Growth Through Abiding

Most of us feel quite comfortable with the idea of effort and hard work resulting in rewards, whether that is higher pay, more holidays or other bonuses. We find a certain satisfaction in the idea that merit brings its own rewards, and conversely often find it difficult to accept salvation as God’s free gift. It would be easier if we could balance our goodness and moral acts and conclude that we deserve God’s grace and help.

Unfortunately, the gospel does not work like that. Paul makes it plain in Romans 1-3 that no amount of good works or righteousness can ever be enough to save us. We have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. (Rom 3:23) Our only hope, therefore, is in the generosity and grace of God, meaning we are made righteous through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and not because of our own merit or righteousness.

When we think about spiritual growth, we may start by grace, but the old way of doing things often creeps back, something Paul had to contend with when he wrote to the Galatians. (Gal 3:1-9) We can very easily start to think that spiritual growth comes by doing good works and following the law. In natural terms, we may associate growth with the care and products used by the farmer, forgetting that so many things – the weather, for example – are beyond his control. It can be the same spiritually, with people associating good practices (prayer, reading the Word, witnessing and so on) with their actual growth and somehow rendering God obsolete in our thinking.

Jesus made it plain, however, that growth is absolutely dependent on our relationship with Him. He said, ‘Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.’ (John 15:4) He said, ‘I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing’ (John 15:5)

For the vine, growth is equated with fruitfulness. The same is true of us, for Paul urges us to allow the fruit of the Spirit to grow and flourish in our lives – fruit which can be seen in our behaviour and attitudes. (Gal 5:22-23) Living God’s way means allowing Him to bring gifts into our lives: ‘He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.’ (Gal 5:22-23, The Message) But fruit does not grow through the efforts of the grapes (as the story Basil the Branch illustrated!) In that story, Basil the branch desperately wanted to grow grapes through sheer effort alone. He had to learn that growth came through resting, remaining, abiding in the vine.

Jesus said, ‘if you make yourselves at home with me and my words are at home in you, you can be sure that whatever you ask will be listened to and acted upon. This is how my Father shows who he is—when you produce grapes, when you mature as my disciples.’ (John 15:7-8, The Message) Growth in the spiritual realm is as natural, organic and intimate as it is in the physical realm, and it all starts by abiding in Jesus and letting His words have free rein in our lives.

Growing Up In Christ

At our ‘Churches Together’ prayer meeting this week (on Facebook live on Wednesday 15th July at 10.45 a.m.), we are looking at the subject of growth, both in the natural world and in the spiritual realm. Growth is God’s intention for every one of His children. Paul tells us that despite all our efforts in evangelism and teaching, it is ‘God who makes things grow’ (1 Cor 3:6-7) and Peter urges us to crave pure spiritual milk like newborn babies do so that ‘by it you may grow up in your salvation.’ (1 Pet 2:2) Paul talks of us growing ‘to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.’ (Eph 4:15-16) It’s God’s desire and purpose that we grow!

Growing up in Christ is a process, however, not a one-off event. All growth takes time and nurture. We are often impatient with the idea of growth, wanting things to happen overnight (as the little mouse Scamp does when growing sunflower seeds for his mother in the lovely children’s book ‘Mummy’s Little Sunflowers’ by Angela McAllister and Alison Edgson.) We need to understand that growth times time and cannot be rushed.

In Jeremiah 32, we have a powerful parable acted out by the prophet. Despite the desperate times, with Israel facing exile from their beloved land, Jeremiah is commanded by God to go and buy a field. (Jer 32:2, 8-12) That may well have seemed a pointless thing to do, for how could the field have any benefit to Jeremiah or his family when they were not even in the land to do anything about it? Jeremiah understood that God was reminding HIs people about the hope and the future He still had for them. Jeremiah said, ‘This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Take these documents, both the sealed and unsealed copies of the deed of purchase, and put them in a clay jar so they will last a long time. For this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Houses, fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land.’ (Jer 32:14-15)

God is interested in the long-term view. Jeremiah’s field was a vivid reminder that even though the people faced exile and banishment to a foreign land for seventy years (70 years!), God hadn’t finished with them yet. God still had good plans for them, plans to give them hope and a future, plans not to forsake them but to bring them prosperity. (Jer 29:11) Growth may well take generations; it will almost certainly take longer than we want it to do. But the God who makes things grow will not abandon us. We may well have felt abandoned and forsaken in lockdown; we may well wonder how on earth life can ever get back to any kind of normality with the threat of coronavirus hanging over us. How can we survive, let alone thrive? How can we ever gather again for our ‘Churches Together’ fun days like we used to?

We can be confident ultimately in a good future and in good growth because we serve a good God. (Ps 119:68) The flower seeds sent out to many people over recent weeks are a simple symbol of this truth that growth takes time, but there are times and seasons for everything. (Eccl 3:1-11) As we plant those seeds, we can be sure that God will make them grow and give us beautiful and diverse flowers to enjoy in due course. In the same way, we can be sure that the God who has begun a good work in us will carry it on to completion. (Phil 1:6) It may take time, but He is faithful and He will do it.

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Being in God’s House

Picture the scene: white, sandy beaches stretching for miles… blue seas glittering in the bright sunshine like lapis lazuli jewels. Feeling heartsick? Many of us have this tendency to long for idyllic scenes like this, and our inability to travel on holidays abroad to such destinations in recent months has only increased our wistfulness for such places.

Many of us have had holidays to places like this postponed or cancelled in recent months and whilst this is by no means the hardest thing we have faced, there has still been a sense of sadness at all the ‘could haves’ and ‘should haves’ over recent weeks. As things slowly begin to return to some kind of normality, we are beginning to anticipate meeting together in person again and the psalmist’s confident assertion that it’s better to spend one day in God’s house than a thousand elsewhere (Ps 84:10) may seem a little over-optimistic to us as we look at government guidance which will inevitably mean our gathering together doesn’t look quite like it used to.

Protestant Christians have always had ambivalent feelings about ‘places of worship‘, not wanting church buildings themselves to have a higher place in our worship than God Himself. We have not wanted to ‘limit’ God to an actual building and so have often played down the role of gathered meetings, stressing God’s presence with us everywhere we are, which is undoubtedly true. But there is no doubt that gathering together to worship God is a vital aspect of our Christian faith, and so we do understand the psalmist’s longing, expressed in the Message version in this way: ‘one day spent in Your house, this beautiful place of worship, beats thousands spent on Greek island beaches.’ Even allowing for poetic licence, we too yearn to be able to gather again together in our building on Market Street!

And yet… we may have ambivalent feelings about gathering together again (which we hope to do from 2nd August) when we think about the uncertainties of this present time, about the spaced-out seating which looks so odd, about the restrictions on congregational singing placed on us by government restrictions. It would be easy to look at the notion of not being able to hug one another or share refreshments after services as making our gathered worship pointless. But there is always meaning to obeying God, and by choosing to gather together in obedience to Him and by fixing our attention on worshipping Him as our primary reason for gathering together, we too can understand the psalmist’s longing.

Ps 84 acts us a window into the heart of a person who longs for God’s presence and who understands the importance of joining with others to praise God. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a fortnight on a sun-kissed beach, but ultimately nothing satisfies us like the times we spend worshipping and serving God, and as we join together again, our prayer is that we forget the oddities and restrictions and rejoice in being together again to glorify Him for all His goodness, kindness, faithfulness, grace, mercy and forgiveness.

Enriched by God

Garry continued his ‘Being & Doing’ series, reminding us that our value in God does not come from what we do but is because of His great love for us. In 1 Cor 1:4-8, we read that we ‘have been enriched in every way’ and so often, we can assume this means our value comes from how much we earn or how much money we possess. Earthly riches are no guarantee of spiritual success, however. Jesus reminded us that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God (Matt 19:24); our human tendency is to put our hope in wealth rather than in God (see 1 Tim 6:17-19). Earthly riches can easily become a stumbling-block to us (1 Tim 6:10) and this has been exacerbated by those who have preached a ‘prosperity gospel’ that God’s blessing is only found in material wealth. God is a God of blessing and this can include financial wealth, but we need to ensure that we are not deceived by wealth (see Rev 3:17-18). We so easily put our trust in it and come to rely on it, whereas God wants us to put our trust in Him and learn to store up for ourselves treasures in heaven. (Matt 6:19-21)

Life’s worries, riches and pleasures can easily choke God’s word in our lives, leaving us constricted in our growth. (Luke 8:14) This can be rather like the fatty deposits which build in our arteries, ultimately leading to heart attacks. When our arteries are blocked, the blood flow necessary for life is affected; we can find our spiritual life blocked if we come to rely on the world’s riches.

Paul talks of God enriching us through speech and knowledge (1 Cor 1:5), both of which seem unlikely sources of riches! Jesus has the words of eternal life (John 6:68) and gives us these words to speak to others (Acts 3:6, Acts 9:40, Acts 14:8-10) His words endure (Matt 24:35) and are full of life (John 6:63). When Jesus spoke, even the dead were raised (Mark 5:41, John 11:43) and He makes these powerful words of healing, faith and deliverance available to us too. Paul spoke words of eternal life to the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:29-30) and Philip too gave words of life to the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:30-31). We may feel we are not worthy to be compared to such Christians, but God uses ordinary people (e.g. Ananias in Acts 9:17-18) to bring His messages to people. Prophecy, tongues, interpretations, words of wisdom and words of knowledge are all ways God enriches His church through speech.

Knowledge is what we receive from God’s speech, but this is not the kind of secret knowledge which the Gnostics proclaimed. It’s not merely academic or ‘head’ knowledge, but the revelation of God which He has been pleased to give us. (Col 1:26-27) God gives true knowledge (John 17:3) involving our personal relationship with Christ. God reveals; we receive and we respond. There are many other riches which God lavishes on us (including His kindness, forbearance, patience, grace and glorious inheritance), but we are enriched ultimately in order to enrich others. We are blessed to bless others. God gives to us so that we can give to others.

Living Stones

This morning, Stephen talked to us about church… Church life has obviously been hugely affected by the pandemic, since we were not able to meet together in person for so long (we are looking to re-start face-to-face meetings on 2nd August), but even though we have been affected by the pandemic, we are not infected! The only infection we truly long for is to have Christ in our lives.

‘Virtual church’, where we have livestreamed services, has involved looking at a screen and listening via speakers (on phones, tablets, laptops and desktop computers). We’re grateful for such technology, but once we are gathering together again in person, we will have to adapt what our services are like because of government restrictions. No matter what restrictions are in place (social distancing, extra cleaning, using hand sanitisers or masks and not having congregational singing), however, what is inside us – the hope, joy and life of God – needs to be expressed. Luke 19:37-40 reminds us that if we do not praise, the rocks will cry out – and Stephen had a rock to remind us that even inanimate objects can be used as expressions of praise by God if He so desires!

Praising God is not an optional extra; it’s an essential part of our lives as we are called to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. Each one of us needs to express our love, adoration and praise to God, even if we have to find new ways to do this. 1 Pet 2:4-5 reminds us that Jesus is the living stone and we too are like living stones, being built into a spiritual house by God. Unlike the inanimate stone held by Stephen, we are living (or animate) stones – a collection of God’s people known as the church. God gives life to us so that these living stones, animated by Christ’s Spirit in us, can become a reflection of who God is and what He is doing. It may well be a challenge to gather together in the near future, something very different to what we have been used to in the past, but to exalt God is at the heart of church life and this is what we are called to do – whether we’re physically together or apart, whether we face restrictions or not. God is always worthy of our praise – so let’s be creative and inventive in how we praise Him!

What Will Change?

Because of government legislation, services will be different to what we are used to, but we are sure that God’s presence with us will enable us to adapt and both honour and glorify Him when we gather together. Please note the following changes which we are required to make.

  1. We request that you do not attend services if you are ill or showing symptoms of Covid-19 (including a high temperature, persistent dry cough and loss of taste or smell.) We will have to keep a record of those attending each service for 21 days and you should notify us if, after attending a service, you become ill with symptoms of Covid-19 so that others can be notified. Anyone showing symptoms of Covid-19 is advised to contact the NHS Test & Trace service. If we have confirmed cases of Covid-19, it is recommended that contacts self-isolate for 14 days and it is possible services will have to stop at that point to minimise the spread of the virus.

  2. Social distancing measures will be in place and we ask you to observe these both inside and outside the building. This will mean only 1 person in the corridor or in each toilet and we have arranged chairs individually and in family groups in the Worship Room at distances of 2 metres to facilitate social distancing.

  3. We have installed hand sanitiser dispensers at entrances and hand sanitiser is available outside toilets as well. You are strongly advised by the government to use hand sanitiser or to wash your hands on arriving and on leaving the building. We have also installed paper towel dispensers and pedal bins in each toilet to allow you to wash and dry your hands thoroughly.

  4. We have removed communal objects such as toys to avoid cross-contamination. Parents are asked to bring their own toys/ books for their children to use during services. The foyer area is recommended for families with children. Church Bibles can be used, but must be left on chairs after use so that these can then be isolated for 48 hours as stipulated in the regulations.

  5. We have revised our cleaning protocols to include colour-coded cloths to avoid cross-contamination and will be cleaning more regularly, especially before and after services. Cleaning wipes will be on chairs so that members can wipe down chairs after each service to help with cleaning issues. We will also be wedging doors open to avoid having to touch handles.

  6. We will not be serving refreshments after services at present to avoid cross-contamination.

  7. We would request that members do not use other rooms in the building to avoid having to clean other areas.

  8. Members are asked to bring their own bread and juice for Holy Communion to avoid cross-contamination. Holy Communion will form a part of services each Sunday morning and on the 2nd Sunday evening of each month.

  9. A number of individually packaged face coverings will be available for use by members. Please leave these after services so they can be washed. It is not mandatory to wear face coverings, which is why we have retained social distancing at 2 metres.

  10. We will not be passing around the offering bag, but will have a receptacle and jar for the Compassion children on the table in the foyer for you to leave your tithes and offerings. If you are able to give using online banking, please ask us for bank details to help you do this.

  11. Congregations are advised not to sing, chant or shout during services. We are investigating ways of using music in our services, including recorded music, for we recognise the vital part singing and music play in our usual services.

We know that the above measures look daunting and will certainly have an impact on our services at first. But we believe that as we gather together to worship, pray and hear from God’s word, God is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine. (Eph 3:20) Let’s keep asking God to move in our area, to change this situation and to help us to go forward as His people with courage, faith and love.