God’s plan for His church

St Michael’s and St Barnabas, 8th February 2015

Readings – Ephesians 3:1-21; John 1:14-18

[audio https://stbarnacles.files.wordpress.com/2015/02/tim-eph-3-8-feb-2015.mp3]

Everyone was invited to add a Lego brick to a building …

So what you think of our model of the church? What does it look like?

It can be very easy to get discouraged by the local church. We can look around on a Sunday morning and get depressed by the low numbers of people who are there that day. We can wonder who is available to take on some of the many jobs that need doing. We can worry about our church’s finances and whether we have enough money to carry on. So often we seem so small, so insignificant and so weak, that we find it hard to believe we can make a real difference for the gospel.

But one thing I want you to take away from our series in Ephesians is that God sees the church differently. Listen to what Paul writes at the end of Ephesians, chapter 1, for example, as he talks about the risen, ascended Lord Jesus Christ:

And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way (Ephesians 1:22-23)

Or listen to what Paul writes at the end of the next chapter, Ephesians 2:19-22

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow-citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit (Ephesians 2:19-22)

So, according to Paul, who are we in God’s sight? We are the body of the risen, ascended Lord Jesus Christ. We are God’s household, or family. We are a holy temple in the Lord, with God living among us by His Spirit. That’s how God sees us, His people, as we are gathered in worship this morning.

Of course when you read these verses I realise it can be hard to believe that they’re talking about us. When we read about the church in the New Testament, we can be tempted to think it’s just talking about the church at that time, or the church as some kind of theoretical ideal. And we seem to be so far away from the vision Paul gives of the church. We are two small inner-city congregations. We are not full of academics and theologians. We have so little in the way of resources. We struggle with the demands of everyday life in so many ways. How can we think of ourselves as Christ’s body, God’s household, or a holy temple? Isn’t all this just a little far-fetched?

But the stunning message of the New Testament is that God chooses precisely those people who are most aware of their need of Him. As we have been thinking in our small group on Wednesday evenings, Jesus came to preach good news, to the poor, the needy and the broken. The GIFT group on Thursday afternoons has been looking at the faith of women in the New Testament, a sector of society who in those times had few rights or privileges.

God in His infinite wisdom doesn’t call the obvious candidates to build His church. He calls people like you, like me. Because God works best with people who realise they have very little, if anything, to offer; people who do not rely on the comforts and privileges of this world; people who recognise their need of grace and simply come with empty hands and willing hearts.

And why does God choose us to build His church?

Let me take you to a couple of verses from our reading this morning, that we also looked at on our away day – Ephesians 3:10-11:

His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Brothers and sisters, we are not gathered here this morning by accident. We are not just a group of fellow enthusiasts who have come together to pursue our own particular hobby. Nor are we a religious club who have come to worship our God according to our own peculiar rules. We are the church of God, and we meet in the name of Jesus, so that as His Holy Spirit moves among us, we might make known to the spiritual powers around us that Jesus is Lord. We are called to declare His victory over sin and death and evil, as we praise, as we pray, as we respond to His word. That is our mission here at St Michael’s and St Barnabas, and if we trust Jesus, then He will give us all the resources we need to fulfil it.

So how do we translate all that Paul says here about the church into concrete, practical action? Back in June 2012 the church gathered for an away-day in Bovey Tracey and out of much discussion and prayer we put together our Mission Action Plan. This was our attempt to set out what God was calling us to do as His church in this place at this time, and I hope that most of you are very familiar with it.

At the heart of our MAP is the Biblical image of a tree – not, as one fellow minister thought, a cloud(!) So, if we are to be the church that God wants us to be, then first of all we have to be rooted in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. We need quite simply to learn to be with Jesus, both on an individual basis in a pattern of daily, personal devotion, and as a church, when we come together for our Sunday worship. And I have to say that one of the things that has really humbled me over the past two and a half years is to see just how much spiritual growth has taken place at ground level, especially in our small groups and through our Christianity Explored courses. In terms of numbers we may not be growing Sunday by Sunday but we are putting down deep roots in Christ, and these give me great confidence for the future.

But as we have said many times before, being a Christian is not just having our own relationship with Jesus. If we take seriously all that Paul says about the church in Ephesians, then we begin to see that being with our fellow Christians is not an optional extra for the spiritually keen, or those who have spare time on their hands. So as we move up from the roots of our tree, we see that at trunk level we have the next strand of our mission statement, “being with each other”, both in our local fellowship and with our mission partners. Again what has humbled me since this MAP was drawn up, is just how much the Lord has blessed our links with the other local churches in the area, a sure sign of spiritual growth, that again I believe bodes well for the future.

However Jesus does not call only to a deep personal relationship with Him, and to a living, growing relationship with our fellow believers, although that can be challenging enough at times. He also calls us to be in the wider world, both through the church operating at the centre of the community, and through church members serving the Lord, wherever they happen to be. That’s why the MAP shows the canopy of the tree dividing into separate branches. They represent us reaching out into our parishes, our workplaces, our homes, wherever He calls us to be. And while this call to serve Jesus in the wider world can on occasions seem more than a little daunting, I have to say I am deeply impressed by just how faithful so many of you are in seeking to live for Jesus day by day. We may see but little fruit at the moment, but that fruit is there, and I am convinced it will continue to grow.

So I have no doubt that the Mission Action Plan remains very much God’s blueprint for St Michael’s and St Barnabas. But I am also aware that over time we may perhaps become overly familiar with it, or simply see it as a rather nice diagram that just kind of sits there on the wall of our church. That’s why a couple of weeks ago we had our away day up at St Budeaux church hall, to revisit our Mission Action Plan and see how we might develop it further.

What we ended up with were four groups of about four or five people each looking at a different area of the church’s life. I would like to take some credit and say this was a piece of master planning on my part, but really it was the Holy Spirit at work, shaping and guiding our conversations as we considered what the Lord might be saying to us.

You have the fruit of these conversations in the leaflet that was handed out to you this morning. As you can see, the groups covered the following areas:

Outreach
Follow-up
Growth
Gifts and Leadership

Or to use the imagery of our Mission Action Plan,

Planting the Seed
Watering the Seed
Cultivating the Seed
Tending the Shoots

So let’s take a moment to look at each of these four areas, or Mission Action Points, in more detail …

Outreach (Planting the Seed)

This means going out, rather than dragging people in! We need to:

  • Meet people where they are, finding the middle ground, accepting, not condoning.
  • Find ways of making ourselves visible.
  • Use small tracts, Bible verses, cards etc.

Follow-up (Watering the Seed)

Recognising the many contacts we already have, we can build on them by:

  • Relaunching baptism follow-up, with cards for anniversaries.
  • Developing the pastoral team, with more people involved.
  • Welcoming people to coffee mornings and Contact, maybe offering to meet them outside.
  • Using the welcome cards more effectively, with mobile numbers and Facebook details.
  • Relaunching the annual bereavement service, not just for those who have recently lost loved ones.
  • Using the opportunities created by the service for Remembrance Sunday, including inviting people to a Remembrance Day service.
  • Having more people prepared to contribute!

Growth (Cultivating the Seed)

This involves both inviting in and going out.

Invitations need to be made to:

  • Acts of worship.
  • Regular events.
  • One-off activities e.g. breakfasts (not just for men!).
  • As part of the culture of invitation, we need to think how to offer prayers for healing, and help those requesting prayer to pray themselves.

Going out involves:

  • Being engaged in voluntary activities.
  • Living out our Christian faith day by day.
  • If we are to support each other, we need to become more aware of what each person does during the week, and the situations that they face.

Gifts and Leadership (Tending the Shoots)

 

  • We can’t have one leader doing it all.
  • We need to identify everyone’s gifts, so that together we glorify God.
  • We need to affirm our churchwardens and identify their successors.
  • We must carry on praying for more labourers, recognising we might be the answer to our prayers.
  • Those who are on a rota are exercising a spiritual gift.
  • Reading the Bible aloud is in itself a spiritual ministry, as is leading public prayers. We must develop these ministries.

… Now it’s worth saying that by developing these four mission action points it doesn’t mean we have an instant recipe for church growth. Our human weakness and our lack of resources remain. Indeed, as we seek to push forward in growing God’s church here in this place we may well encounter discouragement and distractions, and all kinds of situations which may well stretch and challenge our faith. That’s why even as we seek to develop our Mission Action Plan we must recognise again and again our total dependence on the grace of God to provide.

As Paul says in the verse I printed on the back of our handout: So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow (1 Corinthians 3:7). Or perhaps to translate more literally, but it is God who is the grower. That’s why if we are serious about bearing fruit for the kingdom, fruit that will last, we need to go back down to our roots and prayerfully seek His wisdom and His will.

Paul makes this point clear in our reading for this morning. We have seen already how in verses 10-11 he sets out God’s purpose in choosing us for His people:

His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.

And then in very next verse he reminds us of the great privilege we enjoy of being able to enter into our Father’s presence: In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence. (Ephesians 3:12). What is the link between these verses? Very simply this, that if we are to declare to the spiritual powers that Jesus is Lord we need to pray. Not just little, timid prayers to keep the church going, but prayers that are – again translating literally – full of boldness and confidence, daring to ask our Heavenly Father for those things which may from a human point of view seem impossible.

And what exactly should we pray for? Well, we don’t have the time to go through Paul’s great prayer for the Ephesians in verses 14-21, but there is no doubt he wrote it down as a model for us to copy. The only thing I would highlight is that time and time again Paul’s prayer is a prayer for power.

Listen to what he says in verses 16-17:

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.

Or again reading on, from verse 17 through to verse 19:

And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Or again, Paul’s closing words in verses 20 and 21 (you can find them on the back of your leaflet):

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

When was the last time, I wonder, that we prayed to experience the power of God? We pray for many good and important things as a church. We long to experience more of His love, perhaps, or His wisdom, or His grace. But maybe Paul’s prayers should challenge us to consider another important aspect of the God to whom we pray. We worship a powerful God, a God who, as we saw back in chapter 1, showed that power once for all by raising Jesus from the dead, and who makes that same power available to us through His Holy Spirit.

So, yes, let’s devote our efforts to these four key areas of church life – outreach; follow-up; growth; gifts and leadership. But at the same time let us keep our focus on the God who calls us, who has chosen us to be the body of the risen, ascended Lord Jesus Christ, His household and His living temple. And let us pray with boldness and confidence for more of His Holy Spirit to empower and equip us to live out His calling, so that through us His church at St Michael’s and St Barnabas may grow and we may bear fruit for His glory, fruit that will last.

Advertisements

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: