Living for God’s Glory

St Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna
St Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna

During our recent holiday, which included time in Europe, Jenny and I visited our fair share of church buildings. Magnificent monoliths, towering ceilings and incredibly ornate interiors greeted us in every city. Although they were said to be built “for the glory of God,” we had our suspicions that more than just God’s glory was in focus. It was the glory of an emperor, a ruler, a nation or of humanity itself that was also being glorified.
These grand structures seem far removed from the church we find described in book of Acts. Rather than displaying glory and power through breathtaking and awe-inspiring buildings, God’s glory in Acts is evidenced in changes in lives and the formation of new all-embracing communities. Rather than focussing on what the church does for God in promoting his glory in the world, the story of Acts focuses on what God is doing for humanity through his people the church.
Luke’s account of the life of the early church in Acts reinforces that it is Jesus who builds his church, not us. In a world obsessed with success, activism and results, this is a much needed reminder.
In his book The Politics of God and the Politics of Man, Jacques Ellul observes how our modern society seems to believe the only purpose of life is to get things done. Whether it is personally

St Stephens Vienna
One side chapel in St Stephen’s Cathedral

and corporately, success is defined by setting goals and accomplishing them, or at least trying to accomplish them.
For instance, when we introduce ourselves to others one of the first things we mention is what we do, what we have done, and were we have succeeded. Our worth, and the worth of every organisation is measured by what it has done and the difference it has made in the world.
Ellul goes on to suggest that Christians are no different. While it is true we are called to accomplish things for God, we often slip into measuring our worth as Christian on the basis of whether we are doing something “worthwhile” or not. However, this is not how God would want us to view things.
Beginning with Genesis and picking examples throughout the Bible, Ellul suggests that meaning and worth is not to be found in activism, results, and success.
Genesis 2 describes Eden as a luscious garden providing all the food Adam and Eve needed. But just a few verses later, God commands Adam to work the soil and care for it? The obvious question is what for? If Eden provided the food, why did Adam need to work the soil?
Then when it comes to prayer, Ellul asks, if God knows what we need, and is able to do everything whether we pray or not, then why do we need to ask? It’s the same with the gospel, we are saved entirely by grace and any work we do to gain salvation is inconsequential, so what is the point of living a life a righteousness life? What does it accomplish?
We are confronted with the same questions in the book of Acts. Here we face the question, “What did these early Christians do for God that he could not have done just as well without them?” The answer is nothing!
After studying Jesus’ parable about faithful service in Luke 17:7-10 with its conclusion “We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty,” Ellul argues that the world has got it wrong when it believes aiming for success and accomplishment is the only effective motive for action. A more reliable and effective motive is to act out of love for God, and you do it just because he asked.
Ellul’s conclusion is that “we have nothing to achieve, nothing to win, nothing to provide” and although there are things to do and tasks to accomplish, we are under no illusion that God needs us nor that we have made any essential contribution to his work.
The supreme example of this is of course Jesus. He did not strive for success or accomplishment, in fact in the eyes of his world he died a failure as another false messiah on a Roman cross. The gospels record that throughout his life he was concerned with one thing: faithfulness to the will of Father. It was his faithfulness, not his accomplishments that won for us salvation.
What is true for Jesus is true for his people and this is what we find working out in Acts. The early church was not focussed on accomplishments, activism, results, and success. Its focus was on loving God and loving each other, and allowing Jesus to get about building his church. They are constantly playing catch up as Jesus moves ahead of them time after time. As they do this they experienced the grace and freedom of God. Saving the world wasn’t up to them, that’s God’s job.
As we work our way through Acts during the next few weeks as Hobart Baptist, it is my prayer we will experience more and more of the grace and freedom these early Christians experienced. Grace allowed them to rest and let the Holy Spirit be at work in and through them, and the freedom released them from the tyranny of striving for success.
May you too experience the job of living for God not as work, but as the delight of worship.
Stephen L Baxter

Catching the Wave

Last week at Hobart Baptist I began a series of sermons to work through the Book of Acts. I expect that as we read through Luke’s account of the early days of the church, we will be struck by the sense of momentum and adventure.
Those early days saw the emergence of communities of faith that were unique in the world because of their mutual accountability and generosity. People were drawn to God through an amazing mixture of radical community, miracles, and Holy Spirit-empowered living and witness. The result was a church that grew at an exponential rate.
But it was not all easy. The adventure was full of moments of great challenge and crisis. There were imprisonments and conflicts, persecution and even premature death. In a strange way these all added to the sense of wonder and adventure.
The impression you get reading Acts is that Jesus is building his church and the people are playing ‘catch up’. Time and time again God pops up and takes the initiative and everyone has to readjust to the new thing that his happening. Just like a surfer who sits on his surfboard waiting for a wave, Acts is like a story about a wave generated by the Holy Spirit which the followers of Jesus struggle to catch.  It is the story of God on the move and his people going along for the ride.
Perhaps you could also work your way through the book of Acts over the next few weeks?
If you do, it is my prayer that God will help you to see what the Holy Spirit is doing in your church community today; and then having perceived what he is doing we will have the courage to “catch the wave” and continuing being part of God’s great adventure.
I’d love to have your thoughts as you read it through! How does your ‘surfing’ go?
Stephen L Baxter

The Church. What is it really?

Do you find the word “church” confusing?Is a 'Church' a building, or a group of people?
When I was with Fusion I regularly taught a short course called “Church and Mission”. As an introduction I would brainstorm with the students different ways the word “church” is used. Usages such as “go” to church, which could mean a building or a service; would come up, but so would the notion of denominations such as the Anglican Church and how we use the word for congregations themselves as well as for the wider “body of Christ”. Most classes would come up with about 12 different ways in which we use the word “church”. No wonder there is confusion around what the church actually is.
Historically, our English word “church” has come to us via German and Latin from the Greek kyriakon which means, “hat which belongs to the Lord”. Originally it was an adjective, doma or oikia meaning “the Lord’s house”. That’s why we use the word for the building in which we conduct worship. However, sadly, this origin of the word “church” is not from the Bible.
In the New Testament the word we translate “church” is ekklesia, which means a public gathering, assembly or meeting. Never throughout the New Testament does ekklesia refer to a building; it only always refers to people.
It literally means a “called-out people” however there is little of this meaning found in the New Testament. Following on from the Old Testament ekklesia is used to describe the people of God assembled to worship. The ekklesia is not a “sect” that separates itself from the world, but a people of God gathering to and for the Lord in worship and fellowship so as to be formed into Christ and serve the world.

A history of redefinition

Given that the word “church” has both biblical and extra-biblical meanings it is not surprising there is some confusion about what the word means, and, that throughout history there have been various attempts to define what “church” is.
Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (died 258), suggested that “where the bishop is, there is the church”. Medieval scholars developed a dualistic notion of both the “visible” and “invisible” church. The Reformers proposed that “where scriptural doctrine is adhered to, there is the church” whereas the Anabaptists said, “where converted believers are gathered, there is the church.” Pietists (a movement within Lutheranism from late 17th to mid 18th century  influenced Protestantism, Anabaptism, John Wesley and the Methodist movement and Brethrens) organised “little churches within the church” for Bible study, fellowship and prayer, here the church is a small group of committed followers. We can see elements of all these different perspectives in our different denominations.
To add to the confusion the number of Christian denominations has increased from about 1,000 to 22,000 over the past century.

The “real” church

So who or what is the “real” church? It’s not easy to define, but ultimately the “real” church is the one Christ loved and for which he gave his life. The picture we have in the book of Revelation is of the “bride of Christ” finally perfected and prepared for the final consummation. It is only in this grand finale that the church is final and completed. Until that time it is perpetually in transition experiencing transformation and change.
In other words, from its earliest beginnings until now the church has always been in the process of becoming. It remains incomplete, immature and in the process of being perfected until then. It is always changing. Living in the midst of such continual change is not easy. I believe that change, or perhaps more accurately the fear of change, is one of the greatest impediments to the ongoing development of the church.
We long for the confusion to disappear so that we can rest and retire. But Jesus does not let us. He is preparing his bride.
At Hobart Baptist, where I am in leadership, we have accepted the reality that we need to continue to change to be all God wants us to be. And yet we fear growth, we fear parting with cherished traditions, we fear dominating leaders and losing power. However, the same challenges have faced by God’s people throughout history, and are also pehaps faced by the fellowship where you worship.
Jesus is at work building his Church. It can be very confusing at times, and quite confronting. However, he is always calling us to become more and more like him. It is challenging, but as  John Wimber suggested the best way to spell “faith” is “R, I, S, K”.
Stephen L Baxter