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On the first car I ever owned, the engine seized up because I ignored the banging noise it made when I let rip on a motorway. The reason I ignored the noise was simple. Being totally ignorant about mechanics I did not put any oil into the engine, and I mingled my ignorance with an unfounded optimism that all would be well. Ignorance and optimism are not good bedfellows. I was fortunate, insofar as I had a mechanic friend who fitted a reconditioned engine for me, and my pride was more hurt than my pocket. However, I learnt the lesson that it would have been much more sensible to ask him to give the car a once over before I pushed it to the limit, rather than going to him after the damage was done. He could have given me a couple of litres of oil, which, apparently, was all that was needed.
In the letters to the seven churches in the book of Revelation, some of Jesus’ comments indicate that at least a couple of the churches were in serious danger of blowing out. It must have been pretty embarrassing for the believers at Ephesus to be told that they had lost their first love, or for those at Sardis to hear that they had a name for being alive when in fact they were dead. But the offering of good, though perhaps unwelcome, advice to enable us to avoid disaster is one of the marks of a true friend. Losing our first love is on a similar level spiritually to having no oil in the engine mechanically. If ignored it, will end in disaster.
We do not know the detail of how Ephesus and Sardis ended up in the situation where they warranted such a serious rebuke from Jesus. Ephesus had started well including a huge bonfire of occult books and genuine wave of repentance. The letter Paul wrote to them begins with a very positive statement of who they are in Christ, and what God has done for them through the covenant gift of the promised Holy Spirit.
If they were still around, I wonder if their websites would possibly be extolling their spiritual virtues in the way that many churches do today. By far the majority of church websites I have seen, display what appears to be an unwarranted optimism. Wouldn’t it be a fearful thing if that optimism was combined with ignorance? It does appear that both Ephesus and Sardis were ignorant of their poor spiritual condition. That would seem to me to be a salutary warning that we too may be ignorant of our poor spiritual condition, in spite of the optimistic front we seem to put on.
So how do we know when a church is in a sick condition? With a car, provided we do not continue in ignorant optimism, it is generally quite easy; there is an M.O.T. checklist that can be used as a point of reference to compare what is, with what should be. I have had experience of a lot of churches, and know and have known many church leaders, but whilst they would all give their cars M.O.T.’s it has been rare indeed to come across any who consider it necessary to apply any sort of check up on their churches. On the contrary, some appear so confident that everything is exactly as it should be, that any suggestion to the contrary is rejected out of hand.
I do consider myself fortunate to have been involved in a number of situations that have failed. These have been both as an individual and as part of a church or other venture for God. Just as blowing out a car engine makes one a little more careful to check the oil, having failed a number of times as a Christian does make me want to check things out more thoroughly more often.
When I look around me, I sense that many, possibly a majority of, churches are in danger of failing to recognise signs of potential disaster. As I grow older, I do realise that I have to be on my guard against jealousy or cynicism, but as I have grown older, I trust I may actually have grown a little wiser as well. This means that I am more inclined to think it safer to check things out, especially spiritually, rather than relying on optimistic ignorance.
I make no apology for starting this set of blogs with a couple on checking out our faith. I have an increasing number of friends who no longer attend church, often on the basis that it no longer seems real. I do think it would be helpful if churches made sure that they are only dealing in the real thing as there is considerable pain for the many who find they appear to have no choice but to withdraw.
I have a tablespoon in our cutlery drawer, which has been in the house for as long as I can remember. It may have been my mother’s, or my mother’s mother’s, or it may have come from Catherine’s family or even a jumble sale. I really do not remember. The reason it is noteworthy is that I think it is made of fine silver. There does appear to be a hallmark on the handle, but it is so worn and faded, that it is impossible to tell if it is genuine or not. I have looked on line to discover if there are any easy ways of checking it out but I have not found any.
It actually does not really matter. It is a useful spoon and silver or not we are happy to keep it.
The genuineness of some things however, is important. Knowing that our faith will stand the tests and trials of life will give assurance, and enable us to live without fear in a world that is full of fear. The letter of James, encourages his readers to view times of trial and testing as a reason for rejoicing. It seems he had in mind the work of a gold or silversmith, who would melt down a piece of metal in order to remove the impurities and so increase its value. Once the refining was completed the metal could receive a stamp of authenticity to show that it was in fact genuine.
The July 1873 issue of Palmer’s Guide to Holiness and Revival Miscellany, contained a new hymn by the songwriter Fanny Crosby: ‘Blessed Assurance, Jesus is mine’. Crosby was a woman whose faith was tested and proved true. The words of the hymn have ‘genuine confidence’ stamped firmly upon them, faithfully reflecting the assurance that Crosby manifest throughout her life. In spite of (or Fanny might have said because of) being blind, she wrote over 8000 hymns and 1000 poems as well as books and articles. Faith that is not tested may be true, but it may be accompanied by doubts and fears.
In his second letter to the Corinthian Church (13 v5) Paul encourages them to examine themselves to see whether they are truly in the faith. I suspect that if he were around today, he would encourage us to do the same thing. To test something to see if it is in working order is perfectly normal. We do it in every area of our lives: we taste the soup to see if the seasoning is right, we get the foundations of a building checked before we buy it, we go to the Dentist to see if our teeth need attention. Why some of us should hesitate to get our faith thoroughly checked is a mystery, unless we have doubts that we are too proud to face, or unless we know that there are areas that need attention and we lack the confidence in God to deal with them.
We do need to face the fact that untested faith may not be genuine, and faith that is not genuine is not worth holding on to or passing on to others. If our old spoon proves to be tin, it may have a limited use along with the other spoons, but it will be no great loss. If our faith fails the test, we may lose everything.
When Jesus cried ‘It is finished!’ it was a cry of completion, of a course taken and accomplished. It was of the same nature as a signed completion document on a house purchase. Nothing more needs to be added to the transaction, although the purchaser may not yet have taken up occupancy, there is nothing to prevent them doing so. The redeemed people of God had been purchased, and fifty days later at Pentecost, God possessed his purchased possession through the coming of the Holy Spirit. Previously God had lived among his people, now he lived in his people.
When Jesus returned to heaven and sat down at the right hand of God, he shifted the director’s seat from the earthly stage, to a point where he had a fuller perspective and full control. It was not that the ones left on stage needed to write their own script, but with continuous, unhindered access to the director, they were to consult with him and interpret his directions for their own part in the story. Even the leading players among them were not given control of the plot, but they were to cooperate with everyone on stage to fulfil the director’s wishes.
One of the errors that has been creeping back into the church is that of priestcraft. Martin Luther and the other reformers reclaimed many truths, not least of which is the fact that every redeemed child of God has direct access to the Father through the one true eternal priest, ordained after the order of Melchizedek, the Messiah Jesus Christ. I heard recently of a local church where the members were told that only the bishop could hear what the Holy Spirit was saying. The form varies, but even if it is not explicitely stated, many churches work on the basis that it is the leader’s job (that is pastor, minister, bishop, elder or whatever) to hear from God on behalf of everyone else. The clear teaching of the nature of the New Covenant is summarised in the prophecy from Jeremiah quoted by the writer to the Hebrews:
“For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.None of them shall teach his neighbour, and none his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them.” (Hebrews Ch 8 v10-11)
God promises to put his laws in the minds and hearts of all his people, not just an elite few. Before the Reformation, the priests insisted that they and only they had the keys of heaven and hell, and that the people could only come to God through them. It was not and is not a leader’s role to hear on behalf of the people, but to teach the people how to hear from God for themselves.
When everyone hears what the Spirit is saying to the Churches, the control remains firmly in the capable hands of Jesus. If the people do not listen for themselves but delegate that task to a leader, they are transferring the job of building the church away from Jesus to their fellow men and women.
Jesus has accomplished everything necessary in order to bring forth a glorious church that will be the wonder of creation throughout eternity. Please do not think that the many human imitations that we see on every street corner will astound and astonish anybody for even a minute. We can never build the church and, whatever else it may be, any group that is dependent on human organisation is not a true expression of God’s new creation.
As good as it was, the Reformation did not correct error for all time. Each generation needs to be corrected and reformed. We all have access to God to put ourselves under the searchlight of his word, and to ask him to speak afresh too all of us from the least to the greatest.
I have been treating myself to some reversion therapy of late. Not reverting to my pre-Christian days, but to my early Christian life when we sang songs with tunes that I could follow. I enjoy music, but have an inability to follow any but the most straightforward of tunes. In recent years I have often been left out in the cold as competent musicians have sung songs that they appear to have practiced and mastered, but which (to my untuned ear) have mysterious patterns that I am simply unable to grasp.
One of the benefits of lockdown has been that I have been forced to look on youtube, and various other places, in order to prepare services for transmission on zoom. There is a constant temptation to click onto anything that appears vaguely interesting and, from time to time I have succumbed. What I have discovered is that there seem to be a large number of folk out there who still sing the golden oldies that I too sang as a young Christian. Consequently, I have spent a good few hours indulging myself in listening to, and occasionally joining in with, songs that appear to have been deleted from the repertoire of many churches.
Recently, I was reading in the book of Hebrews and contemplating the nature of priesthood, when a line from an old Pentecostal song came to mind ‘He maketh the rebel a priest and a king’. It is many years since I have sung it, so I looked it up and here is the full song.
With harps and with viols, there stand a great throng
In the presence of Jesus, and sing this new song:
Unto Him who hath loved us and washed us from sin,
Unto Him be the glory forever, Amen.
All these once were sinners, defiled in his sight,
Now arrayed in pure garments in praise they unite.
He maketh the rebel a priest and a king,
He hath bought us and taught us this new song to sing.
How helpless and hopeless we sinners had been,
If he never had loved us till cleansed from our sin.
Aloud in his praises our voices shall ring,
So that others believing, this new song shall sing.
It is not exactly top drawer quality, but it is enthusiastic, and it contains a number of very simple truths. I accept the fact that most of us are probably unfamiliar with a ‘viol’, but a quick flick to the internet reveals that it was a very popular instrument between two and five hundred years ago, not least because it was comparatively easy to play in tune, and so was often used to provide music in a domestic setting. It appealed to me immediately. I have often wondered how I am going to get on with all the music in heaven, but the ‘viol’ sounds as if it might just be up my street.
However, the contemplation of the nature of heavenly music was not the focus of my delight in rediscovering this old song. The thing that gave me real joy was the reminder that God makes the rebel, a priest and a king. All the great throng of humanity standing and singing in the presence of Jesus throughout eternity, will not only be redeemed rebels, but now appointed and anointed as kings and priests to God.
Discovering some of these old songs again, and welcoming them back into my life has been a definite benefit of lockdown. However, even if lockdown eventually becomes a distant memory, I think I will continue to treat myself to some ongoing reversion therapy and indulge in blessing myself with some simple truths set to some old easy tunes.