Thursday, 6 April 2017

Jesus won the victory so we could talk to each other in church

The work of Jesus Christ is one event and a sequence of events. At its heart is the cross, with its cries of abandonment ("My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!") and of victory ("It is finished!"). There at the Cross, the true Man committed himself decisively and finally to the path of 'obedience unto death', and in so doing overturned the act of disobedience of the other Man in whom we all died. 

But the cross, while central, is not the totality. Evangelical theologians have sometimes had less to say about the resurrection or ascension, but these are vital scenes too, as the victory is confirmed and published and rewarded. Sin and death and hell will not have the final say; Satan will not have the victory. The resurrection is the first roar of Judgement Day, God's mighty 'No!' against human injustice and all that raises itself up against him. That 'No' declares the end of sin; that 'No' announces the Judge. 

But then, the King ascends. He has the victory, he takes the spoils, and he sits down at the heart of the majestic glory. As High Priest he enters the heavenly Holiest Place on our behalf and intercedes for his people. And as Prophet, he speaks. 

Those facets of his ministry are all visible in the final once-and-for-all act of his earthly work – the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost. The one who has won the victory over sin has the right to redeem sinners from their captivity, to bring them into his victorious army, and to empower and enable them to serve. He intercedes with the Father and the Spirit is poured out. The initial chosen few begin to speak, and the last battle begins. The church makes war by the Word; the church understands, believes and speaks because the Spirit has come; the Spirit has come because Jesus Christ has won the victory. 

That is the reason for the crucial but often overlooked or skipped-over section in Eph 4:7-10. 

Paul wants to give the Ephesian believers every reason not to drift back to their former life as pagan occultists. As it is for every Christian, the most common temptation is to slide back to what they were before they met Jesus. Backsliding is generally exactly what it says – sliding back. In the Ephesians’ case, it happens to have been a life of magic, Spiritism and esoteric religion.

Every part of the letter is geared to stopping them slip back to that – to show that what they enjoy in Christ is infinitely bigger, better and more thrilling than anything they had before in their occult groups. Nowhere might that be more of an acute challenge than in the Christian meeting itself. Compared to drunken sacrifices of bulls, and to nakedness and orgies as a means of experiencing spiritual awakening, groups of people meeting to eat, pray, and to talk and discuss the Jewish scriptures must have seemed rather tame.  

It isn’t tame, says Paul. Any communication of the gospel, any pre-echo of the voice of Jesus that will be heard on the last day, any Spirit-driven word... all is the result of Jesus’ decisive victory. That applies to the once-and-for-all laying down of the definitive revelation of the gospel, through the apostles and prophets. It applies to the ongoing work of proclaiming and applying that gospel, by the evangelists and shepherds-and-teachers. And it applies to the work of every believer as all of us, in conversation and fellowship, encourage and help one another to grow in our faith.  

When Christian people meet and speak the truth – the real truth, the actual gospel – to each other, we are seeing the spoils of Jesus’ war. What we are seeing is the product of a divine invasion, an incursion. A powerful One came from outside and supernaturally intervened in a dark empire. Citizens who had been comfortable in this world were turned into rebels against this world – for they are now citizens of a new and as yet not-fully-seen kingdom. Jesus turned sinners into saints. He made the ignorant into the knowing and blasphemers into preachers. The gathering of these rebel forces is called “church”. 

The way in which this rebel movement grows is called evangelism – speaking the truth about Jesus so that other people are convinced and join up. And the way the passion and purity and power of the lives of the rebels is built up is by… talking to each other. Hearing pastors and teachers explain and apply the apostles’ and prophets’ teaching, discussing that and applying that to one another, that is the battlefield diet of an advancing and powerful army. In re-telling the gospel and its implications is nutrition and life and energy and transforming power. Mutually teaching each other the Bible is the essential basis for spiritual warfare – the battle for holiness.

Don’t be taken in by the suggestion that words are peripheral – whether to evangelism or to the life of the church. If Francis of Assisi really said “Preach Jesus – if necessary, use words!” he was no saint – but then, he never said that! Don’t be taken in by the idea that images or actions are central to our meetings. Words are. In the Salvation Army we rejected the two officially sanctioned faith-feeding visual actions early in our history; ironically the resultant vacuum has made us so hungry for the visual and physical and so inventive of secondary symbols and sacraments that the word has been at a disadvantage among us ever since. I don’t know if we will ever be able to reinstate baptism and the supper as catalysing co-workers of the word; I don’t doubt that the dethroning of the word is one of the things that is killing us. As a church we are dying of starvation. The Salvation Army is rejecting the gifts that its Saviour paid for!

The Authorised Version used the word “conversation” to describe something much broader than “talking” – it was the whole lifestyle of believers. And yet the word made a profound link between word and life: a church in its living will never rise above the quality of its talking. You have to walk the talk, but you can’t not talk. Jesus died and rose and ascended so that we could talk in church. Never underestimate the wonder of that. The Christian meeting is the counter-cultural, subversive, perturbing sign in this present world of his victory won – and of his coming return. 

See you on Sunday! 

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