen right here in the local church. That’s why he prays for the Ephesians. That’s why he praises God for the Ephesians. God is glorifying his Son through the church of the Ephesians.

Isn’t this something that would transform your church? If they saw what God was really doing through your bible studies, your fellowships and your Sunday gatherings?

No comments: