She is our mother

What is Mother’s Day about?

The celebration of our human mothers only goes back to 1914 in the USA, where it is celebrated on May 9th, the anniversary of the death of the mother of its American promoter, Anna Jarvis.

The custom of celebrating motherhood in Lent started here in 1920 when Constance Smith suggested that the Bible reading for the Fourth Sunday of Lent would be a suitable pointer to thanking God for our mothers:

“But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.” (Galatians 4:26)

There is huge value in reminding ourselves annually of the care shown by our mothers and honouring them in this way through sending flowers, cards and Simnel cakes. The care shown by mothers also reminds us of the “brooding” of God’s Spirit over chaos before creation began (Genesis 1:2) and of Jesus’ longing to protect his own Jewish people in Jerusalem (Luke 13:34). We celebrate motherhood as an image of God’s love creating life and protecting his children.

Mother’s Day (as it is known outside the Church) has largely ceased to be a religious occasion in the UK, as in the USA. Anna Jarvis regretted the growing commercialisation of the day, even to disapproving of pre-printed Mother’s Day cards. “A printed card means nothing,” she said, “except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world.”

As we nonetheless continue to thank God for his gracious provision of motherhood, we can also reclaim the original meaning of that text for the Fourth Sunday of Lent about the Church. The Church, wonderfully composed of all in Christ from east to west, young to old, on earth and in glory, gathered around His throne, is our mother. For centuries Mothering Sunday has seen people gather at their local “mother” church or cathedral.

In the text from Galatians above Paul is making the point that God’s people are free in Christ. In the context, he draws the contrast between the children of Hagar, Abraham’s slavegirl, and the children of Sarah, his wife. He then makes a radical claim that those who see Jewish law, instead of faith in Christ, as the way to be right with God are not children of Sarah but of Hagar, because only those in Christ are free from sin and law. Those who are children of the promise by faith in Christ, whether Jew or Gentile, are free, children of God’s heavenly city Jerusalem. She is our mother.

I think it’s brilliant that in the middle of Lent we have this text. It reminds us that:

  • earthly mothers are remarkable, but belonging to our heavenly mother the Church matters even more
  • membership of God’s family rests not on what we do but on what Christ has done in fulfilling the Law of God, and paying the price on the Cross for us who broke it

Paul goes on in the remainder of Galatians to apply these truths by calling us who are free in Christ not to let ourselves become slaves either to law or to sin again.

Let’s pray that the Freedom message of Mothering Sunday will set many free to know and live for Christ, secure in our heavenly family as we honour our earthly one.

 

 

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Bishops, the Bible, and marriage

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According to newspaper headlines about General Synod last week, the Church of England is in turmoil. True, in the sedate world of church committees, this amounts to a few teacups rattling. But there was a surprise.

The Bishops’ recent report on Marriage and Same Sex Relationships was written after much “listening” to the views of church members and clergy. Going against powerful trends in secular culture which redefine marriage, it basically affirmed with commendable clarity the Biblical teaching that marriage is and remains a lifelong exclusive commitment between a man and a woman, and also recognised that gay people have at times been made to feel unwelcome in church, urging the Church to review its tone and pastoral care in this area.

The surprise was that whilst the Bishops and lay members supported the Report, the clergy members of the General Synod voted (by a narrow margin) not to “take note” of it. This refusal to “note” the report is a long way from the Church of England “moving towards gay marriage”, as some headlines had it. Yet some of those who spoke in the debate are apparently so determined to force the Church to change that Scripture can be ignored and the Church  divided towards that end.

Nonetheless it was widely acknowledged that one of the most moving and courageous speeches in the debate came from Sam Alberry, an evangelical minister who described his feeling of being bullied, first at school for being “gay”, and now at Synod for being same-sex attracted but faithful to Christ. His three-minute contribution is worth listening to here and starts at 1:07 into the recording.

Those who hold as I do that the Biblical teaching on marriage is based on Genesis 2:24 , “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24, NIV), do not do so because we are being difficult or “fundamentalist”. We believe in taking the Bible literally – in the sense of meaning what the “letters” or words in it mean. We believe in interpretation of the Bible using the best tools of  learning – but not to make a text mean what the author could never have meant. We believe in being aware of the culture behind a text – but not in changing the text to fit our culture. We believe in reading the Bible as a whole, taking note of its diversity – but not in using one part to contradict another.

At their consecration bishops affirm their commitment to the Scriptures as revealing all things necessary for salvation, and to teaching the doctrine of Christ as the Church of England has received it. The Bishops should be honoured for doing their job and faithfully teaching what the Bible says about marriage and relationships.

None of this absolves the Church from repenting that at times we have made gay people feel unwelcome – and for that matter, singles, or unmarried parents. All of us equally need the grace of Christ and the love of the Church, and we can start sharing these things today. But if Genesis 2:24 marriage is, as Paul says in Ephesians 5:31-32, not just a social convention, or a way to raise a family, but a sign of the union of Christ with His Bride the Church, it is surely right to defend its Biblical definition and value with every ounce of conviction that we have. Let’s pray for the bishops.

How is Jesus still serving you today?

Forty days after the resurrection comes the ascension of Jesus. He was “declared Son of God” through his resurrection (Acts 13:33; Romans 1:4) and now he returned to God’s throne, having completed his work in atoning for our sins and giving his life to serve us (Mark 10:45).

Yet Jesus’ work for us does not end there. He  serves us still in his life in heaven, interceding for us (Hebrews 7:25), sending his Spirit to teach us the truth (John 14:26), and giving gifts to the church in the manner of a conquering king handing out treasures to his victorious people – except these gifts are not silver coins but spiritual roles in the Church (Ephesians 4:7-12).

The significance of Jesus’ ascension is not only that he reigns – now, today – over all things. This Sovereign also serves his people. Our risen Lord is still, wonderfully, our serving-without-sinking_3servant. He intercedes for us, teaches us, and equips us to serve Him.

In our book Of The Term “Serving without Sinking” (a unique gospel-shaped book about grace, not a guilt-inducing one about sacrifice) I have loved reading the three middle chapters which illustrate how Christ serves us.  His grace defines the nature of our serving Him in grateful response.

The three metaphors the author finds in the Bible for Christian life are all stunning privileges: we are not servants but friends of Jesus, not a self-justifying client but a forgiven bride of Christ, and not convenient slaves but forgiven sons of God. These chapters alone are worth the book price and worthy of reading over and over again.

Is Jesus serving you today? If you want to know more, “Serving without Sinking” is highly recommended.

 

 

How to walk out of church

Dressed-for-Church-19

The music finishes, the minister says the blessing: what next? Do I head for the door? Do I check my phone? Do I start thinking about work tomorrow?

During this series of articles about “church” we have discovered how transformative it can be if we all begin to prepare prayerfully before we walk into church on Sunday, and begin to think how we can encourage others during the service too. From key Bible texts such as Hebrews 10 and 1 Corinthians 14, we have learnt  about corporate (gathered) worship . We have seen how the Gospel about Jesus is to be the central theme and celebration of our services. We have noticed that much of our worship owes its forms to those in the Old Testament (Scripture reading, confession, praise, the language of sacrifice and priesthood) but that those forms were transformed in the coming of Jesus and the worship of the Church. I have recommended several excellent books about gathered worship in two previous articles for those who want to dig deeper.

What I have not found (others may help me here) is a book about what happens after “Amen”: how to walk out of church when the service finishes – or what to do even before I walk out. I now believe that this is a serious omission, as the time between the final prayer and the final exit is also a vitally important opportunity for worship through meeting and encouraging others, as Tony Payne points out in “How to Walk Into Church”.

Horizontal and vertical

We have seen in previous articles that although some say “worship” is all about my offering myself to God during a service, or (conversely) “worship”is all about my whole-life walk with God, strong Bible texts can be quote in support of BOTH – worship is adoration AND action. Similarly David Peterson argued that when we gather the focus should not be on God but on edifying (building up) each other. Again, we concluded this is a helpful focus since we can ONLY encourage each other when together (unless you count texts and emails), but that we gather BOTH for God AND for each other. Writers like DA Carson, John M Frame and Tim Keller come to the conclusion that when we gather, and indeed when not with other Christians, we ascribe God “worth” BOTH by praising Him and by encouraging others – what we call the  “vertical” and “horizontal” aspects of Church. I think this is right and wise.

So in Colossians 3:16 Paul tells us to “let the message of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing with gratitude in your hearts to God“. We sing to God AND each other. And see Ephesians 5:19,”Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord.” We sing to God AND each other. Gospel-shaped Words (brought to life in the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion) form the core means of worshipping God and encouraging each other. As so often, John Calvin achieved a wise balance of Word and symbol, avoiding over-theatrical display without rejecting all ceremony, as some Reformers were doing. “To secure due moderation, it is necessary to retain that fewness in number, facility in performance and significance of meaning which consists in clarity.” (Institutes 4.10.14).

During and ‘after’

I also believe that we can exercise the horizontal and vertical dimensions of worship (God and others) not only by how we sing, or listen, or pray, during a service, but in what we do after the “Amen.” How is this possible over coffee, you ask? Here are four suggestions:

  1. Take notes on the sermon, so that afterwards you have a question in mind which interests you and which you can discuss with someone. “You know what the preacher said about prayer: what did you think of that?”
  2. Instead of talking to someone over coffee about the weather, football scores, children, or perils of Christmas shopping, ask them what they found most helpful in the service, or if there was a verse in the Bible reading they want to remember and use.
  3. Ask each other “What can I pray for you this week?” That not only encourages us that someone has our back in prayer, it reminds us that it is good to pray for whole-life discipleship at work, in the family, in our own personal walk with God.
  4. Resolve to gather with the others at church next week, again. As Tony Payne suggests, there are some who leave churches because of disillusionment with the gospel, or scandals affecting members or leaders, but the commonest way people leave churches is just drifting away through distraction or lack of discipline. We miss weeks out, we get into the habit of arriving very late. Beware this drift by resolving to be here on time before you leave: the walk into church next week starts as I walk out of church this week.

So let’s pray for God to have the glory, and ourselves to be richly encouraged, as we gather this Sunday again,

“Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come before him with thanksgiving, and extol him with music and song. For the LORD is a great God; the great King above all gods.”

(Psalm 95:1-3)

How to come to church

Will we choose songs and hymns I like? What’s for lunch later?

church-pew-with-worshippers

These are the questions that occupy many minds as we set out for church. In this second article of our series,  expanding on our church’s “Book of the Term”, “How To Walk Into Church” (Tony Payne), here are two better questions as I come to church:

1. How should I respond to God?

The word “worship” comes from Old English “weorthescipe” – ascribing value or “worth” to something. So a good house could be a “place of worship” and a leading town like London a “city of worship”. The Prayer Book marriage service expects the groom to say to his bride, “With my body I thee worship”! No-one is saying that the house, city or bride is divine!

“Worship” (the Greek word proskynēo) in  Matthew 2:2 (the wise men came to worship the newborn child) can just mean “fall on our knees”. Thus our English word “worship” has a wider meaning than the Greek one (we take it to include singing and praying, not just kneeling) but also a narrower one (we tend to think only of worship in ‘church’, not in common life as well).

So here’s a definition (with acknowledgement of DA Carson’s much longer equivalent):

Worship is the proper and delighted response to God’s majesty in creation and redemption in Christ, both in all of life and when we gather as ‘church’.

So worship is above all God-centred: a joyful response to who God is. See for example Revelation 4:11, “you alone are worthy to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things”.

What makes worship delightful is the object at its centre. Worship is not creating something new but responding to the already-present majesty and mercy of God. And Christ is central as the One who shares the throne of God, and who redeemed us by his blood. This God-centredness is vital for churches to recover in a world where so many things (eg career, self, possessions) call us to worship them instead.

The New Testament transforms Old Testament worship. Where Israel had priests, the church has the priesthood of all believers. The covenant sacrifice of bulls and goats is fulfilled in the sacrifice of Christ. The tabernacle and the temple which symbolised God’s dwelling on earth are fulfilled in the body of Jesus (John 2:21), or of the Church (Ephesians 2:22), or of the believer (1 Corinthians 6:19). Hebrews 12 reminds us that we worship God not on a physical mountain but on Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, along with angels and saints, and through Jesus’ blood.

Romans 12:1-3 is a key Bible verse in understanding worship: “in view of God’s mercy, offer your souls and bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God, for this is your reasonable act of worship.” Here Paul uses a second word-group for “worship” (Hebrew abodah, Greek latreia) which means “work/service/activity”.

Worship is as much action for God – what we do the rest of the week with our souls and bodies – as adoration – how we adore Him on Sunday. So I can’t worship God on Sunday if I have not done so during the week.  My weekday worship prepares me for that on Sunday (and vice versa).

A good way to prepare for Sunday is to pray for the preacher to be faithful and inspired in what they teach. Pray for the congregation and any newcomers to be attentive and to have lives changed by the gospel message. Pray for any particular people we know who are anxious, or doubting, or discouraged. Read the passage that is being taught about in the sermon if your church has told you what it is in advance.

So come to church ready for action! Here’s the second great question on the way to church:

2. How can we help to build each other up?

David Peterson argues (from eg 1 Corinthians 14, see v26) that the New Testament’s emphasis in gathered  worship is upon encouraging each other. Sunday best clothing should be hard hats and boots, because we are to “build” each other up. He’s right that I can sing songs at home, or pray at work, but I cannot encourage and edify you except when we gather.

Anglican worship is historically strong at ‘building up’ the faith of the congregation. Thomas Cranmer, reforming Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry VIII and Edward VI,  saw three things that gathered worship must be:

 Biblical – our gathered ‘church’ should be drenched in Scripture, not just in the reading and sermon, but in the content of songs and prayers. Even the plan of the service comes from Scripture, including the elements of worship listed in the Biblical accounts: invitation to praise and prayer, songs of praise, confession, reading of Scripture and explanation of it, sharing of food and of gifts for the poor, sacraments of baptism and communion. In all these moments of ‘church’, the common feature is faith responding to the Word of God.

 Balanced – churches today tend to either cut out the past with some of the best prayers and music, or to cut out the present with its new ideas which can enhance our worship. Thomas Cranmer followed the principle of emphasising what the Bible emphasises (God’s grace, Word and gospel signs; the people’s repentance, responsiveness and obedience) and being silent where the Bible is silent (eg the kind of music, or whether to stand, sit or kneel). He kept the best prayers from the past, but rewrote the Roman Catholic service. He included the congregation much more in singing and saying the Bible and prayers, where before the priest said everything. He took out ceremonies which undermine faith in Christ, but encouraged those which promote it.

Intelligible – Cranmer put the words of the services into English, from a Latin which even many priests leading the medieval services did not understand. He adapted or wrote many new prayers or Collects, especially his excellent “Collect for Bible Sunday” (Last Sunday after Trinity) . He simplified gathered worship for the congregation by putting it all in one book, where before there were half a dozen to juggle. Were he here today he would doubtless have put prayers online and in apps!

So what does it mean to come to church ready to build each other up, as Cranmer saw so clearly? I need to come ready to sing enthusiastically and to join in loudly with the prayers which the congregation says together: the point is that we are all joining in! I need to come ready to listen to the words of the whole service thoughtfully, as the words of songs, hymns and prayers may carry gospel truths as important to me as those of the sermon. And I need to encourage the people around me by joining in at all points, including listening to and taking notes on the sermon. As Tony Payne puts it, don’t be a “dipping duck” nodding off in the pew, or drift off looking for invisible fairies in the ceiling! As I respond to God with enthusiasm, I build up those around me too.

Are you ready to come to church?

Further reading

DA Carson (Editor) Worship by the Book (Zondervan, 2002)

John M Frame, Worship in Spirit and Truth (P&R, 1996)

David Peterson, Engaging with God (IVP/Apollos, 1992)

Thomas Cranmer’s Collects can be found in the Book of Common Prayer, or the modern adapted versions of them online. They are delightfully presented with commentary in

C Frederick Barbee & Paul F M Zahl, The Collects of Thomas Cranmer (William B Eerdmans, 1999)

What is Church for?

What is Church for? Why do we go? What mental state are you in when you walk through the door? During the songs and the sermon? And when the service “finishes”?

sunday-morning-a-cottage-family-going-to-church William Redmore Biggs

 Sunday Morning: A Family Going to Church – William Redmore Biggs

These are the very practical questions raised in How to Walk into Church  by Tony Payne. Chapters 1-3 answer the question I’m picking up in this article, “What is Church for?”. I don’t plan to repeat what the book says (it’s so clear and concise!) but to supplement and reflect upon it.

The “Why?” question is in my experience a vital one for churches to ask: it’s so easy to go through the motions of doing what churches do without thinking what the purpose is. We focus on what happens in church, or what we personally hope to “get” from it, and not on why we are here: what is Church for?

  1. God

Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings” (Hebrews 10:22). With this verse the writer reminds us of the first reason we come to Church: to draw near to God. Believing that the heavenly visions of worship in Hebrews 12 and in Revelation are both future and present, we want the One on the throne of heaven, and the “Lamb” Jesus who died and rose for us, to be our central focus. We want to sing of God’s power and love, his greatness and his closeness. We want to come to the throne of grace in prayer (Hebrews 4:16). We want to hear God’s voice speak through the Bible as it is read and then explained in the sermon. We want to have our vision stretched and thrilled by seeing the grand purposes of God in coming in Christ to introduce His kingdom, calling us His people to Himself, triumphing over evil, renewing all creation, and seeing every knee one day bow before the throne of His Son.

  1. Gospel

The good news that God’s kingdom has come, that He chose us, redeemed us, transforms us and prepares us for glory in Christ (Ephesians 1:1-12) is the gospel. And this gospel is what calls us gather for worship, inspires us to put God first in our lives, and sends us out to live for and serve God’s purposes in the world. We want to be a Bible-centred and gospel-shaped church whenever we gather on Sundays: “Let  the word of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish each other with all wisdom through psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing to God in your hearts.” (Colossians 3:16). We want to sing songs and hymns that tell this gospel story. We want the gospel to shape our prayers together, whether of confession, thanksgiving or intercession. We want to enact the gospel in the sacraments of baptism (the sign of inclusion in the Church) and holy communion (the sign of being made one Body through Jesus’ death on the Cross). We want the gospel to create and nourish faith in our hearts as the preacher unpacks and applies the Bible for us.

  1. Gathering

Tony Payne crucially points us to Hebrews 10:24-25 in the book: “Let us consider how to stir one another up towards love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – all the more as you see the Day approaching”. We could equally well point to the focus Paul has in 1 Corinthians 14 on the purpose of Church being to gather for each other’s sake. He uses there an image from the construction industry: building each other up is more important when I am in church than puffing myself up. If I decide not to turn up this Sunday, I miss out – but so do you. We gather for spiritual formation, to help the person in the pew next to us to leave church a little stronger in faith, hope and love – because we shared with them and encouraged them. The preacher hopes to do this, as do the musicians and others leading “up front”; but it is the purpose and calling of us all to gather, in order to spur each other on in our faith. It’s the ministry of the pew, not (as so often) the ministry of the few.

Two practical things follow as I come to church this Sunday:

Pray about where you sit. I loved this suggestion in the book. It is such a powerful reminder that I am not coming to church for myself but for God, for the Gospel and to Gather with others. When I pray I recognise the vital truth that God (not me) is sovereign over my life, and all of life, including Sunday at church, is best that way.

Pray for the people you will meet. Before and during the formal part of the service, I can look out for others. Who is next to me, do they look happy, new, confused, lonely or anxious? Over coffee afterwards, who can I encourage by saying hello, asking what most spoke to them in the sermon, what I can pray for them this week?

“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us worship God acceptably, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:28-29).